Review of Ayn Rand Contra Human Nature


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Ayn Rand Contra Human Nature

by Fred Seddon

(first published as "Nyquist Contra Rand," The Journal of Ayn Rand Studies 4, no. 2 (Spring 2003): 361 72.)

Ayn Rand Contra Human Nature

Greg S. Nyquist

New York, Writers Club Press

xi + 374 pp., bibliography, no index

Let me begin by announcing what a treat it was to read this work. The author, who is described on the back cover as a freelance writer, has a clear and engaging style that made this book a page turner for me. If fact, it has a narcotic quality about it. I keep turning the pages instead of thinking critically. It required a real effort to slow down and assess Nyquist’s logic and argumentation, especially in the face of his dripping sarcasm and repetitive name-calling. One must ignore those factors in order to assess this book on its merits, because he has enough arguments that prevent this book from degenerating into a mere screed.

Unfortunately his writing style is not complemented by much organizational skill. Let me give two examples from Chapters five and six respectively. On p. 209-21 of chapter five he announces the project which he will develop in the next two (or maybe three) sections, but this announcement is actually followed by nine numbered sections, the first two of which have no title, while the last seven sport italicized titles. Then on p. 223, immediately preceding section three, he announces what he will do in the next four sections, but the text contains not four but seven more sections. And there is no section 8! After section 7 titled “Honesty is the best policy, we proceed directly to section 9, “Sex as metaphysical.”

Chapter six is even worse. After telling us on p. 276 that he will divide the chapter into four sections, the text is actually numbered and titled as follows:

(1) The Objectivist Politics

(2) The practical viability of individual rights

(2) [sic] Class-circulation [Not announced on p. 276]

(3) Capitalism

(4) Freedom

(1) Social Conditions

(2) Untitled

I think what he meant to outline was the following:

(1) The Objectivist Politics

(2) The practical viability of individual rights

(3) Class-circulation

(4) Capitalism

(5) Freedom

(i) Social Conditions

(ii) Objectivist strategies

Before I look at the eight chapters, I want to say something about the introduction. On p. xii he states his purpose in writing this book.

As I will seek to demonstrate over the course of this book, Rand’s philosophy of Objectivism is open to many serious objections. Rand was a surprisingly sloppy and even maladroit thinker who apparently believed that matters of fact can be determine by the manipulation of logical and rhetorical constructions. Indeed, some of the most important doctrines in her philosophy, such as her theories of human nature and value, are based on nothing more than a mere play on words. . . . What is most astonishing about Rand is not that she made errors. . but that she made stupid errors--the kind of errors philosophers make when they are too precipitous in their judgments and haven’t stopped to really think things through.

But don’t get the impression that he has nothing good to say about Rand. He regards her “as an important and perhaps even a great thinker.” (xiii-xiv) But after reading the book I came away with the exact opposite impression. On p. xvii he writes that Rand is “wrong about the nature of man, about the role of philosophical ideas in history, about the validity of induction, about the absolute objectivity of values, about the feasibility of laissez-faire capitalism, and about the nature of romanticism; and she is confused about philosophical idealism, the nature of consciousness, the relation between ideas and the thing they represent in reality, the psychology of altruism, and the issue of a benevolent versus a malevolent sense of life.” How much remains for her to be a great thinker about?

As to Nyquist’s method, on page xxix he tells us that he does not have access to Rand’s mind and so he will “judge her entirely by her writings.” But he immediately begins to focus on her intentions (the word occurs twice on p. xxix alone) and constantly tells us what she is consciously thinking as well as her subconscious motives.

Next he writes that he is “content to allow Rand and her disciples to define their terms in any way they see fit, provided that I am granted the same liberty in my criticism of Objectivism.” (xxix) But how is this to work in practice? If Rand can define man anyway she chooses and Nyquist can do the same, how do we know that they are referring to the same entity. Rand may define man as a rational animal, but if Nyquist defines man as an instinct driven power luster, then how can we determine who is right? And is this even a question of right or wrong? Since both terms may refer to beings that actually exist, how can this dispute be adjudicated? Won’t they be talking at cross-purposes? Given his stated allegiance to Popper, he should have simply stopped at the clause before the comma, i.e., let Rand define her terms anyway she wants, and see what happens from there. But his proviso seems to make communication quite beside the point. Let’s move on to chapter one which contains Nyquist’s critique of Rand’s theory of human nature.

Nyquist begins be chiding Rand for not including philosophical anthropology as one of the major branches of philosophy. He then goes on to recall a distinction which he had introduced in the preface between two “conceptions of human nature: the utopian and the naturalistic.” (2) He then lists the following characteristics of the utopian. “The utopian blames evil, not on man, but on environmental factors, such as unjust social conditions, abusive parents, or an improper or pernicious education.” (2) He then goes on to characterize Rand as “utopian to the core.” (3) But anyone familiar with Rand’s writings know that she blames man for the evil he commits. She regarded all forms of determinism as anti-Objectivist. Where Nyquist got this notion I cannot say. He then concludes the section by saying that “Rand believed that by changing man’s ideas she could . . . change man’s nature.” (3) But she constantly tells us that we cannot change the fact that we are volitionally rational beings. (See the reference to Atlas Shrugged below.)

On p. 9 he accuses Rand of committing the fallacy of difference. He claims that this fallacy occurs when one regards “only the qualities that differentiate a species from a genus [are] essential qualities. . . “ But this is simply wrong. We don’t try to differentiate a species from a genus, but from other species in a genus. What would it mean to differentiate man from animal? Man IS an animal.

He does make a good point on p.10 when he tells us Rand’s statement that “everything we do and are proceeds from the mind” is a bit over the top. It leads to contradictory sounding statements about man such as “he must create himself.” Nyquiest rightly asks, “how is it possible for an entity to create itself?”

