Tuesday, 23 May 2017

Kelley’s Review of Peikoff’s OPAR

Leonard Peikoff’s Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand (OPAR) enjoys a high status in Objectivist circles. Most Objectivists believe that everything Peikoff has said in OPAR is beyond reproach. But the book has several imperfections, a few of which David Kelley has identified in his review, “Peikoff’s Summa”.

Kelly published “Peikoff’s Summa” in 1992—about 3 years after Peikoff published his article, “Fact and Value,” which accuses Kelley of betraying the fundamental principles of Objectivism and committing intellectual and moral improprieties. But in his review of OPAR, Kelley does not return the favor by tearing into Peikoff. His review is fair and informative. He praises many features of the book, and he justifies with evidence and logic his criticism of Peikoff’s vague, confused and at times flawed presentation of some of the material.

In what follows, I will focus only on the flaws that Kelley finds in OPAR. I don't need to mention the good things that he has to say about the book because its virtues are already overhyped in Objectivist circles. Here’s a list of the flaws that Kelley finds in OPAR:

Inadequate discussion of epistemological principles
Peikoff places a lot of importance on hierarchy and context, but his treatment of epistemological principles is inadequate. For instance, on page 179 Peikoff says: “A conclusion is 'certain' when the evidence in its favor is conclusive." But if the evidence is conclusive when it adds up to a proof, when does the evidence add up to a proof? Kelley says, “[Peikoff] says nothing on this subject beyond alluding to the standards employed in particular areas of knowledge, such as the legal requirements for proof of criminal guilt.”

Failure to deal with the hard cases for the contextual theory
On page 173, Peikoff says that “knowledge at one stage is not contradicted by later discoveries,” but he does not explain how this applies to the legal cases where a suspect who has been pronounced guilty on basis of available evidence is found to be innocent when new evidence becomes available. Peikoff goes on to qualify his formulation: “Within the context of the circumstances known,” suspect S is guilty. But Kelley points out that “the suspect's guilt or innocence is a fact of the matter — either he committed the act or he didn't — and it is not dependent on anyone's context of knowledge.”

Flawed discussion on of the hierarchical theory of knowledge
As knowledge is hierarchical, the validity of a concept or the truth of a propositional conclusion can only be established by the process of reduction, which is the tracing of a concept of conclusion back to its perceptual bases. But the only example of such reduction that Peikoff gives — an analysis of the concept “friend” — is incoherent. Kelley has conducted an autopsy of Peikoff’s exercise of reducing the concept “friend” in a sidebar to the main article, “What is a friend?”

Flawed definition of proof
On page 120, Peikoff defines proof as "the process of establishing truth by reducing a proposition to axioms, i.e., ultimately, to sensory evidence." Here’s what Kelley has to say on this definition: “This definition suggests that our knowledge has the following structure: Sensory evidence tells us that something exists, that it is what it is, and that we are aware of it (the axioms of existence, identity, and consciousness); from these axiomatic propositions we then infer everything else that we know. This picture is wildly inaccurate. Axioms are involved in any proof, since they underlie the canons of logical inference. But the substance of any conclusion is derived from sensory observation of particular objects and events, from which we form generalizations by induction and scientific hypothesis.”

Peikoff’s rationalism
On page 218, Pekoff says that with a few exceptions (the exceptions he has in mind are presumably the axioms), fundamental principles are supported by induction. But on page 406, he declares: “Capitalism is a corollary of the fundamentals of philosophy. Whoever understands capitalism sees it as the social system flowing from the axiom that "Existence exists” —just as whoever understands the axiom sees it ultimately as the principle entailing capitalism.” This comment makes no sense. Kelley says, “Comments of this kind lend credence to the common misconception that Objectivism is a form of rationalism in the manner of Descartes or Spinoza.”

Choice to live as a kind of higher-order duty
In Galt’s speech Rand says: "My morality, the morality of reason, is contained in a single axiom: existence exists—and in a single choice: to live." This means that the choice to live precedes all morality—it is the foundation of all normative claims, and so cannot itself be morally evaluated. But on page 248, Peikoff asserts: "A man who would throw away his life without cause ...would belong on the lowest rung of hell." (248) Kelley says that “the reason for this inconsistency is that he does not really regard the choice to live as a moral primary. Since life is existence, the choice to live is subsumed under the wider principle of adhering to existence, which Peikoff implicitly seems to regard as a kind of higher-order duty.”

