Roderick Fitts

What is Objectivism to You?

 Posted by on 15 July 2009 at 11:01 pm  Objectivism
Jul 152009
 

“What is Objectivism?” A couple of years ago, I asked this question shortly after reading The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged. Later, I would hear and read about future students of Objectivism asking the same question, and I often would assist them in finding the answer. For that question, Ayn Rand herself gave several answers of varying length and complexity, spanning from John Galt’s lengthy speech and a plethora of non-fiction essays, all the way down to single, concise sentences packed full of meaning.

My personal favorite of her answers is that Objectivism is “a philosophy for living on earth.” Honestly, the first time I read that sentence, I was simultaneously amazed and amused. Amazed, because I had never heard anyone advertise a set of ideas as being needed to live on Earth — that kind of thing was unheard of in my experience. Amused, because at the time I thought it was a silly thing to say or write down. (With the level of sarcasm-lovers in our postmodern society, I seriously doubt I was the only one who had that reaction to it.)

Of course, it’s not my favorite description of Objectivism because of my initial reaction to it — rather, it’s my favorite because as I learned more about it, amazingly enough, I started to believe that the sentence was true. By reading and talking about the philosophy over time, I became convinced that ideas and the subject of philosophy was important for everyone to learn about, and that Rand’s philosophy was the most important of all for people to recognize and consider. As I thought about the distasteful state of the world, and of the tenets of the philosophy, I came to personally believe that it was necessary in order to live in the world, almost as if my thinking were paying homage to her own.

As I start my third year as a student of Objectivism, I once again ask myself what Objectivism is. I think John Ridpath gave an interesting indirect answer, in the Q & A of his 1989 lecture “Religion Vs. Man”: “[Objectivism] is [a] really honest and serious attempt to understand the world and what the implications of all of our understanding are.” What he said is almost exactly how I would describe Objectivism now, and will probably do so for some time into the future.

And so now I ask: what is Objectivism to you?

Epiphenomenalist Nonsense

 Posted by on 4 September 2008 at 12:01 am  Philosophy
Sep 042008
 

The position in philosophy of mind known as “epiphenomenalism” is fallacious, even nonsensical, and thus should be rejected.

Introduction

The epiphenomenalists hold “that mental events are caused by physical events in the brain, but have no effects upon any physical events.” Their view is a mix of “property dualism” with “physicalism”. I’ll define “property dualism” as meaning “the position in which mental and physical properties exist, and that mental properties come into being from some physical substances (brains, for example).” And “physicalism” as “the position in which everything that exists is the result of the laws which are valid for the physical world.”

In their view, the aspects of our mind — our thoughts, knowledge, emotions, desires, feelings of pain, and volition, these things which we think influence and guide our physical actions and latter mental states — are only useless by-products of physical processes. The only things that are causally effective are physical processes and interactions. (See the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry and Wiktionary entry on Epiphenomenalism.)

This position results in a fundamental change in how we’re supposed to understand causal relationships. As I’m typing this sentence, it’s not because I’m trying to make a point, but exclusively because of neurons firing off and other brain processes. When one studies (studies?) for an exam, the activity is caused only by physical events in the brain: conceptual knowledge and the connections of logic are only illusions, according to the epiphenomenalist view.

Arguments for Epiphenomenalism

So what are the arguments and evidence in favor of this position, one might ask?

Strictly speaking, there are none. (While arguments have been offered which use the position to address problems in the philosophy of mind, such as the “No-Gap Argument,” I’m referring specifically to arguments which report observable facts and makes inferences accordingly. If I’m mistaken, please do point them out.)

From what I’ve gathered, epiphenomenalism is only a development from the “physicalist” position in the philosophy of mind. No positive evidence has ever been offered to establish the position’s validity. As Sven Walter notes in his entry on “Epiphenomenalism“:

Arguments in favor of a philosophical theory typically focus on its advantages compared to other theories–that it can explain more phenomena or that it provides a more economical or a more unifying explanation of the relevant phenomena. There are no arguments for epiphenomenalism in that sense.

Arguments against Epiphenomenalism

Regardless of this lack of argument, the position (1) commits the fallacy of “self-exclusion” and (2) is internally inconsistent.

