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What is Action?

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KevinDW78
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I am currently re-reading OPAR because I want to have a better technical understanding of Objectivist metaphysics. The question I am wrestling with is: what is action? This came up because last week in my philosophy class I asserted that cause preceeds effect and the T.A. asked me to prove that and it ended up in him asking me to answer this question of "what is action?" and me being dumbfounded to come up with a response (even if the response was "that's a stupid question")

Here is where I am running into a circular argument:

- What is action?

- It's what entities DO.

- How do entities DO things?

[i'm unsure if there needs to be something else inserted here]

- Via the law of cause and effect.

- What is cause and effect?

- It is action applied to entities.

- What is action?

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Alright, I'm going to admit that I probably am not the most well studied on this issue right now, so I apologize now if my post only further obfuscates the issue, but looking at your post I saw some things I thought looked relevant for where some confusion may be coming in which may be worth considering for now until you get more replies.

Looking at your list of questions and answers down the bottom, I think you answered what action is right away with "It's what entities DO." After that I think the question changes and it’s no longer about what action IS but how action WORKS. The later question of how action works I’d also argue is more of one to be answered by observation and scientific examination generally. Action is a concept a lot like "tree" or "cloud" where it is a pretty basic thing you just give a name to after observing and examining it as opposed to a concept higher up and more abstract which is built off those base concepts, such as moving up to asking about what justice is. Cause and effect can be observed without all kinds of confusion as long as you remember that actions are only performed by entities, they don’t exist by themselves (like there is no running without a runner for example) and that the law of identity means something therefore can not do actions that go against their nature. Since an entity must exist before it can act (because "nothing" can not do anything) and the cause of actions are in the nature of the entities, that's why the cause must predate the effect.

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Thank you for the response. I knew in my head that a justification for cause and effect would have to come down to perceptually given facts. You pointed out something I hadn't considered—that it is for science, not philosophy to determine how actions happen.

Part of my confusion is due to how the philosophy TA was challenging me. For example, he raised his arm an inch and said, "Is this an action?" Then he raised his arm 90 degrees and said, "What about this? What's the difference?". This led me to wanting to reduce the concept of action as much as I could before proceeding.

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Alright, I'm going to admit that I probably am not the most well studied on this issue right now, so I apologize now if my post only further obfuscates the issue, but looking at your post I saw some things I thought looked relevant for where some confusion may be coming in which may be worth considering for now until you get more replies.

Looking at your list of questions and answers down the bottom, I think you answered what action is right away with "It's what entities DO." After that I think the question changes and it’s no longer about what action IS but how action WORKS. The later question of how action works I’d also argue is more of one to be answered by observation and scientific examination generally. Action is a concept a lot like "tree" or "cloud" where it is a pretty basic thing you just give a name to after observing and examining it as opposed to a concept higher up and more abstract which is built off those base concepts, such as moving up to asking about what justice is. Cause and effect can be observed without all kinds of confusion as long as you remember that actions are only performed by entities, they don’t exist by themselves (like there is no running without a runner for example) and that the law of identity means something therefore can not do actions that go against their nature. Since an entity must exist before it can act (because "nothing" can not do anything) and the cause of actions are in the nature of the entities, that's why the cause must predate the effect.

I think you are selling yourself short. I think you gave a good answer to his question.

L.Peikoff defines action in OPAR on page 13:

"Action" is the name for what entities do.

(note: by his own statement in several lectures, we know he intended the statement to be a definition because he put the word action in quotes.)

If "entity" is an axiomatic concept (see ITOE), then "action" is one 'level' more abstract from the concept entity.

There are "first level" concepts which are concepts naming entities, i.e., concrete objects we can perceive. Then there is what those first-level concepts "do" which is what we call basic action.

It may be helpful to read what Ayn Rand calls "Concepts of Motion." It is on page 15 of ITOE where she is describing how her idea of measurement omission obtains in the formation of various basic concepts:

Concepts of motion are formed by specifying the distinctive nature of the motion and of the entities performing it, and/or of the medium in which it is performed—and omitting the particular measurements of any given instance of such motion and of the entities involved. For instance, the concept "walking" denotes a certain kind of motion performed by living entities possessing legs, and does not apply to the motion of a snake or of an automobile. The concept "swimming" denotes the motion of any living entity propelling itself through water, and does not apply to the motion of a boat. The concept "flying" denotes the motion of any entity propelling itself through the air, whether a bird or an airplane. (ITOE, 15)

It is in this sense of the word "action", which what I believe is the conceptual root from where other, more sophisticated and/or more general usages of the concept "action" are derived. E.g., eventually we will speak of "actions" of consciousness, and sub-atomic "actions;" but the base concept of action, the one which is closest to the perceptual level, and which is the closest to being perceptually self-evident, is this sense of the word action, i.e., a "concept of motion."

Edited by phibetakappa
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Sorry for the lack of references; I'm replying from my phone...

I think "action" is nearly synonymous with "change", but from the point of view of, or at least with particular attention paid to, an entity changing or effecting change. It seems to me that common connotations of the word are wrapped up with volition, which we know is not necessary for action.

If a moving cue ball collides with a stationary 8-ball, you can say with equal validity that either:

- the cue ball acts by stopping and acts on the 8-ball, causing it to move, OR

- the 8-ball acts by moving and acts on the cue ball, causing it to stop.

