|Following up on David Gordon’s review of OPAR, I would like to offer some additional comments on it. Warning: The following post is very lengthy. |
Peikoffs problems have just begun. One more axiom must be considered: the law of identity, A is A. Peikoff has a remarkable propensity to draw odd conclusions from this uncontestable truth. For one thing, we learn that in "any given set of circumstances ...there is only one action possible to an entity, the action expressive of its identity. This is the action it will take, the action that is caused and necessitated by its nature" (p. 14). But why does Peikoff assume that an entity's nature allows it to perform only one action in given conditions? What if several actions are consistent with the thing's nature? Well, to say that “A causes B” means that “given A, B must happen.” If this were not the case, then on what grounds could one say that A is the cause of B? There would be no way to isolate causes, to determine what was responsible for what or what produced what? Causality, science and reasoning would all be eviscerated. Quoting H.W.B. Joseph in his book, An Introduction to Logic:
[I]f a thing is to have any determinate nature and character at all, there must be uniformity of action in different things of that character, or of the same thing on different like occasions. If a thing a under conditions c produces a change x in a subject s - if, for example, a light of certain wave-lengths, passing through the lense of a camera, produces a certain chemical change (which we call the taking of a photograph of Mount Everest) upon a photographic film - the way in which it acts must be regarded as a partial expression of what it is. It could only act differently, if it were different. As long therefore as it is a, and stands related under conditions c to a subject that is s, no other effect than x can be produced; and to say that the same thing acting on the same thing under the same conditions may yet produce a different effect, is to say that a thing need not be what it is. But this is in flat conflict with the Law of Identity. A thing, to be at all, must be something, and can only be what it is. To assert a causal connection between a and x implies that a acts as it does because it is what it is; because, in fact, it is a. So long therefore as it is a, it must act thus; and to assert that it may act otherwise on a subsequent occasion is to assert that what is a is something else than the a which it is declared to be. (pp. 407, 408)
Peikoff himself recognizes the point where human beings are concerned. "The law of causality affirms a necessary connection between entities and their actions. It does not however, specify any particular kind of entity or of action. ...[It] does not affirm or deny the reality of an irreducible choice" (p. 68). Thus, the law of identity allows only one action in given circumstances, except when Peikoff decides that it does not. I think this is a good criticism of Peikoff, who anticipates it by stating that there is only one action possible to a volitional consciousness, the act of choice. Under any given set of conditions, a person must choose; he cannot avoid having to make that choice. But, still, according to him, one need not choose the same way under the same conditions. So it is somewhat misleading to say that only one action is possible to a human being.
By no means has Peikoff finished with A is A. "As soon as one says about any such [non-man-made] fact: 'It is '- just that much – the whole Objectivist metaphysics is implicit. .. . Such a fact has to be; no alternative to it is possible....'To be, 'accordingly, is 'to be necessary"' (p.24). But even if one grants Peikoffs interpretation of causality, this conclusion does not follow. According to Peikoff, given any (non-made-made) entity, it must act in a certain way. From this, Peikoff concludes that the fact that the entity so acts is necessary. But all that he is entitled to conclude is that if the entity in question exists, its action is necessary. Peikoff jumps from this to the claim that the existence of the entity itself is necessary. The earth, by its nature, rotates on its axis. But the fact that on November 22, 1963, the earth rotated on its axis might for all that Peikoff has shown have been false. What if the earth had not existed on that date? Yes they did, in the sense that no alternative to them was possible. To say it’s possible for them not to have existed doesn’t make any sense. How could they not have existed? They were not created in the first place. They’re existentially primary.
Perhaps in reply Peikoff might claim that the earth exists because of the action of other entities; thus its existence is indeed necessary, since these entities had to act in the way they did. But this simply renews the problem: Did these entities have to exist?
And in any event, Peikoff does not claim that every entity is caused to exist. The universe, in particular, has no cause. Why then must the entities that form it exist? To say that the ultimate constituents of the universe have no cause is to say that they’re primary. And since they’re primary, they could not not have existed.
The law of identity has more wonders in store. From it, we know that God does not exist. God is an infinite being, but '"[ilnfinite' does not mean large, it means larger than any specific quantity, i.e., of no specific quantity. An infinite quantity would be a quantity without identity. But A is A. Every entity, accordingly,is finite" (p. 31). As Duns Scotus pointed out long ago, "infinite" when applied to God is an adverb: It modifies his attributes. If God is infinite in power, for example, his power is such that he can accomplish whatever he wishes that does not violate the laws of logic. Then his power is not infinite, because it is limited by the laws of logic. The law of identity states that since a thing is what it is, it can only act according to its nature, which rules out miracles.
