Monday, June 18, 2012

Ayn Rand, Causation, and Inductive Reasoning

While reading through Ayn Rand's books, I came across a "workshop" in which she and a few other Objectivists informally discussed the topics related to her Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology. Unfortunately, this isn't "canon" - she didn't publish or endorse the printing of this originally taped material - so I'm not going to include it in the essay I'm going to write on her philosophy. So I'll just comment on a few things here.

The topic of this subsection is induction. The reason this caught my eye in particular is that it is the only attempt, so far as I can tell, that Rand actually attempted to back up her lament - and, hence, her Objectivist boast - in For the New Intellectual (pg. 25-26) that:

When Hume declared that he saw objects moving about, but never saw such a thing as "causality"-it was the voice of Attila [i.e. mystics of muscle] that men were hearing...
[Post-Renaissance philosophers] were unable to offer a solution to the "problem of universals," that is: to define the nature and source of abstractions, to determine the relationship of concepts to perceptual data - and to prove the validity of scientific induction. Ignoring the lead of Aristotle, who had not left them a full answer to the problem, but had shown the direction and the method by which the answer could be found, the philosophers were unable to refute the Witch Doctor's [i.e. mystics of spirit] claim that their concepts were as arbitrary as his whims and that their scientific knowledge had no greater metaphysical validity than his revelation.

The implication is that she was able to offer "solutions." But the following account of her attempt to establish causal connections and to prove the validity of scientific induction is just amateurish:

Prof. H: This is a common question relating to induction. Someone is boiling water, and he notices that every time the water gets to a certain temperature, it boils. Now he wants to know: does all water boil at that temperature, or is it only due to some accidental feature about this particular water? How does he determine whether it’s accidental or essential?

AR: By whether you can or cannot establish a causal connection between what you have determined to be the essential characteristic of water and the fact that it boils at a certain temperature.

Prof. H: I suppose what I’m asking is: how do you establish the causal connection?

AR: That’s a scientific question. But, in essence, what you do is this. Let’s say you have to establish the molecular structure of water. How do those molecules act at a certain temperature? And if you see that something happens to the molecules which causes boiling at a certain temperature, you conclude: that’s essential to the nature of water, adding the parenthesis: “within the present context of my knowledge.” You will later discover that water behaves differently at a different altitude. So you never claim water necessarily, as an absolute, will always and everywhere boil at the same temperature. No, you say, “Within my present context, omitting elements of which I have no knowledge at present, water will always boil at a certain temperature, because boiling is a state depending on certain kind of molecular motions, and water’s molecules will always reach that stage at a certain temperature.”

Now, with later development, you might discover that maybe there are differences in certain molecules of water when in an impure state. Or with atomic additions, say, something else happens. But then your context has changed. You don’t say that water has changed. It’s only that your definition of how the essential characteristic of water will function will have to include more: what water will do at sea level, what it will do at higher altitudes, and what it will do under new molecular or atomic influences, or in relation to some scientific phenomenon not yet known to any of us. But the principle there is the same. Does that answer it?

Prof. H: I have to think about it.

AR: Okay, but ask again later, because I don’t want to leave you with semi-answers. And that is the rational procedure : think it over, and if a further question occurs to you, then ask me later. This applies to everybody else as well. If any answer is only partial, the right thing to do is to think it over, because one can’t discuss it and integrate it at the same time. If you see that there is still an area not covered, then ask me later.

Firstly, notice her initial evasion of the actual issue at hand: "...if you see that something happens to the molecules which causes boiling at a certain temperature, you conclude..." The question wasn't what to conclude once a causal connection is established, it's how to establish such in the first place.

Secondly, she hedges her bets by a rigid appeal to the context in which an experiment is conducted. But ultimately, her strict qualification of what “within the present context of my knowledge” means ruins her case for induction: it means that "the result of an experiment will always be reproduced so long as subsequent experiments exactly reproduce the context of the original," which, while true, is tautologous (not inductive) and scientifically impossible.

Actually, one of her collaborators also recognized her question-begging:

Prof. A: How would you answer this common objection to your answer? In relating the boiling of water to the energy required to break certain molecular bonds, you haven’t actually made any progress in regard to the induction, because you’ve only got the same kind of generalization on the molecular level that you had before on the gross, macroscopic level. You now know, “In a given number of cases, it has always taken a certain amount of energy to break this molecular bond.” But that fact has the same sort of status as the fact you started with: “In a given number of cases, I heated the water to 212 degrees, and it always boiled.” I know the objection is crazy, because in some way you do have more knowledge when you’ve gone down to the molecular level. But I can’t see what the error is.

