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FAQ: What is the Objectivist Theory of Knowledge

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FAQ: What is the Objectivist Theory of Knowledge (Epistemology)?

(Note from MSK in May 2017: The link to The Objectivist Center in this post is no longer valid as the organization has been renamed The Atlas Society. And it seems like William Thomas might no longer be at TAS. However, for historical reasons, we are leaving the post as is. To get the current TAS information on Objectivism, please go to Objectivism 101.)

by William Thomas - The Objectivist Center

Quote
Reason is the faculty which… identifies and integrates the material provided by man's senses.  Reason integrates man's perceptions by means of forming abstractions or conceptions, thus  raising man's knowledge from the perceptual level, which he shares with animals, to the conceptual level, which he alone can reach. The method which reason employs in  this process is logic—and logic is the art of non-contradictory identification.  

—Ayn Rand "Faith and Force: The Destroyers of the Modern World,"  

in Philosophy, Who Needs It? p. 62

Objectivism holds that all human knowledge is reached through reason, the human mental faculty of understanding the world abstractly and logically. Aristotle called man "the rational animal" because it is the faculty of reason that most distinguishes humans from other creatures. But we do not reason automatically. We are beings of free will and we are fallible. This is why we need the science of knowledge—epistemology—to teach us what knowledge is and how to achieve it.

The basis of our knowledge is the awareness we have through our physical senses. We see reality, hear it, taste it, smell it, feel it through touch. As babies, we discover the world through our senses. As our mental abilities develop, we become able to recall memories and we can form images in our minds.

Other animals are also capable of perception and memory. What most obviously sets humans apart is our bountiful use of language. The difference is more fundamental, though: at root, language is a means of formulating and expressing abstract thoughts. Abstractions are ideas that correspond to an unlimited number of things at once. When you say or think "horse," for example, your mind focuses on an idea—a concept— that refers to all the horses that ever have been or will be. Concepts allow us to consider the past and the future, things that are, things that might be, and even things that can't be. Using concepts together, we can formulate general principles, like the laws of nature, that apply to many situations.

The ability to grasp reality in the form of abstract concepts and principles is the essence of reason as a human capacity. But thinking abstractly is often a difficult process and each person must undertake it for himself in the solitude of his own mind. Because abstract thinking is not automatic, people can easily make mistakes and end up believing in false ideas. The only way to ensure the objectivity of one's thinking is to use a deliberate logical method.

"Logic is the art of non-contradictory identification," wrote Ayn Rand. Because there are no contradictions in reality, two ideas that contradict each other cannot both be true; and any idea that contradicts the facts we can observe through our senses is necessarily false. Logic gives us standards we can use to easily judge whether an argument makes sense. The scientific method is an advanced form of logical reasoning. Through it, reason has unlocked the secrets of nature and made our industrial civilization, with all its wealth and comforts, possible.

Objectivists defend the efficacy of reason against all critics. Skeptics say that because we are fallible, we must doubt all our beliefs. But this claim is a self-contradiction: the skeptic is claiming certainty at least for his belief in our fallibility. Religious mystics often claim that God or the supernatural is so different from everything we know that it is beyond reason's ability to understand. But since whatever exists has identity, i.e. definite and delimited properties, it is always possible to contrast it with other things, conceptualize it, establish standards of measurement, and thereby begin to reason about it. At a time when mathematicians explore the properties that even infinite spaces and processes must have, it underestimates the human mind to think it incapable of plumbing deep or complex phenomena.

Anyone who claims insights that do not derive from sensory evidence and logical reasoning is, in effect, asking you to abuse your mind. Someone who claims, skeptically, that no real knowledge is possible is asking you to abandon your mind entirely. Objectivism holds that it is possible to be certain of a conclusion, and that there is such a thing as truth. But being certain depends on scrupulously following a logical, objective process of reasoning, because it is only that kind of thinking that allows us to formulate true ideas. To be objective, people must know how to define the terms they use (so they know what they mean), base their conclusions on observable facts (so their beliefs are anchored in reality) and employ the principles of logic (so that they can reliably reach sound conclusions).

© Copyright 2005 - The Objectivist Center, reprinted with permission

http://www.objectivistcenter.org

The Atlas Society (formerly The Objectivist Center)

A very special thank you to our friends at The Objectivist Center for allowing us to reprint their summaries on Objectivist philosophy.