(1) The epiphenomenalist claims, as knowledge, that brain events produce mental events, and that the latter are causally inefficacious–presumably, this also includes beliefs. In effect, he’s claiming that he’s previously witnessed the evidence and logically established that his viewpoint is true (i.e. that he believes he has knowledge). While at the same time, his position as an epiphenomenalist implies that his beliefs and observations have nothing to do with the fact that he’s now advocating that position, as such advocacy would be the exclusive result of brain events (recall that only physical processes are causally effective, on his view). By his own theory, he’s being made to believe and produce epiphenomenalist “word sounds” by brain activity, which make his claim to knowledge meaningless.

In a paper on an Objectivist perspective on psychology, Dr. Edwin Locke notes that determinists, as a result of their own theory, can’t even claim something along the lines of “I’m being made to emit these word sounds in favor of determinism” as objectively true knowledge, since their position eliminates all claims of knowledge. In the same vein, the epiphenomenalist position reduces all claims to meaninglessness.

In light of this, to continue to hold that the position of epiphenomenalism is genuine knowledge is to commit the “self-exclusion” fallacy. Epiphenomenalism commits the fallacy of “self-exclusion” because the position would invalidate itself (i.e. would be self-contradictory), unless it excludes itself from the scope of the its own claim; such a move is unwarranted, and thus fallacious, because the scope of the claim does include the epiphenomenalist’s doctrine.

Simply put, the epiphenomenalist position amounts to: “all claims are meaningless by-products of the brain–except for this one, which (somehow) is real knowledge.”

(2) Regarding epiphenomenalism’s internal inconsistency, I largely agree with the argument presented by Titus Rivas and Hein von Dongen in their paper “Exit Epiphenomenalism: A Demolition of a Refuge.” Here is my own formulation of the “logical inconsistency argument”:

(i) Epiphenomenalism is a form of dualism, which holds (roughly) that the mental and physical are ontologically distinct from each other (i.e. that physical things have properties different from mental things). The position thus has a concept of “mental,” “consciousness,” “thought,” and so forth.

(ii) Due to epiphenomenalism’s acceptance of dualism, and its own explicit position about mental events, its view is that the concepts of consciousness (or “mental things” or “mental units”; e.g. thoughts, volition) refer to actual parts of reality–specifically the epiphenomena of brain activity which are not reducible to such activity (thus leaving us with a non-reducible–yet causally impotent–mental existence).

(iii) The only way to establish that these concepts of mental units refer to something real is through introspection, i.e. by becoming aware of our own conscious experiences (i.e. mental units). This introspective evidence thus serves as the base for epiphenomenalism’s concepts of consciousness. Such introspection, however, is a causal effect by one’s consciousness on the concept-formation process when one attempts to form such concepts of consciousness.

(iv) Epiphenomenalism is thus logically inconsistent. It presupposes that there is a valid reason for accepting the existence of conscious experience (namely introspection), and yet its explicit position makes the ability to figure out anything about these experiences impossible; this is because introspection, according to the epiphenomenalist claim, would itself be a causally impotent by-product of brain processes, and thus useless.

Conclusion

Epiphenomenalism is incoherent, and thus untenable. Due to the contradictions which result from applying the position to its advocates’ claims to knowledge, or from checking what the position presupposes in comparison to what it advocates explicitly, epiphenomenalism should be judged as “nonsensical” and discarded for some other theory.

The Importance of the Subject

 Posted by on 13 July 2008 at 5:04 pm  Ethics, Objectivism
Jul 132008
 

The January 2008 issue of the journal Social Philosophy and Policy had numerous papers focusing on the “Objectivism, Subjectivism, and Relativism in Ethics.”[1] Among them was Objectivist philosopher Dr. Tara Smith’s “The Importance of the Subject in Objective Morality: Distinguishing Objective from Intrinsic Value.”

In this paper, Dr. Smith elaborates on philosopher Ayn Rand’s view that the individual (the “subject”) plays an important role in the generation and the instructions of an objective morality.

To appreciate what Dr. Smith is pointing out, consider the following examples:

(1) Tiger Woods and his accomplishments. Woods has deliberately sought a particular type of life as a professional golfer, and as we can all attest, has had an extraordinary amount of success in his efforts. He paid attention to facts relevant to his goal as a great golfer, such as the value of practicing his golf swing and buying effective golf equipment (or even changing his swing when it injures him).[2]

(2) John Allison, the chairman and CEO of BB&T bank. Allison drove towards a particular career, and, like Woods, is also very successful in his field, the banking industry. He identified certain business actions as practical, and engaged in them, including teaching his employees his personal value system, and funding courses and organizations in support of Capitalism.

