Epiphenomenalist Nonsense

 Posted by on 4 September 2008 at 12:01 am  Philosophy
Sep 042008

The position in philosophy of mind known as “epiphenomenalism” is fallacious, even nonsensical, and thus should be rejected.


The epiphenomenalists hold “that mental events are caused by physical events in the brain, but have no effects upon any physical events.” Their view is a mix of “property dualism” with “physicalism”. I’ll define “property dualism” as meaning “the position in which mental and physical properties exist, and that mental properties come into being from some physical substances (brains, for example).” And “physicalism” as “the position in which everything that exists is the result of the laws which are valid for the physical world.”

In their view, the aspects of our mind — our thoughts, knowledge, emotions, desires, feelings of pain, and volition, these things which we think influence and guide our physical actions and latter mental states — are only useless by-products of physical processes. The only things that are causally effective are physical processes and interactions. (See the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry and Wiktionary entry on Epiphenomenalism.)

This position results in a fundamental change in how we’re supposed to understand causal relationships. As I’m typing this sentence, it’s not because I’m trying to make a point, but exclusively because of neurons firing off and other brain processes. When one studies (studies?) for an exam, the activity is caused only by physical events in the brain: conceptual knowledge and the connections of logic are only illusions, according to the epiphenomenalist view.

Arguments for Epiphenomenalism

So what are the arguments and evidence in favor of this position, one might ask?

Strictly speaking, there are none. (While arguments have been offered which use the position to address problems in the philosophy of mind, such as the “No-Gap Argument,” I’m referring specifically to arguments which report observable facts and makes inferences accordingly. If I’m mistaken, please do point them out.)

From what I’ve gathered, epiphenomenalism is only a development from the “physicalist” position in the philosophy of mind. No positive evidence has ever been offered to establish the position’s validity. As Sven Walter notes in his entry on “Epiphenomenalism“:

Arguments in favor of a philosophical theory typically focus on its advantages compared to other theories–that it can explain more phenomena or that it provides a more economical or a more unifying explanation of the relevant phenomena. There are no arguments for epiphenomenalism in that sense.

Arguments against Epiphenomenalism

Regardless of this lack of argument, the position (1) commits the fallacy of “self-exclusion” and (2) is internally inconsistent.

(1) The epiphenomenalist claims, as knowledge, that brain events produce mental events, and that the latter are causally inefficacious–presumably, this also includes beliefs. In effect, he’s claiming that he’s previously witnessed the evidence and logically established that his viewpoint is true (i.e. that he believes he has knowledge). While at the same time, his position as an epiphenomenalist implies that his beliefs and observations have nothing to do with the fact that he’s now advocating that position, as such advocacy would be the exclusive result of brain events (recall that only physical processes are causally effective, on his view). By his own theory, he’s being made to believe and produce epiphenomenalist “word sounds” by brain activity, which make his claim to knowledge meaningless.

In a paper on an Objectivist perspective on psychology, Dr. Edwin Locke notes that determinists, as a result of their own theory, can’t even claim something along the lines of “I’m being made to emit these word sounds in favor of determinism” as objectively true knowledge, since their position eliminates all claims of knowledge. In the same vein, the epiphenomenalist position reduces all claims to meaninglessness.

In light of this, to continue to hold that the position of epiphenomenalism is genuine knowledge is to commit the “self-exclusion” fallacy. Epiphenomenalism commits the fallacy of “self-exclusion” because the position would invalidate itself (i.e. would be self-contradictory), unless it excludes itself from the scope of the its own claim; such a move is unwarranted, and thus fallacious, because the scope of the claim does include the epiphenomenalist’s doctrine.

Simply put, the epiphenomenalist position amounts to: “all claims are meaningless by-products of the brain–except for this one, which (somehow) is real knowledge.”

(2) Regarding epiphenomenalism’s internal inconsistency, I largely agree with the argument presented by Titus Rivas and Hein von Dongen in their paper “Exit Epiphenomenalism: A Demolition of a Refuge.” Here is my own formulation of the “logical inconsistency argument”:

(i) Epiphenomenalism is a form of dualism, which holds (roughly) that the mental and physical are ontologically distinct from each other (i.e. that physical things have properties different from mental things). The position thus has a concept of “mental,” “consciousness,” “thought,” and so forth.

