Sunday, May 25, 2008

A Further Defense Against Koenichfuerst

For the story thus far see this link:

and then this link for his counter-argument:

Now, to get down to business.

1. By stating that "Existence exists" is a tautology, you are stating that existence is something which is. If existence is something which can possibly not be, then "existence exists" is not necessarily a tautology. It could then be wrong. If, however, you state that existence must by definition exist, and therefore be a tautology, then you have conceded that existence does indeed exist. You can't have it both ways. You concede that you don't believe that you're in the matrix, so basically you're arguing a moot point. There isn't anything debatable about it. What is, is. It's purely a statement of identity. It is not an argument. How you can hope to disprove the identity of everything around you, is a matter for you and your grasp of reality to work out. For anybody else, it is clear that the very fact that we are having this debate is proof that we have both accepted that there is a common experience of existence through which we can negotiate meaning. The very use of language or any communication medium, presupposes that there is a common reality external to us both through which we are communicating.

You have yet to offer any counter to this except to say, well, "It doesn't have to be that way." To which I shall reply thus: If there isn't then there is no point to our even debating. Because I am then just a figment of your imagination. As is the whole universe. And while it may be comforting to place yourself at the center of a delusional dream-world, it runs against the entire scope of scientific knowledge. If you want to argue that existence is debatable and therefore not a given, then you must take the opposing stance that existence is not real. But if you do so, then you lose the ability to use science as a justification. Since all science is built on the presupposition that what you are measuring is measurable by others in the same way and with significantly replicable results. This is something which would not hold in a largely subjective universe.

1.2 Hofstadter's points on free will are on pages 710-714 of the 1999 paperback version of Godel, Escher, Bach. He lays out how what we consider free will could be expressed in terms of how a self-referential self aware system may perceive its choices. He also states that it is not intuitive and it may be one of those things which is not intuitively comprehensible. The long and the short of it is though that these cycles of self-referential mechanistic systems would give rise to the phenomenon that we perceive as free will, namely our ability to choose between courses of action. This is in effect what free will is all about.

Of course this argument is well after Rand's, so she couldn't draw on these concepts in the expression of her philosophy. But the practical upshot is that free-will is rendered explainable in a mechanistic view of the universe. Hofstadter does not remove "our" responsibility for making decisions. Especially as the cumulative effect of what "I" comes to mean in this perspective of consciousness is the meta (meta-meta? meta-meta-meta?) level of the system of which we are aware. It by no means removes from people the option of choice, anymore than the knowledge that atoms are mostly empty space removes us from the restriction on not falling through the earth or walking through walls. It is simply a 'quantum' level explanation of consciousness and free-will, where it comes from, so to speak.

2. Your argument on ethics once again does not go deep enough, and I think it's interesting that you consciously avoided referencing Rand's footnote to that quote, which I will restate, properly quoted. As you say, Virtue of Selfishness, p. 16-17.

"Only a living entity can have goals or can originate them. And it is only a living organism that has the capacity for self-generated, goal-directed action. On the physical level, the functions of all living organisms, from the simplest to the most complex--from the nutritive function in the single cell of the amoeba to the blood circulation in the body of a man--are actions generated by the organism itself and directed to a single goal: the maintenance of the organism's life.*"

To which I now add, the footnote (italics in the original):

"When applied to physical phenomenon, such as the automatic functions of an organism, the term "goal-directed" is not to be taken to mean "purposive" (a concept applicable only to the actions of a consciousness) and is not to imply the existence of any teleological principle operating in insentient nature. I use the term "goal-directed," in this context, to designate the fact that the automatic functions of living organisms are actions whose nature is such that they result in the preservation of an organism's life."

Her argument then is that since man is not born with automatic 'knowledge' of how to sustain his life, then he must discover it. That is to say, that the genetic programming of animals seems to provide them the skills necessary to survive in their environment, but that man's genetic programming does not seem to have this information hard-wired in.

Because of this, man has to choose, has to learn. There is no necessity in man choosing values which will lead it to a full, healthy, and rewarding existence. However, choosing the right values, will. Values guide a person's long term goals. If that value is life, then the long-term goals of a person will be the preservation and elevation of that life. If the value is death, well then that is also another option. But happiness, is only possible by choosing life as a value. Choosing death as a value leads to pain, because death is painful.

You're also neglecting that Rand states that organisms incapable of choice cannot have values, as such. Once again, I quote from The Objectivist Ethics, VOS, p. 16.

""Value" is that which one acts to gain and/or keep. The concept "value" is not a primary; it presupposes an answer to the question: of value to whom and for what? It presupposes an entity capable of acting to achieve a goal in the face of an alternative. Where no alternative exists, no goals and no values are possible."