But God's power is perfectly definite in character: It is not, as Peikoff thinks, an indefinitely large quantity. To say that God has power over everything is not to say that his power is "without form and void." To make matters worse, Peikoff appeals for support here to Aristotle's argument that the actual infinite does not exist (pp. 31-34). But this argument refers to bodies extended in space and is irrelevant to Peikoff's purpose. As will soon become apparent, the history of philosophy is not one of Peikoff's strong points. I still don’t think that you can say that God’s power is infinite if it is limited to what is possible.
How amazing is that simple principle, A is A! From its study we can derive not only facts about the world but appropriate attitudes toward them. Objectivism doesn't "derive" facts from the law of identity; it simply recognizes them as being in accordance with the law of identity. The laws of logic are ontological. We cannot think contradictory propositions precisely because we see that a thing cannot at once have and not have the same character. The necessity of thought is really a grasp of necessity in the nature of things.
"Metaphysically given facts are reality. As such, they are not subject to anyone's appraisal; they must be accepted without evaluation. Facts of reality must be greeted not by approval or condemnation, praise or blame, but by a silent nod of acquiescence" (p. 25). Only the man-made can be evaluated; one can, however, evaluate "physical concretes in relation to a human goal" (p. 464, n. 16). I had never before realized how irrational I had been in admiring the Grand Canyon. And when Kant, that fountainhead of evil, said that the starry heavens above filled him with awe, what more might he have said to manifest his disordered mind! How acquiescence is supposed to follow the recognition of necessity, 1 entirely fail to see. Why should we confine our approval or disapproval to what we can alter? Because approval and disapproval imply the possibility of choice.
But I had temporarily forgotten: A is A. T o disapprove of what exists is to rewrite reality (p. 27). If, for instance, a skeptic condemns "human knowledge as invalid because it rests on sensory data" (p. 27), he attempts to rewrite reality and has sinned grievously against reason. "But if knowledge does rest on sensory data, then it does so necessarily, and again no alternative can even be imagined" (p. 27). Once more Peikoff's point escapes me. The skeptic questions whether sensory data suffice for knowledge of the external world. How does it answer him to say that, necessarily, we rely on the senses? I don’t think that Peikoff is attempting to give a full-fledged refutation of skepticism in this passage. He addresses that issue more directly by invoking the fallacy of the stolen concept.
A prime concern of Objectivist epistemology is the nature of our concepts. As one would expect from our author, he offers a clear and forthright position. All concepts are integrations of perceptual data, and "there can be no concepts apart from sense experience. There are no innate ideas, ideas in the mind at birth. Consciousness begins as a tabula rasa (a blank slate); all of its conceptual content is derived from the evidence of the senses" (p. 38). As we shall at once see, Rand, and Peikoff following her, have a good deal to say about the way in which we derive concepts. But Peikoff gives no arguments whatever for the position he has just stated. How does he know that innate ideas do not exist! He does not tell us: Perhaps this is supposed to be another corollary of that ubiquitous principle, A is A. I do not contend that we do have innate ideas; rather, it seems to me, theories about the formation of concepts require argument. Peikoff, I gather, dissents. Peikoff would say that you can’t have knowledge of reality ahead of any contact with it.
Putting this issue to one side for a moment, how exactly do Rand and Peikoff think we acquire concepts! We do so by isolating a group of concrete entities and assessing their observed similarities. For example, a "child observes that a match, a pencil, and a stick have a common attribute, length" (p. 83). If the child integrates his observations in the correct way, he will acquire the concept of length. Not the concept; he doesn’t need the concept to perform this process. He can observe the similarities of the three objects against a background of difference, which is how one forms concepts in the first place.
And how is he to proceed?"Ayn Rand's seminal observation is that the similar concretes integrated by a concept differ from one another only quantitatively, only in the measurements of their characteristics. When we form a concept, therefore, our mental process consists in retaining the characteristics, but omitting their measurements'' (p. 83). To return to the child confronted by match, pencil, and stick, he must grasp that the objects have different quantities of the same unit in order to acquire the concept of length. This theory strikes me as a poor one. Measurement does not take place in a vacuum: One cannot just measure, but must measure something. And if someone is aware of what he measures, then he already has the concept that Peikoff thinks measurement will disclose to him.
