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Saturday, February 07, 2009

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Peter,

This is an outstanding piece of work: careful, precise, clear, rigorous, objective and fair. You could publish this as an article, but you would have to assemble a number of quotations from Rand, Peikoff, et al. in order to demonstrate that Objectivists are indeed committed to Theses A and B.

Consider the first disjunct of Thesis B. What this disjunct says is that Rand's distinction between the metaphysical and the man-made runs parallel to the distinction between the necessary and the contingent. Thus, all and only metaphysical facts are necessary, and all and only man-made facts are contingent. L. Peikoff appears to be saying exactly this on p. 109 of Intro to Obj Epist: "Metaphysically, all facts are inherent in the identities of the entities that exist; i.e., all facts are 'necessary.' In this sense, to be is to be 'necessary.' The concept of 'necessity,' in a metaphysical context, is superfluous."

What he is saying, then, is that all non-man-made facts are necessary and none are contingent. And because all of them are necessary, the word 'necessary' and the concept of necessity are "superfluous." That is: there is no need to say of any natural fact that it is necessary since all of them are. To be = to be necessary. That is: all and only natural existents are necessary existents. But this extensional identity of the existent and the necessary presupposes intensional difference at the level of concepts between necessity and contingency.

Note however that the above passage could be interpreted more radically as a rejection of the very SENSE of the distinction between the necessary and the contingent as regards the non-man-made. That is, the passage could be read as affirming both extensional and intensional identity.

I predict that the following will happen if any Objectivist comments on your post. He will claim that Objectivists are not committed to Thesis B, or that you haven't understood them, or that you are taking their statements out of context, or something like that. They will be aided and abetted in this sort of evasion by the fact that some of what they say has no clear and univocal sense, as I have just demonstrated in the passage from Peikoff above.


Couldn't the fallacy be avoided by simply making consciousness the Modal distinction dividing line? In other words, all acts done consciously by conscious agents are not necessitated; all acts done without the presence of conscious agents are necessitated.

Bill,

Thanks for your kind words and for posting this.

On another thread on this site I have posted something about how I view the Objectivists' strategy in dealing with several lines of attack. I think they waffle between the following two tracks:

Track-(a) They preserve the intension (meaning) of the traditional concepts involved in the Modal-distinction between contingent vs. necessary but argue that its extension coincides with the Randian distinction between metaphysical-facts (read: physical facts) vs. man-made facts (read: actions based on choice);

Track-(b) They reject the whole traditional Modal-distinction between contingent vs. necessary, including the traditional meanings associated with these terms, and maintain that all we need is the Randian distinction.

The trouble with Track-(a) is that if you preserve the traditional meaning of the terms 'contingent' and 'necessary' yet assign them a new extension, then you got to face some very unpleasant counter-examples. Of course, this consequence is predictable assuming that at least to some degree intension determines extension. For this combination has the consequence that the *new* members of the extension of these terms do not satisfy their *normal* intension. If you nevertheless force the *normal* intension down the throat of the *new* extensions, then you get counterexamples.

Once faced with these counterexamples, Objectivists tend to shift their ground to Track-(b). But opting for Track-(b) requires changing their initial position. Now they have to argue that the traditional modal-distinction between contingent vs. necessary is to be discarded altogether, extension and intension alike. We simply do not need the *concepts* themselves; not merely the words. But the problem here is that if they genuinely discard the concepts, then they cannot use them at all in order to mark the Randian distinction between physical-facts vs. volitional-facts which they intended to preserve. But then they really have no means to even state the very controversial theses they are set out to shock us with such as that all physical-facts are necessary; that the only source of necessity is physical causation; that all physical facts have the *force* (namely, intension) of a=a (identities); that the only source of contingency is human choice; etc. If one really understands where they stand conceptually, none of these very contentious theses can even be stated in Track-(b).

When these consequences of Track-(b) are pointed out to Objectivists then they tend to blame their opponent with lack of sufficient familiarity with the relevant readings, misunderstanding of their real position, etc.

I do have a solution to this problem, but I will not express it publicly here.

peter

Bob,

But my principal argument was that this very distinction, whether formulated explicitly in terms of consciousness or not, presupposes the distinction between contingent/possible vs. necessary. If that is true, then your proposal does not solve the problem; it merely restates it.

peter

Peter,

You wrote:

"But it is imperative to see that we simply cannot demarcate a category of volitional or freely chosen acts unless we presuppose that certain facts could have been otherwise whereas others could not have been otherwise. And when we presuppose this distinction we in fact presuppose a Modal distinction which Objectivists maintain in Thesis B is either reducible to the Randian distinction or dispensable or irremediably unclear."

You say "could have been otherwise", which is an orientation to past events. However, in matters of choice, conscious agents are concerned with what CAN BE otherwise, a future orientation. Isn't that a different distinction?

Bob

Bob,

I am not sure I see what difference the temporal formulation to which you allude makes to the central point of the argument. Voluntary action presupposes, I claim, the notion that it is *possible* for me to do x even though I opt doing y. So the possibility for me to do x is something I must recognize in order to view my doing y as a free choice. For suppose that there is no possibility for me to do anything other than y. Would my doing y be free? I think the answer is that "no" it would not be free. And so freely choosing to do something presupposes the modal notion of *possibility* or the counterfactual formulation of *could have been otherwise* or any of their suitable cognates. And that is the crux of my argument. Objectivists must confront this point, this intuition, head on.
peter

Hi Peter. Quibbles aside, I think your “Thesis A” and “Thesis B” do an acceptable job of summarizing what I understand to be the Objectivist view, as expressed for example in Peikoff’s article on the Analytic-Synthetic Dichotomy. (Have you read that by the way?)

Despite some further quibbles, I’m basically with you through your paragraph 3.4, and I applaud your example of a burp to clarify that the category of man-made facts includes only those facts which exist because of some deliberate, conscious, volitional action by an agent.

From there, while more or less agreeing with some of what you lay out, I think your way of philosophically analyzing and understanding it is wrong. So let me try to explain that. It’s probably correct to say that a given individual discovers the metaphysical/man-made distinction first be recognizing (primarily via introspection) that certain (primarily mental) actions are *possible* to him, as contrasted with the actions of external physical objects which appear to be *necessitated* by the identities of the objects involved, the surrounding conditions, etc. For example, at some stage in his development a child begins to perceive that he can genuinely *choose*, say, whether to bring to bear his knowledge that spilled milk can be cleaned up and replaced, or instead push that out and ride the wave of negative emotion that is rising inside. (And of course this basic mental choice implies different subsequent courses of action.) And further, part of the way he perceives this element of choice, is by noticing the stark contrast to, say, what happens when you drop a hefty ball: it just always falls straight down.

I think you are correct to describe all of this as involving, in some way, modal concepts. But I think you mis-state how they are involved. It’s not, as you seem to be trying to argue, that a child’s first discovery of his own volition (or if you like, his formation of the concept “volition”) *conceptually presupposes* some pre-existing modal concepts. If that were true, it would indeed imply what you are claiming in this essay, namely that Rand is inconsistent in upholding the metaphysical/man-made distinction while jettisoning the traditional necessary/contingent distinction. (Interestingly, what you are (I think wrongly) accusing Rand of here is what Rand herself identified as “the fallacy of the stolen concept”.) What is the actual relationship between these things here? I think it’s that this same one line of empirical-observational (including introspection) discovery – namely, the discovery that his (and other humans’) mind(s) is capable of genuine *choice* in a way that inanimate matter (and “lower” animals, planets, etc.) isn’t – simultaneously grounds several sets of concepts. For example: “metaphysical” vs. “man-made” captures this distinction from the perspective of classifying the *facts* which result from operations of the different sorts of causation; “volitional” vs “determined” captures this distinction from the perspective of classifying the type of causation involved; “possible” captures this distinction from (largely) the perspective of projecting one’s future while remembering the fact of volition (such that, in contrast to the future of some rock hurtling through outer space, several different eventualities are consistent with current actualities); and there are probably many additional concepts, at varying levels of sophistication, which have their empirical base in these same sorts of observations. Of course, I didn’t mention “necessary” vs. “contingent” here, because (as you said in Thesis B) those concepts aren’t officially endorsed in Objectivism. Nevertheless, I don’t think there’s any real problem with them (other than that they carry this tremendous historical-philosophical baggage and are therefore potentially very misleading and confusing) – I would have no objection to saying that a person can and should form the concepts “necessary” and “contingent” just in the way I was outlining above for these other concepts, if the way he forms them is parallel to the above – i.e., if what he means by “necessary” is “part of the fabric of external reality uninfluenced by volitional choices” and if what he means by “contingent” is “could have been otherwise, because a result of volitional choices which by definition could have been otherwise”. But then these concepts would really be superfluous, because there would be no difference between them and “metaphysical” and “man-made” respectively. Both sets of concepts would refer to exactly the same categories of facts and from exactly the same perspective. That isn’t an argument for one set as against the other, but since what matters is *concepts* as opposed to *terminology*, it is an argument that if you have already got the concepts of “metaphysical” and “man-made” (using that terminology) there is no need to further introduce the terms “necessary” and “contingent.”

Let me step back and briefly indicate what I think is going on methodologically. You are being rationalistic in a certain sense, while Objectivism is more empiricist (though not in the traditional Humean sense). Here’s what I mean. In your essay, you get to a point where you are trying to project where an Objectivist would claim to have gotten his ideas of the “metaphysical” and the “man-made.” You seem to take for granted that the only possible answer to this question is an appeal to further words/concepts, and so you end up arguing in effect that the Objectivist must have deduced these ideas using pre-existing modal concepts. Hence you claim there’s a circularity in the Objectivist’s attempt to (later) argue that those modal concepts (as they are traditionally/metaphysically understood) are at best superfluous. But, simply put, that isn’t where (most) concepts come from according to Objectivism. We think that concepts are formed primarily from (ultimately perceptual) observation of reality (and here that relevantly includes introspection). So if you ask an Objectivist to explain what he means by “metaphysical” and “man-made”, he will not ultimately give you something verbal/linguistic/conceptual. He will rather point to concrete facts in the world and say, for example, by “metaphysical” I mean this, this, this, and this – as against that and that (with the implication that the concept denotes *all* of the existents that are of the “this” type as against the “that” type, not just those 4, obviously). It is just like if you ask me what I mean by “blue” and yellow”. The answer is not to provide a definition (which of course brings in other concepts and opens one to a charge of circularity) but simply to point to some blueberries, the sky, and my shirt and say “I mean things like these, as against those” now pointing to a banana, a sunflower, and a post-it note. Definitions have a crucial function to play in knowledge (there’s a whole chapter in Rand’s ITOE about them). But they (definitions) are *not* the way we form or produce new concepts according to Objectivism. I think, at least in part, your whole criticism is based on misunderstanding this aspect of the philosophy. (Maybe you really should get ahold of a copy of ITOE and read, not just Peikoff’s Analytic-Synthetic essay, but the whole thing?)

Really your whole argument is summarized by this: “we simply cannot demarcate a category of volitional or freely chosen acts unless we presuppose that certain facts could have been otherwise whereas others could not have been otherwise.” I think you are here confusing existence with knowledge. What’s true is that we couldn’t “demarcate a category” (i.e., form a concept) unless the units of that concept already exist and differ in the needed ways from other existents. But it’s not like you have to have some pre-existing *concept* for the *way* they differ in order to be able to notice that they *do* differ, and hence form a concept on that basis. This, if you’ll forgive me, is Objectivist Epistemology 101. (So really, reading ITOE would be useful for you if you are interested in pursuing this.) A simpler but completely parallel example would be the color concepts I gave above. Yes, in order for a child to form the concepts “blue” and “yellow” there have to exist objects with different surface reflectance properties, in particular, objects which reflect electromagnetic radiation in different wavelength bands more or less well. But if you think a one-year-old has to have taken advanced courses in Maxwell’s electromagnetic theory, or have the concept “wavelength” or even “surface” (etc.), before grasping "blue" and "yellow" then, well, obviously you've never had kids (or thought very much about how humans actually acquire the concepts you, as a philosopher, are so interested in studying). Of course kids don’t need any of that kind of knowledge. They can just look and perceive that some objects look one way, and some others look another, classify them on that basis, and give a word (like “yellow” or “blue”) to denote the open-ended set of objects so classified. Do you see how this is completely parallel to the concepts at issue in this thread?

Regarding your whole section 5, none of your proposals (for what the Objectivist would say) are correct. What the Objectivist means by “could not have been otherwise” is: “wasn’t produced by any human volition, and so is inherent in the fabric of reality”… or better: “like that, that, and that” (pointing, say, to a crater on the moon, the Earth’s orbit around the Sun, and the shape of a snowflake) “as against this and this” (now pointing to my kicking of the ball and George’s monetary misconduct).

Finally, here’s something I’d like to hear more from you on. Let’s take an example of a non-man-made fact which you regard as “contingent” – say, that a certain crater on the moon has a certain shape and size. First, am I right that you want to say, about this fact, that it “could have been otherwise”? And, assuming that’s right, what exactly is that “could have” based on? What does it mean? It could have been otherwise if the earlier conditions had been different? If the laws of nature had been different? But doesn’t that sort of answer just move the question back? Because if the earlier conditions themselves *couldn’t* have been different, and if the laws of nature *couldn’t* have been different, then the fact in question is going to inherit that “necessity.” The Objectivist view is that that crater has the size and shape it has because, earlier, things were a certain way and they evolved inexorably (in accordance with the laws of nature, i.e., in accordance with the identities of the things involved) to produce that crater. And those earlier conditions came about the same way, through the inexorable playing out of even earlier conditions. And, as you said in the essay, “going back all the way to … forever.” What part of this exactly do you disagree with? Is it that you think the laws of nature are stochastic rather than deterministic? Is it that you think the “ultimate initial conditions” were created, volitionally, by some God who could have arranged them otherwise (and could in particular have arranged for a slightly different sized crater to be produced on the Moon)? Something else? That is: what exactly do you mean when you say that this crater on the moon “could have” been a different size? I genuinely just don’t understand that claim at all.

Bob and Peter,

Suppose that yesterday Tom raped Jane. We hold Tom responsible both legally and morally for his crime. But we cannot hold him responsible in the present for what he did in the past unless he could have done otherwise in the past. Of ocurse, what's done is done: the past is unalterable. But that is not to say that everything in the past had to be the way it was. Tom raped Jane. That is a fact about the past. But Tom might not have raped Jane. ('Might' is not being used epistemically here.) Tom had the power to refrain from committing rape. It is because he had that power and because it was possible that he exercise that power that we hold him responsible in the present for what he did yesterday. The argument goes like this:

1. Moral and legal responsibility presuppose libertarian freedom of the will.
2. LFW presupposes what Peter is calling the Modal distinction, the distinction between the contingent and the necessary.
Therefore
3. If anyone is morally/legally responsible for anything he did or left undone in the past, then the Modal distinction applies to the past, contrary to what Bob is saying.

One mistake Objectivists make is to conflate temporal and modal notions. Unalterability of the past is not the same as necessity of the past! Suppose Tom or his attorney mounted the following defense: "Your honor, what Tom did yesterday is unalterable and therefore necessary, which implies that he could not have done otherwise than rape Jane; therefore Tom cannot be held responsible for what he did. I do concede, however, that if you caught Tom in the very act of forcing myself on Jane, then right then and there he would have been responsibile for the rape." Would such a defense fly?

A second mistake. Objectivists think that free agency is the source of contingency. This is a mistake. Contingency is logically prior to free agency. I think I explained it tolerable well in an earlier post (http://maverickphilosopher.typepad.com/maverick_philosopher/2009/01/followup-rand-post.html):

Whatever comes to exist via free agency is contingent. But it does not follow that the contingency of what is contingent can be reduced to and understood in terms of the the power of free agents. For the latter presupposes contingency. Since free agency is not the source of contingency, but merely of events that are contingent, there is no justification for restricting contingency to man-made events. That restriction would be justified only if free agency were the source of the contingency of contingent events in addition to the contingent even themselves.

The contingent is that which is possible to be and possible not to be. So my point could also be put as follows. The man-made, that which originates by human free agency, is possible to be and possible not to be. But its being possible to be and possible not to be does not originate by human free agency , but is presupposed by and logically prior to both human decisions and man-made facts that result from them. So there is no justification for the restriction of contingency to the man-made. Contingency, if it is found anywhere, is to be found both in the man-made and the non-man-made.

I think Peter will agree with the above (self)quotation. Do you agree with that, my man?

Bill, you wrote: "One mistake Objectivists make is to conflate temporal and modal notions. Unalterability of the past is not the same as necessity of the past!" Who exactly do you think makes this mistake? I've studied Objectivism for a long time and never heard any Objectivist philosopher (nor anyone else for that matter) make this argument -- which, by the way, we are in total agreement about. Of course the mere fact of lying in the past doesn't render a man-made fact necessary! I just don't know where you got that. It strikes me as only one small step up from "I heard Ayn Rand advocated eating babies."

As to the alleged "second mistake", Objectivism does indeed hold that (to whatever extent one insists on introducing the terminology of metaphysical contingency at all, and probably one shouldn't bother, but...) "free agency is the source of contingency." But then you imply that Objectivists hold this based on a trivial logical error -- what amounts to inferring from "All S is P" to "Only S is P." But, again, where did you get the idea that Objectivists say that "Only volitionally-produced facts are contingent" as a deduction from "All volitionally-produced facts are contingent"? Nobody would or does make the claim on that basis.

