Jun 282002

Ayn Rand herself, oddly, had nothing to say about determinism. She asserts in many places that man has free will, that he is a being of volitional consciousness, that he has one choice, to think or not to think, etc. etc.; but I have scoured the ouevre in vain for an actual argument. She left this task to her disciples, first Nathaniel Branden and later Leonard Peikoff. Branden took a stab at it in his article for The Objectivist Newsletter called “The Contradiction of Determinism,” arguing as follows: Determinists say everything is determined. But then it’s also determined that they’re determinists! So their argument can’t be valid. QED. You think I exaggerate?

But if man believes what he has to believe, if he is not free to test his beliefs against reality and to validate or reject them — if the actions and content of his mind are determined by factors that may or may not have anything to do with reason, logic and reality — then he can never know if his conclusions are true or false. [Emphasis in original.]

Of course the contradiction is imaginary. I may be determined by my chemical makeup — and surely that is quite real — to believe certain things, but those beliefs can still be true or false, no matter how much stuff Branden puts in italics. I sympathize with free will, but not with this argument.

Fast forward thirty years. It’s 1991, Rand is ten years in the grave, and Peikoff, having had a lot of time to think about it, comes out with Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand, which is supposed to codify her thought into one relatively easy-to-digest treatise. Let’s see how he treats determinism.

When the determinist claims that man is determined, this applies to all of man’s ideas also, including his own advocacy of determinism. Given the factors operating on him, he believes, he had to become a determinist, just as his opponents had no alternative but to oppose him. How then can he know that his viewpoint is true? Are the factors that shape his brain infallible? Does he automatically follow reason and logic? Clearly not; if he did, error would be impossible to him….

If a determinist tried to assess his viewpoint as knowledge, he would have to say, in effect: “I am in control of my mind. I do have the power to decide to focus on reality. I do not merely submit spinelessly to whatever distortions happen to be decreed by some chain of forces stretching back to infinity. I am free, free to be objective, free to conclude — that I am not free.

Like any rejection of a philosophic axiom, determinism is self-refuting.

This is Branden’s argument in fancier dress. Determinism postulates that, given perfect knowledge, like Laplace’s imaginary mathematical demon, the future is predictable, down to one’s thoughts. This atomic-level supposition, true or false, in no way interferes with one’s ability to reason and to compare one’s conclusions with reality. Objectivists who accept Branden’s and Peikoff’s argument are remarkably quiescent.

I think, however, that there really is a contradiction in determinism. Consider the following thought experiment, known after its inventor as Newcomb’s Paradox: You have two boxes, A and B. A contains a thousand dollars. B contains either a million dollars or nothing. If you choose A, you get the contents of A and B. If you choose B, you get the contents of B only.

Imagine there is something — a machine, an intelligence, a mathematical demon — that can predict your choice with, say, 90% accuracy. If it predicts you choose A, it puts nothing in B. If it predicts you choose B, it puts the million in B. Which do you choose? (By the way, just so you don’t get cute, if the machine predicts you will decide by some random method like a coin flip, it also leaves B empty.)

The paradox lies in the absolutely plausible arguments for either alternative. Two accepted principles of decision theory conflict. The expected utility principle argues for Box B: if you calculate your payoff you will find it far larger if the predictor is 90%, or even 55%, accurate. But the dominance principle, that if one strategy is always better you should choose it, argues for Box A. After all, the being has already made its decision. Why not take the contents of Box B and the extra thousand dollars?

I would argue that paradoxes cannot exist and that the predictor (and therefore, determinism) is impossible.

Tomorrow I will discuss Objectivist sexual psychology, which, unlike today’s hifalutin topic, has caused a lot of real human misery.

(Update: Part 2, on sexual psychology, and Part 3, on the Objectivist style of argument, have been added.)

Related Links
An Attempted Solution to Newcomb’s Paradox: Interesting but inadequate.
Divine Foreknowledge and Newcomb’s Paradox: A useful summary by a theologian of various philosophers’ views on the subject.
The Hangman’s Paradox and Newcomb’s Paradox as Psychological Games.

  12 Responses to “What’s Wrong with Objectivism? Pt. 1, Free Will v. Determinism”

  1. Apologies if I am not digesting this correctly–I got home 12 hours ago.

    Determinism != Objectivism, correct?

