Michael Stuart Kelly

Science and philosophy? Or philosophy and science?

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This thread is in homage of Marsha Enright, who suggested it.

I started to become interested in this area when I was the Psychology Leader of the old SoloHQ. I once got into an argument about mind and body and a person hit me with the phrase "nonphysical existence."

My mouth dropped open. Nonphysical existence?

I then heard some of the most incredible arguments that practically bordered on mysticism. So off I went, thinking about studying this with the experts. Maybe I would find out what the physical connection was and maybe what the physical form of consciousness was. My thinking was that consciousness manifests itself through physical chemical and energetic reactions and that if you chemically alter the "support" of consciousness (brain cells), you alter its functioning. (As an ex-druggie, I knew all about that.)

So I bought an amazing book called Neurophilosophy by Patricia Smith Churchland. I have not had time to delve into it, but I will post the basic contents here, as they serve as an excellent stimulus for topics:

Part 1 - Some Elementary Neuroscience

1. The Science of the Nervous System: A Historical Sketch

2. Modern Theory of Neurons

3. Functional Neuroanatomy

4. Higher Functions: Early Work

5. Higher Functions: Neuropsychology and Neurology

Part 2 - Recent Developments in the Philosophy of Science

6. Introduction and Historical Sketch

7. Reduction and the Mind-Body Problem

8. Are Mental States Irreducible to Neurobiological States?

9. Funcionalist Psychology

Part 3 - A Neurophilosophical Perspective

10. Theories of Brain Function

11. Closing Remarks

I think the only way I am ever going to get through this thing is to devote an hour a day or so to it. Talk about big words - 546 pages of them!

Two other names keep popping up in Objectivist discussion on consciousness also: Karl Popper and Daniel Dennett. I frankly need to read some more of them, Dennett especially, from what I gather. Nathaniel Branden has had a lot of recent interaction with Ken Wilber, who also looks extremely interesting science-and-philosophy-wise, but from a "big picture" kind of view.

(I provided Wikipedia links, as the articles are pretty good introductions and come with a host of links.)

As many of Ayn Rand's observations came from looking, thinking and proclaiming, it is important to check what can be checked by scientific inquiry and validate or revise them in light of testing and evidence. I hold that no idea is so sacred that it cannot be checked by a sovereign independent mind. Good ideas and premises stand on their own merits. I know that not all Objectivists like to think this way, but I sure do.

A quote by Arthur Koestler:

Nothing is more sad than the death of an illusion.

I would also add that nothing is more exhilarating than finding out through science or other hard proof that your thinking is right.

Well, this is a start.

Michael

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I would also add that nothing is more exhilarating than finding out through science or other hard proof that your thinking is right.

That raises the question: is it equally exhilarating to find out that your thinking was not right?

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Dragonfly,

That raises the question: is it equally exhilarating to find out that your thinking was not right?

Me? Or in general?

I'll answer for me: Yup.

A little disappointment comes up, I guess, because of the past effort. If the idea was really out there, there might be some embarrassment at times.

But whenever you find out for sure that you are wrong about something, you also find out something for sure that is right. That's always a cause for celebration. It can get quite exhilarating.

It depends on what you value: the idea itself or always being right. I'll stick to the ideas. I love them. Anyway, always being right always got me in trouble...

Michael

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I would also add that nothing is more exhilarating than finding out through science or other hard proof that your thinking is right.

That raises the question: is it equally exhilarating to find out that your thinking was not right?

I'd say that both scenarios are posed in such nonspecific terms as to be unassessable for the general case. ;-)

Suppose you conclude "through science or other hard proof" that you have cancer? I expect you'd be mighty glad to find out you were wrong. For instance.

Ellen in imp mode

___

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We are inevitably going to find out that we have not always been right!

Our choice is with respect to being right. If we find out we were wrong, then it is a lot less embarrassing and a lot more gratifying to change our viewpoint immediately to one consistent with reality, than to pretend that we were right before. I have never understood how some people can continue to espouse an idea they know to be wrong simply because they are unwilling to admit they were wrong. This is the ultimate instance of social metaphysics and the ultimate putdown for reality. But this is a frequently observed phenomena.

