Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Atlas Month in Wellington

A Library of Congress survey found it the second-most influential book after The Bible; the New York Times called it "one of the most influential business books ever written"; and author Ayn Rand described it as her challenge to the culture of the last two-thousand years: Rand's novel Atlas Shrugged hits most readers like a bombshell. Said Onkhar Ghate in a recent piece,
With the 1957 publication of Atlas Shrugged, Ayn Rand became the most remarkable of individuals: a moral revolutionary. For anyone interested in ideas, it's a book that deserves to be read and re-read.
And it is. With more copies being sold now than at any time in history (it reached #29 on Amazon's best-seller lists recently) Atlas Shrugged celebrates its fiftieth birthday in style, which is exactly what is planned in Wellington to celebrate the conclusion of 'Atlas Month.'

Join myself, Dave Henderson, Lindsay Perigo and a host of other enthusiastic Atlas readers in a celebration of this life-changing novel in Helengrad, the heart of darkness, on the evening of Saturday October 27, at a venue to be announced.

Start making plans to be there now, and keep watching this space for details. [And read all Not PC's stories on Atlas Shrugged here.]

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23 Comments:

Blogger Brian S said...

PC,

Great novel. Shame about the epistemology.

Damn it, you've motivated me to do a little light fisking of a part of John Galt's speech:

Man cannot survive except by gaining knowledge, and reason is his only means to gain it.

Knowledge creation requires more than just reason: it requires creativity.

Reason is the faculty that perceives, ...

Reason does not perceive anything. People perceive things and use reason.

...identifies and integrates the material provided by his senses.

Reason enables us to do far more. It enables us to solve problems and to explain things.

The task of his senses is to give him the evidence of existence, but the task of identifying it belongs to his reason, his senses tell him only that something is, but what it is must be learned by his mind. All thinking is a process of identification and integration.

Here we go again with the identification and integration. Thinking is a process of finding out what is true by solving problems and explaining things. Up to this point in his speech, John Galt has not used the word "explain" once. Yet explanation should be at the heart of all thought.

Man perceives a blob of color; by integrating the evidence of his sight and his touch, he learns to identify it as a solid object;...

By doing what? How does this integration work exactly? It seems more like that man makes a lot of conjectures about what it is and then whittles these down through trial and error.

...he learns to identify the object as a table; he learns that the table is made of wood; he learns that the wood consists of cells, that the cells consist of molecules, that the molecules consist of atoms.

And this is done merely by integrating the evidence of his sight and touch? Nah, to get down to cells, molecules and atoms requires creativity of the first order combined with a determination to test your conjectures to the limit in order that errors can be discovered.

All through this process, the work of his mind consists of answers to a single question: What is it?

Well, it's a table. But that's really rather boring. To properly explain the table requires explanations at many levels and these explanations will be motivated by a whole host of questions and problems. Not just 'what is it?'.

His means to establish the truth of his answers is logic, and logic rests on the axiom that existence exists. Logic is the art of non-contradictory identification. A contradiction cannot exist. An atom is itself, and so is the universe; neither can contradict its own identity; nor can a part contradict the whole. No concept man forms is valid unless he integrates it without contradiction into the total sum of his knowledge.

This is justificationism writ large. Valid is as valid may be, but truth is not beholden to what we consider valid. Why doesn't John Galt talk about truth, rather than validity? Relativity and Quantum Mechanics are inconsistent with each other, yet are we to consider either one invalid?

To arrive at a contradiction is to confess an error in one's thinking; to maintain a contradiction is to abdicate one's mind and to evict oneself from the realm of reality.

Ironically, there is a contradiction right here. John Galt wants to axiomatize all knowledge and to do so without contradiction. Well, Goedel's theorem states that any sufficiently powerful set of axioms either cannot capture all the truths about a system or will lead to inconsistency. So if you want to derive all the truths of your system from a set of axioms then you are up against Goedel's theorem.

The implication of this is that the discovery of truth is not just a process of turning the handle of reason on a set of axioms. To discover the truth we must argue for it, we must use our creativity to make bold conjectures and then test these through experiment and criticism. And because the truth is not manifest, we will make mistakes and some parts of other knowledge will seem contradictory with other parts.

