Wednesday, February 24, 2010

The Fundamental Questions - PART ONE

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My entry for today is on the subject of the things I believe and why I believe them. I'd like to post this as as statement of the context I'm working within. This is a philosophic post, but that doesn't mean it's not open to reason and debate -- I hope this can start some discussion. This is a summary of the Objectivist position with links to illustrative passages from Rand's fiction and non-fiction.

1) The basics -- these concepts have to be accepted as they are axiomatic (Definition of Axioms) and underlie any act of thought including having a conversation. 

  • I exist. (You exist. We exist.) I (you/we) possess consciousness
  • The universe which we perceive is real, and our senses are valid.
  • Contradictions do not exist in reality and are only possible in human thought
  • Logic, to be true, must be non-contradictory, and to reach a contradiction indicates an error in thinking.
**If you do not accept any of these things, there's no point in trying to have a conversation.** 

2) Fundamentals -- truths that are non-axiomatic    

  • Existence is primary, my consciousness perceives and does not create reality. We must respect the primacy of existence
  • Things exist whether I observe them or think of them -- my mind does not control reality.
  • Facts are facts. Wishing does not change reality. My emotions are responses to facts, not a means of knowledge. Tears don't change reality.
  • Everything that exists is an entity of a specific nature with specific attributes- every entity acts in accordance with its nature according to causality.
**If you disagree with these, we can discuss and I can prove you wrong, by asking you to demonstrate the ability of your mind, tears or wishes to change physical nature or by asking you to demonstrate an entity that does not act in accordance with its nature**

1) What is our nature?       Ayn Rand on Man
  • Human beings are conceptual entities, able to form abstract concepts by observing reality. We encode our observations in symbol and in spoken language and word. Our concepts, to be considered true, must correspond to reality.
  • We are physical beings that are born, change and that cease to exist upon death. If anyone has evidence of an afterlife, reincarnation, past lives, ghosts, etc, please provide it with the understanding that these concepts are as open to examination as any others.
  • We are individual (literally "Non-dividable"). If you saw one of us in half, you do not have two people, and you do not have one person anymore only a corpse.
  • We are not collective: All groups of individuals are merely figures of speech -- thirty human beings are simply thirty individual human beings: a million people who share skin color are not a monolithic 'race' they are only a million people with one shared characteristic out of many. They would not think with a collective brain or digest with a collective stomach. All beings are individuals and any characteristic such as color, ethnicity, national origin, sexuality, system of belief is secondary to that fact.
  • Individuals possess free will, which amounts to the ability to focus the mind and act on one's judgement or to unfocus, drift, and evade both reality and the necessity of action.
**If you disagree with the first, please demonstrate that we are not conceptual without using concepts. If you disagree with the second, please demonstrate some non-physical soul, explain what a soul consists of, or demonstrate the existence of anything else that is similarly non-matter or non-energy. If we are not individuals and are instead some sort of collective, please prove it by storing calories on your body when I eat cookies. If you have no freedom of will, there is no point to the discussion as you have already made your mind up and nothing I say will make a difference to you. I would say go away, but you have no freedom of action either.**

Any disagreements so far?

I’d like to now turn to morality, which is an urgent human need but often misunderstood. What is morality? Where does it come from? On what concepts does it depend?The roots of morality involve the nature of human life and the necessity of choices. We established above that man is a physical being that lives and dies, that man has the faculty of free will, and that man is a conceptual being, not a being with automatic knowledge but a creature that must observe and learn. We also established that he is an individual.

1) What is morality and why do we need it?

  • The fundamental alternative of all living beings is life or death.
  • All life requires a specific course of action i.e. the pursuit of values (nourishment, shelter, etc)
  • Man is a living being, but unlike a plant or animal he has free will.
  • Man, therefore, must choose to value and sustain his own life. He must discover and pursue the values that his life actually requires. He is free to choose his own destruction, or free to choose to pursue life to the fullest. For a rational being to do either consistently requires a code of values by which to gauge his actions and make further choices.
  • A code of values accepted by choice is a code of morality.

