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Friday, January 23, 2009


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Dr. Vallicella,

I posted links to your critiques of Ayn Rand on the blog of Dawson Bethrick, a staunch objectivist. I thought you might be interested in seeing his response to your examination of Rand and Peikoff.

It is in the comments section here:

I have really enjoyed your posts on Rand, as I have spent quite a bit of time interacting with Dawson on the supposed "metaphysical impossiblility" of God's existence. It is clear, as you have pointed out, that objectivists define existence to exclude God. In fact you will see a very fallacious use of equivocation around the term "real" in the first paragraph of the article I linked to above.

Just as an aside: "BahnsenBurner" is a reference to the late Greg Bahnsen who continued the legacy of Van Til's presuppositional apologetics.


Despite two "don't point it outs", it is enormously sloppy to attack Rand's position on the metaphysically given with an example of the man-made. So, I'm pointing that out. Why didn't you just use the icicle?

Next, why do you not provide the context of the source material? It is from the 'after-matter' of ITOE, 2nd Edition and is part of a transcription of what is known as a "chewing" session, where various thinkers, in an informal setting, toss an idea into the ring and bounce it around, viewing it from different angles and stretching the subtext and periphery of definitions, usages and context. It is NOT from her formal presentation. This is not to say that Rand was weak in these settings; I can guarantee that you have never met a person more able to speak with power off the cuff, penetrate to the core of an argument, and bring her system to the fore.

Last, you go to great pains to somehow 'discover' that Ayn Rand's system respects 'contingency' in the way you do. It does not, and she does not. She rejects it utterly. Things that are not man made simply "are." That is why, formally, she uses the phrase "metaphysically given." As Rand rightly points out, unless it can be proven that the metaphysically given was created by God and God had a choice, then it serves no functional purpose, meaning or logic to ponder 'what it could have been.' Here: I'll quote someone other than Ayn Rand! "Nature, to be commanded, must be obeyed." Francis Bacon

It would be more honest, rather than trying desperately to wedge Rand into your world view, to simply roast her for not respecting the dichotomy that you consider so fundamental.

if this subject is of interest to anyone, I suggest reading the body of Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, 2nd Edition, which contains Rand's complete dismissal of the schism represented by necessary/contingent as Hume/Kant constructed it, and THEN the after-matter (transcription),

John Donohue
Pasadena, CA

An interesting post. Note that this connecting of 'is' and 'had to be' for the natural seems close (perhaps intentionally, but suspect not) to the Aristotelian and scholastic notion of 'quod quid erat esse', what something had to be, or 'essence'. There is this notion that what a thing really really is, its essential nature or being (remember 'essence' is derived from the Latin 'esse', to be). So perhaps Rand is not so far from the mark here. No created thing can have such an essence, for it never existed in potentiality beforehand. Except perhaps an idea like the house in the mind of the architect. But then an Aristotelian would say the essence of the house is precisely that idea, realised. (I think, please don't quote me on that one!)

(The reason I suspect Rand was not referring to Aristotle is that all older translations of Aristotle translate the 'what something had to be' as 'essence', which does not carry its meaning on its face like the other).


1. I can see that we are not going to have a productive discussion. You say it is "enormously sloppy" of me to use an example of the man-made, a wine glass, rather than something natural like an icicyle. Well, I used both examples. Surely you have the mental agility to substitute the one for the other. Please note that Rand and interlocutors also use the glass example and discuss fragility. See IOE, 2nd ed., pp. 282-288. It was good enough for Rand. Why shouldn't it be good enough for me? Glasses and vases are stock examples found in the literature. More importantly, I am sure you are able to appreciate that the fragility of a wine glass is grounded in the stuff it is made of and not in its being a receptacle made by human beings.

2. I know you don't like the fact that I am criticizing Rand, but you should realize that philosophy is not ideology or polemics but an attempt to get at the truth. Is it true that, with respect to the non-man-made, what is = what what had to be? I argued above that this is not true. But you failed to respond to my argument. I have to conclude that you are incapable of serious discussion. I don't think you lack intelligence. You lack one or more of the following: love of truth, seriousness, philosophical aptitude, training in logic, training in the correct way to conduct a discussion so that something useful emerges from it.

