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Monday, February 09, 2009


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I think Peikoff is, as you say, legislating the supernatural out of existence by defining "natural" too broadly. The fact that almost all of us can make sense out of the question, "Does the supernatural exist beyond nature?" shows that Peikoff's broad definition of "natural" as he does.

While I do think that a definition of "natural" is quite tricky, I think that most people would define it in a way similar to, "that which exists within the realm of our senses," or "that which we could, in principle, detect." The reason the question of whether the supernatural exists or not makes sense is because most of us can at least fathom something existing that is beyond the realm of our senses or beyond what we could, even in principle, detect.

So, I think that Peikoff's argument only holds weight if we define "natural" as he does, which makes it one of those trivlal definitional truths ("all bachelors are unmarried.")

Maybe Peikoff should rephrase his question to read: "Is it possible taht something could exist that is beyond the ability of our senses to detect?" It is basically the same question as whether the supernatural can be said to exist without the potential for linguistic shenanigans.

Great post, Bill,
Peikoff says:

"Nature," in turn denotes existence viewed from a certain perspective.

Is this definition of 'nature' not part of where he errs? Does he not thus leave open "super-nature" to be defined as existence viewed from another kind of perspective???


Here is David Armstrong's definition of 'naturalism':

It is the contention that the world, the totality of entities, is nothing more than the spacetime system. . . . The positive part of the thesis, that the spacetime system exists, is perhaps not very controversial . . . . The negative thesis, that the spacetime system is all there is, is more controversial. (A World of States of Affairs, p. 5)

Accordingly, nature is the spacetime system. Agreeing with you, I should think it is coextensive with everything empirically detectable in principle using the senses and their instrumental extensions (microscopes, telescopes, etc.)


Thanks. P. does seem in his definition to allow for supernature.

By the way, Kevin, I just read your post on Black academic underachievement. Very good!

Are we willing to accept that God and other entities generally thought of as supernatural are not "empirically detectable in principle"? Certainly the inhabitants of Sodom and Gomorrah, for example, "detected" something, if the Old Testament is to be believed.

This taxonomy is more difficult to support when "supernatural" entities (e.g. God, or the dualistic mind) are thought to have perceptible effects (miracles, utterances) on the space-time system.


Peikoff is quoted by Bill as saying:

"Nature is existence regarded as a system of interconnected entities governed by law; it is the universe of entities acting and interacting in accordance with their identities."

If "nature...is the universe of entities acting and interacting in accordance with their identities," then I am not sure in what context this can mean anything other than "nature is everything that exists."

Even Peikoff's suggestion that "super-nature" entails "existence beyond existence" implies that he sees "nature" as "all that exists."

I am not sure what context would change this.

As for suggesting that it is a mistake to "trying to reformulate Rand's position in your own terms," this is generally what is done in philosophic discussion. When one is discussing the arguments of another, in order to summarize the arguments (and avoid excessive quoting at length) one generally summarizes their words. In fact, Rand and Peikoff did this quite often (when they sum up another's work so as to argue against it). Rand and Peikoff, even, did this msot of the time when arguing against another philosopher. (I don't recall the Objectivist objections to that "context dropping.")

To return to the original point, in what context does referring to "natural" as "the universe of entities" mean anything other than "everything that is?"


When Objectivists summarize other philosophers, it's called "thinking in essentials." When other philosophers summarize Objectivists it's called "context dropping."

For example, Leonard Peikoff considers Kant a proto-Nazi who dreamed of the Nazi concentration camps.


-Neil Parille

Malcolm Pollack asks, "Are we willing to accept that God and other entities generally thought of as supernatural are not 'empirically detectable in principle'? Certainly the inhabitants of Sodom and Gomorrah, for example, 'detected' something, if the Old Testament is to be believed."

It depends on the type of supernatural entity we are talking about.
Consider a mathematical set such as the set of natural numbers. Math sets are not empirically detectable in principle because causally inert. The same goes for all so-called 'abstract objects.'

More interesting is the case of God and other disembodied minds. There is also the case of an embodied Cartesian mind. Can God interfere in the workings of nature? This leads to a discussion of miracles, natural laws, etc. which is way beyond the topic of this post. My intent here was simply to show that a certain argument of Peikoff's is fallacious. That is part of the larger task, set me by our U.K. friend 'Ocham,' of giving evidence that Objectivists are amateurs in philosophy.