John Galt is right that it is a mistake not to try to resolve the contradiction. But it may impossible to do so from your axioms.

10/03/2007 11:49:00 am  
Blogger PC said...

In fact, it's a very fine epistemology (that portrayed in 'Atlas') and a very poor fisking (yours).

For example:
**"Knowledge creation requires more than just reason: it requires creativity."

One does not "create" knowledge (not unless one does have a very poor epistemology). One acquires it. One acquires it by means of reason, just as Rand says we do.

**"Reason does not perceive anything. People perceive things and use reason."
You are confused. Reason is a faculty. Perception is a part of the faculty of reason -- indeed, it is reason's starting point. Reason is indeed the faculty we possess with which one perceives -- just as Rand says we do.

**"Reason enables us to do far more. It enables us to solve problems and to explain things."

Indeed it does to solve problems and to explain things, but only once one has first identified and integrated the material provided by our senses, in order that we have knowledge with which to perceive, understand and solve our problems. Which is what the faculty of reason does: it it the means by which we acquire knowledge.

**"Thinking is a process of finding out what is true by solving problems and explaining things."

Brian, you can't leap into "solving problems" before you even have knowledge. One must first acquire knowledge before one can even be aware that problems exist, let alon have the means by which to solve them.

This is really the crux of why your "criticalism" is both flawed and dishonest: it assumes what it sets out to prove, and it steals the concepts which it claims are unnecessary.

The irony is that you're not even able to affirm, based on your own criticalist epistemology, that your criticalist epistemology is itself even true.

The rest of your fisking is based on these most basic misconceptions of your own flawed epistemology, which is self-admittedly unable to provide us with knowledge, or to prove anything.

10/03/2007 12:19:00 pm  
Blogger AngloAmerican said...

You are a formidable debater PC.

Brian S - Knowledge creation requires more than just reason: it requires creativity.

Creation requires creativity? - excuse me if I think that's not all that profound.

There is nothing particularly special about creativity. It's observation (chance), replication (imagined or real or metaphorical), experimentation (replication with different ingredients and measures - mutation), communication (replication without mutation) - all features of the evolutionary process that work to acquire information and transmit it. Imagination, whereby the world can be virtually modelled and manipulated, is the crucial aspect of human creativity.

10/03/2007 01:09:00 pm  
Anonymous Falafulu Fisi said...

Brian S said...
Relativity and Quantum Mechanics are inconsistent with each other.

Not completely. Physics Nobel Laureate, late Paul Dirac, incorporated relativity into quantum mechanics in his formulation (relativistic quantum mechanics), which lead to the prediction that anti-matter (anti-particle) exists. Now we have PET scanners at every major hospital today, thanks to Dirac's formalism. So, it is not inconsistent completely as you say.

10/03/2007 01:25:00 pm  
Anonymous David S. said...

The main problem I see with the discussion between brian s and PC is your definition of the words "Creativity" and "Create"

"Create" can mean to essentially generate something out of thin air. It can also mean to evolve an idea through an analysis of the ideas components.

http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/creativity

I'd say good ol' dic.com probably defines creativity how brian s defines it (correct me if I'm wrong brian).

Using this definition, my 2c, which probably tends towards brian s views.

Perception does not exist on an objective level. Acquiring knowledge requires creativity because existence is viewed from a subjective viewpoint, and any expanded objective reality encompasses that viewpoint. Therefore It may not represent an unbiased view that is compatible with all other viewpoints without expanding past it's own epistemology. Knowledge is the result of perception and reason, but reason cannot exist without creativity to define its place within objective reality.

Using this view to expand further into orthodox objectivism...

All knowledge is based firstly on perception, then creativity and reason.

Free will is a concept which is much like the concept of an intelligent designer. It has no objective evidence supporting it. There is no variation in the decision making process observed in humans to suggest that such a variable exists. "free will" is merely a term used to explain a process we do not currently understand because of the complexity of our environment.

Irrationality is not just a failure to reason, but a failure to be creative and expand past rationality that has been made redundant by new perceptions.

10/03/2007 04:36:00 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think one of the major points you seem to have both glossed over is that my dad is in fact, bigger than your dad.