Either description is right, as long a one realizes that neither ball caused the changes independently of the other.

Dr. Peikoff's definition is probably best, because the concept of action is so close to the perceptually self-evident. I'm having trouble forming a more thorough definition.

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Thank you for your thoughts. I too thought of stepping from "what is action?" to "It is a change in an entity" but I knew that if I did that, I would simply be asked "What is change?" and then I would have no clue where to go from there because I have no clue how to explain "change".

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Thank you for your thoughts. I too thought of stepping from "what is action?" to "It is a change in an entity" but I knew that if I did that, I would simply be asked "What is change?" and then I would have no clue where to go from there because I have no clue how to explain "change".

I sounds like you really do not like primary concepts.

Not every concept can be defined in terms of other concepts. Children do not need to have "action" defined in terms of other concepts to understand what action is.

Trying to force this requirement on reality causes an infinite regress.

Some objects are defined ostensibly by pointing. Perceptual knowledge is the base of conceptual knowledge (the knowledge of words).

The perceptually given is the stopping point for the type of reduction you are attempting.

Basic action (action of motion) is directly observable when observing directly perceivable objects such as balls, rocks, trees, or men.

**"It is a change in an entity"

A basic action is not a "change in an entity". The entity does not change, it stays the same, but it's position in space changes.

Putting the point the "action is a change in an entity" takes you dangerously close to Heraclitus and his assertions that all there is, is change. As he put it, "we can never step into the same river twice." This philosophy leads to skepticism.

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Well, I don't have a problem with primary concepts. This is about being in a philosophy class and being forced to meet their standards of proof (or being able to make a valid argument of why their proof is flawed). When you are in upper-level philosophy classes in state universities, it's not acceptable to simply say "it just is". They literally will scoff at you.

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Well, I don't have a problem with primary concepts. This is about being in a philosophy class and being forced to meet their standards of proof (or being able to make a valid argument of why their proof is flawed). When you are in upper-level philosophy classes in state universities, it's not acceptable to simply say "it just is". They literally will scoff at you.

If you said "it just is" I would scoff at you. I have not been telling you to say "it just is."

Primary concepts are not about saying, "it just is."

Other people do not set the "standards of proof". Proof has objective requirements.

If you are in a university class if you want support that such attempted continuous justification, continuous definition necessarily leads to infinite regress, both Plato and Aristotle explain why knowledge is impossible with out a fixed starting point. Aristotle Posterior Analytics is almost entirely devoted to the question. In Plato, I can't remember the title but it is the dialog were he is teaching the child geometry, and eventually concludes that concepts must refer to "Ideas" in another detention in which we "remember."

(Note: both works are the start of the Rationalist vs Empiricist clap trap that dominates philosophy classes.)

If you we can not define "action" in terms of other concepts YOU CAN NOT. If that's your requirement, then you've been given an impossible assignment.

If you are going to pander to the pressure the "their" so-called standards of proof, then don't bother trying contort O'ism to fit into your assignments, just make up stuff to pass the class and move on.

Edited by phibetakappa
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I am currently re-reading OPAR because I want to have a better technical understanding of Objectivist metaphysics. The question I am wrestling with is: what is action? This came up because last week in my philosophy class I asserted that cause preceeds effect and the T.A. asked me to prove that and it ended up in him asking me to answer this question of "what is action?" and me being dumbfounded to come up with a response (even if the response was "that's a stupid question")

Here is where I am running into a circular argument:

- What is action?

- It's what entities DO.

- How do entities DO things?

[i'm unsure if there needs to be something else inserted here]

- Via the law of cause and effect.

- What is cause and effect?

- It is action applied to entities.

- What is action?

The responses that you have received are good. Let me add one or two things.

Objectivism defines things a little differently so that when we talk about cause, laws, and certain basic concepts we are using a very different approach than the people you will find at school. It helps here to have a little knowledge of the history of philosophy.

For example, there are three different schools of "causality" that you run into, Hume, Plato and Kant. Hume says that when he sees one ball strike another he does not see a cause and effect. To him anything could have happened. Humans can say that they have seen it always happen, but they can't conclude that what we call effects will always happen in the future, as there is nothing requiring it to happen. This is probably the stance of your teacher.

Plato says that laws are imposed on matter by some outside law giver. Matter will perform these laws, but not perfectly, thus, if we try to learn them from matter, our ideas will not be clear or perfect. It is better if we intuit them. But the laws are floating out there and are independent of matter and the world. People who talk about laws as if they are independent things are Plato's children.

Kant says that we make everything up ourselves in our own heads, and there really isn't anything happening like we think there is in the "real world". Space, time, matter, etc., are all mental constructs that humans have.

Ayn Rand argues that all that exists are things, which have attributes. Actually, things are their attributes. When they act, that is to say that when they interact with other things, they do so in accordance with those attributes. The cause is what the thing is. What it is also includes its place, relative speed, direction of motion, color, molecular structure, spin, charge, that is what ever science discovers. We understand what a thing is conceptually (on to the ITOE). So a cause is not a separate thing from entities. When two or more entities interact, the cause is what they were before and the result is what they are afterwards.

Laws are our conceptual understanding of actions that we have found in certain types of entities. The wider our conceptual field, the better we understand the world.

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