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Critique of Peikoff's interpretation of the 'arbitrary'

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Leonid,

My article is about the doctrine of the arbitrary assertion.

Generally, what's asserted is a statement or a proposition, not a concept. Dr. Peikoff's examples, when he does get around to providing some, are all statements or propositions.

Robert Campbell

The above is central to at least some of your mistakes in the article. For Oism arbitrary propositions presuppose an arbitrary concept.

Edit: I do realize you maintain the arbitrary, is in fact invalid.

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This equates that truth is a product of the consciousness deciding it, or a primacy of consciousness premise. When I believed that Jesus Christ was my personal savior, it was true to me because I was

Patience. :) I'm working on it.

Edit: incidentally please note my acknowledgement of Campbell's claim that an arbitrary concept is in fact an "invalid concept". My general point is that there is no such thing as an assertion without the subject that is predicated of. On the specific issue of invalid vs arbitrary, more is to come.

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For Oism arbitrary propositions presuppose an arbitrary concept.

Two difficulties here.

(1) It's not the doctrine of the arbitrary proposition—it's the doctrine of the arbitrary assertion.

Arbitrariness is said to depend not merely on the proposition being asserted but on the person making the assertion.

According to Dr. Peikoff, if you or I, knowing what we do of mathematics, assert the proposition "2 + 2 = 4," we assert it non-arbitrarily, and truly.

But if a "savage," who, according to Dr. Peikoff, knows nothing whatsoever of mathematics, asserts what appears to be the exact same proposition, its assertion by him or her is arbitrary.

(2) Many of Leonard Peikoff's examples of propositions asserted arbitrarily include concepts that he would consider arbitrary. For instance, any of his example assertions about gremlins doing one thing or another.

But not all. Think about an example of an arbitrary assertion that he used in his Objectivism through Induction lecture.

Where's the arbitrary concept in the assertion that "Harry Binswanger’s bachelor party consisted of a 3-hour seminar on Hegel’s Logic, beginning at 4 in the morning and conducted in his apartment"?

Robert Campbell

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Just one more comment on the Popper thing. If you havent read Popper you wont understand that the whole subject of analysing a concept for coherence and meaning is rejected outright as unscientific "physchologism"and Campbell's paper itself is not about a philosophy of science anyway.

Very early in his career, Karl Popper tried to develop a theory of what we now call cognitive psychology. It was a failure—at least Popper quickly came to view it as such. (The last time I checked, his thesis on the subject had still not been translated into English. I don't read or speak German, so I'm not in a position to evaluate it.)

That is the most plausible basis for his occasional polemics against "psychologism."

What, precisely, is the connection between Popper's anti-psychological views and his claim that a testable universal hypothesis need not be highly probable?

Robert Campbell

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But Dr. Peikoff has never laid out much in the way of criteria of evidence, either in OPAR or elsehwere.

The basis of man's knowledge is direct perception. That is what is meant by the word "evidence": direct perception of reality.

If you are challenging that, you're challenging a lot more than just Peikoff's thoughts on the arbitrary. You're challenging Objectivism as a whole, and, while we're at it, science as a whole.

By evidence, Peikoff means the same thing Rand meant. What is unclear to you about what Objectivism means by evidence?

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Earlier in this thread, I dissed Prof. Campell's article on the basis of an ambivalence which was pointed out to me.

While not a review of the presentation of his arguments, it weighed in enough with me to put a short ode together on 'arbitrary'. One of the things that came across as interesting is the etymology of "arbitrary", which also references "arbiter", which more or less guided the piece. To return to this thread and find the word "evidence" front and center is by no real means a surprise.

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Mn,

Would you say that a self-contradiction is meaningless, yet false? Or would you say it is meaningful and simply false?

Mn, it is the former.

“Saying A is non-A is objectively meaningless and false. As I said in ‘Between False, Invalid, and Meaningless’,* the objectively meaningless always stems from falsehood. In the case of asserting a self-contradiction, the root falsehood is self-same with the meaningless statement.”* That would seem to run counter the view of many philosophers, including Rand and other Objectivist philosophers, that meaningless statements are not assessable for truth.