What is more, I cannot understand how it is that people are not grateful to someone who has helped them see an error they were making. What is there in life that is of more value than seeing reality as it is?

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Before I delve into the topic which I *thought* this thread would be about - I had a comment to follow on Michael's musing on consciousness.

What kind of "thing" is consciousness? I think it is a special kind of relationship - a relationship between a body of a certain kind (i.e. with a special kind of brain, functioning properly) and reality.

This metaphysical status solves a few philosophical problems:

1. The'non-materiality' of consciousness - distance is non-material too, but just as dependent on physical existence as consciousness - as a relationship, being non-physical but dependent for existence on the physical is no problem!

2. The problem of 'where' consciousness is - 'it' is not in a place, it is between a body of a certain kind, functioning properly, and any possible aspect of reality, including itself! That takes care of introspection.

3. The problem of the origin of free will - as a function of a certain kind of living body (i.e. one that has the ability to be conscious - geez, I'm beginning to sound like Aristotle's type of phraseology here), the ability to initiate conscious action is a further expression of a fundamental of living action. "Life is a process of self-initiated and self-sustained action" - in fact, that ability is fundamental to distinguishing living from non-living action.

Just a little light thinking before bed!

Marsha

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Okay, so now I want to bring up my original idea for a topic:

I've heard various objectivists claim that understanding only proceeds from philosophy to science, not vice versa (I believe Peikoff is included in this group). In other words, everything we figure out about philosophy is from information we all have, not from specialized information, and cannot (should not?) be informed by any new facts/ideas/theories developed by science.

I think this is bunk, but I wondered what others think about this. Here's my first counter-example: would Rand have been able to argue for capitalism in politics before the industrial revolution?

Second counter-example: can psychological studies inform/change our theories of concept formation? (Ken Livingston thinks it's at least important to test Rand's!)

What do you all think?

Marsha

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The short answer is that without science we would not have the time to develop philosophy.

But that is probably not what you have in mind.

So, how about this:

We need a philosophy to guide us in living life. There is no other reason to develop a philosophy. With no knowledge of the science of life, we cannot develop and test the ideas that are supposed to answer that need. Therefore, we cannot understand philosophy without science.

So, Peikoff is wrong. The process of developing science and philosophy is an iterative one, with advances in each contributing to and making possible advances in the other field. This is another symptom of those Objectivists who insist on being simple-minded and refuse to check their premises against reality.

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Well, this is coming from a student who is cognitive/psych. neuroscience:

First of all, there is no hardcore ultimate definition of consciousness, yet. Because neuroscience is just starting on the path to studying it, what we (in the general, scientific "we") know is that both the brain and consciousness are very, very complex in a nonlinear, dynamic, adaptive, self-referencing, biofeedbacked way. There are many books out on consciousness itself, and most of them are technical because the study of consciousness is advanced. For a glimpse into how it's done, I offer my Amazon booklist, which I think contains a good chunk of material. Also, if anyone is inclined, they can look up articles in Journal of Consciousness Studies, Brain and Mind, Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, Journal of Integrative Neuroscience, Nature Neuroscience, Brain, etc. There's even a basic online Neuroscience textbook if anyone has enough time...

Interesting, and thought-provoking reads for non-science folks would be "The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat" by Oliver Sacks, books by Michael Gazzaniga, Francis Crick, Christof Koch, Antonio Damasio, William Calvin, Daniel Siegel, V. S. Ramachandran, Francisco J. Varela, etc. I would caution not to stick to one particular author but to read widely as many different scholars have different interpretations. Daniel Dennett is not a neuroscientist, he's a philosophy professor; while his contribution is definitely valuable to both, I would not hold him (or any single person) as the spokesman or the ultimate say for the cognitive/psych. neurosciences.

As for Peikoff, frankly, if he's wrong, he's wrong. What's of primary concern to me is that neither he, nor Rand, were in neuroscience and therefore their suppositions of what goes on in my field do not influence my study. I do not seek to find evidence that fits into previous mindsets; the aim of science, I think, is to clear as much personal and external bias as possible in order to learn fully from reality. Neither am I interested in telling Peikoff what he should think about his own field; I expect the same consideration across the board and I would expect fields working together towards grasping *reality* more fully. This way, the gaining of knowledge is more complete and intellectually honest.

