Short Review of OPAR

Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand by Leonard Peikoff was one of the first philosophy books I read, back when I was a teenager. It persuaded me that philosophical questions had objective answers and provided a coherent framework that I could use to approach philosophical issues with.

The book is a distilled presentation of the essential theoretical structure of Objectivism. It starts at the foundation with metaphysics, then proceeds to concept formation, epistemology, the good, the moral virtues, politics, capitalism, and aesthetics. Each topic is explained clearly and linked to the foregoing and previous.

Peikoff’s presentation of Rand’s philosophy is very engaging and persuasive. I recommend it if you’re interested in a compelling, systematic challenge to your worldview.

Disjunctive Syllogism

The disjunctive syllogism is a form of deductive reasoning that goes as follows:

  1. Either p is true, or q is true.
  2. p is false.
  3. Therefore, q is true.

This is a deductively valid form of reasoning because, given that p and q are the only alternatives, and p is false, q has to be true. The conclusion follows necessarily from the premises in virtue of the form of the argument.

This form of reasoning is useful when we have a small set of hypotheses, because we can use it to narrow down which one is true. For example, in a murder trial, we might know that the only people at the scene of the crime were Alex and Bob. So, we could reason as follows.

  1. The murderer was either Alex or Bob.
  2. Alex is on video camera in a different room at the time of the murder, so he can’t be the murderer.
  3. Therefore, the murderer was Bob.

Importantly, this requires us to actually have a good reason to believe that Alex and Bob were the only people at the scene of the crime. If there is evidence that there might have been a third person at the scene of the crime, then our argument commits the fallacy of the false dichotomy, because there is a third possibility, namely that the murderer was this third person. This may create “reasonable doubt” in the jury’s mind about whether Bob was the murderer, depending on the other facts.

However, alternative hypotheses cannot be generated arbitrarily. There has to be some reason to take a hypothesis seriously before it becomes an objection to our argument. For example, the defense attorney can’t say “maybe a Martian was the murderer” – that is a doubt, but it is not a reasonable one, and so does not undermine our argument.

Objective Definitions

I was asked on another website how we should treat definitions that aren’t strictly convertible with the concepts that they define. In other words, in mathematics and logic, you can generally just substitute a concept whenever its definition appears, because there is nothing more to the concept than its definition states. You can’t do that with a lot of definitions elsewhere. For example, a horse without hooves is still a horse even though it doesn’t strictly meet the definition of a horse.

However, even when we define a term in mathematics, we don’t generally do so as an end in itself, and if we did our definition would quickly be forgotten or discarded. We formulate our definitions in order to prove things from them. The definition names a useful starting point in our reasoning for seeking out and identifying logical connections that exist objectively.

So, on the view I’m defending, our main goal when we define something isn’t necessarily to come up with a definition in which the subject is strictly convertible with the predicate, it is to identify the essence of the subject. This is a true proposition, in genus and differentia, from which the most of the subject’s known attributes follow, whether causally or logically. If the definition is convertible with the concept it defines, great, but if not, that’s fine too.

So, when we’re defining, say, a horse, the goal shouldn’t be to come up with a proposition that’s true of every horse, although it would be great if we could. We want to find the essence, a proposition which identifies the genus and differentia from which the most of the attributes of horses follow. We want the definition to do this because it will enable us to draw the most true generalizations about horses in our subsequent research, although we may have to take particular exceptions like the occasional horse without hooves into account when we are reasoning about them specifically.

Putting God on Trial

A lot of atheists hold that although they don’t have any evidence that God exists, and therefore don’t believe in God, he might exist. It’s just very unlikely.

One of the atheists who hold this position is Matt Dillahunty, who compares the atheist’s position on God’s existence to a trial verdict. In a trial, the defendant is not found to be innocent, they are found “not guilty” – meaning that there wasn’t enough evidence to convict them of a crime. Analogously, according to Dillahunty, the atheist is not finding God innocent of existing, i.e., concluding that God does not exist. Rather, he is finding God “not guilty” of existing, meaning that there isn’t enough evidence to conclude that God exists.

I agree that there isn’t any good evidence for God’s existence, but the conclusion Dillahunty draws is not the correct one.

I like the analogy to a trial, so I’ll stick with that. Before a trial is held, there is a preliminary hearing to determine whether there is enough evidence to warrant even having a trial, which is a lengthy and laborious affair. Similarly, before considering a position, it is necessary to have some evidence indicating that it might be true, and is worth investing one’s limited time and energy in exploring further. Positions that fail this initial inspection are “arbitrary.”

Once we have concluded that a position is arbitrary, there is no need to consider it further. We are not obligated to assign it some “degree of probability,” since it has no relation to our knowledge, and hence there is no basis for such a probability assignment. Nor are we obligated to say that it is “possible” or “might be true.” A claim is possible, epistemically, if there are some facts in its favor, but there are no facts in favor of a claim if it is just an arbitrary assertion.