The *actual* basis for the claim is this: we know, from observation (including introspection), that a certain class of facts (namely the so-called "man-made" ones) are uniquely dependent on volitional choices made by humans and hence, in contrast to non-man-made facts, could have been different. There is nothing more to "could have been different" than "was produced by volition" and likewise no more to "had to be" than "wasn't produced by volition." Volition is the one-and-only known source of "could have been otherwise". As far as I can tell, your objection to this amounts to: well maybe there is some other sense in which some (or perhaps all) non-man-made facts could have been different, e.g., some other special category of causation that is like ordinary physical causation in the sense of not involving human volitional consciousness, but also like volitional causation in the sense of not having a single determined outcome for given initial conditions. But this is a burden of proof issue: as soon as you say something about what you have in mind and provide some evidence that there is this further sense in which non-man-made facts could have been otherwise, we Objectivists will be happy to hear you out. I've even gone out of my way to specifically request that you or Peter explain *why* you want to say (e.g.) that the size of a certain crater on the moon could have been different. So far the only answer I've heard is "it's intuitively obvious" which I (as both an Objectivist and a scientist) consider equivalent to no answer at all.

The situation is maybe similar to something like the following. This analogy will actually slant things a little bit toward your side of the argument, but I think will help make Objectivism's basic approach clear. A long time ago, people only knew about two broad categories of organisms, namely plants and animals, and they had distinguished them (and formed concepts for them) based on various sorts of observation and empirical-scientific research. Plants are typically green-colored things that are typically anchored to the ground and consume sunlight for fuel, whereas animals are typically able to locomote and consume either plants or other animals (but not sunlight) for fuel... or whatever. Now at some point somebody comes along and suggests introducing the concepts "autotrophic" and "heterotrophic" to denote the nutritive pathways of plants and animals, respectively. It could maybe have been objected that the new terminology was superfluous, since "autotroph" is really just a synonym of "plant", etc., but there would be no serious philosophical *problem* with introducing these new terms. Now of course in this context everyone accepts that "Only plants are autotrophs, i.e., there are no autotrophic animals." What is the argument for this claim? Surely it isn't that "All plants are autotrophs" and "'All S is P' implies 'Only S is P'" since obviously the second premise is false. Rather, the argument is: we have no reason at present to believe, i.e., no evidence whatever to support even the mere hypothesis, that there exist some non-plant autotrophs. Of course, if some biologist claims to have discovered a new species of lion that doesn't need to eat zebras because it has chlorophyll in its skin, the systemicists interested in these broad taxonomic concepts will surely listen and take notice. But they will, by contrast, not pay the slightest bit of attention if some philosopher merely says "'All S is P' doesn't entail 'Only S is P'." That is not news to the systemicist and constitutes precisely zero grounds for doubting or restructuring the taxonomy.

(I've chosen this example precisely because, in fact, it *does* turn out that the plant/animal categories are not precisely coextensive with the autotroph/heterotroph categories -- which is just what you want to argue is the case with the metaphysical/manmade and necessary/contingent categories. So I'm deliberately making it look like the door I'm inviting you to walk through is a little wider than I really think it is. I hope it's clear, though, my point isn't to bait you or anything -- just to really stress that I want to hear in detail *why* you want to assign certain facts to both the "metaphysical" and "contingent" categories.)

In short, I think we could make progress on this discussion if you would display your photosynthesizing zebra (i.e., your proposed example of a non-man-made-but-still-contingent fact). I understand it to have been asserted that the size of a crater on the moon is an example of this, but, for reasons I hinted at in my earlier comment on this thread, I don't accept that as an example until or unless you can explain precisely what grounds you have for claiming that the crater "could have been otherwise." And don't just report your feelings, i.e., claim it's intuitively clear on its face -- it's not clear to me, so you'll have to give an argument or provide some kind of positive evidence.

I hope this isn't coming across as hostile. I'm really just desperate to hear your argument for this claim (that the size of the moon's crater could have been otherwise) instead of hashing through all of these silly straw-man attacks on Objectivism.

Bill,

Indeed, I agree with everything you said above. Way back when you first introduced this topic we have discussed several times the confusions made by some Objectivists between temporal unalterability of the past vs. necessity.

It is somewhat difficult to bring home to some people the intimate and inextricable conceptual connection that exists between the Modal distinction and logic.

In this connection it is worth perhaps noting that the often repeated question posed by Objectivists about the "source" of Modal distinctions (contingent/possible/necessary) is liable to mislead matters. The term 'source' in this context is ambiguous between:
(i) causal origin--i.e., what are the causal antecedents of Modal distinctions;
(ii) acquisition--i.e., how we acquire the concepts contingent, possible, necessary;;
(iii) conceptual ground or foundation--i.e., what is the conceptual basis for Modal distinctions (regardless of their causal origin or manner of acquisition).

Several Objectivists on this site kept asking about the "source" of the Modal distinctions, meaning (i) or (ii). A very clear example is Travis' latest response above to my post. In his response, Travis focuses almost exclusively on a theory about how children acquire concepts such as possible and necessary (namely, on (ii)). The following quotation from the above response is an excellent case in point:

Travis says: "It’s not, as you seem to be trying to argue, that a child’s first discovery of his own volition (or if you like, his formation of the concept “volition”) *conceptually presupposes* some pre-existing modal concepts. If that were true, it would indeed imply what you are claiming in this essay, namely that Rand is inconsistent in upholding the metaphysical/man-made distinction while jettisoning the traditional necessary/contingent distinction."

Now, the first sentence in the above quotation is very curious because anyone who read my post recognizes that I did not offer in that post a theory of concept formation by children (or adults for that matter) nor did I say anything that might in any way implicate such a theory. And the reason I did not have anything to say there about the psychological process of concept formation is because it is not relevant to the current debate. In that post I wanted to show that the Modal distinction is logically prior to and therefore it is presupposed by the Randian distinction (as you as well articulated above). The question of which distinction, or perhaps neither, is prior from the point of view of the process of concept acquisition is quite a different matter that as such has no bearing on the former question.
So once interpreted as an issue about concept formation, Travis goes on to criticize my argument on the grounds that it does not provide a correct theory of concept formation; a theory which I did not intend to provide, had nothing to say about, and which is not relevant to the present discussion.

The problem here once again is that Bill, I and others see Modal distinctions as founded on the notion of logical consistency (or some cognate concept) and therefore it is fundamentally prior to the Randian distinction because the notion of logical consistency is prior to the Randian distinction. Now, either Objectivists recognize this point and wish to dispute it or they don't. If they do not recognize this fundamental point, we are going to spend quite a lot of time traveling in circles.
(Note: I will respond to Travis' post in a separate post)

peter


Travis, I'm glad I made it all the way through your comment because there was some very interesting stuff in there (I almost bailed during the recursive digressions in paragraph 4). You seem to be arguing, not that the concept of volition is not logically prior to the concept of modality, but rather that it is "developmentally prior" --meaning that the concept of volition is developed before the concept of modality. This may be true (arguably), but it doesn't really effect Peter's argument. Peter isn't arguing about developmental priority, he is arguing that the existence of modality can be inferred from the existence of volition, so it is inconsistent to maintain that there is volition but not modality. As Bill argued in the previous comment, it makes no sense to speak of someone making a volitional choice unless there was more than one possibility. Therefore, the fact that I can choose to write this comment or not write this comment implies that both options are genuinely physically possible otherwise my volitional choice is an illusion --I took an action of necessity and only thought that I had a choice.

To take your own example: arguing that there is volition but not modality is like arguing that there are colors but no extended surfaces. A color cannot exist unless it exists on an extended surface. It doesn't matter what an infant recognizes first during his development, that there are colors or that there are extended surfaces, the fact remains that an adult who maintains the existence of color but denies the existence of extended surfaces is suffering from some conceptual failures.

I'd like to add a well-meant critical note on Randian rhetoric. You don't help your case by talking about the "harm" done by modal concepts. Most non-Randians have no real idea what you are talking about but assume it is an aspect of Rand's well-known intolerance for dissent. And even in the unlikely eventuality that there is a genuine case to be made for the position that the idea of modality is bad in some way, that does not effect the truth or falsity of the idea and so it is irrelevant in an argument over whether it is true. You can not infer from "p is bad" to "p is false".

Hi Peter. Actually, I think there is a bit of progress here in your paragraph starting "Now...". For Objectivism, what you call the "psychological process of concept formation" *is* closely related to (what you describe as) the logical relationships among concepts. A crucial tenet of Objectivism is that knowledge in general and concepts in particular are *hierarchical* in the following sense: some concepts are "first-level", meaning that they can be formed directly from perception without the use of any prior concepts. (These are the sorts of entity concepts like "cat" and "table" that are, for precisely this reason, always among children's first words.) Then there are second-, third-, etc. -level concepts whose formation presupposes (respectively) some first-, second-, etc., -level concepts. For example, "table" and "chair" are first-level, but "furniture" is second-level: the claim is that you can't get the concept "furniture" directly from perception, but must instead first have conceptualized several *types* of furniture such as tables and chairs. Very briefly and roughly, the argument for this is that the differences between (say) a given table and a given chair are just too dramatic to see them, without prior conceptualization, as similar as against some other non-furniture objects that would serve as the foil for the concept "furniture." They'll just strike one as different. (One quick caveat: the conceptual -- or more generally cognitive -- hierarchy does not coincide with generality, as the table/chair/furniture example might have suggested. "Siamese" is narrower in "extension" than "cat" but is a second-level concept, while "cat" is first-level.) Rand's book (ITOE) is all about this, so don't expect a full presentation of the theory in this brief post. But that's maybe enough to give you a rough sense of the main relevant claim, which is that there is a *necessary order* in which certain ideas have to be (note: not should be, but *have* to be) grasped, and this fact is precisely what gives rise to the notion of *logical dependency* among concepts/theories/ideas/etc. A given idea is logically dependent on another precisely when the other had to be in place first in order to make the grasp of the given idea possible. That is: if you have to know A to know B, then B *logically* presupposes A, and can be said to *logically* depend on A. (One more caveat: Objectivism does not *identify* the chronological order of learning with logical dependency. It's not that "if you learned A before B, then B logically depends on A". Rather, it's: "if you learned A before B *because you couldn't have learned B without first learning A, because you had to use the knowledge contained in A in order to grasp B*, then B logically depends on A".) Note that this is part of a broadly inductive-empirical approach to knowledge: all valid knowledge has its roots ultimately in perception, and the *logical proof* of any high-level claim consists in retracing, back through the hierarchy, the connections that lead one from perception (through, in the general case, many intermediate levels of conceptual knowledge) to the claim.

What is this uniquely Objectivist account of the nature of logical dependency supposed to be an alternative to? The (or at least a) foil here is the idea that you can just jump in at random, pick some concept or theory, and cook up some half-plausible-sounding deductive argument that has that idea as its conclusion (or cite a definition), and then infer that said idea logically presupposes those particular premises and/or the concepts involved in them -- which is basically the structure of your argument in this thread as I understand it. That's why I went into the examples of "yellow" and "blue". Here's the analogy. It'd be sort-of half-plausible to construct a dialogue like the following:

Travis: I have the concept "yellow".

Peter: What do you mean by "yellow"?

Travis: By "yellow" I mean the color of objects whose surface reflectance peaks at a wavelength of about 575 nanometers (or whatever).

Peter: That proves that the concept "yellow" logically presupposes the concept "wavelength" and also the knowledge that light is an electromagnetic wave and that different materials can have different spectral reflectancies.

The point I was trying to make in the earlier comment (and am fleshing out now) is: no, it doesn't prove that. According to Objectivism, the way to find out what other knowledge/concepts is/are logically presupposed by a given concept is to ask: how does this concept originate? That is, how did people who possess this concept form it, and in particular, what prior conceptual knowledge (if any) was *used* in forming it? And as any parent can tell you, children have no trouble forming the concept "yellow" before they know about Maxwell's equations or the idea of "wavelength" or anything like that.

Here's another example. You've probably heard of "Kepler's laws" which describe, in mathematical terms, the orbits of the planets around the Sun. These laws, as it turns out, can be easily deduced from Newton's laws of motion and Newton's law of universal gravitation. Some (bad) physics textbooks even offer such a deduction as the proof that Kepler's laws are true! But the actual chronology goes the other way: Kepler preceded Newton. Which alone proves nothing, but *because Newton actually used Kepler's laws in the process of discovering the law of universal gravitation*, a strong case could be made that Newton's laws logically presuppose Kepler's laws. Certainly it's true and important that you don't (or more relevantly, Kepler didn't!) have to know Newton's laws in order to know that Kepler's laws are true. That is, you could do what Kepler did, and grasp the truth of Kepler's laws through observation of the planets, even if you had never heard of Newton or universal gravitation or inverse square law forces or conservation of angular momentum. And given that, it is (at best) *extremely dubious* to claim that Kepler's laws "logically depend" on Newton's laws, the concept of angular momentum, etc. (I'm sort of guessing that you, Peter, would probably want to claim this, on analogy with what you've said about the concepts "man-made" and "contingent" and so on. But I acknowledge this is a stretch, so please clarify if I'm misrepresenting your views or if you think the analogy here isn't fair.)

For what it's worth, I don't expect any of this to actually convince anyone of anything -- except, maybe, that Objectivists aren't just being naive or stupid when they raise (what you allege are merely) "psychological" (or I could imagine you saying "merely historical") questions (about children, past scientists, etc.) in what you take to be a discussion of the purely logical relations among ideas.

Hi Dave. Glad you finished my post. Yes, I have a less than ideal tendency toward recursive digressions. It's telling that one of my favorite philosophers of physics is David Albert -- if you've read his books or articles you'll know what I mean. Anyway, as to the subject matter at hand. I am not "arguing that there is volition but not modality". I am just denying that there is some further and/or separate distinction between "necessary" and "contingent" that isn't synonymous and co-extensive with "metaphysical" and "man-made". I'm denying, for example, that there are non-man-made-but-nevertheless-still-contingent facts. This is very different than denying the existence of modality altogether, which (I think we'll agree) would be crazy.

You suggest there's a conflation between "logically prior" and "developmentally prior" going on. I think I addressed that in my previous comment.

Your example with "color" and "extended surface" doesn't really help, because nobody here thinks that (say) "yellow" (or if you prefer, "color") and "extended surface" are ultimately the same concept. But that is precisely what I am saying about (e.g.) "man-made" and "contingent". Your example would be appropriate if, say, I were arguing that there are man-made facts, but no facts.

Finally, on "rhetoric". When did I talk "about the 'harm' done by modal concepts" (and thereby fail to help my case)? I don't remember making any such argument, let alone inferring from "p is bad" to "p is false." If you're talking about Rand generally (as opposed to what I've posted here in recent days), frankly it makes me question how much Rand you've read. She never just argues that some idea is "bad" and therefore false. (She does believe -- and argue for -- the idea that ideas and truth matter in real life, so that false ideas are not just ivory towerishly mistaken, but are in some sense toxic to human life. But that's very different from the logical fallacy you describe.) If you think I'm wrong, just cite some examples from her writings and I'll be happy to stand corrected.

"Bob and Peter,

Suppose that yesterday Tom raped Jane. We hold Tom responsible both legally and morally for his crime. But we cannot hold him responsible in the present for what he did in the past unless he could have done otherwise in the past. Of ocurse, what's done is done: the past is unalterable. But that is not to say that everything in the past had to be the way it was. Tom raped Jane. That is a fact about the past. But Tom might not have raped Jane. ('Might' is not being used epistemically here.) Tom had the power to refrain from committing rape. It is because he had that power and because it was possible that he exercise that power that we hold him responsible in the present for what he did yesterday. The argument goes like this:

1. Moral and legal responsibility presuppose libertarian freedom of the will.
2. LFW presupposes what Peter is calling the Modal distinction, the distinction between the contingent and the necessary.
Therefore
3. If anyone is morally/legally responsible for anything he did or left undone in the past, then the Modal distinction applies to the past, contrary to what Bob is saying."

Yes, I see this. Thank you.

"A second mistake. Objectivists think that free agency is the source of contingency. This is a mistake. Contingency is logically prior to free agency. I think I explained it tolerable well in an earlier post (http://maverickphilosopher.typepad.com/maverick_philosopher/2009/01/followup-rand-post.html):"

I have some problems with that though. You said:

"A. If nature is indeterministic, then some events just occur without cause. A photon passes though slit A rather than slit B at time t without without being caused to do so. It could just as well have passed though slit B at t. So both events are possible at t, although only one is actual. It follows that the photon's passing though slit A is contingent. This is a real (not merely excogitated) contingency, one ingredient in rerum natura. If so, then it is not the case that the contingency of an event or fact E can only derive from the power of a free agent to either bring about E or refrain from bringing it about. For in the case before us the contingency has nothing to do with any event- or agent-cause."

Some physicists maintain that Quantum Mechanics can still be deterministic (I believe David Bhom did so). However, QM applies to microscopic phenomena and we live in a macro world where Newton's laws still work tollerably well.

"B. But perhaps nature is deterministic at both micro- and macro-levels and every event is causally necessitated by earlier events all the way back to the Big Bang. So Rand might insist that everything in nature had to be the way it was. If you tell her that the laws of nature and the physical constants might have been different, she might stamp her foot and insist that they too have to be they way they are: what is nomologically necessary is broadly-logically (metaphysically) necessary. But what about the initial conditions, the conditions at or right after the Big Bang? She might insist that they too had to be what they were. But isn't the Big Bang contingent? Isn't it such that it might not have occurred? If the Big Bang is contingent, and there is no God, then the 'red thesis' is false."

