Jul 312002

(Part 1 and Part 2.)

Someone who styles himself “Ragnar” (why, if it isn’t “Galt,” is it always “Ragnar”? why can’t I have a “Francisco” or a “Howard” or a “Hank” every once in a while?) took issue with my remarks about Objectivism and determinism as follows:

“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.

His argument is wrong, but that isn’t what concerns me here. I want to discuss the style and tone of this post, not to pick on Ragnar, but because it exemplifies certain habits of thought and discourse. It is actually far more civil than what one usually encounters from Objectivists, but the tell-tale signs are there.

To begin with the end. The last paragraph consists, in its entirety, of the reiterated accusation that I completely missed the point, totally misunderstood, read carelessly, got it wrong. This is of course very bad manners, but it gets at something central to the Objecto-universe. Ragnar’s not just saying that my argument is fallacious. He’s saying that I would never dream of making such a silly argument if I only understood Objectivism properly.

Objectivists cannot admit what is obvious to the rest of the world, that it is possible for two reasonable people to understand each other perfectly, and still disagree. To understand Objectivism is to accept Objectivism. This bland certainty finds an outlet in official doctrine in Rand’s famous assertion that there are “no conflicts of interest among rational men”; and in the fiction, most ludicrously, when Rearden gives up his mistress Dagny in Atlas Shrugged because Galt, whom he recognizes as a superior being, comes along, and they all live happily ever after together in the gulch.

Now as to the whole business about epistemological (emphasis Ragnar’s) contradictions. There are certain talismans, magic words and phrases that Objectivists use to ward off argument, the way vampire-hunters use garlic and wolfbane. Anyone who was ever argued with an Objectivist will know what I mean. “Epistemological,” which is just a fancy word for “having to do with how we know things,” is one of these. It is obvious that all contradictions are “epistemological”: since a contradiction is a mental construct what else could they possibly be? But Objectivists are sure that everyone but them disbelieves in an objective reality independent of the perceiver, when about the last philosopher to maintain such a position was Bishop Berkeley, about 300 years ago, and even he wasn’t very serious. Therefore they are apt to emphasize their belief in an objective reality with pointless qualifiers like “epistemological,” and to assail their interlocutors with remarks like “A is A” and “existence exists.” There are even monstrous coinages like “psycho-epistemology” — which means “how one thinks.”

I imagine the experience must resemble arguing with a true-blue Marxist, although I’ve never had the pleasure. You ask him a simple question, like “what is a class, anyway?” and he probably tells you all about “the principle of distribution according to need” and “determining socioeconomic bases” but never quite gets round to answering you. It’s the same thing with Objectivists. Drives me crazy.

(Update: Billy Beck comments. “Epistemological” is a fine word. But “epistemological contradiction” has eleven syllables, and “contradiction” only four.)

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