The correct position for an atheist to hold on God’s existence isn’t “it’s very unlikely, but it might be true,” it is “I have no reason to consider that idea.”

A Bad Argument for Moral Subjectivism

I have seen moral subjectivists imply the following argument at times:

  1. Either morality is based on God or morality is subjective.
  2. Morality is not based on God.
  3. Therefore, morality is subjective.

The argument is rarely put this clearly, but I suspect it’s a pattern of reasoning many moral subjectivists follow. They start out as Christians, accept that God doesn’t exist, and conclude that there is no morality, since the only concept of morality they are familiar with is supernatural. (This premise could also be seen as suggested by much of the moral debate in certain areas of the internet, which is mostly between divine command theorists and moral subjectivists.)

This is a bad argument because the first premise is unjustified – there is no reason why objective morality would have to be based on God. This is a Christian premise that there is no reason to accept on a secular worldview.

On a secular worldview, objective morality is much more likely to be based on the desire to live a good life. Everyone reading this likely wants to be happy, and you will be happier if you develop certain character traits in yourself over time. One example of such a character trait is productivity. People who are characteristically productive are likely to be happier than people who are lazy, because they will have accomplished more, so they will have higher self esteem, and they will likely be materially better off (more so than they would have been, at any rate).

This is the approach to morality moral subjectivists need to be considering when they make their case for moral subjectivism, not the much less plausible supernaturalist approach. We don’t use the pattern of reasoning “not supernatural, therefore subjective” in scientific issues, so we shouldn’t use it in philosophical issues.

Science and Philosophy

In an earlier post, I argued that neuroscience was relevant to philosophy of mind, because neuroscience provided support for the claim that the brain is not unified in the sense that consciousness is, which is an important claim in philosophy of mind (see the post for elaboration).

I have reconsidered this, because it occurred to me after a discussion with one of my professors that we don’t need neuroscience to know that the brain is not unified like consciousness is. Anyone can see, from the most elementary, pre-scientific knowledge of what the brain is, that the brain is not indivisible. You can’t have half of a mind, but you can have half of a brain.

This is part of a consistent pattern I have observed. Scientific experiments which claim to contribute to philosophical debates always, in my experience, end up falling into one of two traps:

  1. Triviality: The philosophical point the scientific experiment attempts to prove could be argued for equally well from pre-scientific knowledge.
  2. Ambiguity: The scientific experiment can be re-interpreted by opponents of the philosophical claim it attempts to prove.

I’ve yet to see a scientific experiment that didn’t fall into one of these two traps. However good it may be as science, when it is interpreted as an argument for or against a philosophical position it always turns out to be trivial or ambiguous.

This is not to say that you can’t make it easier or harder to hold a philosophical position using science. I would say that scientific discoveries like the theory of evolution have made it harder – not impossible, but harder – to believe in God. I do not mean to say that there is a deductive argument for atheism here, but familiarity with the theory of evolution could give a person the sense that the world is entirely explicable naturalistically, or knock out primitive forms of the teleological argument that formerly served as a basis for faith.

Objective Meaning

The anonymous author of the blog Believe or Doubt recently made a post about objective meaning with respect to theism and atheism. According to believeordoubt, atheists do not have objective meaning, meaning based on something other than their feelings. Therefore, atheists do not have meaning at all, i.e., they do not have true meaning.

There is a fundamental assumption that religious people make and atheists deny, without it often coming into consciousness: true meaning must be objective. That is, the feeling of meaning is not the same as real meaning.

believeordoubt, being religious, sides with the religious people on this. She gives the analogy of Nozick’s experience machine, a machine that could give you the illusion of a completely perfect life. According to believeordoubt, most people would not enter the experience machine, because it isn’t real. In the absence of objective meaning, there is no meaning.

In my view, the atheist has no problem supplying his or her life with objective meaning, as defined by believeordoubt.

A conclusion is objective, not based on feelings, if it is based on observation and logic. An atheist should have no problem gathering observations about his or her own desires and interests, the world around them, and the available productive careers. By reflecting rationally on those observations, the atheist could fashion for him or herself an objectively meaningful life (and I submit that many of them do).

Such a meaning is not properly described as based on feelings, since the atheist is not just saying “welp, I feel like being a doctor today.” One’s life would be meaningless if one went into a career by whim, without thinking about it, but the application of evidence and logic to the issue removes that possibility.

Now, believeordoubt may mean something other than this by “objective meaning,” but if she does then I don’t know what it could be. Since no definition is provided, one could reasonably assume that she is tacitly defining objective meaning as meaning provided by God, in which case her argument is viciously circular.