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I've heard various objectivists claim that understanding only proceeds from philosophy to science, not vice versa (I believe Peikoff is included in this group).

What people claim and what's in reality are two different things. If they cannot support their claims with evidence in addition to logic, they have a hypothesis. I think that neither philosophy nor science can exist in a vaccum. They, as well as other fields, are interrelated and folks who strive to be reductionist in terms of 1) linear thinking (this only proceeds to that) and 2) reducing all of existence to philosophy, are only doing themselves a disfavor by ignoring the multi-facetedness of human existence. The human mind did not *only* make philosophy; it produced anthropology, history, art, writing, computer science, engineering, etc.

In other words, everything we figure out about philosophy is from information we all have, not from specialized information, and cannot (should not?) be informed by any new facts/ideas/theories developed by science.

I know you are interpreting Peikoff, so I am merely debating the idea expressed. How does this *opinion* generate knowledge? If one was living in 1643, and no one could be informed by any new facts/ideas/theories developed by science, would we be here today? This seems rather antithetical to the Enlightenment, to progress, to technology, to imagination, to future innovations, hm, even to Rand's "new ideas" themselves. In fact, in ITOE , she italicizes "according to cognitive evidence"... which must mean that in her time, someone was doing some research on cognition, somewhere. I'd like to know what her sources were... science?

would Rand have been able to argue for capitalism in politics before the industrial revolution?

I think a better question would be if she could've come up with the idea for capitalism herself; i.e. to innovate and invent the idea. That's an idea/thoery/new fact--- *someone* (group or otherwise) must have come up with capitalism-- between hunter gatherer to agricultural settlements-- which is a question that an anthropologist would be able to expound on. In any case, progress happens through the development of new ideas in general.

can psychological studies inform/change our theories of concept formation? (Ken Livingston thinks it's at least important to test Rand's!) What do you all think?

Yes, phsychological studies, as well as cognitive development studies, as well as neuroscience studies, can very well change theories of concept formation. How can different evidence *not* change what we thought was true before? Whether this new knowledge adds or forces us to reconsider, our understanding is deeper either way. Nothing can progress if people want to hold onto outdated models in the face of reality. Look at fundamentalist Islam.

I think every idea should be tested, rigorously, with the wisdom that if a person does accept it, it's contingent upon current knowledge. I don't understand why the subject of concept formation is such a big deal? Humans do form concepts. Unless the question is *how* humans form concepts, I'm really not sure what is being questioned. There are plenty of books on concept formation out there; some are on my Amazon booklist (which I posted previously). :)

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Jenna,

Thanks for your thoughtful comments on the topics I've brought up. It seems that us science people (at least the 3 of us who've posted here and others I know) certainly think that science informs philosophy! I wish someone who knew Peikoff's arguments better than me (maybe Phil Coates?) would come on here and give the counterarguments. I'm not always very good at remembering arguments I think are bunk!

But I'll try to summarize their position: since philosophy is supposed to be about the most basic aspects of human existence, and philosophy underpins all other thinking, it must be derived from material available to any human being, not the specialized information and ideas of derived from scientific research.

I tried!

Marsha

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Jenna,

Regarding the 'definition' of consciousness, are you familiar with the argument that consciousness cannot be defined by other concepts but must be defined ostensively, i.e by reference to one's direct experience of it? The concept 'blue' is like this. We can only define it by pointing to an example.

Rand argues this extensively in her chapter on axiomatic concepts in ITOE. Axiomatic concepts are a special class of ostensive concepts. They are not only defined ostensively, they underlie all other concepts - you cannot use any other concept without implicitly using them.

Rand puts forth three as fundamental to all thinking: existence, identity and consciousness.

I have spent hours going through neuropsycho, psych, physiology - all kinds of book, looking for the authors' definition of consciousness. When they attempt any, it tends to be circular (which is a logical result of a concept being axiomatic). Also, I've noticed that no one gives a definition of 'information,' by the way, that's not circular.

However, I wasn't addressing the issue of the *definition* of consciousness - because I have come to agree with Rand that it is an ostensive, axiomatic concept. I was addressing the issue of *what kind of thing* it is - i.e. its metaphysical status. Sorry if I started by topic in media res!