I'll put you down as agreeeing with me that Peikoff's argument is fallacious. And I'll also credit you with the insight that if a particular argument for a proposition is bad, it doesn't follow that there is no good argument for the proposition.

Now suppose God can interfere in the workings of nature. Then we cannot affirm (A) If x is is empirically detectable in principle, then x is a natural item wholly resident within the spacetime system. But we could affirm the converse: (B) If x is a natural item, etc., then x is empirically detectable in principle.

Thanks, Bill.

I do agree with you about Peikoff's argument. The tricky part, though, and what I meant to focus on, is that given a distinction between natural and supernatural, there appears to be a need to assume that some entities can form a "bridge" between the two, as shown by your point that an entity might not be "wholly resident within the spacetime system".

For example, if mathematical abstracta are indeed causally inert, and therefore wholly non-resident in the spacetime system, it seems fair to wonder why we would ever utter assertions about them. One answer might then be that the mind is able to perceive them, and be cognitively influenced by their existence, because of its having one foot, so to speak, in the supernatural -- and is also able to cause physical utterances about them because of its other foot being embedded in, or somehow connected to, the spacetime system.

That the natural and supernatural can cross-pollinate in this way does seem to make rather a troubling muddle of the distinction between the two, though; if an allegedly "supernatural" entity can indeed have such detectable effects in the spacetime system, it seems tempting, and perhaps more parsimonious, to imagine that it is simply a poorly understood part of that system. (It's almost like the "one drop" rule of the Jim Crow era: if you can affect the natural world in any way at all, you are part of the natural world.) At the very least, to the extent that you affect the natural world in any way, you are presumably subject to its rules, and to empirical inquiry. (Even this view still leaves open the possibility that there exist supernatural entities that do not have this property.)

As you say, this is way beyond the topic of this post; forgive me for the digression. It might help to explain and understand what Peikoff is trying to get at, though.

Bill wrote: "By the way, Kevin, I just read your post on Black academic underachievement. Very good!"

Thanks. I thought I'd get SLAMMED for that one. I was quite frustrated when I wrote it. Thanks for taking the time to read it. You are welcome any time!

"It is illegitimate to attempt to answer a philosophical question by rigging one's terminology"

The qualification of rigging is equally valid against any alternative definitions of terminology that do allow for supernatural being some valid field of inquire. It makes no difference if such terminology has been in existence longer than the terminology of Peikoff.

The only question that is really relevant is whether or not the concepts one uses in propositions have definitions that actually refer to anything that can be 'sensed' in 'Nature'. I they do not they are 'senseless'.

This last comment is typical of the quality of comments from Objectivists. Exercise for intelligent readers: explain what is wrong with this response.

Bill assigned an "exercise for intelligent readers: explain what is wrong with [S.Lagroht's] response." I'll take a stab at that. First off, the comment was just sloppily written. He wrote "qualification" where he must have meant, say, "accusation" or "attribution". He needs an "a" before "supernatural being" to make the grammer correct, or he could have written "supernatural beings". There's an "in" missing before "some valid field", and "inquire" should have been "inquiry". And that's just his first sentence.

As to philosophical content, the post isn't much better. According to Objectivism, defining a concept is merely the last stage in concept formation, and isn't even necessary or possible for all concepts. The poster seems to concede that the meanings of concepts are determined by stipulation via definitions; he then suggests, in effect, that Bill's definitions might be just as bad as Peikoff's. This is riddled with problems. First, the major premise -- that concepts acquire meaning primarily through stipulative definitions -- is completely wrong according to Objectivism. Second, it is hardly a good defense of something to (not even argue, but just assert) that something else is "just as bad." Third, his own implied accusation back toward Bill is totally empty and unsupported.

But fourth and most importantly, I think the poster fundamentally misunderstands (or at very least mis-states) the kind of connection between sense perception and concepts that, according to Objectivism, ought to exist. It certainly is not the case according to Objectivism that valid concepts must be defined in terms of "sensible" referents. (I'm assuming the poster meant "sensed" as a synonym of "perceived".) Take almost any concept from my field, physics -- say, "neutrino". The definition of "neutrino" is something like this: a sub-atomic particle which has spin 1/2, has very small mass, and interacts with other particles exclusively through the weak nuclear reactions. But it is impossible to "sense" sub-atomic particles, their spins, their masses, their interactions, or the weak nuclear interactions in particular. So by the poster's implied standards, "neutrino" is, just like "god" or whatever he has in mind, an invalid concept.