Here I would like to make a general statement about the whole book. Nyquist often refers to Rand’s Journals or Letters as the sole basis for a given argument. I suppose he feels that anything she ever wrote is fair game. I tend to favor weighting the published writings more heavily than stuff she herself never saw fits to print. I didn’t like it when Heidegger in his Nietzsche, focused on Nietzsche’s The Will to Power, a collection of unpublished notes, while virtually ignoring his published writings. Notice, I’m not against using unpublished material, but I think one should make it a point to inform the reader that one is using unpublished material and downgrade their importance. This may, of course, be just a personal preference.

Let us consider one last topic from chapter one; free will. He claims that regarding man’s primary choice as a first cause is tantamount to a collapse into the miraculous. (19) Now one can hardly discuss free will in all of its ramifications in a book review, but I would point out that the Objectivist position is very close to that of Karl Popper, one of Nyquist’s heroes. When he writes that “under such a view, human behavior becomes inexplicable and unpredictable” I could not help recalling Popper saying precisely that vis-à-vis a Mozart symphony. Popper challenges anyone to try to predict the g minor symphony from antecedent causes. But if you can’t do that, Popper concludes that there is novelty in the world and much of what Mozart did was unpredictable, albeit not inexplicable.

He is also wrong when he writes, “Human beings are free, she declares, to adopt any sort of nature they please.” (45) Whereas what she said was “you are not free to escape from your nature.”

(Atlas Shrugged 939) His assertion that we are free to adopt any nature we please simply does not have any basis in Rand’s writings.

He then closes the chapter with the following: “Rand’s ideal society is nothing more than the puerile fabrication of a mind that has lost all connection with reality.” (47)

Chapter two examines the Objectivist theory of history. “According to this theory, the course of history is primarily determined by one major factor: philosophy. (49) Nyquist disagrees with this claim.

On p. 59 he makes the following point against Rand. “If it is really true that in ‘any historical period when me were free, it has always been the most rational philosophy which has won,’ how is it that Kant’s philosophy, which, as Rand puts it, ‘closed the door of philosophy to reason,’ ended up winning the battle of ideas during the very period of history (i.e., the Nineteenth Century) which Rand considered to the freest?

Objectivist Epistemology is the topic of Chapter three. I would agree with Nyquist that the theory should be called a “theory of concept formation, because that is the primary focus of the theory.”

In this chapter and throughout the book, Nyquist accuses Rand of being “vague” and “indefinite”. But I think he goes to far when he confounds semantics with syntax or form. Consider the following from p. 150. The “great advantage of indefinite terms is that you can use them to prove anything you like.” But this is simply false. Let us see why. He uses the variable X to stand for an indefinite term, and then he constructs the following syllogism.

Reason = X

X = B

Therefore, Reason = B.

He then concludes, “As long as X remains indefinite, we can use this syllogism to prove that reason is just about anything we please.” (151) But consider the following syllogism:

Reason = X

B = X

Therefore, Reason = B

Here we have not proven that Reason = B since we have failed to distribute our middle term, X, this despite the fact the X is just as indefinite in this syllogism as it was in the first. The difference between the first valid syllogism and the second invalid one is not the definiteness or indefiniteness of the term X, but rather the form of the syllogism. As everyone of my first year logic students know, AAA-1 is valid; AAA-2 is not. Indefiniteness is irrelevant to the validity of an argument.

But what would he have Rand do if not use logic. His reply is she should back up her “claim that reason = B with scientifically validated evidence” and this would settle the matter “once and for all.” (150) Two points about this. First he seems to be telling Rand what she ought to do; i.e., she ought to present scientific evidence. But this will not do if we are to believe Nyquist who a mere five pages later tells us, “The term ought is not compatible with the rigors of scientific thought.” So, ought we be scientific or not?

Second, he cannot, as a good Popperian be serious about positive evidence being the end of the matter, even and especially scientific matter. If one claims that all swans are white and produces a white swan, or a 1,000 white swans, as evidence for his claim, is that the end of the matter? Popper built a career on the importance of falsifiability. Has Nyquist forgotten this fact?

Nyguist closes chapter three with an examination of Rand’s position on certainty. On p. 103 he writes, “[o]ne of Rand’s most outrageous claims” is “that certainly is possible.” I take this to mean that certainty is not possible. Imagine my surprise when on p. 172 he tells us that certainty is possible after all. Here are his words: “the only time we can be certain about a theory is when we have discovered evidence refuting it.” But is theory testing the only time we can be certain?. How about sentence refutations? If I claim that there is a naked woman in my bedroom and upon entering the bedroom I find no naked women about, am I not only certain that there are no naked women in my bedroom, but also that my senses did not deceive me, and that I remember what women look like so that I don’t confuse them with aardvarks, etc. If he answers yes to these questions then we seem to have a proliferation of certainties when just a few pages ago we were told how “outrageous” is the claim that certainty is possible.

In defense of Nyquist, I do think that Rand is really a radical here. Her notion of certainty is one that challenges the usual definition of knowledge as “justified true belief,” a notion that probably goes back to Plato. This definition insists that in order to know P, P must be true. Rand, for better or worse, sees this as a variant of intrinsicism and rejects it. Therefore, and Nyquist is quite right about this, you can know P, yet P may be false. But this should not bother a man who claims he will let Rand define her terms anyway she chooses.

After exposing Rand’s concept of “contextual certainty” he asks what is the value of such a definition of certainty. To concretize this problem, Nyquist asks Would a skydiver “give a fig” if you told him that you, the parachute packer, were “contextually certain” his chute would open? He thinks not. He thinks that what the skydiver wants is a “guarantee that the parachute will open.” (177 italics added) To focus on the word “guarantee” is to highlight and get at Rand’s point, that there are no epistemic guarantees in life. God could guarantee that the chute will open if there was one, but alas, there is not. This is why Rand thinks such a quest smacks of intrinsicism. Since she is an Objectivist, this move is not open to her.

But let’s press this issue. What good is contextual certainty? Nyquist sees no value in it at all. But I would suggest that if I’m the skydiver, there is a difference between a chute that has been conscientiously packed, and one that has been shoddily packed. If I ask my packer, Are you certain the chute will open? and he says, “what are you asking me for, I was drunk when I packed it,” I would be worried. On the other hand, if he says, “I checked it twice and so did my boss” and I know that he is telling the truth, that is about the best I can hope for. And surely there is a life and death difference between the two packers. Someone who does the best that is humanly possible is to be preferred to someone who doesn’t “give a fig.” This is the value of contextual certainty. It’s the only certainty about the empirical that we humans can get. Descartes’ dream is precisely that, a dream.

If one has any doubt as to how positivistic Nyquist is, one has only to read the opening paragraphs of chapter four on the theory of metaphysics. I felt like I was back in the middle of the last century during the heyday of logical positivism. He writes, “there is no word in the language that I detest more that the term metaphysics.” (180) And just like the positivists of old, he commits the same self-referential fallacies, i.e., he does metaphysics. For example, on p. 183 he writes, “According to my philosophy [metaphysics!?] facts come first.” If this doesn’t remind you of the opening of Wittgenstein’s Tractatus, the most beloved book of the Vienna Circle, then you don’t know much about 20th century philosophy. For readers who enjoy self-referential fallacies, I highly recommend this chapter.

But what about Objectivist metaphysics? In this chapter, unlike the earlier ones, Nyquist seems to have ignored parts of the Objectivist corpus. This is particularly obvious in his examination of the concept of self-evidence. First he tells us that the concept is “scandalously vague” but since he then waives that objection, I shall also. Then, instead of doing what he said he was going to do on p. xxix and letting Rand define her own terms, he ignores her and writes, “if it has any meaning at all, [self-evidence] must refer only to those things which the self has first-hand experience of.” (192) Contrast that with what Rand says about the self-evident, to wit; it “defeats its opponents by the fact that they have to accept it and use it in order to deny it.” (Atlas Shrugged 965) The self-evident cannot be denied or escaped. This is not original with Rand and goes back to Aristotle’s Metaphysics, but it is the meaning she uses. Rather than do what he said he was going to do and let Rand define her own terms, he ignores her explications, imputes his own meanings to her and then bashes his own poorly constructed straw man.

In his attack on Rand’s view of causality as the application of identity to the action of entities, he retorts, “If you want to know whether causality is valid, study the empirical word of facts. Only by observing the facts can you know what they are.” (195 italics added) He equates “observation” with “knowledge,” a bit of empiricism that is both bad Rand and bad Popper. Rand would point out that most of human knowledge is conceptual and that you can’t get it simply by “observing.” That observation is a necessary but not sufficient condition for conceptual knowledge.

Popper would be even more vituperative in remonstrating Nyquist about his replacing the divine God with the divine senses. For Popper, observation in not divine--everything is subject to refutation.

But even if observation were divine, and we tried to take Nyquist’s advice on p. 195 to simply observe the facts, by the time we get to p. 201 he tells us that all we “directly perceive” are “images and feelings--and image and feeling do not constitute knowledge of the real world.” “When I turn and look at the tree outside my window, what is fundamentally given and directly perceived by the mind is not the tree existing in time and space, but only an image of the tree which my mind, in its poetic fancy, has painted across the canvas of my consciousness.” Is this not a reductio of Nyquist’s position?

He ends the metaphysics chapter in a rather curious way. After spending pages telling us how vague and vacuous are the axioms of Objectivism, he quotes approvingly Santayana who writes “the world meantime is just as it is, has been what is has been, and will be what it will be.” (203) True. But how is that different from the axiom of identity? But maybe I’m just one of “those uncritical persons who are most taken in by such piffle” as the “vacuous axiom of identity.” (204)

In chapter five he turns to her theory of morality and degenerates into silliness. To appreciate how silly, consider the following:

Her thesis is that life is the ultimate value. She tries to prove this by arguing that the concept value is “genetically dependent” on the concept life. But what on earth can this mean? [is he ignorant of the stolen concept fallacy?] Does Rand believe that concepts copulate with one another and engender offspring? If so, then Rand is guilty of committing one of the cardinal fallacies of philosophical ratiocination: she has reified her concepts into sexual entities. (212)

Any good dictionary would have helped Nyquist here. The biological meaning of “genetic” is not the only meaning, nor even the first, listed in either the OED or Webster’s 3rd New International. What is he up to? Maybe he was just trying to be funny. But once he gets us laughing at silly counterarguments, will we not have a hard time taking him seriously.

Nevertheless I will try. Perhaps the best set of criticisms in the ethics chapter has to do with the virtue of honesty. Section (7) is titled “Honesty is the best policy” and runs from p. 258 to 265. The target in the entire section, however, is not Rand but Peikoff, who for some obscure reason Nyquist randomly calls “Leonard Peikoff,” “Peikoff” and “Mr. Peikoff,” the latter in ignorance of the fact the Peikoff has a Ph. D.

First he attacks Peikoff for saying that there is an incompatibility between dishonesty and survival by pointing out that this seems to be contradicted by the fact that “many dishonest individuals . . . have lived long and prosperous lives, . . .” (258)

Next he points out that contrary to Peikoff’s assertion that the dishonest man “wages war with reality,” the con man usually “has a better grasp of the facts of reality that the honest fool whom he cheats and bamboozles.” (259)

Finally consider what Nyquist says in response to Peikoff’s suggestion “that dishonesty is bad when it is used to ‘obtain’ a value, but justified when it is used to ‘protect’ one’s values from criminals.” (263) He asks us to suppose, “that an individual uses dishonest means to obtain a burglar alarm system for his home. Why would dishonesty in this situation necessarily be wrong?”

Chapter six is a sustained attack on Rand’s theory of politics. Nyquist is simply not willing to consider that in addition to descriptive political theory, there exists normative political theory. Most of what he says in this chapter is vitiated by his unwillingness to even consider the validity of the latter. Surely it is one thing to describe the politically sanctioned practice of clitorectomy, another to prescribe this as a great way to raise one’s daughter. Here again his positivism seems to blur his vision.

Given this, he endeavors to “avoid any concern with what ought to be, preoccupying myself entirely with what is.” (274) This causes him to totally misunderstand the logic of the social sciences vs. the natural sciences. All social sciences are like the natural sciences in their descriptive parts--after Kepler discovered the ellipticial orbits of the planets he did not have to agonize over whether they ought to go round in circles.

But in the social sciences we do have more work to do after the descriptions are in. By their very nature, as the postulations of ideals, one cannot expect them to be actual. This means that they will deviate in part or in whole from what is the case. Given this, laissez-faire capitalism is more of a goal to be aim at than anything that may actually be. This makes possible criticism of the status quo. If Rand is right and the 19th century approached nearer to this ideal that, say, the 20th or 10th centuries, then good for the 19th century and bad for the other two.

But the chapter is not a total disaster. He does refer to historians who seem to refute Rand’s rose-colored picture of men like Vanderbilt and J. J. Hill. If this causes Objectivists to check their history as well as their premises, then so much the better. And I say this no matter who turns out to be right.

Next we come to aesthetics. This short chapter (329-344) is divided into three sections: (1) Sense of life; (2) Rand the philistine; (3) conclusion. He spends three pages on “sense of life,” a concept Rand explored in two essays in The Romantic Manifesto. But he spends nine pages on “Rand the philistine!” This space allotment should come as no surprise from a man who tells us in the Introduction that his “fiercest antagonism towards Rand is inspired by her views on aesthetics. None of Rand’s views on human nature, epistemology, history, ethics, or politics bothers me [as much as her] shallow, uninformed, uncultivated, arrogant and thoroughly appalling” views on art. (xxvii-xxviii) He then concludes, “Rand’s aesthetics is merely a rationalization of her own idiosyncratic tastes.” (343)

In chapter eight we get his “Final thoughts.” I will allow him to have the last word. “No one who is well educated in these matters and is endowed with the ability to think critically can ever regard Objectivism as anything but a mistake.” (367)

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I don't really have the time now for an extensive discussion (I've spent already far too much time on RoR, but sometimes I can't keep my mouth shut!), so I'll give now only a few comments. I just want to state that I found Nyquist's book excellent, and that he makes a lot of good points that should be of concern to Objectivists. BTW Fred, did you edit this article? I seem to remember some points I wanted to address that have disappeared.

Nyquist begins be chiding Rand for not including philosophical anthropology as one of the major branches of philosophy. He then goes on to recall a distinction which he had introduced in the preface between two “conceptions of human nature: the utopian and the naturalistic.” (2) He then lists the following characteristics of the utopian. “The utopian blames evil, not on man, but on environmental factors, such as unjust social conditions, abusive parents, or an improper or pernicious education.” (2) He then goes on to characterize Rand as “utopian to the core.” (3) But anyone familiar with Rand’s writings know that she blames man for the evil he commits. She regarded all forms of determinism as anti-Objectivist. Where Nyquist got this notion I cannot say. He then concludes the section by saying that “Rand believed that by changing man’s ideas she could . . . change man’s nature.” (3) But she constantly tells us that we cannot change the fact that we are volitionally rational beings. (See the reference to Atlas Shrugged below.)

It does seem a bit confusing, but I think Nyquist's core argument is: utopians ignore man's nature and so does Rand. The confusion arises while he mentions the usual arguments of utopians (environmental factors etc.), while Rand thinks she can change the nature of man by changing his ideas, so she also ignores the nature of man, but in a different way than most utopians. After all the definition of an utopian is: someone who proposes ideal schemes that can't realized in practice. With that meaning in mind, his argument does make sense, even if it is formulated in a somewhat confusing way.

But what would he have Rand do if not use logic. His reply is she should back up her “claim that reason = B with scientifically validated evidence” and this would settle the matter “once and for all.” (150) Two points about this. First he seems to be telling Rand what she ought to do; i.e., she ought to present scientific evidence. But this will not do if we are to believe Nyquist who a mere five pages later tells us, “The term ought is not compatible with the rigors of scientific thought.” So, ought we be scientific or not?

I think this criticism is not valid. What Nyquist says is that a term like "ought" doesn't belong in scientific reasoning (the example he gives is that we don't say 'Sodium chloride in solution ought to precipitate silver nitrate', it does or it doesn't, that is what you can test, you can't test an 'ought'). But when he says that Rand should backup her claims with scientifically validated evidence, he merely says that this would be a good thing to do if she wants to convince us that she's right. Such a statement has no scientific pretense, it is not about some objective test about the physical world, so there is no contradiction. Nyquist nowhere says that you ought never use "ought", only that it has no place in a scientific argument.

Second, he cannot, as a good Popperian be serious about positive evidence being the end of the matter, even and especially scientific matter. If one claims that all swans are white and produces a white swan, or a 1,000 white swans, as evidence for his claim, is that the end of the matter? Popper built a career on the importance of falsifiability. Has Nyquist forgotten this fact?

I think this is also semantic hair splitting. When Nyquist states that it "this would settle the matter once and for all", he obviously doesn't mean literally that it then would be some eternal truth, he just means that it would be clear whether she presents valid evidence or not. When a scientist says that a certain experiment settles some point he'll not add that this might one day be falsified. Such a possibility is always there, but we don't have therefore to hedge every statement with a disclaimer that it might in principle be falsified.

If I claim that there is a naked woman in my bedroom and upon entering the bedroom I find no naked women about, am I not only certain that there are no naked women in my bedroom, but also that my senses did not deceive me, and that I remember what women look like so that I don’t confuse them with aardvarks, etc.

But how do you know that you're not hallucinating? Sure, it's a highly unlikely hypothesis, but that doesn't make it impossible. Even Rand was once convinced she saw a tree that was merely the reflection of an IV pole.

Any good dictionary would have helped Nyquist here. The biological meaning of “genetic” is not the only meaning, nor even the first, listed in either the OED or Webster’s 3rd New International. What is he up to? Maybe he was just trying to be funny. But once he gets us laughing at silly counterarguments, will we not have a hard time taking him seriously.