10/03/2007 04:42:00 pm  
Blogger PC said...

Too much to disagree with in your comment, David.

Let's just begin with creativity. You seem to wish to explain away the fundamental differences between Brian and myself as if they derive only from some semantic confusion over 'creativity.'

That would be a misunderstanding of our positions, and too of creativity.

You also seem to have bought the avowed conviction of contemporary philosophy and education that creativity is either a phenomenon that is separate from and independent of such conscious mental processes as memorization and the use of logic (and of all the unconscious and automatic processes involved in sense perception); either that, or else you ascribe to this process by which we humans acquire knowledge some notion that we 'create' our knowledge.

It's not true. Neither notion is true.

To be creative in any sense other than the meaningless, one must have material to be creative with. This is the only meaningful sense in which we can use the idea of 'creativity.'

But it would be inaccurate to describe what we do when we identify and integrate the material provided by our senses as 'creative' -- not if the word is going to have real referents -- just as it is inaccurate to call your description one of 'orthodox Objectivism.'

What you call 'creative' is the process wby which we identify and integrate the material provided by our senses. This is what Rand characterised by the term, 'the faculty of reason.'

I'd suggest that creativity begins only after that process of integration, if at all.

Oh yes, and my dad really is bigger than your dad. ;-P

10/03/2007 05:17:00 pm  
Blogger Greg B said...

I think Atlas and Fountainhead should be published in chapter and verse form, like the Bible, so that adherents can 'proof text' with greater accuracy.
It would make threads like this easier to follow.
A Randian Concordance would be nice too.

10/03/2007 05:33:00 pm  
Anonymous David S. said...

Firstly, this is what I actually said, as opposed to what you think I said,

"The main problem I see with the discussion between brian s and PC is your definition of the words "Creativity" and "Create""

I did not say it was the main difference between your philosophy's. I think it was the main problem with your explanations. Any advancement in conversation must remedy that.

Secondly,

Knowledge is something obtained through an understanding of perception. This understanding cannot be advanced without expanding past what level of understanding we already possess, as our perception of reality is constantly expanding. This is what I was attempting to explain with the use of the term, "creativity". You can disagree with the usage of the word if you like, but it really doesn't change the point I was trying to make.

Thirdly,

"Contemporary philosophy" does not say that objective reality is based on what we think. It does not invoke the irrational concept that that we create it with our own thoughts. It merely says that what we know is based on what we perceive, which is subjective.

Objective reality may exist, but our understanding of objective reality can only be advanced on a conceptual level, where observational variables have been canceled out.

10/03/2007 06:24:00 pm  
Blogger Brian S said...

One does not "create" knowledge (not unless one does have a very poor epistemology). One acquires it. One acquires it by means of reason, just as Rand says we do.

Indeed, knowledge is discovered and it was a mis-statement on my part to say "creation". I should have said: "knowledge discovery also requires creativity". But that doesn't change my point. John Galt makes the process of knowledge discovery sound so sterile. He rarely mentions, if at all, words that I consider essential to the process, words like truth, imagination, creativity, problem-solving, argument and explanation.

Brian, you can't leap into "solving problems" before you even have knowledge.

There is no such thing as a state of not having knowledge (unless you are brain-dead). Even a baby comes into the world hard-wired with some basic knowledge and abilities. Life is constantly throwing up problems and one must use whatever resources are at your disposal right there and then to solve them. Not to leap may mean death. It is in the process of solving the problems that we gain new knowledge.

One must first acquire knowledge before one can even be aware that problems exist, let alone have the means by which to solve them.

I think you are equivocating on the meaning of the word "acquire". We can acquire knowledge because it has been passed on from others through books, the internet and so forth. Or we can acquire new knowledge through solving problems. This is knowledge-discovery. All that knowledge that has been passed down was originally discovered through problem solving, even if you yourself didn't solve any problems. Of course, to even get into the position of acquiring knowledge from others, you had to solve a myraid of problems relating to how to live.

There is no such thing as not having a problem. Not for babies. Not for adults. That's life.

This is really the crux of why your "criticalism" is both flawed and dishonest: it assumes what it sets out to prove, and it steals the concepts which it claims are unnecessary.

