Asking the Right Question

 Posted by on 2 March 2009 at 12:08 am  Epistemology, Humor, Leonard Peikoff
Mar 022009


That’s great! Unfortunately, it is hilarious because what it refers to is so widespread.

The lesson to be taken from this “sign of insanity” is a key epistemological principle in Objectivism: that arbitrary notions — ideas with no basis in reality — must be rejected if you want your mind to actually be useful in pursuing life here on earth.

A familiar application can be seen in our justice system: When someone brings a baseless charge before a court, it is rightly dismissed as beneath consideration (and could even earn penalties for wasting the court’s time). Chaos would reign if this were not the standing practice, with spurious claims sapping precious resources and inviting injustice. Well, the same should hold in the fact-finding forum of your own mind: if someone brings a baseless idea before a rational mind, it ought to be dismissed as beneath consideration or argument — as “not even wrong.”

As Leonard Peikoff discussed in his lecture series presenting “The Philosophy of Objectivism”:

An arbitrary claim has no cognitive status whatever. According to Objectivism, such a claim is not to be regarded as true or as false. If it is arbitrary, it is entitled to no epistemological assessment at all; it is simply to be dismissed as though it hadn’t come up … The truth is established by reference to a body of evidence and within a context; the false is pronounced false because it contradicts the evidence. The arbitrary, however, has no relation to evidence, facts, or context. It is the human equivalent of [noises produced by] a parrot … sounds without any tie to reality, without content or significance.

In a sense, therefore, the arbitrary is even worse than the false. The false at least has a relation (albeit a negative one) to reality; it has reached the field of human cognition, although it represents an error — but in that sense it is closer to reality than the brazenly arbitrary.

It is not your responsibility to refute someone’s arbitrary assertion — to try to find or imagine arguments that will show that his assertion is false. It is a fundamental error on your part even to try to do this. The rational procedure in regard to an arbitrary assertion is to dismiss it out of hand, merely identifying it as arbitrary, and as such inadmissible and undiscussable.

This can be a subtle and tricky topic, and gaining clarity on it represents an important mental upgrade. For further exploration I recommend Peikoff’s excellent book, Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand, where he reorganized, systematized, and strengthened the material of those lectures.

[HT: Pharyngula]

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