Saturday, January 25, 2014

Why I'm No Longer an Objectivist (1 of 2)

Started 11/2013
Objectivism vs Science Notes

After almost 20 years, I no longer consider myself an Objectivist.

This was the conclusion of my recent 3 year-long odyssey of science, cosmology, mathematics, and epistemology.  The main sticking points for me were technical science and epistemology.  Objectivism encounters problems with both.

It’s hard to document all the information that’s lead me to this conclusion, but I would like to try.  This first entry is a collection of notes and links regarding Objectivism’s problems with science.  It’s only a small sample, the most I care to document for now on science.  The next entry will concern epistemology, specifically Objectivism’s use of concept as the basis for all knowledge.

Quantum Physics and Relativity

David Harriman opposes Quantum Mechanics.  From the ARI: "This lecture examines the historical development of such ideas [as Quantum Theory] and refutes the myth that they derive from experimental evidence."  Harriman makes many conceptual and logical criticisms of Quantum Theory, and I think he applies Objectivism fairly well here.  

The problem is, Quantum Physics is as proven as evolution.  Harriman ignores this elephant.  He makes no attempt to directly engage the mountain range of evidence on Relativity and QM.  Does Harriman believe in silicon microchips, the orbit of Mercury, distant galaxies, quantum computers, and his GPS device?  How can Quantum Physics be a corrupt conspiracy, when it is a necessary prerequisite for modern chemistry, astronomy, and computer technology?  

McCaskey, Harriman, Peikoff, Galileo, and Viscosity

John McCaskey lost his job standing up for Galileo and viscosity.  Seems a weird thing to take a fall for, but he did.  

In The Logical Leap, David Harriman again makes fairly accurate deductions of Objectivist concepts to a body of technical knowledge, this time the history of science.  Again, Harriman gets wrong or ignores some facts, discounting evidence that is not in line with his arguments.  (Eg., writer "ewv" on The Forum destroys Harriman on the technical science stuff.)  

Again, Harriman is able to convince many intelligent non-experts that he is right about Galileo and viscosity, even after experts point out his errors in detail.  On Amazon, some Objectivists go so far as to claim that McCaskey is evil and his points irrelevant, even if his criticisms are accurate!

A lot of things came to the surface because of the McCaskey affair.  Travis Norsen revealed that he had been ousted from ARI for criticizing the amateurish science of Peikoff and Harriman.  Peikoff declared that his expertise in Objectivism qualifies him as the best judge of the McCaskey dispute:

"An organization devoted to spreading an ideology is not compatible with “freedom” for its leadership to contradict or undermine that ideology. In theory, the best judge of such contradiction would be the person(s) .. who best understands and upholds the ideology ... In practice, the best judge would be the person, if he is still alive, who founded the organization ... carrying out a mandate given him by Ayn Rand. On both counts, only one individual qualifies: me."  

I think that from the perspective of Objectivism, Peikoff is correct.  If all knowledge is rooted in concepts, and if Objectivist concepts are the best, then he who best knows Objectivist concepts is the best judge of virtually anything.  Now that Ayn Rand is gone, Peikoff certainly qualifies.  Regarding McCaskey, the ARI bowed in acceptance of Peikoff's moral and epistemological superiority.  But how can Peikoff be simultaneously be "the best judge...alive," and yet have no expertise in the scientific subject matter he's talking about?  

Alex Silverman sums up implications of Objectivist cosmology in this 2004 essay.  He was only a student at the time, but his conclusions were endorsed by popular Objectivist scientist Stephen Speicher and many others on Speicher’s Forum 4 Ayn Rand Fans.  I’ve heard these same arguments from many other intelligent Objectivists over the years.  I’m willing to bet Harriman and Peikoff would enthusiastically approve, as well.

Objectivism does require an unbound, finite, three dimensional, plenum-space universe.  Arguments like Silverman’s have been used to discount quantum theory, black holes, and the Big Bang (as Speicher did).  

These guys prove to me that Objectivism has no business pronouncing limitations on scientific discovery.  Good physicists do not limit their theories to the unbounded, finite, etc.  Physicists have documented proof of black holes, et al.  Again, Objectivism gets science wrong.  Why?

