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Ayn Rand's Philosophy as Pre-Darwinian

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Mikee
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I've had this claim about Rand's philosophy levelled at me in a discussion:

 

"Rand's philosophy is specifically pre-Darwinian. The human perceptual wetware already constitutes an innate theory about the world. The human body itself can be seen as a conjecture about its environment. And this is all consistent with the observation that toddlers invariably exhibit an innate sense of fair play. They do this long before they could have had the sorts of perceptions and conceptions imagined by Randian Objectivists. Any adequate philosophy is going to have to explain this." 

When I asked for evidence for his claim about toddlers he cited this study: http://healthland.time.com/2012/02/20/even-babies-can-recognize-whats-fair/

 

Now it's my understanding that Rand's epistemology was a blank state one and that Chomsky has argued that there must be thousands of innate elements of meaning, thousands of categories that cannot be learned from the evidence of the senses and instead must be inborn. But this is because his theories are a response to the stripped-down epistemology of the British empiricists as handled by the Anglo-American analytic approaches of the 20th century, which on their own terms can be shown not to succeed at explaining human knowledge. 

 

I think the charge of pre-Darwinism is explained with this paragraph:

 

"First of all, Chomsky, Gardner, and others of similar ideologies believe that infants are born with a significant prewired knowledge of how languages work and how they do not work. Views within this group vary slightly, but they all hold to this basic tenet and cite ample evidence in defense of this view. These proponents of the innateness of linguistic ability also believe that the genetic basis for language came about as the result of Darwinian evolution and by an extension of the "survival of the fittest" argument. Again, individual views vary slightly, but all supporters of this school of thought see language as a product of Darwinian evolution."

 

 

How would you respond to something like this claim?

 

 

 

 

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Here are some elements of my response:

 

I'd say to him, "What kind of toddlers have you been around?" And "there is a difference between 'fair play' and 'sharing as a sacrifice to oneself.'" Ayn Rand's philosophy is absolutely about fair play. The ethic that says you should share with others at a sacrifice to yourself is NOT about fair play at all.

 

Now, I may have an slightly undeveloped understanding of Rand's epistemology, but even if she implies that we are (and as I understand, she and Peikoff do) I don't think we are entirely a blank slate in terms of impulses to do things. Having said that, we still are a blank slate when it comes to actual knowledge. But I do think that there are some built-in, evolutionary-designed impulses that humans have. Just like my dog never had to be taught to dig in the dirt, or taught to kick his legs back when he poos, etc. And every animal we know of in the world seems to have the pre-built, hard-wired impulses. I'm sure they live somewhere in the subconscious, in the same way we don't consciously thing of making our heart beat, or consciously breathe, there are some subconscious impulses that are built in. 

 

I think racism is like this, in mild forms. It might be a self-protection issue. We see someone who looks different, who looks like he is not from our tribe, who acts differently or behaves differently, and we view them as a threat. It's the same principle that makes people really support their home sports team, and despise their rivals. This is all within the realm of evolutionary psychology.

 

However, your friend seems to be arguing that if some kind of trait or impulse is built in our psyche, then it must be morally good. This is simply the naturalistic fallacy. It is the is-ought problem. Ayn Rand answered the is-ought problem by showing a relation of values to answering the question "to whom and for what?" where the "whom" and the "what" exist in the real world and operate by the laws of the real world and the laws of logic. But that does not mean that just anything you find in nature, or any human impulse that you can show a human may have, is itself a moral good, devoid of context and the question "to whom and for what." 

 

So ultimately, I think your friend is a little confused on the is-ought problem, and may not even be aware he is running up against it, and it also seems like (unsurprisingly) he really doesn't understand Rand's philosophy and how she addressed these questions.

Edited by secondhander
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See: The Symbolic Species: The Co-evolution of Language and the Brain

 

I read the above book a long time ago. The basic premise was that while humans don't possess innate ideas, they are born with the hardware that allows them to quickly conceptualize.  He goes directly after Chompsky as well.