3. You complain that I didn't point out that the passage I quoted is in the "after-matter" as you put it. But please note that I quoted accurately from the "expanded second edition" of a published work edited by two men, Binswanger and Peikoff, and presumably approved by Rand. I am not quoting from notes someone jotted down, or from Rand's Nachlass (literary remains). Would Rand and Co. let stand in a printed second edition ideas that were not hers or that were a distortion of her ideas?

4. You fail to understand that Rand contradicts herself when she agrees with Aristotle in admitting potentialities in nature while maintaining that what is = what had to be. You seem incapable of taking in a simple argument. What's worse, you didn't even address my argument. Maybe I made a mistake. Well then, you should show me precisely what the mistake is. That would be useful and helpful. Then I would take you seriously.

5. You quote F. Bacon: "Nature, to be commanded, must be obeyed." I like that. Unfortunately, it has no bearing on what we are talking about. You are guilty of an ignoratio elenchi if you think that anything I said above is inconsistent with the Bacon quotation. What you and other Randians need is a thorough course in logic. You certainly are unreasonable and illogical for someone who champions reason.

6. The main thing, though, is that you failed to engage what I said above at all. You have given no indication that you have even understood what I have said. I consider your comments objectively worthless whatever interest they may have in indicating your state of mind. You haven't clarified any philosophical question, nor have you met my criticisms, nor have you given me a reason to think that Rand is right on the topic under discussion.

Suppose you presented a careful argument for a Randian thesis. Then we would have something to discuss. But you appear incapable of such a thing. You are coming across as nothing but an ideologue.

Hi Bill,

I've been enjoying your engagement with Rand over the past week or so. Thank you.

That said, I do believe there is a small logical hole in your argument that might allow a Randian to slip through. I say a 'small hole' because to exploit it the Randian would have to endorse an utterly implausible thesis. That thesis is that all dispositional properties of non-manmade object are necessitating, that is, entail that the property it is a disposition for be realized. On this account, for a non-manmade object "really" to be 'fragile' it must be the case that it actually breaks.

Of course, I doubt whether anyone not completely in the thrall of Randian metaphysics could find that thesis appealing, but it does seem to be a way out for them, if they're crazy enough to take it.


1) As I noted in one of the previous threads, unfortunately we have not yet found one Randian that is interested in a careful examination of issues: i.e, an examination that addresses an argument or a set of considerations; evaluates their validity (if it is a formal argument); scrutinizes their supporting force; and then assesses the likelihood of the truth of these supporting considerations.

2) You have given a relatively clear argument in this post. Briefly put your argument is that rejecting contingency regarding non-man made entities is inconsistent with accepting the existence of dispositional (by whatever name) properties.

3) What was the response by the Randian John Donohue? I shall quote, for I have a point to make:

(i)"Despite two "don't point it outs", it is enormously sloppy to attack Rand's position on the metaphysically given with an example of the man-made."

Here Donohue claims that it is "enormously sloppy" to use a man-made example in order to attack Rand's position on this matter. But Bill has made it very clear that since the purpose of the example is to illustrate the consequences of dispositional properties regarding the issues at hand, any object featuring dispositional properties would do. The man-made feature of Bill's wine-glass example is not logically relevant to his argument. Now, why this simple point is ignored?

Well, Donohue either does not understand this simple logical point or does not want to. I cannot judge from the sample of posts here Donohue's logical acumen. So I shall not address this possibility here. We are left with the second option. Why Donohue does not want to see this logical point? Because then he has to address the actual argument instead of evading it by pinning Randian hopes to irrelevant features of a chosen example. And why would Donohue want to evade examining the argument? Because it is inconsistent with the Randian position and from Donohue's point of view anything inconsistent with Randianism is false (or he fails to understand the logic of Bill's argument).

Conclusion: A Randian such as Donohue views anything that opposes Rand as incoherent or false. No argument is needed! All you got to do is show that the position is or has consequences that are inconsistent with Randianism and you have thereby proved it is incoherent or false.

