Friday, May 28, 2004

Is Ayn Rand a Good Philosopher?

Keith Burgess-Jackson, that prolific and penetrating argonaut of the blogosphere, has recently assembled some reasons why Ayn Rand is not taken seriously by most professional philosophers. I don’t disagree with any of KBJ’s reasons, but I should like to add one of my own.

To put it anachronistically, Rand’s writing reads like blogscript, loosely argued if argued at all, and sprinkled with a sizeable admixture of ranting and raving. To put it bluntly, she gives arguments so porous that one could drive a Mack truck through them.

Suppose we turn to p. 24 of Philosophy: Who Needs It (ed. Peikoff, Signet, 1982). There, in an article entitled “The Metaphysical and the Man-Made,”(1973) Rand states “...the basic metaphysical issue that lies at the root of any system of philosophy: the primacy of existence or the primacy of consciousness.” To contrast existence and consciousness in this way is dubious since
consciousness, if it is not nothing, exists. But I won’t pursue this line of critique; I will instead consider what Rand could mean by the primacy of existence. The primacy of existence is “the axiom that existence exists, i.e., that the universe exists independent of consciousness (of any consciousness), that things are what they are, that they possess a specific nature, an identity.”

If we think about Rand’s axiom, we see that it conflates three distinct propositions:
P1: Each thing exists independently of any consciousness.
P2: Each thing satisfies the Law of Identity in that, for each x, x = x.
P3: The identity of each thing consists in its possession of a specific nature.

Clearly these three are logically distinct. P2 is the least controversial of the three, for all it says is that each thing is self-identical. This is an admissible axiom since it is a law of logic. (An axiom is an ultimate premise, one that cannot be supported by logically deriving it from more basic premises.) But P2 does not entail P1. For if each thing is self-identical, it does not follow that each thing exists independently of any consciousness. To see this, suppose that God exists and creates everything distinct from himself. On this supposition, each thing distinct from God is self-identical but precisely NOT independent of any consciousness. Since P2 does not entail P1, these two propositions are logically distinct. Note that all I need is the mere possibility of God’s existence to show the failure of entailment.

Rand is deeply confused. She thinks that to say that x is self-identical is to say something about x’s mode of existence, namely, that x exists independently of any consciousness. If this were true, a mere law of logic would entail not only the nonexistence of God, but also the necessary nonexistence (i.e., the impossibility) of God. What’s more, it amounts to a solving by logical fiat of the problem of the external world. If Rand were right, one would be able to prove that an object of perception exists apart from its being perceived by simply pointing out that it is self-identical. Yonder mountain, qua object of perception, is of course self-identical; but that scarcely proves that it exists independently of my consciosness of it. Now consider an Aristotlean accident such as the being-tanned of Socrates. (Our man has been out in the sun, hence he is tanned, but he might have remained indoors.) An accident exists only in a substance, unlike a substance which exists in itself. An accident cannot exist in itself or by itself. Yet substances and accidents are both self-identical. It follows that self-identity implies nothing about mode of existence. To point out that x is self-identical leaves wide open whether x is an accident, a substance, a mind-dependent entity, a mind-independent entity, an abstract object, a concrete object, a process, a continuant, a nonexistent object of an hallucination, an existent object of a veridical perception, etc.

In sum, Rand is attempting to squeeze controversial metaphysical assertions out of a mere logical axiom. It can’t be done.

It is also clear that P2 does not entail P3. P2 merely says that each thing is self-identical. But this implies nothing as to natures. If a thing has a nature, then it has some essential properties. But it is possible, and many philosophers have held, that all of a thing’s properties are accidental. Therefore, it is possible that a thing be self-identical and yet have only accidental properties – which shows that P2 does not entail P1.

P1 is also distinct from P3 in that the negation of P1 is consistent with P3.

Suppose we adduce a further passage: “To grasp the axiom that existence exists, means to grasp the fact that nature, i.e., the universe as a whole, cannot be created or annihilated, that it cannot come into or go out of existence.” (P. 25) Rand goes on to say that the universe is “ruled” by “the Law of Identity.” (Ibid.)

Any professional philosopher should be able to see how pitiful this is. Let’s not worry about Big Bang cosmology according to which the universe precisely did come into existence some 15 billion years ago. Instead, let us ask ourselves how one can validly infer a statement about the nature of the existence of existing things, namely, that they cannot come into or pass out of existence, from a mere law of logic. Suppose we construct an argument on Rand’s behalf:

1. Necessarily, every x is self-identical.
2. To exist = to be self-identical
3. Necessarily, every x exists
4. Every x exists necessarily.
5. No x exists contingently.
6. No x can come into existence or pass out of existence.