Kelley further explains:

“The problem here is of more than theoretical significance. The duality which Rand identified at the base of ethics runs throughout her moral code. The choice to live is the fundamental source of motivation, the axiom of existence the fundamental principle of cognition. The choice sets our goal-seeking nature in motion; the axiom directs us to look to reality for guidance, to identify the natures of things, including our own human nature and needs, and to identify the types of actions required to achieve our goals. The choice to live is the fountainhead of that passionate energy, that love of life, which characterizes Rand's heroes. The commitment to reason and reality is the source of their confident command of themselves and their world. In his quest for theoretical unity, Peikoff collapses the choice into the axiom, with effects that are evident throughout his presentation of the Objectivist ethics. He tends to elevate principles over goals, virtues over values, in a way that gives the flavor of a duty ethic.”

Flawed conception of morality
On page 284, while discussing justice, Peikoff declares: “morality is man’s motive power.” But this is a flawed view of morality. Here’s Kelley’s perspective on this issue: “Since morality is a code of values accepted by choice, and a code in turn is a system of principles, Peikoff's statement suggests that we are motivated not by the desire to achieve our goals, but by the desire to conform to our principles. But one's motivation flows from one's purpose. One does not live for the sake of being moral; one acts morally in order to make the most out of his life. We obey nature in order to command it.”

An uninviting picture of life in Objectivism
Kelley says that he would not recommend OPAR to anyone who is unfamiliar with Objectivism because the book creates an uninviting picture of a life in accordance with the Objectivist code.  He points out that in the chapter on virtue, which is the longest chapter in the book, Peikoff presents the virtues “as forms of rationality and as constraints on the ends we can choose, rather than as means for living a happy life.” He does talk about happiness in a section in the chapter, but he does not grant primacy to happiness.

Best student and designated heir?
In his Preface to OPAR, Peikoff claims that he is qualified to present Rand’s philosophy as he is “her best student and designated heir.” My personal opinion is that such an assertion is not only in bad taste, it is also unbelievable. Kelley says that OPAR is not a scholarly analysis of Rand’s thought. “[Peikoff] writes in his own voice, and puts philosophical propositions forth as true of reality; his writing is therefore properly subject to the customary standards of clarity, rigor, and truth by which a work in philosophy must be judged.”

It is noteworthy that Kelley has identified these flaws (barring the last one) by focusing solely on a theme that Peikoff regards as central to the book: epistemological self-awareness. Kelley declares in the beginning of the review that he is not offering a complete inventory of the book. Can there be any doubt that if he were to go through the entire book with a fine-tooth comb many more flaws will come to light! Several commentators, including the philosopher Henry B. Veatch, have excoriated Peikoff for using vague and at times flawed arguments in OPAR.

Saturday, 20 May 2017

Free Will: A Response to Sam Harris

Free Will: A Response to Sam Harris
Kurt Keefner 

Sam Harris’s Free Will (Simon & Schuster, 2012) crams lot of ideas that I find irrational. Consider these lines from the beginning of the book:

“Free will is an illusion. Our wills are simply not of our own making. Thoughts and intentions emerge from background causes of which we are unaware and over which we exert no conscious control.”

Harris claims that a murderer may not be responsible for his choices, and that a brain tumor may transform a normal man into a murderer:

"Imagine this murderer is discovered to have a brain tumor in the appropriate spot in his brain that could explain his violent impulses. That is obviously exculpatory. We view him as a victim of his biology, and our moral intuitions shift automatically. But I would argue that a brain tumor is just a special case of physical events giving rise to thoughts and actions, and if we fully understood the neurophysiology of any murderer's brain, that would be as exculpatory as finding a tumor in it.”

Kurt Keefner’s monograph Free Will: A Response to Sam Harris offers good arguments to show that Harris’s ideas on free will make no sense. In what follows, I will give a brief account of Keefner's philosophical case. In the first chapter, “Why It Matters,” Keefner points out that if we take free will as an illusion and the rational world as deterministic then hardworking and enterprising men will not get the credit for their success, and the serial murderers won’t be blamed for their depravities.