    There is certainly physical causality to everything. But there is plenty of randomness/noise as well.

    Our consciousness is an emergent property of the particular organization of neurons in our brains. I view it as a lens that is calibrated by our experiences so that we can make sense of our surroundings and situation.

    Objectivism is not predicated on determinism.

  2. Objectivism, which is to say Randism, denies determinism. I too deny determinism. But my point was that the canonical arguments the Objectivists offer against determinism are very bad.

  3. Did you calculate the Sharpe ratio for the Newcomb’s Paradox problem?

  4. "I may be determined by my chemical makeup — and surely that is quite real — to believe certain things, but those beliefs can still be true or false…"

    How do you know that? You were simply determined to believe that position just as the advocate of free-will was allegedly determined to believe in volition. Reality is obviously the way it is despite the beliefs of any particular subject. That has nothing to do with the Objectivist argument. That is a metaphysical point. The Objectivist position is that determinism is guilty of an *epistemological* contradiction – namely that determinism by its very nature makes it impossible to independently validate claims including the claim that determinism is true.

    If determinism were true then all claims would be valid, i.e., determinism would be valid and so would free-will – claims that directly contradict each other. The fact that there are different, and mutually exhaustive claims, means that there was a mental process that has engaged in error. Error is only possible to a volitional being – its existence refutes the theory of determinism.

    In sum, you have completely missed the point being made. Your argument is a total misunderstanding of the Objectivist position. Please read a little more carefully next time before you criticize. (Even if you disagree with the Objectivist position, please at least get right what you are disagreeing with.)


  5. Error refutes determinism, eh? Well, I have to give Ragnar credit for consistency; this is exactly what Branden and Peikoff say too. And it is wrong — obviously, flagrantly wrong. Surely Ragnar will agree that beliefs are compatible with determinism. Then errors, which are nothing more than beliefs at odds with the way things really are, must be compatible too. Whether my particular beliefs originate in volition, chemicals or the will of God is of no moment. And the methods of checking those beliefs, like logic, are just as valid as they ever were.

  6. Again, I will reiterate that the Objectivist argument is an *epistemic* argument over knowability given determinism rather than an argument on the ontological or truth status of knowledge given determinism. This is an important distinction. If these two are blurred then it would render the anti-determinism argument inapplicable.

    If determinism is *true* then the determinist would simply believe what he had to believe given the determining factors and the volitionist would simply believe what he had to believe given the determining factors *regardless* of the truth of the matter. All either side could say is that they feel compelled to believe their position (though obviously both cannot be true). The point is that even if determinism was true, i.e., is in reality the case, the determinist wouldn’t be able to *know* it. Again, the Objectivist is not saying that in reality determinism is not the case. He is saying that if it is the case it would render all knowledge invalid, including the knowledge of determinism.

    Another way to look at it is through the model of physical causation, in particular sense perception. The senses according to Objectivism cannot err, since they are bound by the laws of physical causality. They do not have a free will choice to go astray. Whatever info they provide is valid. If determinism was true on the conceptual level then same would be true of knowledge, truly contradictory ideas would not possible.

    The fact is is that we have knowledge, and there exists mutually exclusive claims to knowledge (both of which cannot be true lest one jetison the Law of Contradiction). Determinism, if true, would prevent all knowledge as such, landing us in the quagmire of radical skepticism, which is itself self-contradictory.

    I think you will find, after consideration, that the argument that I am presenting, albeit massively condensed, is NOT the argument that you have been characterizing as the Objectivist position. I hope I have been able clarify the matter.


  7. The Objectivist argument, in stripped-down, jargon-free form, runs like this: knowledge is something that only volitional beings can have. Determinism denies volition. Therefore determinism denies knowledge. All the thrashing about epistemology vs. ontology is designed to hide the major premise, which freights the word "knowledge" with attributes that it isn’t designed, in ordinary usage, to carry. (This is a common Objectivist tactic, incidentally, most notoriously employed with the word "selfishness." But that’s an argument for another day.)

