Alice in Objectivist Land, part three

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Submitted by NickOtani on Fri, 2007-07-06 15:14

Alice stretched out under the knowledge tree and reflected on all that she had experienced this day, in Objectivist Land. She also reviewed what she already knew of Objectivism’s theory of knowledge and how it compared and contrasted with other commonly accepted theories of knowledge.

Plato, of course, had his theory of the forms, as presented in the Allegory of the Cave. It was that the forms, perfect lines and triangles and essences of man exist up in the parapet above our heads, where we can’t really see, and the light of reason shines on them casting their reflections on a wall in front of us. Those shadows are the reality we experience on a day to day basis, but sometimes, as when a teacher like Socrates asks us the right questions, we remember things from when we were also in that world of the forms. Learning, for Plato, was a process of remembering. Teachers bring something out of us, like mid-wives, rather than treating us like empty vessels into which knowledge is poured or pieces of clay to be molded and shaped by others, as if we are objects.

Aristotle thought Plato was a bit too mystical with this mental realm being primary, and so do Rand and the Objectivists, even though they agree that that reality is independent of man and discovered by him. Aristotle thought substance, matter, was the real essence and more important than the forms. Still, he did, like Plato, believe in these two worlds, the one of matter and the one of ideas. And, he believed we learn about the metaphysical essences through a process of intuition. Rand agreed with her interpretation of Aristotle to a large degree, but she insisted that essences are epistemological, not metaphysical. She thought we determine the facts of reality by concept formation, generalizing from perception, and this is the task of epistemology, not metaphysics. The important thing Aristotle did was put reality outside man and formulate the laws of logic which we use to identify this external reality.

There is also the religious view that we are objects shaped by God. That the knowledge we need is revealed to us by Him. We must just be subservient and obey His will, and all will be okay. Anything which challenges such a view is evil and must be ignored. Rand rejects this view outright.

Then, there is the view of the relativists, the pragmatists, the subjectivists, the Kantians and existentialists that we can never really know reality. We deal with appearances and project images onto phenomena. We don’t discover what is out there but create it. Nominalists, according to Rand, merely assign names to entities which have vague resemblances with each other, but those names are human constructs, not facts of reality independent of humans.

Alice wonders if Rand and company went too far with Aristotle’s law of identity. Rather than simply using it as a procedural tool for communication and thinking, they try to use it to identify reality. If A is A, they say, it means something exists and is what it is, that it has a specific nature. Well, thinks Alice, President Clinton may have been right when he said it depends on what “is” is. This little word, and the concept of being or existence, can be very complicated. Heidegger and Sartre wrote thousands of words about it. Sometimes ‘is’ seems too static to really capture its subject or object. Perhaps ‘A’ is in the process of becoming. Perhaps reality is really always changing, like Heraclites said. We just use the law of identity and other rules of inference to think and talk about it. Certainly we can’t make much sense if our variables keep changing identity in the middle of an argument. We would never be able to reach a conclusion. If we say “If A, then B. A. Therefore B”, ‘B’ would not follow if ‘A’ changed its identity the second time it is used. So, the law of identity preserves consistency and coherency in communication and thinking, but it doesn’t necessarily reflect reality, which does continue to move and change identity.

This whole thing about entities having a specific nature, could just be our creation. We exist first, as subjects, and then construct a reality according to our wishes and whims. Sure, there are some things we can’t control; we can’t jump off cliffs and fly just because we want to, but this isn’t a limitation for us if we it isn’t what we wish to do. Perhaps it’s our choice of goals which determines our obstacles and limitations. We aren’t just objects waiting for an objective reality and immutable laws of logic to push us around. We aren’t victims of our environment. We are subjects who make our world what it is. We are free.

Objectivists also believe that we are free, but they don’t seem to explain it well. They reject the supernatural, but they also reject the super mechanical. They support cause and effect, but they don’t want to go as far as people like B.F. Skinner and those who reduce our world to a mechanistic model where consciousness and freedom are illusions. The Objectivists declare that consciousness and freedom are self-evident, and they really don’t care if this doesn’t make sense within the context of the rest of their philosophy, that everything is bound by a specific nature and unbroken cause and effect.

Sartre believes we are still in a process of becoming. This allows for freedom, at least for the being for itself, the subject. His or her nature is incomplete. He or she works on it with every decision he or she makes. What Alice is doing right now is making what Alice is. This is not Objectivism or essentialism, where she has a pre-existing nature or essence into which she must grow. She makes herself. She makes her own nature as she goes.

Still, Alice thinks there is something she has in common with all other humans. There is a humanness which ties her to her great ancestors and other humans around the world. She has empathy for them. She knows that if she were to be tortured and killed, she wouldn’t like it, and she knows that neither would they. So, there is a pre-existing nature or essence that she has in common with other humans, but there is also her freedom to create her own nature or essence. There is paradox and contradiction, something orthodox Objectivists hate. In some ways, she is what she is. She has a universal nature. However, within those parameters, she is what she is and is not what she is. She is in the process of becoming. She is a subject, not an object. She is a NickOtani’sNeo-Objectivist.

With all these thoughts going through her sleepy head, Alice drifts off to a peaceful sleep.

To be continued...

Bis bald,

Nick


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