(ii) Due to epiphenomenalism’s acceptance of dualism, and its own explicit position about mental events, its view is that the concepts of consciousness (or “mental things” or “mental units”; e.g. thoughts, volition) refer to actual parts of reality–specifically the epiphenomena of brain activity which are not reducible to such activity (thus leaving us with a non-reducible–yet causally impotent–mental existence).

(iii) The only way to establish that these concepts of mental units refer to something real is through introspection, i.e. by becoming aware of our own conscious experiences (i.e. mental units). This introspective evidence thus serves as the base for epiphenomenalism’s concepts of consciousness. Such introspection, however, is a causal effect by one’s consciousness on the concept-formation process when one attempts to form such concepts of consciousness.

(iv) Epiphenomenalism is thus logically inconsistent. It presupposes that there is a valid reason for accepting the existence of conscious experience (namely introspection), and yet its explicit position makes the ability to figure out anything about these experiences impossible; this is because introspection, according to the epiphenomenalist claim, would itself be a causally impotent by-product of brain processes, and thus useless.


Epiphenomenalism is incoherent, and thus untenable. Due to the contradictions which result from applying the position to its advocates’ claims to knowledge, or from checking what the position presupposes in comparison to what it advocates explicitly, epiphenomenalism should be judged as “nonsensical” and discarded for some other theory.

Jul 082008

There are two natural criteria to attend to if we are to advocate the death penalty in our justice system: we must establish that we are objective in identifying, say, heinous murderers — and we must establish that it is morally permissible if not mandatory to kill them when so identified.

I want to focus here on the moral question: should we kill the heinous murderer when he is so identified? (I appreciate that the epistemological troubles of our justice system are substantial and likely rule out as negligent the imposition of any punishment so decisive and final as the death penalty. For the moment, though, let’s set aside today’s epistemological issues and their general reform; please assume objective convictions for this discussion of punishment.)

In addressing the morality of the death penalty, we may be tempted to simply appeal to retributive justice and say that one should lose a life for taking a life, discussion over. But while Objectivists support a retributivist justice system, this principle is not by itself decisive regarding the specific punishment of the death penalty: notice we can’t and don’t attempt to balance crime and punishment literally, with an eye for an actual eye, a theft for a theft, and so on. (Consider the simple example of an arsonist burning down your house. It is not possible to likewise burn down his if he is a renter.) No, we are satisfied — and necessarily so — with the justice of something more indirect. We use proxies like imprisonment and fines, scaled and otherwise adjusted to achieve the effect we seek in matching punishment to endless variety in crime. So any answer to the moral question around the death penalty has to accommodate this and explain just what would make killing a heinous murderer necessary in lieu of, say, locking him up for life.

I haven’t yet seen any fundamental explanation of what would require “the ultimate punishment” in the face of this element of flexibility in our response to crime. Here I’ll propose a way of thinking about punishment that answers that challenge, and more. (Because I am not a lawyer and could easily be confused about our legal system, I especially encourage legally-savvy readers to jump in and correct or clarify as needed!)

Nested Classes of Offense

First, note how Objectivism carefully distinguishes immorality in general from criminality, a particular species of immorality. Shunning productiveness is your own problem, until you start stealing from others to feed yourself. The key distinguishing feature here is the initiation of physical force (including indirect forms, like fraud). It is one thing to choose not to pursue life yourself — i.e., to choose not to be moral — but it is another to also initiate physical force and prevent someone else from doing so, suppressing their moral agency. This is why the Objectivist politics identifies the proper scope of government action (and any legitimate use of physical force) as a response only to violations of rights, leaving all other matters to force-free resolution via, say, personal disassociation. It is specifically the initiation of physical force which necessitates a response involving physical force.

I am going to argue that just as rights violations are essentially different than other cases of immorality and thus require an essentially different kind of response, that there is an essential distinction between criminal offenses and civil offenses that requires an essentially different kind of response, and that there is an essential distinction between capital offenses and other kinds of crime that requires an essentially different kind of response. In every case, the nature of the offense is different in kind than offenses from the other classes, and in all cases the nature of any response, to be just, must at least match the offense in kind. That is: while injustice is possible if crime and punishment are not well matched, justice is impossible if they are not at least from fundamentally commensurable classes.

Consider then the following classes of offense and how they relate to each other, beginning with mere immorality and progressing through nested subclasses of ever-stronger rights violations (yes, as I try to frame these categories in terms of essentials, I may be shifting some boundaries as currently conceived and implemented in our legal system) :

  1. Immorality: when someone operates counter to the fundamental principles of sustaining human life (is dishonest, irrational, lacks integrity, etc.). In this case, others are free to respond with a range of peaceful forms of disassociation (by, say, avoiding someone, or perhaps even advertising that choice and their reasons for it). Lameness calls for loneliness. Note how offense and response must be at least fundamentally commensurate: where there is no physical force being initiated, no physical force may be used in response (otherwise that would itself be an injustice to take legal note of — an initiation of force, criminality in response to mere immorality).

  2. Civil offenses: when someone isn’t just immoral, but more specifically bears responsibility for damaging an innocent’s person or property (say, with an irrational contract dispute, or an at-fault driving collision). In this case, our justice system compels the offender to repair the damage they are responsible for. Damage calls for restoration. Note how again offense and response must be at least fundamentally commensurate: responding to a civil misdeed with only disassociation of any stripe would be unjust — and, as indicated above, responding to mere immorality with compulsory “reparations” of any kind would likewise be unjust.
  3. Criminal offenses: when someone isn’t just responsible for harming an innocent’s person or property, but more specifically intentionally curtails an innocent’s moral agency (say, with armed robbery, fraud, burglary). In this case, our justice system in turn curtails the offender’s moral agency (his liberty via imprisonment, his property via fines and confiscation). Curtailment calls for curtailment. Note yet again how offense and response must be at least fundamentally commensurate: responding to a criminal misdeed with only compulsory reparations would be unjust — and responding to mere civil offenses with imprisonment of any length would likewise be unjust.
  4. Capital offenses: when someone chooses not just to curtail an innocent’s pursuit of life, but more specifically to eliminate an innocent’s life (say, with premeditated murder). Here then is the key distinction to observe: murder isn’t merely subverting someone’s means to continued existence, curtailing their pursuit of life — it is purposefully eliminating their life itself, ending their existence altogether. There is a difference in kind between the implicit and the explicit, the means and their end, and these cannot be treated as merely different in degree. Annihilation calls for annihilation. As with the other classes above, offense and response must be at least fundamentally commensurate: responding to a heinous murder with only imprisonment, no matter the length, would be unjust — and responding to a mere criminal offense with any form of the death penalty would likewise be unjust.

I think the above clarifies the objective basis for capital punishment, cementing the moral necessity of its use when the proper conditions have been met (and please note again that such conditions would include an epistemologically sound conviction).

Because the above organization encompasses and relates the entire range of misdeeds and response along principled lines, we have an opportunity to see if it might help explain, or even suggest adjustments to, other aspects of our justice system.

Decomposition of Crime and Composition of Response

Focus now on how the above classes are nested, with each being a narrowing of the preceding: Not every moral breach is a civil offense (often one is only harming oneself, or only harming others in non-rights-violating ways) — while every civil offense is necessarily a moral breach (that is the source of the responsibility for a rights-violating harm). And not every civil offense is a criminal offense (being responsible for harm and intending to do harm are not the same thing) — while every criminal offense is a civil offense (intending to do harm certainly makes you responsible for it). And so on through all of the classes.

This indicates that responses should not be limited to only what is indicated by the narrowest category that applies, but must also include any relevant responses from each of the broader enclosing classes as well — because they all apply. So murderers should expect time in prison (for the criminal aspects), being forced to make any possible reparations (for the civil aspects), and certainly infamy and social ostracism (for the moral aspects), on their way to annihilation (for the capital aspect). And a burglar should expect fines and jail time (for the criminal aspects), to restore his victim (for the civil aspects), and to suffer social ostracism (for the moral aspects). Any given crime must be treated on all applicable levels, by decomposing its aspects into relevant charges, and addressing each to compose the full response.

