Rationalism, Part 2

Second post on the seventh chapter in Leonard Peikoff's book "Understanding Objectivism", "Rationalism".

Disclaimer: I’m not an expert on philosophy. I’m just a person trying to figure things out for myself, and speak for no one but myself.

This post is the second in a series about Lecture Seven, "Rationalism", in Leonard Peikoff’s book Understanding Objectivism. I’ll go through the chapter, summarizing and adding my own thoughts, comments, or questions.

Last time I considered Peikoff's first two "symptoms" of rationalism and went off on a long tangent about people having trouble with intellectual complexity. Peikoff's first two "symptoms" of rationalism were:

  1. Ideas above reality.
  2. Deduction as the basic method of knowledge.

Peikoff on Handling Intellectual Complexity: Christmas Example

Continuing on the theme of being unable to handle intellectual complexity, Peikoff says he occasionally gets letters from Objectivist rationalists criticizing Objectivists for celebrating Christmas. The analysis of the rationalists is basically that Christmas = celebrating altruism, and so it's the opposite of Objectivism, and so it's immoral. Peikoff (correctly) argues that Christmas has lots of different attributes like gift-giving, celebrating goodwill, having a tree, etc., and is a much more complex tradition than something that can be reduced to altruism. But the rationalist zeroes in on the thing he doesn't like and just rejects the rest on that basis.

Peikoff says rationalists are often determinists cuz they want to deduce everything from the preceding step and so on up the chain of reasoning, and so there's often no choice in their worldview. He says Spinoza is a good example of this.

Conceptual Self-Evidencies

Peikoff's third symptom of rationalism is that "the starting points are purely conceptual self-evidencies." Unlike for an Objectivist, who starts with supposedly self-evident stuff on the perceptual level, the rationalist starts with self-evident stuff on the conceptual level. And the standard is that the idea is something that seems obvious or irrefutable in your mind. It's not based on looking carefully at reality but more on how intuitively obvious the idea seems to you.

Rand had an example that was "Man has only two eyes, so he should see only two things, one with each eye.” And you can see how much that clashes with reality. There's no indication that there's any particular per-eye limit on the number of things you can see, much less that it's one thing per eye. Even people with only one working eye can see many things with their one working eye. So the idea is trivially refutable if you look at reality. But it's not actually based on reality. Anyways Rand says that you could have two schools developing from this idea. One school would say that the proposition is true and that everything we see beyond two things is an illusion. The other school would say that the illusion idea is obvious and that we can of course see many things, but that's only because of all the hidden eyes we have. In either case, they've accepted the premise that there's a 1-to-1 relationship between eyes and the number of things you can see, and it's not clear why other than it strikes them as intuitively correct for some reason. But there are tons of counterexamples of the idea and so you need to ignore reality to continue to subscribe to it.

Peikoff turns back to a Christmas-related example. He says that the rationalists (presumably Objectivists again) who denounce Christmas often have as an axiom that “A holiday is a celebration of the exceptional.” And this ignores counterexamples like Mother's Day or Labor Day. I note that a theme here is that rationalists ignore counterexamples to whatever their pet theory/hypothesis/premise/axiom is.

Peikoff says that rationalists tend towards authoritarianism because they don't get their axioms from reality. I can see the issue there. If reality is your starting point, then you can refer to or go back to reality when there is a disagreement. But if your starting point is whatever makes sense to you in your own mind, then that's moving the starting point from an objective to a subjective location, and establishing that subjective location as the final arbiter. It's moving from a focus on "what's true" to a focus on "what makes sense to me."

Peikoff says rationalists love definitions and treat them as unconnected to reality. Since rationalists don't get definitions from observation, they can only get them from usage, and so society becomes an authority on what various concepts mean, which connects with the authoritarianism idea just discussed.

Peikoff talks about St. Anselm, who had an "ontological argument" for the existence of God. Peikoff says it basically was this: define God as "the being than which nothing greater can be conceived." Now imagine that he didn't exist. We can imagine a greater being than a non-existent God (namely, an existent God), and so, given our definition, God must exist. This is basically treating definitions as having the power to create things in reality and is totally disconnected from any observations. Also, I think I could conceive, in some sense, of some sort of multiversal God that exists across universes -- not in any detailed way that would make sense according to physics or anything, but probably enough to write a short story about it. I think most people's conception of God is single-universe. So does that mean the multiversal God must exist and not the single-universe God? It's just castles in the sky silliness.

Peikoff connects the Greek idea of monism to rationalism. He says that monism is the idea that it's ideal to have only one starting point. Plato had the "Form of the Good" as a starting point, and the medievals had God. Some Objectivists don't like that there are three starting axioms in Objectivism and would prefer it if there were just one.

Certainty with Omniscience

Peikoff's fourth point is what he calls "certainty with omniscience." Rationalists want to be certain and have the answer. This leads to them feeling a need to treat every topic comprehensively and not being able to delimit effectively. They have trouble leaving stuff out. They're afraid that if there's any point that they're not super clear on, their certainty is destroyed.

It’s the idea, therefore, that you must know everything to really know anything about a given issue, and that’s the name for point four: “certainty with omniscience.”

Peikoff says this approach is necessitated by the fact that the rationalist's abstractions are detached from reality. The rationalist thinks that their concepts are vague/empty. So they feel like they have to address that somehow. And so they try to cover every little detail. So they can't delimit.

Peikoff uses honesty as an example. Elsewhere in the book the principle of honesty was discussed and chewed with some examples and Peikoff says we did a good enough job to get the idea. A rationalist wouldn't be happy with that approach and would feel the need to address each case (white lies, social lies, doctor and patient). Peikoff says the right approach is to start with simple examples and grasp the principle, and then use the understanding of the principle to work out harder stuff. But the rationalist can't do that because his knowledge is floating. I guess that the rationalist's knowledge is unchewed and not based on principles connected to reality, so he doesn't have a flexible and principled understanding of stuff that he can use to apply to multiple cases. So then the rationalist tries to address more and more concrete cases. And Peikoff says the rationalist's knowledge gets more and more disintegrated. He tries to address special cases like "white lies for close relatives" and "used-car salesmen with Chevrolets". Peikoff calls this process "compartmentalization", or "the deliberate separation of one item of knowledge from all others, and particularly from wider abstractions that could explain or clarify."

I think that people's knowledge is often organized in this compartmentalized manner in various ways – it's not just a rationalist problem. For example, the standard way that many people learn mathematics or grammar is as a series of disconnected algorithms and edicts that one follows without reference to broader principles and concepts. The people that actually do well in those subjects manage to do so to the extent that they do not embrace that sort of approach; such people actually have a principled and conceptual understanding of those topics. But most people don't and eventually hit a "wall", get overwhelmed by the complexity of their pile of disconnected ideas, and give up pursuing the topic.

Peikoff gives an example of compartmentalization that is an oblique reference to an actual conversation Ayn Rand had with someone. Peikoff says that someone might see, in a concrete way, how government laws ruin, say, the oil industry. But then they are not sure why government laws are bad in other fields. You say “Controls as such create destruction in any industry, whether it’s oil or medicine or banking or whichever." But they're not convinced. They don't have a principled understanding that encompasses the idea of "controls" and puts them all under one unit. So they treat the oil industry as one special case and the medical industry as another special case. That's what a lot of this aspect of rationalism and compartmentalization seems to consist of: lacking flexible principles and thus trying to make special cases out of everything.

To be continued...