I think it is in fact a bit of a joke, as he continues with a discussion of what Rand really means.

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Dragonfly,

Thanks for reading and responding to my review. Let me respond briefly as follows.

1. I don’t recall making any cuts from the body of the review.

2. “After all the definition of an utopian is: someone who proposes ideal schemes that can't realized in practice. With that meaning in mind, his argument does make sense, even if it is formulated in a somewhat confusing way.”

That may be your definition of “utopian” but it is not Nyquist. He gives the definition I quote, “The utopian blames evil, not on man, but on environmental factors, such as unjust social conditions, abusive parents, or an improper or pernicious education.” Sure my argument will misfire if you change the definition of the words both Nyquist and I use.

3. On positive evidence settling the matter once and for all you write,

“I think this is also semantic hair splitting. When Nyquist states that it ‘this would settle the matter once and for all’, he obviously doesn't mean literally that it then would be some eternal truth, he just means that it would be clear whether she presents valid evidence or not.”

Not on my reading. In the sentence before the one you quote the point to be established is “reason=B” not that Rand had presented “scientifically validated evidence.” But even if we read it your way, that still leaves Nyquist with the claim that positive evidence can settle something once and for all. Your dysphemism “eternal truth” is misleading, because in Popper, negative evidence CAN establish something once and for all, to wit, the falsity of a claim.

4. About whether this is a naked woman in my bedroom, you ask

“But how do you know that you're not hallucinating?”

Allow me the standard and very old (I first heard it in 1966) Objectivist 101 reply, “What evidence do you have for making that statement?”

5, On the “stolen concept fallacy” you write,

“I think it is in fact a bit of a joke, as he continues with a discussion of what Rand really means.”

I think my real criticism here was in the form of a rhetorical question, to wit, “Is he ignorant of the stolen concept fallacy?” It is covered in Atlas, a book he lists in his bibliography. But tell you want. I so appreciate you post that I think I should give you something. You may be correct. Perhaps he was telling a joke. I even suggested that “Maybe he was trying to be funny.” And surely the line “Rand is guilty of committing one of the cardinal fallacies of philosophical ratiocination: she has reified her concepts into sexual entities.” (212)

On that laugh I’ll say “Goodnight Gracie” even though I’m no George Burns.

Fred

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1. I don’t recall making any cuts from the body of the review.

Well, for example I seem to remember there was first a reference to Torres and Kamhi. Or did I have a hallucination?

That may be your definition of “utopian” but it is not Nyquist. He gives the definition I quote, “The utopian blames evil, not on man, but on environmental factors, such as unjust social conditions, abusive parents, or an improper or pernicious education.” Sure my argument will misfire if you change the definition of the words both Nyquist and I use.

But that's obviously not a definition! It is a description of what utopians in general do. I might perhaps been better if he'd said "most utopians" or something similar, but there in my opinion no doubt that he has the usual definition of "utopian" in mind, like the one I mentioned and which is confirmed by all the dictionaries I've checked. In fact he refers in the same paragraph to the introduction of the book, and what do we read there? At the other extreme is the utopian view of human nature which holds that the possibilities for man's moral and spiritual progress are much greater than the historical record would lead us to believe, and that human nature can be regenerated either by changing social conditions or converting men to a more enlightened point of view.

Not on my reading. In the sentence before the one you quote the point to be established is “reason=B” not that Rand had presented “scientifically validated evidence.” But even if we read it your way, that still leaves Nyquist with the claim that positive evidence can settle something once and for all. Your dysphemism “eternal truth” is misleading, because in Popper, negative evidence CAN establish something once and for all, to wit, the falsity of a claim.

I think this an example of what you call "logic chopping", you take some common figure of speech and analyse it as if it is some philosophical statement which should be taken literally, he obviously means only: 'in that case she would have made a statement that is based on valid scientific evidence which we can take seriously (and not some vague assertion without any evidence)'.

“But how do you know that you're not hallucinating?”  

Allow me the standard and very old (I first heard it in 1966) Objectivist 101 reply, “What evidence do you have for making that statement?”

It may be a standard reply, but that doesn't make it a good reply... The point is not whether I have evidence that you have a hallucination, but whether the possibility exists that you have a hallucination. There is enough evidence that people can have hallucinations, and while the probability in any particular instance may be very low, it is not zero, so you have no certainty (unless you mean "certainty" in the everyday sense of something that is extremely likely, but as long as we're chopping logic...)

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Dragonfly,

1. I check the original in JARS and there is an in passing reference to Torres and Kamhi. It reads, “I would send the interested reader to Torres and Kamhi’s WHAT ART IS (2001), . . .”

2. “But that's obviously not a definition!” [of “utopian”]

Well, that seems to be Nyquist’s problem, not mine. He doesn’t give your definition. I responded to what he wrote, not to what you think he should have written. How could I have done otherwise? And your reference to the Introduction is no help. The point I was making was to deny to Rand what he says is characteristic of all utopians, to wit, “the utopian blames evil, not on man, but on environmental circumstances.” The question for me, but maybe not for you, was, is that true of Rand. I claim it is not.

3. “you take some common figure of speech and analyse it as if it is some philosophical statement which should be taken literally”

You must remember that this man is a Popperian positivist. For him, “valid scientific evidence” is not and he doesn’t mean it as “some common figure of speech.”

4. “It may be a standard reply, but that doesn't make it a good reply... The point is not whether I have evidence that you have a hallucination, but whether the possibility exists that you have a hallucination.”

I think it is a good reply. It recognizes that fact that I don’t have to respond to arbitrary assertions for which you admit that you don’t have any evidence. The question is not “are hallucinations possible?”

