Thursday, March 5, 2009

Error, Evasion, and Deceit

I've been reading through Ayn Rand's Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology (IOE) and in the interest of trying to work through some of the ideas in there, I've decided to put my thoughts into writing on this blog. Let me just say that this is not definitive Objectivist orthodoxy. This is just me working through some of the ideas presented by Objectivism. I welcome criticism from anyone, Objectivist or not, who may think there is an error in this reasoning. However, so that we don't get bogged down too much in re-explaining definitions and so that we're not arguing about misinterpretations, I would like to ask anyone who would like to contest the points I'm making to have at least read the book first. Then, we'll know where we stand and can move on with discussion from there.

In IOE Ayn Rand presents the basics of her epistemology, or how we know that we know things and what it is we know. Rand says that consciousness starts at the perceptual level. Initially, we are born with sensory apparatus that just wheels blindly sending a stream of undifferentiated information into our brains. That is, of course, within the parameters set by our biological hardware. Sensations are instantaneous responses to external stimuli but have relatively little longevity. It isn't until we have acquired enough exposure to a certain sensation that it becomes integrated into a percept. For example, we may be exposed to a whole variety of things but we are unable to focus on any one quality or any one object until a percept has been formed. Then we can be said to perceive something. This is where consciousness begins--where we begin to integrate our multitudinous simultaneous sensations into perceivable somethings, differentiations in the chaos. It is only later, after we have developed the capacity to conceptualize and abstract, that we can analyze our perceptions and reduce them to their component sensations.

Similarly, after we acquire a sufficient level of perceptions we can integrate them into concepts, integrate concepts into abstractions and integrate abstractions into higher-level abstractions. I don't intend to go into the whole process here in detail, I just mention this as a starting point for the discussion. Basically what this model of knowledge says is that anything we know is ultimately founded on concrete existents in an objective reality. Even our highest level abstractions, to be valid, must be based on a chain of conceptualization that is ultimately reducible to the concretes from which it has been derived. This of course holds true for inductive as well as deductive reasoning. If there is a break in the conceptual chain, then the following concepts and abstractions and any actions based on them must be in error. A break in the conceptual chain must essentially be a contradiction, some point at which the linking ideas are not truly linkable, where definitions have been mismatched, where reality and proposition do not coincide.

Consciousness is simply a fact. That there is something that is thinking is implied by the act of thought. As such, the concept of self is implicit in consciousness. Our concept of consciousness is the integration of numerous perceived mental actions, or "actions of consciousness". An action of consciousness consists of the concepts under consideration and the conclusion drawn in regards to those concepts. Our internal, or introspective knowledge is based on the integration of our first level extrospective, or external, concepts (not unlike prototypical lexis) and awareness of the difference between consciousness and tangible existence. That is to say, it is the integration between our conceptualization of objects and our evaluation of them. The combination of our prototypical conceptualizations and our first concepts of values form the base of our introspective knowledge.

So, for either objective or conceptual existents, the same rules apply. Higher abstractions must be connected in a chain of conceptualization down to the first root concepts that are perceivable in reality. Breaks in the chain must invariably be contradictions, links which represent the combination of two ideas which cannot possibly both be true at the same time. As such, morality is ultimately reducible to concrete existents, or more properly, it is derivable from them. For a more thorough derivation of such, I would recommend Ayn Rand's The Virtue of Selfishness in which she details the Objectivist ethics. However, the main gist is this: Every is implies an ought. Every fact of existence indicates some choice that humans must make in order to either enhance their survival or undermine it. Everything moral is ultimately reducible to life and death, because without life, moral judgments have no meaning. The ultimate basis of morality is an individual life. There is no such thing as a mass life, or social entity. These concepts are merely approximate aggregations of the cumulative effect of millions of individual decisions. They represent a sociological calculus of abstracting mass trends, but have no relevance to a moral argument. The moral argument must always start from the concrete and move towards abstraction, not the other way around. SOCIETY is a rather vague concept, what is denoted by it varies depending on what you're trying to prove. A "society" goes on, it changes, but the notion of life or death doesn't have much relevance to it. However, life and death are of paramount importance to it's constituent members. Any social system which ignores the life and death ramifications of it's moral prescriptions is bound to succeed only through misery, privation, and bloodshed visited on the individuals which constitute it.

Now, things like morality, justice, virtue, etc. are complex concepts understood only through a long chain of conceptualization and abstraction. At any point in the process, there is the potential for something to go wrong. I can see only three potential ways in which someone may integrate a contradiction into their conceptual system leading them to sanction or participate actively in evil: error, evasion, and deceit.

