Stuart K. Hayashi Posted November 24, 2007 Share Posted November 24, 2007 Perhaps all of you here are seasoned enough in your knowledge of Objectivism not to fall for the rhetorical trick I will describe. However, I often found myself falling for it even five years after I had discovered Ayn Rand, so I think this is something worth talking about for the sake of those who are new to Objectivism. I am referring to a common tactic of sophists who try to undermine people's confidence in Objectivism. These sophists posit some "hypothetical moral dilemma" to "prove" that there are holes in Objectivism, when the entire "hypothetical dilemma" relies on arbitrary metaphysical assumptions. David Friedman has used this tactic in The Machinery of Freedom to undermine his readers' convictions that there exist absolute property rights (without making a distinction between contextually absolute property rights and context-free, Categorically Absolute property rights). I will quote Ronald E. Merrill's paraphrasing of Dr. Friedman's argument in The Ideas of Ayn Rand, since I find Dr. Merrill's paraphrasing more amusing and to-the-point:*The earth is going to be destroyed tomorrow in an asteroid strike (!)* This can be prevented by use of a piece of equipment costing $100 (!!)* Of which there happens to be only one unit in existence (!!!)* And the owner refuses to let go of it because he'd just as soon he and the rest of the human race were killed (!!!!)So: should one or should one not steal it?With this hypothetical scenario, Dr. Friedman thinks that he has gotten the natural-rights-believer in a corner. He assumes that an honest person would have to answer yes. This reminds me of a "hypothetical moral dilemma" I would pose to my classmates in grade school: Suppose that today aliens came to Earth and threatened to kill everyone on it unless you killed somebody's grandmother and ate her by 8:00 p.m. Eastern Time tonight. Would you do it?When my classmates asked for qualifying information (like "Do I even have to eat her bones, or are their parts of her body I don't have to eat?"), I would have to make up something on the spot.The problem is that, in my first five years of calling myself a student of Objectivism, I would have played Dr. Friedman's game by asking him for more qualifying details, such as, "How rigid is the world-saving equipment's owner in his refusal to sell it or give it away? I want to be absolutely sure that I cannot reason with him before I resort to stealing his property..." What I didn't understand back then was that questions that rely upon arbitrary metaphysical assumptions do not even merit being dignified in such a manner. They should simply be identified as arbitrary, and there is no way to reason with the arbitrary.I don't think this is perfectly understood among free-market advocates. Please correct me if I'm mistaken about this, but I think that sometime near the late '90s or early 2000s, Liberty magazine did a survey of its readers, and it asked questions that were along these lines: Suppose that you were hanging on a ledge of a tall building, and you would fall to your death unless your swung your body into the open window of somebody's apartment without getting anyone's permission first. Would you save your life this way?Most of the survey's respondents answered yes, and so R. W. Bradford concluded that this showed that the majority of Libertarians had come to reject the notion "of Ayn Rand and Murray Rothbard" that private property rights are absolute. (As so often happens with Objectivism's critics, Mr. Bradford conflated Objectivism's contextual absolutes with the Rothbardian's notion that absolute moral principles must be Categorical Imperatives that must always apply regardless of context.)Such a question does not deserve to be seriously entertained. Why am I hanging on this ledge to begin with? Am I Spider-Man? What is the frequency of something like this happening in the real world? How many people hanging on ledges saved their lives by swinging their bodies into somebody's open apartment window?Mr. Merrill named the unspoken implication of all these hypothetical scenarios -- and practically every question that relies upon arbitrary metaphysics:But suppose reality weren't what it is? Then your rules would get you in a mess.In every one of the "hypothetical scenarios" I named above, the questioner provides no evidence that the scenario he posits is realistic or plausible. I have a problem when artists imbue their art with arbitrary metaphysics for satirical purposes and then expect their readers or viewers to take the arbitrary metaphysics literally.Harry Potter has fantasy metaphysics, but that's okay because it's just for entertainment; it's not satirical. The story of Frankenstein relies upon fantasy metaphysics to make a satirical point about how a man can destroy himself and others if he fixates too heavily on just one obsession, but at least the fantasy symbolizes something that can happen in reality: a scientist who didn't fully contemplate the repercussions of his actions cross-bred what would later come to be known as the killer bees.However, a lot of satirists have used arbitrary metaphysics in satirical art and expect their messages to be taken literally when the message itself relies upon the reader or viewer taking aspects of the story's metaphysics as literally true.For instance, I think that Oedipus Rex does expect its audience to take literally its message that somebody should "know his place," accept his "fate," and try not to make something of himself. But for someone to take that message literally is to take many of the story's metaphysical assumptions literally, and the metaphysics of the story are self-refuting. We are expected to blame Oedipus for destroying himself because he caused all of his problems in his attempts to defy his metaphysically-given fate. But if Oedipus's fate is metaphysically given, and his sorrow is predetermined no matter what, then how can Oedipus be responsible for his own misfortune?And though Soylent Green is not supposed to be fully taken literally, its environmentalist message is meant to be taken literally, and for the viewer to believe the story's message is for him to share the filmmakers' assumption that Malthusian economics and demography are metaphysically correct (which they are not). One can rationalize that Oedipus Rex and Soylent Green are "pro-Objectivist" in the sense that both stories feature people being punished for evading reality (in the case of Soylent Green, society is in its rotten state because people evaded the reality that everything environmentalists said in the 1970s was correct). But to rationalize the stories that way is to ignore that the "reality" being "evaded" in these stories was a metaphysics arbitrarily pushed by the satire's creators.