Thursday, August 21, 2008

Objections from an Eminent Naturalist

Yesterday, I wrote about differences in the descriptions of Naturalism, differences described both by Naturalists themselves, and by non-naturalists trying to drive a "wedge" between the various factions of Naturalists. (I failed to use the word "wedge," although I did refer to it in my 5-part series on "Secularity." 8.11-8.16.08. This wedge "is a political and social action plan authored by the Discovery Institute, the hub of the intelligent design movement," according to Wikipedia. More on this tomorrow.)

But yesterday I used a quote from the Stanford Enclyclopedia of Philosophy, which in part read that various contemporary philosophers "interpret ‘naturalism’ differently," that "‘naturalism’ is [ ] a positive term in philosophical circles—few active philosophers nowadays are happy to announce themselves as ‘non-naturalists’," and that "Those philosophers with relatively weak naturalist commitments are inclined to understand ‘naturalism’ in a unrestrictive way..."

One of those who work with a less "restricted" view of naturalism than does this Academy is Tom Clark of Naturalism.Org and The Center for Naturalism , which has a prestigious Advisory Board including Daniel Dennet and Susan Blackmore among thirteen listed, as well as a long list of "Allies of Naturalism," and a list just as long of "Contributors to the CFN qualifying as Allies of Naturalism (and wanting to be listed as such)." Some of my favorties are among them, including Julian Baggini, whose book, "The Philosopher's Toolkit" is one of my favorite quick reference books. Baginni is the co-founder of "The Philosophers' Magazine"

Now, none of this is relative to what comes next, but it was important for the reader to understand that Nat.Org and CFN.Org are well-known and much more established than is this Academy or its blog. We are not even toddlers yet, let alone walking among the "adults" in this field.

But Tom and I have been communicating, and it seems that some of that "unrestrictive" nature in the science comes out when I read Smith's work and he reads mine! It has led to some points of interest for both of us.

"I’m wondering about your prominent link," Tom wrote me, "to the Ayn Rand Institute on your blog. They strike me as being pretty irrational when it comes to ideas about the self and free will, and it seems to me this irrationality supports a morally objectionable radical individualism, see my critique here. "

It was "Part 4" of a series of very short pieces which together go by the name of "Libertarianism and the Myth of Radical Autonomy." I'm not a big fan of Libertarianism, not since I read Ayn Rand's scathing critique of it as having forgotten its epistemic roots, shooting only for the metaphysics, and shooting from the hip without regard for means, ways, and ultimate ends.

I don't know how much of the Party has come around to Rand's way of thinking to amend their ways by referencing the philosophical tenets from which the Party ought to have been conceived. Their ends are proper and all in the advancement of freedom, but at what costs, asked Rand, when the epistemic ends have been ignored or forgotten?

I clicked on the "here" link, only to find a piece I had read some time ago and forgotten about in the meantime. So I re-read it, made notes of my objections to his objections, and wrote back to him.

"Dear Tom: I can see your problem with Objectivism. I have encountered it many times. I don't often have the opportunity to address it."

Part of Tom's objection to Rand's firm reliance on the concept of "free will" was addressed this way: "...there’s no way to square Objectivism’s ostensible commitment to scientific objectivity, reason, and anti-supernaturalism with the idea of a self-made soul."

I wrote in return, "Where Rand says, 'As man is a being of self-made wealth, so he is a being of self-made soul," she most definitely does not mean that we create our soul as we might create another foot, both of which are impossible.

"In the same way that the mind is said to be tabula rasa at birth, so is the soul. The soul being self-made comes from this:

'Since man has no automatic knowledge, he can have no automatic values; since he has no innate ideas, he can have no innate value judgments. [ ]
"Man is born with an emotional mechanism, just as he is born with a cognitive mechanism; but, at birth, both are "tabula rasa." It is man's cognitive faculty, his mind, that determines the content of both.' The Virtue of Selfishness


'Long before he is old enough to grasp such a concept as metaphysics, man makes choices, forms value-judgments, experiences emotions and acquires a certain implicit view of life. Every choice and value-judgment implies some estimate of himself and of the world around him—most particularly, of his capacity to deal with the world. He may draw conscious conclusions, which may be true or false; or he may remain mentally passive and merely react to events (i.e., merely feel). Whatever the case may be, his subconscious mechanism sums up his psychological activities, integrating his conclusions, reactions or evasions into an emotional sum that establishes a habitual pattern and becomes his automatic response to the world around him. What began as a series of single, discrete conclusions (or evasions) about his own particular problems, becomes a generalized feeling about existence, an implicit metaphysics with the compelling motivational power of a constant, basic emotion—an emotion which is part of all his other emotions and underlies all his experiences. This is a sense of life. [ ]
'It is only those values which he regards or grows to regard as "important," those which represent his implicit view of reality, that remain in a man's subconscious and form his sense of life.'
The Romantic Manifesto

"It is in this manner [I wrote,] that is the mechanism for the "self-making" of the soul."