The metaphysical status of consciousness is fundamental to solving the conceptual problem of the relation between mind and body, and even, I would argue, the problem of free will.

Why? Because many claim that consciousness cannot be causally effective if it is immaterial. There are reems of books revolving around this problem, and positions like epiphenomenalism, compatiblism as a result.

That's why I bring up this subject, with my suggestion for a solution.

Best,

Marsha

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I should have previewed my previous post before putting it up!:

"I have spent hours going through neuropsycho, psych, physiology - all kinds of book, looking for the authors' definition of consciousness. When they attempt any, it tends to be circular (which is a logical result of a concept being axiomatic). Also, I've noticed that no one gives a definition of 'information,' by the way, that's not circular. "

I meant to add: I believe these authors end up using circular definitions because the concept is axiomatic and not defineable by other concepts.

Best,

Marsha

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2. The problem of 'where' consciousness is - 'it' is not in a place, it is between a body of a certain kind, functioning properly, and any possible aspect of reality, including itself! That takes care of introspection.

3. The problem of the origin of free will - as a function of a certain kind of living body (i.e. one that has the ability to be conscious - geez, I'm beginning to sound like Aristotle's type of phraseology here), the ability to initiate conscious action is a further expression of a fundamental of living action. "Life is a process of self-initiated and self-sustained action" - in fact, that ability is fundamental to distinguishing living from non-living action.

The first one is true: consciousness is a non-material concept, a property of the gestalt activities of the brain.

As for 2: Consciousness has its roots in the brain, so therefore I have to say that it is definitely attached to the brain itself. One can't physically lack a brian and still be conscious. One can have brian damage and have their consciousness change. Consciousness is not between the body and reality. Consciousness is what is affected in the relationship between the brain and the external world, vice versa, and also influences itself via feedback and interrelationary neurophysiology.

3. I view the "origin" of free will as a concept named by human to describe the dynamics of very large possibilities of brai-derived and environment-derived choice onto which volition acts. That's my general take. I don't really think of free will as any sort of problem.... I guess it makes as much sense as the mind/body problem, which I think is a problem that exists only because some people made it exist. But that's just my opinion.

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JRegarding the 'definition' of consciousness, are you familiar with the argument that consciousness cannot be defined by other concepts but must be defined ostensively, i.e by reference to one's direct experience of it? The concept 'blue' is like this. We can only define it by pointing to an example.

It first must be acknowledged as existing by one's experience of it. However that can be extrapolated to acknowledging others' consciousness, and acknowledgement that other folks have or have not done the "I am conscious" thing. I see defining consciousness as giving it a dictionary definition; not giving consciousness existence. I'm not battling over existence or reality. Anyway, it's like saying "Well, that exists, I experience it... so how does it work? Let's try to find out what it does, how it does it, and see if we can define it-- describe it-- in an essential way." That's more what I mean by definition. As for definition giving identity-- one can take this "definition" to mean that consciousness is identifiable by the fact that it can identify itself. But that's really general, and self-referencing; I'm okay with that if I think generally. But I'm really interested in knowing more about it. I'm interested in *how* this happens at a detailed level.

So, yes, neuroscientists are using their consciousnesses to define consciousness in this way, but this is a very general view of what neuroscience is doing. But we're doing it with empirical evidence on top of logic.

Rand argues this extensively in her chapter on axiomatic concepts in ITOE. Axiomatic concepts are a special class of ostensive concepts. They are not only defined ostensively, they underlie all other concepts - you cannot use any other concept without implicitly using them.

Rand puts forth three as fundamental to all thinking: existence, identity and consciousness.

I'm not arguing against her axioms. I'm just looking closer and deeper on how identity relates to consciousness relates to the brain. The scientists I know don't try to disprove existence, identity, or consciousness. All of them are in the what and how stage. I'm just taking the axioms as a given.

I have spent hours going through neuropsycho, psych, physiology - all kinds of book, looking for the authors' definition of consciousness. When they attempt any, it tends to be circular (which is a logical result of a concept being axiomatic). Also, I've noticed that no one gives a definition of 'information,' by the way, that's not circular.