 

Ayn Rand talked of a "blank slate" in the context of morality and epistemology. In the moral context, you are responsible for your own actions: no blaming your morality/immorality on your "genes" and so forth.

 

In the epistemological context, one is born without anything a person could call "knowledge".

 

I'm qualifying both of these carefully because if you cross into the realm of science I think you'll find a lot of things humans are born with, and a lot that would seem, in a different context, to refute Ayn Rand's notion of tabula rasa. I certainly think its possible you might find behavioral tendencies within a certain race, for instance, that might show up only in highly aggregated observations (i.e. over a large number of subjects you might see a slight skew, etc.). These would be behaviors along the lines of eating more, more dangerous behavior choices, chemical dependency, etc. (And here again I'm just listing contrived examples).

 

It's important to understand that such discoveries in the above example, insofar as they are made, do not refute Ayn Rand's notion of tabula rasa. While one might use the term "not tabula rasa" to describe an innate urge to eat more than most other humans, this is not what Ayn Rand was talking about.

 

Hence many times, as I suspect in the above example, these thinkers and Ayn Rand are simply talking past each other (which may or may not be intentional on the part of the thinker).

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I agree.

 

Biologically "inborn" tendencies are not anything of any consequence to Objectivism.

 

If in reality humans were born with color blindness, or tinted vision, but we could with effort learn to train our eyes to see things without distortion, then of what significance would there be to the fact that we evolved with flaws, once we have recognized them?

 

A large number of us might automatically have a fear of spiders and that probably has an evolutionary origin, but as humans with volition who clearly now can properly judge the level of danger actually posed by a spider... of what consequence to a modern individual is the inborn feeling?  None.

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Even if the innate behavior is more on the moral level--viz. babies are born with "fairness" already in their bodies--that doesn't explain why a big chunk of the human race is not fair. Humans possess volition, and as such can and do override these "urges" all of the time, which then leads the moral realm ignore that as a differentiating factor across all humans.

 

What Ayn Rand would say is that we are not born with uncontrollable urges even if we may be born with one or more innate feelings.

 

By the same token, a "vision in your mind" is not knowledge in the human sense. Knowledge is something which must be integrated with the sum of the rest of your knowledge, driven by a context. For instance, if in some future world babies were implanted with a Wikipedia chip in their heads when they were born*, while this might improve their recall of facts, etc. this would in no way change their method of cognition (and that data in their heads would mean nothing until it was integrated like any normal bit of knowledge).

 

(Slightly off-topic here but I thought this was an interesting discussion).

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I've had this claim about Rand's philosophy levelled at me in a discussion:

 

"Rand's philosophy is specifically pre-Darwinian. The human perceptual wetware already constitutes an innate theory about the world. The human body itself can be seen as a conjecture about its environment. And this is all consistent with the observation that toddlers invariably exhibit an innate sense of fair play. They do this long before they could have had the sorts of perceptions and conceptions imagined by Randian Objectivists. Any adequate philosophy is going to have to explain this." 

I think a lot of people literally don't understand Chomsky's ideas and presume that there is pre-wired knowledge knowledge of how languages work. While I often dislike how the term knowledge is used, it's really irrelevant when discussing development.  What Chomsky claims is that there is an innate "language acquisition device" that establishes an (abstracted) cognitive structure that is sensitive to linguistic input. I think he goes too far in stating that there is a universal grammar, but the very basic cognitive science concept is that people are born with a cognitive structure that makes learning possible. If anything, Chomsky and others only try to explain how is it possible to start learning from apparently nothing at all, which is fine, but they have no theory of how the cognitive structure actually works, at least not a well established theory of performance (how it works)

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I think a lot of people literally don't understand Chomsky's ideas and presume that there is pre-wired knowledge knowledge of how languages work. While I often dislike how the term knowledge is used, it's really irrelevant when discussing development.  What Chomsky claims is that there is an innate "language acquisition device" that establishes an (abstracted) cognitive structure that is sensitive to linguistic input. I think he goes too far in stating that there is a universal grammar, but the very basic cognitive science concept is that people are born with a cognitive structure that makes learning possible. If anything, Chomsky and others only try to explain how is it possible to start learning from apparently nothing at all, which is fine, but they have no theory of how the cognitive structure actually works, at least not a well established theory of performance (how it works)

 

I only know Chompsky in this level of detail through Deacon (see book link above) where he seems to (if I recall for a very long time ago) deride Chompsky somewhat for appealing to the "great unknowable" in terms of the machinery. Deacon said, in essence, that there's a scientific explanation to Chompsky's problem whereas Chompsky pointed his proverbial finger skyward.  Did I remember that all wrong?