Very well then, the Big Bang in that case would be the only contingent event. Every event since then has been necessitated (with the exception of free choices by conscious agents.

"Whatever comes to exist via free agency is contingent. But it does not follow that the contingency of what is contingent can be reduced to and understood in terms of the the power of free agents. For the latter presupposes contingency."

How, since all other things are necessitated (with the possible exception of the Big Bang)?

"Since free agency is not the source of contingency, but merely of events that are contingent, there is no justification for restricting contingency to man-made events. That restriction would be justified only if free agency were the source of the contingency of contingent events in addition to the contingent even themselves."

Objectivists have a different view here:

"Dennett assumes that causality is a relation between events: The motions of atoms or ions at one moment cause their motions at the next moment; the firing of a nerve in the brain causes a muscle to contract. In all his discussions of causality, he discusses it as a relation between events; analyzing causality, to Dennett, means analyzing precisely when one event can be said to be the cause of another. He states that he finds the ordinary concept of causality "informal, vague, often self-contradictory" (p. 71) and hard to analyze precisely, but it never occurs to him that this seeming difficulty is the result of an attempt to treat causality as the wrong kind of relationship.

The alternative view is that causality is a relationship, not between one event and another, but between an entity and its action: the way a thing acts (including the way it reacts to the actions of other entities) is a function of its nature. While it is often convenient to refer to some action as the "cause" of a subsequent action, such usage is derivative; primarily, an action's cause is the nature of the acting entity. For example, the motions of atoms or ions are caused by their mass, electric charge, etc., which determine how the forces operating on them affect their movement. If the nature of these entities were different, then they would act differently in response to the same external forces. In the case of living things, whose actions are self-generated (i.e., the action's direction and energy come from sources internal to the acting entity), entity causation becomes agent causation; the contraction of a muscle is caused by the nature of the animal's muscular and nervous systems. This understanding of causality makes it possible to see how human agents, whose nature includes the ability to weigh alternative courses of action and deliberate about them, and consequently the capacity for genuine choice, act in accordance with causality, not in any way in contradiction to it."

http://www.objectivistcenter.org/search.aspx?qs=causation&SearchWhat=SearchAll

Bill wrote: "The contingent is that which is possible to be and possible not to be. So my point could also be put as follows. The man-made, that which originates by human free agency, is possible to be and possible not to be. But its being possible to be and possible not to be does not originate by human free agency , but is presupposed by and logically prior to both human decisions and man-made facts that result from them. So there is no justification for the restriction of contingency to the man-made. Contingency, if it is found anywhere, is to be found both in the man-made and the non-man-made."

Again, where in the non man-made is it to be found with the possible exception of the Big Bang (and the contingency of that is still open to question)?

Bob Marks

I'm a bit confused about how an account of concept formation is supposed to throw any light on problems facing the modal distinction (I grant that it is a problematic distinction). Are epistemological answers being offered in response to metaphysical questions? Is the ploy to suggest that the modal distinction is the product of an illusion (i.e., a psycholgical condition with epistemological implications)?

For what it's worth, I don't think any case can be made that Newton's laws logically presuppose Kepler's laws. The former are universal in scope, and what they presuppose is a robust metaphysics of forces and their sources. The latter are local laws, general statements pertaining to particular objects.

Bob Koepp writes, "I'm a bit confused about how an account of concept formation is supposed to throw any light on problems facing the modal distinction . . . " Me too. Travis above doesn't engage what Peter actually said.

Peter wrote: I am not sure I see what difference the temporal formulation to which you allude makes to the central point of the argument.

You're right Peter. Agreed. But I still have some problems here. You wrote: ""But it is imperative to see that we simply cannot demarcate a category of volitional or freely chosen acts unless we presuppose that certain facts could have been otherwise whereas others could not have been otherwise. And when we presuppose this distinction we in fact presuppose a Modal distinction which Objectivists maintain in Thesis B is either reducible to the Randian distinction or dispensable or irremediably unclear."

The problem is with the demarcation. The line is drawn so that it never includes "Actions caused by non-conscious agents." Actions that could have been otherwise are always caused by agents that are acting consciously. When we presuppose that certain facts could have been otherwise, we are presupposing this only for conscious, free agents, not for the rest of the world. In a world where there are no free agents, there would be no modal distinction at all. Wouldn't this mean that the presence of conscious, free agents is prior to the modal distinction?

Peter wrote: "The problem here once again is that Bill, I and others see Modal distinctions as founded on the notion of logical consistency (or some cognate concept) and therefore it is fundamentally prior to the Randian distinction because the notion of logical consistency is prior to the Randian distinction."

But is it also prior to the existence of free agents?

Peter writes:

The question of which distinction, or perhaps neither, is prior from the point of view of the process of concept acquisition is quite a different matter that as such has no bearing on the former question.

So once interpreted as an issue about concept formation, Travis goes on to criticize my argument on the grounds that it does not provide a correct theory of concept formation; a theory which I did not intend to provide, had nothing to say about, and which is not relevant to the present discussion.

I respond: Au contraire, the theory of concept-formation is exactly what is at issue here.

Objectivism upholds the existence of a hierarchy of concepts, one based on the necessary order in which they are acquired. If concept B cannot be grasped except on the basis of having previously grasped concept A, then, we maintain, the existence of concept B, as a meaningful term, remains dependent upon the ackowledging of B's roots in A. So we do not agree that the genesis of a concept is simply a psychological matter, while logic is unconcerned with genesis. Logic is involved if the meaning of concept B involves its referents' relation to the referents of a prior concept A.

Simple examples.

1. You cannot grasp "civilian" before "military" (or something in that family, like "soldier"). "Civilian" gains its meaning by contrast with "military."

2. You cannot grasp "pet" (the noun) before you grasp "animal." "Pet" has to be defined as an animal that . . .

3. You cannot grasp "orphan" before you grasp "parent." An orphan is a child whose parents are dead (or are otherwise permanently absent).

4. You cannot grasp "constitution" before you grasp "law." A constitution is the supreme law of the land.

Objectivism holds that we must, as a matter of logic, get clear about the hierarchical relations among concepts, on pain of making meaningless statements (the fallacy of "the stolen concept") like: "The constitution is illegal." If the constitution is the supreme law of the land, whatever it may suffer from (immorality, inconsistency, illegitimacy), "illegal" cannot be predicated of it.

To be sure, there are lots of difficult and controversial cases. The issue we've been discussing is the logical hierarchy as between "possible" and "choice." Do we first have to learn "contingent" or "necessary" and then "choice"? Or, as I and I think Travis maintain, do we first have to learn "choice" and then reach "necessary" and "contingent" by contrasting them with the chosen?

Note that "possible" is ambiguous here: in the sense of "potentiality" (causal power), it is not clear, to me at least, what the hierarchy is regarding volition. However, "possible" in the sense of "non-necessary," could not, I maintain, be formed except on the basis of already having the concept "choice" (or "volition" or the like).

In the Workshops on Objectivist Epistemology that Ayn Rand conducted in 1969 - 1970, this issue came up. I quote it merely to confirm that Rand indeed endorsed the hierarchy Travis and I are arguing for:

Prof. B: Is "fact" a concept like "necessity" in the following respect? The referent of "necessity" is the same in a sense as the referent of "identity"; but "necessity" is a concept which comes much later in the hierarchy and derives from our particular form of consciousness [i.e., from its volitional nature--see "The Metaphysical Versus the Man-Made," in Philosophy: Who Needs It]. It is a concept we need to distinguish things outside our control from things in our control.

AR: Correct.


Peter

It just dawned on me what I found troubling about your formulation. Harry Binswanger seems to have beaten me to the punch, but here is my take.

You said: "By contrast, since it is possible for me to kick the ball or for Bill to write a paper or for John to get divorced and since each of us recognizes that these things are possible, we can exercise a certain faculty of choosing freely and opt to do just these things. But, notice, that the *possibility* of a certain course of action is conceptually prior to any of the other cognitive tasks (or conscious tasks) of recognizing these as alternatives among which I can exercise my free choice and select one of them.

4) What did just happen here? Well, what happened is that we have succeeded in clarifying the Randian-distinction; i.e., the distinction obscurely labeled by Objectivists in terms of the distinction between “metaphysical” vs. “man-made” facts, in terms of the Modal distinction between things that “could have been otherwise” vs. things that “could not have been otherwise”."

Not quite. The "possible" you are talking about is really "Possible for me, the free agent." This is not the same as "Possible for non-conscious things outside of me." The first "possible" is consistent with what you called the Randian-distinction and it is logically prior to the second. Therefore the Modal-distinction is not prior to the Randian-distinction. In fact, it's the other way around.

All,

Thanks for your contributions and comments. It might take me a couple of days before I can respond adequately.

Harry: welcome back.
Bob K: good seeing you again here.

peter

Peter wrote: "Travis goes on to criticize my argument on the grounds that it does not provide a correct theory of concept formation; a theory which I did not intend to provide, had nothing to say about, and which is not relevant to the present discussion."

Let me clarify. My criticism wasn't that you didn't provide a correct theory of concept formation (or even a correct account of the formation of the concepts in question here). I understood perfectly well that you weren't attempting to do that. My criticism was rather that we seem to have very different understandings of what it means for one idea to *logically presuppose* another. Your whole argument was an attempt to establish that Rand's metaphysical/man-made distinction logically presupposes a necessity/contingency distinction, allegedly rendering it circular to endorse the former but reject the latter. As I said before, I acknowledge and even applaud the structure of this argument: when B logically presupposes A, it *is* a fallacy to accept B while ignoring or rejecting A. That's a really important point and I think we are in agreement about it.

The crucial further question, though, is: what does logical presupposition consist in? According to Objectivism, the ideas logically presupposed by a given idea are those (and only those) which were necessary to possess before grasping (because they were really *used* in the process of grasping) the given idea. And that is emphatically *not* the kind of "dependency" your argument establishes, or even attempts to establish. All of the stuff about "blue" and "yellow" and Kepler's laws and whatnot is just an attempt to provide some examples so you can appreciate this alternative, non-rationalist conception of logic and logical dependency in particular.

By the way, this should also shed light on why I said earlier (in the other thread I think) that your notion of "logical consistency" as the basis for modal concepts like "possible" seems empty to me. From the Objectivist perspective, it is bizarre to talk about whether some idea, taken in isolation, is or is not logically consistent. Logically consistent *with what*? And for an Objectivist, the primary answer to this question is always going to be: with reality. Of course we recognize that sets of ideas (or a "single" compound idea) can be or fail to be logically consistent. But that is secondary, and anyway, you get into serious problems if you aren't really explicit about which other ideas you are measuring the "logical consistency" of some given idea *against*. For example, if you just contemplate the size of some crater on the moon and ask "Is it logically consistent that the size could be different?" you are liable to stumble into the answer "Sure!" because the (many) things that this actually contradicts won't be on the table for you. So, I think, you need to be more careful: "Is it logically consistent... with what?" If "with the facts of reality" the answer is plainly "no": that crater has *this* size, not some other size. If "with the laws of nature and the relevant earlier conditions" then, as I have already elaborated elsewhere, the answer is again "no". And I don't see what else you could possibly be asking. Of course, if what you mean is "Is it consistent with a volitional God's having chosen the initial conditions" then, yeah, that crater's being a different size will be logically consistent with that. But then you've got more serious problems, since the idea of God is just a made-up fantasy, and cannot play any role whatever in a rational/empirical/scientific philosophy. If you go there, then I could (with equal justification) claim that all the facts you consider "necessary" actually aren't, because I have in mind a super-gremlin who (unlike your wimpy God) can create square circles and can make 2+2 equal 5.

(This, by the way, is a subtle homage to one of my favorite things Galileo said. He famously looked through his telescope and saw that, contrary to then-current dogmas, the moon's surface was not smooth but was covered in mountain peaks and craters. A dogmatic commentator suggested that the dogmas could be saved by positing a transparent and perfectly smooth layer of glass in which the lunar mountains are submerged. Galileo responded, in effect: sure, I'll grant you that, if you in turn grant my equally-defensible claim that this invisible layer of glass also has mountains on its surface that are 10 times higher than the ones he had actually observed. The point is, if you allow any element of made-up fantasy into your system, you open the floodgates and can no longer have any sound basis for one thing as opposed to its contraries. So you shouldn't do it.)

In any case, hopefully today someone here will attempt to, as I put it metaphorically above, display your photosynthesizing lion. (I see I mistakenly typed "zebra" when I said this before; oops.) I'd really genuinely like to understand the source of this claimed "intuition" that the moon crater could have been bigger. To me it is intuitively obvious that it *couldn't* have been bigger. I've tried to back up that claim of "intuition" with some real arguments. Your turn. Maybe the answer really is that you think there's a volitional God who could have created the initial conditions (or laws) different. If so, it would be extremely clarifying to hear that.

I find the notion that, as a matter of empirical fact, we have all come to our idea of 'possible' via a prior grasping of the idea of 'choice' quite remarkable. Is there any empirical research that would support such a claim?

Also, if the notion of 'choice' itself is supposed to be more or less "primitive," and is supposed to contrast with the similarly "primitive" notion of 'existence,' as these terms are understood in Objectivist philosophy, then what are we to make of empirical research that suggests young children who demonstrate some facility with the notion of 'choice' nonetheless inhabit a sort of "animistic" ideational world where volitions abound? Haven't they grasped the contrast? And if not, how did they come by the notion of 'choice?'

On Binswangers's argument that our idea of possibility is derived from our idea of choice. If that is correct, then the materialist's argument, that freedom of choice is consistent with everything being (causally) determined, is fallacious, on logical grounds.

Ocham,

Interesting suggestion, though I'd like to see you develop it. Perhaps you mean the following. A compatiblist holds that freedom of choice is logically compatible with thoroughgoing causal determinism. (Kant called compatibilism a "shabby evasion," "the freedom of the turnspit," etc. but reputable thinkers have embraced it.) Now the compatibilist has the idea of free choice, but denies that with respect to action A it is possible to do A at time t and also possible to refrain from doing A at t. So the idea of possibility (or rather contingency) cannot derive from the idea of free choice.

Is that your argument? If yes, then you may be on to something. But until you rigorously articulate your argument we won't be able to evaluate it.

Well I merely made a statement, not an argument, as follows:

1. Certain philosophers (compatibilists) argue that causal necessity and freedom of choice - properly understood - are not inconsistent.

2. Objectivists argue that the concept of (physical) possibility is related to the concept of choice as species-concept to genus-concept.

So long as both sides are talking about the same 'freedom of choice', and surely they are, clearly both can't be right. If the objectivists are right, and if the concept 'freedom of choice' is unequivocal across 1 and 2, then causal necessity and freedom are logically inconsistent, and the compatibilists are wrong (moreoever, logically wrong, much as someone who argued that a square can be round must have gone wrong somewhere).

Who is right? I don't know. However (and here I am moved to an argument) I am tempted to believe in complete physical determinism. There is a tree in my garden. I chose to plant it when I moved here 20 years ago, so according to the objectivist the tree-being-there is not a causally-determined or necessary fact. But I think a physically complete story of the universe, which would include an account of the workings of my brain when I drove to the garden centre in 1991, and which would include the firings of my synapses as I computed the place where to plant the tree so as when mature it would shield the corner of my garden from a neighbour's window - which it now does - is completely deterministic.

It seems to me that we could give a completely physically deterministic account of how the tree got to be in that place, shading the corner of my garden from the sun, and from the neighbour's gaze. Yet I undeniably chose to buy it, and to plant it there. Given both these facts are surely correct, I don't see how the objectivist's claim can hold water.

Travis writes: "Yes, I have a less than ideal tendency toward recursive digressions. It's telling that one of my favorite philosophers of physics is David Albert -- if you've read his books or articles you'll know what I mean."

A recursive digression in a note about recursive digressions!
:-)

Ocham wrote:

"I am tempted to believe in complete physical determinism. There is a tree in my garden. I chose to plant it when I moved here 20 years ago, so according to the objectivist the tree-being-there is not a causally-determined or necessary fact. But I think a physically complete story of the universe, which would include an account of the workings of my brain when I drove to the garden centre in 1991, and which would include the firings of my synapses as I computed the place where to plant the tree so as when mature it would shield the corner of my garden from a neighbour's window - which it now does - is completely deterministic."

In that case, consciousness is epiphenomenal. As Searle pointed out, that contradicts everything we know about evolution. Consciousness requires a great deal of biological resources. If consciousness is epiphenomenal, why would it have developed.

There are other problems with determinism. When you go to a restaurant and the waiter asks you what you would like to order, do you ever respond: "I don't know; I'll have to wait for the deterministic forces to make the choice for me!"?

Ocham wrote:

"I am tempted to believe in complete physical determinism. There is a tree in my garden. I chose to plant it when I moved here 20 years ago, so according to the objectivist the tree-being-there is not a causally-determined or necessary fact. But I think a physically complete story of the universe, which would include an account of the workings of my brain when I drove to the garden centre in 1991, and which would include the firings of my synapses as I computed the place where to plant the tree so as when mature it would shield the corner of my garden from a neighbour's window - which it now does - is completely deterministic.