    The real question is, does knowledge presuppose volition? Certainly it is untrue, as I might have implied above, that simply believing something that happens to be the case is knowledge. We all know of cases of being right for the wrong reasons, or for no reasons at all, and knowledge is more complicated than that. I’m willing to grant that it’s quite possible to make a case that knowledge does indeed presuppose volition, although I think that’s a losing argument in the long haul. However, Objectivism never makes this case. It treats the nature of knowledge as self-evident when it is anything but, and never addresses the real issue.

  8. I think the big problem here is that you are trying to use DEDUCTIVE arguments to prove that we do not have free will. What about INDUCTIVE arguments?

    You can use deductive arguments to prove that determinism on the smallest possible scale lead to determinism at all scales. However this doesn’t mean that humans do not have consciousnesses. Within that consciousness and from that POV one needs to follow certain rules in order to arrive at the correct answer. One of those rules is to differentiate between external and internal causes.

    Furthermore, induction is really the only process capable of validating concepts and thus propositions based on those concepts. It would not work if we believed that we have an automatic process of dealing with information.

    Finally, I think what a lot of people, even Objectivists, miss is the referential nature of concepts, especially primary ones. When we say we have volition we are grouping together certain types of causes, namely internal ones. We must use measurement omission. We must classify internal actions as volition because of its source, and we must chose to ignore prior causes.

    Are circular causes possible? Well local realism is false (that’s a subject related to quantum physics) so on that basis I’d have to say yes, but only if the alternative is impossible, for if it were possible it would be in competition and there would need to be a mechanism which resolves it, and that mechanism itself would have to imply an impossible alternative. Again, I say it is, and this relates to undecidability and the fact that we are conscious – yes I am comparing human thinking to turing machines – so it all plays out in the end anyway.

  9. “The real question is, does knowledge presuppose volition? Certainly it is untrue, as I might have implied above, that simply believing something that happens to be the case is knowledge. We all know of cases of being right for the wrong reasons, or for no reasons at all”

    Neglecting however the Objectivist position is that knowledge includes within it the way it is obtained in regards to its validity.
    If you use a pair of dice to solve one plus one you may get two but throwing around random number generators is generally a poor means of cognition outside of DnD knowledge checks.

  10. You have not actually addressed the Rand-Peikoff-Branden argument on free will, Aaron. Indeed, you have ~ never ~ offered any refutation of even the part of the argument you so glibly dismiss here. I read once more your article, but, once again, I find nothing but naked assertion on your part. You have yet to demonstrate an understanding of the Objectivist argument at all, only a capacity to dismiss even that aspect of it.

    To have a truth, any truth, you must choose something: yes or no, true or false. You need not employ logic at all. That’s part of the choice. And logic takes an effort. So does mental focus. If within your thought, there is no ~ genuine ~ choice, if choice is but an illusion, as you claim, then your standards of choosing true from false, right from wrong must also be an illusion. You may be right, you may be wrong — but you can never know, as your standard of choice itself, must be illusory. The reasons why you chose one over the other must not be the full truth of it. Your reasons for employing logic, etc., must have a hidden partner, the same one that deceives you into believing that the factors you consciously considered and decided among were the factors that actually decided in your belief. You did not choose the factors that resulted in your belief, e.g., evidence. You maybe only thought so.

    Take any proposition, Hatch. You believe in natural selection, say. But why? If choice is an illusion, as you claim, then you did not ~ select ~ the correct approach, that same approach which gave you confidence of its truth. No, forces hidden from you and producing the illusion of cognitive selection are controlling what had only seemed to be a choice on your part to be logical. But it was that choice which gave you the confidence that the belief was superior, say, to some religionist’s faith in the 6 day creation in ‘Genesis’. Indeed, the entire basis for your confidence must be just as shaky as your illusory belief in that alleged choice to be logical. If the thinking required to confirm your conviction in Darwin took effort, then exactly to that degree you have reason, indeed, good evidence, to doubt its validity. If the choice to make that effort is fake, then my confidence in any of its outcomes — i.e., all of human knowledge — is just as phony.

    You have never addressed this, to my knowledge.

    In another form of this argument, they also suggest that without the capacity to select error, you could never know what you have selected is true. One can wish that logic forced itself on people, I have read you do so and I have done so myself from time to time. But there are folks with all the brains required to believe in evidence and logic who do not. It was, for example, not a lack of evidence in the O.J. Simpson case that caused its verdict. No, no one is justified in believing in God, either, and smart-enough-to-know-better people still do, anyway. It is only because I have taken the effort required by logical consideration — and only because of my logical commitment to logic itself — which maintains my atheism. Take from me my sense of HOW I CHOSE this position, and, perforce, you have robbed me of PRECISELY the basis for my confidence in it.

