Why Epistemology is Important

The following was presented by Glenn Jorgensen at the November 2015 HOS meeting.

Why do people support bad political policies? The anti-trust laws, Obamacare, Objectivists for Ron Paul: these are just a few examples of the many destructive policies advocated by people who claim to be defenders of freedom. The answer can be found in epistemology.

As Objectivists we know that reason is man’s only means of acquiring knowledge and his fundamental means of survival, and we know that individualism and freedom depend on reason. But if you want to defend freedom, it’s not enough to say “I only accept reason and therefore man’s mind must be left free, and capitalism is the only proper social system”. If you say this to someone who’s not an objectivist they might respond with something like, “Whose reason determines what is proper?” Or “that may be true for you but not for me”.

Statements like this are a consequence of a certain view of man’s ability to acquire knowledge. In fact, Ayn Rand once wrote that “there is only one fundamental issue in philosophy – the cognitive efficacy of man’s mind.” And, in summing up the essence of the post renaissance philosophy she said the one consistent line was a “concerted attack on man’s conceptual faculty.” The defenders of reason could not defend a rational and objective view of concepts. This talk is going to focus on the epistemology underlying the ideas accepted in today’s politics and briefly outline the view of concepts at the base of this epistemology. Then I’ll summarize what the alternate is.

The Leftists
Let’s start by looking at the political left. It’s not hard to see that socialism has failed miserably in all its variants. The atrocities perpetrated by Soviet Russia, by Nazi Germany, by communist China are a matter of record. In addition the economic records of these societies are equally dismal. In the mixed economies of the west the negative effects of ever increasing government intervention over the last century or more are easy to see. In the economic sphere the manipulation of interest rates has increased the amplitude of the boom bust cycles; abandoning the gold standard caused the massive inflation of the last several decades; the heavy regulation of the banks combined with the government’s long term goal to make everyone a homeowner led to the sub-prime mortgage crisis in 2008; and the welfare policies have created a massive government debt– just to name a few.

Socialized medicine has been a failure regardless of where it’s been practiced – whether in Canada, England, Sweden, etc. The increased cost to the government has produced cut backs that result in long waiting periods for critical surgery – so in effect people become prisoners of pain while waiting for treatment. It results in a shortage of specialists so that often treatment is provided by a general practitioner when a specialist is required. For some diseases it is bureaucrats that decide what type of treatment patients should receive, because they legislate against the more expensive treatments.

But despite the disastrous effects of their policies they continue to push for more government control. Why? Why can’t they see that their policies are leading to the opposite of their alleged goals? When these effects are pointed out to them, their typical response amounts to “just because it happened there and then, doesn’t mean it will happen here and now.” Where does this concrete bound, unprincipled attitude come from? From their fundamental epistemology. They believe that there are no firm principles to guide man, and therefore that knowledge is impossible. They think that truth is determined by consensus. In other words they are pragmatists, which is the rejection of principles on principle. Pragmatism is the result of subjectivism. One result of this policy is that they reject the principle of individual rights, and they treat rights as concrete bound entitlements. They claim that different groups of people have a different set of rights from everyone else – for example consumer rights, gay rights, etc.

Because of their pragmatism, they don’t look for causes when they see the negative effects of their policies. They simply try different controls and hope they “work”. To understand that their policies were the cause of the negative effects would require a principled approach.

Since truth is determined by consensus their ethical viewpoint is that society should decide what is right and wrong – and that the leaders of society have a right to force people to comply with these moral edicts. Therefore altruism is the essence of their ethics, and any freedoms that individuals might enjoy are doled out by the government as favors, not rights.

The Conservatives
Now let’s turn to the conservatives. The conservatives claim to be advocates of freedom and limited government, but they advocate censorship, they advocate control of people’s sexual activities, they want to control man’s moral activities. They don’t understand that freedom is founded on individual rights and like the leftists; they ignore the nature of rights.

One example is their views on immigration. They are not out rightly opposed to immigration, but only against what they call illegal immigration. Immigrants should stand in line and go through a process, but they ignore the nature of the process – the fact that the criteria for immigration is not based on the individual right of the immigrant to choose the country he wants to live in, but on a set of arbitrary conditions that must be met. For instance, immigration is largely governed by quotas for each nation, and if someone has skills that Americans don’t, they get preference.