It seems to me that we could give a completely physically deterministic account of how the tree got to be in that place, shading the corner of my garden from the sun, and from the neighbour's gaze. Yet I undeniably chose to buy it, and to plant it there. Given both these facts are surely correct, I don't see how the objectivist's claim can hold water."

From the fact that one can give a completely deterministic account of how the tree came to be in your garden, it does not follow automatically that this account is correct. In physics, for example, one can give an account of light as a wave AND light as a particle. To our common sense, light has to be one or the other. The view today in physics is that light is both at once . In fact, they even use the term "wavicle." Perhaps one reason the determinism vs. free will debate has gone on for so many centuries is that we have a similar situation to the case of light.


A Rejoinder to An Objectivists' (Travis') Objections

In three posts Travis presented several objections against my argument in “One Fallacy of Objectivism” (henceforth, OFO). In the present post I have several goals: First, I will refute each of Travis’ objections. Second, I wish to protest against certain historically outrageous remarks Travis makes about the empiricist theory of concept-formation. Third, I wish to set the record straight about my own argument in light of Travis’ miss-construal of this argument, including proving that certain alleged consequences that he seems to impute to it do not in fact follow from the argument in OFO. Fourth, I wish to explain in detail what is involved in the type of argument I have used in OFO. Consequently, be warned: this post is going to be unusually lengthy even for me!

1) The first objection Travis presents can be gleaned from the following passage from his first post:
“It’s not, as you seem to be trying to argue, that a child’s first discovery of his own volition (or if you like, his formation of the concept “volition”) *conceptually presupposes* some pre-existing modal concepts. If that were true, it would indeed imply what you are claiming in this essay, namely that Rand is inconsistent in upholding the metaphysical/man-made distinction while jettisoning the traditional necessary/contingent distinction. What is the actual relationship between these things here?”

After posing this question Travis goes on to present a certain theory (to be refined in his second post) about how the volitional concepts are (must be) acquired before modal concepts.

1.1) What exactly is Travis’ objection above against my argument in OFO? It seems to go as follows. First, Travis introduces by stipulation (without any argument) a maxim to the effect that the temporal order of concept-acquisition by children determines the logical priority among concepts. Next, he imputes to me a theory of concept-acquisition by children according to which children acquire modal concepts before they acquire volitional concepts. Third, he concedes that if the theory of concept-acquisition he imputes to me were a correct theory, then my conclusion that the Randian distinction between “metaphysical” and “man-made” *logically* presupposes the Modal distinction between contingent/possible vs. necessary would have been correct. That is, if the theory of concept-acquisition Travis imputes to me were true, then my argument in OFO would have been sound. However, the theory of concept-acquisition I allegedly endorsed in OFO is false. Therefore, my argument in OFO is not sound (even if it were valid).
There are several problems with Travis’ argument.

1.2) First, as I have emphasized in an earlier post addressed to Bill, I did not explicitly endorse, intimate, imply, or “seem to be trying to argue” *anything* about concept acquisition by children. My argument was based exclusively on the notion that the Randian distinction *logically* or *conceptually* presupposes the Modal distinction. It was an argumentative strategy that relies exclusively upon certain logical relations that obtain among concepts. This fact should be fairly obvious to any casual reader of “One Fallacy of Objectivism”. So if Travis’ argument relies upon a reconstruction along the lines presented above, then it is irrelevant to my conclusion in OFO because he imputes to me an argument in OFO which I have not given, I did not intend to give, and it is not entailed by the argument I have actually offered in OFO.

1.3) Second, let us examine one of the premises of the above argument on its own grounds independently from the question of whether it is an accurate representation or exegesis of my own argument in OFO. The premise I have in mind is the one where Travis introduces by fiat the maxim that the temporal order of concept-acquisition by children determines the logical priority among concepts. This premise plays an essential role in this argument as well as in some of the ones I shall examine shortly. Now, without further refinement, qualifications, and amendments this maxim is simply false and trivially so. Why?

1.3.1) Amongst the first concepts, if not the very first one, that children typically master is the concept of their mother (i.e., the word ‘mamma’). According to the premise in question, then, since temporal priority determines logical priority, the concept *mamma* is logically prior to every other concept they subsequently acquire. But, surely, this is an absurd conclusion. The concept of *female* or *human being* or *living thing* (and untold other concepts) are surely logically prior to the concept of mother.
1.3.2) And once we recognize the above counterexamples to this naïve maxim proposed by Travis, it is fairly obvious that there are plenty of concepts that children acquire further (much further) in their cognitive development, provided they acquire them at all, yet they are logically prior to the ones they acquire early on. Examples of such concepts are the following: the concept of an object, of existence, of identity, of space and time, of material objects extended in space, of n-place relation among objects, of truth and falsity, of reasoning, of right and wrong, of justice and fairness, of law, of mathematical equations, of logical consequence, of evidential confirmation, of counterfactuals, of necessity, just to site a few. All these concepts children either do not acquire at all (they are innate) or they acquire in later stages of their cognitive development (and sometimes one has the daunting feeling that some of these are never acquired by some even when they reach adulthood). In either case, the naïve maxim proposed by Travis has so many counterexamples that it is ill suited as it stands to serve as a premise against my argument in OFO. It needs deep refinement and revisions in order to stand a chance to oppose my argument.

2) And sure enough Travis presents a radically modified maxim. I shall quote the essentials in full from his second post:
“For Objectivism, what you call the "psychological process of concept formation" *is* closely related to (what you describe as) the logical relationships among concepts. A crucial tenet of Objectivism is that knowledge in general and concepts in particular are *hierarchical* in the following sense: some concepts are "first-level", meaning that they can be formed directly from perception without the use of any prior concepts. (These are the sorts of entity concepts like "cat" and "table" that are, for precisely this reason, always among children's first words.) Then there are second-, third-, etc. -level concepts whose formation presupposes (respectively) some first-, second-, etc., -level concepts. For example, "table" and "chair" are first-level, but "furniture" is second-level: the claim is that you can't get the concept "furniture" directly from perception, but must instead first have conceptualized several *types* of furniture such as tables and chairs.”

2.1) The above hierarchical account of concept formation resting upon a foundation of concepts based upon perception is of course very familiar to all who know a bit about the history of philosophy. It is an empiricist/verificationist theory and it has been debated in one form or another several times during the rich history of the debate between Empiricists vs. Rationalists. I shall return to these historical facts shortly. But, now, how exactly this empiricist account of concept formation is supposed to refute my argument?

2.1.1) Well, Travis appears to reason as follows: From the hierarchical account of concept-formation it follows, Travis seems to reason, that “there is a *necessary order* in which certain ideas have to be (note: not should be, but *have* to be) grasped, and this fact is precisely what gives rise to the notion of *logical dependency* among concepts/theories/ideas/etc.” Moreover, “A given idea is logically dependent on another precisely when the other had to be in place first in order to make the grasp of the given idea possible.” And this notion just quoted is the same as the following: “That is: if you have to know A to know B, then B *logically* presupposes A, and can be said to *logically* depend on A.

2.2) The following propositions appear to emerge from the above picture:

(P1) The Hierarchical Account of Concept Formation: Our corpus of concepts forms a hierarchy which is a function of proximity to perceptual experience. Some concepts are acquired based solely upon perception without the aid of any other concepts. Call these ‘perceptually basic’ concepts. Examples are the concept of a chair, a cat, a table, a dog, etc. Other concepts are derived from the perceptually basic concepts by some cognitive operations (Travis does not specify the nature of these operations).

(P2) The Necessity of the Sequential Order of Concept Formation: The hierarchical account of concept formation means that the order within the hierarchy is *necessary* (not to be confused with “should be” in some normative sense, I presume: the order of concept acquisition *has to be* a certain way). That is, perceptually basic concepts *have to be* acquired before any other concepts *can be* acquired. The second-level concepts *have to be* acquired before any of the third-level concepts *can be* acquired, and so on. In other words: the order of concepts within the hierarchy could not be otherwise*.

Proposition (P2) entails the following two consequences:

(P3) Logical Dependency: A given concept C is *logically dependent* upon C* just in case (if and only if) C* is acquired before C: i.e., C* belongs to a level that is prior to the level to which C belongs in the sequential ordering of levels.

(P4) Logical Presupposition: “if you have to know A to know B, then B *logically* presupposes A, and can be said to *logically* depend on A.”

2.3) The above four propositions, Travis maintains, entail that the Randian distinction is prior to the Modal distinction. Why? Because (it is plainly obvious) that children acquire the concept of volition before they acquire the concept of possibility or contingency (P1). Therefore, the concept of volition is going to be closer to the level of perceptually basic concepts than the concept of possibility or contingency. Therefore, by (P2), it is necessary that we acquire the concept of volition before we acquire modal concepts. Hence, by (P3), the modal concepts of possibility and contingency are *logically dependent* upon the concept of volition. Therefore, since we have to know that we have volitions before we can know that there are possibilities or contingent events, the later concepts *logically presuppose* the former. Therefore, any argument which entails the opposite conclusion must be in the grips of a deep error, confusion, or it is based upon some trickery or faulty reasoning. My argument in OFO entails the opposite conclusion. Therefore, it must be in some deep error, confusion, or it is based upon some trickery or faulty reasoning. This is how Travis describes this final assessment of my OFO argument:
“What is this uniquely Objectivist account of the nature of logical dependency supposed to be an alternative to? The (or at least a) foil here is the idea that you can just jump in at random, pick some concept or theory, and cook up some half-plausible-sounding deductive argument that has that idea as its conclusion (or cite a definition), and then infer that said idea logically presupposes those particular premises and/or the concepts involved in them -- which is basically the structure of your argument in this thread as I understand it.”

2.4) Let me first make a historical comment:
It is an outrageous historical distortion to call the above account (or its full version thereof by Rand or any other Objectivist follower) a “uniquely Objectivist account” of concept-formation, logical dependency or anything else. Roughly the very same account was already proposed several hundred years ago by Hume, Locke, and several other empiricists. It was once again resurrected and developed in painstaking detail by the Logical Positivists in the early part of the twentieth century. And then once again it was revised, developed, and corrected by Quine and his followers in the later part of the twentieth century. It is an assault upon the sensibilities of anyone who knows this history to suggest that an empiricist account of concept-formation was somehow invented by Rand and her followers or that it is somehow a theory that is *unique* to Objectivists. I simply fail to understand how anyone could have such a historical outlook except perhaps they lack any knowledge of the history of philosophy or they think that the intellectual history of the Western World started with Ayn Rand. In either case they are simply wrong.

2.5) Now that we got the history straight let us focus upon the substance of the (Randian rehashing) of this empiricist conception of concept-formation and its alleged detrimental consequences to my argument in OFO. I shall argue that every one of the propositions that make up this theory; namely, propositions (P1)-(P4) are false.

2.5.1) Let us examine (P1). (P1) maintains that there are some perceptually basic concepts such as the concept of a chair or a cat or a table or a dog that are acquired first *without the aid of any other concepts*. Now, how exactly this acquisition of these concepts is supposed to work? Let us take a chair as a simple example. I suppose that the theory is supposed to work something like this: we draw a child’s attention to the vicinity of a chair—perhaps by pointing to it—and we sound the words ‘chair’. We repeat this process until we are convinced that the child grasped the concept. So now the child grasped a perceptually basic concept without the aid of any other concepts; or did it?

2.5.2) First, there is that nagging problem about *pointing*. We, adults who are already endowed with a sophisticated apparatus of concepts including the concept of pointing and of reference, know that the object singled out by pointing is the one that is roughly at the end of a straight line stretched from our pointing finger on. But, now, how does this child with a mind without any concepts (tabula rasa) knows that? Ex hypothesis, this child did not acquire the sophisticated linguistic apparatus of pointing *before* it acquired the concept of a chair. How come the child does not suppose instead that the pointed finger is offered for sniffing (like most dogs do) or to chew on? Moreover, even if the child somehow miraculously (according to this theory proposed by Travis) already has a grasp of the idea that the purpose of the pointed finger is to point, how does the child know which direction the pointing goes? Why should the child suppose that the object singled out by pointing is directly in front of the pointing finger rather than directly behind it or at one right angle or another, etc,.? And if the child somehow supposes that, then does not that show that the child somehow already has a grasp of the concept of pointing before it has a grasp of the concept of a chair? And, surely, no one could reasonably maintain that the concept of pointing is a perceptually basic concept: that it is somehow acquired by perception alone without the aid of any other concept.

2.5.3) But let us waive the above problems about pointing and simply grant it to Travis for the moment. So we point toward the chair. How does the child know that our pointing is intended to single out an object; i.e., the chair, rather than for instance a certain color that the chair has or a certain shape that the chair has or a certain surface a chair has or a particular spot on the surface of the chair? Yet when we point to a chair we point to all of these properties of the chair. Pointing alone cannot discriminate for the child whether we intend to single out an object, a color, a shape, etc. Moreover, in order to be able to discriminate among all of these *possibilities* we might be attempting to single out by pointing, does not the child already have to grasp the concept of an *object*, *color*, *shape*, *surface*, a spot on a certain surface, etc., before the child can grasp the concept of a chair? But, ex hypothesis, all of these concepts are higher level concepts: they are presumed by this theory to be acquired after the child acquired the concept of a chair. They could not possibly be available to the child while acquiring the perceptually basic concept of a chair. Yet as we have just seen, without these concepts the child cannot acquire the concept of a chair by means of pointing. The same type of arguments will apply to any other pedagogic device one might propose instead of pointing and to any other example of a perceptually basic concept.

2.5.4) However, even if ignore all of the above difficulties with Travis’ hierarchical account of concept formation, it is not clear from his account how higher-order concepts are formed from the concepts that belong to lower levels. What are the mechanisms of concept formation beyond the mere perceptual mechanisms that allegedly account for the perceptually basic concepts? How do we form the concept of a plane, a mountain, a star, a river, air? Or more abstractly the concepts of an *object*, for instance, or of *identity*, or of *truth*, or the concept of a *concept* or of *space*, *time*, *reasoning*, or the concepts of *up* and *down*, and countless others. Are we to suppose that these concepts will simply take care of themselves? (To paraphrase Wittgenstein’s cynical question) Travis offers no mechanism that explains how these concepts are acquired. None! Yet without such an account, Travis’ hierarchical theory of concept acquisition is not a theory at all: it is instead a fundamentally empty shell with a huge note stuck on it: IOU!

2.5.5) In light of all of the above difficulties and the IOU note still outstanding, (P1) is false.

Disclaimer Note: None of the above arguments against this empiricist conception of concept formation are original with me. Most of them originate with certain ideas of Wittgenstein and many of them were subsequently used against similar empiricist accounts of concept acquisition and formation.

2.6) What about (P2)? Well, (P2) maintains that the temporal order at which concepts are grasped by a child, which is mirrored by each concept’s position in the hierarchy, is a matter of *necessity*. Thus, suppose that concept C* is grasped before C; it is, therefore, situated at a level more proximate to the perceptually basic concepts than concept C. It then follows, according to (P2), that C* is *necessarily* grasped prior to C. This principle applies to all concepts without exception.

2.6.1) Does (P2) allow for some degree of variation across different people, people in different cultures, or historical periods, the different sexes, varying intelligence, social and economic conditions, etc.,? We do not have a definite answer to this question because we do not have a clue as to the mechanisms involved in concept formation over and above the perceptually basic concepts. In fact, we do not even know whether the theory has a clear criterion for which concepts are to count as perceptually basic concepts, the foundation of the hierarchy.

2.6.2) Does a bagel count as perceptually basic? Perhaps! Is the hole in the bagel a perceptually basic concept or is it a concept that must be acquired much later? How much later? Is a window a perceptually basic concept? Does the concept of the glass in the window grasped together with the window or separately? If separately, then is it grasped before or after the concept of a window is grasped? If the concept of the glass is grasped after the concept of a window is grasped, then how much time must elapse before the concept of glass is grasped? Is the concept of the transparency of the glass in the window grasped together with the concept of the window, the glass in the window, or completely separately from both? Is the scene visible through the glass in the window grasped as part of the concept of the glass in the window?

2.6.3) We do not have a clue how to answer any of these questions because Travis’ theory offers neither answers nor the resources to figure out reasonable answers. So, I ask, how does Travis know that the concept of volition is universally grasped prior to the concept of contingency, possibility, necessity, let alone that it *must* be so grasped? Does he have some empirical evidence for such a claim or does he maintain that this is a consequence of his theory? Travis does not cite any empirical evidence for this claim. And he cannot be claiming that it is a consequence of his theory of concept formation, for as we noted above (P1) is nothing but a shell. Nothing of substance follows from a shell, let alone specific claims about the temporal and logical priority among concepts. As for (P2); given the above considerations about (P1) and the complete lack of criteria to determine the class of perceptually basic concepts and the total absence of any mechanisms that describe how higher order concepts are formed, (P2) is an empty formulation designed to justify (P3) and (P4).

2.6.4) It is further worth noting that Travis’ shell-theory of concept formation unabashedly exploits the very modal concepts he proclaims to be superfluous. For, according to (P2), the temporal order at which concepts are acquired is *necessary*: *could not be otherwise*. But, what does Travis mean when he says that this alleged temporal order is necessary? Well, I suppose everyone familiar with my argument in “One Fallacy of Objectivism” can figure out where this line of questioning leads.