Part of Tom's criticism of what he calls "radical autonomy" in Rand's concept of the self-made soul was this:

"Science shows that individuals in all their aspects and capacities are fully a function of their environmental and biological determinants, not literally self-made. True, once we become autonomous, rational agents, it’s usually our own desires that determine our choices, including some choices that may influence our very character and values." [italics added]

My reply to that: "A man does not have to live with the education about society that he picks up from his family and friends; he can learn to live better if need be. In the same way, using your virtues to become a better person, to acknowledge the affairs of others when to do so is in one's interests, in short, to become a stronger and more virtuous character with an integrity that is better than before, is how a man makes his own soul.

"Or he leaves it to chance. He remains mentally passive and merely reactive, accepting his automatized reactions as if they were not subject to question."

These differences between Tom's assessment and mine of Rand's free will are major stumbling blocks for the many critics of Objectivism. I'm not certain if these criticisms come from casual readings of her material, or from something inherent in Rand's method of writing. I know that when I had such questions of her philosophy I could always find the answer in something else she wrote, as if she had picked up on her own thoughts there and addressed them here in realtionship to the current topic here on which she was writing about.

Now, perhaps I am mis-readind Tom, when I infer his inclination to believe that somehow Rand actually meant that "self-made soul" was in the same fashion as "self-made wealth," that somehow, just as a person can begin penniless and create a fortune he can begin without a soul and somehow fashion it from this or that and put it into his conscience or into his heart. It is difficult for me to believe that anyone could read Rand's words and take them that way.

But straightening out such misconceptions is what the free exchange of ideas is about, and I'm grateful to Tom in this case for showing me in just what fashion Rand can be mis-read. The rest of Tom's paragraph backs up his reading of Rand. (I won't call his a "mis-reading." We are all free to understand what others write and say in our own fashion, and it may be that after my letter to him he is unmoved to change his interpretation of what he has read.)

But his interpretation in Part 4 into the subject of "radical" free will goes much deeper:

"But there are two errors here," he writes, "in addition to thinking we’re ultimately self-made. One is to suppose that in empirical fact we are merely self-interested creatures. But we aren’t; there are many altruistic bones in our body.[2] Second, it’s to commit the naturalistic fallacy of arguing that if we are selfish by nature, that means we should be selfish. But there is no direct implication from a natural is to an ethical ought."

Until then, I had no idea that anyone thought of this as either an "ethical ought" or as a "naturalistic fallacy." Given that there are so many widely varying descriptions of Naturalism, I am hardly convinced that all Naturalists accept this "ought." I, for one, have never accepted it, and I'm a life-long Randian, at least, since high school some 36 years ago.

"On the subject of our 'altruistic bones,'" I replied, "I think Rand was much more aggressive in her definition of 'altruism,' [than you may be,] accepting [Auguste] Comte at his word."

I pasted a definition from the "Dictionary of Philosophy," Runes, 1942, which attributed the origination of the word altruism to Comte, and said in part:
"For Comte Altruism meant the discipline and eradication of self-centered desire, and a life devoted to the good of others; more particularly, selfless love and devotion to Society. In brief, it involved the self-abnegating love of Catholic Christianity redirected towards Humanity conceived as an ideal unity. As thus understood, altruism involves a conscious opposition not only to egoism (whether understood as excessive or moderate self-love), but also to the formal or theological pursuit of charity and to the atomic or individualistic social philosophy of 17th-18th century liberalism, of utilitarianism, and of French Ideology. "
[Wilbur Long]

"By this standard," I wrote in my email, "even your own pursuit of charity seems out of the question as a topic of debate, or it may apply [only] to Rand's own thinking: she never said the question was, 'Should men ignore the plight of those in need?' She always maintained that the proper question was, 'Do you have the right to refuse to help?' to which Comte's altruism would say no to."

Now, in a previous email convo, Tom and I discussed his humanist approach to Naturalism, because, as is the case with many of the various "versions" of Naturalism as hinted at by in yesterday's essay, I could not comprehend where humanism of even a "soft" form of altruism fit into any concept of the science of Naturalism. When I questioned him about this, he replied:

"If you read the Guide to Naturalism and the Q&A, that will be a start in understanding where the progressive, humanistic implications come from in this version of naturalism. Others who have seen these implications (Spinoza, Darwin, Einstein) are quoted here. There are several contemporary philosophers that also take this view, among them Derk Pereboom, Tamler Sommers, Joshua Greene and Bruce Waller."