In elementary logic one learns that propositions are assertive statements, and such are assessable for truth. I would say further that in striving for truth, including true propositions, one is striving for objectively meaningful true propositions. Failure to attain entirely objectively meaningful propositions is failure to attain a square truth. Technically, a proposition defective in objective meaningfulness is false.

That falsity could be slight in comparison to truth that can be parsed within the proposition. But propositions empty of objective meaningfulness, such as in negative-way theology* (which is pervasive in religious thinking), are simply false, objectively and simply false. Similarly, with self-contradiction.

I will grant, however, that some objectively meaningless propositions warrant not a pause, only not.

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"That falsity could be slight in comparison to truth that can be parsed within the proposition." Consider the proposition A and not-A and B and C and D and . . . and Z, where C through Z are objectively meaningful true propositions. In contrast the proposition A and not-A of itself is not one in which the falsity is slight or even half. Though half of its subsidiary propositions is true, the whole is asserted as true, and that whole is objectively meaningless and false.

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The basis of man's knowledge is direct perception. That is what is meant by the word "evidence": direct perception of reality.

If you are challenging that, you're challenging a lot more than just Peikoff's thoughts on the arbitrary. You're challenging Objectivism as a whole, and, while we're at it, science as a whole.

By evidence, Peikoff means the same thing Rand meant. What is unclear to you about what Objectivism means by evidence?

Ayn Rand had a name for this sort of thing.

It's an argument from intimidation.

If you want to contribute to the present discussion, make an effort to produce a real argument.

Robert Campbell

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Typo in #34: That should have been "B through Z," not "C through Z." No change in the point.

Yes, Nicky, on Rand's definition of knowledge, evidence would be firstly observation. Definitely too, observations can become evidence. Rand's conception of validity in concepts, definitions, and other propositions, including philosophical axioms, also points to observations as the most basic form of evidence in knowledge. The need for logical integration for knowledge, including integration of mathematics with observations and with conceptual understanding, however, suggests that in Rand's view of knowledge more can be evidence than observations, at least if it is integral with observations and proper conceptualization from them. An example of such "more" (perfectly consistent with Rand's metaphysics and epistemology) would be Tibor Machan's essay "Evidence of Necessary Existence" (1992). He relies on the reader to have good enough sense about what is evidence. What is evidence and how something becomes evidence are good issues Machan does not take up. But as Nozick remarked, there are words on subjects worth saying besides last words.

David Kelley has a neat essay "Evidence and Justification" (1991), which is integral with Rand's epistemology.

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The difference between false and arbitrary propositions is that false proposition pertains to reality albeit in a negative way, while arbitrary is not. So proposition "A is not A " is false, but not arbitrary because it pertains to A. Proposition " There is no A" would be arbitrary, it pertains to nothing. False proposition could be proven wrong by referral to reality. However the concept of proof is not applicable to the arbitrary propositions because they don't have any frame of reference. A proposition " The current king of France is bald" is not false, it's arbitrary and cannot be proven wrong since there is no king of France.

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Another example: a proposition " “It is impossible for the same thing to belong and not to belong at the same time to the same thing and in the same respect” (Metaph IV 3 1005b19–20) is true, it could be verified by reference to observation. Proposition " “It is possible for the same thing to belong and not to belong at the same time to the same thing and in the same respect” is false and its falsity could be proven by referral to reality. But proposition " “It is impossible for the same thing to belong and not to belong at the same time to the same non- existing thing and in the same respect " is arbitrary. It has no frame of reference and cannot be proven true or false because it pertains to nothing.

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Leonid, have you read Mr. Campbell's article? I'm just asking because, while we may come up with a coherent layout for our conception of arbitrary assertions, Robert is arguing against specific claims Dr. Peikoff has made for them.If you or anyone else hasnt read it but plan to, I recommend asking yourself clearly what you think an arbitrary assertion is. How does it differ from an invalid concept or faith? How often have you simply responded to someone as if nothing was said? My first read was quite too fast. The dissection of the claims is taking me a bit of time.

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If you or anyone else hasnt read it but plan to, I recommend asking yourself clearly what you think an arbitrary assertion is. How does it differ from an invalid concept or faith? How often have you simply responded to someone as if nothing was said?

Right.