2.7) Whereas (P1) is mostly a shell-theory that lacks much substance and the substance it does seem to enjoy appears to be completely wrong, (P2) is nothing but an empty proposition formulated in terms of modal concepts that are deemed by this very theory to be superfluous, confused, empty, or whatever. A very curious situation indeed! I hesitate to simply conclude that (P2) is false, but only because the terms ‘true’ and ‘false’ are supposed to be attributed to well formulated, meaningful propositions. (P2) is neither. Nevertheless, for the sake of continuity I shall do so: (P2) is false (or it is empty: i.e., truth-valueless).

2.8) What about (P3) and (P4)? I will not strain the marvelous endurance exhibited by those readers who got this far. Since (P1) and (P2) are empty or false, so are (P3) and (P4). I will not waste time examining them. The whole package of this shell-theory is nothing but a crude and ill formulated rehashing of past empiricist theories of concept formation that have been discussed ad-infinitum in the philosophical community for centuries.

2.9) Therefore, Travis’ objection against my argument in OFO is not even a starter, let alone a threat to that argument’s soundness.

2.9.1) At this point you might wonder: if this is correct, then why did I waste so much time responding to it? Because I did not merely want to refute it: I wanted to use it in order to illustrate by an actual example how certain blind devotion to a cultish-dogma can lead intelligent people to believe anything. Travis does not have a theory of concept acquisition and formation. And whatever shell-theory he and the Objectivists have was borrowed from other philosophers and appropriated by Rand and her co-borrowers (apparently without even acknowledging the debt) and merely rehashed in order to serve whatever purposes they desire.

3) The second objection that Travis presents against my argument in OFO is based on an analogy or an argument from parity of reasoning. It goes like this and I quote from his second post:
“Here's the analogy. It'd be sort-of half-plausible to construct a dialogue like the following:
Travis: I have the concept "yellow".
Peter: What do you mean by "yellow"?
Travis: By "yellow" I mean the color of objects whose surface reflectance peaks at a wavelength of about 575 nanometers (or whatever).
Peter: That proves that the concept "yellow" logically presupposes the concept "wavelength" and also the knowledge that light is an electromagnetic wave and that different materials can have different spectral reflectancies.
The point I was trying to make in the earlier comment (and am fleshing out now) is: no, it doesn't prove that. According to Objectivism, the way to find out what other knowledge/concepts is/are logically presupposed by a given concept is to ask: how does this concept originate? That is, how did people who possess this concept form it, and in particular, what prior conceptual knowledge (if any) was *used* in forming it? And as any parent can tell you, children have no trouble forming the concept "yellow" before they know about Maxwell's equations or the idea of "wavelength" or anything like that.”

3.1) Travis, perhaps sensing the patently absurd attempt at parity of reasoning here, prefixed his dialog with the cautious qualification “sort-of-half-plausible”. Well, given the many mistakes that his dialog and the conclusions which he attempts to draw from it make, the phrase “sort-of-half-plausible” is a gross understatement. What is the point of the dialog? What is the parity of reasoning that this dialog is supposed to make with my argument in OFO?

3.2) The idea is that just like in the above dialog it makes no sense to conclude that the concept *yellow* logically presupposes the concept of *wavelength* or certain complicated equations, similarly it makes no sense to conclude that the concept of volition logically presupposes the concepts of contingency and possibility. Moreover, just like in the above dialog a faulty line of reasoning lead to such an absurd conclusion, similarly the absurd conclusion that the Randian distinction logically presupposes the Modal distinction relies upon a faulty argument in OFO.
Let us now review some of the mistakes Travis makes in this argument from parity of reasoning.

3.2) If I were to ask the question “What do you (Travis) mean by “yellow”?” and Travis would answer it by saying “By “yellow” I mean the color of objects whose surface….etc.,” and by “mean” we both mean to give the meaning of a concept, then the conclusion which Travis puts in my mouth in the above dialog follows logically. But, of course, such a conclusion is ludicrous. So, then, what exactly went wrong here? Several things went wrong in this dialog.

3.2.1) Lock already noticed (and I am sure many before him sensed this) that color concepts such as “yellow” differ significantly from a myriad of other concepts such as “chair”, “dog”, and “volitional action” for instance. Hence, he made a distinction between “primary” and “secondary” concepts and delegated color concepts to the second category. So what was the idea of distinguishing color concepts from others and categorizing them as secondary? The point was that the idea, the meaning, we have of these secondary concepts depends essentially upon our subjective experiences. Therefore, a theory of “meaning” for secondary concepts such as “yellow” cannot be given descriptively without circularity (i.e., Question: what does “yellow” mean? Answer: The color of this book. Question: What is the color of this book? Answer: yellow.) Therefore, such a theory must include a *demonstrative* element (pointing) essentially. So, how is this historical note relevant to Travis’ dialog?

3.2.2) Suppose I indeed ask the question Travis imputes to me in his dialog. I would expect something like the following answer:
Interlocutor: “I cannot give you the meaning of “yellow” using only other terms; but I can single out for you the color I mean by pointing to a sample of yellow and say “yellow is this (pointing) color”.”
I certainly do not expect and would be quite astonished if my interlocutor would respond in the manner Travis did in his dialog. Compare the above interlocutor’s response to the one Travis proposed as an answer:
“Travis: By "yellow" I mean the color of objects whose surface reflectance peaks at a wavelength of about 575 nanometers (or whatever).”

3.2.3) What is the fundamental difference between my interlocutor’s response and the one Travis chose to put in his own mouth? In order to answer this question we must first correctly describe the real relationship that obtains between the concept *yellow* and the phrase “the color of objects whose surface reflectance peaks at a wavelength of about 575 nanometers (or whatever).” What is this relationship?

3.2.4) The relationship between the concept *yellow* and “the color of objects whose surface reflectance peaks at a wavelength of about 575 nanometers (or whatever)” is that of identity discovered by means of scientific inquiry. The identity is as follows:
(X) Yellow is identical to the color of objects whose surface reflectance peaks at a wavelength of about 575 nanometers (or whatever).
Now, even if science is correct and the identity statement (X) is correct, we cannot conclude from this that the phrase “the color of objects whose surface reflectance peaks at a wavelength of about 575 nanometers (or whatever)” gives the meaning of the concept *yellow*. Science is not in the business of informing us about the *meaning*of concepts or words: it is in the business of discovering how the world is.

3.2.5) So it is a confusion to think that the phrase “the color of objects whose surface reflectance peaks at a wavelength of about 575 nanometers (or whatever)” gives the meaning of the concept yellow in a non-circular way. (Notice that if you would take this phrase as giving the meaning, then it would be circular; for then one might ask: and the color of which objects whose surface reflectance peaks at a wavelength of about 575 nanometers (or whatever) do you mean? The only answer you can give now is: the color of yellow objects!) And it would be very uncharitable for me to impute to my interlocutor such confusion upon hearing him say that “By "yellow" I mean the color of objects whose surface reflectance peaks at a wavelength of about 575 nanometers (or whatever).” Such an uncharitable interpretation would be playing fast and loose with different meanings of the term “mean”, which is frequently used to mean ‘is’ as in: “Her husband beats her regularly, and I mean John.”

3.2.6) Therefore, knowing all of this and being a reasonably charitable (up to a tolerable point) chap, I will certainly not respond to Travis’ last statement as to what he means by *yellow* in the manner Travis puts in my mouth, namely:
“Peter: That proves that the concept "yellow" logically presupposes the concept "wavelength" and also the knowledge that light is an electromagnetic wave and that different materials can have different spectral reflectancies.”
That would be either playing fast and loose with the word ‘mean’ or worst: with deliberate malice and intent and knowingly imputing to Travis a completely unreasonable thought and then inferring from it a completely absurd conclusion: something along the lines that someone (I do not *mean* Travis) might attempt to do by comparing the above dialog to my argument in OFO. I honestly do not think that Travis proposed the analogy between the dialog and my argument with deliberate malice and that is for two reasons. First, he cautiously described the analogy as “sort-of-half-plausible” because I think he sensed that there is something wrong with it; and, second, I think that while Travis sensed that something is wrong with his analogy, he really did not know how to articulate what is wrong in the terms I have done above. It is just under such circumstances that we are tempted, albeit reluctantly, to offer an analogy as an argument when the similarity between the cases is merely part of a façade and goes no deeper.

3.2.7) With the collapse of the dialog and its alleged analogy to my argument in OFO, the moral Travis draws from it at the ends of the passage I quoted is unwarranted. Since this moral was intended to contrast with my conclusions in OFO and show by analogy how absurd these conclusions are, the collapse of the analogy provides no justification for this moral. It is merely a hanging, dwindling assertion based on nothing. So much the worst for Travis’ second argument.

4) Travis’ third objection is a derivative of the one I have just examined and, therefore, it is as confused and obscure. Here is his objection, quoted from Travis’ second post:
“Really your whole argument is summarized by this: “we simply cannot demarcate a category of volitional or freely chosen acts unless we presuppose that certain facts could have been otherwise whereas others could not have been otherwise.” I think you are here confusing existence with knowledge. What’s true is that we couldn’t “demarcate a category” (i.e., form a concept) unless the units of that concept already exist and differ in the needed ways from other existents. But it’s not like you have to have some pre-existing *concept* for the *way* they differ in order to be able to notice that they *do* differ, and hence form a concept on that basis. This, if you’ll forgive me, is Objectivist Epistemology 101. (So really, reading ITOE would be useful for you if you are interested in pursuing this.) A simpler but completely parallel example would be the color concepts I gave above. Yes, in order for a child to form the concepts “blue” and “yellow” there have to exist objects with different surface reflectance properties, in particular, objects which reflect electromagnetic radiation in different wavelength bands more or less well. But if you think a one-year-old has to have taken advanced courses in Maxwell’s electromagnetic theory, or have the concept “wavelength” or even “surface” (etc.), before grasping "blue" and "yellow" then, well, obviously you've never had kids (or thought very much about how humans actually acquire the concepts you, as a philosopher, are so interested in studying).”

4.1) There are two-plus thoughts here. First, Travis accuses me of confusing existence and knowledge. As a general statement, I certainly do not think that I am the one that confuses existence and knowledge, metaphysics with epistemology. If anyone commits such a conflation, it is Travis and his Objectivist colleagues.

4.2) Second, there appears to be some sort of argument Travis advances to the effect that we could differentiate or notice that concepts differ without having a “pre-existing *concept* for the *way* they differ”. I really am somewhat confused by this claim. However, if the rest of the above paragraph regarding the example of yellow and Maxwell equations is somehow an example of the above argument, then clearly it involves the sort of confusion I have painstakingly identified in connection with Travis’ second objection above. So I shall spare the reader any further labor.

5) The fourth and final objection Travis’ advances is the following:
“That is: what exactly do you mean when you say that this crater on the moon “could have” been a different size? I genuinely just don’t understand that claim at all.”

5.1) First, let us be clear that this is not an objection to my *argument* in OFO. It is an assault on the possibility to give a clear meaning to modal concepts such as contingent/possible vs. necessary. Now, I have given one way to understand these notions in terms of logical consistency. Here is what Travis said about this proposal in his third post:
“By the way, this should also shed light on why I said earlier (in the other thread I think) that your notion of "logical consistency" as the basis for modal concepts like "possible" seems empty to me. From the Objectivist perspective, it is bizarre to talk about whether some idea, taken in isolation, is or is not logically consistent. Logically consistent *with what*?”

5.2) But, this objections either shows that Travis failed to read the fullness of my proposal or did not pay attention to what he read or worst deliberately ignored what I have said in order to portray the proposal in a negative light. For when I made that proposal I said that a proposition is possible just in case it is consistent *with the laws of logic*. So I have not defined possibility in terms of consistency with….nothing? It is useful in debates of this sort to address arguments and proposals that are actually given rather than arguments and proposals one merely *wishes* were given.

6) There is a certain tension lurking in Travis’ posts between a desperate attempt to preserve the modal distinction between what is possible/contingent and what is necessary, on the one hand, and jettisoning this modal distinction altogether as meaningless (ala Quine), on the other. What is going on here is this.

6.1) Jettisoning the modal distinction altogether as meaningless is not an attractive option because Travis and his Objectivist colleagues need a meaningful distinction between possible vs. necessary in order to explicate what they mean by their own distinction between “metaphysical” vs. “man-made”. So they cannot really dispense with it altogether. But, now, why do they need this distinction? Why can’t they just follow Quine and declare it as fundamentally meaningless?

6.2) Suppose that the Objectivists attempt to distinguish between their own two categories without exploiting for the purpose the modal distinction. Suppose they characterize man-made events as caused by consciousness. Unfortunately doing so will not do because who is to say that consciousness, whatever that may be, is not just as causally determinate as any other non-man-made cause. So consciousness alone is not enough. There has to be a special element incorporated into consciousness, an element that accounts for the component of choosing freely a course of action. Now, what exactly is involved in this free choice? It is the recognition that given the circumstances several alternative courses of action are available in the world. In other words, the component in question is the recognition that the world is so constituted that “this can be done” and “that can be done” (but perhaps not both). Without such a component, or something analogous to it, the notion of free will simply makes no sense.

6.3) But if the modal distinction is required as an essential component of the notion of free choice; if the very meaning of what it is to exercise such free choice requires the modal distinction, then how could there be a notion of “volitional action” stripped from the requisite modal notion that is somehow antecedently given and available to be acquired independently from the modal notions? What is this notion of “volitional action” from which the relevant modal notion is stripped, only to be acquired later and independently? Take the words ‘free action’ and imagine that you remove from their meaning the notion of alternative possibilities. What are you left with?

6.4) Here is an example: We know that the meaning of the term ‘bachelor’ includes the meaning of not-married. Now, suppose someone were to argue that the term bachelor is somehow more basic and therefore that it does not require a prior understanding of the concept of marriage and hence the concept of unmarried. So let us strip away from the concept of *bachelor* the concept of *unmarried*. What are you left with? The concept of a male. But when we apply the concept of bachelor to someone we certainly want to say something more than merely say that they are a male: if that is all we wanted to say, then we most definitely would have used the concept male to express what we have in mind.

6.5) The same holds with regards to the notion of “volitional action” and the modal notion of possibility/contingency. Without the later, the former simply says that the action was caused by something internal, perhaps a cause we call “consciousness”. But we certainly do not have a notion of “volitional action” that conveys the sense of a freely chosen course of action.

6.6) When a given notion is included in the meaning of another, then the former has a wider application (extension) than the former (e.g., the notion of unmarried is included in the notion of a bachelor and it certainly has a wider application than the term ‘bachelor’ since there can be unmarried women). The only way that the two terms are coextensive is if they have the same meaning. But, Travis and his Objectivist colleagues cannot maintain the equivalence-in-meaning thesis because that would mean that “volitional action” and the modal term possible/contingent mean the same thing. But they could not mean the same thing because the notion of “volitional action” requires an independent notion of possibility that carves out alternative course of action in the world so as to combine this idea with the idea of consciousness that includes a special faculty that can select among these alternatives. In other words, since the modal notion of “possibility” is needed in order to offer a revealing analysis of the notion of “volitional action” the two cannot have identical meaning.

6.7) To summarize: either Travis and the Objectivists wish to jettison the modal concepts altogether as meaningless or they do wish to do so. If they do not wish to do so (for reasons outlined above), then they have two options: either they proclaim that the modal concepts have exactly the same meaning as the terms of the Randian distinction or they do not wish to maintain this equivalence. If they opt for the former, then the modal terms cannot be useful for an illuminating analysis of the terms in the Randian distinction (as outlined above). Therefore, in order to provide for a meaningful analysis of the concepts in the Randian distinction, the Objectivists must retain the modal terms as meaningful and not equivalent in meaning to the terms of the Randian distinction. But, then, they must allow for such terms to have a wider extension (application) than the terms of the Randian distinction. However, it is precisely this conclusion that Travis and the Objectivists resist.
So what are we to think?

peter


Peter,

Let me respond to your original claim that the Objectivist distinction presupposes the (non-Objectivist) modal distinction.

Your central claim is:

we simply cannot demarcate a category of volitional or freely chosen acts unless we presuppose that certain facts could have been otherwise whereas others could not have been otherwise. And when we presuppose this distinction we in fact presuppose a Modal distinction which Objectivists maintain in Thesis B is either reducible to the Randian distinction or dispensable or irremediably unclear.

But there is a logical slip here. The Objectivist distinction does not presuppose the distinction be possibility and actuality in regard to man's free choices--it asserts that distinction, and only in regard to what is subject to man's free choices.

Additionally, what is being asserted in the Objectivist distinction (between the metaphysical and the man-made) is not the Modal distinction (between necessary and contingent), it is rather the existence of free will. The Objectivist distinction asserts that man has a definite range of choices, all of which are possible. You think that the use of "possible" here entails your modal distinction--i.e., between "necessary" and "contingent," but it actually entails our modal distinction--i.e., between possible-due-to-volition and non-volitional.

Nothing one can do in regard to such terms as "could have been otherwise" or causal powers regarding volition-based alternatives is going to underwrite the idea that there is anything but actuality in regard to that which is non-volitional. There is no "contingency" in (metaphysically given) nature. There is no "possibility" there either.

Your argument is that there must be "possibility" in nature, because human choice could have been otherwise. Yes that possibility exists--it's the only one, and the one we insist on.

Do you see what I'm saying? I'm not sure I've made it fully clear. One more try: the only application of "possible" in the universe is the alternative possibilities arising from man's possession of free will.