Another example is their opposition to abortion and birth control. They don’t recognize the right of a woman to the functions of her own body.

What is the source of the conservative view? Religion. And religion is founded on faith – the belief that knowledge is passively imparted on us through revelation or intuition, which is intrincisism. Principles, to the intrinsicist, are not defined by identifying common characteristics among various instances in reality, but are arbitrary commandments emanating from a supernatural dimension. Since reason and reality are out, these so-called principles become out of context absolutes.

But if you think about it, the way these absolutes are derived are subjective. There is no such thing as revelation or intuition and they reject the processing of data from reality by a rational process; in other words they reject objectivity. So there is no objective justification for the alleged knowledge that is passively imparted in the mind of an intrinsicist, and the only justification for these beliefs is a feeling that they are right. As an example, here’s a quote from Paul Ryan: “We have a deep attachment and enduring faith in the constitution and the principles of freedom that were given to us by our founding fathers. We feel them in our bones precisely because they are natural to all human beings.”

Conservatives like to make claims like this and then ignore those who clearly don’t value freedom, such as Islamists and communists, whose epistemological method is the same. The conservative viewpoints on political issues end up being un-principled. As a result pragmatism rules their political stances. Observe that the conservatives have long since abandoned advocating a free market. Since statism in one form or another is all that is advocated today, they refuse to take a principled stance against government controls. They pay lip service to freedom but end up compromising in order to get elected.

Donald Trump’s stance on environmentalism is a case in point. He has been attacked for alleged “environmental crimes” related to his development of golf courses, but in his responses he doesn’t stand up for property rights; instead he claims he has a good environmental record and he partnered with environmentalists when undertaking his projects.

As to the ethical viewpoint of the conservatives, altruism naturally follows from their epistemology of faith. Man must comply with the commandments from God; he must set aside personal values and sacrifice for his fellow men.

Now let’s turn to the libertarians. The libertarians claim to support freedom but they oppose copyrights and patents, for example. They claim these are coercive in that the government uses force to prevent people from using the ideas and inventions of others for personal gain. They claim that copyrights and patents prohibit you from using your property as you choose. Since you hold an idea or the design of a previously invented product in your mind, it is now your property according to libertarians, even though someone else first discovered it. Preventing you from using it, even for profit, becomes a violation of your right to that property. For example, if you purchase a book, the copyright prevents you from making and selling copies of that book. Libertarians contend that this violates your property rights in the book.

The Libertarians consider politics to be a primary. They consider freedom to be an out of context absolute, and their anti-coercion policy to be an absolute. They welcome anyone who is opposed to government in some way. Since they consider freedom to be an absolute they believe everyone should be allowed to do whatever he feels like doing. Thus reason is rejected and truth is determined by whim. As you can see, principles are not upheld in this viewpoint and therefore they end in pragmatism just like the liberals and conservatives.

And because whim rules in the libertarian world view, rights become subjective and there is no objective way of determining how force should be used. So they inevitably end up endorsing the use of force against others. Advocating the initiation of force against others necessarily means the rejection of the rights of those others; in effect those others become sacrificial animals. So the implicit ethical code underlying libertarianism is still altruism.

What unites all these views?

So we’ve seen that while on the surface the political views of leftists, conservatives, and libertarians appear to be different, they are united by fundamentals. Consequently they explicitly or implicitly accept some form of statism in politics, and altruism in ethics. Their epistemology is an open rejection of reason that has led to subjectivism. They only differ on whose consciousness determines the truth – societies, God’s or one’s own. And their subjectivism in theory leads to pragmatism in action.

Concepts – The Base of Epistemology
But what is at the base of these epistemological ideas? The rejection of reason, whether it’s the conservative’s acceptance of faith, or the liberal’s belief that knowledge is impossible, or the libertarian whim worship; all these ultimately rest on an incorrect theory of concepts.