(ii) The material you were examining is "NOT from her formal presentation. This is not to say that Rand was weak in these settings; I can guarantee that you have never met a person more able to speak with power off the cuff, penetrate to the core of an argument, and bring her system to the fore."

Here Donohue insinuates that the material Bill is considering is not "official Randianism"; hence, it is inconclusive whether you are contradicting what is her official stand or not. In addition, we have here a bit of "personality cult", which I suspect is the basis of much of Rand's influence. In any case, neither point is relevant to Bill's argument.

(iii)"Last, you go to great pains to somehow 'discover' that Ayn Rand's system respects 'contingency' in the way you do. It does not, and she does not. She rejects it utterly. Things that are not man made simply "are." That is why, formally, she uses the phrase "metaphysically given.""

It is utterly unclear what Donohue is saying in the first sentence. It must be something of a logical mistake by Donohue, but I really cannot tell. Bill's argument has nothing to do with discovering "that Ayn Rand's system respects 'contingency'." It is an argument that shows that either she is inconsistent or must reject dispositional properties or must accept contingency. The rest of this quotation offers no considerations that reject one or another of these responses to Bill's argument. The rest is simply reiterating the Randian position without any argument or response to Bill's argument.
What shall we conclude here? Well, it appears we have here a severe case of dogmatism: any argument that contradicts Randian dogma does not deserve a response. Just reiterate the Randian dogma over and over again and that should do. It does not! At least not if you are interested in rational discourse about philosophical issues.

(iv)"It would be more honest, rather than trying desperately to wedge Rand into your world view, to simply roast her for not respecting the dichotomy that you consider so fundamental."

What is this about?
Ah! I got it.
Bill is not honest by giving the above argument. Why is Bill not honest? Because there cannot be a sound argument against any of the official Randian positions. Since there cannot be such an argument, someone who recognizes this fact should not *pretend* that they have given one. If they wish to oppose Randianism honestly, then they should simply give rhetorical rejoinders ("roast") against her positions.
So Bill should do what Donohue has done repeatedly against any anti-Randian position.

Conclusion: Either you accept Randianism or you must oppose it but only with rhetorical devises of the kind Randians use against their opponents.

Now I got it!
Either you accept the substance of Randianism, in which case you do not argue against her positions, or you oppose Randianism by adopting its rhetorical style of debating. In either case there is no room for a rational debate about her positions.

This is a false dichotomy as proved by Bill and other arguments posted here and on other threads. But it is a dichotomy into which Randians repeatedly attempt to pull their opponents, thereby, avoiding a rational discussion of opposing arguments.

You will never get anything more than this from Randians! For Rand is the analog of the Pope and what she is says flows directly from ....God?


Hi Alan,

A belated Happy New Year to you and your family. Sorry I didn't get around to responding to your earlier comment on the Butchvarov post. I hope you are enjoying a productive year at ND and that it opens some doors for you.

Good comment. I take it you are proposing for discussion the thesis that for every disposition D of a natural thing there is a time t such that D is realized (manifested) at t. That would imply that a leaf could not be water-absorbent or flammable unless at some time in its career it either absorbed water or caught fire. But as you note, that is very hard to accept. Suppose a leaf falls from a tree in the autumn and for a time is dry enough to be flammable but is eaten by some animal or decomposes and never catches fire. Surely the leaf is flammable during its dry period despite the fact that it never catches fire.

But even if the Randian did adopt the every-disposition-at-some-time-realized thesis, I don't see how that would help him. For the crux of my argument was as follows. At some time t, glass G is both actually breakable and actually unbroken. But if what is = what must be, then G's being unbroken at t entails its being necessarily unbroken at t, which in turn entails that the glass is unbreakable at t. But then we get the contradiction: G is both breakable at t and unbreakable at t. I don't need to assume that at every time during its existence G is both actually breakable and actually unbroken.


You've put your finger on it. Randianism is a dogmatic system that simply does not allow criticism of any of its tenets, or even inquiries into what they mean. Any criticism is taken as an "attack" -- Donohue uses that very word above -- to which the response must be a counterattack. Thus if I point that one cannot use the word 'existence' is such a way that the existence of God is ruled out by terminological fiat, some of them think that the way to respond to that obvious point is to criticize theism. They just don't get it. They are ideologues who think that have the truth; they are not philosophers who are inquiring into the truth.