ERROR is simply when someone has made an honest mistake. Understanding the minutiae of these conceptual chains requires a painstaking combination of introspection, validation, verification, argumentation, etc. This is primarily what professional philosophers should be doing--walking along the chains of our abstraction and verifying their veracity. Now when a mistake is encountered, an honest person would try to fix this mistake.

A mind cannot hold two opposing propositions to be true at the same time, provided that the mind recognizes the opposition. So, how can the mind not recognize the opposition?

One possibility is that the opposition stems from a place deep in the conceptual chain and having been subsumed and automated are not consciously apparent as being in conflict: ERROR. The solution for ERROR would seem to be to examine the conceptual chain until the contradiction is revealed, resolve the conflict and then reconstruct the conceptual chain in accordance with the corrected premises. Correcting these errors would seem to be the proper mandate of psychology. Preventing these errors would seem to be the proper mandate of education.

The next two possibilities, EVASION and DECEIT are difficult to distinguish from each other, but are distinguishable by a very subtle difference. Whereas ERROR can be distinguished by the situation where a person has simply just not thought of something in a certain way, or has not sufficiently examined their ideas, evasion and deceit both imply an avoidance of recognizing error. However, determining what is evasion and what is deceit is ultimately a very subtle difficulty.

If a contradiction is ignored by one's mind, how is this accomplished? The mind cannot consciously hold a contradiction as true. So the only alternative is not to consciously hold it. This is what Ayn Rand calls the "blank-out". In other words, a "blank-out" is the avoidance and/or repression of a point of conflict between one's premises. To willfully ignore a contradiction is a form of deceit. So for evasion, as such, to be distinguishable from deceit, then evasion must be an automated process, where the person is no longer aware of the fact that they are evading. Their psyche has been programmed, so to speak, to actively evade the contradiction--to avoid focusing on the point of conflict at all costs. It actively works to keep them unaware of the fact. I think it is safe to say that evil men don't think of themselves as evil. They think they are doing the right thing. They think they are misunderstood. But the truth is that they are active participants in their own failure to realize the contradictions which lead to their evil.

Now, I reject unilaterally the idea of things like memes, which would imply that ideas just happen to infect our consciousness and spread like a virus. No, once one has reached an age where one's conceptual apparatus is fully matured, we concsciously process what we choose to believe and integrate into our lives, and reject that which we don't. The only time when a belief, a contradiction could be integrated without being subject to our conscious filtering is if that idea is integrated before that conceptual apparatus is fully formed. In short, if, when a person is still vulnerable and formative, a person's mind is conditioned to ignore contradictions, then they will develop the ability to evade points where contradictions are in conflict. This conditioning can come from either inside or outside, I think. From outside, it would be realized by what I call cognitive abuse.

Cognitive abuse would be the systematic disorientation of concepts in young people before they have achieved the ability to integrate and revise their own conceptual system. In effect, it would be a systematic training in a conceptual model of the universe which embraces contradiction and does not support the growth of coherent chains of logical correspondence. I happen to think that an awareness of cognitive abuse and its ramifications would inspire drastic reforms in modern educational methodology.

The internal source would be an active choice made to actively maintain opposites in pursuit of a hypothetically and arbitrarily ascertained "greater value". A commitment to religion, altruism, collectivism, nationalism, etc. are all predicated on the existence of a "greater good" and that this overrides any considerations of individual perspective or welfare. The conditioned or conscious adoption of this principle would have the effect of programming one's mind to reject objections in favor of this over-riding principle. In short, believing in a greater good, overrides ones ability to be aware of their own evasions, it shorts out one's decision routines.

But, a conscious decision to override one's mind and to actively embrace contradictions effectively entails responsibility. An adult with a fully-formed conceptual apparatus who decides to evade contradictions in their mental processes, is effectively consciously choosing falsehood over truth, good over evil. An active choice to avoid contradictions in one's thought processes is a conscious deception, a conscious evil. This would place voluntary evasion in the category of DECEIT. The distinction being that one is aware on some level of the fact that they are lying, even to themselves, that they are aware of the contradiction but have made a choice not to acknowledge it. Involuntary evasion, or EVASION proper, is the result of cognitive abuse where a person has been conditioned in their pre-cognitive stages of development to undermine their own cognitive operations, to turn their conceptual system against itself by means of an implicit decision rule smuggled into their social orientation as they grow into adults. Evasion is only possible to children who have been systematically indoctrinated to evade through cognitive abuse. Deceit is an active choice to evade, or an active conscious choice to pretend there is no contradiction in spite of the knowledge that there is.

