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Necessary And Contingent Truths

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Please correct me if I am wrong. I understand that Ayn Rand and Objectivism say that all contingent truths are also necessary truths. In this, objectivist philosophy is sharply at odds with western academic philosophy. Is something available online about this debate? Or may be you can give your own input about this subject?

Ontological Realist

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I think (and please correct me if I am wrong) that the dichotomy between contingent and necessary truths is related to using a faulty theory of concepts, and before that, of rejecting the metaphysically given. I think this issue is also related to the analytic/synthetic dichotomy, as in that case also there is a split between truths that are given in the concept, and truths that are not given in the concept (if I recall correctly most of these dichotomies could be traced back to some error in metaphysics, regarding the metaphysically given).

I think your question is probably answered in detail in Introduction to Objectivist epistemology, but that's not available online as far as I know. I'm rambling a little bit, I'll see if I can dig up some background material tomorrow when I'm more awake B)

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I'm not sure what you mean by the distinctions you provide concerning 'truth.'

In Objectivism, 'truth' or certainty or any knowledge whatsoever is in extricably linked to a context, whatever that may be. Objectivism rejects any form of a priori, or non-contextual knowledge while also rejects any attempt at subjective knowledge or 'truths' apart from the facts of reality.

Again, I'm not sure if this is applicable to the distinction you are making above. However, whatever the case, it seems to be an issue of epistemology, which the base of is very clear cut in Objectivism.

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I understand that Ayn Rand and Objectivism say that all contingent truths are also necessary truths.
I would say that Rand has never directly addressed that specific question, for a somewhat obvious reason that I agree that the concept is antithetical to Objectivist epistemology, so to deify, uh, I mean reify the beast by talking about it would be not so useful a wasting of one's time.

Peikoff's paper "The analytic-synthetic dichotomy" appearing in The Objectivist (1967) and included in Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology would be the basic reference work on the question in Objectivism. Thereafter, you could Google "Peikoff analytic synthetic" and find a number of blog entries on both sides.

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Here is an excerpt from Peikoff's paper, which Dave Odden reffered you to:

n the present issue, the basic error of both schools is the view that facts, some or all, are contingent. As far as metaphysical reality is concerned (omitting human actions from consideration, for the moment), there are no "facts which happen to be but could have been otherwise" as against "facts which must be." There are only: facts which are.

The view that facts are contingent—that the way things actually are is only one among a number of alternative possibilities, that things could have been different metaphysically—represents a failure to grasp the Law of Identity. Since things are what they are, since everything that exists possesses a specific identity, nothing in reality can occur causelessly or by chance. The nature of an entity determines <ioe2_109> what it can do and, in any given set of circumstances, dictates what it will do. The Law of Causality is entailed by the Law of Identity. Entities follow certain laws of action in consequence of their identity, and have no alternative to doing so.

Metaphysically, all facts are inherent in the identities of the entities that exist; i.e., all facts are "necessary." In this sense, to be is to be "necessary." The concept of "necessity," in a metaphysical context, is superfluous.

I highly recommend reading Peikoff's paper in full, as he goes much more in depth than this short quote. I just chose this one because it was the one that seemed to address his rejection of contingent facts most directly.

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Please correct me if I am wrong. I understand that Ayn Rand and Objectivism say that all contingent truths are also necessary truths. In this, objectivist philosophy is sharply at odds with western academic philosophy. Is something available online about this debate? Or may be you can give your own input about this subject?

Ontological Realist

The most insightful discussion of this occurs in ITOE, but theres also a discussion of it in Peikoff's "Analytic/Synthetic Dichotomy" included in the same volume (I would recommend Rand's discussion over Peikoff's though).