If there is no such thing as not having a problem your criticism desolves doesn't it?

10/04/2007 05:07:00 am  
Blogger Brian S said...

AngloAmerican.

As I said to PC, I mispoke. I should have said "Knowledge discovery requires more than just reason: it requires creativity".

You have stressed that the process of knowledge discovery is like an evolutionary process and I would agree absolutely with that. As I said in another thread there are important links between criticalism and evolution. Evolution is a process of conjectures and refutations, just like criticalism. One process operates on genes, the other on memes (or ideas).

Or course, there are differences and one such is that human ideas do not happen through random mutations. They happen because we have goals and apply imagination, creativity, and reason to achieving our goals.

We do not understand human intelligence well enough to have a good theory of creativity (if we did, AI would already be a reality). We can say that it must be tempered by knowledge of reality and reason, but to claim that it is reason and reason alone would be wrong.

FF,

Yes, I wasn't saying that QM and relatvity are blatantly inconsistent, but that there is inconsistency, and most physicists agree that a more general theory linking the two is required.

But note: here is an example of what I am saying. There is a problem - inconsistency - and new knowledge will only arise by solving this problem. That will require bold conjectures and lots of criticism and testing. The solution will not arise by this mythical process of induction.

Another thing here is that the problem does not arise out of any evidence or observations, for all observations known are consistent with both theories. It arise out of purely theoretical matters.

David S,

I disagree about free-will. We have free-will. It is real. But that's another argument!

10/04/2007 06:27:00 am  
Blogger AngloAmerican said...

Thanks for your response Brian S. I was afraid my musings were a little sophomoric in the present company. Probably still are but here goes anyway:

Or course, there are differences and one such is that human ideas do not happen through random mutations.

I believe there is an essential element of randomness or chance or accident in human creativity. For instance drugs could play a role in creativity or even schizophrenia and other diseases like bi-polar disorder. Happy accidents also occur such as when ingredients are misread producing a product with useful properties that were not foreseen – stainless steel was a result of such an accident.
Maybe we could crack the AI thing if we could develop machines with accurate models of the world yet capable of regular goofing.

10/04/2007 08:13:00 am  
Anonymous lgm said...

Angloamerican

If you are out to create a "hard AI" being, then you need two attributes established right from the start:

1/. Massively distributed parallel processing (which is probably what gives the appearance of randomness, although it isn't random by any means)

2/. Ability to interact directly with reality (analogous to the senses and body of a man).



LGM

10/04/2007 08:55:00 am  
Blogger Brian S said...

PC,

On the question of reason and perception, you are the one confused. People perceive. The faculty of reason certainly helps in that process, but it is *you* that has the perceptions and you are more than just your faculty of reason. To ascribe perception to anything less than the person is to commit the homunculus fallacy.

10/04/2007 11:01:00 am  
Blogger Brian S said...

PC,

I know you are busy, but do you agree or disagree with the following?

For a person:

1. There is no such thing as a state of having no knowledge.
2. There is no such thing as not having a problem.

10/05/2007 04:51:00 am  
Blogger AngloAmerican said...

I bought the Penguin paperback version of Atlas Shrugged yesterday....1168 pages Ayyyy! Why didn't anybody warn me?

10/06/2007 07:23:00 am  
Blogger Brian S said...

AngloAmerican,

Yes, mucha big read. Definitely a book worth reading however. Ayn Rand hits a home run on many points. But I think you need to read it with a critical eye. I'm very familiar with the works of philosophers like Karl Popper and Bill Bartley and I came upon libertarianism through reading critical rationalists like these (David Deutsch the libertarian criticalist physicist also had a big impact on me). It was only later I read Rand and I found that having digested the critical rationalists that Rand's epistemology just fell apart at the seams.

PC,

Forgive me for posting yet another comment, but this statement of yours I think exemplifies a very important difference between us and is worth a retort:

The irony is that you're not even able to affirm, based on your own criticalist epistemology, that your criticalist epistemology is itself even true.

You see, this statement imples you know the ultimate truth. You have the ultimate explanation. Yet criticalists hold that explanation can always be pushed, that there are no limits to knowledge.