Again, I had no idea. I've been walking around in a world in which I believed Naturalism was the opposite of Creationism or its earlier incarnations. I didn't know that "progressive humanism" was attached to it by anyone, let alone by so many.

"To the question of are we 'morally required to pursue our self-interest?'," I continued, "it begs the next question: What is our best-interest?

"If my best interest is in helping to prevent my town from being flooded, I'm going to be shoulder to shoulder with everyone else who is filling sandbags. If my self-interest is in eliminating illiteracy--if only so more people can read my works, then I will be helping illiterate people to learn to read.

"But 'to commit the naturalistic fallacy of arguing that if we are selfish by nature, that means we should be selfish,' is the definition of 'logical' egoism, not 'rational' egoism.
See ," I said. I am not, at this point, certain whether or not Tom knew there was a difference. Perhaps that was as much news to him as the "progressive humanism" was to me. I highly doubt that many of Rand's admirers or detractors are aware of the various "versions" of egoism.

"If," I wrote, "your logic is a reaction to the philosophy of Rand and other's, I understand the reaction. I began reading Rand in 1973, and often made the same mistakes of assumption I believe you are making. I had to read and re-read many other Rand passages to come to an understanding of how compassionate she could really be.

"Oddly enough, my post today, [8.19.08 ], is titled 'Who is John Galt: A Naturalist's Letter to a Critic,' and it addresses many of these concerns of whether or not Rand had any compassion or capacity for emotion."
Curtis Edward Clark

Tom's short, simpl reply was, "Ok, many thanks for these clarifications, most interesting. It would be nice if all Rand’s acolytes examined her philosophy as assiduously as do you, ending up with more nuanced conclusions about the legitimacy of compassion and limits of egoism."

Well, it is my desire that Rand is not taken to be such a harsh philsopher than anyone could mistake her writings for anything less than "compassionate." Her entire philosophy presupposed that if one was objective enough in his/her dealings with other people and the world at large, that those who deserved compassion would get it as a result of the rational egoism of him/her who was dealing with the world; and that those who were egotistic or altruistic or tyrannical would come to a just end, or find their way like Pilgrim did in his walk of Progress, and as I have been finding my way among the many various factions of Naturalism.

I consider Tom Clark to be an eminent Naturalist. He has his objections to egoism, believing al egoism to be the same, as I once believed all Naturalism to be the same.

I can say that the compassion of my Objectivism would not allow me to help a person in dire and immediate need to save his life. But my compassion does not always apply to those who will not help themselves. I don't know yet how far Tom Clark's compassion goes. I have yet to read most of those links he provided me with. I certainly intend to read them all.

To be an "informed' Naturalist, one must know all of the objections made by those with eminent power to defeat one's own principles in argument, and understand how to prevent one's justifications from such defeat.

Maybe after I read all the links, I will happily discover that Tom and his famous associates and I are more or less on the same page. Until then, I can only confess to remaining confused as to how anyone can misread the rationality and compassion of Rand. When I want to meditate and immerse my sense of self and of the compassion Rand saw was capable of being brought forth by men, I simply take a few minutes and read and read and re-read Chapters 11 and 12 (11 especially) from "Anthem," which in part reads:

" earn my love, my brothers must do more than to have been born. I do not grant my love without reason, nor to any chance passer-by who may wish to claim it. I honor men with my love. But honor is a thing to be earned.
"I shall choose friends among men, but neither slaves nor masters. And I shall choose only such as please me, and them I shall love and respect, but neither command nor obey. And we shall join our hands when we wish, or walk alone when we so desire. For in the temple of his spirit, each man is alone. Let each man keep his temple untouched and undefiled. Then let him join hands with others if he wishes, but only beyond his holy threshold.
"The word "We" is as lime poured over men, which sets and hardens to stone, and crushes all beneath it, and that which is white and that which is black are lost equally in the grey of it. It is the word by which the depraved steal the virtue of the good, by which the weak steal the might of the strong, by which the fools steal the wisdom of the sages.
"I know not if this earth on which I stand is the core of the universe or if it is but a speck of dust lost in eternity. I know not and I care not. For I know what happiness is possible to me on earth. And my happiness needs no higher aim to vindicate it. My happiness is not the means to any end. It is the end. It is its own goal. It is its own purpose."

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