According to Keefner, the roots of Harris’s denial of free will lie in his dualism. While Harris does not believe in body and soul dichotomy like Descartes, he is still a dualist in a broader sense because he believes that the self constitutes of pure consciousness and unconscious processes. The idea of separating the pure consciousness from the unconscious, says Keefner, is “a philosophical move, even a theological move, but not a scientific one. His preposition that consciousness is “pure” is what underwrites his version of determinism.”

Consciousness is an attribute of an organism—it cannot exist on its own. The separation between pure consciousness and unconscious processes has no basis in science. In the chapter 3, “The Integrated Self,” Keefner identifies four levels of consciousness:

“There are non-conscious processes, such as the filtration of blood by the kidneys and the neural process that give rise to perception. Next there are the unconscious processes, such as our knowing how to speak our own language without being able to enunciate the rules of grammar explicitly. Third are the preconscious processes, such as remembering my sister’s name when I’m not thinking about her. Fourth are the conscious processes such as looking at my computer or taking about free will.”

All four processes of consciousness are fully integrated with the organism. “To act consciously is also to act preconsciously, unconsciously and non-consciously. They are a nested hierarchy. Being conscious intrinsically involves processes one is not directly conscious of. The idea of a “pure” consciousness is a fiction unrelated to real awareness.”

But with his idea of a dichotomy between conscious self and the unconscious self in place, Harris goes on to deduce the argument that “if any factor outside our awareness determines any part of our thoughts and actions, we don’t have free will.” This is an invalid argument and Keefner points out that “there is no reason why unconscious forces could not shape part of our mental lives while we consciously exercise some kind of decisive control.”

To defend his theory that the brain makes decisions before consciousness becomes aware of them, Harris uses the experiments conducted by the physiologist Benjamin Libet. But Keefner questions the validity of Libet’s experiments—he points out that it is illogical to see consciousness separately from the brain. “On the integrated view of the self, a conscious decision is something a person makes, not parts or aspects of a person, like a brain or a consciousness.”

On Harris’s controversial contention that murderers are not responsible for their actions, Keefner says that “such men often have exceptional disorders that diminish their power of choice so that their situation is not relevant to rest of us. Also, criminals are not known for their power of introspection—which may be part of the reason they become criminals in the first place—and thus their cases cannot be generalized to ours.”

While refuting Harris’s idea that free will is illusion, Keefner does not aim to prove the existence of free will. This is because “free will” is an axiomatic concept, like consciousness—you can’t prove the existence of free will for the same reason for which you can’t prove the existence of consciousness. Free will cannot be proved, but it can be observed. In the chapter, “Conclusion,” Keefner says:

“Apparently, for Harris if human beings are not created in the image of God, they are squalid animals driven by dark urges for things like beer and murder. Reason is not worth considering as a motivation. For Harris we not only do not have the dignity of being free, we do not even have the dignity of being intelligent. This diminution of man is actually worse than that of some religions.”

I will end this article with a question to Harris: Does he enjoy the fact that he is a successful writer and not a murderer? Well, I am sure he does.

Wednesday, 17 May 2017

On Leonard Peikoff’s Dissertation

Leonard Peikoff received his doctorate in 1964 at New York University under the direction of the American pragmatist philosopher Sidney Hook. In his dissertation titled “The Status of the Law of Contradiction in Classical Logical Ontologism,” Peikoff shows an alignment towards Aristotelian empiricism.

Stephen Boydstun is conducting a study of Peikoff’s dissertation in the Objectivism Online Forum. This is an ongoing project—so far Boydstun has made two posts in which he mainly looks at Peikoff’s treatment of Aristotle in his dissertation.

In the posts that follow, Boydstun will look at what Peikoff has to say about Immanuel Kant and Peikoff's contemporaries, including John Dewey and Thomas Nagel. Here’s an excerpt from Boydstun’s first post on Peikoff's Dissertation:

“Under the term classical in his title, Peikoff includes not only the ancient, but the medieval and early modern. By logical ontologism, he means the view that laws of logic and other necessary truths are expressive of facts, expressive of relationships existing in Being as such. Peikoff delineates the alternative ways in which that general view of PNC [principle of noncontradiction] has been elaborated in various classical accounts of how one can come to know PNC as a necessary truth and what the various positions on that issue imply in an affirmation that PNC is a law issuing from reality. The alternative positions within the ontology-based logical tradition stand on alternative views on how we can come to know self-evident truths and on the relation of PNC to the empirical world, which latter implicates alternative views on the status of essences and universals.”