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I think what Eioul is talking about is some sort of 'language organ' an idea which I believe has been criticised here: http://zompist.com/langorg.htm

 

There is also Michael Tomasello’s paper on Chomsky’s Universal Grammar: 

 

http://www.psych.yorku.ca/gigi/documents/Tomasello_2004.pdf

 

 

This paragraph is especially worth quoting:

 

“I think it is important that the oddness of the UG hypothesis about language acquisition be emphasized; it has basically no parallels in hypotheses about how children acquire competence in other cognitive domains. For example, such skills as music and mathematics are, like language, unique to humans and universal among human groups, with some variations. But no one has to date proposed anything like UniversalMusic or UniversalMathematics, and no one has as yet proposed any parameters of these abilities to explain cross-cultural diversity (e.g., +/- variables, which some cultures use, as in algebra, and some do not—or certain tonal patterns in music). It is not that psychologists think that these skills have no important biological bases—they assuredly do—it is just that proposing an innate UM does not seem to be a testable hypothesis, it has no interesting empirical consequences beyond those generated by positing biological bases in general, and so overall it does not help us in any way to get closer to the phylogenetic and ontogenetic origins of these interesting cognitive skills.”

 

 

This is a very nice counter-statement to the Chomskyan claim that the uniqueness of language to humans among species but its universality among humans shows its special biologically innate status. 

 

Michael Tomasello also has a book called Constructing a Language: http://www.amazon.com/Constructing-Language-Usage-Based-Theory-Acquisition/dp/0674017641/ref=wl_it_dp_o_pC_S_nC?ie=UTF8&colid=SU5HDKSQ7RHT&coliid=I164YROZMUQ8OE

Edited by Mikee
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Toddlers are not animals. They are little human beings and possess human cognitive abilities. They develop self-awareness and therefore volition at the age of 18 months and able to conceptualize the moment they start to talk. To imply that these human faculties are inherent as result of evolution is to deny mind and free will.

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The human body, as a form of innate "conjecture"? Check the conceptual hierarchy. Big time.

Theories and conjectures require volition, which hereditary traits do not have. Evolution is a form of collective action (like the economy); not any sort of consciousness.

That's intrinsicism on top of conceptual theft.

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Toddlers have no such thing. The way to handle that assertion is empirically.

Watch a group of toddlers play together for long enough and i promise you, you'll see an initiation of force. If there is anything innate it sure isn't justice!

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It's a mildly clever gimmick intended to smuggle the primacy of consciousness into objectivism through the mystification of zygotes and toenails. Just ask them which facts those claims are based on; they'll either concede oist epistemology or float away into arbitrary realms.

(and Darwin would be horrified by it, btw)

Edited by Harrison Danneskjold
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I only know Chompsky in this level of detail through Deacon (see book link above) where he seems to (if I recall for a very long time ago) deride Chompsky somewhat for appealing to the "great unknowable" in terms of the machinery. Deacon said, in essence, that there's a scientific explanation to Chompsky's problem whereas Chompsky pointed his proverbial finger skyward.  Did I remember that all wrong?

It's Chomsky, not Chompsky. I'm not a Chomsky expert at all. The problem with Chomsky is his universal grammar, though that is big. His lack of explanation of how the human mind actually works is not the issue, because he and basically all people in cognitive science deal with the abstract structure of cognition. That is no error, any more than it is an error to talk about free will without giving the neurological structure of the mind. Infants have innate *faculties*, but unfortunately some people say that is innate *knowledge*.

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