Wednesday, December 22, 2004

Objectivism - Objective Reality


Time for a counter-article. I had a bit of a go at Ayn Rand for being sloppy in presenting her philosophy, but there are some things in her wider writings which I think are sound philosophy and should be generally promoted.

The first idea I would like to address is that of the primacy of existence. Consider yourself. Now consider the world around you - clearly there is a delineation between what you can control through thought and what you cannot. You exercise the most control over your own thoughts, followed by your body, and exert little appreciable control over reality at large.

Descartes used this to formulate the mind-body problem, and concluded that the only thing we can be certain of is our own mind - everything that comes from the outside, including in his philosophy the feelings of our body - could just as well be illusion.

Rand basically dismisses this as being so much hocus-pocus, and not of any use. You try getting pushed off a cliff while asleep and see whether you land or not. Her base practicality leads people to attack some of the more subtle implications alluded to - such as best-interest ethics rather than absolute or spiritual ethics.

The two problems can be to some extent unified with a little linguistic gymnastics. We know from vast, repeatable experience that there is a difference between what our thoughts can control, and what they cannot. We cannot fly just by wishing it, nor can we prevent the external world from having effects back inside our mind (sensations of pain for example). If the world we live in is an illusion, of what is it an illusion? Just because we see the world through human-coloured glasses, does that mean we are looking at nothing?

Of course not. Rand makes this point herself - Descartes threw the baby out with the bathwater. Just because we cannot trust our senses to be accurate, that doesn't mean that they are reporting arbitrarily. Understanding the world we live in is simply useful, and simply taking action requires a mental conception of it. Forgetting about the value of science for a moment, simply living and acting requires a mental model of the world that is sufficiently close to reality that we can continue.

Reality, as she says, exists, and while we may misunderstand it, or experience it poorly, there is still an underlying nature to the world which does not depend on our understanding of it. There might be a sense in which it is affected by our understanding of it, but to claim that we can turn lead into gold by wishing it is not the road to success.



Blogger ShaolinBoxerBear said...

I have studied a little philosophy, and so I am going to do the best that I can to represent my opinion the best that I can. Please bear in mind that I don't have the extensive reserch in the field as you do. I study Cultural Anthropology, and one of the subjects that I have been most impressed with is the area of shamanism, magic, and religious practice of small tribes, and band societies. So with that in mind, and with the current topic being some of Descartes, Ill be honest. I didn't buy his argument either. But there is somthing that I must address. I understand that philosophy is trying to make a rational inquery, and I understand that there are some things that must stand up to rationality, if not just for the sake that we have kind of rule by with to compare things. But, in my reserch, in my field there seems to be a very sincere bond between how the mind thinks, the mode of reality that a culture lives in, for instance some of the tribes of South America, like the Yanamomo (I am sure Im murdering the spelling of their people, so please, if there are Yanamomo's reading this, a thousand apologies) and the Massi Tribe. Two totally different ways of looking at the world, and in turn that does have a profound impact on how they interpret the data that comes into their brains and governs reactions, beliefs, etc. Now I understand that there is a difference between that and lets say a brick wall that if one chooses to walk through then they are more apt to get a bloody nose from. But personally, I think that wholesale reality is just one mode of existence, and yes it seems to follow some very strict guidelines that have yet to be proven anything other than what it is, a common experience that we all seem to share with very predictable accuracy. But there are more subtle forms of reality that seem to be more flexable. For instance, I remember an instructor, who was a fantastic man, told us a story about a woman that she had met in Mexico. She had traveled with them some two hundred miles to be witness to an archeological dig that was being done from her own village. Now in archeology its a bitch to start the dig cause its really no better than throwing a lawn dart into the air blindfolded and then where it lands is where you start your dig. You get an idea of where the artifacts are, and really everything else from there is guess work till you start diggin up artifacts. But, as they were trying to figure this out, she pointed to two areas and in one, she said there was a man of the wing, and in another area she said there was a man of the sea that were buried. They choose to dig in those two spots and sure enough in the first one, there was a man who was decked out in a very elaborate feather headress, and the other spot was a man who was buried with a massive amount of sea shells. This woman wasn't from the area, so she really didn't have any cultural context to go off of. Now as a scientist, you wanna be factual, and rational. But when you experience these kinds of things, it makes you wonder sometimes, if maybe the reality that we all seem to experience isn't as "fixed" as we like it to be. Truthfully, Im sure there are some reasonable explanations that could explain the accuracy of her claims, but they at that point are almost as rediculous as the idea that she somehow is able to flitter into the spirit world and communicate with the dead. There are a lot of documented examples of this. Now please forgive me, cause I have yet to read Ayn Rand, so I am somewhat ill informed about the context of your blog in reference to her. But in my opinion, I think that just because we cannot rationalize things, dosent necessarily rule out the possibility that there may be more than what we can experience with our crude five sences, or any of the technology that we have yet. Perhaps there is more out there, maybe its not so much that reality is an illusion, but that there is just way more to reality than what we can see, touch, smell, hear, and taste. I am all for the rational mind, cause after all, that is the best tool I have for observing the universe, but at the same time, one can be so rational, that perhaps they take a little of the magic out of living, or even worse, that they refuse to see anything more than what they can wrap their rational mind around. Rationality is a tool, but I don't belive (note, I stated BELIVE) that it is a total mode of existence. There are plenty of cases of the unexplainable, and yes, perhaps its like Benjamin Warf said, its just a cloud of fog that to some appear as a ghost, but at the same time, some of those clouds of fog seems to be very convincing in their states of incognito as the "paranormal" or "slight fluxuations of reality". Thanks for reading this.

12/23/2004 08:33:00 PM  
Blogger MelbournePhilosopher said...

No worries - thanks for posting such a long comment. Here's my basic response to spiritualist arguments. I won't turn this into a long discussion, you can visit and subscribe to the discussion list if you want email interaction. But here goes :

I break spiritual arguments down into two camps. The first camp is "lame-brained faeries from the sky" and the second camp is "logic doesn't explain the world, and this stuff is interesting". I have plenty of time for people in the second camp, and little for people in the first.

Examples of people in the first camp :
"My drinking problem is God's fault"
"It doesn't matter if I kill people if it's God's will"
"The voices in my head told me so"

Examples of people in the second camp :
"We have two wolves inside of us - one is vicious and angry, the other is peaceful and happy. The one that wins is the one that we feed the most"
"Basic human rights belong to everyone, and it is right to uphold them"
"Logic comes second to love"

You've got two sorts. People who can't sort out the world and have mentally retreated from thinking properly, and on the other hand people who understand that the world is a rich place and that we shouldn't assume otherwise.

12/23/2004 08:44:00 PM  
Blogger mh said...

People who fall into the second camp are called "philosophers" (according to Socrates' dictum that philosophy begins in wonder).

1/01/2005 06:15:00 PM  
Blogger Jack Benway said...

You wrote:

"Reality, as she says, exists, and while we may misunderstand it, or experience it poorly, there is still an underlying nature to the world which does not depend on our understanding of it. There might be a sense in which it is affected by our understanding of it, but to claim that we can turn lead into gold by wishing it is not the road to success."

You're missing the point she made. There is no sense in which reality is affected by our understanding of it. To claim this would be a quick path to Berkley's solipsism. The whole point of Objectivism is that reality is not affected by subjective perception. Our perception of reality may be erroneous and varied, but there is objective reality. If you miss that point, you miss the whole point of Objectivism.

7/09/2006 06:44:00 PM  

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