All knowledge is in terms of concepts. But when men first started philosophizing in ancient Greece, they didn’t automatically know how to properly use their capacity to form concepts. Concepts don’t exist in external reality; they only exist in the consciousness of a human being. So what do they refer to – do they correspond to something in reality? If not, man’s knowledge does not reflect reality. To use Ayn Rand’s example; When we refer to three persons as men what do we designate by that term? All three men differ in every respect and may not possess any identical characteristic. Where is the “manness” in men? This problem is even more obvious for higher level concepts such as “honesty”, “rights”, “politics.” There are no directly perceivable referents in reality for these. So the central epistemological question is by what means are concepts connected to perceptual concretes?

Two Theories of Concepts
Fundamentally, there were two theories of concepts that have developed in western history and I’ll summarize them briefly. Both of these theories have extreme and moderate versions. The first is the Realist theory, the source of which is Plato. Aristotle is the alleged source of the moderate Realist position. I say alleged because Harry Binswanger notes there is a study recently that show Aristotle’s actual theory of concepts is closer to the objective view than originally thought.

The second theory is the Nominalist view of concepts. The Nominalists became popular after Kant and there are several people associated with them, Wittgenstein being one of them.

The Realist Theory
The assumption underlying Realism is the belief that a concept, to be valid, must be like a percept; an awareness of a perceivable thing in reality. Accordingly, the Extreme Realists claim a concept is a metaphysical universal – a non-specific element that exists in every member of a class. This element is grasped directly by some non-sensory intuition or insight. These universals, according to Plato, inhabit an unperceivable transcendent “world of forms”. In this world of non-material forms there is one perfect form corresponding to each of the concepts we hold. There is the “Form of Tree”, the “Form of Man”, the “Form of Justice”, etc. And the concretes that we perceive in reality are only imperfect reflections of these forms. Plato considered the “Forms” to be more real than the concretes of the physical world. Plato agreed with Socrates who said “he who sees with his eyes is blind”.

Moderate Realism holds that the universals don’t exist in a transcendent world but exist as aspects in perceptual concretes. So the moderates in a sense take Plato’s “Forms” and put them into the concretes of the physical world. All concretes, according to this theory, are mixtures of particular and universal elements. The universal element is a non-specific attribute that is common to all concretes in a given class, and the particular elements are the ones that differ among these concretes. So for example all men have this non-specific attribute called “manness”, and the differences in men are the unique particulars that make up his body and his consciousness. In order to grasp this non-specific attribute any differences are disregarded and only the “blurry” universal remains. So abstraction in this theory becomes a subtractive process – any differences, however minor, are stripped away in forming the concept.

Both variants of realism hold that concepts reflect metaphysical universals found in the external world – either the “world of forms” in a supernatural dimension, or locked inside the concretes of this world. That’s why the realist position is referred to as an intrinsic theory of concepts.

Error in Realism
The basic error in Realism is the separation of the two axiomatic concepts of existence and identity. Every entity that exists has a specific identity. The notion that non-specific entities exist in the external world implies something in reality is non-absolute or “blurry”. In fact, there are no non-specific properties in existence. So the moderate realist notion of subtracting out differences among concretes to get to this non-specific property actually ends with …nothing. Every feature of two given men for instance would differ to a degree, so stripping away all features that are not identical wouldn’t leave you with the abstraction “manness” – it would leave you with nothing in common between the two.

Consequence of Realism
So what are the consequences of Realism? Plato’s system of concepts as otherworldly entities led to whole Christian tradition of mysticism and altruism. Moderate realism, even with intrinsicism at its base ultimately leads to – subjectivism. When the moderate realists say the unique differences in similar concretes should be stripped away to leave the essence, there is no way to determine which differences to subtract away and which attribute should be the “blurry” universal – in other words there is no way to determine objectively what the essence of an entity is. For example how do you determine if a fetus a human being? Is manness present in the fetus? Should we consider differences like the fetus is in the mother’s body whereas other humans are biological independent, or whether it’s breathing or not, etc.?

Since there is no way to determine what characteristics of a concrete should be used to form a concept, it comes down to “intuiting” the essence. But who’s “intuition” determines the essence of a concept? There is no way to objectively resolve differences of opinion, so it comes down to a matter of feeling? So the intricisism ends up leading to subjectivism.

Realists take the non-specific generality that exists only in man’s mind and claim it’s a “universal” existing in the external world. As a result as Rand points out, they are “assuming that reality must conform to the content of consciousness, not the other way around – on the premise that the presence of any notion in man’s mind proves the existence of a corresponding referent in reality.”