AR: But you see, you answered it. When you simply boil water, you do not know that it has molecules, nor what happens to those molecules. When you arrive at that later stage of knowledge, you’ve discovered something about water and the conditions of its boiling which you didn’t know before. And, therefore, within your present context, this is a sufficient explanation, even though it’s not the exclusive and final explanation. To reach that you would have to have omniscience. But, if you can say, “It’s in the nature of water that it’s composed of molecules, and something happens to those molecules at a certain temperature, this explains to me why water boils,” that is a causal explanation. It isn’t the same thing as saying, “I don’t know why it boils, but if I heat it, it bubbles up.” That’s all that you knew before. And, therefore, your knowledge is now further advanced.

Prof. A: But it seems that the certainty that you were first trying to attach to the idea that water boils under certain conditions is derivative from the degree of certainty you have concerning the idea that a certain amount of energy disrupts the molecules.

AR: If this is supposed to be on the same level, what would the person raising this objection consider to be a different level?

Prof. A: Yes, that’s exactly the problem.

AR: That’s not the problem. No. That’s the method of ruling his objection out. Because you discover that he has no ground for his conclusion that you’re on the same level. Look at the facts. You observe that water boils. You discover something in the constituent elements of water that causes it. You know more than you did before. But he tells you, “No, you’re at the same place.” Then you ask him, “What place do you want to go to? What do you regard as knowledge?”

Prof. E: And then his answer would be that he wants a mystic apprehension of “necessity,” which he hasn’t yet received. All he has is “contingent” facts.

AR: Yes. And you ask him what does he regard the facts of reality as: a necessity or a contingency? He’ll say, “Of course it’s a contingency, because God made it this way, and he could have made it another.” And you say, “Goodbye.”

Again, at no point does she explain how one moves from "You observe that water boils" to "You discover something in the constituent elements of water that causes it."

Furthermore, it is pretty apparent why she arbitrarily assumes how a "mystic" will respond - that the "facts of reality" are contingent rather than necessary - viz. so that she can lump everyone in the boat to avoid having to answer the objection that she can't differentiate a necessary connection given atheism and indeterminism. But what about we "mystics" who are theistic, absolute determinists (link)?

The most interesting point, however, is her admission that "To reach [the exclusive and final explanation] you would have to have omniscience." Of course, I would and have argued that recourse to the revelation of one who is omniscient is sufficient for knowledge - [propositional] belief in which the possibility of error is precluded - but more to the point, if Rand does not consider an "exclusive and final explanation" to be possible, then to what end is an explanation be "sufficient"? Certainly not to an epistemic end, because even if she attempts to narrow the context of one's explanations, there will necessarily be a context which needs to be known [and knowable] and, hence, an answer to the question of how one knows that he can legitimately "contextualize" without being able to know (by definition, since Rand isn't omniscient) the "reality" - as Rand would put it - from which one contextualizes.

It is true that towards the end of this particular discussion, she says that knowledge's "purpose is for you to deal with that which you are studying." Now, can one deal with what one doesn't know (as defined above)? I believe so, at least as long as one also has a sound epistemology which can account for the general though not necessary reliability of opinions. This caused me to wonder about Rand's meta-epistemology. Earlier in her book, she defines knowledge ambiguously as "a mental grasp of a fact(s) of reality..." (pg. 35). Does "grasping" connote "certainty"? On pg. 67, she states that one can "correct" one's knowledge, which would imply that one cannot know with certainty. In the Virtue of Selfishness (pg. 90), on the other hand, she writes that " epistemology, the cult of uncertainty is a revolt against reason..." And then again, she says numerous times that she assumes the reliability of the senses. So anyone's guess is as good as mine. Given her strong opposition to Pragmatism, I would lean toward the belief she believed that at least some of man's knowledge can be held with certainty, although given the above paragraph, on her view this belief would be groundless. She touches on the meaning of knowledge in her next reply to another professor who presses the same question Rand has yet to answer, although she doesn't give definitive answer one way or the other:

Prof. F: But I am not clear why it is a significant step when one goes from the macroscopic phenomenon, boiling, to the molecular level. Why does one then say, “Aha! Now, within our present context of knowledge, we’ve made a satisfactory advance.”

AR: Let’s ask something wider: what is knowledge? And what is study, what is observation? It’s the discovery of properties in the nature of certain objects, existents, entities. All knowledge consists of learning more and more about the nature—the properties and characteristics—of given objects. So first you see only water—just that. Then you observe that it boils at a certain point. Your knowledge is advanced. You know more about water than you did when you only observed it in a lake. Then you discover such a thing as molecules, then you discover the molecular structure of water. Your knowledge about what water is still greater. Now you observe what happens to those molecules when you apply a certain amount of energy. Your knowledge is still greater. If it isn’t, what do you mean by knowledge?