It seems circular because of the nonlinear dynamics approach. Considering that we have 100-200 billion neurons (estimate-- it's a very, very large number) interlocking , it's obvious that they're not laid end-to-end in one long string. They interrelate, and form neural systems, and these systems interrelate. The 'definition' of consciousness would map onto this physiological evidence, so therefore what's considered circularity would be a result of biofeedback, complex nonlinear dynamics, fuzzy logic, and adaptive systems. Wikipedia has a definition of information that I find pretty helpful. However, I don't think of information as the same as data.

However, I wasn't addressing the issue of the *definition* of consciousness - because I have come to agree with Rand that it is an ostensive, axiomatic concept. I was addressing the issue of *what kind of thing* it is - i.e. its metaphysical status. Sorry if I started by topic in media res!

Well, cog/psych. neuroscientists are also trying to find out what kind of thing consciousness is, at a level that grounds the workings of consciousness in the brain itself.

The metaphysical status of consciousness is fundamental to solving the conceptual problem of the relation between mind and body, and even, I would argue, the problem of free will.

Why? Because many claim that consciousness cannot be causally effective if it is immaterial. There are reems of books revolving around this problem, and positions like epiphenomenalism, compatiblism as a result.

Not sure what compatibilism is, right now I don't have time to look it up. How can consciousness not be causally effective if it's immaterial? I can't literally hold my consciousness in my hands, even if I'm grasping my head. I can't hold a brain soaked in formaldehyde (and I have) and say I'm holding consciousness. It is an immaterial concept; as is volition. I can't hold volition. But I can *use* volition, and volition is correlated to brain function. Therefore, there are parts of the brain that are executive and cause other things to happen (within the brain and without) by dint of what it is, and what it does.

That's why I bring up this subject, with my suggestion for a solution.

My solution was to learn about this; granted, I know that not everyone can or will go to the level of detail I go to just because this is my field. But it's perfectly fine to grab an inexpensive book or two, and I am willing to teach anyone who really wants to ask about the brain. I've listed some authors above that I think would give different viewpoints on the same subject. Thank you for clarifying! I think discussing this is fun and is a great learning experience.

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Why? Because many claim that consciousness cannot be causally effective if it is immaterial. There are reems of books revolving around this problem, and positions like epiphenomenalism, compatiblism as a result.

Problem? What problem? Computer software is immaterial, can't it be causally effective?

And who's afraid of compatibilism? I've started a thread on compatibilism on this forum, but that got sidetracked.

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When I made my last comments in response to Marsha's comment on Peikoff's idea that philosophy deals with what everyone knows and it provides understanding of science, while science provides no understanding of philosophy, I was in a great hurry to leave. I will elaborate a bit now.

Because philosophy has a purpose of providing us cognitive tools and principles for living our lives, the very questions that philosophy needs to answer are dependent upon the science of living things and the science of the environment in which they must live. Many philosophic issues could be discussed fairly reasonably based on the level of science known to the ancient Greeks, but some certainly could not be.

Examples of how science should affect our handling of ethical issues are certainly to be easily found in our increased knowledge of the science of biochemistry and its effects upon brain function. This was not known to the Greeks. We can now say that some behaviours not conducive to the health of a person are not due to an ethical failing of the person, for instance.

Peikoff has a major problem which requires that any new knowledge found by science will not have any impact upon philosophy. He maintains that Objectivism is both a philosophy for living life and it is a closed system. If both are true, then there must not be any impact of science upon philosophy, most especially none with regard to determining what issues philosophy needs to consider in order to serve its purpose of giving us cognitive tools and general principles for living our lives.

Of course, in addition, his stance allows him to be ignorant of science and yet maiintain that he is doing his job as a philosopher well. Furthermore, Ayn Rand always said she was not a scientist, so Peikoff can only maintain that Objectivism is a complete system of philosophy if this fact is unimportant.

It is mind-boggling how many problems the idea that Objectivism is both a philosophy for living and a closed system causes! It sure is an awkward situation Peikoff and his followers are in. No wonder they are always angry.

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Jenna,

I'm really sorry if anything I said appeared to be criticizing you and your study of neuroscience. I didn't mean to at all! I'm just interested in exploring the philosophy of science as it applies to consciousness and neuroscience.