In Leonard Peikoff's presentation, an arbitrary assertion is not the same as an assertion that includes an invalid concept.

It is also not the same as the assertion of a statement accepted on faith.

In Nathaniel Branden's formulation (published in 1963, probably dating from the late 1950s), there was a tighter link between arbitrary assertions and appeals to faith. But Dr. Branden also thought that arbitrary assertions have a truth value (usually, they are false).

Robert Campbell

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Leonid,

The claim “There is no A” is not essentially arbitrary:

“There is no money in my pocket.”

“There is no transport of bodies with non-zero rest mass faster than the velocity of light in vacuum.”

More about the bald King of France:

There is a controversy of logic standing in the relevant external background for Rand, other Objectivists, and thinkers about Objectivism concerning arbitrary assertion and assessability for truth. There is a tradition from Boethius, Abelard, and Buridan that any universal affirmative or particular affirmative statement in which the subject does not truly exist is false; and no such blanket verdict is given for universal negative and particular negative statements. Within this theory, we can argue (an argument of my own construction):

1. Affirmative statements concerning nonexistent subjects are false.

2. Assertions of the existence of a subject for which there is no evidence is presumptively false; the existence of such a subject is presumptively false. (Onus of Proof)

3. Arbitrary assertions are assertions for which there is no evidence (no validation, so no evidence).

____________________________________________________________

Affirmative statements concerning arbitrarily asserted subjects are presumptively false.

It would surely be correct to drop the word presumptively from 2 and from the conclusion when the arbitrary assertion is one that cannot be invalidated in principle. From the Buridan et al. view of truth concerning nonexistent subjects we get presumptive falsity and unqualified falsity for affirmative statements concerning arbitrarily posed subjects. Whether negative statements concerning arbitrarily posed subjects would be meaningless rather than assessable for truth is unsettled on this view, but they are not automatically false.

There is another tradition (P.F. Strawson and H.L.A. Hart) that instead takes existence of the subject to be presupposed in any universal or particular affirmative or negative statement. Under this approach, we get that arbitrary assertions are presumptively (or unqualifiedly) neither true nor false. They are presumptively (or unqualifiedly) meaningless.*

There is a third tradition, the one predominate today, in which any particular affirmative or particular negative statement in which the subject does not truly exist is false; and no such blanket verdict is given for universal affirmative and universal negative statements. **

Determining which of these three approaches fits best with Rand’s epistemology is work remaining to be accomplished. I would examine the first and third as they look when their not-definitely-false pairs on the square of opposition are taken as meaningless.

* Strawson would object to my use of the word meaningless here, which he would reserve for a use more narrow. He would call such statements spurious or failures to refer. All the same, he would agree that his approach casts all such statements, and singular statements such as "The King of Texas has a Cadillac," as not assessable for truth.

** On these three traditions and a fourth, see Laurence Horn’s A Natural History of Negation (CSLI 2001 [1989]).

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The problems that Mr. Boydstun raises are real, and one of the proposed solutions is that propositions on the order of "The King of Texas drives a Cadillac" are neither true nor false.

But they don't much overlap with the problems that Dr. Peikoff has aimed to solve with his doctrine.

Some arbitrary assertions à la Pekoff are of propositions whose subjects fail to refer to anything real; e.g., "Gremlins are holding a conference on Venus." But none of Peikoff's treatments of the arbitrary that I have been able to locate ever mention cases like "The King of Texas drives a Cadillac."

Peikoff does claim, of course, that arbitrary assertions are neither true nor false. But for Peikoff, propositions like "2 + 2 = 4" or "Ayn Rand had an affair with Nathaniel Branden" can be arbitrarily asserted—by people with insufficient knowledge or bad epistemic attitudes.

In his 1974 lectures on Logic, Leonard Peikoff included a short discussion of Bertie Russell's theory of definite of descriptions. He rejected this in favor of a view rather like Strawson's, maintaining that "The present king of France is bald" is neither true nor false. He also characterized such propositions as "metaphysically meaningless" (to be differentiated from "epistemologically meaningless" or flat-out unintelligible).