Qualification: there is the sense of "possible" that refers to the causal powers of thing. A dry leaf can burn, a rock cannot. But this only refers to what will or won't happen under certain circumstances. It doesn't involve alternative futures.

Some high points in response to Peter’s crazy-long comment, numbered by (roughly) which of Peter’s numbered points they address:

1.1) This whole paragraph misses my point. I never intended to impute to you a theory of "concept-acquisition by children". As I already wrote earlier, I understood perfectly well that you weren’t trying to provide such a theory, but were instead claiming to be exploring the purely logical relations among these concepts. My whole point was merely that, according to Objectivism, this distinction makes no sense because logical dependency comes down precisely to "necessary order of acquisition". You repeat several times that I put this idea (i.e., this account of logical dependency) forward by fiat. Not true. I was merely reporting the content of Objectivism. Actually, not merely reporting it -- I went rather far out of my way to try to explain the basis of the doctrine and give some examples.

1.2) "Mamma" as you use it here is a proper noun, not a concept. If what you meant was the actual *concept* "mother" (which is certainly not among a child's first concepts), then I would agree that this is not a first-level concept. It would be interesting to discuss its logical relations to other relevant concepts like "parent", "female", etc. Here I will just make one quick point: the fact that "mother" could be *defined* as "female parent" does *not* establish that a child must possess the concepts "female" and "parent" prior to grasping the concept "mother", i.e., according to Objectivism, it does not establish that "female" and "parent" are logically presupposed by "mother." My own two year old son definitely has the concepts "mother" and "father" but does not have either of these other concepts. I hypothesize (based largely on this fact about my son’s development) that "parent" is a widening from (and so logically presupposes) "mother" and "father", and that "female" is a widening from "mother", "girl", and perhaps some concepts like "hen" or "ewe". (Someone could think, instead, that one grasps "parent" first and then narrows/subdivides based on sex into "mother" and "father".)

1.3.2) Objectivism doesn’t believe in innate concepts, so to the extent that a given person does explicitly possess the sophisticated (largely philosophical) concepts you mention, they have to acquire (i.e., form) them. Some of the concepts on your list (like "object" and "existence") are special cases according to Objectivism. Namely, they are "axiomatic concepts" which a very young child possess, but only in an "implicit" form, from practically the beginning. "Implicit" here is a term of art meaning that all of the knowledge required for a later, explicit formation of the concept, is possessed –- in a perceptual, non-verbal form –- by the child. For example, to say that a six-month-old possesses the implicit concept "object" is just to say that he knows there are objects, and can recognize newly-encountered existents as objects. That this knowledge (which is held in a purely perceptual form) plays a certain crucial role in his further cognitive development is the basis for calling it an axiomatic concept. See ITOE for further details. There's a whole chapter on axiomatic concepts. In any case, there is a good question in what you write here, to which I don’t have a ready answer: how does the implicit/explicit distinction integrate with the Objectivist account of logical dependence? For example: is a concept like "object" logically presupposed by an allegedly first-level concept like "table"?

2.1) Despite being only an amateur philosopher, I am of course aware of historical Rationalism and Empiricism. I was not aware, however, that any earlier Empiricist philosopher had proposed anything like Rand’s views on hierarchy. Please enlighten me.

2.3) Here you mis-characterize what I was saying. I never said it was obvious that children acquire the concept "volition" before (say) "possibility". I don’t think that’s obvious at all. And even if we knew the order in which these concepts were (say, universally) acquired, it wouldn’t prove that they are related hierarchically. I suspect every person who has ever possessed both concepts has learned "symphony" before "neutrino", but this doesn’t mean the one is logically prior to the other. In fact, I never meant to take a stand one way or the other on what the relative logical priority of "volition" and "possibility" is. (Though I do strongly suspect it’s what you suggest I believe, and perhaps I did let this slip out at some point.) All I really meant to assert was that your whole argument here rests on a certain account of logical dependency which Objectivism rejects. That’s a valid criticism of your piece, whether or not I go on to say what I think the logical relations between these concepts actually are. And anyway, I can’t really even do that since part of the dispute here is whether there even *is* such a valid concept as the (metaphysically) "possible".

2.4) I disagree. If all I had said was that Rand thought we got concepts ultimately through experience, it would indeed have been absurd to characterize that as "uniquely Objectivist." But I went out of my way to explain several of the features of her account which are quite unique, and certainly quite different from what you find in the Empiricist tradition. An actual philosopher like Dr. Binswanger would be better equipped to address this point, however.

2.5.1) Not exactly. A child could acquire the concept chair (assuming he’s in an environment in which there are some chairs) without any adult present to point at the chairs and say the word "chair." To acquire the concept, the child need merely notice that the (say) several chairs in his environment are similar (primarily in regard to shape, and perhaps also function) to one another, as against some other objects (say a table and a desk) which function as foils. (An important aspect of Objectivism here is its account of the meaning of similarity –- namely, similarity as a "small difference", which is why we need those foils: the difference between this chair and that chair is small compared to the difference between either chair and the desk, and we call that relationship "similarity". Of course, in forming his first concepts, a child grasps this similarity wordlessly, perceptually.) Further, to acquire the concept, the child needs to recognize this similarity as important and worth institutionalizing, and he needs to give it a word. Of course, if he lives alone inside a furniture factory, he’ll probably invent the word “gleep” or “og” rather than “chair”. No matter, he’s still got the concept “chair”.

2.5.2) You make a big fuss about "pointing" here, so notice that in my above account of the concept-forming process for "chair", no pointing was necessary. In any case, none of this matters. I concede that most children probably are significantly aided in the forming of many concepts by the pointing that adults around them engage in. But you don’t have to have a concept of "pointing" in order to figure out where to look when somebody points. My ten-month old doesn’t quite get pointing yet, but if you stare in a certain direction and make your eyes big, he’ll look where you’re looking. For what it’s worth, he can also burp despite not having the concept "burp." Dr. Binswanger has named this the "prose principle" (based on the joke "Oh, I've been speaking prose all my life but didn't know it"): you can do and use lots of things before conceptualizing them. For example, a child can make volitional choices before having a concept of "volition".

2.5.3) This is answered by the theory of perception. It is just a fact about the way perception works that entities are somehow "prior" to their properties, actions, etc. When you look at something, what you literally *see* is the thing –- it takes an act of conceptual-level abstraction to single out and focus on (let alone name), say, its color. So there is no problem such as: how does a child know that, when you point to a cow and say “cow”, that you aren’t actually pointing to an instance of “white with black spots” or “undetached cow parts”. I concede there might be such an ambiguity when someone points to a cow in the presence of a philosopher. But that doesn’t change anything. (And no, I don’t mean that as an insult against philosophers. The point is just that even the philosopher learned concepts like "cow", perhaps in part through the helpful pointing of his parents, before he learned concepts like "white" or "black" or "parts".)

2.5.4) Yes, I didn’t say anything about this. There’s a chapter in ITOE called “abstractions from abstractions” that you should read. Our own Dr. Binswanger has also done a lot of work on this. You seem to think I covered the entirety of Objectivism in my several posts last week. I know some of them were a little long, but come on.

2.6) No, you didn’t understand the theory correctly. It’s not that all temporal concept-acquisition relations are necessary, but that the ones that *are* necessary (and only those) give rise to the kind of hierarchical structure (i.e., logical dependence relations) we’re talking about. To repeat the example I used above, "symphony" and "neutrino" are not really hierarchically related at all. They’re on two too-different strands of conceptual development to compare in any meaningful way. That is, neither one can meaningfully be said to presuppose the other.

2.6.4) I knew somebody would jump on this point. First, the "necessity" here isn’t the same sort that is at issue in this thread (namely, the purported distinction between necessary and contingent facts within the realm of the "metaphysically given"). It’s rather in the sense of necessary in necessary/sufficient causal preconditions for some event. And anyway, the description of what children are doing (in particular that there is a "necessary order of learning" relation between certain of their cognitions) is a retrospective, adult perspective on and description of what children are doing. Of course the child forms the concepts "table" and "furniture" before (and necessarily forms them in a certain order before!) he forms the concept “necessity” (in the sense of "necessary condition"). This is the prose principle at work. So there’s nothing like the logical presupposition (and hence circularity) you suggest.

2.9.1) Since you are relying only on what I’ve posted on this blog (which is, as I’m the first to concede, the briefest possible hint of an indication of a few important corners of Objectivist epistemology) you’re really not in a position to claim any of the things you’re claiming here. If, for some reason, it matters so much to you to prove that Rand was dogmatic/derivative/whatever, you really need to do a little more homework first. By the way, do I really strike you as a cult-following kind of person, or a dogmatist? Or as someone who doesn't really understand what I'm talking about? I think the fact that you answered my posts in such detail and at such length (which I genuinely appreciate, by the way) answers that. If you really thought I was what you say here, you wouldn't bother. Right?

3.2.1) This appears to be a pointless tangent. I could just as easily have given an equivalent dialogue without using any concept for an allegedly "secondary" property. All the stuff about "meaning" also seems pointless to get into. The whole point of that dialogue I constructed was just to provide a simple, (I thought) non-controversial example of an invalid approach to establishing a purported logical dependence between concepts. I did *not* intend it to be precisely parallel to your argument –- only parallel in the rough sense that, I would claim (but you would deny), that both mistake some other sort of relationship between concepts (such as that some concept is needed to define or explicate a given concept) for a logical one.

4.2) If you’re confused by the claim (that we can form a concept on the basis of perceived differences between things, without having concepts for those differences), why don’t you ask for clarification or elaboration, rather than jump to the conclusion that it’s obviously nonsense? If you’re confused about this point, you won’t be able to understand the Objectivist view of hierarchy at all. I’d be happy to try to clarify or elaborate... if you can manage the same level of courtesy I require from my two year old.

5.2) In response to "logically consistent … with what?" you answer: with the laws of logic. I know you said that, but I don’t know what it means. The laws of logic are our means of determining the logical consistency among ideas. There is of course a certain perspective from which those laws can treated as facts, but it is pretty weird to ask if, e.g., a certain hole’s having a certain size is consistent, or not, with the laws of logic. Obviously, any non-compound fact will be so consistent. So there is not going to be any grounds here for distinguishing the "possible" from the "impossible", i.e., no grounds for saying that some (non-compound) facts, but not others, are "possible". That’s what I meant by "empty."

6) There’s really no tension. The claim all along has been not that one cannot distinguish necessary from contingent, but that this distinction (to whatever extent it is legitimate) can come down to nothing but the metaphysical/man-made distinction –- that is, once you distinguish between that which is caused by deterministic physical processes in Nature, and that which is caused by free human choices, there is no legitimate basis for any further sub-divisions. So, for example, the claim implies that to whatever extent you regard (what we call) metaphysically given facts as "contingent", it must be because you think a volitional god created the earlier conditions and laws and could (being after all volitional) have created them differently.

6.2) Here you suggest in passing that maybe human consciousness isn’t volitional, but is maybe deterministic. According to Objectivism, that suggestion is self-refuting. And –- more importantly –- the fact of volition is open to direct (introspective) awareness, at least to those of us lucky enough to possess it.

6.4) "Bachelor" is a good example to bring up. Its definition ("un-married man") includes two concepts ("married" and "man") that are indeed logically presupposed by "bachelor" in the Objectivist, "necessary order of learning" sense. You couldn’t form the concept "bachelor" unless you already had the concept "man" (meaning here "male human") and the concept "marriage". That’s a nice example to put on the table next to my earlier discussion of "yellow", the concepts in whose definition are *not* logically presupposed by "yellow". The lesson here is that, at least according to Objectivism, the concepts in a definition are not necessarily logically presupposed by the concept being defined. Sometimes they are, and sometimes they’re not. But this is a bit of a tangent, because you never exactly argued this way. I only floated it as a simpler example of a kind of relationship that can exist between concepts which does not necessarily indicate a logical presupposition relationship. I think it’s served that function, so it would be helpful now to go back to your original argument and examine exactly what sort of relationship your argument does establish between "volition" and "possibility".

6.6) You keep repeating the claim that "'volitional action' and the modal term possible/contingent .... could not mean the same thing because the notion of 'volitional action' requires an independent notion of possibility..." as if it’s been established. But that is just your main thesis in this thread, which you know I don’t accept. Repeating it over and over again isn’t going to tempt me into accepting it, I assure you.

How to conclude this? There are lots of points here on which further, civil, mutually-respectful discussion might be fruitful. You’ve got a number of confusions (and some general ignorance) about Rand’s ideas, and maybe I can help clarify some things. You’ve also made a few good points and raised at least one pretty deep question that I, at least, don’t know how to answer. But before proceeding, I’d ask you more or less the question I put to Bill on the other thread this morning. Your latest post (the long one to which this is a response) shows a kind of indecision between two inconsistent motives: (a) learning more about an unfamiliar but (perhaps) interesting approach to some deep questions in metaphysics and epistemology, and (b) putting on a show for yourself and others to justify the pre-existing (and I think actually groundless) claim that Rand was a hack, that everyone who respects her work is a "cultist", etc. But your taking attitude (a) is going to be a necessary (pun intended) condition of my continuing the discussion. So just make up your mind and let me know, OK?

Finally, let me repeat that, at least leaving aside all the snide and snotty parts, I really appreciate the extent to which you made an effort to really understand what I was saying. Despite having said many times above "you misunderstood this" or "that's not what I meant", there was an overall sense in which you did get it. Your four-point numbered summary of my overall argument (P1-P4) is (leaving quibbles aside) pretty good, and I appreciate the obvious effort that went into even being able to write that elegant summary.

Finally (and I really mean it this time), if we do continue, let's agree to set some things aside and focus on one point at a time. It's taken well over an hour to write this post, and that's too long for me to spend on this per sitting.

I agree with Travis' post, not only regarding the content, but on getting clear on the ground rules of this conversation.

The situation is that Objectivists have been hearing for over 40 years that our ideas are deficient (to put it nicely) in several major respects. Finally, Bill has opened a discussion on this, seemingly interested in what we really have to say, and welcomed professional intellectuals who agree with Objectivism (e.g., I in philosophy, Travis in physics),

But when we take part, and politely try to explain our position, we are treated rudely. When we write long posts, trying to present parts of what Rand presents in a whole book, we are subjected to insulting language like: "blind devotion to a cultish-dogma." Amusingly, that is followed directly by the a priori (blind? dogmatic?) statement: "Travis does not have a theory of concept acquisition and formation."

Yes, he does. I know he does because Travis attended, years ago, a class in which I taught Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, which is the book setting out that very theory.

It is anyone's privilege to disagree with the theory or to find it wanting in "rigor," etc., but please don't deny its existence! The same is true for the existence, in chapter 3 of ITOE, of a theory of how higher-level concepts are based on what Peter, not inaccurately, calls "perceptually basic" concepts. Here's the opening sentence of that chapter:

Starting from the base of conceptual development--from the concepts that identify perceptual concretes--the process of cognition moves in two interacting directions: toward more extensive and more intensive knowledge, toward wider integrations and more precise differentiations. Following the process and in accordance with cognitive evidence, earlier-formed concepts are integrated into wider ones or subdivided into narrower ones.

Now, that's just the first sentence. The mechanism presented in what follows builds on the theory presented for forming first-level ("perceptully basic") concepts.

So are we going to have a polite, rational discussion? I hope so.

Harry:
>I agree with Travis' post, not only regarding the content, but on getting clear on the ground rules of this conversation.

As I have just noted on another thread, you are right: the ground rules are indeed rather unclear, especially the most important "ground rule" of all, which is the mutual agreement on adhering to the rules of logical argument. For Travis claims that while they use the same word, in fact Objectivists practice a "radically different" form of logic from the rest of us.

No wonder there are problems. Perhaps you or Travis might like to lay this Objectivist logic briefly out so we can see how it differs in practice from the classic deductive version.


Travis, Harry,

I wish to apologize to Travis about some insulting remarks I stated in my last post. They were the product of frustration, which still persists, but perhaps I should have been more under control. Usually I am.

Harry,

Let us take a step back and reflect upon the nature of our exchanges. Here is how I feel about that, at least from the point of view of someone who is not and never been in the Objectivist's camp but knows some philosophy.

There is a huge historical, conceptual, terminological, logical, methodological, and, yes, ideological gap even between those Objectivists such as you and Travis who are sincere and intelligent and know their own system and some of us on the other side. This multifaceted gap translates into the following pattern (as it appears from my own perspective and I suspect others share it as well).

The objectivists make a very astonishing and contentious claim: e.g., that a certain philosophical distinction is without merit (e.g., the Modal distinction) or that God could not exist or that existence exists or that everything (excluding things caused by human agents volitionally) that happens, happens necessarily.

We on the other side try to figure out what is being claimed here and whether it is true. So we proceed to present specific and detailed arguments against one or another of these claims.

To our surprise we discover that we either misstated the original claim or misunderstood it or the essential terms involved in the debate are used differently by Objectivists or there was a whole theory on which the claim is based that we have not taken into account or that the standard logic we assume in such philosophical exchanges is not the same.

So, then, we regroup and address some or all of these complaints marshaled against our original argument. We take care to state the original claim more precisely, with the right terminology, we take into account and carefully examine the newly introduced theory on which the original claim is alleged to rest, and we try to present our argument in even more precise and detailed fashion.

What is the response?
First, not one of the arguments presented are addressed specifically and in a manner that facilitates an orderly debate. For instance, one might claim that the argument presented is not valid; or that if it is valid some or all of its premises are false. If an argument is evaluated in this way, then at least it is possible to focus on specific claims and evaluate their merit.