The main issue here is what it means to say that something 'could have been otherwise'. Rand claims (correctly imo) that this sort of talk implicitly presupposes the Christian worldview, where God created the world one way but was equally free to create it a different way. So the laws of physics could have been different because God could have made them different. And this was indeed the way that the distinction arose historically, with Leibniz using it is theory of possible worlds. The notion of 'logical possibility' just secularizes this; there are many 'logical possible worlds' (ie worlds which arent internally incoherent), but only one of these is actualised in reality (ie God chose to made this one and not those ones)

But if we accept that the universe wasnt created, and its existence is just a brute fact, then its unclear (to say the least) how most physical things could have been different. How could the universal constant of gravitation have been anything other than what it is? By what process could there only have been 2 planets in the solar system? And so on. The uncritical overuse of phrases like 'possible' and 'could have been' is a glaring defect in contemporary philosophy (and has been amplified in recent years due to the rise of modal logic).

Edited by Hal
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  • 2 months later...
But might making all truths necessary truths essentially strip human beings of volition and free will?

Making human actions necessary seems to imply that choice is just an illusion and there is only one possible outcome from any given set of physical and mental preconditions.

What's an example of a necessary truth about the future, pertaining to man's will? It is a necessary truth that Nixon did resign as president, and a necesssary truth that GWB will die, but it is not a truth, necessary or otherwise, that Bush will resign as president. So without an example of what you're talking about, I don't see that this is a problem.
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But might making all truths necessary truths essentially strip human beings of volition and free will?

Making human actions necessary seems to imply that choice is just an illusion and there is only one possible outcome from any given set of physical and mental preconditions.

You might find it helpful to read Objectivist materials about the metaphysical versus the man-made. The specific book in which an essay on this appears escapes me, but I'm sure someone else will point it out.

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But might making all truths necessary truths essentially strip human beings of volition and free will?

Making human actions necessary seems to imply that choice is just an illusion and there is only one possible outcome from any given set of physical and mental preconditions.

Well, to give the Objectivist answer (based on Peikoff's essay) in a nutshell-- the original poster was incorrect to posit that "Ayn Rand and Objectivism say that all contingent truths are also necessary truths." Objectivism rejects the whole notion of contingent vs necessary truths altogether. The "analytic-synthetic dichotomy" is the ultimate culmination of a long history of epistemological theories. Since it's the most consistent version, Peikoff smashes the necessary/contingent distinction (which was its predecessor) by refuting the analytic-synthetic.

But if you want a specific, detailed refutation of the "contingent truth/necessary truth" distinction, Peikoff offers just that in his lecture on Locke in his "Founders of Western Philosophy, From Thales through Hume" lecture series. Specifically, he gives a detailed acount of Locke's version of this distinction, along with a history running through the ages, and in the final lecture on Objectivism at the end of the course, gives the final refutation. It's a really good course, and I was looking earlier today to see who had published it in book form-- I know someone had at a certain point, but it might have been a limited time only type of deal. Anyway, just thought I'd plug that course one more time. In it, Peikoff answers (in the 60s) a lot of the arguments that Ayn Rand and Peikoff were "not aware of," according to popular accusations from certain academics. I wonder how he pulled that one off? :D

And volition is just one type of causality (in the Aristotelian tradition of causality being entities acting according to their natures, not the earlier tradition of mechanistic determinism, which Aristotle provided the answer to).

Edited by Bold Standard
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What's an example of a necessary truth about the future, pertaining to man's will? It is a necessary truth that Nixon did resign as president, and a necesssary truth that GWB will die, but it is not a truth, necessary or otherwise, that Bush will resign as president. So without an example of what you're talking about, I don't see that this is a problem.

You can't really have any necessary truths about the future regarding mens choices simply due to the fact that men can't predict such future actions.

But if you hold that all truths are necessary, this lack of predictive power is a matter only of the extent of our current knowledge rather than an inherent unpredictability in the system.

As an example, consider an opaque box with one hole at the top to drop a marble into, and two holes at the bottom for the marble to exit. Before the marble is dropped in, you cannot say as a matter of truth which of the two holes the marble will exit from. But this is only because you can't see inside the box. If you open the box, you might discover that the way it is designed the marble will only ever exit from the left hole for example and that the choice of two exits was only an illusion.