Boydstun’s study of Peikoff’s dissertation is of interest because it sheds light on how Peikoff’s thinking was influenced by the training in philosophy that he received for his doctorate.

On a side note, in his podcast on October 27, 2014, Peikoff has said that he does not think highly of the University system under which he achieved his doctorate. He has nothing good to say about his dissertation. He seems to suggest that it was meaningless exercise that he went through under the direction of disinterested and unmotivated instructors.

Monday, 15 May 2017

Objectivism: The Philosophy of Benevolent Individualism

Unrugged Individualism: The Selfish Basis of Benevolence 
David Kelley
The Atlas Society, Revised Edition, 2003

I remember a discussion on “Individualism” that I had with a person who has been an Objectivist for many years. He told me that he regards Howard Roark, the protagonist in The Fountainhead, as an ideal individualist.

“Why?” I asked. To my surprise, he offered me the lines from the novel that Peter Keating uses to describe Roark’s character to Ellsworth Toohey: “He'd walk over corpses. Any and all of them. All of us. But he'd be an architect.”

But is Howard Roark so ruthless that he will walk over corpses for the achievements of his ambitions? Is he totally bereft of benevolence?

In his monograph Unrugged Individualism, David Kelley argues that benevolence is not the converse of individualism. He begins by reflecting on Roark’s first meeting with the sculptor Steven Mallory. Roark finds Mallory in a state of semi-drunken despair. Mallory’s artistic ambitions have been battered by the cynical and vulgar cultural environment. But when he notices that Roark’s idealism is genuine, he breaks down.

Roark is not disgusted by Mallory’s lapse into drunken despair. He does not berate Mallory for his weakness and failure to fight for his values. Instead, he offers Mallory kindness and understanding. Kelley says, “It is a moving scene of benevolence between human beings, one of many that occur in Rand’s novels.”

The idea that Roark’s individualism makes him capable of walking over corpses is Peter Keating’s opinion. Keating is a negative character in The Fountainhead—he is a collectivist and he is bound to feel insecure in face of Roark’s individualism.

The Oxford Dictionary defines “benevolence” as “the quality of being well meaning; kindness.” This definition fits Roark’s attitude towards Mallory. Roark is benevolent but he is not self-sacrificing or altruistic. Benevolence must not be confused with self-sacrifice or altruism, which Objectivist ethics rejects as a moral principle.

In chapter 2, “Background,” Kelley investigates the reasons for which some philosophers equate “benevolence” with “altruism.” He points out that in Atlas Shrugged when the Starnes factory is reorganized by the altruist principles of the founder’s heirs — “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need” — there is loss of benevolence among the workers.

In the second part of the chapter, Kelley looks at the relationship between benevolence toward others and the benevolent view of the universe. He points out that the universe is not malevolent—“achievement, success, and happiness are not only possible but normal, where they are the to-be-expected, the primary virtues must be those by which we pursue and achieve them: rationality, courage, productiveness, integrity, pride.”

Ayn Rand has said that “Value is that which one acts to gain and/or keep—virtue is the act by which one gains and/or keeps it.” So what is the value that benevolence aims at? In chapter 3, “The Nature of Benevolence,” Kelley draws the relationship between benevolence and the trader principle. He defines benevolence as “a commitment to achieving the values derivable from life with other people in society, by treating them as potential trading partners, recognizing their humanity, independence, and individuality, and the harmony between their interests and ours.”

But when there is coercion in society, people stop feeling benevolent towards others. In Atlas Shrugged, when Hank Rearden is blackmailed by the government into signing over the rights to Rearden Metal, he is filled with such lack of respect for the men around him what he no longer wishes to engage in trade with them. Here’s the paragraph from Atlas Shrugged in which Rearden’s thoughts are described:

“He felt nothing at the thought of the looters who were now going to manufacture Rearden Metal. His desire to hold his right to it and proudly to be the only one to sell it, had been his form of respect for his fellow men, his belief that to trade with them was an act of honor. The belief, the respect and the desire were gone.... The human shapes moving past him in the streets of the city were physical objects without any meaning.”