The Nominalist Theory
The problems with Realism resulted in the nominalist view of concepts. The nominalists accepted the claim of the realists that concepts would require pre-packaged universals in reality, but the problem they say is that these don’t exist. So they concluded that there is no objective basis for concepts, and therefore concepts are nothing but words.

Just as with realism, there are extreme nominalists and moderate nominalists. The extreme nominalists go so far as to say that there is nothing in common with any concretes in reality and it’s just a miracle that we apply the same word to a similar concrete encountered previously. For example, they claim it’s a miracle that two people would apply the word “blue” to the next blueberry they see. Harry Binswanger correctly identifies this as a lunatic theory.

The moderate nominalists hold that the referents of a given concept don’t share a universal, but are still vaguely similar and this makes it convenient to refer to them with the same word. But they treat this similarity as a perceptual given and don’t feel the need for any further analysis. As a result the objective validity of concepts can’t be defended. How similar do the concretes have to be before they are considered to be examples of the same concept? The nominalist answer is that the boundaries of concepts are set arbitrarily by tradition, or by simple stipulation. It becomes a matter of consensus – if enough people believe it, it must be true.

And because they see no need for analysis beyond the perceptual level, they cannot identify the essence of a concrete. As a result they are also unable to answer which similarities should be used to classify concretes.

Consequence of Nominalism
You can see that the result of Nominalism has to be subjectivism. How concepts are formed reduces to a matter of feeling. This is especially destructive when dealing with higher level abstractions. For example, one person feels that aborting a fetus is the same as killing an innocent person and calls it murder, another claims its protecting a woman’s right to functions of her body. Which one is correct? Another example is someone who equates big business with big government and therefore claims both are equally undesirable, while another identifies the use of force vs producing values as distinguishing the two. Which one is correct? The nominalists can’t answer that question.

Nominalism has to reject all principles on principle. The nominalist viewpoint that concretes can be grouped by perceptual similarities only with no further analysis means a statement like “all A’s are B” can’t be known to be true. Each A is unique and each B is unique, so no fact about one instance of A is necessarily true for another instance of A, according to Nominalism. So forming generalizations (i.e. induction) is invalid. A generalization would require the identification of essential characteristics among concretes and therefore recognition that different units of the same concept are interchangeable. Only then could you generalize from one unit to another.

Effect on Science
I’ve been talking primarily of the political and ethical consequences of a wrong epistemology but epistemology affects all fields. In the late nineteenth century Nominalism spawned Logical Positivism which redefined the goal of science. According to this theory, scientists should not be concerned with the nature of entities since we have no direct awareness of these entities, but only subjective appearances. Thus science should be limited to describing regularities in the behavior of these appearances, but should not try to find causal connections among entities because any such connections are unknowable. In other words, if you can’t see it directly, it’s not there or it’s unknowable.

As an example of this attitude, a prominent scientist named Thomas Kuhn divided scientists into two types. The creators of new paradigms, which are scientific theories viewed as subjective constructs, and the “normal” scientists who adopt paradigms on the basis of authority. He states: “…the scientist must have faith that the new paradigm will succeed with the many large problems that confront it, knowing that the old paradigm has failed with a few. A decision of that kind can only be made on faith.”

I can’t talk about the negative impacts of a bad epistemology without mentioning Immanuel Kant. Kant’s philosophy is the archetypical example of subjectivism. Implicit in the fact that man can form concepts is that consciousness has identity. Unlike animals, whose consciousness operates on the perceptual level, our conceptual consciousness allows us to abstract, to identify similarities, to differentiate and integrate, in other words to reason.

But Kant used this fact in his attempt to invalidate man’s conceptual faculty. Kant said that because consciousness has identity, it is a distorting mechanism that cannot perceive real reality. The implication being that only an ineffable consciousness is valid. The result is that what man perceives is really a subjective creation of consciousness that he labelled the phenomenal world – the world of “mere” appearance. The noumenal dimension as Kant called it – is the real reality, or as he describes it the world of “things in themselves” which means things that are not perceived by man (notice the similarity to Plato’s world of forms). So this noumenal dimension is inaccessible to man’s mind. This means man’s reason is limited – limited to the world of mere appearance, but cannot deal with the fundamental metaphysical issues of man’s existence. And the most devastating conclusion he drew from this was that moral principles are outside the province of reason. He claimed that the noumenal dimension issues “categorical imperatives” that dictate the rules of morality. Since reason is invalid, the only way of knowing this is by faith – in other words, just by feeling it.