If there is no difference between human action and physical objects (as would seem to be the case if all truths were necessary) then it is concievable that human actions could be predicted with similar certainty. One can imagine a super-super-computer with enough power and information to predict human action with a certainty bounded only by things such as the uncertainty principle and quantum mechanics.

This computer might tell us that it is a necessary truth, given the current preconditions, that GWB will resign.

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Noone said all truths were necessary though, or that there was no difference between the actions of humans and those of other entities. The distinction AR actually made was "metaphysical truths" (which I suppose are 'necessary', although in the nomological sense rather than the strict logical one), and "man-made truths" which have 'could have been otherwise'. Its not so much that everything is 'necessary' or everything is 'contingent' - its more that the whole idea of trying to classify facts based on their perceived 'necessity' is fundamentally misguided.

Edited by Hal
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But if you hold that all truths are necessary, this lack of predictive power is a matter only of the extent of our current knowledge rather than an inherent unpredictability in the system.
I assume you realize that Objectivism doesn't hold that all truths are necessary (more specifically, that the concept "necessary truth" is a referring expressing). As far as marble experiments go, failures to predict do reflect problems with what we know about physical law and the universe. Note that if I were to make a declaration ike "It'll go out the left hole", that would not be a truth in the sense that the term is used in Objectivist epistemology (grasping a fact), rather it is simply a sentence which via a bit of linguistic trickery having to do with modal verbs looks like a description of fact. You simply do not grasp the relevant fact of reality, even if your sentence seems to hint at such a grasp.

The essential difference between human action and the action of physical objects is that humans have volition, whereby we escape from predetermination. That messes up any predictive theory of human action. No amount of compute power will allow you to negate volition, so we can never truly grasp future facts about human choice.

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In Objectivism, 'truth' or certainty or any knowledge whatsoever is in extricably linked to a context, whatever that may be. Objectivism rejects any form of a priori, or non-contextual knowledge while also rejects any attempt at subjective knowledge or 'truths' apart from the facts of reality.

But surely you believe that, in all possible contexts, the law of non-contradiction applies.

This is one point in Objectivism I don't agree with. We must agree that there are certain propositions which are either true or false simply by the meaning of the proposition. For instance, 'There is a round square.' Contrary to Peikoff's response to the tautology, 'All bachelors are married males,' there is no way to deny that there is a round square by saying that the class of round objects includes no squares. You cannot go through the entire class of round objects, ideal or otherwise, and discover that none of them is a square. The class is far too large. Nor need you do so. The falsity is contained in the meaning of the proposition. What it means to be round and what it means to be a square are mutually exclusive. The same is true of any sentence of the structure, 'P is true, while at the same time not-P is true in the same sense.'

My question to Peikoff's response to 'All bachelors are married males,'--in which he contrasts this statement with the statement 'All bachelors are less than nine-feet-tall,'--is how do you know what a bachelor is? If the way to determine the truth or falsity of such a sentence is to go through the list of bachelors and find out what properties some, all, or none share, what is your list of properties that allows you to distinguish a bachelor from a fire hydrant? Surely you must know that, if and only if, something is an unmarried male then it is a bachelor. But it is not the case that if and only if something is less than nine-feet-tall, then it is a bachelor. The property of being an unmarried male is an essential, defining, necessary, and sufficient property of bachelors, so you know in advance of knowing anything else about the class of bachelors that they are unmarried males. You need not investigate the matter any more than to understand the proposition. On the other hand, there is nothing contained in the meaning of the word 'bachelor' to restrict height, except insofar as, perhaps, 'bachelor' refers only to men, and 'man' might have some height restrictions (For instance, would we consider a group of beings who are like us in all ways except 50-feet-tall to be humans? My guess is, no.).