Our legal system’s support for separate treatment of civil and criminal offenses is a mechanism for satisfying this need. But it is also interesting to see how the cascade of offenses above helps us see how our approach is not the only way to satisfy this need: a different court system could, say, use a single trial, decomposing the offense into its various charges at all levels for appropriate assessment, and then handing down a single, integrated response. The cascade of offenses also clarifies how holding separate civil and criminal trials needn’t introduce the injustice of “double jeopardy”: the charges and potential punishments for each of these classes are different in kind — one being about responsibility for damages, the other about criminal curtailment of moral agency or worse. So whether or not both of these aspects of a crime are assessed during the same proceeding is immaterial, a matter of convenience or tradition.

One danger of our current two-trial approach, though, lies in blurring the distinction I’ve drawn between civil and criminal matters. Their division of judicial labor can become unprincipled and uncoordinated: consider that we have criminal courts handing down orders for reparations, and civil courts handing down orders for “punitive damages.” This blurring of responsibilities seems to flirt with the injustice of double jeopardy. Worse still, in the case of civil courts drifting into handing down punishments, the higher standard of judgment demanded in criminal proceedings is being evaded.

Graduated Standards of Judgment

Regarding standards of judgment, consider how this nested structure highlights qualitative leaps in the gravity and irreparability of offense and response. Combined with the fact of limited time and resources, this suggests the need for qualitative leaps in standards of judgment and extent of oversight. Negligence in the justice system itself cannot ever be acceptable (that would render it literally an injustice system) : the more grave and/or irreparable the crime, the more diligence we must bring to bear to ensure correctness in conviction and punishment with a similarly grave and/or irreparable response. Our present system addresses this need as follows:

  • In civil judgments we must show responsibility for damages. Our system’s standard for demonstrating such liability is that of a “preponderance of the evidence”, which seems to roughly correspond to what Objectivists technically classify as “probable” [OPAR 178].
  • In criminal judgments, we must show intent to commit a rights violation (i.e., the initiation of physical force, even indirectly like with fraud or potentially with assault). Our system’s more-rigorous standard for demonstrating such guilt is that of “beyond a reasonable doubt”, which seems to roughly correspond to what Objectivists technically classify as “certain” [ibid].
  • In capital judgments, we must show intent to cause a rights-violating death. This requires the standard of criminal judgments, with the additional requirement of appeals and extended scrutiny and oversight to further insure against any systemic negligence.

Carefully observing the proper standard for each aspect of a crime is required, lest we court the kind of systemic negligence mentioned above, with civil courts handing down “punitive damages.”

Commodity Units of Punishment

Because of the impossibility of literally matching offense and response, as well as because of limits in time and resources, we need to institute uniform responses to crime that make it possible to “dial in” a just match to any given offense.

The above classes of offense are based in philosophical principle and fixed, while within each class there is endless variation in misdeed. Because the misdeeds in each class are fundamentally commensurate, though, we have the possibility of commoditizing our responses, making them regular and even scalable to match a great variety of fundamentally similar offenses. The use of such units also allows us to objectively express the relative badness of one offense vs. another, making for sentencing open to audit, against guidelines that are open to review, clarification, and correction.

In civil reparations, we achieve commoditization of damages economically: most damages can be cleanly reduced to the monetary impact of the replacement value of items, the time value of lost use, the value of time away from work, the economic impact of reputation damage, the economic impact of a lost limb, etc. The troublesome aspects for restoration lie in physical pain, mutilation or death, psychological suffering, the loss of a unique object, and the like: these cannot be genuinely repaired with money or any object or action. Take pain and suffering, for example: at best, we might attempt to contrive a monetary valuation for psychological suffering by rough, subjective scaling of pay for an extraordinarily unpleasant job. But the trouble is most clear in the case of physical pain: trying to find the market value for the experience of letting someone, say, break one’s arm is right out. This is quite unfortunate, because it means a victim of such damage cannot be made whole in principle. In such cases there is simply no justice to be had — and this would be morally intolerable if it were not due to a metaphysically-given fact.