The distinction is subtle, but important. Someone who is guilty of involuntary evasion can be viewed as being afflicted with a psychological disorder. Someone who is guilty of deceit is guilty of a intentional moral transgression.

Error is discoverable. If two people disagree, they present their opposing arguments, working back through the chain of their reasoning until they arrive at an error. If both people are honestly seeking the truth then the resolution of this error should mandate that one or both of the parties must change their standpoint when all contradictions have been resolved.

Evasion is discoverable. Since the evader can not allow themselves to be aware of their own evasion, they cannot monitor themselves to keep from exposing it. Therefore, they will straight-forwardly state what they believe. Their errors will then be apparent. It may be possible to force a catharsis by bringing the object of evasion into concrete terms and forcing a resolution, but it is more likely than not that the subject would just blank-out/repress the potential cathartic influence/demonstration. It would also not be surprising if persistent exposure to the conflict point would elicit rage and or violence. The underlying principle is that to be successful at evasion, the evader cannot bring the conflicting points into their mind simultaneously, otherwise they would have to acknowledge the impossibility of their stance, if only in the confines of their own mind. From that point on, they would either have to realign their stance to resolve the contradiction, or actively choose to pretend that they never realized the impossibility of their view, leading them into deceit.

Deceit is trickier. I'm not really sure how to determine the difference in symptoms between deceit and either evasion or error. Once again, they will act as though there is a contradiction in their conceptual systems, by advocating conflicting propositions. Even upon having that contradiction brought into focus, they may refuse to acknowledge it, thus emulating evasion. The place where they can be caught out is if they were to actually acknowledge the contradiction and continue to advocate it anyway. This is clearly deceitful and a sure sign of intellectual malignance. But I also think this is rare. A liar will generally try to slip away from the responsibility of their lie, by covering it as error or evasion. The question of how to determine intentional deceit is still one with which I have some trouble. But I think it can be dealt with in the same manner as either of the other two.

I think the method for overcoming error, evasion, and deceit is fairly similar. Present your views in as concise, rational, and clear a manner as possible. Ask opponents to do the same with their views. If they don't even attempt to describe their reasoning, if they flee from the issue, or just resort to bullying or taunting strategies, then it will be clear to anyone else involved that they have the lesser justification for their views. In this way, it can serve to educate others in the logical wormholes which can suck people in if they're not careful. Educational reform in general, with an emphasis on developing critical thinking skills, of refining young people's "art of non-contradictory identification", and helping to foster the development of fully integrated epistemology are also long-term approaches to correcting or preventing cognitive error.

Evasion can only be treated by exstensive therapy and then probably only when someone is aware that there is something wrong with themselves and they want to change it. Of course the depth and severity of the breach would warrant a proportionately greater necessity for counseling. The form of such counseling should be targeted so as to help a patient to uncover the break-downs in their conceptual system which are causing disturbances. More scientifically defining cognitive abuse, defining it's systems, causes, and of course scientifically validating whether or not there is in fact such a thing possible are tasks for cognitive scientists as the field matures. Once a more concrete model has been developed, methods for treatment and prevention can be better ascertained.

As far as I know, the line between evasion and deceit can only be made as a personal judgmnet call based on a long span of interactions, or a healthy volume of evidence. Consciously maintaining any lie takes a certain amount of conscious effort. Eventually, deception makes itself known. All it takes is for someone to let down their guard and admit it. But until that happens, if it happens, may be a very long time. As such, those who we suspect of evasion/deceit should be dealt with cautiously until we're in a better position to judge their motivations. If they cannot be helped or dissuaded, then the only civilized response is that they should be ignored as much as possible. In any event, whether it be error, evasion, or deceit, those who for whatever reason are supportive of evil should not be sanctioned. Their activities should not be supported except where they don't create a conflict with one's own values. If possible one should try to help them, to explain to them the root of their error, if they are so amenable. If not, then one can only walk away. At least that's the best I've been able to come up with.

There are not very many Objectivists that I know personally, but from what I've seen on the web and read of the Objectivist canon, this seems to be the best way of dealing with problems between people in today's society that I can come up with. I'd be very interested in what others may have to say about this. So please feel free to comment on this posting as you like.

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