And I don't find that this contradicts anything essential in Objectivism. That there are, in a sense, walls around the realm of our knowledge is nothing terribly earth-shattering. We recognize that humans are limited. One limit is that we cannot think outside the realm of logic--that to try to do so is senseless folly, and an attempt to renounce our humanity. It is like trying to prove existence by non-existence, prove consciousness by means of unconsciousness. We simply must accept these walls as a home, rather than a foe. To yearn for knowledge of the non-logical is a mark of existentialists. As such, I reject the Kantian interpretation that this invalidates a priori truth. To try to judge logic as anything other than true is to try to get some kind of "objective" (small 'o'), non-human perspective on it, in which you stand neither inside nor outside of logic, but rather you stand above everything and look down upon it to make a judgement--by what means if not logic? To me, this is the beginning of existentialism itself. Something from a nothing. Nothingness as a genuine reality and recourse. In my judgement, the Objectivist answer to the analytic/synthetic dichotomy is not to reject the categories of knowledge, but to reject that one or the other, or both are not true knowledge.

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We must agree that there are certain propositions which are either true or false simply by the meaning of the proposition.
I don't see why we must. What is included in the meaning of a concept (and thus propositions referring to the concept)? For example, what is the meaning of "dog", and how do we know that that is the meaning of "dog"?
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I don't see why we must. What is included in the meaning of a concept (and thus propositions referring to the concept)? For example, what is the meaning of "dog", and how do we know that that is the meaning of "dog"?

The classic example is the difference between "My 6 month old child just finished reading Atlas Shrugged", and "My 6 month old child is an adult". Even though both statements are always going to be false if meant literally, theres a sense in which the second one is literally impossible whereas the first is just highly highly highly unlikely. The same thing applies to "theres a planet somewhere in the universe where the creatures have 10 heads", versus "there's a planet somewhere in the universe where 4-sided triangles exist". While you can say that the former statement is arbitrary and groundless, it is not literally impossible in the same way that the latter is. I do think theres a genuine distinction to be made between these type of statements, but I'm not entirely sure what it is. Its not so much a 'metaphysical' impossibility, its more that we can rule certain statements out in advance because they misuse language in some sense.

I think most of the classic dichotomies (analytic/synthetic, necessary/contingent, a priori/a posterior) have been attempts to try and express this distinction in words, but none have struck me as being particularly satisfactory and there are pretty serious problems with all of them.

Edited by Hal
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I do think theres a genuine distinction to be made between these type of statements, but I'm not entirely sure what it is. Its not so much a 'metaphysical' impossibility, its more that we can rule certain statements out in advance because they misuse language in some sense.
The only clear difference that I know of is that in one case the standard definitions of two concepts are mutually exclusive. For which reason, a 6 month old adult human is a possibility, if we define adult as an organism that has reached maturity, although if you mean "has been alive for 18 years", i.e. the legal definition (in some states, for some purposes), then a 6 month old adult human is not possible. Anyhow, what I want to know is what the meaning of "dog" is. Without knowing that, I don't see how I can decide whether the truth of "dogs are mammals", "dogs are quadrupeds" or "dogs can breed with jackals" is true simply from the meaning of the concepts.
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I don't see why we must. What is included in the meaning of a concept (and thus propositions referring to the concept)? For example, what is the meaning of "dog", and how do we know that that is the meaning of "dog"?

We know that the meaning of 'dog' is some being with x, y, and z properties because the word is used in the appropriate contexts often enough that we come to understand in which contexts the word is used and in which it is not. I do not assert anything like the idea that language is innate--that you need not learn the means of expressing a priori (or necessary) truths. Not even Kant or Chomsky would assert such a thing. My point is only that, once given a concept, you know some things about the objects to which it refers--namely that they satisfy the criteria for being of that concept, and that they do not, not satisfy the criteria for being of that concept. So once given the concept of a circle, you need not investigate whether the class of circles contains any squares. Certainly you must learn through experience what, in English, the word 'circle' refers to--but it was necessarily true that all circles are not squares, even before learning the English expression of the fact.