In criminal punishment, our system commoditizes moral agency curtailment via limitations on liberty (incarceration) and takings of property (fines or confiscations). Each component can be scaled and combined with the other in practically endless ways to punish much of what makes up criminal activity. Even psychological suffering can be captured by such losses. But just as we cannot repair the infliction of physical pain in civil cases with any action or object, we cannot genuinely punish the infliction of physical pain via incarceration or fines. These are simply not commensurable. And while there was a metaphysically-given fact standing in the way of civil reparations for such damage, there is no such fact standing in the way of criminal punishments for inflicting such damage.

To genuinely punish the intentional infliction of physical pain, we would need a uniform, scalable imposition of physical pain by some means (ideally one that could deliver a controlled degree and amount with no physical damage whatever, thus leaving all other elements of the crime to be matched as needed by a mix of incarceration, fines, and so on). While perhaps distasteful, this seems to be the only kind of unit which is actually commensurable with the sometimes substantial physical suffering intentionally inflicted in cases involving torture, beating, rape, and so on. In having such a unit of punishment available to match those (and of course only those) commensurate aspects of a crime, the justice system would no longer be driven by its current inability to actually punish, say, a heinous rape of a child, into seizing upon “some” (i.e., the only available) “greater punishment” than even life behind bars. Such a category leap into capital punishment for even a particularly horrible but ‘merely’ criminal offense is in fact unjust. Responses like that corrode the absolute, principled lines of the justice system to invite ever more arbitrary actions and corrosion — precisely what must be avoided in a proper government’s response to crime. (Note that, just as in capital punishment, such corporal punishment is impossible to repair, so the epistemological oversight must be likewise heightened to prevent systemic negligence.)

In capital punishment, our system achieves commoditization by ostensibly employing a small, uniform set of (relatively) quick and painless procedures for execution. (Note that there is no need for a scalable unit of capital punishment because existence vs. nonexistence is binary.) And on the account here, it is a good trend to seek to standardize on the most quick and painless method(s) of execution — including bringing as little gore and psychological damage to the witnesses and executioners as is possible. While methods of execution that are purposely torturous and gory in varying ways and degrees have been used throughout history, this would again be a case of needlessly mixing in aspects of punishment which should be assessed and treated independently, in the criminal supercategory. For example, a heinous torture-murder should be decomposed into the judgment and response to the torture, and the judgment and response to the killing, each by the applicable standards — and this would result in an overall punishment that is properly distinguished from the punishment for a ‘mere’ murder.

Toward Principled Punishment

I have argued here that we should seek principled lines in identifying and classifying misdeeds, to systemically encourage justice and discourage injustice in our potential responses. And while perhaps distasteful, this means that we should ensure that our justice system has available all of the needed kinds of units of punishment, as in the cases of corporal and capital punishment. This is not only to allow the possibility of genuine justice in punishment, but also so frustration at the systemic prevention of justice caused by any such gaps will not drive people to seek “justice” by violating the principled lines we must observe to maintain the objectivity of our system. That kind of corrosion in particular has to be avoided, lest we spiral ever further into the arbitrariness which has characterized so much of mankind’s approach to punishment.


(Previous in the series: The Best and Worst in Human History, Science vs. Miracles, and The Gap in Religious Thought.)

In one of his debates with the “New Atheists,” Dinesh D’Souza talked about how religion demands that we move outside of ourselves and sacrifice, and alleged that atheists chafe under the moral rules of Christianity that hold them accountable. He went on to say atheism is a rebellion against that—that atheism is not really an intellectual revolt against unsubstantiated ideas, but a moral revolt against rules they simply don’t like being held to. While the New Atheists have a few sharp things to say to religionists on the moral front, their response has lacked the clarity and broad force of the fundamental response that needs to be delivered.