I really began to understand the real world consequences of this theory when I read Ayn Rand’s article “From the Horse’s Mouth” in PWNI. She cites an example of Kantianism in politics in the conflict of inflation versus compassion:

“The policies of welfare statism have brought this country…to the edge of economic bankruptcy, the forerunner of which is inflation – yet pressure groups keep demanding larger and larger handouts to the non-productive, and screaming that their opponents lack compassion. Compassion as such cannot grow a blade of grass, let alone of wheat. Of what use is the compassion of a man (or a country) who is broke…? If you cannot understand how anyone could evade reality to such an extent, you have not understood Kantianism. “Compassion” is a moral term, and moral issues – to the thoroughly Kantianized intellectuals – are independent of material reality. The task of morality – they believe – is to make demands, with which the world of material “phenomena” has to comply; and since the material world is unreal, its problems or shortages cannot affect the success of moral goals, which are dictated by the “noumenal” real reality.”

I’m sure you can think of other examples of this attitude. For instance, all the problems of socialized medicine that I talked about earlier haven’t deterred the socialists from their ideal of free medical care. The ideal exists in the noumenal world and they will stop at nothing to impose that on the phenomenal world. They are in effect saying to the doctors and patients “make it work, somehow.” The noumenal dimension demands it. So every time you hear of a moral precept superseding the facts of reality, it’s Kant’s epistemology at work in the mind of the individual.

The Alternative
So how do we combat this wave of irrationality that exists in our culture? Fundamentally, the only way is the right epistemology, which starts with a correct theory of concepts. And Ayn Rand’s theory of concepts is the answer.

To describe the Objectivist theory of concepts in detail would require too much time but I’ll try to briefly explain the essence of it. And if you want do summarize the essence of the Objectivist theory of concepts in one brief sentence; it would be “Concepts are objective” (from Leonard Peikoff in OPAR). So what does that mean? Well Leonard Peikoff describes objectivity as “volitionally to adhere to reality by following certain rules of method, a method based on facts and appropriate to man’s form of cognition.” The method is reason and the rules must be in accordance with logic. Notice that there is both a metaphysical and an epistemological component to objectivity. Metaphysically, it recognizes that reality is firm and absolute, that it’s not a creation of consciousness. Reality does not shape itself to meet the results of a democratic vote, supernatural edicts, or personal whim. And epistemologically, it means that man’s consciousness must follow a certain method to acquire valid knowledge of reality.

So it follows that if concepts are objective, they must be derived from the facts of reality, and processed in a way that is consistent with man’s form of cognition – his reason. And that’s precisely what Ayn Rand did in developing her theory.

Her theory of concept formation is based on the differentiation and integration of the data given to man’s senses. She identifies the fact that man’s distinctive method of cognition is his ability to regard entities as units. A unit is an existent regarded as a separate member of a group of two or more similar members. Even though grasping the concept “unit” is an act of consciousness, it is not an arbitrary creation of consciousness; it is a method of classifying entities according to the attributes observed in reality. By observing common characteristics among concretes against a background of differences, a concept can be formed by integrating two or more units that have similar characteristics. The concept is then united by a specific definition, and assigned a single perceptual concrete; a word. Words transform concepts into mental entities, and definitions provide them with identity.

This briefly describes the nature of concepts as products of a certain mental process – but then Ayn Rand states: “…the question of epistemology is; what precisely is the nature of that process? To what precisely do concepts refer in reality”?

What grounds Ayn Rand’s theory of concepts to reality is her theory of similarity, which she defines as “the relationship between two or more existents which possess the same characteristic(s) but in different measure or degree.” Concretes in reality that are similar differ quantitatively. For example, consider the attribute of color. The green color in a frog is not the same as a military uniform, or a blade of grass – but they differ in measurable ways. They can be grouped together under the concept green, because they differ in degree only in terms of hue, saturation, and brightness. The same holds true for concepts of entities even though the similarity is more complex. More attributes may need to be considered, but all the attributes are measurable.