There is no mention of any of this in his 1976 lectures, or in any of his subsequent discussions of "the arbitrary." I don't even know whether Leonard Peikoff still subscribes to his 1974 position on "The King of Texas drives a Cadillac." It is not mentioned in OPAR, or in the latter-day lectures I am familiar with (but I am a long way from knowing all of them).

When I started work on my article, I thought I would mention the 1974 discussion of meaninglessness, but quickly decided to leave it out, because I saw no indication that Dr. Peikoff considered it relevant to his views on "the arbitrary."

Robert Campbell

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Typo in #34: That should have been "B through Z," not "C through Z." No change in the point.

Yes, Nicky, on Rand's definition of knowledge, evidence would be firstly observation. Definitely too, observations can become evidence. Rand's conception of validity in concepts, definitions, and other propositions, including philosophical axioms, also points to observations as the most basic form of evidence in knowledge. The need for logical integration for knowledge, including integration of mathematics with observations and with conceptual understanding, however, suggests that in Rand's view of knowledge more can be evidence than observations, at least if it is integral with observations and proper conceptualization from them.

Are you saying that "the basis of evidence is observation, but..."?

If that's what you're saying, then my answer is "There's no but.". If that's not what you're saying, then whatever you're saying is irrelevant to my point. We know what the basis for evidence is, and therefor we know that when a statement has no basis in observed reality, it is invalid. Naming such a statement (as "arbitrary", for instance) is a perfectly sensible thing to do, and anyone who writes a 72 page essay on why it's not is wrong.

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Are you saying that "the basis of evidence is observation, but..."?

I'm not sure what else can become evidence except for observation at least indirectly, so I need clarification from Boydstun.

Must an invalid statement be arbitrary? If all invalid statements are arbitrary, why have the concept arbitrary? My thinking is that it depends why the statement is invalid. Suppose an alien from Alpha Centauri landed on Earth. The alien knows a lot about Earth, including that there are leaders of high authority, just not a whole lot about the English language. So one day, you ask what other people like you in Texas drive because you want a good car considering the gas prices. Offering a suggestion, the response is "Well, the King of Texas drives a Cadillac, I saw him driving one the other day". You recognize the error and say "oh, he's not the King of Texas, he's the governor." Or perhaps it's just an inside joke, making fun of a guy with an absurd cowboy hat that the two of you call the King of Texas.

With the linguistic mistake, that's an invalid statement because it's false according to your knowledge of English. There is evidence that what the alien meant to is based on observation, not a hallucination. With the joke, the statement is invalid because the comparison is meant to be absurd, although it's based on some wordplay. You might say the linguistic error has at least conceptual basis in reality, so we are still using observation. With the wordplay, there is no observation going on there of any actual King of Texas. Would you say either example is arbitrary? Why or why not?

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Nicky and Eiuol,

As you know, Rand defined knowledge as a mental grasp of reality, reached either (i) by perceptual observation or (ii) by a process of reason based on observation (ITOE 45). An example of (i) would be perceiving a drawn square with a diagonal of it also drawn. An example of (ii) would be a proof demonstrating that the length of the diagonal is incommensurable with the length of the square’s sides. The premises in this proof, such as the premise claiming that every counting number is either even or odd, will be based on yet other perceptual observations or on a process of reason based on observations. The premises of the proof are evidence (in the case at hand, incontrovertible evidence) for the truth of the conclusion. (They are also explanatory of the conclusion.)

It was (ii) I was describing as evidence “integral with observations and proper conceptualization from them.” We are not in any disagreement on this.

Stephen

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

PS

Eiuol,

I’d say that in the case of the alien, the assertion would not be an arbitrary, and in the joke context, it would also arise from observations, so again would not be arbitrary. So far as I know there is no context in which the statement would be an arbitrary one. If one makes up a story for the children “Once upon a time, the King of Texas got lost in a dust storm. . .” the author knows it is a fiction and only related to observations in the ways that fictions are related to observations.