Second, after addressing some aspect of the Objectivists' complaints in the second round; e.g., the claim that the temporal order of concept acquisition is necessary, suddenly we find out that the claim was not put forward as an official stand or that the term 'necessary' was not meant in the same sense under discussion or that the official theory is more detailed and subtle or that the thesis that the temporal order of concept acquisition is necessary applies only to certain concepts and not others; e.g., it conveniently does not apply to the counter-examples offered in the argument, but applies to the pertinent cases which are under examination in the debate or that one should immerse oneself into the Objectivist literature before one is really entitled to criticize it (while at the same time I feel that my Objectivist opponents should immerse themselves into the history of philosophy and the history of the concepts they are so eager to challenge).

And so it goes. It feels like a giant balloon: whenever you try to press at one point, it just pops out under you at some other point.

The gap is huge and it is multifaceted. Whenever one tries to focus on one aspect of the claim; say its meaning, some other aspect of Objectivism is introduced and alleged to be part and parcel of the whole picture. If one tries to focus on some logical matters, say, then new epistemological claims are made and demand priority over the logical claims; if you press on ontology, then psychology comes in.

Now, I know that all of these branches are interconnected; but philosophers managed to maintain such interconnectedness while still presenting their positions and arguments within one or another region.

Unfortunately, in the present debate we have failed in this regard. It is as if we are talking different languages or radically different conceptual schemes that are not easily or not at all translatable.

There were many instances on this site were some of us had heated debates; debates about which we remained in disagreement (e.g., Bill and I disagreed on at least three or four subjects). But we always understood what was the disagreement about and we were able to formulate pretty clearly the two final opposing positions.

To be honest with you, Harry, after many hours of preparing several posts and reading responses and thinking many hours night and day about this, I do not have a clue what is the disagreement between Travis and I, say. Not a clue! And I do not recall when was the last time I found myself in such a situation in philosophy. I just read Travis' response to my outrageously long reply to his three posts. I have no clue what his responses mean, their relevance to my arguments in that post, and were exactly him and I stand on the issues. Not a clue!

So given this experience, I do not have any idea how we can devise an effective way of engaging these issues, a way which will bridge a gap which I think spans across the board from logic, metaphysics, epistemology, methodology, ontology, philosophy of language, etc.

I genuinely do not know?

peter

Peter:
>I just read Travis' response to my outrageously long reply to his three posts. I have no clue what his responses mean, their relevance to my arguments in that post, and were exactly him and I stand on the issues. Not a clue!

I repeat: there is not much hope of progress if the Objectivist contributors insist that they practice a "radically different" logic from the rest of humanity. How will we be able to criticize their arguments?

Daniel,

I really do not know?
The pivotal question is whether they do indeed practice a "radically different logic" whether it is possible to have such a radically different logic and if so, what is their logic and how does it work?

peter

Peter,

I appreciated your long post even if it carried an offensive tint of frustration against Travis. I hope Travis also understands that his attacks (not arguments) were offensive to many of us.

It is irrelevant but just to summarize this aspect of Travis' posts, here is his attempt to a (sort of) reductio ad absurdum: "...Of course, if what you mean is "Is it consistent with a volitional God's having chosen the initial conditions" then, yeah, that crater's being a different size will be logically consistent with that. But then you've got more serious problems, since the idea of God is just a made-up fantasy, and cannot play any role whatever in a rational/empirical/scientific philosophy. If you go there, then I could (with equal justification) claim that all the facts you consider "necessary" actually aren't, because I have in mind a super-gremlin who (unlike your wimpy God) can create square circles and can make 2+2 equal 5."

James

Travis writes:
"A crucial tenet of Objectivism is that knowledge in general and concepts in particular are *hierarchical* in the following sense: some concepts are "first-level", meaning that they can be formed directly from perception without the use of any prior concepts. (These are the sorts of entity concepts like "cat" and "table" that are, for precisely this reason, always among children's first words.)"

Peter objects to this by:
"Amongst the first concepts, if not the very first one, that children typically master is the concept of their mother (i.e., the word ‘mamma’). According to the premise in question, then, since temporal priority determines logical priority, the concept *mamma* is logically prior to every other concept they subsequently acquire. But, surely, this is an absurd conclusion. The concept of *female* or *human being* or *living thing* (and untold other concepts) are surely logically prior to the concept of mother."

To which Travis responds:
""Mamma" as you use it here is a proper noun, not a concept. If what you meant was the actual *concept* "mother" (which is certainly not among a child's first concepts), then I would agree that this is not a first-level concept."

Now I am also puzzled: In what way are the concepts 'cat' and 'table', which you claim that children learn early just because they are concepts of the first-level, different from 'mamma'?

It seems like Travis is (perhaps desperately just because he too is frustrated, or because he is angry at being insulted) trying to make others grasp the 'radically different logic' without any trace of clarity in his comments.

James,

The difference between "mamma" in this context (ie, the first word a child says) and "cat" is that the child uses "mamma" to refer to his own mother, not *any* mother. In other words, it is his name for that specific person, not a term to describe any woman with a certain relationship to another person. That is why Travis says that is a proper noun "as you use it here." Until a child can appreciate that his mother and another woman (say, his friend's mother) both have a similar relationship to another person, but another woman (say his aunt) doesn't have any such relationship, he can't be said to have formed the concept. I suspect this comes after quite a bit of cognitive development, and certainly after a child is able to distinguish things that are cats from things that are dogs or horses and to use the name "cat" for those entities (and similarly for "table").

(In fact, I have read that a child's "first words" are just sounds that babies find easy to make, which is why the name for mother has a "ma" sound in so many languages. It serves to get his mother's attention, so a child learns to make it when he wants his mother, but it no more signifies a concept than a dog's bark does, or his earlier crying did.)

Peter claims to experience frustration and total confusion about the structure of our discussion. I understand (and am also experiencing) the former. But I don’t understand the latter. Let me recap, partly for my own benefit, where we are and how we got here. The original claim, made by "our" side, was that "your" necessity/contingency distinction is either invalid or superfluous –- superfluous to the extent that it is identical with the metaphysical/man-made distinction, or invalid to the extent that it is not. This claim was the basis for our saying, for example, that we do not accept that there are any "merely contingent" facts that are non-man-made. It was also the basis for the speculation that, at root, your reason for finding the claim of such metaphysical contingencies "intuitive" was an unadmitted belief that a volitional god created the universe.

Anyway, the post that began this thread was your response to this claim. Your thesis here was that "the Randian [metaphysical/man-made] distinction ... in fact conceptually presupposes the Modal [necessary/contingent] distinction." As I conceded right away, if this were true, it would be a fatal objection to the Objectivist position here, for you would have shown that a "stolen concept fallacy" (Rand’s name for this kind of logical circularity, where you use a certain concept in defiance of its hierarchical roots, i.e., conceptual presuppositions) is inherent in endorsing the metaphysical/man-made distinction while rejecting the necessary/contingent one.

My main point in response was to deny that you had actually established necessity/contingency as a conceptual presupposition of metaphysical/man-made. Part of this objection involved explaining some of the Objectivist theory of concept-formation and hierarchy, because your argument relies on an understanding of "conceptual presupposition" which Objectivism simply does not accept (and which makes no sense!). Your section 3.4 is all about trying to explicate the metaphysical/man-made distinction in further conceptual terms. You are suggesting that, in order to give an account of that distinction, or in order to clarify it for someone else who doesn’t get it, its proponent has to give a sort of speech that includes words like "necessary" and "possible". It was in response to this that I created the dialogue about "yellow". Explications or elaborations or clarifications (or definitions) of concepts will often be in terms of other concepts which are *not* conceptually presupposed by the original concept. So the mere fact that (e.g.) "possible" shows up in your elaboration (or whatever) of "volitional" does not prove what you claim it proves. Probably you don’t accept that as a refutation of your argument, but you shouldn’t be confused about what I was saying.

There is another important aspect to my attempted refutation, so let me again just try to step back and say what I was doing. In your section 3.6, you make the following sort of claim: in order to distinguish the volitional from the non-volitional (i.e., in order to make the necessary/man-made distinction), one has to know *in explicitly, conceptually identified form* that certain actions are possible (for the volitional agent) and others aren’t. This I think is simply false. I proposed the following simpler example to indicate the nature of the error here: someone doesn’t need to have the *concept* "wavelength" in order to form a concept like "yellow" (even though yellow objects differ from blue and red objects precisely along the wavelength axis); he need merely be able to perceptually distinguish objects which reflect in the one wavelength range from those which reflect in the other wavelength range. And the whole point is, people can do that without having the concept "wavelength" –- hence, "wavelength" is not conceptually presupposed by "yellow" such that there would be some kind of logical circularity in endorsing the concept "yellow" but rejecting "wavelength". (There might be other problems with rejecting "wavelength" but that's a different issue.) Likewise, the fact that the concept "volition" involves distinguishing between actions that are and aren’t "possible", doesn’t mean that you have to already possess the concept "possible" and use it in grasping "volition". Which is what you claimed.

Let me also repeat a caveat about this. I’m not insisting that the concept "possible" *isn’t* hierarchically prior to “volition” –- for all I know (not having thought about it much) it might be. My point here is really only that the kind of argument you give for this claim isn’t valid. That might seem to you to be a slip on my part, for if I acknowledge that maybe "possible" *is* conceptually presupposed by "volition", that would be tantamount to acknowledging that (maybe) your main argument is sound. But it’s not this at all, because the concept "possible" at play here is *mine*, not *yours*. The sort of possibility that (let's say for the sake of argument) might need to be conceptualized prior to conceptualizing "volition" is precisely the sense that applies exclusively to the actions a volitional agent might choose to perform. There is no such "possibility" out in metaphysical nature, and so even it were true that one had to conceptualize this "possibility" first, it would *in no way* support your main claim here, namely, that the "Randian" distinction conceptually presupposes the Modal one. For the distinction given rise to by the sort of "possibility" we’re talking about here is *not* the Modal one, but simply the "Randian" one in a slightly different guise -- namely, that which a volitional agent could "possibly" have chosen, vs. that which is outside of anyone's volitional control.

Hopefully that helps with the confusion. No doubt the frustration remains, on all sides.

Travis,

I appreciate you effort to get things clear. I hope you forgave me for the personal insults, so at least that part is out of the way.

As for the substantive part. Unfortunately, like previously I feel you have failed to address the principal substance of any (I repeat any) of my arguments in a serious way. So we made, I think, not one iota of progress on any of the contested issues.

Still despite the frustration this circumstance creates I will remain in the game hoping that at some point some bridge can be made that crosses this multifaceted divide among us.

peter

P.S. I am preparing a post on presuppositional-arguments of the type I gave in OFO. I hope that will help at least unveil some of the fundamental disagreements we keep encountering about everything from terminology, to logic, to metaphysics, to epistemology, to methodology.

Doug,

"The difference between "mamma" in this context (ie, the first word a child says) and "cat" is that the child uses "mamma" to refer to his own mother, not *any* mother. "

And what is to say that the child does not learn the sound 'cat' to mean '*my* cat' along the lines of the manner the child learns 'mamma'?

peter

Peter: I don't really believe in "forgiveness", but you may take the fact that I responded cordially as an indication that I appreciated the overall tone of your previous response, and am happy to continue the dialogue. Though, probably like you, I'm starting to feel consumed by exhaustion.

As to this:

"And what is to say that the child does not learn the sound 'cat' to mean '*my* cat' along the lines of the manner the child learns 'mamma'?"

Nothing. Perhaps that does happen. But then, despite using the word "cat", such a child wouldn't yet have the concept "cat". Is the distinction between a proper noun and a concept (even with occasionally the same word being used for one of each) really news to anyone here??

Peter,

You say "And what is to say that the child does not learn the sound 'cat' to mean '*my* cat' along the lines of the manner the child learns 'mamma'?"

The child might, but if that is what he means by "cat" then he has not yet formed the concept "cat" in his mind. This is why I described it as being "able to distinguish things that are cats from things that are dogs or horses". A child that means his cat Fluffy by "cat" (and thus would not use the word for his neighbor's cat Snowball) is using the word as a proper noun, and thus would not point to a picture of a cat and say "cat!" But of course children do easily learn the actual concept of "cat," such that they can look through a book of animals and tell you which ones are cats (not which ones are "Fluffy" which is all they could do if they learned the sound as you describe).

Does that make the distinction between "word as proper noun" and "word as concept" clearer?

Peter:
>The pivotal question is whether they [Objectivists] do indeed practice a "radically different logic" whether it is possible to have such a radically different logic and if so, what is their logic and how does it work?

Well, handily we now have an example of their "radically different" logic courtesy of Thomas on the "Validity as a Modal Concept..." thread. And what do we find? Basically, it's the same as deductive logic, with induction bolted on in a kind of a package deal. Unfortunately, achieving this requires Hume's key problem of the incompatibility of induction and deduction to be "blanked out."

In a nutshell, in order to debate their theories, Objectivists insist they must have their own separate vocabulary, and even their own logic. The effect of this can only be to erect insurmountable barriers to objectively examining Rand's thought.

Doug,

"But of course children do easily learn the actual concept of "cat," such that they can look through a book of animals and tell you which ones are cats (not which ones are "Fluffy" which is all they could do if they learned the sound as you describe)."

If so, then at the very same time frame they also learn the actual concept of 'mother'. My central point remains.

The fundamental point of my argument is not affected by any of this speculative debate about 'mammy', 'fluffy', 'cat', 'mother'. The central point is that it is ludicrous to condition the logical order among concepts to a temporal order of concept-acquisition by children, unless one assigns a totally different meaning to the terms 'logic', 'concept', etc.

I am beginning to think that among the many core issues dividing Objectivists and their opponents among us has something to do with a radically different conception of logic, etc. In that case we are in for a long and arduous debate.

peter

Peter: maybe it would help if you could provide a general account of the meaning of "conceptual presupposition" as you are using it. Your post (that began this thread) is all about trying to establish that one thing conceptually presupposes another. Since the essence of "our" response is "no, it doesn't" (and, as I have made clear, I don't accept the validity of the arguments you give in defense of this thesis) it seems clear that we disagree about the nature of conceptual presupposition broadly. I've spent a great deal of time trying to explain what the Objectivist view of conceptual presupposition is. It would help me tremendously if you could explain your view of this, and also say something about the various examples I've put on the table. For example, do you think "wavelength" is conceptually presupposed by "yellow" (and why or why not)? Are Newton's laws of motion and gravitational conceptually presupposed by Kepler's laws (and why or why not)? Is "property" conceptually presupposed by "theft" (and why or why not)?

As I have said, your whole attempt to establish that the metaphysical/man-made distinction conceptually presupposes (your) contingent/necessary distinction, strikes me as incredibly ad hoc, sloppy, opportunist. (Numbering your paragraphs isn't a sufficient condition of "rigor".) You just jump in at random, and go off in some random direction, elaborating or defining or whatever, and take whatever you encounter there as conceptually presupposed by the starting point. And worse, your confusion about the distinction between concepts and proper nouns makes me wonder if you even *have* the concept "concept" -- the lack of which would seem to be a pretty serious impediment to having a clear understanding of conceptual presupposition.

Don't take that paragraph too seriously -- it's just a report of my emotional response to your writings on this. My point in sharing it is just to underscore that, if I am going to understand what you're trying to do in your arguments, you'll need to help me understand what you mean by "conceptual presupposition" and how you see your main argument as establishing it for the concepts in question here.

Also, people, let's not let the fact that Objectivism has a non-orthodox understanding of such things as logical dependency, turn into a convenient rationalization for dismissing the philosophy. What this comes down to is simply that, in some broad scientific sense, we are empiricists -- and so don't accept claims of intuition or revelation or arbitrary stipulation as a sufficient basis for making distinctions or forming concepts. Instead, we insist that valid concepts/theories/etc must ultimately emerge from (and hence be reducible back to) observation of reality. This is indeed "radically different" than the methodology some other people here are practicing. But it's not like we're Martians who speak a completely different language, and it's not like we're comfortable endorsing contradictions and affirming the consequent. I would say that, given the amount that (and the content of what) Harry and I have written here, anybody who will now simply dismiss us as un-communicable-with (on the grounds that we don't respect the canons of logic) is being dishonest. Disagreeing with our views is one thing, but dismissing them as based on a fundamentally non-logical approach to the issues is, I submit, a prima facie absurdity.

Travis,

"Peter: maybe it would help if you could provide a general account of the meaning of "conceptual presupposition" as you are using it."

I will!

peter

Doug,

"Does that make the distinction between "word as proper noun" and "word as concept" clearer?"

First, the distinction you have in mind is between words that are proper nouns (e.g., a proper name such as 'John') and words that are general terms or common nouns (e.g., 'cat'). The distinction between proper nouns and common nouns pertains to words in a language and not to concepts.

Second, words are not *concepts*: words *express* concepts. We sometimes freely go from one term to the other and we do so because we assume a certain leeway in communication. But if you wish to be pedantic, be my guest: the two must be distinguished. Similarly, we need to distinguish between

(i) the notion of a *word* type;
vs.
(ii) the notion of a *word* token;

For instance: I can count two tokens of the word *this* in this sentence. There are 11 (if I did not miscount) different word types. A certain word type in English (for instance, the word type 'cat') expresses a concept and because of that uses of that word-type express that same concept, if used in their normal sense.

