On Peikoff’s condemnation of McCaskey

The good, therefore, is a species of the true; it is a form of recognizing reality. The evil is a species of the false; it is a form of contradicting reality.

The general principle here is: truth implies as its cause a virtuous mental process; falsehood, beyond a certain point, implies a process of vice.

— Leonard Peikoff in his essay Fact and Value

From the available evidence on the issue, it seems to me that Dr. Peikoff’s moral condemnation of Dr. McCaskey (which surprised many) is based on the above. McCaskey, given his credentials, is clearly in possession of the relevant historical facts. If he is wrong – and Peikoff believes he is – it is not surprising that Peikoff regards the falsehood of McCaskey’s ideas as implying a process of vice.

I am way out of my depth in the issue at stake here – a theory of induction and the history of science – and cannot decide who is right and who is wrong.

That aside, the crucial question that this issue raises is: How should the ARI handle disagreement between its members on philosophical issues that do not come under the scope of Objectivism? It would seem that such disagreements should be tolerated given that the mission of the ARI is to promote Objectivism. But, given the nature of objectivism – the fact that objectivism demands (and rightly so) moral judgement of ideas – it is not realistic to expect people to work with those whom they morally condemn. Over time, as Objectivist intellectuals work on issues that Rand did not address, such disagreements are bound to increase. In the long term, this means that there can be no single organization that lays claim to Rand’s ideas. This is not something to regret.

Object Oriented Programming and Objectivist Epistemology

I have just started reading Ayn Rand’s Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology and chanced upon this very interesting paper by Adam Reed. Prof. Reed writes about models of causation and the exact architectural parallel between Rand’s epistemology and object oriented programming. I am very busy with work right now and ITOE is a difficult read but this is definitely something to explore once I am done with it.

Probability

I have struggled with the concept of probability for a long time. Not with the maths but with the meaning. Does a probability number really mean anything at all? And if so, what? Recently, I have reached a definite position on this. Here it is.

In a metaphysical sense, it seems clear that the probability number is meaningless. Or, more accurately, that it is not a property of the event in question at all (I am using the word ‘event’ loosely to refer to anything for which a probability may be calculated). An event either occurs or does not occur. No fractions are possible. Probability therefore must be a measure of a person’s state of knowledge of the factors that determine the event in question. That is, probability is an epistemological concept rather than a metaphysical one. It originates because of the need to make choices in the face of incomplete knowledge. This is clear since probability is used not just for future events but also for past ones. A classic example of this is the use of medical tests in conjunction with statistical analyses to arrive at a probability of a patient’s having a particular disease. In reality, either the person has the disease or not. The probability assigned to the possibility of disease is merely a tool used to decide whether further investigation is warranted.

This seems to suggest that probability is a subjective rather than an objective. But the precise math used to calculate probabilities suggests otherwise. Is probability subjective or objective? To answer this, it would be useful to look at what the words subjective and objective mean. In a comment on an old post, Burgess Laughlin wrote (and I agree):

“Objective,” in my philosophy (Objectivism), has two meanings. First, in metaphysics, it means existing independent of consciousness. The redundant phrase “objective reality” captures this meaning. Second, in epistemology, “objective” refers to knowledge that is drawn (inferred) logically from facts of reality. (See “Objectivity,” The Ayn Rand Lexicon.)

Subjective, as I use the word, refers to judgements or responses that cannot be traced back to facts of reality or the thought processes of the subject (A typical example is emotions).

Probability is not objective in the metaphysical sense. In fact, without consciousness, it would not exist at all. It is also not objective in the epistemological sense since it arises only in cases where the subject does not have complete knowledge of the facts of reality. And the fact that there are precise mathematical rules to calculate probabilities means that probability is not subjective either. If probability is neither objective nor subjective, what is it? Consider the case of a coin being tossed. Lacking any knowledge of the composition and weight distribution of the coin, the velocity with which it was tossed, the composition of air, the nature of the ground etc, the probability of a particular side showing up is taken to be 0.5. Where did this number come from? It is quite clear that this choice is purely arbitrary. The entire math of probability is based on a simple principle applied consistently. Given multiple possibilities and a complete lack of quantitative knowledge of relevant causes, each possibility has an equal probability. Clearly this is arbitrary, but it is the best one can do. And applied consistently, it provides a very precise framework for quantifying a lack of knowledge. It allows quantification of that which we do not even know!

