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Objectivism and Modern Psychology

- - - - - genetics nature nurture human nature

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#1
realityChemist

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I was reading through the Objectivism Essentials page on the ARI website (found here), because I wanted to link it to a friend. However, I came across this sentence, under the Human Nature section (emphasis added):

Thus Objectivism rejects any form of determinism, the belief that man is a victim of forces beyond his control (such as God, fate, upbringing, genes, or economic conditions).


I'm curious about this. Specifically the bolded part. I understand the cases against God, fate, et cetera, but I want to know if Objectivism has a case against upbringing and genetics, or if this is merely an assertion made by the ARI without reference to reality. I'm taking a college level Intro to Psychology course right now, and modern psychology seems to contradict this. A study conducted by McClearn et. al. in 1977 determined that about 50% of a person's general intelligence (IQ) is inherited, and attributed the other 50% to environmental factors during a child's upbringing. Other aspects of intelligence have been measured and assigned heritability values as well: about 32% of spatial ability is inherited, and 55% of verbal ability and memory is inherited. While this certainly doesn't make man the "victim" of forces beyond his control, it does point toward a certain level of determinism (in a scientific, rather than religious, sense).

Let's take things to an extreme for a moment, and examine the case of the child dubbed Genie, sometimes known as "The Wild Child." She spent the first thirteen years of her life immobilized in her bedroom, with limited human contact. She was rendered incapable of all but the most basic speech, and she walked stiffly. Without getting into any of the other aspects that the Genie's case touches on, it certainly seems to make a case for the importance of upbringing on a person's life. For further reading, I direct you to this Wikipedia article. Admittedly, Genie's condition could have been due to severe mental problems, but in other cases of "feral children," similar problems with language use were noted.

I want to hear what you all have to say about this. Was this statement made by the ARI consistent with Objectivism, as stated by Rand, and, if so, does Objectivism have a defense against this modern science (should it)? I am proud to call myself an Objectivist, but this particular issue really bothers me.

Edited by realityChemist, 22 April 2012 - 07:39 PM.

I wished to know the meaning of things. I am the meaning. I wished to find a warrant for being. I need no warrant for being and no word of sanction upon my being. I am the warrant and the sanction.

#2
aequalsa

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I want to hear what you all have to say about this. Was this statement made by the ARI consistent with Objectivism, as stated by Rand, and, if so, does Objectivism have a defense against this modern science (should it)? I am proud to call myself an Objectivist, but this particular issue really bothers me.


I would call it a gross over simplification, but really that whole page is. It was written in the context of a brief explanation of freewill so I would recommend thinking of it in that light. That said, I doubt many Objectivists would argue that freewill exists independently of existence. A man can not will himself to float into the air or make a cheeseburger materialize in front of him. Choices have to be made with regard to something and that something is reality. What(I assume) they mean is that if your given a choice to drink either a glass of water or a glass of cyanide, your choice isn't predetermined in any way by the facts of your existence. You bring your rational faculties to bare on the circumstance before you and make the best choice freely, within the context of those choices available to you. If those are your only choices then you can't choose orange juice, but that's not the same thing as being determined, philosophically. The relevent part is your freewill applied to the specific reality you happen to be in.

Same with the more complex issues of genes and upbringing. Those things massively shape the choices available to you, but they do not free you from the burden of being responsible for the choices you do make with regard to what is available to you.

Obviously you would hold those things as relevant in determining someone's moral worth. Making a million dollars from scratch is a world away from making a million dollars after inheriting a million first. Likewise in considering a disability or emotional disorder.
It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles,
...or where the doer of deeds could have done them better.
The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena,
whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly;
who errs and comes short again and again; because there is not effort without error and shortcomings;
but who does actually strive to do the deed; who knows the great enthusiasm, the great devotion, who spends himself in a worthy cause,
who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement and who at the worst, if he fails, at least he fails while daring greatly.
So that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat.-Teddy

#3
Robin Craig

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I don't think Objectivism says there is no influence of genes and environment, but rather that whatever influence they have does not determine what we are but merely influences us.