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FAQ: What is the Objectivist Theory of Knowledge (Epistemology)?

by William Thomas - The Objectivist Center

"Logic is the art of non-contradictory identification," wrote Ayn Rand. Because there are no contradictions in reality, two ideas that contradict each other cannot both be true; and any idea that contradicts the facts we can observe through our senses is necessarily false. Logic gives us standards we can use to easily judge whether an argument makes sense. The scientific method is an advanced form of logical reasoning. Through it, reason has unlocked the secrets of nature and made our industrial civilization, with all its wealth and comforts, possible.

A very special thank you to our friends at The Objectivist Center for allowing us to reprint their summaries on Objectivist philosophy.

People who do logic for a living: that is do research in logic, publish papers on logic, teach logic in universities and graduate schools will tell you logic is the science/discipline of valid inference. Logic will not tell what is true or factual but it will tell you when you have draw a conclusion correctly from premises according to given rules of inference. Almost all logics require that the conclusions be at least as true as the premises. I.E. in a consisten system one cannot infer a false conclusion from true premises.

There is a rather large difference between the Objectivist definition of the word "logic" and the definitions used by the logicians and mathematicians.

Ba'al Chatzaf

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Two quotes from Ayn Rand: (bolding mine)

To exist is to be something, as distinguished from the nothing of non-existence, it is to be an entity of a specific nature made of specific attributes." (Rand)

"A thing is — what it is; its characteristics constitute its identity" (Rand))

To Selene:

I have chosen this thread to address the questions you asked elsewhere:

http://www.objectivistliving.com/forums/index.php?showtopic=7703&st=260 (quoted in # 261)

How does the individual human come to know 'the difference between fact and subjective validation'?

My reply had been:

"This is an essential epistemological question: how do you know what you know?"

I have to make a correction since the term "validation" I chose was wrong in connection with "subjective".

What I meant was "valuation" (i.e. subjectively attributing value").

For "validation" refers to a statement claimed as truth, hence, validation is by objective criteria.

A claim that a large bucket of water poured on a small wood fire will extinguish the fire can be validated by argument setting out the characteristics of each with a projected outcome. It can be further validated by the act of pouring the bucket of water on the fire and observing the result

The thing is, no matter what objective validation is offered, one may subjectively choose to deny it.

As I previously stated, this is an essential epistemological question: how do you know what you know?

An entity is a finite physical quantity known to exist by its differing set of characteristics. Although the primary input of information is via sensory perception, this principle of identity by difference applies throughout, meaning beyond sensory perception. Mentally abstracting an electron, proton and neutron are such examples of identity by differentiation.

In one item of validation, it may be argued that a human body requires sustaining nutrients in order to survive as a living entity. One may elaborate on the physical structure and explain why this is true without actual carrying out a physical experiment to prove the truth of the claim.

In the end, the claim can be demonstrated and validated by the end result of the experiment. Cook with heat and freeze with cold are just two examples of claimed knowledge which can be validated by demonstration. Through the ability to think, integrate and calculate, one may accurately anticipate the consequence of an action without taking it.

As for validation of any alleged fact, is not entity identity itself a prerequisite to validating a claimed relationship as fact? There are many claims of knowledge often with claims in conflict.

What process is used in an effort to validate a claim?

At the root of it all, it's the same process of entity identity by mentally abstracting by a specific SET OF DIFFERENTIATING CHARACTERISTICS.

In mentally abstracting a human individual, we note a set of characteristics peculiar to that individual. Each such identity is a finite volitional, valuing, goal seeking entity. Each volitional entity attributes value to this or that according to beliefs and personal preference infinitely variable between individuals and in time and circumstance.

Thus, do we understand the source and cause of subjective valuations. Agree? If not, why not?

On the other hand, with entity identity left out of the thinking equation, there appears to be magical and mystical valuations ("values" )without definitive source and cause. How do you go about finding what is in the "national interest", or "life proper to man?"

If you can find these ("standard") "objective values" without interjecting personal preference, please do explain exactly where and how you "discovered" these "universal values."

Do you actually believe that the natural fact of personal preference and subjective valuations can be set aside ?