Environmental Science

Almost all Objectivists reject Anthropogenic Global Warming.  Some Objectivists claim that environmental scientists are -- like physicists and mathematicians -- corrupt, irrational, untrustworthy, and conspiratorial.  When I looked into the numbers for myself, I came to the exact opposite conclusion.  Yet again, on a technical scientific issue Objectivsm gets it wrong.

I had to spend 40 hours on this problem, restudying maths and statistics first.  The evidence could not have become clear unless I did this.  I have no interest in documenting this very difficult subject, but to me, this is another instance in which highly technical subject matter has confounded leading Objectivist thinkers.

(Once you've tackled Stats, Skeptical Science is a good start for research.)

This is all I have for now.  I’ll work on documenting the epistemological stuff in the coming weeks.  This may never become a polished work, but I wanted to get it out there.

--Dan Edge


patrick said...

I am looking forward to part two of your essay.

Aaron said...

Hey Dan. I agree with you on almost all your specific concerns - yet disagree with your overall notion that that means you're not an Objectivist.

I've struggled with the same kinds of concerns when other Objectivists, often prominent ones, say something incredibly ignorant, wrong, and/or irrational about particulars of science or politics. But I always return to essentials.

Rand defined Objectivism as philosophy of objective reality, reason, rational self-interest, and laissez-faire capitalism. And that definition holds for me, and I think you, twenty years ago or now. It's the most concise, accurate, and informative term to use, even if some others who share it make stupid statements at times. And I care less if Harriman and Peikoff are on the wrong side of some scientific issues than whether I'm on the side with reality. So I'm an Objectivist sometimes ashamed or appalled by statements by other Objectivists, yet Objectivist nonetheless.

Keep writing and thinking, and I'm curious to see part 2.


travisn said...

Happened to see this via facebook -- apparently we have a few friends in common there. For what it's worth I consider myself agnostic about AGW (as do at least some prominent Objectivist philosophers I know), but I completely agree with your other criticisms. What I don't understand is why you conclude from all this that you're not an Objectivist, rather than simply concluding that a bunch of people who call themselves Objectivists are full of crap. (Basically here I mean Harriman and Speicher, who are /were both basically frauds. Peikoff is a difficult case: obviously he's done a lot of good, but he has also made some profound mistakes, not the least of which is treating Harriman as his god (those are Peikoff's words, by the way) on all things science. As you pointed out, Silverman's amateurish essay was written when he was a young student; I think that essay was completely stupid, but I'd blame the more mature and prominent people who lauded the essay, not the author.)

Dan Edge said...


Thanks for your thoughtful response.

The points made in this article did not convince me that I wasn't an Objectivist, at least not initially. But they were huge red flags.

The ARI is by far the most powerful Objectivist group, and it has effectively become anti-science. It's not just Harriman and Peikoff. The entire Board of Directors pledged allegiance to Harriman's science agenda when they cowed to Peikoff's ouster of McCaskey. The ARC, too, has been burned by its ignorance of GMO foods.

The ARI Board's policy of appeasement with Peikoff is especially significant to me. As I wrote in my notes, I believe that Peikoff is *right* to claim that, since he is more familiar with Objectivist concepts than any other living person, he is the best judge of pretty much everything (according to Objectivism). An entire culture of intelligent, rational people are willing to take his word on it, too.

More in part 2.

travisn said...

I don't want to get into a big discussion of this stuff here. Message me privately if you want to get into details. But a couple quick points. First, I don't understand at all what you wrote about Peikoff. Knowing philosophy well can certainly help judge/understand issues in science, all other things being equal. But you have to know the science itself. Peikoff knows this but just doesn't fully live up to it (and makes serious errors in judgment when choosing authorities to rely on). For this he deserves blame and criticism. If I understand correctly, though, you are suggesting that offering ignorant rationalistic commentary on scientific issues is part of Objectivist doctrine, as opposed to being a failing of certain individual people. I disagree with that.