***To refute this, please explain what else necessitates morality except the conditional nature of life (Would an indestructible robot need to be moral?) If your moral code comes from religion, why must morality be accepted on faith? Is there no rational case to be made for your moral beliefs? If morality is all about one’s relations with others, does it have nothing to say about man’s life when alone? ***
  • To pursue life, is to pursue life as that which you are.
  • In order to properly identify a code of values, Man must understand his own nature.
  • Man is a thinking, conceptual being and his mind is his basic tool of survival.
  • Therefore, all that which is proper to the life of a rational being is the good, that which destroys it is the evil.

2) Every man is the proper beneficiary of his own moral action.

Just as it is proper for a plant to seek the sun, or for an animal to pursue a meal, it is proper for man to pursue his own chosen values, to achieve them, to thrive and enjoy his life. The purpose of life is to live it. The reward of life is to enjoy it.
***Is animal subsistence is a proper standard? Can we devise a code of values for man that ignores his defining characteristic: his rationality? This is technically a morality of “enlightened selfishness”, but what is eating, breathing, laughing etc for if not the continuance and enjoyment of your OWN life?***

This concept of morality erases the distinction between “right and wrong” and “true or false”- if your purpose is to live life successfully, and reason demonstrates that a course of action is proper to meet this end, then the moral choice is to choose that which furthers your life and values: i.e., to choose life over death, gain over loss, production over consumption, heath over disease, success over failure, food over poison, joy over suffering. Far from being the kind of self-indulgent "selfishness" it's usually portrayed as, this is the most difficult and profoundly heroic of all tasks -- discovering your personal potential and striving for it, achieving your joy, creating your own vision of the highest possible.

As an example of this philosophy in action, imagine the following. A man starts out his life as a healthy, active being. He chooses irrational behavior: smoking, eating junk, drinking, heroin, inactivity and sloth. His arteries clog, his body deforms, he inches ever closer to physical failure and death. This is not selfish behavior, rather it is self-destructive and everyone recognizes it as such, yes? Now, imagine the same man choosing a more rational course of action: he accepts the facts of existence, the objectivity of his own nature, and the requirements of his proper physical function. He chooses to quit smoking, eat healthy foods, put the bottle down, kick his heroin habit, start working out. His body becomes stronger, he gains energy and vigor, he becomes the picture of health and vitality. He has accomplished by will effort and self-discipline the hardest, most demanding transformation of his life- a transformation requiring ruthless severity and long-range thought. And he has succeeded. Yet, by the standards of most moral codes, such a man is morally neutral -- he has merely acted in his self interest. No applause, please -- that is only for the man who sacrifices his self interest to others, yes? The achievement of health and life leaves the Christian and collectivist moralizers cold -- it has no moral significance whatsoever. Why?

Imagine a man who sets out to achieve a career- who chooses late hours over going to bed early, who puts ten times more effort and ingenuity into his work then is required to just ‘get by’, who wrings from his own mind every ounce of clarity, rationality and competence he can muster- and who achieves his dreams spectacularly. He watches the opening night of his first play, or the ribbon cutting at his first factory, or the first wheat of his harvest, and knows he has done something good, grand, heroic. Yet, most moral codes ignore this man too- he’s just acting in his self-interest. He will only be ‘moral’ in their eyes when his play brings joy to others, or when his factory lifts their burdens, or when his wheat fills their stomachs not his own. Why?

I’ll talk about the various moral codes and their implications in Part Two. But I’d like to leave you with one more example to chew on. 

Imagine a man who has health and an active mind. He is not the victim of any outside force such as a totalitarian government, etc. He chooses to evade effort, to never think about anything difficult, to ‘go along’ with others, to coast, to do what ‘feels right’. He laughs at schoolwork, envies kids who do better, becomes violent, indulges his taste for alcohol or drugs, makes irresponsible sexual choices, runs up debts, refuses to pay bills, loses his home, his friends, and ultimately cannot support his own life without outside assistance and charity. What do the traditional moral codes say about this man? Why, he is the needy and the suffering for whom the two men described above must sacrifice if they wish to be considered moral. That he has made himself needy is immaterial -- the onus of traditional codes is for others to support him -- not on him to become self supportive.

Then imagine that this man goes up into the mountains and lives in a cave. He has no material possessions left, no ambitions, no personal dreams or desires. He turns off his mind, meditates, and tries to ‘join with the universe’ -- i.e to erase himself from existence by an act of will. What is he then, by the traditional codes? Why, a 

If you destroy yourself a little -- you're a bum. If you destroy yourself a lot -- you're a saint.
Does this seem right?