(I've heard the rationalization that "accepting fate" in Oedipus Rex is merely symbolic for "accepting the laws of nature." I don't find that plausible. The people of Sophocles's time did literally believe in the supernatural, and the Ancient Greeks really did believe that people should accept the station they are born into.)Here's a more famous example of a satirist's message relying upon the extent to which his readers take his arbitrary metaphysics at face value: Suppose you want to live for your own sake, while violating nobody's rights. And you get rich that way. Then on Christmas Eve, three ghosts haunt you and threaten you that you will go to hell and die alone unless you become more altruistic. Well, I guess you're screwed if you don't want to be altruistic.I think that the reason why satirists and philosophers actually succeed at winning debates when they employ arbitrary metaphysics is that Objectivists and many non-Objectivists have a different criteria for considering a proposition "theoretically possible."If an Objectivist is to consider a proposition "theoretically possible," there actually has to be evidence of the possibility that can be indicated by sensory experience. But, in the case of many non-Objectivists, the sole prerequisite for a proposition to be considered "theoretically possible" is . . . somebody can imagine it. The thinking often goes like this: Is it theoretically possible that there is a sapient, decision-making, omnipotent, omnipresent, omniscient, omnibenevolent God that created all of Existence? Yes, it is theoretically possible because I have an easy time imagining it. Is it theoretically possible that Existence always existed, without having to be created by some First Cause? No, it is not theoretically possible, because I have a hard time imagining it.But I can imagine a 13.8-gram ice cube falling to the bottom of a transparent 4.545964591-liter container filled with room-temperature water and staying there for a thousand years without melting or evaporating. That is not reason enough to consider this scenario theoretically possible. Where's the evidence?There are no documented cases of a baby being genetically cloned from an adult human being through the process of Somatic Cell Nuclear Transfer. But that this can be done is theoretically possible because there is evidence that it can be done -- the process has occurred with various mammals. There is sensory evidence of the possibility. There is no sensory evidence that tomorrow you will discover that some asteroid was heading toward Earth and went unnoticed until the very day that it would collide with Earth, or that the asteroid can only be stopped by a one-unit device owned by somebody who wants everyone to be killed by the asteroid.And for someone to use arbitrary metaphysics in his arguments does not require that he assume his arbitrary metaphysics to be correct. For him to even conflate his arbitrary postulations with "possibilities" is to employ the Argument from Arbitrary Metaphysics.Dinesh D'Souza uses it in his What's So Great About Christianity when he says,Kant's argument is that we have no basis to assume that our perception of reality ever resembles reality itself. Our experience of things can never penetrate to things as they really are. That reality remains permanently hidden to us.How do Kant and D'Souza know that this is a possibility? Because they can imagine it. Yet is it plausible to believe that if a baby were born without any sense of touch, sight, hearing, smell, taste, or balance, the baby would even know what is going on around her? We only know about reality through our senses.D'Souza argues that there exists at least one piece of information -- what I call "Datum X" -- that not only remains unknown to everyone at the moment, but is something that will necessarily remain incontrovertibly imperceptible to any sapient being's senses forever. This raises many questions. One is: if nobody can ever obtain Datum X through his senses, then how does D'Souza even know that Datum X exists? (Because he can imagine that it exists, right?)And, for argument's sake, I will briefly speak as if Datum X exists. People should only be worried about that which they can exercise some modicum of control over. If something is metaphysically unchangeable, then why should anyone fuss over it? I cannot change that the Earth is round, so it would make little sense for me to constantly bemoan how horrible it is that planets have to be round when I would be so much happier if Earth was cube-shaped.By that same token, if Datum X shall ever remain congenitally unperceived by everyone forever, then why the heck do many philosophers build their careers on blabbering about it?I think that there is a purpose in philosophers claiming to know that there exists some piece of data that can never be perceived by anyone's senses, and in assuming that something is possible as long as it can be imagined -- it serves the mystic's purpose of undermining respect for sensory-verified, observation-based, inductive reasoning. What do you think? Link to comment Share on other sites More sharing options...
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