You must be careful with modern psychology and read between the lines for what their data show and how they're interpreting it. For example, in The Blank Slate, Steven Pinker "shows" that (from memory) half the variability in personality etc comes from genes and environment and the other half he assigns to "peer group influence." He leaves out the mind entirely. As peer groups are chosen, it is at least equally valid from the data to say "the other half comes from choice." And further, most people do not really think: they just drift with their culture (as shown by the prevalence, and "heritability", of religion).

You also have to beware of other sweeping conclusions. For example, social scientists will find a correlation between genes etc and voting patterns. But my interpretation of that is simply that (rather obviously, I'd say) your genes and environment influence such traits as risk taking vs conformity - and such broad personality traits in turn influence other things like how you vote.

The key thing philosophically is that any psychological or social science research that does not consider the role of the mind and its thinking cannot be taken at face value - because they have left out the fundamental part of being human. And related to that, except in the case of psychosis or severe neurosis, you are always free to think and choose your values. That might be made harder by your psychology: but "normal" people always have the option to think, to act on their thinking - and seek help, if necessary.

On the general topic of how free will is derived from having a thinking mind, you might be interested in what I have written here:
http://www.monoreali...s/freewill.html

#4
Eiuol

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I actually don't like the formulation of that sentence because it can be misleading. The sentence sounds like upbringing and genes are causally irrelevant. Genes and upbringing have a notable impact on how you make choices, but aren't the sole reason you make a choice. There is a great deal to be said about how you can control your actions, but your actions are causally related to deliberation, a volitional process. It's far too simplistic to say genes are *all* that cause your actions, or that economic conditions are *all* that cause your actions. It's even too simplistic to say every single thing you do is deliberated about. Really, the point is that no person could say they stole a car *only* because of their upbringing, or that they are good at math *only* because of some inborn ability. IQ may very well make it easier to do math, but that doesn't mean you didn't have to integrate mathematical ideas and concepts. Growing up in a destitute environment may lead you to believe that stealing is a good idea, but that depends also upon how ideas are integrated, if at all. In fact, Rand made a big deal in her Comprachicos essay (in "Return of the Primitive") about just how a good environment of learning goes a long way in helping to bring about rationality, or how a bad environment of learning may destroy that capacity entirely.
"Soldiers: don't give yourselves to brutes, men who despise you and enslave you, who regiment your lives, tell you what to do, what to think and what to feel, who drill you, diet you, treat you as cattle, as cannon fodder!" -Charlie Chaplin

#5
realityChemist

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Thank you all very much. Your answers have been extremely helpful. I think the note that genes and upbringing can limit the choices available to you (brought up by aequalsa) is a very important one to make, and, when it's considered on a more complex level than what beverage to drink, fits nicely right in as influencing your choices.
Also, Return of the Primitive is one of the few non-fiction books by Rand that I have yet to read. That article probably would have illuminated things for me. I plan to read it over the summer (along with finally reading OPAR, because it is referenced so often on this site).
I wished to know the meaning of things. I am the meaning. I wished to find a warrant for being. I need no warrant for being and no word of sanction upon my being. I am the warrant and the sanction.

#6
Nigel

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Just to piggy back on others. Psychology is a diverse field with several different disciplines. In general, psychology typically observes human behavior and then works backwards to tie these observations to our understanding of the human species. Conversely, neuroscience examines biological processes and ties these to resultant human behaviors. There is still a disconnect between psychology and neuroscience, but both fields have made strides in furthering our understanding of human cognition and behavior.

Ayn Rand was very critical of behavioral psychology, and rightfully so. This is just on of several disciplines within the field of psychology. Ayn Rand's earlier works generalize this criticism across psychology since behaviorism dominated early 20th century psychology. However, the second half of the 20th century is considered the cognitive revolution in psychology. During this time, cognitive psychology became a more pervasive discipline--and still is. Cognitive psychology is a vast improvement on behaviorism and takes a more scientific approach to psychology. In my opinion, cognitive psychology does have a great deal to offer to our understanding of cognition--its not perfect, but there are many positives. To say Rand is against psychology in general is not true.