What does the child who perceives a quantitative similarity in the three objects take his perception to be of! Length, of course. Measurement presupposes concepts; it does not create them. It does not presuppose concepts. You need more familiarity with Objectivist epistemology to understand the theory.
Further, even if my objection misfires, Peikoff as usual offers no argument to support his view of the way in which concepts are acquired. Well, it’s not a book devoted exclusively to epistemology, so there has to be some limits on how much space he gives to various topics.
Peikoff lives up to the standards readers expect from him in his analysis of the purpose of concepts. Because the human mind is finite, it can grasp at one time only a limited number of units. To cope with large numbers of units, consciousness "must have the capacity to compress its content, i.e., to economize the units required to convey that content'' (p. 106). The child who has mastered the concept "length" need not keep in mind the dimensions of every object of his acquaintance. He has a means of referring to them all. You can’t infer from Peikoff’s statements that every concept means everything that exists. The concept “red” refers only to red objects. Not everything that exists is red.
At the culmination of concept acquisition stands definition, which "identifies a concept's units by specifying their essential characteristics" (p. 97). But even though the definition cannot list all the characteristics of the concept's units, the concept nevertheless refers to all of these. "A concept is not interchangeable with its definition - not even if the definition ...happens to be correct. ...[A] concept designates existents, including all their characteristics, whether definitional or not" (p. 102).
Thus for Peikoff meaning is pointing. The concept "red", for example, points to all red objects that exist, and, incredibly, all the characteristics of these objects. I say "incredibly" because each characteristic itself designates all the objects (and their characteristics) to which it applies. By continuing in this way to spell out the entire meaning of a concept, one will fairly quickly arrive at the result that every concept means everything that exists.
Part of "red's" meaning is "apple," and since apples grow on trees, then "growing on a tree" becomes part of the meaning of "red." “Red” does not mean “growing on a tree”; there are obviously things growing on trees that are not red. However, it does mean (or refer to) every red object including those that grow on trees. Attributes are attributes of entities; they can be abstracted from entities, but they do not exist in isolation from them.
Peikoff also presents a distinctive account of volition. Commendably, he denies that human beings are inexorably determined by heredity and environment and endorses free choice. He supports a contro- versial but interesting argument that determinism, the denial of free choice, refutes itself: "When the determinist claims that man is determined, this applies to all man's ideas also, including his own advocacy of determinism. Given the factors operating on him, he believes, he had to become a determinist, just as his opponents had no alternative but to oppose him. How then can he know that his viewpoint is true?" (p. 71). Peikoff fails to mention any of the standard objections to this line of reasoning, which has generated an enormous literature.) True, and as I've argued elsewhere, it is here that I think Peikoff is on shaky grounds. I don’t think his self-referential argument against determinism will hold up under criticism.
A further problem for the theory of concepts is this: If concepts are integrations of perceptual knowledge, how can they apply to entities that have not yet been perceived! Well, they’re integrations of perceptual knowledge, but that doesn’t mean that they can’t be extended to cover future instances of the concepts they’ve integrated.
But Peikoff touches no philosophical topic that he does not spoil. According to Objectivism, he states, the "primary choice, ...the one that makes conceptual activity possible, is the choice to focus one's consciousness" (p. 56). By "focusing" he means raising one's level of awareness. Since the choice to focus is basic, it cannot be explained. "[Ilt is invalid to ask: why did a man choose to focus? There is no such 'why'. There is only the fact that a man chose: [H]e chose the effort of consciousness, or he chose non-effort and unconsciousness" (p. 60). We can exercise rational choice only if we focus; but focusing itself depends on choice. The circle is obvious: One cannot choose a condition that makes choice possible. Unless one were already focused, one could not choose to focus. Or can this choice proceed unawares? If so, why not other choices? Nor will it do in response to appeal to the alleged fact that the choice to focus is a "primary." Given the circle, this "reply" merely acknowledges irrationality, rather than attempting seriously to confront it. True, but I think Peikoff has a way out. He could say that one is dimly aware of the choice to focus, because focusing does not mean going from a state of literal unawareness to awareness, but of raising one’s awareness from a lower level to a higher level, which one is therefore responsible for doing. Once focused, one can then engage in a process of reasoning – of making new connections and drawing the appropriate conclusions.
Peikoffs problem arises, 1 am inclined to think, from his unsupported claim that awareness must result from choice. Why must one choose to focus? Perhaps one's state of awareness is determined, for all Peikoff has said to the contrary. His anti-determinist argument does not rule out the possibility. He would say that we are aware of the choice to raise our level of awareness, which we sometimes choose to do and sometimes do not.