I should say that I blocked Donohue from the site. I did so because he has amply demonstrated that he is incapable of understanding the issues or engaging in rational discussion.

A discussion with these Randians is no more likely to be productive than a discussion with a dogmatic Catholic (or a dogmatic scientistic atheist for that matter). For people who are convinced that they have the truth, there is simply nothing to discuss. You may recall our inability to get through to the dogmatic Catholic David Tye. The question concerned the validation of claims made by the magisterium. See the comments to the post Josiah Royce and the Religious Paradox. Here: http://maverickphilosopher.powerblogs.com/posts/1202179939.shtml


Thanks very much!


I'll have to get back to your point later.


Unfortunately, the situation is precisely as you describe in this last post. I wish it were otherwise (proving that there is a distinction between necessary and contingent, for even though they are dogmatic, it is not necessarily so (at least I hope that it is not).

Anyway, occasionally I feel so overwhelmed by how many people opt for a dogmatic attitude toward certain beliefs. Why is that? Is there some kind of a psychological need for that? Is it educational background? Or is it that anyone at all is liable to fall into this trap under suitable circumstances? If so what are these circumstances? I don't know! I wish I did.



Among the security needs that people have are doxastic security needs. The word 'tenet' is from the Latin 'tenere,' to hold. People need beliefs to hold onto. When their beliefs are questioned, they feel they are under attack. It takes a high degree of intellectual/spiritual maturity to tolerate having your beliefs examined.

Bill summarized his argument as:

"But if what is = what must be, then G's being unbroken at t entails its being necessarily unbroken at t, which in turn entails that the glass is unbreakable at t."

I don't think the last part goes through. "Necessarily unbroken" does not warrant "unbreakable." For "unbreakable" implies a counter-factual: "it could not have been broken." To say something is "unbreakable" is to say: "No (ordinary) impulse applied to it would break it." Note the subjunctive "would."

Or, putting it another way, "X is unbreakable" means: "X has such a nature as to withstand a lot of pounding." But that is very different from saying "The way the universe unfolded, X did not receive any pounding, and hence did not break." Now, this remains true when you adopt the Objectivist (and let's please stop saying "Randian") metaphysics, to the effect that the universe unfolded in the only way it could have, assuming human choice was not involved.

BTW, my impression is that John Donohue is not equipped to be representing the Objectivist side of the discussion.

A second thought.

Bill writes:

"B. Rand is inconsistent in holding both that what is = what must be and that there are potentialities in nature.

"One might try to defend Rand by denying that there are dispositions in nature. But she is committed to them under a different name. With her doctrine that what is = what must be, Rand contradicts her own commitment to potentialities in nature. If you carefully read the confused and amateurish discussion of dispositions and potentialities on pp. 282-288 of IOE, you will see that although Rand seems to be rejecting dispositional properties and a disinction between dipositional and non-dispositional properties, that she is in fact committed to dispositional properties under a different name, the name 'potentiality.' It makes no difference whether we say that a glass, suitably struck, is disposed to break or has the potential to break. Whatever the terminology, the point remains that a glass can have the potential to break whether or not it ever breaks. For this it follows straightaway that what is cannot be identified with what must be."

Rand's point is more subtle than Bill represents it here. The discussion in IOE distinguishes two conceptualizations:

Conceptualization 1: Things have, as properties, an if-then

Conceptualizatin 2: Things have, as properties, potentialities

See this exchange (pp. 283-284):

AR: Where would you properly start here? Not with fragility, because you would have to ask yourself what literally and in reality you mean by this glass being fragile. We say it has the property of fragility. What does that actually mean? You said it means that if you drop it on concrete that it will break. But that isn't what the property consists of. If you drop a metal object on concrete, it won't break. Why? What is it that you know or determine about the glass as it is now, before you break it?

Prof. F: It has a certain structure.