Anyone who is familiar with Rand’s philosophy should note that my use of ‘arbitrary’ is different from (though related to and inspired from) Rand’s use of the word in the classification of the epistemological status of statements as true, false or arbitrary. To apply the principle of equal likelihood, one already needs to have identified all the possibilities. This means that probability cannot be applied to arbitrary (in Rand’s sense) assertions. What about the truth status of a statement involving probability? Such a statement can be demonstrated to be true (or false) subject to the equal likelihood principle. Without the principle, it is arbitrary (in Rand’s sense).

I think this classification – objective, subjective and arbitrary – might be useful in several other areas of math as well. For example (I need to think more about this though), it can be applied to Euclid’s axioms (in geometry). These axioms could be described as arbitrary and theorems could then be considered as true subject to the axioms.

In my next post, I will try to relate my position to statistics and randomness.

Why should values be agent-relative?

Heumer’s critique of Ayn Rand’s “The Objectivist Ethics” begins with

…premise 1 [Value is agent-relative; things can only be valuable for particular entities] begs the question.
One of the central groups of opponents Rand is facing is people who believe in absolute value, and not just agent-relative value. The absolutist view is that it is possible for some things to be good, simply, or in an absolute sense; whereas agent-relativists think that things can only be good for or relative to certain individuals, and that what is good relative to one individual need not be good relative to another. (N.B., this should not be confused with what are commonly called “moral relativism” and “cultural relativism.”)
Rand bases her ethics on the agent-relative position, but she offers no argument for it, only a bald assertion.

Why indeed should value be agent relative? The answer lies in Rand’s claim that

The first question that has to be answered, as a precondition of any attempt to define, to judge or to accept any specific system of ethics, is: Why does man need a code of values?
(emphasis in original)

The clue to the answer is in the question “Why”. If X is an absolute value (not just agent-relative), one can ask “Why is X an absolute value?”. There are three possible responses:

a) God said so:
This is unacceptable to me since the existence of God is an arbitrary claim and I do not want to elaborate further in this post (especially since this is not Heumer’s response).

b) It is self-evident:
It is impossible to argue with someone who really means this. If a particular proposition seems self-evident to him and it does not seem self-evident to me, how do we argue? I can only say that apart from the axioms in metaphysics and epistemology (‘Something exists’, ‘I am conscious’, ‘entities have identity’ and ‘I have free will’) no proposition which is not a direct observation is self-evident to me. For example, ‘the sky is blue’ is self-evident because it is a direct observation. But I have no sense organ that senses value – no sense organ that tells me that the sky is valuable. If someone who gives this answers (It is self-evident) really means it, then we have fundamentally different natures – so that I do not even know what he means when he says ‘It is self-evident that X is an absolute value’. But I don’t believe this. To see why consider just one example of a self-evident value that Heumer cites – justice. Heumer claims that it is self-evident that “It is unjust to punish a person for a crime he didn’t commit.” It is obvious that different people have widely varying understandings of the concepts ‘crime’ and ‘justice’. For example, I don’t think it is just to punish or compensate people for crimes that their ancestors committed or suffered. But the whole concept of affirmative action depends on doing just that. Therefore even if the affirmative action advocates say that they believe it is unjust to punish a person for a crime he didn’t commit, they mean something very different from what I understand by it. The only way to say that justice is a self-evident value is to broaden the concept so much that it becomes useless. 