The notion of a *concept* is not identical to the notion of a word-token nor to the notion of word-type. The word type 'count' in English I am sure expresses the same concept as some word(s) type in French (I do not know French, so I cannot give you the word). So concepts are not word types.

Someone can learn how to utter and even to some extent use a word without grasping the concept it expresses.

So now that we are clear about the grammatical distinction between proper and general nouns, word-types and tokens, as well as the distinction between words and concepts, what exactly have we gained?

--Do we understand better our original controversy?
--Have we come to a deeper understanding of the relationship between the temporal order of concept acquisition and the logical priority of concepts?
--Have we gained any understanding at all by means of this grandstanding about 'mamma' and 'mother', 'cat' and 'fluffy', proper noun vs. common noun, etc.,?

The answer to of the above questions and more is:
None!

peter

Peter,

You write: "First, the distinction you have in mind is between words that are proper nouns (e.g., a proper name such as 'John') and words that are general terms or common nouns (e.g., 'cat'). The distinction between proper nouns and common nouns pertains to words in a language and not to concepts."

But words (i.e., language) pertain to concepts, so a distinction in words pertains to a distinction in concepts, to wit:
a "general term" or "common noun" refers to a concept (loosely speaking, a category for a potentially unbounded number of things), but a proper noun refers to one specific thing. If someone can accurately discriminate between the things in reality a concept refers to and the things it does not refer to, then he has fully grasped the concept. For example, a child who can tell you whether any given object is yellow or not *fully grasps* the concept of "yellow" even though they know nothing about wavelengths, reflectance, etc. Learning a definition of "yellow" or even learning Maxwell's equations will not give him any more understanding of the concept "yellow" itself than he had when he was 5.

Now, I suspect you would fundamentally disagree with this, but this disagreement is crucial to understanding the Objectivist position. You wrote earlier that "I do not have a clue what is the disagreement between Travis and I." This is the disagreement, and that is why Dr. Binswanger wrote that "the theory of concept-formation is exactly what is at issue here." So to answer your questions:

"Have we come to a deeper understanding of the relationship between the temporal order of concept acquisition and the logical priority of concepts? Have we gained any understanding at all by means of this grandstanding about 'mamma' and 'mother', 'cat' and 'fluffy', proper noun vs. common noun, etc.,?"

Addressing the issue of concept-formation would lead to that deeper understanding you mention.

Peter wrote:

"The gap is huge and it is multifaceted. . . . It is as if we are talking different languages or radically different conceptual schemes that are not easily or not at all translatable."

Exactly. And thanks for your understanding. The communication is a huge and difficult task because of the different conceptual schemes. My colleague, Allan Gotthelf, claims to be able to translate back and forth between the contemporary conceptual scheme and the Objectivist one. I'm not so good at it.

I second Travis' point that we are not working with some weird logic. The Objectivist theory of logic is a super-set of ordinary, Aristotelian logic. (Like those Bounty ads: "I don't use Bounty--I use New, Improved Bounty.")

The "new and improved" elements of Objectvist methodology, in brief, are: context and hierarchy. (No, I'm not claiming that no one in the history of philosophy ever said anything like this before; it's rather that Objectivism a) combines them in a new way and b) develops the ideas into a whole theory.)

Context: all knowledge exists in and is dependent on integration with (and differentiation from) other knowledge. Think of it as coherentism with a vengenace, and (unlike coherentism) combined with correspondence (through hierarchy).

Hierarchy: above the perceptual level, there is a "vertical" element in the context. Vs., e.g., Quine, knowledge is not a "web of belief," not a flat network, but more like a building, with a ground floor (perceptually observed concretes) then a first floor (concepts like "cat" and "table") then second-order concepts ("animal" and "furniture"), and so on. This, by the way, is far, far from standard empiricist or positivist notions. There is no "bare particular," first-level concepts are of entities not of attributes ("yellow") or actions ("walking"). And, most interesting to me, the hierarchy is not just the Boethian tree. For one thing, there are second-level concepts that are more specific than first-level ones. E.g., "desk" is narrower than "table," but "desk" is formed from "table," by the addition of new characteristics. "Poodle" is narrower, yet more abstract, than "dog." Then there are cross-classifications. E.g., "philosopher" is higher-level (more abstract, further from perception) than "man," yet it has a narrower denotation, obviously.

The closest I can think of in the history of philosophy to our idea of hierarchy is Locke, but, as you know, he's very sketchy (and somewhat confused) on this.

That all concerns the hierarchy of concepts. There is also a hierarchy of propositions (with one proposition being reachable only as an inference from prior propositions)--as math amply illustrates. But Objectivism holds that concepts are where the action is. Most of the things we oppose in the history of thought involve what we regard as invalid conceptualizations. We hold that there are norms for proper conceptualization, and that when violated one has an invalid concept. Only moderately controversial examples of invalid concepts would be Goodman's "bagleet" and "grue."

Let me continue with Goodman in the next post, because it's juicy.

I wrote a medium sized post a couple of hours ago, but it hasn't shown up. Is the system down?

Harry B:
>The communication is a huge and difficult task because of the different conceptual schemes. My colleague, Allan Gotthelf, claims to be able to translate back and forth between the contemporary conceptual scheme and the Objectivist one. I'm not so good at it.

This is a quite remarkable claim. In effect, it means that the difference between Objectivism and the "contemporary conceptual scheme" (whatever that is) is allegedly so vast that only a few very experienced Objectivists can successfully "translate" between the two.

It's clear you are talking not just about nuances here, but about fundamentals. Yet if this is true, it raises the question of how "translation" can successfully work the other way - how non-Objectivists can understand and criticise Objectivist theories. It effectively says that is almost impossible - far more difficult than the analogous problem of translating between the fundamentals of different languages, which can in large part be picked up in a few months, or even put into a standard dictionary (even if the nuances take more time). In stark contrast, you claim that Objectivist scholar Allan Gotthelf, who first encountered Objectivism nearly 50 years ago, is one of the few you know who can even "claim" to do it. How, then, could even the most devoted critic hope to achieve such a "translation" in reverse? This difficulty is underlined by the fact that language and logic are two ways of establishing mutual objective standards of meaning and truth between different individuals; yet if Objectivists reject the typical meaning of key terms, and additionally insist on their own "super set" of logic - the credibility of which is highly dubious, given this supposed "super-logic" comes with few details and includes things which are fallacious in standard deductive logic, like induction - they are rejecting the basic standards of rational communication, hard won over the millennia, between human beings.

Of course it is possible to claim that Objectivism is simply so advanced, both intellectually and morally, that those on the "contemporary scene" simply can't grasp its principles due to their own moral or intellectual failings, or both. In my experience, this is the explanation most frequently appealed to by Objectivists when communication breaks down.

However, there is clearly an alternative explanation.


Doug,

I have responded at length to Travis about the yellow/wavelength/Maxwell equations example. The example is not even remotely analogous to anything I said in my original argument. In my response I have also described roughly how most likely 'yellow' is learned, how it works, what is the connection between 'yellow' and wavelength, etc.

You say: "If someone can accurately discriminate between the things in reality a concept refers to and the things it does not refer to, then he has fully grasped the concept."

I think that this is patently false. Consider, for instance, the distinction between the concept of a circle and that of a triangle. Children learn fairly easily how to "accurately discriminate between things in reality" that are circles vs. triangles. Do you think that they have "fully grasped" the difference between the two concepts? I doubt it. If they would have so grasped these concepts, then they would not need to go to school and learn geometry etc. Many concepts are more like the circle/triangle case than like the yellow case and for a good reason.

The problem is that when one gets fixated on unusual examples, one formulates for themselves unusual principles. 'yellow' is not a typical example because color words do not have non-demonstrative definitions. The only way you can define the word 'yellow' is by pointing to a yellow sample. So then you can teach a child (or adult) the difference between yellow and green by taking suitable samples of each pointing to them in their presence and asserting the correct words. Assuming they are not color blind, and the rest of the conditions are normal (no blue background light, etc.,), they will now be able to tell the difference. And so there is nothing more to the concept of yellow or green than that. Period!

Most concepts, however, are not like yellow and green. They have definitions and analytical connections and these may be complex and not easily amenable to simple demonstrative illustration.

As for the more general issue of concept acquisition and formation: while it is an important topic on its own right, I do not see how it is relevant to my argument unless you adopt the very counterintuitive (and easily refutable) principle that the temporal order of learning concepts determines the logical priority among them. Since this principle has so many counterexamples, do not see how it can threaten my argument.

peter

Peter wrote:

"As for the more general issue of concept acquisition and formation: while it is an important topic on its own right, I do not see how it is relevant to my argument unless you adopt the very counterintuitive (and easily refutable) principle that the temporal order of learning concepts determines the logical priority among them. Since this principle has so many counterexamples, [I] do not see how it can threaten my argument."

First off, there is a lot of empty bluster here. If the Objectivist account of logical dependency is so "easily refutable" then it should be easy to actually present some sort of refutation rather than just claim emptily to be able to do so. Same with the principle allegedly having "so many counterexamples". I'm all ears.

And by the way, I've pointed out in some detail several times now how this topic is relevant to Peter's argument. You can disagree with my views on logical dependence, but I don't think you can (honestly) claim that the question "What is the nature of logical dependence?" is irrelevant to your argument -- it, after all, having been a disputed argument purporting to establish the logical dependence of one thing on another.

But let's step back. Is it really "very counterintuitive" to claim that logical dependency reflects the necessary order of learning? What does logical dependency mean, "intuitively"? That which a given idea logically depends on is, according to my intuitions, that which must be in place in order for the given idea to be fully established as knowledge. In other words, it's what you have to know *in order to know* the given idea -- or more explicitly, it's what you have to know *first* in order to know the given idea. That's why we often use the phrase "logical presuppositions" to describe those things that a given item of knowledge logically depends on -- emphasis on "pre".

Maybe it’s helpful to note that logical dependency is a special type of causal relation pertaining to human consciousness: the logical presuppositions of a given idea are the necessary causal conditions for (fully, properly) *having* that given idea. It is then not hard to understand the connection to the temporal order of learning. Wherever a relationship between a necessary causal condition and an effect obtains, the former must obviously be in place prior to the latter.

And by the way, none of this is as unique to Objectivism as Peter implies. There is really nothing else for logical dependency to mean. I just did a google search on "logical dependence" and here is the first coherent thing that came up, from some book (which I've never previously heard of) titled "Dictionary of World Philosophy" by A. Pablo Iannone: "Logical dependence is a relation whereby some item(s) cannot be known, understood, or exist unless some other item(s) are respectively known, understood, or exist." Objectivism would completely agree with that characterization. It’s just that, because we recognize the fact that all knowledge is grounded in perception, and must be constructed in steps, we will sometimes tell a very different story (different, that is, from the story told by someone like Peter who maybe believes that perception is not the exclusive source of knowledge) about what the conceptual presuppositions of a given idea *are*. Indeed, sometimes we Objectivists will even deny that there exists *any* valid chain of inference from perception to a given idea (such as, e.g., “god” or the “metaphysical contingency” this thread has been about) –- in which case we reject the idea in question as invalid.

So, suffice it to say I’m a little confused about what Peter and others think is so weird about understanding logical/conceptual dependency in terms of a necessary order of learning. That, I think, is actually no different than the standard view. It's just that, as I have mentioned now several times, Objectivism is broadly empiricist. We reject intuitions, revelations, innate ideas, etc., as alleged alternatives to perception as the ultimate foundation of knowledge. We will thus give a different account, in many cases, of what the necessary preconditions for learning/knowing a given item *are*. But that is very different than having some genuinely weird account of what logical dependency consists in.

This all makes me look forward even more to Peter's promised explication of his alternative viewpoint on this (viz., the nature of conceptual/logical dependency). If his understanding is as different from the Objectivist one as his last post suggests, it'll be interesting indeed to see which account is truly weird, "counterintuitive", "easily refutable", etc.

Travis - I again want to emphasize the broadly empirical nature of claims being made about concept formation. Such claims need empirical evidence for their support. And even if such evidence were presented, its relevance to epistemological issues wouldn't be clear unless we also had in hand a reasonably well developed, plausible "reduction" of epistemology to psychology. Unlike some commenters, I don't dismiss this possibility out of hand, but I do think it's very far from being "a done deal." The problems are daunting. Yet, suppose epistemology was plausibly psychologized... We'd still need some account of how this is supposed to bear on metaphysical questions about the modal distinction. How is this to be done? An epistemology framed in terms of empirical psychology will, of course, inherit whatever metaphysical notions are implicit in the psychological theory being employed. But those metaphysical notions wouldn't be derived from the psychological theory -- we'd need independent reasons for thinking the metaphysics in question was viable.

I don't want to prejudge what sorts of conceptual innovations and breakthroughs are possible. But I do worry that metaphysical problems are being misconstrued as epistemological problems, and epistemological problems, in their turn, are being misconstrued as empirical problems.

Here, from Goodman's Fact, Fiction and Forecast is a prime example of an inversion of conceptual hierarchy.

Preface, for those not familiar with his terms, he defines "grue" as a predicate that "applies to all things examined before t just in case they are green but to other things just in case they are blue." In other words, you pick a time, say 1/1/2010, and before that "grue" means "green" but after that "grue" means "blue." (Whether or not I'm interpreting him exactly right here is immmaterial for my purpose.) Likewise: "bleen" means "blue" then "green."

He replies to the objection that there is something weird or unkosher about "grue" and "bleen" by this startling pronouncement:

True enough, if we start with "blue" and "green", then "grue" and "bleen" will be explained in terms of "blue" and "green" and a temporal term. But equally truly, if we start with "grue" and "bleen", then "blue" and "green" will be explained in terms of "grue" and "bleen" and a temporal term; "green", for example, applies to emeralds examined before time t just in case they are grue, and to other emeralds just in case they are bleen. [My emphasis]

But it is impossible to "start" with "grue." It is not clear what process he means we're "starting," but the most generous interpretation is: starting the process of explaining what we mean by the terms--i.e., giving definitions. You can't start this way:

"Green" means " . . . grue . . ."

You can't because you can define "grue" only in terms of "green." Is defining "green" similarly circular? Is the situation symmetrical? Of course not. You can (and must) define "green" ostensively, by giving examples of green things. (If you want me to rebut the "gavagai" issue, I'd be glad to.) But you can't define "grue" ostensively.

And deeper: children form the concept "green" from observation (after they have concepts of entities, which are first), but imagine trying to teach a two-year old "grue" from perception: "Grue, Justin, it's grue!" while showing him an emerald (before time t). It is impossible that little Justin is going to form "grue."

So, contrary to Goodman's claim that it's "relative" which has priority, "green" or "grue," the most cursory attention to hierarchy would show that any attempt to grasp or define "green" in terms of "grue" is condemned to circularity.

Goodman's is the kind of Rationalistic (Hegelian) pseudo-logic that clashes with Objectivism's stress on preserving the hierarchical order among concepts.

Bob writes:

"Yet, suppose epistemology was plausibly psychologized... We'd still need some account of how this is supposed to bear on metaphysical questions about the modal distinction. How is this to be done?"

First, epistemology is not being here reduced to psychology (which would be improper). Epistemology is logically prior to psychology (e.g., it sets the rules of cognition for every science, including psychology).

The question whether, e.g., "orphan" can be grasped before "parent" is not something you do surveys for or go into the lab to find out. You ask yourself: what does "orphan" mean? It means a child whose parents are dead or have abandoned it. (Is that at all controversial?) It follows that one cannot give meaning to (and thus form) the concept "orphan" except on the basis of having previously grasped the concept "parent." End of story.

Now, as to the question of the modal distinction, the application is this: what grounds the concept "contingent," as applied to the non-human realm? How does it reduce to perception? I can see how "volitional" reduces to perception (well, to introspection). If "contingent" cannot be reduced to perception (including introspection), it is an invalid concept, as we maintain.

Bear in mind that the reduction to perception may go through many intermediate steps (as "orphan" or even "parent" does). It is not a requirement that one be able to point directly to instances of concept "X" qua being X in order that it be validated. You can't point to electrons or ultra-violet light, or even to orphans (not qua their being orphans).

Ayn Rand's methodology is to ask, about any concept, "what facts of reality give rise to the need for such a concept?" If there are none, the concept is invalid. I think "contingent" (in the modal sense of that term) fails that test and thus is invalid.

As an illustration of the power of this method, Ayn Rand used it to "bridge the 'is'-'ought' gap." She asked herself what facts of reality give rise to the need for the concept "value," and found the answer in the fact that living organisms act in the face of the alternative of life or death.

Harry - I appreciate your efforts to dispel my confusion about how various arguments are supposed to bear on the quesiton of whether there is any contingency outside of volitional acts. But I'm still not "gettin' it."

BTW... Since you mentioned Alan Gotthelf, you might also know Jim Lennox (who once loaned me a copy of your dissertation for comparison with Larry Wright's "Teleological Explanation").

"BTW... Since you mentioned Alan Gotthelf, you might also know Jim Lennox (who once loaned me a copy of your dissertation for comparison with Larry Wright's "Teleological Explanation")."

Yes, I know all three. Allan and I roomed together for a year when in grad school, and have remained close ever since. I met Jim Lennox while he was an undergrad at U. of Toronto, and continue to see from time to time. Larry Wright (whom I know least well of these) I first met at the APA in 1976 when he the commentator on the paper I gave.

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