The question is ““But how do you know that YOU’RE not hallucinating?” It is that statement that is arbitrary and for which you admit not having any evidence. Not only that, it sounds more like an ad hominem than a serious question and invites the obvious tu quoque, “How do you know you not a moron?” There is enough evidence that people can are morons, and while the probability in any particular instance may be very low, it is not zero, so you have no certainty (unless you mean "certainty" in the everyday sense of something that is extremely likely, but as long as we're chopping logic...)

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Fred:

1. I check the original in JARS and there is an in passing reference to Torres and Kamhi. It reads, “I would send the interested reader to Torres and Kamhi’s WHAT ART IS (2001), . . .”

Well, I haven't read the original in JARS, only the version on this site, so either you removed that passage later here and have no memory of it, or I have been hallucinating clairvoyantly...

About the other points: I discern a common error in your argumentation on different points, namely that you take some small piece of text and microanalyze it, completely disregarding the context, making it into a straw man argument:

Well, that seems to be Nyquist’s problem, not mine. He doesn’t give your definition. I responded to what he wrote, not to what you think he should have written. How could I have done otherwise? And your reference to the Introduction is no help. The point I was making was to deny to Rand what he says is characteristic of all utopians, to wit, “the utopian blames evil, not on man, but on environmental circumstances.” The question for me, but maybe not for you, was, is that true of Rand. I claim it is not.

Nyquist gives a definition in the introduction which is a fleshed out version of my defition or the definition in the dictionaries, including the two variants: 1. the leftists who think they can achieve their goal by changing social conditions, 2. people like Rand who think that they can convert people to a more enlightened view. In the very same paragraph that you quote Nyquist refers to that passage in the introduction, so there is no need to repeat this definition there. The only thing you can blame him for is that he writes "the utopian" while he only means the utopian version 1, which may be confusing, but it's hardly a major error. It's only by focusing on that one sentence, deliberately ignoring the context, that you can make it into some major logical error, while Rand does no such thing as he describes there. Even before I reread the introduction it was quite clear to me what he meant however, and when I reread that passage in the introduction my interpretation was clearly vindicated.

You must remember that this man is a Popperian positivist. For him, “valid scientific evidence” is not and he doesn’t mean it as “some common figure of speech.”

I don't know if he is a Popperian positivist, I remember only a short passage in the introduction about Popper about obtaining theoretical knowledge about the empirical world with which I completely agree (and probably the large majority of scientists). Nevertheless I don't see any problem in stating that there is valid scientific evidence for something (and few scientists would have a problem with that), because to us it's obvious what it means and no one will object: no! it's only a hypothesis which can only be falsified but never proved! We prefer efficient language, not Philosophically Correct language, as long as it's clear what is meant. It's like saying: it's certain that he'll come. A logic chopper would probably object that you can't be certain, because he can have an accident, a heart attack etc. It would be tiring if you'd have to qualify every statement you make that way, as long as it's clear to every normal person what's meant.

I think it is a good reply. It recognizes that fact that I don’t have to respond to arbitrary assertions for which you admit that you don’t have any evidence. The question is not “are hallucinations possible?”

The question is ““But how do you know that YOU’RE not hallucinating?” It is that statement that is arbitrary and for which you admit not having any evidence.

Well, this is a perfect example of taking a phrase out of context. First a minor point: if you want to use emphasis, then my question was not: “But how do you know that YOU’RE not hallucinating?”, but: “But how do you know that you're not HALLUCINATING?”, which is clear from the context. This context is that you came up with an example to show the possibility of certainty, namely that you can be sure that if you see no naked women in your bedroom that there are no naked women in your bedroom. I could have formulated my objection like this: you can't be sure, as there is always the possibility (even if it's highly unlikely) that you're hallucinating. Instead I chose for a formulation with a rhethorical question: how do you know that you're not hallucinating? You then jump on that single question, asking me to provide evidence that you're hallucinating. This is of course completely beside the point, as I'm not claiming that you're hallucinating (in an imaginary example?), but only pointing out that you're neglecting a possible different explanation, which would rule out certainty, and that is what the whole argument was about (and not about "arbitrary assertions for which I have no evidence"). I really wonder why you're doing this. My English may not be perfect, but if I reread my post it seems quite clear what I meant. Perhaps other readers want to comment on it? I find it quite frustrating when I try to formulate my argument accurately and nevertheless see that it's completely misunderstood and even interpreted as an ad hominem attack.

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Dragonfly,

1. You’re still missing my point, which is quite a simple one. Nyquist claims that utopians blame the environment rather than the individual for the evil that exists. I claim that Rand doesn’t do that. Do you have anything to say about my actual claim?

2. “I don't know if he is a Popperian positivist.” In addition to many statements throughout the book, see pp xx.

3. “I could have formulated my objection like this: you can't be sure, as there is always the possibility (even if it's highly unlikely) that you're hallucinating.” Well, I’m unimpressed. I simply what to know what makes you say such a thing the my context, ordinary everyday experience of women, naked or not. If you point to my recent drug use, lose of 10 family members which caused major depression, then I might listen. But just because you refer to the possibility of hallucinations in general doesn’t provide evidence in any particular case.

And don’t lose my point in this whole thing if you don’t want to be accused of dropping the context. I was making the point that given Nyquist’s Popperian position that “the only time was can be CERTAIN about a theory is when we have discovered evidence refuting it.” (172 in his book, emphasis mine) I then make two points, one about sentence refutations and two about the implications of sentence refutations. Get it. It’s Nyquist that would claim we can be CERTAIN about the naked woman in my bedroom. This parallels Popper’s claim that just one black swan give us a CERTAIN refutation of the sentence that all swans are white.

Fred

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1. You’re still missing my point, which is quite a simple one. Nyquist claims that utopians blame the environment rather than the individual for the evil that exists. I claim that Rand doesn’t do that. Do you have anything to say about my actual claim?

I've answered that already several times: the only error Nyquist makes is that he writes "the utopian" while he there obviously means utopian of the first kind in the definition he gives in the introduction: ...either by changing social conditions or [by] converting men to a more enlightened point of view. The second kind obviously refers to Rand's ideas. You keep ignoring this fact, and also the fact that he does refer to this definition in the same paragraph. Instead you isolate this single sentence which is not quite correctly formulated and stick to a literal interpretation to "prove" your point, deliberately ignoring the context which unequivocally shows that he means "some utopians" (namely those of the first half of his definition) and not "all utopians" in that sentence.