However, if someone were to sincerely profess “Jesus Christ is the son of God and savior of the world,” I think we have an invalid assertion, one very largely not based on observations, but aspirations contrary basic observations. Some unbelievers would take this statement, particular affirmative, as neither true nor false, others would take it as false. Rand, Branden, Peikoff, . . . and I say one knows it is false. In my own view, such a statement is not only false, but grossly defective in meaning. I gather those Objectivist writers would say any meaningless assertion (authentically asserted) is fouled by its arbitrariness, meaning its freedom from observational constraint. That sounds reasonable. To that I add that the meaningless statement (or statement severely deficient in meaning) is based on error, on falsehoods. And I say the statement known to be meaningless is known to be false. That is contrary the position of many philosophers who say the meaningless is neither true nor false. Further study of them may abate this difference.

–S

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OK, I have some laymen questions for the panel, and they are likely very laymen since economics, not epistemology, is my strength zone.

1. I understand the basic definition of an arbitrary assertion as something that is neither true nor false since it is not based on reality. It is worse than false and to be rejected out of hand. So my question is…

Why is this important in the first place? As Rand said often and artistically, life is a series of questions to which the answer is yes of no. Or true or false. Or Good or evil. Vanderbilt built an empire by asking: True or false? As a manager I see something and I want to know if it is true, or not, and act accordingly. The difference between something being false for reason X or not true for fantasy Y is the same result: It is not true. It is wrong since it does not further my life by the criteria of the original question.

What is the purpose of breaking errors into hierarchal arrangements of relevance when the end result is that they are both irrelevant?

2. Another aspect of the arbitrary assertion is that it is user dependant. If someone repeats the phrase 2+2=4 because they heard it but doesn’t understand it, they are asserting it arbitrarily since they have no reference to it as knowledge outside of an argument from authority (or if I remember correctly, Peikoff said you are making the noise of a parrot). For a practical daily example, I can say (and frequently do) that “You manage assets, you lead people” and explain why this is so through experience and facts. If someone reads it in a book or heard someone say it, and then regurgitates it, this is said to be an arbitrary assertion since he never went through the mental process of identifying the fact and integrating it as proven knowledge. This leads to the conundrum…

How do I know the person is repeating knowledge arbitrarily? People do not come with a virtual index tab that allows you access their intellectual hierarchy of how they arrived at a conclusion. Someone can tell me, well... anything and I have no way of knowing how they arrived at that conclusion. I know if it is true or false, but not how they came to the thought. Since this aspect of the arbitrary assertion is independent of the conclusion, it is about the thought process, I cannot use the actual assertion to determine it. Someone can tell me that Government regulation hinders productivity and I have no way to know how they came to that conclusion. They could have the complete Mises library on their bookshelf or they could have heard their preacher say it. You have no means of identifying how another man integrates his knowledge. This implication makes this use of the arbitrary assertion useless since you cannot identify it when needed.

Wouldn't this application of the arbitrary assertion itself be an arbitrary assertion?

Thank you for your thoughts.

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Sprial Architect asks: Why is this important in the first place?

The primary importance is how do you deal with an assertion that is incorrect.

  • Do you inquire as to the basis on which it is presumed to be correct?
  • Do you point out that it is incorrect?
  • Do you simply not honor the assertion with a reply?

The purpose of breaking the error down lay in selecting the proper way with which to deal with it.

An inquiry as to why it is presumed to be as asserted is asking - how did you arrive at this conclusion? Do they have the complete Mises library on their bookshelf, did their preacher say it, or does Polly want a cracker?

If you have no history with the asserter, this should help to establish a basis for determining if you are dealing an honest error, and whether the asserter is aware that the position may even be in error,

If you are already familiar with the asserter's position (i.e. you've discussed it before), you need to assess the situation in which the assertion was made.

  • Are they just re-asserting it knowing your position on the matter privately?
  • Was it pronounced in a group setting where your response could be interpreted as a sanction or not.

If it is stated privately, you could politely remind them that you've disagreed with the point previously, or possibly allow the point to pass, uncommented.

If the assertion was made in a group setting, is it just an exchange between you and the asserter or did it come up in the context of a group discussion?

  • You could publicly explore why it is presumed correct, dissecting it along the way.
  • You could point out that you disagree but that this may not be the time or place to lay out all the cards on the table.

This should also address what you ask later on in your question, How do I know the person is repeating knowledge arbitrarily?, as well.