c) The question why is not appropriate:
There are some things about which really does not make any sense to ask why. For example, it makes no sense to ask “Why does anything exist at all?”. Is the question “Why is X an absolute value?” like that, atleast for some X? If so, then the why immediately turns into a how – “How do you know that X is an absolute value?” One answer to this could be that it is self-evident, but I have already dismissed that. Another answer could be that it is axiomatic (like the four axiomatic propositions I stated above). But just claiming that something is an axiom is not sufficient. Even axioms have to be validated. An axiom can be validated by assuming that it is not true and then looking at the implications. If the axiom is true, one immediately reaches a contradiction or an absurdity. I won’t actually demonstrate this for the four axioms I stated. Anyone should be able to see that this is so. For what X does the proposition “X is not an absolute value” lead to a contradiction or an absurdity? I know of no such X (and none of the supposedly self-evident principles that Heumer cites – more on them in another post – indicate the existence of any such X). Anyway it is not my task to prove that no such X exists. Obviously I cannot (just like the existence of God). It is upto someone who believes that such X exist to identify them. Even one example would be enough.

But if one actually wants to answer the ‘why’, one will have to say something of the form “because it [verb] [noun]” where noun is some purpose. And only agents can have purposes. Atleast I cannot think of any other way to answer the ‘why’. If one does give the “because it [verb] [noun]” answer, then X is a value relative to the agent who has the particular purpose and not in any absolute sense.

Applied Philosophy – 5 – Conclusion

In the 1st post of this series, I argued that philosophy is difficult. In the 2nd post I illustrated this with the example of Raymond Niles’ article on the poor application of property rights to the electric grid in America. In my 3rd post I argued that the phenomenon of specialization makes the world ever more complex. In my 4th post, I argued that capitalism is politically unstable and that even preserving it (let alone establishing it) requires sustained effort. In this post I want to draw on these observations (and some others) to determine the course of my future blogging efforts.

First, I should clarify that the purpose of this blog is primarily political. While I am interested in understanding philosophy for my own sake, I am not particularly interested in blogging about it. I blog because I consider it the only medium to reach other interested individuals. As an attempt at expanding the audience of this blog beyond Objectivists, I recently joined the desicritics.org portal. Two of my three posts there so far, have generated lengthy comment threads. This has convinced me that it is possible to engage in meaninful debate via the blog-comments medium. It has also convinced me that while the real world has started resembling the fictional world of Atlas Shrugged in many ways, people have not yet started asking “Who is John Galt?” – i.e, they have not resigned to fate yet (The same conclusion could be drawn from the success of Obama’s campaign about hope and change). People are still interested in debating fundamentals. The pragmatism on display everywhere is not total.

The bad state of the world today is primarily a result of the difficulty of philosophy and the failure to apply it properly. It is certainly possible and necessary to find the right answers and convince enough people of them. It is easy to look at the world and become a cynic, to believe that improving it is impossible. But inaction will mean a loss of several things that one takes for granted today. The phenomenon of specialization is not reversible. The incredible complexity in the world economy cannot be unraveled. There is no escape from this enormously entangled world. It is not practical to pursue one’s own interests and remain unconcerned about the direction the world is heading in, especially for those who are young today. If the trend continues, there will be no opportunity left to practise those interests. For all their wrong ideas, the collectivists have one fact right – we are all in this together.

Considering the above, I intend to start two series of posts on this blog. One that addresses some of the most common misconceptions and mischaracterizations of Objectivism and another that explores intellectual property rights.

Poverty

What is poverty? What are its causes? Is it a personal problem or a social problem or a political problem? Whose responsibility is it? What actions are needed to eradicate it?

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines poverty as

1 a: the state of one who lacks a usual or socially acceptable amount of money or material possessions b: renunciation as a member of a religious order of the right as an individual to own property

2: scarcity , dearth

3 a: debility due to malnutrition b: lack of fertility

Note the difference in definitions ‘1 a’ and ‘2’. The perspective of ‘1 a’ is social, egalitarian and materialistic. It emphasizes a comparison between the material possessions of people. It equates self respect with prestige and prestige with the possession of material values.  It seeks to identify people in terms of class. By this definition, a worker in an industrial society who owns a car and is able to provide for his daily needs is nevertheless in poverty, simply because there are a large number of people who have bigger, better or more material possessions than him. If this definition is accepted, then it is in the nature of society for some of its members to be in poverty. Any attempt to eradicate poverty would then be a (necessarily futile) revolt against the nature of society. The nature of society cannot be a problem in itself and no further analysis of this definition is necessary (The fact that ‘1a’ ranks above ‘2′ is quite interesting but it is not the topic of this post).