Second, as I gather is already clear, I agree that the whole McCaskey debacle of a few years ago made Peikoff and ARI's board and all of the people who just went along with what happened, look pretty damn bad. But I suspect there was somewhat less blind, dogmatic Peikoff-following there than met the eye. That is to say, I suspect there was a significant element of "we have to bite the bullet and side with Peikoff here or it will be the end of ARI and this movement" in (e.g.) the board's statements and actions. I personally am, for the most part, reserving judgment on these people until I see what they say publicly about these events after Peikoff dies. (Long may it be delayed.)

But all that is pointless/idle speculation. For me the bottom line is this: it seems like you invested some time in trying to understand various scientific issues in a better, less rationalistic, and more first-handed way. That is a good thing. And doing this helped you make deeper and better judgments about certain individuals, so that you can now act more justly with respect to them. Also a good thing. But I remain puzzled about why any of this changes your assessment of Objectivism. Maybe that part is coming in part 2. But so far I don't understand why your post wasn't called "How I came to really dislike certain individuals associated with ARI", or something like that.

Anonymous said...

I think people (not just you) need to do some serious thinking to get clear on questions like these:

What questions and issues are the province of philosophy -- and why?

What questions and issues are the province of science -- and why?

What is the nature and direction of dependency, in regard to scientific knowledge vs philosophic knowledge?

Why is science incapable of pronouncing on purely philosophic questions?
Why is philosophy incapable of pronouncing on purely scientific issues?

What kind of interaction is there between philosophic knowledge and scientific knowledge, in regard to various scientific and philosophic questions?

Dan Edge said...

Anonymous points to the Analytic-Synthetic Dichotomy, which I am currently reviewing.

Daniel Barnes said...

Dan Edge:
>If all knowledge is rooted in concepts, and if Objectivist concepts are the best, then he who best knows Objectivist concepts is the best judge of virtually anything...But how can Peikoff be simultaneously be "the best judge...alive," and yet have no expertise in the scientific subject matter he's talking about?

Precisely. Well said. Mr Edge, welcome back to reality...;-)

Anonymous said...

Quantum physics is not as "proven as evolution". The math equations work pretty well, but the interpreations largely (with a few exceptions) make no sense.

Also, the creators of quantum mechanics, including Bohr and Heisenberg, were largely mystics, and openly expressed their motivations for creating quantum theory as an attempt to sever physics from reason.

Anne M said...

hi Dan, I was going to write a long missive but instead I'll say a few short things about my own view, which I perceive to be significantly different from yours.

1.Don't confuse the philosophy with the philosophers.
2.Philosophy is quite delimited and definitely does not include physics. Any errors in physics or psychology, created by anyone, cannot be attributed to Oism.
3.People are fallible, yet amazing geniuses like Dr. Peikoff deserve a considerable amount of slack and courtesy.
4.Wrt an organization, eg ARI, unless I wish to start my own competitor, I must generally take their actions as they stand. Since Dr. Peikoff is in charge of Miss Rand's writings, it only makes sense that his views still matter to ARI.

Thomas M. Miovas, Jr. said...

This is a special note addressed to those who seek to uphold some modern science ideas against Objectivism, like Relativity and Quantum Mechanics, because I think they have some confusions involved in their understanding of the dispute between "physics" and rational philosophy, of which Dan Edge is one proponent.

First of all, no Objectivist is denying the effects of Relativity or QM, they are not denying the facts or claiming that such effects cannot happen in reality. If that is what you are thinking, then you need to check that premise. What they are saying is that these effects **cannot occur causlessly and that it cannot be the nature of space that it can warp or the nature of sub-atomic particles that "they just act weird and we have to accept that as a fact.** What they are saying is that when one comes across an apparent contradiction when it comes to "causlessly acting entities" that one ought to study the facts more carefully to discover what the cause is for the observations and not just say we have an equation, it is predictive, and we don't care to investigate further, which is the claim in modern physics when they say there are no hidden variables in QM.

