Quick Roundup 284

Monday, December 17, 2007

Atheism Equated with Religion

Well. The good news, such as it is, is that Ayn Rand finally gets mentioned in the debate about the "new atheists". The bad news is that she is confused with them.

Whatever you may think of David Sloan Wilson after reading this slapdash article (via Randex), in which he misrepresents Objectivism and puts words into Ayn Rand's mouth, credit him for the following succinct confession that he feels that knowledge is not possible without omniscience: "As for the canons of rational thought, to the extent that brains evolved by natural selection, their main purpose is to cause organisms to behave adaptively in the real world--not to directly represent the real world."

This fundamental error in epistemology leads Wilson in turn to: (1) draw a false distinction between what he calls "actual realism" and "practical realism" (whereby delusions can have an evolutionary advantage); (2) conclude that scientific theories are often "purpose-driven" (in a cynical, underhanded sense) and "cannot be expected to approximate factual reality when they are proposed" since so many eventually are disproved -- I mean "become weirdly implausible with the passage of time" -- rather than being connected enough to reality to prove or disprove (But to admit that would be to admit that man can know things, which would defeat Wilson's purpose.); (3) misrepresent and then condemn Ayn Rand's philosophy for holding that certainty is possible.

He does this last by discussing how the "real world" is full of "messy trade-offs" (Does his mind alone directly know this?) as if Ayn Rand never considered such a problem once in her life. Wilson snidely derides Objectivism for "telling" the "believer" "what to do", but in addition to claiming that Objectivism can't offer guidance in "messy" situations, he both ignores the fact that the whole purpose of any ethical system is to provide some guidance for action (especially in such "messy" situations) and the fact that that in the course of living one's life, one can make choices within an ethical framework. Note also that Wilson is smuggling in unquestioned the religionists' premise that ethics is all about commandments.

Not only did Ayn Rand successfully argue against the premise (another that Wilson both assumes and shares with religionists) that ethics is based fundamentally on a consideration of how one's actions affect others, she weighed the risks and rewards of smoking and chose to smoke for a time. And she later changed her mind after receiving medical advice. And so we see both (1) that Ayn Rand did consider situations involving "messy trade-offs" and (2) that her philosophy, by her own example, was not just some inflexible set of marching orders. Rand chose to accept the health risks of smoking so she could enjoy doing it.

Wilson, for all his professed worship of "complexity", for all his blathering about interesting shades of grey, demonstrates through his simplistic caricature of Ayn Rand and her philosophy that he has hardly bothered to learn anything about Objectivism and probably would be unable to appreciate its subtlety even if he tried.

I was originally going to rebut Wilson's charge that we Objectivists accept everything Rand says without question, but upon further reflection, I do not think that this is necessary. How would one take marching orders from someone whose "orders" I would summarize as, "Use your own mind to grasp reality, and in particular, to understand and evaluate as true or false what I have said. Express agreement with me only if you really do agree."

So Wilson thinks that man knows nothing because his brain does not "directly represent the real world" and that people make stuff up as they go along in a "purpose-driven" way. All I can say to that is, "Speak for yourself, Mr. Wilson."

Except that he already has.

Parting shots aside, why is it that evolutionary psychologists never seem to consider whether there might be an "evolutionary advantage" to -- oh, I don't know -- an organism having a brain that supports a mind with the ability to grasp the world economically through concepts, and the ability to regulate itself through free will?

The Objective Standard is soon to arrive!

From Principles in Practice:

The contents of the Winter issue are:
From the Editor

Letters and Replies

Moral Health Care vs. "Universal Health Care" by Lin Zinser and Paul Hsieh

Instrumentalism and the Disintegration of American Tort Law by David Littel

"Gifts from Heaven": The Meaning of the American Victory over Japan, 1945 by John David Lewis
Here's a thought: Your Christmas shopping could be done in minutes --and it could change a worldview for life. A subscription to The Objective Standard is the perfect gift for your active-minded friends and relatives.
And here's a way!

Creepy Ayn Rand Reference on Post Secrets?

Out of curiosity, I randomly stopped by Post Secret yesterday and found a creepy note reading, "i [sic] plan on telling people that you died," attached to what looks like a jacket on a book by Ayn Rand.

What's up with that?

Walter Williams on Racial Hoaxes

After examining some recent instances in which "civil rights" groups roundly condemned an action as white racism, only for it to turn out that the "perpetrator" was black, Walter Williams sounds the following semi-optimistic note:
More and more blacks are seeing through race hustlers such as Al Sharpton, Jesse Jackson and Doc Cheatham. An even more optimistic note is the financial decline of the NAACP. Declining black support is good evidence that the civil rights struggle is over and won. That's not to say there are not major problems but they are not civil rights problems.

Today, most civil rights organizations get their financial support from white businesses and foundations caving in to intimidation or seeking to sooth feelings of guilt. [bold added]
I would count the cultural climate that permits such charlatans to continue operating as one of these "major problems". And I would say that the struggle for individual rights is only beginning.

But there I go again, being simplistic!

-- CAV

Updates

Today
: (1) Clarified section on smoking, added paragraph at end on evolutionary psychology, and made several minor edits. (2) Corrected link to Post Secret. (3) Corrected typo: "biologists" above should have been "psychologists".

10 comments:

Anonymous said...