In The Fountainhead, Ellsworth Toohey opines that kindness is more important than justice—he accuses Howard Roark of being unkind. But is there a conflict between benevolence and justice? Kelley says that benevolence, being the commitment to achieving certain values in our relationship with others, does not conflict with justice. “If it becomes clear that those values are not available from a specific person—for example, if his behavior or character make him a positive threat— then it is not an act of benevolence to extend sympathy, kindness, or generosity.”

In chapter 4, “The Practice of Benevolence,” Kelley considers the specific kinds of actions, habits, and policies that are part of the practice of benevolence. He says that civility, sensitivity, and generosity are the specific virtues of benevolence.

He defines “civility” as the expression of “one’s respect for the humanity and independence of others, and of one’s intent to resolve conflicts peacefully.”

“Sensitivity,” he says, “is the alertness to the psychological condition of others.” The Fountainhead offers several instances of Roark and Dominique controlling their reactions to another person in order to spare him the pain of showing what he has revealed. For instance, Roark displays lot of sensitivity when he sees Keating after many years.

“Roark knew that he must not show the shock of his first glance at Peter Keating—and that it was too late: he saw a faint smile on Keating’s lips, terrible in its resigned acknowledgment of disintegration.” ~ (The Fountainhead)

Kelley defines “generosity” as “the willingness to provide others with goods without the expectation of a definite return, either as aid in an emergency or as a nonspecific investment in their potential.” The relationship between generosity and individualism is captured in several scenes in Atlas Shrugged. For instance, Dagny saving a tramp from being thrown off the train and inviting him to dinner with her—Rearden’s indulgent attitude towards the Wet Nurse.

Unrugged Individualism offers a wealth of instructive reading on Ayn Rand’s literature and philosophy. It makes an important contribution to Objectivist ethics by demonstrating that benevolence is an Objectivist virtue.

Tuesday, 9 May 2017

The Parrot, The Wind, The Gremlins, and Peikoff’s Doctrine of Arbitrary Assertion

When I read Leonard Peikoff’s Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand (OPAR) a few years ago, I was impressed by his exposition of Ayn Rand’s philosophy. But I also had some misgivings about certain ideas in his book—for instance, his doctrine of arbitrary assertion did not appear logical to me.

Recently I discovered Robert Campbell’s article, “The Peikovian Doctrine of the Arbitrary Assertion” (The Journal of Ayn Rand Studies, Volume 10, No 1, Fall 2008). Campbell offers a thoughtful critique of Peikoff’s doctrine of arbitrary assertion. His article has me convinced that my misgivings on the doctrine are not farfetched. Peikoff’s doctrine is rife with logical flaws.

Campbell’s article is 86 pages long—in comparison, Peikoff’s explanation of the doctrine in OPAR extends across 9 pages (Chapter 5, “Reason”; Section: “The Arbitrary as Neither True Nor False”; Pages: 163-171). Campbell analyzes the doctrine from every angle—he looks at the steps through which Peikoff has developed his doctrine, he provides information on the philosophical background in which the doctrine was originated, and he goes on to expose the instances where Peikoff and his acolytes are themselves guilty of making arbitrary assertions.

Since 1976 when Peikoff gave his lectures on Objectivism, the doctrine of arbitrary assertion has become a prominent feature in Objectivist epistemology. The publication of OPAR in 1993 has put the doctrine in front of a wider audience. But Campbell argues that the doctrine raises several questions. He begins his article by listing a few of these questions:

“Does an epistemology firmly grounded in facts about human mental functioning, as Rand’s claims to be, require a notion of the arbitrary? Is Peikoff’s notion of an arbitrary assertion clear? Does the concept have the scope of application that Peikoff stakes out for it? Should arbitrary assertions all be handled as Peikoff prescribes? Are the arguments for the doctrine sound?”

Campbell says that “these questions bear on the nature and quality of Peikoff’s work as a philosopher, and on the viability of Objectivism construed as a closed system.”

Consider the fact that in his 9-page elucidation of the doctrine in OPAR, Peikoff does not offer clear instructions on how to identify an arbitrary claim. He presumes that a rational person knows which claims are arbitrary, as he or she would know which ones are emotionalistic or irrational. By arbitrary, Peikoff does not mean false—he regards the arbitrary claims as being worse than falsehoods.