Second, we can observe reality and its nature directly with our senses, and by doing this we come up with the philosophical laws of nature, such as every effect has a cause or each entity is what it is and acts the way it does due to the fact that it is what it is. So, if one wants to discover why gravity and QM are the way they are, then one needs to further study the facts rationally, account for the causes, and then, if necessary, reformulate the mathematics to take that new information into account. It is not a question of either physics or philosophy being superior, it's an issue of taking all that you know and integrating it in a non-contradictory manner, and I can assure you that Relativity and QM have their contradictions that need to be worked out. We have to go by the facts as we understand them, and the idea that an electron can be everywhere at once completely contradicts our direct observations of the nature of existence, so that cannot be the correct explanation for some of these effects.

Thomas M. Miovas, Jr. said...

By the way, I've gone back and re-read every passage of The Logical Leap that mentions Einstein and Harriman doesn't have one single negative thing to say about him, so I'm not sure you can generalize and say that Objectivists are against Relativity, and I have known several well-known Objectivist physicists over the years that were not against black holes or relativity or semi-conductors, etc. So, in that regard, I think you are over-generalizing. Peikoff makes some excellent epistemological points regarding conceptualizing these aspects of existence and some contradictions he sees in the way modern physicists handle them, but until he got with Harriman he didn't know much about physics anyhow. So, you would have to give the facts about who and where certain Objectivists who are knowledgeable about physics had anything to say against the topics you are pointing out as being problematic for you in this blog entry.

Don said...

Your last point vexes me: I don't know any Objectivists who "deny" (that word is loaded these days) global warming. Most question many things about the mystical anti-GW movement. Is it as bad as claimed? Are there upsides to GW that mitigate the downsides?

And, of course, most Objectivists have little good to say about the statist, power-grabbing, liberty-smashing "solutions" proposed by the GW movement.

Having said this, I'm not sure that a reasoned disagreement with GW science is the same as denying evolution.

David said...

Objectivism is a philosophy, not some particular judgment by a person who is applying or thinks he is apply valid philosophic principles. I disagree with aspects of the examples, but what I did not see were were what fundamental philosophical principles the author has concluded he can no longer maintain. Is it reason? Objectivity? Contextualism? Life as the standard of value? Capitalism as the only social system that systematically enables us to sustain our lives? Individual rights?

David said...

The author writes: "As I wrote in my notes, I believe that Peikoff is *right* to claim that, since he is more familiar with Objectivist concepts than any other living person, he is the best judge of pretty much everything (according to Objectivism)." This statement makes no sense in a context of a philosophy of reason. Whether a man is right in his view of a particular question depends on his evidence and reasoning. Anybody who has earned knowledge and demonstrated credibility in a field deserves to be taken seriously and not dismissed out of hand if the plausibility of a conclusion is not immediately evident but there are reasons to believe attending to reasons and evidence would be worthwhile. But the standard of truth for any reasonable person is correspondence to reality, not anyone's standing or claim (or anyone else's claim) that somebody can be a final arbiter of anybody _else's_ firsthand observation and judgments. If the focus on facts and objectivity are wrong because "this is what they lead to"--some perversity in a social movement--how does one properly assess what they are saying and doing except by reference to facts, and as objectively as one knows how? Careful distinctions are not being made in the piece.

The issue of philosophy is most fundamentally in living life, not establishing one's bona fides in a movement, matching somebody's conception of what constitutes an "Objectivist," etc. If you're observing authoritarianism in alleged application of Objectivist principles, principles that from all possible angles and every level of fundamentality reject authoritarianism, how can you infer that the authoritarianism is an unavoidable consequence of the thoroughgoing rejection of authoritarianism?

Daneen Schatzle said...

My love of science and reading Carl Sagan as well as all the lovely, graceful and good poor people I met along the way--as well as not identifying to the brand of feminine that Rand dictated--we're just a few of the pieces of life experience that caused me to reject Objectivism one night in Savannah many years ago.

Daneen Schatzle said...

And that's a "were" autocorrected

Ilstar said...

The Universe is indeed "an unbound, finite, three dimensional, plenum-space universe," and one of the most qualified people to show this is Hannes Alfvén. What you mean when you say that, "Good physicists do not limit their theories to the unbounded, finite, etc", is that of metaphysical beliefs of Kant (and all his Bohrians, postmodernists, and antifoundationalists plaguing academia today). It seems that you mind has already started disintegrating under his influence, and so indeed you are no longer an Objectivist.