As for your spurious accounts of the animal world, you have yet to provide an example of a creature which consciously works against its own survival genetically or otherwise. Unless that you are arguing that something with the brain the size of a praying mantis or a peacock is conscious enough to have values, then those examples still stand invalidated.

As for Zahavi's hypothesis that some animals display colorfully precisely because it is dangerous and thus makes them more appealing to females, mathematical modeling by Alan Grafen has shown that this may possibly lead to an evolutionarily stable state and may well be an adequate explanation of such behavior. But I stress again that the goal is to live and pass on one's genes. The display is a result of both the pressures for survival and the pressures to reproduce acting in concert on the genetic make-up of the animal and it's mode of behavior. The peacock is successful in mating because it is good enough to survive in spite of it's tail. If it were to be a handicap that guaranteed death then it would not be able to reproduce. If anything it makes it that much harder for the peacock to survive, but it does not entail that the peacock is not directed to survive by the same forces which drive all other animals. It has simply developed to respond to the pressure on its evolution in unique ways.

3. The "is-ought" gap.

Virtue of Selfishness, p.17

"Life can be kept in existence only by a constant process of self-sustaining action. The goal of that action, the ultimate value which, to be kept, must be gained through its every moment, is the organism's life.
An ultimate value is that final goal or end to which all lesser goals are the means--and it sets the standard by which all lesser goals are evaluated. An organism's life is its standard of value: that which furthers its life is the good, that which threatens it is the evil.
Without an ultimate goal or end, there can be no lesser goals or means: a series of means going off into infinte progression toward a nonexistent end is a metaphysical and epistemological impossibility. It it only an ultimate goal, an end in itself that makes the existence of values possible. Metaphysically, life is the only phenomenon that is an end in itself: a value gained and kept by a constant process of action. Epistemologically, the concept of "value" is genetically dependent upon and derived from the antecedent concept of "life". To speak of "value" as apart from "life" is worse than a contradiction in terms. "It is only the concept of 'Life' that makes the concept of 'Value' possible."
In answer to those philosophers who claim that no relation can be established between ultimate ends or values and the facts of reality, let me stress that the fact that living entities exist and function necessitates the existence of values and of the ultimate value which for any given living entity is its own life. Thus the validation of value judgments is to be achieved by reference to the facts of reality. The fact that a living entity is, determines what it ought to do. So much for the issue of the relation between "is" and "ought." "

And if that isn't clear enough, let me connect the dots.

1. To have values, one must have choice, so one must be conscious.

2. If a conscious organism wishes to continue surviving then it must choose life as it's ultimate value. Especially as human beings are not hard-wired with values, or knowledge of how best to survive, this is not a default choice. Humans must reason in order to solve the problems of survival. Reason is an active process, actively decided upon.

3. If a being chooses survival, and therefore life as a value to be pursued, then the facts of reality dictate what it should do in order to pursue that goal effectively. Every "is" therefore implies an "ought".

The argument for objectivist ethics doesn't rest on the desires of animals. It rests on the necessary consequences of what values a conscious being sets . Of the ultimate goal it decides to pursue. And on the influence of the environment in which we live (i.e. existence) on what is necessary to ensure survival. There's nothing arbitrary about it at all. Unless you wish to choose death as your ultimate value, then you are welcome to it. Let's see how far that gets you.

I apologize on the Albert Ellis criticism. Like I said, I am not well-versed in his theories. I might point out, however, that the "reference" to objectivism was not in the article proper (actually none was) it was merely the title of a book in the bibliography which was phrased as a question and provided no indication of his stance on the matter.

So, in all fairness, I researched Ellis's views in more depth. Well, the first thing I noticed is that Ellis does not seem to be in the mainstream with regards to the psychological evaluation of the value of self-esteem and self-worth. While I would agree that it would be destructive to deify Rand as some are wont to do, this is not something promoted by her philosophy in and of itself. It is the misguided knee-jerk reaction of some of her followers. And just as ad hominem attacks do nothing to disprove a theory in any other field, they do little to provide serious criticism in philosophy or psychology either.

I will fully concede that Ayn Rand was capable of making wrong decisions, that she did not have all facts, as not even science has all facts. But the framework she laid out for her philosophical system was rational, just as the empirical assumptions which drive the scientific method are rational. They are consistent with what we know of reality today, just as they were then. The concept of our ethics being determined by the facts of our existence and our happiness being determined by our individual natures in the details, but overall by the biological necessities of our survival is a solid one. The details and arguments of merit are therefore, those which focus on what is indeed our nature as human beings, and what are indeed the facts of our existence.

You will get nowhere by challenging notions of existence or of survival. These are well accepted concepts in the sciences. You can continue beating a straw man if you wish, but I fail to see the merit in it and shall waste no more time trying to disprove you of this notion.

If you can come up with a truly scientific argument that supports your claim, then please spell it out explicitly and I will take it on. But I have a limit to how many times I can reiterate the same argument.

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