Here’s an excerpt from OPAR:

“An arbitrary statement has no relation to man’s means of knowledge. Since the statement is detached from the realm of evidence, no process of logic can assess it. Since it is affirmed in a void, cut off from any context, no integration to the rest of man’s knowledge is applicable; previous knowledge is irrelevant to it. Since it has no place in a hierarchy, no reduction is possible, and thus no observations are relevant. An arbitrary statement cannot be cognitively processed; by its nature, it is detached from any rational method or content of human consciousness. Such a statement is necessarily detached from reality as well. If an idea is cut loose from any means of cognition, there is no way of bringing it into relationship with reality.” ~ (OPAR, page 164)

Campbell detects several logical problems in this paragraph. He argues that “if what Peikoff says is true, what is the status of a correct judgment that a claim is arbitrary? How does one arrive at that judgment? How could one rationally judge an assertion to be arbitrary, except by engaging in correct cognition in relation to reality? If ‘the soul survives the death of the body’ is truly incapable of being cognitively processed, how can a rational person judge what evidence or arguments would be required to support it? For if the rational person has no idea what would be required, how can he or she go on to determine that the evidence or arguments have not been presented, consequently the assertion must be dismissed?”

Peikoff claims that the arbitrary statements are completely out of context, to the extent that they cannot be evaluated on the basis of any previous knowledge. Yet the four examples of arbitrary assertions that he gives in OPAR—belief in the existence of soul, belief in astrology, belief in existence of a sixth sense, and a convention of gremlins studying Hegel’s logic on the planet Venus—are intelligible. It is possible for us to evaluate these assertions on the basis of previous knowledge and declare that these statements are falsehoods.

If we believe Peikoff’s proposition that “gremlins” is an arbitrary concept which can never be cognitively processed then what about Phlogiston, the stuff that chemists in the mid-eighteenth century believed makes some materials combustible and is used up when they burned! Peikoff’s doctrine will lead us to believe that Phlogiston is an arbitrary concept and is therefore beyond the scope of human cognition. Campbell asks if the chemists in the 1770s and 1780s could have discovered what is wrong with the Phlogiston concept if they had adhered to Peikoff’s doctrine?

Peikoff makes hardly any sense when he asserts that a rational person must regard every arbitrary idea as a noise. “An arbitrary idea must be given the exact treatment its nature demands. One must treat it as though nothing has been said.” (OPAR, Pages 164-165). He makes even less sense when he claims that the arbitrary is outside all epistemological categories. “None of the concepts used to describe human knowledge can be applied to the arbitrary; none of the classifications of epistemology can be usurped in its behalf… An arbitrary statement is neither ‘true’ nor ‘false.’” (OPAR, page 165)

It is difficult to imagine a statement which is neither true nor false. Campbell posits that “if a claim can be refuted, it is not arbitrary; if it has been successfully refuted, one ought to conclude that it is false.”

In his 1997 lecture “Objectivism through Induction,” Peikoff claims that when we recognize an assertion as arbitrary we are trapped into an unthinking condition. “When you see that a claim is arbitrary, then you cannot think about its cognitive status at all. You can’t think about its validity as a claim. You can’t weigh it, assess it, determine its probability, its possibility, its invalidity, its truth, its falsehood, anything. It is non-process-able. A rational mind stops in its tracks, in the face of any attempt to process such a claim.” According to Peikoff, a tryst with an arbitrary assertion induces paralysis in a rational mind.

Campbell wonders “what the supposed paralysis would feel like, and whether one might need extensive training in order to experience it.” But Peikoff uses a shoot and scoot strategy in his lecture—he drops the word “paralyzed,” but refrains from explaining the nature of the paralysis.