Behaviorism takes a very concrete approach to how the environment affects individuals. Behaviorists believe that we are severely impacted and hindered by environmental conditioning. On the other extreme, the claim that genetics limits or can be solely attributed to one's achievements is also wrong. In truth, emerging research shows that the brain is extremely adaptable and capable of change. Hindrances caused by genetics or upbringing can be overcome and are not limiting factors in ones life--unless one allows them to become limiting factors. The argument is not do genetics or upbringing play a role in cognitive performance, they do. The argument by objectivists is that differences in genetics and upbringing ultimately do not limit an individual's ability to achieve. This argument is corroborated by our current understanding of neuroscience and psychology. (though some in theses fields deny this theoretical view point, in part because it is also political and dogmatic).

Your Genie example poses some problems. First, O epistemology should not be applied to extreme outlandish examples. Conceptual integration is and all of O epi assumes that we are addressing the functioning in healthy human beings. For example a psychotic cannot perceive true reality. In this case, the girl was abused and tortured. Psychology admits that psychosis and many other ill-effects result from such treatment. To use this extreme as your example would be to accept a false premise. The idea that poor upbringing can be overcome is not negated by this case since torture and abuse result in psychosis. Conversely, someone raised in poverty or educated in poorer performing school or what have you can still overcome this upbringing because their ability to properly perceive reality has not been destroyed.




I argue that the brain is far more adaptable than many want to believe. The problem is that it takes effort to think, use your brain, and grow intellectually, and many people don't want to exert this effort. The genetic argument is a cop-out. It is an excuse for the lazy, and an excuse for schools that do not know how to correctly teach children to think. Look at IQ scores. An individual can take the same IQ test and score very differently depending on current mood, sleep, etc. The idea that cognitive ability is fixed within a certain range is nonsense. Another example, one of my best friends was labeled as learning disabled and ADHD in school. He received special education services since middle school. He is graduating with a masters degree next month, does not take ADHD meds any more and did it all on his own. He is going to law school in the fall. He grew intellectually through his own efforts, its possible,

#7
realityChemist

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I know I probably shouldn't have used the Genie example (it was like the metaphysical equivalent of a lifeboat question in ethics), but I thought it illustrated well the fact that there are circumstances beyond your control that can severely impair a person's ability. One thing I didn't mention, though, was that Genie did eventually learn the rudimentary use of language; she overcame her handicap to quite an amazing degree, considering how severe a handicap it was. I definitely wasn't using it as an argument against the O'ist point, just as an illustration of what I meant (as I said moments ago).

Making the distinction between different types of psychology is also important, you're right. There are many approaches to psychology, not all of them equally valid.

I think I have a good grasp of what the ARI was getting at (or, perhaps, failing to get at) with their piece. Thank you all again for your help! I'm glad I discovered this site. It's a great place to get questions answered and to partake in lively, (mostly) intellectual debate.
I wished to know the meaning of things. I am the meaning. I wished to find a warrant for being. I need no warrant for being and no word of sanction upon my being. I am the warrant and the sanction.

#8
Dormin111

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While I am by no means an expert on the subject, Objectivism definetely rejects psychoanalysis, especially of the Freudian variety. Psycoanalysis pictures men as wild beast whose ability to use logic is actually an illusion and that all decisions are actually made at the behest of an invisible subconcious which is driven by sex, power, and family. It posits that men are wild beasts and that the creation of civlization has necesarily made us all unhappy because if we aren't out there raping and murdering people then we are suppressing our true selves.

#9
realityChemist

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Freud was lead to his conclusions about the way the mind works because his only subjects for study were sexually repressed, hysterical (literally), Victorian-era Austrian women. Given only that subset of the population to work with, most people would likely come to similar conclusions. Not to defend his theory (or psychoanalysis in general) in any way; it takes no account whatsoever for other motivating factors and values in human life, and vastly oversimplifies many things.

Besides, that wasn't really the subject under discussion in this thread.
I wished to know the meaning of things. I am the meaning. I wished to find a warrant for being. I need no warrant for being and no word of sanction upon my being. I am the warrant and the sanction.



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