I applaud your study of brain functions and their relationship to consciousness and mind - it's one of my main areas of study and interest, too. I'm fascinated by what neuroscience has discovered about the relationship between brain and mind - and how that affects our conception of human nature (that was another agreement with Charles!)

I look forward to your work in the future and what you help discover.

Best,

Marsha

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Charles,

Great example of how science can affect ethics. I, personally, am fascinated with the problem of free will and biochemistry and their relationship.

It is mind-boggling how many problems the idea that Objectivism is both a philosophy for living and a closed system causes! It sure is an awkward situation Peikoff and his followers are in. No wonder they are always angry.

LOL! That's a wonderful observation.

Marsha

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Marsha,

There were some helpful discussions of Rand's retreat from psychology on SOLOHQ before it fractionated. Adam Reed made some excellent observations; unfortunately, we're unlikely to see him here because he dislikes Nathaniel Branden so much.

To net them out, Rand retreated from psychology after she broke with NB in 1968 and Robert Efron (a neuropsychologist) subsequently left her circle.

By 1971, when she conducted her epistemology workshops, she'd adopted the position that is familiar from Leonard Peikoff's 1970s lectures (and his present-day pronouncements). According to the 1990 expanded edition of the Intro to Objectivist Epistemology, she said:

Philosophy by its nature has to be based only on that which is available to the knowledge of any man with a normal mental equipment. Philosophy is not dependent on the discoveries of science; the reverse is true.

So whenever you are in doubt about what is or is not a philosophical subject, ask yourself whether you need a specialized knowledge, beyond the knowledge available to you as a normal adult, unaided by any special knowledge or special instruments. And if the answer is possible to you on that basis alone, you are dealing with a philosophical question. If to answer it you would need training in physics, or psychology, or special equipment, etc., then you are dealing with a derivative or scientific field of knowledge, not philosophy. (289)

I agree with you that this is wrongheaded, and tried to point out why in a 1999 article on Rand and her debts to modern cognitive psychology. See

http://hubcap.clemson.edu/~campber/randcogrev.html

Robert

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Jenna,

Rand's Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology owes some debts to early modern cognitive psychology (most notably, to George Miller's ideas about limited attentional capacity). But in her usual fashion, Rand wasn't explicit about her sources.

See http://hubcap.clemson.edu/~campber/randcogrev.html.

In addition, Robert Efron, a neuropsychologist, was associated with Rand for a few years and published in The Objectivist.

But after her break with Nathaniel Branden, Rand retreated from psychology almost completely.

More later...

Robert Campbell

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Bob,

Hey, nice to "see" you! And thanks for finding the passage in ITOE that's likely the start of this belief about the relationship between philosophy and science. I'm much more familiar with Rand's writings than anyone else's in the movement, so I had thought she had said this somewhere. I will take a look at what you've written on the issue.

I see her mistake as not realizing that the findings of science can and do influence philosophy; she may be right that it can't be arcane, technical knowledge, but something an intelligent person can grasp. In other words, a set of facts and conclusions can come *from* the work of technical science and influence philosophy. I guess I would have to figure out what principles are involved to decide whether that is necessarily right.

Hmm, I wonder whether David Kelley's book The Evidence of the Sense is a counter-example, since it required his grasp of a huge amount of arcane, technical scientific research to come to his conclusions?

By the way, in her essay "Our Cultural Value Deprivation" she refers to the findings of sensory deprivation, and in "The Objecivist Ethics" I believe she refers to the findings on children who are born without the ability to experience pain to illustrate her conclusion that survival is dependent on pain and pleasure. I'm sure we can think of more examples once we get going.

Marsha

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Peikoff has a major problem which requires that any new knowledge found by science will not have any impact upon philosophy. He maintains that Objectivism is both a philosophy for living life and it is a closed system. If both are true, then there must not be any impact of science upon philosophy, most especially none with regard to determining what issues philosophy needs to consider in order to serve its purpose of giving us cognitive tools and general principles for living our lives.

Anytime someone starts trying to tell me that their particular philosophy or ideas are complete in and of themselves- and that is my understanding of what he(Peikoff) means by a closed system- I have flashbacks of being handed "The Good book" and told that everything I needed was right in there and then chastised for questioning it.

* if I am wrong in his meaning I would appreciate a better understanding.

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