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Dagny Taggart Answers Kant
Submitted by Peter Cresswell on Fri, 2006-09-01 00:13
Anyone remember the passage below from Atlas Shrugged?
We are in the train's cab at the opening of the John Galt Line.
The vast train, with it's long tail of boxcars, the pounding violence of its sixteen motors -- the thrust of seven-thousand tons of steel and freight thundering along at over one-hundred miles per hour like "a great silver bullet" through great cities and along narrow mountain trails -- the train held above the precipice by just two strips of green-blue metal strung in a curve along a narrow rock shelf, strips of metal no wider than a woman's arm -- and in the cab, looking out at the world with only two vast sheets of glass for protection, a woman; the woman whose brain and whose energy had between them built the track:
"Not to trust, but to know." To know, as Aristotle says, "down to the root." To know in spite of all the whiners and doubters who insisted she couldn't possibly know. Not to trust, but to know. That, my friends, is what it really is "to know." To know, and to literally bet your life on knowing: what could be more heroic.
Well, here's something less heroic: to praise Immanuel Kant, the patron saint of the un-knowing, as some kind of proto-Objectivist. That, my friends, is much less than heroic. Very, very much less.
To praise as a proto-Objectivist the philosopher who "defended reason" only in order to bury it. The "All=Pulveriser" who severed knowledge from anything we might have knowledge of. The "spider" of Konigsberg who suggested that knowledge of "a thing in itself" is not possible, not at all, but if we can manage to "imagine" such knowledge of such a thing (such an unknowable thing) we might somehow let it serve some sort of "heuristic function," as some sort of "useful fiction" to shape our thoughts, mould our concepts and guide our actions.
Can you imagine the John Galt Line built on such a premise?
What a load of life-hating, knowledge-despising, certainty-destroying, jargon-peddling tosh.
Let me just for a moment quote neurologist Robert Efron on the nature of such a "heuristic function" as an explanation for anything:
"... the acceptance of an explanatory concept based on faith causes disastrous epistemological consequences because it inverts the very purpose of an explanation. The epistemological role of an explanation is to account for some aspect of reality which we do not understand on the basis of concepts which have already been validated. An explanation based upon arbitrary assertions represents an attempt to account for some aspect of reality by using concepts which have not been validated. A rational scientist relies on man's knowledge: He accounts for the unexplained in terms of the known. The mystical scientist relies on man's ignorance: He tries to account for the unexplained in terms of the unknown. To attempt to "explain" a phenomenon by means of the unknown severs epistemology from reality: The thinking is not anchored in fact."
So much for so much of all the post-modernist verbage, which is a living testament to the idea of explaining the known in terms of the unknown (or even the unknowable). And so much also for the claim that the "heuristic function" of the "thing-in-itself" retains some kind of tie to reality. "To attempt to 'explain' a phenomenon by means of the unknown severs epistemology from reality: The thinking is not anchored in fact." And so it does.
Imagine just for a minute what such a theory might do? It severs us from what we do know and do value and do love. And it basically says that reality may be played aces wild; that we may "make trial" to see if "objects conform to our knowledge" rather than the reverse; that we should "limit knowledge" in order to make room for whatever-the-hell we like. This, according to Kant, should be done in the name of what he calls "reason" -- or to be more accurate, in the name of reason-as-he-innacurately-describes-it.
Okay, but let's just for a minute go 'aces wild' as the "All-Pulveriser" suggests; let me, as I've been invited to more than once by one of the apostles of the sainted Kant, "imagine anything I please" about such a "thing-in-itself," about a thing that might provide such a "heuristic function." How about this: how about a quack and a charlatan; how about an overweight, untenured philosophy professor pulling down "the big bread" but still desperate to make a permanent niche for himself, to find a "comfortable berth" inside academia by peddling some nonsense so unique to himself that he can be all but certain to have the field to himself-- after all, what more comfortable a berth or uninhabited a niche as a so-called 'Objectivist' who praises Kant.
Is that a useful "heuristic function" do you think? Imagining someone who can twist and turn and lay red herrings with the best of them, but in the end is just another quack selling another brand of snake oil, and with a very sour-smelling promotional technique. How about that for something I can imagine but not know?
So much for the charlatan. And so much for any claim that Kant's system provides any tie to reality.
Let's go back to that glorious train journey. What sort of person would embark on any journey, let alone the exhilarating journey Rand so wonderfully describes, if the knowledge of what keeps you safe is just an imaginary "heuristic function" that is only a "guide" to action? Without knowledge "down to the root," what planning can take place; what design-work could proceed; what joy in certainty could be celebrated?
If you can imagine anyone embarking on the inaugural journey of the John Galt Line with anything less than full, contextual certainty of their safety and comfort, then you'd have to be either a quack or a charlatan, or on your way into the Taggart Tunnel with only a coal-burner for motive power. Or you'd have to be Immanuel Kant.
I suspect that was Ayn Rand's point in writing this wonderful passage. This is what great art can do. In eleven pages of great literature Rand demolishes the entire creaky, cobwebbed, dilapidated structure of Kant's Critique of Pure Unreason, and against it she places the description of a wild ride thrown in the face of all he doubters and in the full, sunlit certainty of success, and against it too the image of a gleaming, elegant structure of a bridge made of Rearden Metal.
I suspect she knew exactly what she was doing when she wrote that. It does bear frequent re-reading.
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The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand
Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand