What is wrong with Rand’s view? Surely it is true that the world is independent of our awareness of it, that it can be understood by empirical science, that human beings survive by production rather than by scavenging and that we aren’t born with innate knowledge about how to produce, and that we ought to be protected from violence.
However, at every level, there is more information contained in our thinking than was ever contained in our experience. Our beliefs are not all about perceptible objects and they do not all require concepts formed by abstraction from perceptual similarities and differences.
We are able to find ourselves in a world of objects that obey causal law because we expect to. We are adapted to interpret the sensible world as a world of objects at a distance from us. Consider, not Google glass, but a possible future Google lens. This imaginary piece of technology would be opaque and would rest on the surface of the eye, like any other contact lens. Its outside would be a series of tiny, high-resolution cameras, taking in light from the surrounding world. Its inside would be a tiny display screen, producing an image drawn both from the cameras on the outside and from whatever highlighting, emphasis, or other display the device was programmed to show. For instance, a wearer might have his lens plugged into some sort of facial recognition database, so that the name and other information about anyone whose face he sees would be visually displayed in a text box near the person’s face. Or a wearer might program his device to highlight or brighten objects of a certain color.
Now, given that the device is opaque, the wearer never literally sees the objects beyond himself. What he sees is just the lens itself. The lens itself is a thin concave surface; the parts of its surface are all equidistant from the user. Yet the user would experience objects as at a distance from his eye. Further, the pattern of flickers on the screen would have no constancy whatsoever; a patch of red at one moment would be a different patch of red from a patch of red a moment later, but the wearer would experience that patch of red as an object continuing across time. Were a baby fitted with such lenses at birth, the baby would literally never see any object beyond a tiny distance past the surface of his eyes, but he would still see the splotches of color as enduring objects at a distance. (The same principle would apply were the baby covered by some sort of tactile sensor suit, so that he never felt objects beyond the suit but felt the suit pressing him in accordance with information that it detected from his immediate environment.)
Thus the information that we live in a world of objects that are at various locations in space and endure across time is not information that we acquire from the senses, since we would still have the information if we were never aware of objects that were actually at a distance or that actually endured across time. A similar point applies to the discovery that objects that resemble one another in static ways also resemble one another in dynamic ways: objects that appear similarly also behave similarly in other ways. (The argument concerning causality is much more complicated and I might write about it some other time.)
In order to experience the sort of ordered, comprehensible world that we do in fact experience, we are not simply mental blanks exposed to a world that announces its order to us and makes us comprehend it. A handful of concepts, and information about the objects that fall under those concepts, is innate in us. These concepts partly constitute human nature. (I learned this from Plato, Descartes, Kant, and Frege.)
Moreover, what accounts for the fact that we do have beliefs about a world beyond ourselves is partly our ability to select objects for contemplation, by selective attention and ostension. But ostension requires that ostended objects be objective, not private dreams or hallucinations. What makes it the case that I am ostending one object rather than another is a complicated causal system in which my ostension interacts with another person’s observations of my behavior and the ostended object, forming a triangle that could not exist except within an objective world of publicly available objects. Thus, from the fact that one is thinking, one can deduce that there is an objective world about which one thinks. (I learned this from Descartes, Kant, and Donald Davidson.)
Further, there simply is no experience of a special kind of power over attention — certainly no experience of the alleged fact that whether one pays attention is not determined by prior factors. Indeed, how could there be an experience of the non-existence of determining causal factors? The concepts of free will and moral responsibility serve a pair of vital functions. First, we have a concept of free will to allow us to determine who is responsible for what actions and so deserves reward, punishment, praise, blame, and so forth for the action. We say that a person performed an action freely in this sense when the action was the result of his own values, experiences, deliberations, preferences, and so forth, without the presence of certain factors that divorce a person from his actions. The foremost of these factors is violence. (I learned this from Aristotle, Locke, Hume, and Harry Frankfurt.)
Second, we have a concept of free will to describe the fact that, when deliberating, one does not yet know what one’s decision will be, so one cannot yet seek to explain or predict one’s decisions, but must instead attend to reasons to perform one action rather than another. The existence of a deliberative or practical point of view is an occasion for the use of reason, but it is also an expression of the weakness or limitation of human reason. Practical reason is necessary because theoretical reason is inadequate for the understanding and prediction of one’s own behaviors. (I learned this from Kant, Sartre, Hayek, Foucault, and Hilary Bok.)
(Incidentally: the fact that one cannot predict one’s own behaviors implies that one cannot predict one’s society’s behaviors, or how it would respond to various events, so overall social planning is impossible: socialism cannot succeed in delivering prosperity. I learned this from von Mises and Hayek.)