To think you have the ultimate explanation leads straight to authoritarianism. For if you have the ultimate explanation, then no further explanation is possible and to seek it futile. Ultimate explanation means no more problems, no more knowledge. Nihilism.

But the world is not like that. There will always be problems to solve and the quest for explanation will go on forever.

Criticalism fully recognises that. It says we can't know the ultimate truth because there is always more to explain and that is an optimistic and positive philosophy.

10/06/2007 10:13:00 am  
Blogger PC said...

Brian, I'm happy to accept your admission that 'criticalism' itself has no proof for its own veracity.

I would note however, that your related comment is instructive as to your error, here. You say that my "statement implies you know the ultimate truth."

This is far from being either a description of my position, or a necessary implication of my statement, but it does suggest, first, that despite your insistence on calling the Objectivist epistemology something it isn't (I repeat once again: it's not "justificationism") that you still don't understand it.

And, second, it suggests that you have a misconception of what genuine knowledge would consist of. Specifically, you appear to have accepted the notion that a false dichotomy between two flawed notions: that knowledge is either subjective and provisional, or it's intrinsic and somehow imprinted upon us automatically, bypassing your senses, and only such an intrinsically imprinted knowledge can be considered "ultimate" truth.

But, in fact, both views are flawed.

In fact, as I've argued before, the Objectivist epistemology explodes this dichotomy by pointing out that our knowledge is contextually absolute.

As I've suggested before, a genuine understanding of the Objectivist epistemology is not going to be achieved in a few internet posts. If you genuinely want to get to grips with the topic, then (as before) I recommend you tackle Rand's book 'Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology,' and Leonard Peikoff's treatment of the topic in his 'Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand.'

10/06/2007 11:40:00 am  
Blogger Greg B said...

Does no one see the humour that Objectivists start to sound like Christians when they appeal to lack of 'understanding' and 'insight' in their opponents?
"...you just don't understand it" and "...a genuine understanding..."

I thought Rand could explain it all in four points standing on one leg? That's a hell of a lot quicker than a blog thread.

I'm with Popper, thus I 'm with Brian S.

In all seriousness, Objectivism seems to strive towards an internal coherence that is in no way guaranteed by reality.

Why is it maintained that the four pillars, objective reality, reason, self interest, and capitalism, slot together in a self evident and indestructible complex?
Indeed, doesn't pillar 3, "self-interest", tend to bias the pillar 2 "reasoned debate", especially if there is a monetary advantage, pillar 4?


Moreover, Contextual Absolute is an obvious oxymoron! How can something be absolute but only within a context?
Is that why the debate around the constant speed of light was blogged a few weeks back? To demonstrate that even the absolute of c was contextual?
In this context I lack genuine understanding. Absolutely.

10/06/2007 01:00:00 pm  
Blogger PC said...

Greg, I find it odd that you find it necessary to misquote me to make your point (nowhere for example to I bewail a lack of "insight" -- the word is entirely yours), and to mischaracterise what I did say in order for you to equate christianity and Objectivism.

Most odd. Almost humorous.

Christians will certainly appeal to the impossibility of understanding the so-called mysteries of illogical conceptions such as the Trinity, but the fault here is that such conceptions can't be reconciled with logic or reason. Hence the need for "faith."

By contrast, I'm simply saying to Brian and others that if they really do want to understand what they're criticising, then it's clear from their many mischaracterisations of the Objectivist epistemology that short internet posts are not really the place to come to that full understanding -- or perhaps the fault is with my internet posts? -- that for a subject as technical as epistemology, digesting a fuller treatment is necessary.

But I think you knew that.

10/06/2007 03:47:00 pm  
Anonymous David S. said...

"contextually absolute."

This is a definition that can otherwise be termed as, "Scientific fact".

Take Newtons laws of kinematics for example, they have been scientific fact for centuries. Einstein comes along, reinvents physics from the ground up, but do we throw Newton out the window? Of course not, modern physics still encompasses what he discovered, it's expanded.

"contextually absolute." means that objective reality encompasses the fact that has been presented. It's important to realise however that these absolutes can only be defined on a conceptual level. As soon as you apply it to the, "real world", The unknown nature of objective reality, not to mention the margins of error that accompany any scientific measurement, will influence the outcome of any scenario.

So really, complete objectivity isn't applicable in the real world, it's only applicable on a conceptual level. However, unobtainable as it is, it is something that one can strive for by using reason.

10/06/2007 05:39:00 pm  
Anonymous David S. said...

"complete objectivity isn't applicable in the real world"

Attainable I should say, if we had complete objectivity I'm pretty sure it would be applicable :P

10/06/2007 05:41:00 pm  
Blogger Brian S said...

Brian, I'm happy to accept your admission that 'criticalism' itself has no proof for its own veracity."

I didn't say I can't back my criticalist position up with argument and explanation. I can. The point I made is that I can't say that further explanation is not possible, that criticalism, as it stands now, is the final truth, the final explanation. Can you say that of Objectivism? For if you can, you have admitted that the field is sterile.

I would note however, that your related comment is instructive as to your error, here. You say that my "statement implies you know the ultimate truth."

This is far from being either a description of my position, or a necessary implication of my statement,


So, I'm happy to accept your admission that you don't know whether Objectivist epistemology is really in fact true.

but it does suggest, first, that despite your insistence on calling the Objectivist epistemology something it isn't (I repeat once again: it's not "justificationism") that you still don't understand it.

I was commenting on your statement that "The irony is that you're not even able to affirm, based on your own criticalist epistemology, that your criticalist epistemology is itself even true." I didn't say anything about Objectivism. You wanted me to commit to saying I know the final truth about knowledge discovery and can prove it. Whereas criticalism says that knowledge can always be expanded, that explanation can be pushed. And that applies as much to criticalism as anything else.

Perhaps I don't understand Objectivism, but possibly it could be because Objectivism ultimately doesn't cohere? Anyway, on the topic of justificationism I quoted above this sentence from John Galt: "No concept man forms is valid unless he integrates it without contradiction into the total sum of his knowledge." I'm sorry, but I can't see this as anything but justificationism. Note these words: concept and valid. Justificationists care about concepts and validity. But this is really an invitation to endless definitionalism and argument about the meaning of words. What you should care about are truth and explanation: Concepts are important in so much as they help with explanation, but they are not more important than explanation. What you should care about is truth and you get at what is true by looking for error, not by looking for validity.

And, second, it suggests that you have a misconception of what genuine knowledge would consist of. Specifically, you appear to have accepted the notion that a false dichotomy between two flawed notions: that knowledge is either subjective and provisional, or it's intrinsic and somehow imprinted upon us automatically, bypassing your senses, and only such an intrinsically imprinted knowledge can be considered "ultimate" truth.

I stated above that even babies come into the world with knowledge that has been hard-wired in by evolution. I would say furthermore that sense organs come with what are in effect theories programmed into them by evolution (illusions bear testimony to this). But that is all. I have said nothing like "only intrinsically imprinted knowledge can be considered ultimate truth". I have repeatedly said that knowledge is discovered through problem-solving.

Problems confront you as soon as you pop into the world. To deal with these, the massively plastic neural assembly that is a baby's brain rapidly assembles and disassembles neural pathways as it makes conjectures to make sense of the world. This learning algorithm and the knowledge it embodies came courtesy of evolution. The conjecture are not word-conjectures of course, but they are conjectures. From this early process of making conjectures and testing them, knowledge grows in the brain. And at some point the brain learns to make word-conjectures.

The problem is that although we both believe in objective knowledge you have got the role of evidence wrong. Evidence allows us to test theory. But without theory, you do not know what to observe. You seem to think we come into the world tabula-rasa. But our brains already come programmed with knowledge from millions of years of evolution. That knowledge can't be articulated verbally, but it is there, and it allows us to get started in the world.

As I've suggested before, a genuine understanding of the Objectivist epistemology is not going to be achieved in a few internet posts.

Is genuine understanding possible if Objectivist epistemology is false? If it is true, I think you should be able to sum it in a few jargon-free posts (and, yes, I am refering to "contextually absolute" here. Why not just say "objective"? ).

Anyway, gotta go. Good discussion.

10/06/2007 10:44:00 pm  

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