The Role of Philosophy, Part 3 - Dialog

Part 3 of a series of posts on the first chapter in Leonard Peikoff’s book "Understanding Objectivism", "The Role of Philosophy".

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 third in a series about Lecture One, “The Role of Philosophy”, in Leonard Peikoff’s book Understanding Objectivism. It is in the form of a dialogue, which is a method I have been using to explore and chew ideas.

Rationalism Taking Over a Mental Process

Adam (A): Hi.

Bob (B): Hi.

A: In the questions and answers for this chapter, Peikoff has a reply I thought was particularly interesting and worthy of discussion. He basically explains what led him to want to discuss rationalism (in the sense of an error that affects people’s mental processes) in detail (emphasis added):

I had done a chapter for my book The Ominous Parallels, many years ago. And I was very pleased with this chapter. I showed it to Miss Rand one evening, and asked her opinion of it. She read it, and she said (not exactly tactfully, but forthrightly), “I haven’t the faintest idea what you’re talking about; this is completely unintelligible.” And we looked at each other across an absolute abyss. Because, in the past, I knew whether something I did was a little shaky and not too clear. But this was really clear. This was exactly what I wanted to say. It was really right. And she wasn’t just partly confused; she thought it was completely from another dimension; she didn’t know what I was talking about. That was really the turning point as far as my grasp of the issue, because little by little it began to unravel. How was this written? From what perspective? And how was she understanding it, from what perspective? It took many, many months. And I ended up taking a thirty-page chapter and writing a two-hundred-page analysis on what was wrong with the approach of this chapter. And that was the first actual discovery (at least to my knowledge) of how rationalism takes over a mental process unknowingly, and in what ways it takes over. And then my assignment to myself came to be to fight this until I got rid of it, which, gradually, little by little, I was able to do. And so hopefully it will take less time now if you have it, because now, maybe not everything is known, but a lot more is known than ever was. So in a way, it’s an autobiographical course.

B: That is interesting. The sequence of events that Peikoff describes seems rare, at least on intellectual issues. Peikoff’s judgment about his writing being so off, and then Rand pointing this out, and then Peikoff being willing to write 6.66 pages of error analysis for each page of erroneous material — that whole chain of events seems pretty rare in the context of philosophy. You might expect that sort of thing in a business when there’s some big problem that cost a lot and they’re trying to do a post-mortem. But with philosophy, people will just stop talking to people who disagree with them too much or too forcefully, and otherwise they will “agree to disagree” (which is the sort of thing Rand wouldn’t have gone for, especially for a close associate). I think Peikoff must have had enough respect for Rand as the wise teacher/person that it helped him get over himself (in the bad, un-Objectivist sense that people mean when they talk about having an “ego”) and thus be open to such error correction. It can be especially hard to be open to that kind of error correction when you think the thing you wrote is very clear and true and reflects an honest effort to deal with some issue.

A: I agree. Peikoff must have had some honesty, rationality humility, respect for Rand, and so on, to take the approach he did. He presumably recognized that, at the very least, if Rand didn’t get it, it wasn’t a problem with Rand's general ability to read and understand complicated topics.

B: Ha! Indeed. That would be a pretty silly thing to think was the issue.

The Honesty of Lottery Players

A: A big idea in Lecture One was the importance of chewing ideas so that they become fully vivid in one’s mind. We’ve looked at some examples of chewing ideas already — for example, Peikoff talked about honesty in a later chapter. And so perhaps we could try chewing the idea of honesty some more.

B: OK.

A: So first, maybe just consider this in the abstract: is a typical person who plays the lottery dishonest, in regards to their motivation for playing the lottery?

B: Hmm. So honesty is being loyal to one’s understanding of reality - to the facts one knows or should reasonably know.

This isn’t directly answering your question yet — this is just table-setting, building a spectrum. On the one hand, I can imagine people with lottery-playing motivations that don’t involve any obvious honesty issues. For example, one could just play it as a lark/joke, with no investment in the outcome, as some sort of ironic act (“haha I’m playing the lottery lmao!”). Or one could play it as a sort of psychological experiment, to see how one reacts and if one gets caught up in it. That motivation, considered separately from any reaction one might have later, wouldn’t be dishonest.

A: Agree so far.

B: Ok. So then to consider a somewhat more complicated case, imagine someone who has the lottery as their retirement plan. On the one hand, I think that even an ordinary adult of average intelligence should know that the lottery isn’t a retirement plan. I think you have to ignore lots of standard financial advice and common sense to get to the point where you think the lottery is a retirement plan. But on the other hand, people are pretty terrible with finance, math, and statistics. They may actually not understand stuff like how moderate amounts of investment can compound over time, which would affect their perception of the value of doing that kind of investment versus spending money on the lottery. Or they may just have a low income relative to their expenses and not know how to improve that. So in despair they turn to the lottery as a “solution”. So I think this can be kind of a mixed case. Someone can be in a tough spot financially in their life, and honestly not see ways to get ahead or know how investing works and that kind of thing. And in that despair, they turn to a fantasy “solution”, and at that point it becomes dishonest, because even in their ignorance they should know that the solution doesn’t work.