In OPAR, Peikoff offers the examples of a wind-blown sand and a talking parrot to establish the charge that the arbitrary claims are meaningless. Here’s an excerpt:

“A relationship between a conceptual content and reality is a relationship between man’s consciousness and reality. There can be no “correspondence” or “recognition” without the mind that corresponds or recognizes. If a wind blows the sand on a desert island into configurations spelling out “A is A,” that does not make the wind a superior metaphysician. The wind did not achieve any conformity to reality; it did not produce any truth but merely shapes in the sand. Similarly, if a parrot is trained to squawk “2 + 2 = 4,” this does not make it a mathematician. The parrot’s consciousness did not attain thereby any contact with reality or any relation to it, positive or negative; the parrot did not recognize or contradict any fact; what it created was not merely falsehood, but merely sounds. Sounds that are not the vehicle of conceptual awareness have no cognitive status.” ~ (OPAR, page 165)

He goes on to declare:

“An arbitrary claim emitted by a human mind is analogous to the shapes made by the wind or to the sounds of the parrot. Such a claim has no cognitive relationship to reality, positive or negative. The true is identified by reference to a body of evidence; it is pronounced “true” because it can be integrated without contradiction into a total context. The false is identified by the same means; it is pronounced “false” because it contradicts the evidence and/or some aspect of the wider context. The arbitrary, however, has no relation to evidence or context; neither term, therefore—“true” or “false”—can be applied to it.” ~ (OPAR, page 165-166)

The idea that a human being who makes an arbitrary assertion will have his cognitive abilities downgraded to parrot level is unbelievable. Campbell writes: “Even if we accept Peikoff’s contention that putting forward any assertion that he deems arbitrary is ipso facto an irrational act, it does not follow that the assertion is the product of a sudden complete interruption to one’s functioning as a cognitive agent—even if it is an interruption from which one can somehow quickly recover.”

But Peikoff prefers to preach with the zeal of an Augustinian monk living in Europe’s dark ages. He is convinced that all who disagree with his ideas belong to the lowest rung of hell. Consider these lines from OPAR (page 248): “A man who would throw away his life without cause, who would reject the universe on principle and embrace a zero for its own sake—such a man, according to Objectivism, would belong on the lowest rung of hell.”

In case of the doctrine of the arbitrary, Peikoff is, thankfully, not consigning the disbelievers to the lowest rung of hell, but the punishment he has in mind is still quite harsh. “The arbitrary, however, if a man indulges in it, assaults his cognitive faculty; it wipes out or makes impossible in his mind the concept of rational cognition and thus entrenches his inner chaos for life. As to the practical consequences of this difference, whom would you prefer to work with, talk to, or buy groceries from: a man who miscounts the people in his living room (an error) or who declares that the room is full of demons (the arbitrary)?” (OPAR, page 166)

It is clear that Peikoff is offering a blatantly loaded alternative. Campbell says, “Every day, human beings make mistakes with much higher impact than most simple miscounts will ever have. People fail college courses, run cars off roads, alienate friends, mismanage businesses into bankruptcy, crash airplanes. Conversely, from Peikoff’s point of view, if a prospective seller, coworker, or conversational partner believes that his friend who recently died is now in heaven, walking on streets of gold, he is as fully in the grip of ‘the arbitrary,’ and should be as assiduously shunned, as the man who believes that his living room is swarming with demons.”

Once he is done with exposing the logical inconsistencies in Peikoff’s doctrine, Campbell moves on to conduct an investigation into the doctrine’s origins. In the introduction to OPAR, Peikoff has denied making any creative contributions in the book. He says that much of the book’s material comes from the philosophic discussions that he had with Ayn Rand over a period of decades. He says, “Our discussions were not a collaboration: I asked questions, she answered them.” (OPAR, Page xv) Should we then believe that Ayn Rand is the real author of this doctrine?

But Campbell points out that there is no evidence to suggest that Rand could have articulated the doctrine in the flawed form in which Peikoff presents it in OPAR. “She used the word ‘arbitrary’ rather often, but never in a way that signals the technical meanings that Peikoff expounds in OPAR.” In the context in which she uses the word “arbitrary,” it functions as a close synonym for “nonobjective” or “irrational,” and in some cases it serves as a substitute for “subjective.”

Campbell says that in a somewhat different form, the doctrine was articulated by Nathaniel Branden in an article in the 1963 issue of The Objectivist Newsletter. In his article, Branden says: “When a person makes an assertion for which no rational grounds are given, his statement is—epistemologically—without cognitive content. It is as though nothing has been said. This is equally true if the assertion is made by two billion people.”