I submit to you that the traditional moral codes are inversions of the code of life- they are moralities of death and must be abandoned for mankind to survive and move forward.

-Richard Gleaves

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  1. Where does love fit into this worldview? It is real? Is it more than just an emotion? Is it more than just mutual meeting of individual needs? Is it virtuous or vicious since it can cause people to sacrifice themselves for others?

  2. Love isn't born out of sacrifice. It is born out of the highest of one's values. The person who reflects the highest realization of your values is the person you come to love. Thus the undertaking of hardships to ensure a loved-one's survival and happiness is not a sacrifice but a realization of labor for value. To allow the person you love most to die, would be a treachery to your own values of such a degree that you could no longer claim those values as your own. It would be a betrayal of all values and thus you would have none left. Only the most immoral person would sacrifice all their values for nothing. In a way, the person who dies saving a loved-one is sacrificing everything for everything. The one who lets them die is simply losing everything for nothing.

  3. Your axiomatics are too vague, but I'll accept them. The fundamentals, to some degree. Rand's epistemology is where things fly off the handle. Particularly regarding the individual. When we look at the universe what we see, everywhere, is systems of interdependence, not individual units. Of course for the sake of classifying things we do pick certain groups of elements and structures and systems and treat them as if they are individuals, however they are not.

    Saying, if you cut a person in half you don't have two people, is correct, but the designation of "person" is in this case somewhat arbitrary. Of course, though I need my liver to be alive, my liver by itself does not survive. Likewise my lungs, my endocrine system, my skeleton... but this dependence does not end at my skin, does it? Do I not need a precise atmosphere just as much as I need my heart or liver? Do I not need solar radiation? I am no more an individual separable from my surroundings than my skin is separably an "individual" from the rest of "me."

    Likewise humans evolved as a species, not as separate individuals. We evolved to feel rewarded by altruistic behavior, obviously to enhance the viability of the species. We produce young by sexual union, not through an asexual cloning process. In real, concrete ways we are connected to others in our ecological systems, as well as with the surrounding universe.

    Then there's the faith... that causation somehow doesn't apply to human beings. No with us it is free will. But observe life around you. Very few of us - perhaps none of us - behave unpredictably. We too follow the causative path. Can we escape that? Perhaps. But much of that causative path, as we are learning, is grounded in genetic material, electro-chemical predispositions towards various levels of emotionality, rationality, compassion, love. Like Rand I believe in being rational. Unlike her I conclude that the individual is an artificial construct, useful for navigating through three-dimensional space, but ultimately an arbitrarily defined sub-unit of the cosmos.

    Look at our effort. Whatever greatness we achieve it is only within such a complex web of interdependence. We depend on the thought and evolution of the millions who came before us. We depend on the social and economic structures we have evolved.

    If the self does not exist, what is the meaning of self-interest?

  4. @ Dirk

    Which is exactly why you try to disprove your own existence. Humans evolved due to the aggregate effect of individuals dying and individuals reproducing. Every single one of those individual fates influenced the genetic lineage of future generations. Every single human life sacrificed has an impact on the genetic heritage of those to come. To say that humans evolved as a race and ignore the fact that individual reproductive choices and innovations drastically influenced that course is to depend on only the vaguest and unsubstantiated definitions of terms. The words "race", "society", "culture" have no meaning divorced from their constituent elements (i.e. the individuals that constitute them). You recognize that if you accept the truth of your existence as an axiom that the rest follows. That is why you are so dedicated to denying the obvious--that you exist. Simply put, you cannot accept your own responsibility for your life-- you need an easy out, something to blame things on. I imagine if you didn't, your value structures would quickly crumble. Otherwise, why be so dedicated to an inherent contradiction? You exist. You exist as an individual. I'm sure you would not passively accept somebody shooting a bullet into your brain. Why do you profess a belief which implies you would? I mean, if you do not exist--if you have no self--what would there be to fear? What would there be to lose? What would be wrong about it at all? You say that the cumulative effort of all those who have gone before renders our self non-existent and makes our individual influence and choices irrelevant. I say it renders the importance of those individual selves priceless beyond measure and their relevance paramount.