Thursday, January 22, 2009

Ayn Rand: lost in translation

The strange arguments continue in my comments box below and I continue to be mystified. One of the 'objectivists' there claimed that

1. If the premises [of an argument] are known to be false, are arbitrary, or from revelation, then even if the logic is valid, the proof [i.e. the conclusion] is indeed not a claim about reality.

To which I immediately objected

2. God can reveal to me the truth of a mathematical theorem, which is a claim about reality, therefore (1) is false.

This is a standard form of argument used in philosophy. Someone claims 'if p then q'. If you are able to give an example of 'p and not-q' that is obviously true, then you have refuted them. Since (1) is equivalent to the claim that no conclusion revealed by God is about reality, it is clearly refuted by (2).

This argument (which as I say is a standard type of argument you learn early on when you study philosophy) drew a number of objections. The first was

3. If you can suddenly prove a mathematical theorem, which can be validated to all fair rationals in the world, you are within your rights to say you got it from God if you wish.

This is not an objection to my argument. I am arguing that (1) above is false, because according to (1), it is impossible for the premisses of an argument to be true, and for the conclusion to be about reality, i.e. for the conclusion to be true. But the example (2) clearly demonstrates that it is possible for true premisses to be derived from revelation. It might be questioned whether I knew the conclusion to be true, because I was relying on revelation and not mathematical understanding. But a true proposition is unquestionably true, whether I know it or not. The next objection was

4. Your (hypothetical) revelation from God is no demonstration of its truth. If the content of the revelation, once examined in real world terms, is found to be true, then logic prevails from the latter reasoning, not from the former.

The argument here is that because the conclusion is not demonstrably true (because its truth is revealed), therefore it is not true. This is false again, and seems to rest on a confusion between truth and demonstrable truth. If a proposition is true, it is true, even if it is not demonstrably true. The next objection was

5. Even if metaphysically factual, the mathematical revelation is not epistemically true.

I don't understand what are meant by 'metaphysically factual' or 'epistemically true'. The latter probably means 'is not known to be true'. To be sure: if God reveals a true proposition to me, without my understanding why it is true, I probably cannot be said to know it. But that does not show it is not true.

When I suggested that 'objectivists' tend to make claims about truth and logic and metaphysics as though they were experts on the subject, which turn out to be nonsensical or silly, or ill-thought out, it was objected that this is because non-objectivists use concepts 'loosely'. This contradicts my impression that objectivists (or at least the ones here) use concepts loosely. It seems to me that they confuse the notions of truth and validity, of truth and knowledge of truth, of proofs and statements. These are all concepts used by logicians and which have a clear meaning that is carefully taught in elementary logic classes. I put it to the objectivists that it is not logicians who 'use concepts loosely'.


J said...

Agreed, but I contend the confusion stems from an inability to distinguish the a priori from a posteriori, or more broadly rationalism from empiricism. Their objectivism re external reality is posited and insisted upon, not proven. They are really out and out naturalists, even of Darwinian sort (or is it........occultic sort), but use a few lightweight philosophical terms to lend a certain traditional flavor to the naturalism.

That said, I don't object to the naturalistic elements completely, but to the BS. If Objecitivists just said, "nature exists," or "nature is all that exists," mind is matter, etc. or "scientific materialism explains everything" they at least would be a bit more honest.
really, Rand's not far from the Quinean school, though sans functionalism: Quine actually doesn't believe abstractions like Mind, or ideas, or Reason itself hold.

J said...

"""2. God can reveal to me the truth of a mathematical theorem.""""

Until you can prove that, your point is moot (and again, we might recall that Kant himself offered a list of compelling counterarguments to the classical arguments for God. Bertrand Russell updated that list). I suspect that, like the Maverick, your Rand-bashing is really just atheist-and-skeptic and non-xtian bashing in disguise. Rand does deserve some bashing--her pseudo-aristotelian axioms may be crude--but the essential naturalism of Objectivism does not lack force, or even evidence for it's support.

Edward Ockham said...

>"""2. God can reveal to me the truth of a mathematical theorem.""""
>>Until you can prove that, your point is moot

OK leave God out of it. Suppose an ordinary person reveals the truth to me.

I am not sure you understood the argument I was making, which was not meant to be theistic.

J said...

I'm not defending Objectivism, though on the other thread "Richard" said more or less that deduction depends upon induction. He was correct in so far that arguments are only as good as the propositions used as premises: one may put together a valid argument (syllogism) using false or imaginary premises--like the one using the Hobbit--but it's pretty much shiets and giggles since the premises are purely imaginary, unverified, in short, wrong. The validity of the form (ie modus ponens, say) is separate from the soundness (is truth) of the premises. I don't think many Objectivists realize that, so Richard gets a gold star.

Of course you could just use numbers and equations, or summation signs, etc, and in that case have sound, valid arguments (assuming you do the math right) . As I said before, however, logicism as a doctrine has shortcomings, and I agree with the brighter Objectivists that most useful knowledge (ie medicine, chemistry, etc) results from inductive research.