If the poster's point was merely that perhaps Bill and (no doubt) many other philosophers are also guilty of, in some way or on some topic, "rigging terminology" to protect a favorite claim against the standards employed elsewhere, then that is probably true. But then the way to defend that thesis would be to present some kind of argument or evidence, ideally centered on some concrete example and citing Bill's or whoever's actual words and views. This, after all, is supposed to be a philosophy blog, not a name-calling-fest for amateur propagandists.

All of that said, I would also like to "explain what is wrong with" *Bill's* response to that earlier comment. That Bill was terse and even flippant is no problem. I think he would have been totally warranted in simply deleting the comment since it lacked any real philosophic substance; dismissing it with a bit of sarcasm is cool too. So what do I think is wrong with Bill's response?

It's the word "typical" and in general his first sentence: "This last comment is typical fo the quality of comments from Objectivists." I don't know in what sense "typical" is being used. If in a purely statistical sense, meaning that this last comment bears a striking similarity to, say, the many earlier posts of J.Donohue, then OK. Maybe this comment is "typical." But then, who cares? That also has zero philosophical significance. If, instead, he meant "typical" as a synonym of "normal" -- as in, indicative of what is possible and to be expected -- then I simply don't think that comment was "typical." Either way, it feels very much like here Bill is trying to get a cheap shot in at myself, perhaps Dr. Binswanger, and other serious Objectivists.

And the problem with this is not that I feel insulted. It's that it makes me seriously question Bill's own motives and his own seriousness as a philosopher. I think the comments by Binswanger and myself here should have convinced any reasonable person that Objectivism, whether you agree with any of it or not, is a serious philosophy which, while differing radically and substantially from Bill's views on nearly every point, is nevertheless a quite serious and quite systematic attempt to address such core metaphysical/epistemological issues as modality, the role of definitions, the nature of logical dependency, the basic relationship between consciousness and external reality, etc.

In short, if the idea is to dismiss or ignore Objectivism *on the grounds that "this last comment is typical of the quality of comments from Objectivists"* then I have to question Bill's own honesty. An honest person who is serious about ideas does not assess an ideology based on the kind of behavior that is "typical" (in the sheer statistical sense) of its alleged, self-described proponents. This would be just the same as my arguing from the intellectual immaturity and stupidity of the vast majority of the Christians I know, to the falsity of Christianity. But whatever one thinks of Christianity, surely that isn't a serious (let alone "rigorous") approach to justifying one's assessment of it. Or take this example: almost all of the people I know who believe in anthropogenic global warming are scientifically illiterate socialist-leaning ideologues. Does that mean that human-produced carbon dioxide is not causing global warming? Of course not. That is a serious question to be answered by moving beyond personalities and politics, and looking fairly at the actual scientific evidence on all sides.

And in particular -- and this is finally the real point -- it is crucial to look fairly at the *best* evidence on all sides. I submit that anyone who forms/justifies/rationalizes an assessment of a philosophy based on (to make up a new example) the behavior or approach of some snotty, belligerent, anonymous teenager on the internet, is not himself a serious philosopher and is not ultimately interested in truth. Bill, I honestly can't tell if you're in this category or not. Maybe you are curious about Objectivism and keep posting about it because (as you explicitly claimed early-on) you were desperate to find some intelligent Objectivists to engage with philosophically, so you could find out if there's really something to it or not. But there is also some evidence that you're not really interested in hearing new arguments or different perspectives on philosophical issues at all, and instead just enjoy trolling for un-serious responses to your (often rude and unserious) posts about Objectivism, probably because it provides an easy source of "data" to support some pre-existing idea (which you probably also just picked up from some other equally unserious source on the internet) about Rand being an amateurish hack or whatever.

Speaking for myself, it would be helpful if you could decide one way or the other, and make your decision known, so I, in turn, can decide whether it's worth my time to keep reading your blog and occasionally engaging you and others in the comments. That is: are you willing to employ high standards of clarity and seriousness in your attempts to understand and assess Objectivism -- the same high standards you (quite properly) expect from commenters on your posts? Or is all of this to you just some kind of game?

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