The principles of Objectivist metaphysics and epistemology underlie the most famous part of Rand's philosophy: her egoistic ethics. Here, as always, "A is A" governs. In contrast to irrationalists like David Hume who profess to find a gap between facts and values, "Ayn Rand holds that facts -certain definite facts - do lead logically to values. What 'ought to be' can be validated objectively" (p. 207). This validation depends on the fact that the "realm of existence is the metaphysical fundamental; it is that which every concrete and every issue presupposes. According to Objectivism, this fact has a critical application to the field of values. The alternative of existence or nonexistence is the precondition of all values. If an entity were not confronted by this alternative, it would not pursue goals, not of any kind" (p. 209). In brief, Peikoff reasons as follows: A value is something that one acts to gain or keep. But only living beings can act. Unless, then, a being confronts the alternative of life or death, it cannot value. No doubt through insufficient grasp of the implications of "A is A". I entirely fail to see how the last step of this argument follows. Granted that one must be alive in order to choose, how does Peikoff obtain that "one must choose to be alive in order to choose?" He’s not saying that one must choose to be alive in order to choose; he’s saying that unless one’s existence depends on certain actions, one cannot value.
Peikoff illustrates his contention with a thought experiment devised by Rand. He asks us to contemplate an "immortal robot . . . not facing the alternative of life or death, [which] requires no action to sustain itself" (p. 209). According to Peikoff, the robot could make no other choices. Pain, intellectual pleasure, and friendship would mean nothing to it, because it need not pursue values in order to exist (pp. 209-11). Unfortunately, Peikoff gives no argument for the conclusion: He simply reiterates his contention for each value he considers in relation to the robot. He has evidently taken to heart Lewis Carroll's line: "What I tell you three times is true." Actually, I think that the robot example is a good one. It makes perfect sense to me. I don’t understand what you find inadequate or arbitrary about it.
Despite my criticisms of Peikoff, I must acknowledge that with this argument he has made a vital contribution to theology. Many religious believers think that after death they will either enjoy the eternal bliss of heaven or suffer the agonies of everlasting damnation. Thanks to Peikoff, they can end their concern. It does not matter whether one's destination is heaven or the lower climes. Both states are supposed to last forever: and to a being that cannot again die, nothing can matter. "Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire" portends nothing better or worse than "This day shalt thou be with me in Paradise." Oh, now I see why you don't find it convincing. It may help to realize that the essential point of the robot example is that values depend on having something to gain or lose by your actions. True, if heaven and hell existed, they would be enough to justify the existence of values to an immortal being. However, because they don’t exist and are mere religious fantasies, the reality is that values depend on the existence of life and on the happiness or suffering that results from actions that are beneficial or harmful to it.
The example of the immortal robot enables Peikoff to "reach the climax of Ayn Rand's argument. Only the alternative of life vs. death creates the context for value-oriented action, and it does so only if the entity's end is to preserve its life. By the very nature of 'value,' therefore, any code of values must hold life as the ultimate value" (p. 212). I once more confess to bafflement. How does Peikoff’s conclusion follow from the "fact" that only beings that face the choice of life or death can pursue values? Why must the necessary condition of value be the ultimate value! Once more, Peikoff offers no argument. Well, it’s more than simply that life is the necessary condition of value. Values are connected to life-promoting action. That which is life promoting tends to give rise to pleasure or happiness, and that which is harmful tends to result in pain or suffering. The existence of value is strictly a function of biology -- of the organism's goal of self-preservation.
Peikoff apparently rejects the contention of Austrian economics that economic value is subjective. Quite the contrary, it is objective: "The economic value of goods and services is their price ...and prices on a free market are determined by the law of supply and demand. ... The market price of a product is determined by the conjunction of two evaluations, i.e., by the voluntary agreement of sellers and buyers" (p. 396). While Peikoff is entirely right that demand and supply determine price, price is not itself a value or preference; it is the outcome of the values that each buyer and seller places on a product. To arrive at his conclusion that economic value is objective, Peikoff has elided the distinction between preferences and their results. I don’t think Peikoff would disagree with the Austrian’s subjective theory of value. He’s simply using ‘value’ here in a slightly different sense. After all, Rand defines a value as “that which one acts to gain and/or keep.” In other words, a value in this sense, is simply an object of an action," which in essence is what the Austrians would call a "subjective theory of value."