A: So you don’t think people’s ignorance of finance or math, or inability to figure out how to improve their own situation, is necessarily an honesty issue, but you do think that treating the lottery as a retirement plan is an honesty issue?

B: Yeah. One thing is that it’s pretty common sensical that the lottery isn’t a retirement plan. Even if people don’t understand what odds mean exactly, they know you are very unlikely to win. They can talk with retired people and see that most of them didn’t win the lottery.

A: Quite a lot of people won the crypto “lottery”, particularly in certain subcultures.

B: Yeah but I’m thinking of the more traditional lottery. Someone fooling themselves about crypto odds is a bit of a trickier case to analyze and I’m trying to keep it somewhat simple.

A: OK.

B: So anyways I think people have some evidence available as to the lottery being a bad retirement plan, and that’s true even of someone of average intelligence, assuming they’re an adult in the current culture.

A: People can be very biased about their ability to judge gambling-related situations, though. That could go to Peikoff’s point about needing to assess the ability of people to take in evidence.

B: Maybe, but I don’t know. I think that people often are very biased about having a “feeling” that they will win, and that can skew their perceptions. On the other hand, if someone says the lottery is their retirement plan, I’m not sure the “feeling” they’re going to win issue is playing a huge role there. I think it’s more like they don’t want to deal with the reality of their situation. If they have a “feeling”, I guess that it would come after they’ve decided to try to use the lottery “plan” as a coping mechanism.

A: Like a dying person turning to cures that they know are obvious BS?

B: Yes, that’s a good comparison. And you know, you can have a certain amount of sympathy for a dying person in that kind of situation, but still, if some part of them knows the stuff is BS, or they should know, or whatever, then there’s some dishonesty there.

So let’s consider another case. Let’s consider a case where someone just likes to escape to a fantasy realm sometimes using playing the lottery as an excuse. They like to imagine all the stuff they would buy, all the debts they would pay off, et cetera. It’s kind of a release for them, a pleasant daydream. Is there dishonesty here? Assume they know they’re extremely unlikely to win.

A: One thing I would ask is, if they really know they won’t win, why are they giving the result of winning a bunch of reality in their mind, and paying attention to it, and treating it as something worth thinking about?

B: Well but we’re talking about daydreams and stuff. Fantasies. Surely not every daydream or fantasy is dishonest?

A: Not every daydream or fantasy is dishonest, but you have to assess how the daydream or fantasy is being used. For example, one could have a fantasy about something that we think is impossible, like faster-than-light travel, as part of a process of brainstorming for science fiction stories to write. No dishonesty there. Or one could even imagine oneself winning the lottery as an intentional self-assessment tool. For example, one could think about how one would spend one life if one did not have to worry about money, in order to clarify one’s goals and values, and then use that as a stepping stone for trying to make improvements to one’s life. No dishonesty there.

But if someone fantasizes about the lottery as a means for actually solving their problems, and spends time giving that fantasy a certain reality within their mind, and chooses to pay attention to that “solution” for solving their problems over other, more practical ways of addressing their problems … well, it at least raise a question of potential dishonesty to me. And it’s certainly a moral issue of some kind, whether dishonesty or not.

B: The daydreamer may not be aware of practical ways of addressing their problems, as we discussed in the context of the lottery-as-retirement-plan case.

A: And there’s an issue there, which has come up before, and which I’m not sure about myself, which is whether being really passive can involve some dishonesty, since I think a typical person in our culture knows or should know that it’s action and not passivity that solves problems. But I think that without even resolving that issue, we can agree that a typical person in our culture knows or should know that escaping to a fantasy world doesn’t solve one’s problems.

B: But are people trying to solve their problems by escaping to a fantasy world where they are a lottery winner, or just get some kind of reprieve from those problems? I’m assuming we’re talking about someone who doesn’t actually think they’re going to win the lottery.

A: I think they’re trying to play it both ways. Let me ask you this: why would escaping to a fantasy world that’s the same as the current one, except that you acquired a bunch of money through a very unlikely means, provide you relief or a reprieve, assuming that you fully and concretely understood that your fantasy isn’t going to happen with the same reality that you would see and understand that a truck is barreling towards you in the street? It’s different than someone imagining what it would be like to get kidnapped by aliens and go on madcap adventures. It’s not a fun and silly story that people are telling themselves, typically. It’s a crutch for dealing with their life. I think if you had a fully honest understanding of the lottery, you would not waste time with daydreaming about it. Most people don’t daydream about a wizard coming and fixing all their problems. That strikes them as too ridiculous and unreal. But the lottery case has some plausibly to them — much more plausibility than is warranted by an honest assessment of the likelihood of winning — and so that’s why they use it.

B: OK. I think I see the idea there. They are giving something a certain reality in their mind and thinking of it as a solution to the problems in their life, even if they are doing so in a fleeting and non-serious way. Is that dishonesty though? Are they evading knowledge they have or should have?

A: Would you say that an adult of average intelligence knows or should know that you don’t solve problems in reality & in your life by escaping to an unreal fantasy world where things get solved through extremely unlikely means? And that action and not daydreaming is what’s required to solve one’s problems.

B: Yes.

A: Well?

B: Hmm.