2. “I don't know if he is a Popperian positivist.” In addition to many statements throughout the book, see pp xx.

Well, that is exactly the passage I referred to in my previous post and with which I fully agree, as will most scientists. I don't know if that makes one a "Popperian positivist" anymore than agreement with for example Rand's politico-economic views makes one an Objectivist. I'm very wary of such easy labels, they're in general more obfuscating than enlightening.

I simply what to know what makes you say such a thing the my context, ordinary everyday experience of women, naked or not. If you point to my recent drug use, lose of 10 family members which caused major depression, then I might listen. But just because you refer to the possibility of hallucinations in general doesn’t provide evidence in any particular case.

And where did I claim that you were hallucinating? I only pointed out that such a thing is not impossible, even if it's extremly unlikely. It's therefore meaningless to ask what my evidence is for that question, the point of which was only to show that even cases which seem to be completely certain may not be so.

And don’t lose my point in this whole thing if you don’t want to be accused of dropping the context. I was making the point that given Nyquist’s Popperian position that “the only time was can be CERTAIN about a theory is when we have discovered evidence refuting it.” (172 in his book, emphasis mine) I then make two points, one about sentence refutations and two about the implications of sentence refutations. Get it.

Dropping the context? The context is that Nyquist is not talking about sentence refutations, but about certainty of theories and the "problem" of induction. As usual you concentrate on one single sentence taken out of context: "[o]ne of Rand’s most outrageous claims” is “that certainly is possible.” trying to convey.

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Dragonfly,

You wrote, “Nyquist is not talking about sentence refutations,” It’s hard to tell if you’re dropping, ignoring or misremembering the context but I Never said or accused Nyquist of talking about sentence refutations. That was my point; a point against his claim that the ONLY time you can be certain is when you have a refutation of a theory.

So maybe we finally found something to agree upon, “Nyquist is not talking about sentence refutations.” If that is one of your points, then I agree. He’s not. But of course I was.

Let me stop here with this tiny little point to see if we agree.

Fred

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  • 1 month later...
The trouble is that all the relevant evidence suggests that absolute certainty, at least in regard to theoretical knowledge, is not in fact possible,

wow, that's some suggestion. he doesn't seem uncertain about it...lol!

i, for one, am certain i spy a logical self contradiction in it...

of course, there is absolutely no such thing as an absolute...

and logically, therefore, there must be no such thing as logic...

and that's how we prove that there's no such thing as proof!

voila!

limerick time!

nothing can be absolute.

so there's nothing that i can't refute

i can leap any hurdle

if i tighten my goedel

and spit out the biblical fruit.

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tndbay

I would like to point out an equivocation in your reply. You wrote that "there is absolutely no such thing as an absolute..." whereas I wrote that there is no absolutely certain "theoretical" knowledge--A much smaller domain. There may very well be absolutes in other areas (I would of course need your definition of "absolute") even if there were no absolutes in the area of theoretical knowledge.

Fred

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*The trouble is that all the relevant evidence suggests that absolute certainty, at least in regard to

theoretical knowledge, is not in fact possible,*

This is the part that stands out for me. I don’t see that as a suggestion of absolute knowledge of certainty. It’s more about the empirical evidence of certainty. This maintains a relative stance on the nature of an absolute reality.

Paul

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hi

i really do get the 'sense' that resides in the statement. you should hear me go on about how it is really Natural Rejection, not natural Selection that runs evolution, or how it's the forgettery that weeds out contradictions before they get installed in long term memory.

having been breast fed on objectivism, a habit of logical inference is quite second nature and i have room to be silly.

there is also a context where the statement is false. that context is the realm of theoretical proofs. that makes it self contradictory and funny.

according to the statement they must all be uncertain.

i am absolutely certain that A=A because of the law of identity.

i am absolutely certain 1+1=2, because of the number theory.

according to the rule of falsification, i need only show 1 example, right?

any position anybody holds that is theoretical and simultaneously presented as true must necessarily bear a disclaimer, according to the statement. this is not true. it requires a defined context, no more.

so, i'm lampooning that distinction, for if the context is left to the imagination of the reader, this is what happens- somebody who sees a contradiction will experience mirth and, if left unconstrained, may produce limericks for amusement.

lol- i won't excommunicate you if you don't excommunicate me! deal?

if all the relevant evidence suggests that nobody laughs, i will be uncertain whether to make jokes... here...and now.

pete

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  • 1 month later...

Fred,

I have been a long time in getting to this review of yours - too long. My apologies.

I want to go into an in depth discussion of this book later. On reading it (I am only about a third way through and stopped a while back from an interruption) I had the exact same problem you did:

It required a real effort to slow down and assess Nyquist’s logic and argumentation, especially in the face of his dripping sarcasm and repetitive name-calling.

Why do the good critics of Objectivism always do that? It seems like someone should write The Virtue of Obnoxiousness, or Obnoxiousness: The Unknown Ideal, or The Obnoxiousness Manifesto, or For the Obnoxious Intellectual. Dayaamm!

Back to Nyquist. It was because of his book that I decided to look at the philosophical categories. I mean, everybody always said there were five, right?

Ahem...

Well I had a real eye-opener. Try doing a Google search on philosophical categories. I did and I was astounded. Apparently Objectivism (and direct derivatives) is the only philosophy in the world and in history that breaks philosophy into the five branches of metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, politics and aesthetics. I don't believe this was arbitrary on Rand's part, but seeing as how this was her division, not anything she gleaned from anywhere else in human history, I certainly see that it is a premise worth some serious checking. You know, maybe she missed something and maybe her focus was so strongly on one slant that she simply did not deal with other aspects.