I do think theres a genuine distinction to be made between these type of statements, but I'm not entirely sure what it is. Its not so much a 'metaphysical' impossibility, its more that we can rule certain statements out in advance because they misuse language in some sense.

I think most of the classic dichotomies (analytic/synthetic, necessary/contingent, a priori/a posterior) have been attempts to try and express this distinction in words, but none have struck me as being particularly satisfactory and there are pretty serious problems with all of them.

Agreed, I'm not looking for any particular kind of judgement or perfect elucidation of the nature of these kinds of statements, but merely that a distinction can be made intelligible. And it is generally regarded as controversial which statements are necessary and which contingent within extreme cases.

I would, however, say that it's also controversial whether these statements are metaphysical. I believe, in a sense, they are; though I believe that because language is derived from and only in reference to reality. So the laws of the language and the laws of reality are, in some tenuous ways, interconnected. Call me an overzealous Aristotelian, but I do believe that it is both a rule in our language, and a truth about the things to which our language refers, that a given statement cannot both be true and not true. It cannot be raining and not raining in the same sense--both because our language doesn't permit it, and because rain (or its lack) does not permit it. To even suppose that such a thing might be possible in some far-off galaxy many millions of years from now, where an alien culture creates an elaborate contradiction devise that spits out round squares like a sausage grinder is plain old, run-of-the-mill, meat and potatoes existentialism.

That's not to say, however, that the expression, 'Either P is true or P is false,' is particularly enlightening about the nature of the universe or will help you find the right motor oil for your car. It's an empty proposition abstracted from any particular context, which must be filled with something that actually informs you of a specific truth. So in that sense, it's not quite metaphysical.

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We know that the meaning of 'dog' is some being with x, y, and z properties because the word is used in the appropriate contexts often enough that we come to understand in which contexts the word is used and in which it is not.
But that does not tell me what the meaning of "dog" is, so I can't evaluate the claim that there are true sentences that are true simply because of meanings. As far as I have been able to determine, all true sentences are true because of their meanings, that is, the facts about them. So as I understand the idea of deriving truth from meaning, "dogs are mammals", "dogs are quadrupeds" and "dogs can breed with jackals" are all sentences which are true because of the meaning of the involved terms.
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Ah, I thought you were trying to get to some other point with the meaning of 'dog' as an intermediary point, and in the name of brevity I was trying to take a short-cut. 'Dog' is actually a hard one to define. 'Circle' is much easier: the set of points equidistant from a single point in two dimensions. It would go something like, 'any object closely "centered" (by which I mean some finite amount of variation is allowed away from this core list of properties) to a quadrupedal mammal with nose, eyes, ears, body, tail, and legs in x, y, and z proportions, etc.'

The sentence, 'Al owns a goofy-looking dog,' is not true or false by pure meaning of the sentence. That is, you cannot simply understand the proposition and know the truth or falsity of it. It's contingent upon my owning a dog. It's truth relies upon context. On the other hand, the sentence, 'Al owns a dog that is not a dog,' needs no investigation. It is false and no empirical discovery could prove it true. It is a statement categorically different from the first, you must admit. One is true or false in virtue of certain facts about the way things are, the other is simply false.

[Edit: Added text I had omitted in my haste.]

Edited by aleph_0
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'Dog' is actually a hard one to define. 'Circle' is much easier: the set of points equidistant from a single point in two dimensions.
Being manmade, we mostly don't need to worry about discovering properties of "circle", so various circle-tautologies are true by definition (which is distinct from "true because of the meaning"). Given your definition of "circle" plus an appropriate definition of "square", sentences like "No circle is a square" is true by definition. In the context of formal geometry, I accept your definition though I reject it for non-technical usage becuse it would lead us to conclude that these chairs aren't arranged in a circle