Suffice it to say, the real is each finite individual that attributes value. The notion of an expressed or implied "infinite entity", "God's will, "good of the country", "life proper to man", is a direct denial of finite entity identity.

Example of how entity identity is established as a result of mentally integrating sensory perceptions:

Imagine that you are blindfolded, transported and left inside a strange building in total darkness with no lighting available. You want to know your environment. Survival depends on it. How do you go about the task?

Suppose you hold an arm out with fingers extended. The tips of your fingers come in contact with an object. Via sensations, the first thing you notice is that the object is rough. At this juncture, you have information by one percept (sensory perception), i.e., objective perceptual identity.

You apply some pressure and find the object is also rigid. Mind integrates the percepts, rough and rigid, to arrive at a concept (conceived idea) of the entity, i.e. objective identity.

Suppose you wander about and lose track of the discovered existent. You begin to search by the same method of fingers extended. The tip of your fingers encounter an object. You notice the object is rough. Is it the same entity as touched before? Suppose you apply pressure and find not rigidity, but yielding softness.

Mind integrates these percepts and comes up with a conceptual identity of rough and soft.

Voilà! A different conceptual identity, hence, a different entity.

Do you happen to notice that this primary information and root knowledge is not automatic, not axiomatic; that it involves time and process?

This (ENTITY IDENTITY) is the base of all knowledge. The base of knowledge is NOT "axioms one has to accept", not subject to proof or disproof.

Per Rand, an axiom is "a statement that identifies the base of knowledge and of any further statement pertaining to that knowledge, a statement necessarily contained in all others, whether any particular speaker chooses to identify it or not.

An axiom is a proposition that defeats its opponents by the fact that they have to accept it and use it in the process of any attempt to deny it." (Rand)

The only problem with this postulate is that it is exactly the other way round. It does not defeat its opponents.

Instead it defeats itself on at least two levels.

1. The presumption is automatic knowledge independent of time and process. (How does this work?)

2. Given the nature of mental integration and conclusions reflecting the root premise, to say an axiom identifies the base of knowledge but is not subject to proof or disproof and that one has to accept it, then what's the point of "check your premises"?

How can something of which it is claimed that it can identify the base of knowledge be of validity if it is not subject to proof and disproof?

Edited by Xray

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How can something of which it is claimed that it can identify the base of knowledge be of validity if it is not subject to proof and disproof?

And if it is subject to proof or disproof wouldn't it present us with a case of infinite regress?

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On 11/7/2009 at 4:45 PM, Xray said:

Two quotes from Ayn Rand: (bolding mine)

To exist is to be something, as distinguished from the nothing of non-existence, it is to be an entity of a specific nature made of specific attributes." (Rand)

"A thing is — what it is; its characteristics constitute its identity" (Rand))

To Selene:

I have chosen this thread to address the questions you asked elsewhere:

http://www.objectivistliving.com/forums/index.php?showtopic=7703&st=260 (quoted in # 261)

How does the individual human come to know 'the difference between fact and subjective validation'?

My reply had been:

"This is an essential epistemological question: how do you know what you know?"

I have to make a correction since the term "validation" I chose was wrong in connection with "subjective".

What I meant was "valuation" (i.e. subjectively attributing value").

For "validation" refers to a statement claimed as truth, hence, validation is by objective criteria.

A claim that a large bucket of water poured on a small wood fire will extinguish the fire can be validated by argument setting out the characteristics of each with a projected outcome. It can be further validated by the act of pouring the bucket of water on the fire and observing the result

The thing is, no matter what objective validation is offered, one may subjectively choose to deny it.

As I previously stated, this is an essential epistemological question: how do you know what you know?

An entity is a finite physical quantity known to exist by its differing set of characteristics. Although the primary input of information is via sensory perception, this principle of identity by difference applies throughout, meaning beyond sensory perception. Mentally abstracting an electron, proton and neutron are such examples of identity by differentiation.

In one item of validation, it may be argued that a human body requires sustaining nutrients in order to survive as a living entity. One may elaborate on the physical structure and explain why this is true without actual carrying out a physical experiment to prove the truth of the claim.

In the end, the claim can be demonstrated and validated by the end result of the experiment. Cook with heat and freeze with cold are just two examples of claimed knowledge which can be validated by demonstration. Through the ability to think, integrate and calculate, one may accurately anticipate the consequence of an action without taking it.