"As for the canons of rational thought, to the extent that brains evolved by natural selection, their main purpose is to cause organisms to behave adaptively in the real world--not to directly represent the real world"

This sounds like pure Kant which is to say thinly vailed skepticism. I have noticed something about the professional atheists after reading their books; they are all skepticists of this variety. Sam Harris in his book "The End of Faith", spends pages upon pages in his endnotes section explaining how there is no Objective reality (because of Quantum Theory) and that free will is a myth (because of advanced knowledge of bio-chemistry) and how free will and therefor ideas of criminal punishment are barbaric remnants of religion, because after all, all humans are is clockwork. If the clock is broken, you don't punish it, you fix it. See?

Similar (and often identical) ideas are present in Dawkins and Dennett. Hitchens is not a scientist so he doesn't focus too much on determinism, but skepticism, relativism and determinism seems to be mandatory if you are involved with the hard sciences. The upshot of this is that athiests like these and David Sloan Wilson are useless in combating religion and spreading reason. In fact, they probably make religionists more steadfast in their mysticism.

Lastly a question for Gus as you are involved in academia and science. Do you find that Wilson's and Harris' type of skepticism is common in academia? I ask because it seems that everyone that I meet or read about who is a hard science person is both a skeptic and a determinist. I mean everyone.

John Kim

Gus Van Horn said...

John,

The sentence you quote is what got me irritated enough to post on this, and your comments on it are spot-on.

In answer to your question, I would say, "YES", and that would even include many of the less left-wing types. But for most, politics follows philosophy pretty closely:

In my first job after grad school, I was the only one in a group of about 30 to vote for Bush. (Whether I was right to do so is beside the point.) THREE supported Kucinich in the Democrat primary and voted Democrat in the election only because Nader wasn't on the Texas ballot. (And yes, anyone with an IQ over 35 voting for Kucinich is scary.)

Gus

Anonymous said...

"In answer to your question, I would say, "YES", and that would even include many of the less left-wing types. But for most, politics follows philosophy pretty closely."

That's what I suspected and its terrible news. I get the impression that these kind of scientific empiricists will not be open to Objectivism. They will consider it a set of arbitrary premises that "have not been confirmed by empirical data." This is how one such person described it to me. I lament this because I would love to see a fully rational science devoid of skepticism. One that didn't just see man as some random collection of atoms and molecules.

As for the part about politics, from what I have seen there aren't many non-liberals among university types. I would think that would apply even more so to the sciences. If skepticism is the norm then it would be difficult if not impossible for someone who was a mystic (let alone an overt one) to deal with all those empiricists and evil "Darwinians".

I don't know who turns me off more, someone who tells me that mankind is inherently evil and needs to believe in some higher power (whether God, society or race) in order to find meaning, or someone who tells me that mankind is nothing more than a collection of molecules determined by randomness and chance.

John Kim

Gus Van Horn said...

You may be in a quandary, but you have at least formulated a philosophically interesting question about two extremely uninteresting kinds of people!

Grant said...

The following, reproduced here verbatim, was my comment to HuffingtonPost.com on David Sloan's article (Posted 12/16/07 @ 7:20 AM. It was also found via Randex.org:

"Here are some "factual truths" that have some value as "practical truths": How about the fact that man's behavior is not merely the latest reflexive motion in some evolutionary tidal wave; but that evolution has made him concious. How about the fact that his conciousness is conceptual in nature. How about the fact that man, in order to survive long-term, must use his power of conceptualization to develop ideas that have long-term application and long-term consequences. Things like, oh, I don't know, coherent, non-contradictory philosophical and moral principles."

Gus Van Horn said...

Great minds think alike! (And like to use the phrase, "Oh, I don't know.")

I was unaware of your comment, having had time only to read the article before blogging it.

Jim May said...

John K. writes:

I don't know who turns me off more, someone who tells me that mankind is inherently evil and needs to believe in some higher power (whether God, society or race) in order to find meaning, or someone who tells me that mankind is nothing more than a collection of molecules determined by randomness and chance.

My answer to each of those is the same:

"Speak for yourself, buster."

Gus Van Horn said...

Speaking of the first type, I need to come up with a clever answer for them.

Certain types will say things like , "Have a blessed day," making their religion an issue as a substitute for common courtesy.

I've thought of "Have a blast, too!" but this is unsatisfying.

Grant said...

Hi Gus(?),

Thank you for the compliment; especially in the face of my insinuation of plagirism. Since I don't know you apart from your blog, I will certainly give you the benefit of the doubt and put to rest my suspicion that what you wrote was mine.

I commend you not only for naturally coming to the same conclusion as me regarding evolution and conciousness, but also honoring my suspicion by going ahead and allowing it to be posted then dealing with it head on. You didn't have to do that, but it shows a lot of class on your part.

Gus Van Horn said...

And thank you, Grant, for bringing that to my attention. Had you not alerted me to your own very similar observation, I could have ended up looking both unoriginal and foolish.

Some time ago, I came across another argument to the effect that God is a delusion with adaptive value for the species, and yet another that altruism must have an evolutionary advantage since it, too, had "evolved".

Those ideas percolated for a time, and then, writing under my real name, I posed the idea that a "delusion" of free will might be thought by types like Wilson to have such an advantage.

So, conversely, I wondered why these EPers never considered why FREE WILL couldn't have evolved.

Wilson's epistemological errors made the further question of conceptual consciousness evolving follow naturally.

(I suspect that determinism is the root of both instances of blindness here, but the question is really directed at the reader, who would be more likely to have an active mind than an EPer.)

While the truth isn't a matter of majority vote, it's still reassuring in a way to see someone else reach similar conclusions.

So, thanks again for stopping by, for that reason as well.