    This is what they were saying, Aaron, and, again, I’ve not heard you address this, not once.

    You claim that cognition is not impaired by determinism without addressing the nature of cognition, i.e., the substance of the argument Rand and her students make. You treat the argument like some purely logical puzzle missing a deductive element. Human cognition is a function of controlled discrimination. The awareness of this comes with every step of its conscious operation. This is also why all of cognition necessarily implies a choice. This is also a matter of observation, both introspective and extraspective.

    Just as you must and constantly contradict all of the “appearance” of choice that you concede to be out there, so you must contradict, first, what’s happening between your own ears, for choice resides in the very effort of thought and the very decision to focus, as anyone can observe.

    See, I don’t ~ have to ~ believe, whatever your evidence. I don’t have to even consider something, whatever the context. And I can even decide not to care — about anything. I can alter my desires themselves, just as everybody’s desires change over time, anyway. Depending on my context, hard thinking is hard work. Tell me that it’s not this work that led me to any truth, and I can therefore never tell you whether that “truth” was built on a foundation of illusory sand or the real bricks I thought I was ~ quite deliberately ~ laying.

    I’ll put it like this now: it makes no sense to give someone advice, any advice — including cognitive advice — if choice is only an illusion, as you claim. “Rules” about how to choose (that’s what a “rule” is) make no sense whatever, and are themselves illusory, of course, as well. Let me put it another way: all of psychotherapy implies that both epiphenomenalism and determinism are false. And, again, all of ethics implies choice, as Aristotle understood. If no one ever really does choose anything, then both your blame and praise are just manifestations of you falling for the illusion trap.

    I will say again: take from me my sense of HOW I CHOSE this position over its contrary, and, perforce, you have robbed me of PRECISELY ALL of the basis for my confidence in it.

    Perhaps you can see it like this: while the alleged illusion of choice covers all of my conscious activities, these also include the act of thinking itself. If choice is illusory, then so is thought, which from all conscious appearances, involves decisions on my part. Indeed, everything I consciously “do” with respect to thinking involves my effort and my choice. Every aspect of my contribution to cognition involves decision-making. If such choice and effort are an illusion, then I can have no confidence in any of their results, namely, all of thought itself, and any resulting belief. Pull out the “illusion” of choice from the process and you remove any confidence I have in an allegedly “thought through” position over some random proposition.

    Get it now?

  11. Just to be clear: even a subject so clear cut as Euclidean geometry takes (at least apparent) mental effort and choices on my part not just to discover, but merely to know. Simply reminding myself, just now, as to why I know that the angles of a triangle will add up 180 degrees took what seemed to be mental effort and selection, for example.

    And, whatever the details of my own personal mental history, it took what looked to be mental effort and selection on my part when I first learned it. As with everything else I have learned. Even considering volition and determinism right now requires apparent decision making on my part. Just as it has whenever I have considered it in the past.

    Where, Aaron, does the appearance of volition show itself, if not in every act of conscious thought? In the physical act of picking up a pencil, but not the conscious mental acts of selecting your focus, increasing the intensity of effort involved, etc.? Being capable of error, in order to know that my thinking about geometry is correct, I must know that some of those apparent choices were correct. It was upon these apparent decisions that my confidence rested. Did I fail to consider some important evidence? Did I commit some logical fallacy in putting the evidence together? All seemed to be deliberate actions on my part, and the more deliberate my thinking was, and the more conscious effort it took, the more my thinking was rigorous, the more my confidence in the outcome.


  12. First of, why introduce 90% accuracy and not a 100%?, I mean with this you deliberately introduce the change that the predictor is wrong and the chooser knows he can take a gamble. But in a deterministic universe an omniscience being can know all and therefore be correct a 100% of the time.

    Your brain, thoughts and decisions are just as much part of the universe as the boxes and ultimately driven by the laws of physics, biology and your past experiences. The omniscient predictor (with a brain the size of a planet) knows all of that and can therefore predict everything, including your reaction to his prediction and the experimental setup.


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