As for validation of any alleged fact, is not entity identity itself a prerequisite to validating a claimed relationship as fact? There are many claims of knowledge often with claims in conflict.

What process is used in an effort to validate a claim?

At the root of it all, it's the same process of entity identity by mentally abstracting by a specific SET OF DIFFERENTIATING CHARACTERISTICS.

In mentally abstracting a human individual, we note a set of characteristics peculiar to that individual. Each such identity is a finite volitional, valuing, goal seeking entity. Each volitional entity attributes value to this or that according to beliefs and personal preference infinitely variable between individuals and in time and circumstance.

Thus, do we understand the source and cause of subjective valuations. Agree? If not, why not?

On the other hand, with entity identity left out of the thinking equation, there appears to be magical and mystical valuations ("values" )without definitive source and cause. How do you go about finding what is in the "national interest", or "life proper to man?"

If you can find these ("standard") "objective values" without interjecting personal preference, please do explain exactly where and how you "discovered" these "universal values."

Do you actually believe that the natural fact of personal preference and subjective valuations can be set aside ?

Suffice it to say, the real is each finite individual that attributes value. The notion of an expressed or implied "infinite entity", "God's will, "good of the country", "life proper to man", is a direct denial of finite entity identity.

Example of how entity identity is established as a result of mentally integrating sensory perceptions:

Imagine that you are blindfolded, transported and left inside a strange building in total darkness with no lighting available. You want to know your environment. Survival depends on it. How do you go about the task?

Suppose you hold an arm out with fingers extended. The tips of your fingers come in contact with an object. Via sensations, the first thing you notice is that the object is rough. At this juncture, you have information by one percept (sensory perception), i.e., objective perceptual identity.

You apply some pressure and find the object is also rigid. Mind integrates the percepts, rough and rigid, to arrive at a concept (conceived idea) of the entity, i.e. objective identity.

Suppose you wander about and lose track of the discovered existent. You begin to search by the same method of fingers extended. The tip of your fingers encounter an object. You notice the object is rough. Is it the same entity as touched before? Suppose you apply pressure and find not rigidity, but yielding softness.

Mind integrates these percepts and comes up with a conceptual identity of rough and soft.

Voilà! A different conceptual identity, hence, a different entity.

Do you happen to notice that this primary information and root knowledge is not automatic, not axiomatic; that it involves time and process?

This (ENTITY IDENTITY) is the base of all knowledge. The base of knowledge is NOT "axioms one has to accept", not subject to proof or disproof.

Per Rand, an axiom is "a statement that identifies the base of knowledge and of any further statement pertaining to that knowledge, a statement necessarily contained in all others, whether any particular speaker chooses to identify it or not.

An axiom is a proposition that defeats its opponents by the fact that they have to accept it and use it in the process of any attempt to deny it." (Rand)

The only problem with this postulate is that it is exactly the other way round. It does not defeat its opponents.

Instead it defeats itself on at least two levels.

1. The presumption is automatic knowledge independent of time and process. (How does this work?)

2. Given the nature of mental integration and conclusions reflecting the root premise, to say an axiom identifies the base of knowledge but is not subject to proof or disproof and that one has to accept it, then what's the point of "check your premises"?

How can something of which it is claimed that it can identify the base of knowledge be of validity if it is not subject to proof and disproof?

By that definition of axiomatic the logical law of  non-contradiction is an axiom.  Any system that asserts its own consistency must be consistent.  Godel  solved that problem by showing any consistent system of logic in which the laws of arithmetic are embedded,  if consistent,  cannot prove its own consistency.   And if it could prove its own consistency it would be inconsistent. 

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In the words of Davy Crockett: "Not perzactly."  In other words, you skipped Step 2. 

Quote

 

Ba'a'l  "Any system that asserts its own consistency must be consistent.  Godel  solved that problem by showing any consistent system of logic in which the laws of arithmetic are embedded,  if consistent,  cannot prove its own consistency.   And if it could prove its own consistency it would be inconsistent."

