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[twenty twenty-four day thirty-one]: to be or not to be in degree

centaur 0

I’ve recently been having fun with a new set of “bone conduction” headphones, walking around the nearby forest while listening to books on tape [er, CD, er, MP3, er, streaming via Audible]. Today’s selection was from Leonard Peikoff’s Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand. Listening to the precision with which they define concepts is wonderful – it’s no secret that I think Ayn Rand is one of the most important philosophers that ever lived – but at the same time they have some really disturbing blind spots.

And I don’t mean in the political sense in which many people find strawman versions of Rand’s conclusions personally repellent, and therefore reject her whole philosophy without understanding the good parts. No, I mean that, unfortunately, Ayn Rand and Leonard Peikoff frequently make specious arguments – arguments that on the surface appear logical, but which actually lack warrants for their conclusions. Many of these seem to be tied to a desire to appear objective emotionally by demanding an indefensibly precise base for their arguments, rather than standing the more solid ground of accurate, if fuzzier concepts, which actually exist in a broader set of structures which are more objective than their naive pseudo-objective counterparts.

Take the notion that “existence exists”. Peikoff explains the foundation of Ayn Rand’s philosophy to be the Randian axioms: existence, identity, and consciousness – that is, there is a world, things are what they are, and we’re aware of them. I think Rand’s take on these axioms is so important that I use her words to label two them in my transaxiomatic catalog of axioms: EE, “existence exists,” AA, “A is A”, and CC, where Rand doesn’t have a catchy phrase, but let’s say “creatures are conscious”. Whether these are “true”, in their view, is less important than that they are validated as soon as you reach the level of having a debate: if someone disagrees with you about the validity of the axioms, there’s no meaningful doubt that you and they exist, that you’re both aware of the axioms, and that they have a nature which is being disputed.

Except … hang on a bit. To make that very argument, Peikoff presents a condensed dialog between the defender of the axioms, A, and a denier of the axioms, B, quickly coming to the conclusion that someone who exists, is aware of your opinions, and is disagreeing with their nature specifically by denying that things exist, that people are aware of anything, and that things have a specific nature is … probably someone you shouldn’t spend your time arguing with. At the very best, they’re trapped in a logical error; at the worst, they’re either literally delusional or arguing in bad faith. That all sounds good. But A and B don’t exist.

More properly, the arguing parties A and B only exist as hypothetical characters in Peikoff’s made-up dialog. And here’s where the entire edifice of language-based philosophy starts to break down: what is existence, really? Peikoff argues you cannot define existence in terms of other things, but can only do so ostensively, by pointing to examples – but this is not how language works, either in day-to-day life or in philosophy, which is why science has abandoned language in favor of mathematical modeling. If you’re intellectually honest, you should agree that Ayn Rand and Leonard Peikoff exist in a way that A and B in Peikoff’s argument do not.

Think about me in relationship to Sherlock Holmes. I exist in a way that Sherlock Holmes does not. I also exist in a way which Arthur Conan Doyle does not. Sherlock Holmes himself exists in a way that an alternate version of Holmes from a hypothetical unproduced TV show does not, and I as a real concrete typing these words exists in a way that the generic idea of me does not. One could imagine an entire hierarchy of degrees of existence, from absolute nothingness of the absence of a thing or concept, to contradictions in terms that could be named but do not exist, to hypothetical versions of Sherlock Holmes that do not exist, to Sherlock Holmes, who only exists as a character, to Arthur Conan Doyle who once existed, to me who existed as of this writing, to the concrete me writing this now, to existence itself, which exists whether I do or not.

Existence is what Marvin Minsky calls a “suitcase word”: it’s a stand in for a wide variety of other distinct but usefully similar concepts, from conceptual entities to physical existents to co-occurring physical objects in the same interacting region of space-time. And it’s no good attempting to fall back on the idea that Ayn Rand was actually trying to define “existence” as the sum total of “existents” because pinning down “existence” or “existent” outside of an ostensible “I can point at it” definition is precisely what Rand and Peikoff don’t want to do – first off, because they really do mean it to be “everything”, in almost the precise same way that Carl Sagan uses the word “Cosmos” to refer to everything that ever is, was, or will be, and secondly, because if it loses its function as a suitcase word, it is no longer useful in their arguments.

In reality, if you say “existence exists”, and someone attempts to contradict you, it does you no good to say “well, you’re contradicting yourself, because you had to exist to even say that”. You do need to actually put your money where your mouth is and say what concrete propositions you intend to draw from the terms “existence” and “exists” and the floating abstraction “existence exists” – and so do they. If you can’t do this, you’re not actually arguing with them; you’re talking past them; if they can’t do this, they’re at best not arguing coherently, and at worst not arguing in good faith. If you both DO this, however, you may come to profitable conclusions, such as, “yes, we agree that SOMETHING exists, at least to the level where we had this debate; but we can also agree that the word existence should not extend to this unwanted implication.”

This approach – reinforcing your axioms with sets of elaborations, models and even propositions that are examples of of the axioms, along with similar sets that should be considered counterexamples – is what I call the “transaxiomatic” approach. Rather than simply assuming the axioms are unassailable and attempting to pseudo-define their terms by literally waving one’s hand around and saying “this is what I mean by existence” – and simply hoping people will “get it” – we need to reinforce the ostensible concretes we use to define the axioms with more carefully refined abstractions that tell us what we mean when we use the terms in the axioms, and what propositions we hope people should derive from it.

This is part of an overall move from the philosophical way of tackling problems towards a more scientific one. And it’s why I think Ayn Rand was, in a sense, too early, and too late. She’s too early in the sense that many of the things that she studied philosophically – ontology and epistemology – are no longer properly the domain of philosophy, but have been supplanted – firmly supplanted – by findings from science – ontology is largely subsumed into physics and cosmology, and epistemology is largely subsumed into cognitive science and artificial intelligence. That’s not to say that that philosophy is done with those areas, but instead that philosophy has definitively lost its primary position within them: one must first learn the science of what is known in those areas before trying to philosophize about it. One cannot meaningfully say anything at all about epistemology without understanding computational learning theory. And she’s too late in that she was trying to DO philosophy at a point in time where her subject matter was already starting to become science. Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology is an interesting book, but it was written a decade after “The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two” and two decades before the “Probably Approximately Correct” theory of learning, and you will learn much more about epistemology by looking up the “No Free Lunch” learning theorems and pulling on that thread than by anything Ayn Rand ever wrote (or, try reading “Probability Theory: The Logic of Science” for a good one-volume starting point). Which is not to say that Ayn Rand’s philosophizing is not valuable – it is almost transcendently valuable – but if she was writing today, many of the more conceptually problematic structures of her philosophy could simply be dropped in favor of references to the rich conceptual resources of cognitive science and probability theory, and then she could have gotten on with convincing people that you can indeed derive “ought” from “is”.

Or, maybe, just maybe, she might have done science in addition to philosophy, and perhaps even had something scientific to contribute to the great thread rolling forward from Bayes and Boole.

Existence does exist. But before you agree, ask, “What do you really mean by that?”

-the Centaur

Pictured: Loki, existing in a fuzzy state.

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