Prof. F: Both you and your positivist opponents would agree that the knowledge is greater. But they would then raise the question of whether one has to go a further step or not—or why one should have made this step in the first place. Why does the breaking of the macroscopic down into the molecular constitute a significant step, whereas the addition of some other type of knowledge—

AR: Such as?

Prof. F: Such as the knowledge of, say, the shape of the water at present, or the electrical charges involved.

AR: All that is knowledge. The knowledge of anything that can happen to water—what temperature it will freeze at, how it reflects light—any characteristic of a given object of study is knowledge. If you can establish that this characteristic pertains to water, you have learned something new about water.

But if the problem here involves the issue of necessity vs. contingency, then it’s a prescientific problem, a strictly philosophical problem. What do you mean by “necessity”? By “necessity,” we mean that things are a certain way and had to be. I would maintain that the statement “Things are,” when referring to non-man-made occurrences, is the synonym of “They had to be.” Because unless we start with the premise of an arbitrary God who creates nature, what is had to be. We have to drop any mystical premise and keep the full context in mind. Then, aside from human action, what things are is what they had to be.

The alternative of what “had to be” versus what “didn’t have to be” doesn’t apply metaphysically. It applies only to the realm of human action and human choice. For instance, will you wear a gray suit or a blue suit? That’s up to you. You didn’t have to wear either one. Let’s assume you have only one suit. Even then you can’t say you had to wear it.

You chose to wear it rather than be naked. Anything pertaining to actions open to human choice raises the question: “Is it necessary or is it volitional?” But in regard to facts which are metaphysical—that is, not created by a human action—there is no such thing as necessity—or, the fact of existence is the necessity.

Prof. A: I think that was exactly my problem. I was assuming that the fact that a certain entity had always done a certain thing had no significance in itself—that it could be otherwise tomorrow. But actually, something would act differently tomorrow only if a new factor entered in.

AR: Yes.

Prof. A: And by going to the molecular level, you tend to exclude any new factor; you have more awareness of the mechanism operating, so you have more knowledge of what is going to affect it and what isn’t; you understand what the process is that’s happening. I was assuming exactly what you were saying, that the fact that the energy required was so-and-so today, might change tomorrow, because of God knows what. So the answer lies in the point that necessity is just identity.

AR: Exactly.

Prof. C: On this issue of boiling water and finding out that it must boil because of understanding its molecular structure: isn’t it related in some way to the issue of unit-economy in concepts? Because in theory-formation one attempts to condense a vast amount of knowledge into a smaller and smaller number of principles. And when one is able to explain the boiling of water in terms of the electrons and protons, not only does one explain boiling as necessary from these few facts, but also one explains a vast number of other characteristics, properties, and set of behaviors for water and a whole scad of other substances.

AR: Oh yes.

Prof. C: So when you go to that level, you have widened your knowledge to a much larger scope by integrating the data to a few simple laws, such as, in this case, the properties of the electrons.

AR: You mean, it is also applicable to more than water, and if you discover how the molecules of water react to heat, you then open the way to discoveries concerning how other elements react to heat, and you learn a great deal about other elements that way.

Prof. C: Right.

AR: Oh, of course.

Prof. C: So the objection of the logical positivist would be valid only if one learned nothing else relating water at the molecular level to other substances. Then one would say one has additional knowledge, but one doesn’t have a more fundamental knowledge.

AR: No, the objection wouldn’t be valid even then. To begin with, the supposition is impossible. Everything that you discover about one kind of subject or element opens the way for the same type of inquiry and discovery about other elements.

But let’s assume for a moment that it had no other applications. Even then, you learn something about water and how to handle it and what you can obtain from it. If you discover that its molecules move in a certain way and that causes boiling, this can lead you to discover other things you can do with water, such as what happens under a deep freeze or what happens with liquid oxygen—which is all derived from the same type of knowledge, from the same category of science.

And don’t forget—it is important here—what the purpose of knowledge is. The purpose is for you to deal with that which you are studying. And if you discover why water boils, you will know something more and will be able to do more things with water than the primitive man who knows only that if he holds it over fire a certain length of time it will boil.

By discovering such issues as temperature and molecular structure, you have made yourself infinitely more capable of dealing with water and using it for your purposes than the primitive man who only made the first observation.

This ends the discussion, and this whole latter half of the conversation is really beside the original point of the discussion, especially since experiments are not "non-man-made occurrences" nor "aside from human action." They don't mention the possibility of observer effects. This seemingly was meant to be the resource to which Objectivist readers could turn to prove the so-called validity of induction and to establish causal connections, but it really just ended up asserting them for no reason other than convenience.

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