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[twenty twenty-four day thirty-six]: accepting reality is not denying rationality

centaur 0

One of the most frustrating things reading the philosophy of Ayn Rand is her constant evasions of reality. Rand’s determinedly objective approach is a bracing blast of fresh air in philosophy, but, often, as soon as someone raises potential limits to a rational approach – or, even, in the cases where she imagines some strawman might raise a potential limit – she denies the limit and launches unjustified ad-hominems.

It reminds me a lot of “conservative” opponents to general relativity – which, right there, should tell you something, as an actual political conservative should have no objections to a hundred-and-twenty year old well tested physical theory – who are upset because it introduces “relativism” into philosophy. Well, no, actually, Einstein considered calling relativity “invariant theory” because the deep guts of the theory actually are a quest for formulating theories in terms that are invariant between two observers, like the space-time interval ds^2, which is the same no matter how the relative observers are moving.

In Rand’s case, she and Peikoff admit up front in several places that human reason is fallible and prone to error – but as soon as a specific issue is raised, they either deny that failure is possible or claim that critics are trying to destroy rationality. Among things they claim as infallible products of reason are notions such as existence, identity, and consciousness, deterministic causality, the infallibility of sense perception, the formation of concepts, reason (when properly conducted), and even Objectivism itself.

In reality, all of these things are fallible, and that’s OK.

Our perception of what exists, what things are, and even aspects of our consciousness can be fooled, and that’s OK, because a rational agent can construct scientific procedures and instruments to untangle the difference between our perception of our phenomenal experience and the nature of reality. Deterministic causality breaks down in our stochastic world, but we can build more solid probabilistic and quantum methods that enable us to make highly reliable predictions even in the face of a noisy world. Our senses can fail, but there is a rich library of error correcting methods both in natural systems and in in robotics that help us recover reliable information that is useful enough to act upon with confidence.

As for the Objectivist theory of concepts, it isn’t a terrible normative theory of how we might want concepts to work in an ideal world, but it is a terrible theory of how concept formation actually works in the real world, either in the human animal or in how you’d build an engineering system to recognize concepts – Rand’s notion of “non-contradictory identification” would in reality fail to give any coherent output in a world of noisy input sensors, and systems like Rand’s ideas were supplanted by techniques such as support vector machines long before we got neural networks.

And according to Godel’s theorem and related results, reasoning itself must either be incomplete or inconsistent – and evidence of human inconsistency abounds in the cognitive science literature. But errors in reasoning itself can be handled by Pollock’s notion of “defeasible” reasoning or Minsky’s notion of “commonsense” reasoning, and as for Objectivism itself being something that Rand got infallibly right … well, we just showed how well that worked out.

Accepting the limits of rationality that we have discovered in reality is not an attack on rationality itself, for we have found ways to work around those limits to produce methods for reaching reliable conclusions. And that’s what’s so frustrating reading Rand and Peikoff – their attacks on strawmen weaken their arguments, rather than strengthening them, by both denying reality and denying themselves access to the tools we have developed over the centuries to help us cope with reality.

-the Centaur

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