The problem with this argument lies with premise (2). Rand needs (2), but (2) does not follow from (1). (2) must be brought in as a separate premise. But, unlike (1), (2) is scarcely self-evident. For even if it is true that x exists iff x = x, it does not follow from this that the existing of x consists in x’s being self-identical. It is conceivable that there be a nonexistent object such as Pegasus that is self-identical but does not exist. This shows that the biconditional given is circular: x exists iff x = x & x exists. There is more to existence than self-identity.

Furthermore, what Rand’s view implies is that the universe is made up of basic constituents, each of which is a necessary being (since the existence of each = its self-identity). This further implies modal Spinozism, the doctrine that there is exactly one possible world, the actual world. For if each of the basic constituents cannot come into existence or pass out of existence, then the collection of these constituents – the universe – cannot come into existence or pass out of existence. (Trust me, I am not committing the fallacy of composition.) But if the universe CANNOT come into existence or pass out of existence, then its actual existence entails its necessary existence, which entails in turn that no other universe is possible.

My point is not that modal Spinozism is false – although I do believe it to be false – but that this extremely controversial thesis is not equivalent to the Law of Identity. Thus, those of us who deny modal Spinozism are not trying “to exempt man from the Law of Identity.” (P. 26) Besides,if this law “rules the universe,” how could any mere philosophy professor exempt anybody from it.

Ayn Rand has some insights, and she is worth reading; but she is an astonishingly sloppy thinker. Take a gander at this passage:

A typical package-deal, used by professors of philosophy [those bastards!], runs as follows: to prove that there is no such thing as ‘necessity’ in the universe, a professor [any one will do] declares that just as this country did not have to have fifty states, there could have been forty-eight or fifty-two – so the solar system did not have to have nine planets, there could have been seven or eleven. It is not sufficient, he declares, to prove that something is, one must also prove that it had to be – and since nothing had to be, nothing is certain and anything goes. (p. 28)

A pathologist would have a field day with this tissue of confusion. First, the reference to philosophy professors amounts to a hasty generalization: only a few would argue in this deeply confused manner. Second, although it is true that the conventional needs to be distinguished from the natural, surely it is highly implausible to maintain that our solar system’s having nine planets is necessary. It is certainly not logically necessary: there is no logical contradiction
embedded in the supposition that there be some other number of planets. Nor is it nomologically necessary: the laws of physics do not dictate the number of planets. Had the initial conditions been different at the time of the formation of our planetary system, perhaps only eight planets would have congealed from the matter emitted from our sun. If Rand were right, then it would be necessary that the earth have only one moon, that this moon be waterless, that it have exactly the craters that it has, which implies that no meteors other than the ones that did slam into it could have slammed into it, that the Sea of Putridity, which is neither a sea nor putrid, have exactly the extent it has. And so on, for every natural fact.

Rand, that stalwart defender of rationality, ‘reasons’ as follows:
A. If some facts are not necessary, but contingent,
B. No fact is necessary.
C. Nothing is certain.
D. Anything goes.

Each of these inferences is invalid. It is a contingent fact that there are nine planets, but it is not a contingent fact that water is H2O. So B does not follow from A. Nor does B entail C. Necessity is not the same property as certainty. The fact that I am now thinking is not necessary,but it is certain: see Descartes. Finally, C does not entail D. If nothing is known with certainty, it does not follow that there are no absolute truths; what follows is merely that we who hold them hold them fallibly.

Finally, let me point to a passage on p. 33 where Rand refers to John Rawl’s A Theory of Justice as “an obscenely evil theory [that] proposes to subordinate man’s nature and mind to the desires (including the envy), not merely of the lowest human specimens, but of the lowest non-existents....” To put it anachronistically, Rand the ranter is the Ann Coulter of philosophy. This sort of raving is not the way to refute Rawls.

Rand illustrates the perils of being an amateur philosopher. By the way, the difference between a professional and an amateur philosopher is not the difference between one who makes money from philosophy and one who does not. It is the difference between one whose work meets a certain standard of competence and rigor, and one whose work does not. Spinoza and Schopenhauer were professional philosophers despite their not making money from philosophy; Ayn Rand and plenty of hack philosophy teachers are amateurs who nonetheless made money from philosophy.