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However, if someone were to sincerely profess “Jesus Christ is the son of God and savior of the world,” I think we have an invalid assertion, one very largely not based on observations, but aspirations contrary [to] basic observations. Some unbelievers would take this statement, particular affirmative, as neither true nor false, others would take it as false. Rand, Branden, Peikoff, . . . and I say one knows it is false.

So far as I know, Ayn Rand considered "Jesus Christ is the son of God and savior of the world" to be a false statement. Whether she considered it an arbitrary assertion in Leonard Peikoff's sense, I have no idea.

Nathaniel Branden was on record, in lectures and in his 1963 article, to the effect that this statement is false, and is asserted arbitrarily.

With Leonard Peikoff, take your pick. If you follow the reasoning presented in Chapter 1 of OPAR, you will conclude that the statement is false because it contradicts metaphysical axioms.

If you accept the positions taken in Chapter 5 of OPAR, you will conclude that it is always asserted arbitrarily, and can therefore neither be true nor false.

As has been the case throughout the discussion, Mr. Boydstun writes as though Dr. Peikoff was trying to solve problems formulated by Mr. Boydstun. The problems that Dr. Peikoff was actually trying to solve don't count.

In my article, I pointed out a salient parallel in OPAR, between making an arbitrary assertion and choosing not to live. Both are wronger than wrong: one is falser than false and the other is worse than bad. If I am right about this, there are significant implications as to what problems Dr. Peikoff was trying to solve.

For Mr. Boydstun, this is all belittlement of Leonard Peikoff; why else would anyone bring it up?

I consider it fortunate that on OO Mr. Boydstun can't delete a thread during which I have commented on his position.

Robert Campbell

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How do I know the person is repeating knowledge arbitrarily? People do not come with a virtual index tab that allows you access their intellectual hierarchy of how they arrived at a conclusion. Someone can tell me, well... anything and I have no way of knowing how they arrived at that conclusion. I know if it is true or false, but not how they came to the thought. Since this aspect of the arbitrary assertion is independent of the conclusion, it is about the thought process, I cannot use the actual assertion to determine it. Someone can tell me that Government regulation hinders productivity and I have no way to know how they came to that conclusion. They could have the complete Mises library on their bookshelf or they could have heard their preacher say it. You have no means of identifying how another man integrates his knowledge. This implication makes this use of the arbitrary assertion useless since you cannot identify it when needed.

Bingo.

In fact, those who adhere to Ayn Rand's prohibition on psychologizing should, if they are consistent, refrain from identifying any assertion as arbitrary, if their basis for so identifying it is any purported diagnosis of the asserter's thought processes.

Although I questioned in my article how Leonard Peikoff could know that every arbitrary assertion is "brazen" and so forth, and I asked whether he would be guilty, by his own lights, of gross "psychologizing" (see p. 130), I didn't take it further because the notion of psychologizing raises its own difficulties—and I plan to write about them in a future article.

By the way, when I asked about the status of any assertions that Leonard Peikoff has made or will make about Gödel's Incompleteness Theorem (pp. 111-112), I was pointing to some of the problems posed by the speaker-dependence of arbitrariness. What Dr. Peikoff has written (in The Ominous Parallels) or said (in his DIM lectures) about the Incompleteness Theorem appears to be the product of utter ignorance of the subject. But, of course, I don't know what Dr. Peikoff has studied or read, or failed to study or read, on this subject, nor am I familiar with his step-by-step process of arriving at his conclusions about it. Even less do I know whether Dr. Peikoff's apparent ignorance has been willful, reckless, or brazen. Am I entitled to conclude that Dr. Peikoff has asserted his statements arbitrarily?

Wouldn't this application of the arbitrary assertion itself be an arbitrary assertion?

Sure looks like it.

Robert Campbell

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If that's what you're saying, then my answer is "There's no but.". If that's not what you're saying, then whatever you're saying is irrelevant to my point. We know what the basis for evidence is, and therefor[e] we know that when a statement has no basis in observed reality, it is invalid. Naming such a statement (as "arbitrary", for instance) is a perfectly sensible thing to do, and anyone who writes a 72 page essay on why it's not is wrong.

See my two previous comments, Nicky.

Meanwhile, you have yet to bring anything to this discussion except arguments from intimidation.

Robert Campbell

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