These examples illustrate that seeking life makes certain actions, objects, and positions objective values or disvalues relative to certain facts of life’s requirements and to an individual’s goals and purposes. Not adequately practicing before an upcoming golf championship would be a disvalue for Woods, because it would decrease his chance of winning, possibly lessen his endorsements, and reduce his general ability as a golf player–which means: all things considered, it would be bad for his life. Increasing the economic value of BB&T’s products would be a value for Allison, by contrast, because it would likely increase his company’s success, increase shareholder value, and allow his company to buffer any future losses–meaning that it would be good for his life, fully considered. Objective values are needs that we should pursue because they are conducive to our lives, and they allow us to succeed at our chosen goal of living–this is Rand’s basic depiction of objective values.

Another element of the objectivity of values Smith points out is that it is relational: while things or practices can benefit us, such as a better golf swing in Woods’ case, they can only function as values if the person identifies them as beneficial–as worth the effort of gaining. This relational aspect of objective values highlights the crucial role that our free will plays. Certain biological facts make certain things beneficial and other things harmful regardless of our own thoughts and opinions towards them, but our thoughts do matter in regards to considering some benefits as “values,” because our conclusions will determine if we act towards what we believe to be values.

We need to seek beneficial objects to enhance our lives, and many of these beneficial things can only be gained by our deliberate choices and actions–meaning that in order to be successful, we must know how to choose and what to choose. In Smith’s (and Rand’s) view, this is precisely why we need morality. “A moral code,” Smith writes, “identifies the kinds of ends that a person should seek (values) and the kinds of actions that he should take to secure values (virtues).”[3]

This understanding of how the individual’s choice to live and his pursuit of identified beneficial things is (partly) what gives rise to objective values (and morality) is one of Smith’s points in the essay.

The other point highlighting how pivotal the individual is in an objective morality centers around the concept of “objectivity” itself.[4] In short, our thoughts and choices don’t automatically conform to reality, and so we discover that it is necessary to identify methods of thinking which take the facts into consideration (objective) and contrast them with methods which ignore or evade relevant facts (non-objective). For example, Woods changing his swing when it injured him is a professionally objective approach insofar as he paid attention to relevant facts (his physical condition, his previous golf approach, negative consequences of not changing his swing, etc.) in order to succeed in his goals.

The need to pursue values, coupled with the facts that we don’t automatically pursue them and don’t automatically know how to succeed, are the grounds for an objective morality–a morality that makes possible systematic guidance in determining if our actions conform to the facts and our goals, or if they don’t.

It is the deliberate choice to live, the identification of certain beneficial things which one should pursue (objective values), and an objective approach to one’s life-decisions that demonstrates the importance of the subject in an objective morality.

Before concluding, I’d like to point out one of the implications of this view of moral objectivity.[5] Namely, that Smith-Rand’s view of morality places its function solely in the advancement of one’s own life–it is egoistic.[6] This moral code is concerned with one’s self-interest and how to realistically accomplish it. As Smith notes:

The question that a person faces, in aspiring to moral objectivity, is not how to escape his vantage point, either literally or figuratively, but how to make his view conform with reality. What is the nature of this thing that I am considering? And what sort of impact is it most likely to exert on my life? These are the principal questions that a person must address.[7]

A very illuminating essay, which may be of particular interest to those who think of an “objective morality” as a set of duties to be fulfilled in total disregard to one’s interests.

References and Notes
[1] All of the essays in the January issue are available for free
viewing, and no registration required.

[2] The Truth About Tiger

[3] Tara Smith (2008). The Importance of the Subject in Objective Morality: Distinguishing Objective from Intrinsic Value. Social Philosophy and Policy, Cambridge University Press, 25: p. 132.

[4] For more on the concept of “objectivity,” the Ayn Rand Lexicon entry on objectivity.

[5] Another implication Smith points out in the paper is that Rand’s view of moral objectivity rejects a single list of values, identical for everyone (which is usually a characteristic of the moral objectivism position in philosophy). Many of the things Tiger Woods pursues in connection to his profession as a golfer are values for him, but probably are not values for John Allison, since he is in a different line of work. Similarly, the values they both pursue (organizations they support and career) legitimately differ. By “legitimate,” I second Smith’s remark that the “parameters defining the permissible range are themselves objective insofar as they are grounded in the natural requirements of human life” (Smith, “The Importance of the Subject,” p. 143).

[6] See more on egoism in chapter 6 of Smith’s book, Viable Values: A Study of Life as the Root and Reward of Morality, and in this Ayn Rand Lexicon entry on Selfishness

[7] “The Importance of the Subject,” p. 146

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