Branden did not take the idea of “arbitrary” to the level where it might serve as an alternative to “truth” and “falsehood.” Campbell writes: “Branden restrained himself from concluding that ‘arbitrary’ is a truth value, or a way of being wronger than wrong, and he tried to qualify his claim that arbitrary assertions are ‘without cognitive content.’ He neither declared that arbitrary assertions ‘cannot be cognitively processed,’ nor offered comparisons with dunes shifted by the wind or speech sounds mimicked by a parrot. Branden indicted agnostics for cowardice, but not for zero-embracing nihilism. The focus of his article was on the irrationality of demanding evidence or argument in violation of the onus of proof principle.”

Also, Branden did not turn the arbitrary into a basic epistemological category. “He regarded the distinction between faith and reason as fundamental, not the distinction between the arbitrary and the non-arbitrary.”  Campbell informs us that Branden reflected on the arbitrary assertions in two Basic Principles of Objectivism lectures. While Branden believed that assertions about witches and goblins refer to nothing, he did not declare that arbitrary assertions cannot be cognitively processed. For him, “the negative consequences of accepting arbitrary assertions are one and the same as the negative consequences of supposing that faith is a shortcut to knowledge.”

While there are problems in Branden’s  theory of arbitrary assertions (Campbell discusses these in his article), his version of the theory is more robust than the doctrine that Peikoff’s offers in his 1976 lectures and OPAR. Campbell presents evidence to show that Branden (writing under the guidance of Rand) was the primary author of the doctrine of arbitrary assertion. Peikoff picked up Branden’s doctrine and dished it out in a vastly distorted format. Also, Peikoff’s failure to acknowledge Branden’s contribution to the doctrine is unethical and unscholarly.

In the article's final section, Campbell comments on the issue of denial of credit to Branden: “The implications for Peikoff’s standing as a philosopher are distinctly negative. If Peikoff lifted the core idea without attribution from Branden’s (1967) lectures, as he appears to have done, he is guilty of intellectual dishonesty. His refusal to credit Branden’s (1963) prior publication on the subject is, in any event, unscholarly. He has elaborated the doctrine significantly; however, the best that can be said about Peikoff’s own contributions is that he has performed better on many other occasions.”

I conclude my article with this question: Will Peikoff’s doctrine of the arbitrary assertion survive Campbell’s critique?

It is clear that that the doctrine is illogical but the intellectuals with the Ayn Rand Institute (ARI) continue to defend it—as if Campbell’s article does not exist. Campbell published his article in 2008 issue of The Journal of Ayn Rand Studies—in the past nine years his article has provoked very little discussion in Objectivist circles. I find it strange that an article which practically demolishes the doctrine proposed by a personality such as Peikoff has not been comprehensively evaluated by the ARI. The lack of reaction to Campbell’s article exposes the insular and cultist nature of the Objectivist elite.

Monday, 8 May 2017

A Reminder to Orthodox Objectivists


John Galt said, “'I will stop the motor of the world.” He didn't say, “I will unfriend and block everyone who disagrees with me.”

Sunday, 7 May 2017

People want nothing but mirrors around them

When you read these lines by Ayn Rand, you get the feeling that she is describing the mindset of the Orthodox Objectivist community:

"You wanted a mirror. People want nothing but mirrors around them. To reflect them while they're reflecting too. You know, like the senseless infinity you get from two mirrors facing each other across a narrow passage. Usually in the more vulgar kind of hotels. Reflections of reflections and echoes of echoes. No beginning and no end. No center and no purpose." ~ (Dominique Francon to Peter Keating in Ayn Rand's The Fountainhead)

The Orthodox Objectivists are directionless. They reflect on reflections and hear the echoes of echoes. They are not ready to open their ears to any new ideas. Theirs is a "Closed System." 

Friday, 5 May 2017

On The Journal of Ayn Rand Studies

It is not possible to ignore The Journal of Ayn Rand Studies (JARS). I have read a number of articles published in past issues of JARS and I find these articles to be very well argued. Their logic is undeniable. Most Objectivists (of the dogmatic mindset) want to avoid JARS, which they regard as the repository of heretical thoughts. To them I say that you can’t gain full understanding of Objectivism (the ideas and the issues) until you explore the philosophical positions that this journal is taking.

Voters Are Ignorant, Literally