This post will therefore be concerned with definition ‘2′ – poverty is scarcity. But scarcity of what? Scarcity of the values and conditions necessary for a proper human life. What are these values and conditions? Food, shelter and clothing are often considered to be the basic values necessary for life. But man needs to earn these values (and all others) by conscious, wilful and sustained effort and by the application of knowledge. Neither the effort nor the knowledge is automatic. Both are affected (to some extent atleast) by social and cultural conditions. In the absence of proper conditions, the lack of the basic values for life becomes endemic. This sort of poverty is a social and political problem and it is this that is the concern of this post – poverty as the lack of the social and cultural conditions necessary for man to flourish.

What are these conditions? The primary condition for a flourishing society is a respect for the mind. Man’s mind is his only tool of knowledge, his only judge of truth, and his only means of survival. All the values he needs to live, from basic material values like food, to abstract intellectual values like art, are a product of his mind. A respect for the mind has three aspects – rationality in ideas, egoism in ethics, and liberalism in politics. Rationality is the recognition that the mind is capable of understanding and dealing with reality. Egoism is the recognition that the mind (or self, or ego) is one’s greatest value. Liberalism is the recognition that the mind cannot coexist with force.

The primary cause for endemic poverty is a lack of respect for the mind, most commonly in the form of supernatural and religious beliefs. Supernatural beliefs destroy all three aspects of respect for the mind. By claiming that the truth is beyond the reach of the mind, they destroy rationality. By claiming that man’s ultimate purpose is something greater than his life (whether an after-life in heaven or a cosmic consciousness), they destroy egoism. By claiming that the truth is revealed only to certain prophets, they create figures of authority and destroy liberalism. Societies flourish only when some of their members are able to shake off these beliefs. Shaking off supernatural beliefs is not enough however. The many experiments in all kinds of socialism in the last century are a good illustration of this. The advocates and leaders of these experiments claimed to be rational and scientific even as they rejected egoism and liberalism. They only succeeded in plunging their societies into poverty and economic collapse. Rationality, egoism and liberalism are merely different aspects of the same philosophical outlook and it is not possible to practise them selectively. The only solution to endemic poverty is a culture of reason and the social and political institutions that are necessary to maintain it.

The crucial thing that must be understood is that endemic poverty is not just a lack of wealth but the lack of the conditions that make the creation of wealth possible. Unless these conditions are established, no amount of wealth redistribution will have any positive effect. Unearned wealth is not a solution to poverty but a catalyst for corruption and violence. It allows the unscrupulous powers that invariably rule irrational cultures to maintain their stranglehold on people by preventing their collapse. Over the past few years, there have been vigorous calls for action to end poverty by a certain date, mostly focusing on Africa. The proposed action consists of writing off loans and granting new ones to the corrupt and tyrannical regimes that rule most of Africa, the loans to be funded by tax payers in the developed world who are not responsible in any way for the irrational and primitive cultures in Africa. These calls for action are extremely repugnant – morally, practically, politically and economically. Morally repugnant, because they are attempts to achieve a sense of altruistic greatness, to be paid for by the forced redistribution of unearned wealth by selling unearned guilt to the people who produce that wealth. Practically repugnant, because a century of such attempts has shown that forced redistribution of wealth results in economic collapse and a loss of all individual rights. Politically repugnant, because such action can only be carried out by the further enslavement of productive individuals in a global welfare state, and because the beneficiaries of such action are corrupt and tyrannical governments. Economically repugnant, because such action consists of punishing success and rewarding failure.

This post is a call for action – not the action of donating to charities that help to sustain corruption and violence – but the intellectual action to discover, understand and apply the moral, political and economic principles that govern man’s life. An examination of Ayn Rand’s philosophy of Objectivism is a good place to begin.

Note: This post was written for Blog Action Day 08. It is also available on desicritics.org with an independent comment section

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