AR: Yes, it has a certain molecular, chemical, or other structure which makes it a certain type of material object. That type will produce certain effects if it acts or is acted upon. So that if you drop it, it will fall to the floor and break. It will not float away. If you drop a feather, because of its constituent chemical, material structure, it will float; where it will land will depend on the nature of the air currents, etc. But when you ascribe particular action-potentials to an entity, you do so on the premise that these actions will result because the entity, materially, physically, chemically, is of a certain kind.

Prof. E: Isn't that another way of saying this. The so-called "dispositional property" is already a mistaken concept because all there is in actual reality is constituent properties and their effects when the entity acts. The so-called "dispositional property" is simply a package-deal term to cover a certain structure and its consequent potentialities for action.

AR: Exactly.


Thanks for the further comments, in quadruplicate no less. Sorry about 'Randian.' If you prefer 'Objectivist,' then that's what it will be.

You say: >>"Necessarily unbroken" does not warrant "unbreakable."<<

Why not? If glass G is necessarily unbroken at t, then it is impossible that G be broken at t, which is to say that it cannot be broken at t, which implies that it is unbreakable at t.

The real problem, I think, is that you don't accept modal distinctions. To me the following is self-evidently true:

I am blogging now & it is possible that I not be blogging now.
which is not to be confused with
Possibly (I am blogging now & I am not blogging now)

Likewise for 'I exist now & possibly I do not exist now.' Do you deny the truth of this compound sentence? You understand that 'possibly' is not being used epistemically. And note that the truth of this compound sentence is consistent with the fact that my existence was causally necessitated. No doubt my existence was causally necessitated. But that is consistent with my being a contingent being. To deny this you need very powerful arguments. What are they?


I have no idea why my previous post appeared 4 times. I posted it only once (unless I have a sticky key on my keyboard).

At any rate, let me respond first to this:

"If glass G is necessarily unbroken at t, then it is impossible that G be broken at t, which is to say that it cannot be broken at t, which implies that it is unbreakable at t."

There's something funny going on with the "be" in "it is impossible that G BE broken at t." What is impossible is the conjunction of: "G was in condition and circumstances C at t" AND "G broke at t." E.g., G was an ordinary, fragile wine glass and nothing hit it, yet it broke. Impossible.

What is NOT impossible is: "G was in condition and circumstances C at t" and "G, due to its nature, would have broken had something hit it with sufficient force." And isn't that precisely what we mean when we say that G is "breakable" or "fragile"? Aren't we saying that its nature gives it a certain--unrealized in the actual case--potentiality?

In other words, Objectivism, like Aristotle, rejects the Megarian view which, according to Aristotle, holds "that a thing 'can' act only when it is acting, and when it is not acting it 'cannot' act, e.g. that he who is not building cannot build, but only he who is building, when he is building; and so in all other cases." (Meta. Theta, 3, 1046b29).

Moving on. You ask whether I deny the truth of this compound sentence: 'I exist now & possibly I do not exist now.' and you stipulate that we are not talking epistemically but metaphysically. I'm afraid I don't understand the sentence. Is it:

1. "I exist now and there is no impossibility in my (or someone else) having made choices that WOULD HAVE resulted in my being dead (and thus non-existent) now"? That I would agree with.

2. "I exist now and there is no impossibility in the natural (metaphysically given) universe having led, from the same earlier state, to my not having been born or my having "spontaneously" popped out of existence"? That I would disagree with.

3. "I exist now and there is no impossibility in my also not existing now (while I simultaneously do exist now)"? That, I take it, neither of us would accept.

Perhaps the issue comes into sharper focus with regarded to your last statement:

"No doubt my existence was causally necessitated. But that is consistent with my being a contingent being."

That seems to be where the disagreement lies. What is it to be "a contingent being"? Contingent--on what? It can't be "contingent on the conditions which necessitated my coming into being." So what is it contingent on?

Interesting discussion.


I am assuming the last post by Harry Binswanger was addressed to you not to me.


Ooops. It looks like the post I was responding to was indeed Bill's.


I am confused about where things are on this site. At this address I see reference to things that the link doesn't show:


and I am concerned that at least one substantive post I wrote is missing or mis-located. At the above URL, can you click on the top two links and find the material in the brief one-line excerpt below them? I can't.


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