We have no perceptual awareness of normative properties; one cannot literally perceive the goodness or badness of anything. Nor is the information in normative claims reducible to the information in non-normative claims. One can talk about how pleasant or painful, or life-preserving or life-destroying, something is forever without ever saying anything about whether it is good or bad.
How do I know? Assume otherwise: assume that a claim of the form “x is good” contains only information about x’s (allegedly) perceptible qualities, such as being pleasant, conducive to pleasure, life-preserving, and so forth. In that case, one could replace “x is good” with “x is pleasant” or “x is life-preserving” or something of the sort. However, one cannot. For it is always intelligible to ask whether this particular pleasure is worth pursuing or whether this particular life is worth preserving in this particular way, but it is never intelligible to ask whether one ought to do the thing that would be most good to do. From the deliberative point of view, information about the good is always dispositive, but no other information can guide a decision unless it is evidence about what is good. (I learned this from Plato, Moore, Wittgenstein, Saul Kripke, and Jonathan Dancy.)
Since every conceivable experience will be found in space and time and will involve objects obeying causal laws, and every conceivable experience is had by a conscious, free being deliberating about courses of action in pursuit of the good, we can be absolutely certain that the world, insofar as we will or can experience it, will be a world in which enduring spatio-temporal objects obey causal laws and action is possible. Scepticism about science or morality is false and reason is able to discover what is real and what ought to be done. (I learned this from Kant.)
Because we have some normative concepts innately, and having concepts requires having judgments that those concepts make possible or partly constitute, we have innate normative judgments. These judgments must be true, on the whole. However, we are hardly infallible. Normative knowledge is the result of the progressive criticism and correction of normative judgments. We must make our more abstract normative principles, and our more concrete normative judgments, logically coherent with one another, and we must make our principles logically coherent with one another. We do that by conversation, thought experiment, efforts to sympathetically understand judgments that we don’t accept, and so forth. Moral knowledge is possible, though difficult. (I learned this from Plato, Aristotle, Donald Davidson, and John Rawls. I’m reasonably confident about it, as it was my dissertation thesis.)
Human beings are unique among living things because we possess intellectual abilities, and the development and expression of those abilities is the highest good for a human being. The use of the intellect need serve no further purpose; notably, it need not serve the purpose of self-preservation. The intellect is developed and expressed in practices, conventionalized but open forms of activity that are governed by standards, made possible by those standards, and hence must be engaged in by entire practical communities — in the absence of a community to set standards, there can be no standards. Thus, the development of reason within a social context is an end in itself and constitutes human fulfillment or realization. Science, philosophy, athletics, and the arts are among the practices. (I learned this from Aristotle, Heidegger, Wittgenstein, Saul Kripke, and Alasdair MacIntyre.) Entrepreneurship, management, and engineering can also be among the practices and can be worth pursuing in and of themselves. (I learned this from Marx and von Mises — also, of course, from Ayn Rand.)
Human excellence is a quality of the individual, but it is a quality that the individual can have only in a certain kind of social context. A good society is one in which individuals are able to engage in practices and to be comfortable and healthy as the kind of animals that we are. Such a society must be one of extensive and equal liberty, including liberty in production and trade. It must also be a society in which individual welfare is a public concern. A society in which some are not able to engage in practices because their time is spent entirely in future-directed self-preservation is a society some of whose members do not live fully human lives. There must thus be public provision for animal needs — food, clothing, shelter, and health care — for those unable to fulfill those needs through labor and trade, either because of physical inability or economic circumstances. Further, there must be public provision for the distinctly human need for education, since the uneducated will find it virtually impossible to engage in practices or even very remunerative work. (I learned this from Aristotle, Rousseau, and John Rawls.) These expenses and other state functions should be paid for with the proceeds of a progressive consumption tax, not a tax on productive labor or prudent investment. (The US income tax should be eliminated.) The informational signals within the market depend on consumers’ making their offers on the basis of rough financial equality, and greater consumption does not yield commensurately great returns in personal satisfaction, so progressive consumption taxation makes the market more efficient and does not penalize any behavior worth engaging in. Moreover, by simply allowing the progressive consumption tax to turn negative below a certain level of expense, the entire welfare function can be folded into the tax code, yielding a minimum of paternalism and bureaucracy and allowing “the market to take care of it” as much as is humanly possible. (I’ve learned this from contemporary writers on taxation.)
Okay, Objectivists. What do you think? How can we start this conversation?