I also noticed that in her division, there were only four branches for years. You can clearly see this in her writings. Aesthetics was tacked on later.

Then I read David Kelley in The Contested Legacy of Ayn Rand. He gave a good summary of the fundamental principles of (pp 81-84), but then stated outright (p. 84):

But notice what I have left out. I omitted a number of points in epistemology, ethics, and politics. I omitted the entire field of aesthetics, just as Ayn Rand did in her summary. I haven't said anything about the role of philosophy in history, or the identification of Kant as an arch-villain.

I've omitted these things, not because I disagree with them, or because they are unimportant, but because they are not primary.

Well, you do see the four usually mentioned among others in a Google search.

My own view, admittedly influenced by Nyquist, is that a couple other branches should be added to the Objectivist divisions of philosophy: Human Nature, and History (specifically, Philosophy of History). I have argued this with people at times - but I usually come up against the attitude that five is all there is. Why? Well, because. That's why.

Apropos, I came across an extremely interesting item while researching for an article. Get a load of this from the ARI site: Essentials of Objectivism.

There you have Human Nature just as big and bold as all get out - right in between Epistemology and Ethics. Here is a direct quote, but leaving out most of the text for copyright reasons (you can read it at the linked page).

Metaphysics

(...)

Epistemology

(...)

Human Nature

Man is a rational being. Reason, as man's only means of knowledge, is his basic means of survival. But the exercise of reason depends on each individual's choice. "Man is a being of volitional consciousness." "That which you call your soul or spirit is your consciousness, and that which you call 'free will' is your mind's freedom to think or not, the only will you have, your only freedom. This is the choice that controls all the choices you make and determines your life and character."Thus Objectivism rejects any form of determinism, the belief that man is a victim of forces beyond his control (such as God, fate, upbringing, genes, or economic conditions).

Ethics

(...)

Politics

(...)

Esthetics

(...)

My own view of what human nature is does not agree with ARI's oversimplification, but the part that ARI gets right is right. (I also don't agree with the ham-handed "rejections" for the same reason - oversimplification.) In ITOE, Rand defined man as a "rational animal," with "rational" being the differentia and "animal" being the genus. The ARI blurb on Human Nature starts thus: "Man is a rational being." They left out the "animal" part, thus oversimplified. They used the differentia only as his nature.

They airbrushed the genus!!! :)

The important thing, though, is that the lack of a philosophical category for Human Nature was perceived even at the ARI level.

Dayaamm!

This is the orthodoxy!

History might not be too long in coming. (There is that little thing Rand wrote called For the New Intellectual...)

I intend to get back to this discussion of Nyquist's book over time. I hope to see you around.

btw - Congratulations on a magnificent review. I am pleased beyond words that it is getting a ton of views from people who are actually reading it (1,840 as of this post), which is a good supposition since there are not that many comments.

Michael

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It required a real effort to slow down and assess Nyquist’s logic and argumentation, especially in the face of his dripping sarcasm and repetitive name-calling.

Why do the good critics of Objectivism always do that? It seems like someone should write The Virtue of Obnoxiousness, or Obnoxiousness: The Unknown Ideal, or The Obnoxiousness Manifesto, or For the Obnoxious Intellectual. Dayaamm!

I think Objectivists hardly can reproach Nyquist for his sarcasm in view of Rand's own remarks about other philosophers, like calling (without any argument!) Emerson "a very little mind". At least Nyquist doesn't merely condemn but also gives extensive arguments why, while Rand is often merely sniping. What's sauce for the goose...

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- Congratulations on a magnificent review.

Michael, I beg to disagree, I think it is a rather poor review. In my previous posts I've criticized only a few of the points in the review so far, as I didn't have the time and the stamina to review the whole article. The general tendency in the article is selective hairsplitting about quotes taken out of context, often misrepresenting or deliberately misunderstanding Nyquist's argument, thereby suggesting that it is not coherent, or completely ignoring an important point Nyquist makes in that passage, and thus giving the reader a false impression of the book. Please check the whole review with the book itself, by looking up the quoted passages, then you'll see what I mean. Oh sure, Nyquist is granted a few minor points here and there, so that it seems that the review is fair, but the reader of the review who doesn't know Nyquist's book is not really made aware of the important and serious criticims of Objectivism that Nyquist makes, and that is in fact what makes it an important contribution to the literature about Objectivism. In my opinion a review that largely ignores these points is not a good review.

I have never read JARS, so I can't comment on the quality of this publication, but when I heard that this review did appear in JARS I didn't get a good impression of its editorial policy; I wonder if anyone there had checked the accuracy of this review.

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Michael,

You wrote,

"Congratulations on a magnificent review."

Dragonfly wrote,

"it is a rather poor review."

I agree with Michael and thank him. How's that for dispassion. Tee hee.

Fred

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Dragonfly,

I am very pleased to see Daniel Barnes do something that I think will go well with him. I wish him success. Many of the issues Nyquist raised will not go away just because they are normally ignored. Intelligent discussion will only make the issues clearer. I understand that Daniel's site will be negative towards Rand, but it will be intelligently negative, not gratuitous insults. I am sure that I can recommend a stop there once in a while and know that it will be a good thing for people who like to check their premises. I don't expect to agree much with Daniel, but he will make me think. That's a good thing.

I owe Daniel an apology for my previous atrocious behavior towards him on the old SoloHQ site when I was still in the thralls of the scorched earth mentality. We bickered quite a bit and things got really nasty at times. Toward the end, incredibly we started e-mailing each other. Cautious but cordial. We jokingly called it hell freezing over.

Daniel, if you ever read this, please accept my unconditional apology for my former nastiness toward you. It was uncalled for and I regret it. It will not happen again.

Michael

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  • 2 weeks later...

I find Nyquist's "analysis" wholly lacking in depth, if not hysteria, and full of straw men. There's so much here claimed as Ayn Rand's doctrine that she spoke against or said nothing about. I can't take this seriously. First must come study. If devotion does not follow, then studying something else is in order. "You can't cheat an honest man."

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