200028794-001.jpg

It would go something like, 'any object closely "centered" (by which I mean some finite amount of variation is allowed away from this core list of properties) to a quadrupedal mammal with nose, eyes, ears, body, tail, and legs in x, y, and z proportions, etc.'
Love to know what x, y and z are, as well as the content of etc. There is no question that there are syntactically analytic sentences, that is, ones whose syntax is a formal contradiction "A and not A" or tautology "A or not A", or the well known derivatives therefrom. Although even those can express contingent truths, unless you insist on not inspecting the semantics of words. For all other supposed analytic sentences, they are "necessarily true" only by stipulating certain definitions and then doing symbol substitution. A sentence like "all dogs are quadrupeds" is analytic only is "is a quadruped" is part of the offered definition of "dog". But this has no effect on the meaning of dog. The distinction between meaning and definition is not one to be disregarded.
The sentence, 'Al owns a goofy-looking dog,' is not true or false by pure meaning of the sentence. That is, you cannot simply understand the proposition and know the truth or falsity of it. It's contingent upon my owning a dog. It's truth relies upon context. On the other hand, the sentence, 'Al owns a dog that is not a dog,' needs no investigation. It is false and no empirical discovery could prove it true.
Unless Al happened to own this dog:

84.jpg

It would be true that his dog is not a dog, a fact that requires investigation of the context; and, it is goofy looking.

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Being manmade, we mostly don't need to worry about discovering properties of "circle", so various circle-tautologies are true by definition (which is distinct from "true because of the meaning"). Given your definition of "circle" plus an appropriate definition of "square", sentences like "No circle is a square" is true by definition. In the context of formal geometry, I accept your definition though I reject it for non-technical usage becuse it would lead us to conclude that these chairs aren't arranged in a circle

200028794-001.jpg

Love to know what x, y and z are, as well as the content of etc. There is no question that there are syntactically analytic sentences, that is, ones whose syntax is a formal contradiction "A and not A" or tautology "A or not A", or the well known derivatives therefrom. Although even those can express contingent truths, unless you insist on not inspecting the semantics of words. For all other supposed analytic sentences, they are "necessarily true" only by stipulating certain definitions and then doing symbol substitution. A sentence like "all dogs are quadrupeds" is analytic only is "is a quadruped" is part of the offered definition of "dog". But this has no effect on the meaning of dog...

If you distinguish between being a tautology and being true by dint of its meaning, I don't see how. If and only if something is true just by what it is that you mean to say, then it is a tautology. E.g. 'P v ~P', '(P & [P -->Q]) --> Q'. I'm also confused by how my use of 'circle' is non-technical, considering that this is the standard definition in geometry. In any case, you agree that there is a distinction between categories of statements--namely, between the tautological (i.e. necessarily true) and the contingent, and that is all that I was pointing out. Nobody has ever claimed, to my knowledge, that the necessarily true statements are informative or "affect the meaning of the terms" (whatever that means).

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But if you want a specific, detailed refutation of the "contingent truth/necessary truth" distinction, Peikoff offers just that in his lecture on Locke in his "Founders of Western Philosophy, From Thales through Hume" lecture series. Specifically, he gives a detailed acount of Locke's version of this distinction, along with a history running through the ages, and in the final lecture on Objectivism at the end of the course, gives the final refutation. It's a really good course, and I was looking earlier today to see who had published it in book form-- I know someone had at a certain point, but it might have been a limited time only type of deal.

A-ha, I found it. And by mistake, too, while I was looking for something else. : ) It's being published by George Reisman, edited by Dr. Linda Rearden. Although only the first five lectures have been published so far, the 54.75$ price tag for those five is significantly less intimidating than the 425$ CD set, which contains twelve lectures.

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The essential difference between human action and the action of physical objects is that humans have volition, whereby we escape from predetermination. That messes up any predictive theory of human action. No amount of compute power will allow you to negate volition, so we can never truly grasp future facts about human choice.

Is there any proof of why human action is different than non-human action however? Stating that humans aren't predetermined like physical objects because humans have volition seems rather circular. Volition is simply the state or capacity of not being predetermined, no?

Did Ayn Rand ever attempt to prove why human action isn't predetermined?

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