So, the unique principle she identified as the key to abstraction is measurement omission.   To form a concept of two or more similar units, the mind retains the attribute in question but omits its particular measurement. The principle is that measurements must exist in some quantity but may exist in any quantity.

But note that concepts can’t be formed at random. They must be formed by first differentiating two or more existents from other existents with commensurable characteristics – ones that possess a common unit of measurement, such as shape in the case of forming the concept table from other pieces of furniture, or the type of consciousness when forming the concept “man” from other animals.

The same process is used to form higher level concepts. For wider integrations, the range of measurements that is subsumed under a concept is increased and earlier formed concepts become the units that are differentiated and integrated to form the new concept. The same process of observing similarities against a background of differences and then omitting the measurements is used. For example the concept man was formed by isolating his particular type of consciousness from all others. In forming the higher level concept animal, the fact that man’s consciousness includes rationality is omitted, and other types of conscious entities are included with the concept man to form “animal.”

No matter how complex the concept, such as concepts of consciousness like ”thinking” or “memory”, or concepts such as “justice”, the same process is used. Every step of the way, from the simplest concepts to the most complex, reality is the frame of reference and logic is the process.

Objective concepts lead to objective propositions and ideas that accurately reflect reality. In Ayn Rand’s theory, concepts are formed in a context, and must be used in that context. As such they are an integrated hierarchy of related and non-contradictory tools that are used to acquire knowledge of reality that is also integrated and non-contradictory. To sum up using Leonard Peikoff’s formulation;

“Human knowledge on every level is relational. It is an organization of elements, each relevant to and bearing on the others.”

Contrast this with the previous theories of concepts that are formed arbitrarily or by “intuition”. Such concepts do not reflect reality, but only someone’s subjective view of what reality should be. With these theories all concepts are primaries in the minds of people using them – they have no idea what the roots of the concepts are and therefore they rip the concept from its proper hierarchy. They routinely commit the “fallacy of the stolen concept” which is using a concept while ignoring previously formed concepts on which it depends. For instance a common claim by mystics is that rational men have to have faith in reason. They have stolen the concept faith from the hierarchy in which it was formed. Specifically that faith – which is acceptance of ideas without evidence or contrary to the evidence-, can only be defined in contra-distinction to reason, which is forming ideas by applying logic to the evidence of the senses.

A non-objective theory of concepts, leads to ideas that are treated as isolated elements, and as a result, to dis-integrated conclusions. The cacophony of contradictory claims made to the government in modern politics is one example. Quite often the same people will lobby for lower taxes on the one hand, while simultaneously demanding more welfare handouts. Or they demand an increase in the minimum wage on the one hand, and then claim the government isn’t doing enough to solve the unemployment problem. Another example is contradictory accusations against capitalism such as – “coercive monopolies” on the one hand and “cutthroat competition” on the other – or “capitalism causes inflation” on the one hand and “the gold standard leads to a shortage of money and credit” on the other.

Another consequence of a wrong theory of concepts is integrating by non-essentials or differentiating by non-essentials. An example of the first is equating big business with big government.

An example of the second is the claim by conservatives that in order to fight communism, you must embrace religion because communists are atheists. This is a result of not understanding the essence of the concepts involved. A correct theory of concepts, on the other hand, leads to a proper identification of the essence of a given idea, and that is what Ayn Rand did when she identified that the religionists and communists are two variations of mystics – the mystics of spirit and the mystics of muscle. She identified the common premises that unite these two – namely that they both accept the soul/body dichotomy and just chose opposite sides of that dichotomy; they both reject reason as a means of acquiring knowledge; they both demand the sacrifice of individuals to some allegedly higher good; and they both want dictatorial rule over the entire world. Starting with a proper theory of concepts she was able to see similarities between these two ideologies that no one else could. So tell that to your conservative friends who think America and capitalism depend on religion.

To sum up, a theory of concepts that is disconnected from reality leads to the wrong ideas, the wrong ethics, and the wrong politics. A theory of concepts that recognizes the absolutism of reality and man’s proper method of understanding reality leads to individualism, egoism, and freedom. That is why epistemology is important.

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