 First of all, this relates entirely and only to arithmetic. Another system can be consistent. Objectivist epistemology is not alone in resolving apparent contradictions with a wider abstraction that incorporates the essential consistent attributes of the elements.  For example: "You say that the basic choice is to think or not to think, but in order to choose, do you not need to be thinking?"  A very common question from Objectivist ethics (also consistent) is: "Isn't everyone selfish?" 

I have some questions of my own about ITOE because Rand does not credit value to meditation, for instance. She says that a child first identifies and then integrates objects by their shape. For me, some that was function or operation.  Realize that we are talking about an infant here, but for me, although dogs and cats have the same shape, they behave differently.  Dogs come when you call them; cats run away. 

So, if you want to read the essay and address something substantive, please do.  However, the Goedel thing is just sophomoric.
 

Quote

The first incompleteness theorem states that no consistent system of axioms whose theorems can be listed by an "effective procedure" (i.e., any sort of algorithm) is capable of proving all truths about the relations of the natural numbers (arithmetic). For any such system, there will always be statements about the natural numbers that are true, but that are unprovable within the system. The second incompleteness theorem, an extension of the first, shows that such a system cannot demonstrate its own consistency. -- Wikipedia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/G%C3%B6del%27s_incompleteness_theorems

It is nice to quote an authority, Ba'al, but as you brought it up, would you care to give us an example of the problem from, say, the set of integer arithmetic?

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3 hours ago, syrakusos said:

 

It is nice to quote an authority, Ba'al, but as you brought it up, would you care to give us an example of the problem from, say, the set of integer arithmetic?

Have a look here:

http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/goedel-incompleteness/

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You do the Presidential Press Conference Dance: side step, side step, side step, and never face the music.  

In my book on codes and ciphers, I gave an example of Goedelized codes taken from The Gold at Starbow's End by Frederick Pohl. You are ignoring the simple challenge to show how this applies to integers. If you cannot, then you must admit that it does not. And therefore may well not apply to Objectivist epistemology. Goedel's Theorem involves the highest abstractions of arithmetic. 

The paragraph above can be expressed as a single number. Each statement of my proof likewise can be expressed as a single number. Goedel's theorem only says that we have no a prior way to know if the entire set of those numbers is complete and non-contradictory. That is two different assertions. If the set is non-contradictory, then it is not complete.  We know that. The body of knowledge is always expanding.

You have asserted nothing substantial.

... unless, of course, you have something substantial to assert. (Take your time.)

 

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DonAthos on another site wrote: Yes. I mean, it's always been telling to me that she titled her monograph Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology; it seems to suggest that there remains more epistemology (and perhaps much more) to be discovered and described. Now, it's a question that I believe directly pertains to this discussion as to whether or not someone, post- Rand, could contribute to specifically Objectivist epistemology . . . . And if I were to imagine some student of Objectivism who reads all of Rand -- and let's say agrees with her to the letter -- and then listens to Peikoff's lectures on induction, and agrees with those, too, and integrates that knowledge with the rest (assuming that Peikoff is correct, and that his ideas on induction integrate seamlessly with Rand's philosophy)... well, what should that student call this resultant philosophy that he holds -- being the fundamentals of Objectivism along with the Objectivist solution to the problem of induction? Is there any title that makes sense apart from Objectivism? . . . . Is he wrong (in some absolute, omniscient sense) to do so? I don't believe so. If he is made aware of the conflict between his fundamental beliefs and this addition, and seeks to rectify this contradiction (as he should, and as I would imagine a self-described Objectivist would), then he will eventually either have to reject his addition... or some fundamental Objectivist belief, or both. In the latter two cases, he is at that point no longer an Objectivist. But beforehand? He is an Objectivist. An Objectivist in error on a particular point, perhaps, but an Objectivist nonetheless . . . . Philosophy is not an all-encompassing encyclopedia, no -- it does not hold to a particular theory of gravity, for instance -- but I would say that a comprehensive philosophy (such as I believe we hold Objectivism to be) would eventually address all those major areas of philosophy that a person needs for the purpose of living on earth, or growing out the encyclopedia such as you address, and by which a person might come to hold a theory of gravity. This seems to me to describe induction. Philosophy is not an all-encompassing encyclopedia, no -- but whatever sort of reference work you might imagine it to be, there is undoubtedly a chapter entitled "Induction." If Rand left those pages blank, it does not mean they must eternally remain so. end quote

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