Values vs. Subjectivism

To begin with, D’Souza’s charges do have some merit because his opponents stumble badly with respect to the issue of values. Most secular thinkers subscribe to the idea that values are somehow arbitrary, relative, based in emotions like empathy or in “intuitions,” subject to a collective agreement of society or to the wishes or whims of the individual. In all its varieties, such subjectivism is open to criticism because there is, in fact, an objective basis for values: What makes something good or bad is that it furthers or frustrates the goals of some agent, and the most fundamental alternative any organism can face is life or death, existence or nonexistence as a living being. This is to say, life is the ultimate yardstick by which all subsidiary goals and alternatives are measured for their value-significance.[1] Sunlight and water are valuable to the plant, which turns its leaves and grows its roots to gain those things and maintain its existence. Nuts and shelter are valuable to the squirrel, as is avoiding hungry predators. And the same is true of people: the good is that which ultimately furthers our lives.

This perspective makes it clear that values are a factual concern, not a matter of arbitrary opinion or feelings or loose “intuitions.” Merely hoping, feeling, or asserting something is good can’t make it stand in a positive relationship to a life, any more than declaring 2+2=5 would make that so. The true and the good are determined by the facts of reality, and we avoid grasping the facts and acting accordingly at our peril. This is why any inwardly-focused, subjectivistic conception of values is necessarily bankrupt, a threat to human life.

But for those accused of rebelling against the moral absolutes of God, there is a silver lining to be enjoyed in this lesson: the religionists are themselves guilty of the sin of moral subjectivism. The essence of subjectivism is acting on whim—wishing, assuming, feeling, or declaring that facts will align themselves with thoughts and lives. Of course, this gets it exactly backwards: thoughts and lives must align themselves with the facts because facts are absolutes to be discovered, not declared. Merely hoping or asserting something is good doesn’t make it so, and it doesn’t matter whether we’re talking about the whim of a lone subjectivist deciding what is good or bad, the whim of an entire civilization voting on it, or the whim of a “supernatural” mind decreeing it. So the religious who claim to have an absolute morality are really only subjectivists of a supernatural stripe. The trouble for them is that their sort of subjectivism is just as false as any other: God telling Abraham that it is good to slay his innocent son Isaac doesn’t make it good. His ordering the enslavement of entire peoples in the Old Testament doesn’t make that good. On and on—the bottom line is that calling poison “food” doesn’t make it nutritious, and pretending otherwise is to court destruction.

Determinism vs. Morality

Next, consider that we humans don’t automatically act in support of our lives like squirrels and plants do. We have the power to freely choose to harm ourselves, to do the wrong thing, to not pursue the values we know are required for our existence as living organisms. We don’t have instincts to tell us how to build shelter or to guide us in choosing food over poison—we have to learn those things, whether it means building a lean-to or erecting a skyscraper, and whether it means avoiding the wrong mushrooms or properly cooking a gourmet chicken dish to ensure it is not just tasty but safe. In fact, being the rational animal born without conceptual knowledge to act by, we have to learn everything we need to know about what furthers or harms our lives—and we have to choose to abide by that knowledge or perish.

This is especially important in the case of the most abstract, most fundamental knowledge that guides our choices and actions—the overarching principles which can help us to consistently pursue the values needed to maintain our existence and flourish over the span of an entire lifetime. These are moral principles like honesty, productiveness, justice, and integrity. Essentially, a proper morality consists of grasping these kinds of principles for the support of human life: i.e., recognize these basic facts and flourish, or evade them and suffer. Indeed, we need morality because we are conceptual animals. This is why moral codes have appeared wherever and whenever humans have appeared; the impact of moral values (both proper and improper) is tremendous precisely because of how fundamental they are to our existence, guiding us in myriad concrete circumstances great and small.

Just like any other matter of fact, we can approach morality rationally and scientifically, working to discover, validate, and teach each other about the relevant fundamental principles. Such a project is just as feasible—and just as challenging—as discovering and sharing the fundamental principles of engineering or economics. But of course this kind of development is only possible if we recognize the nature of the field in the first place, and this is another terrible weakness in the New Atheists and their scientific friends that prevents their giving a robust answer to the likes of D’Souza. The fashionable but unnecessary materialism and mechanistic determinism that is prevalent among them leads to the denial of the very fact that gives rise to morality in the first place: that we have volitional minds and our choices have life-and-death consequences. This denial has hobbled the scientific study of morality, leaving them looking in the wrong place and for the wrong thing. Notice the categorical error in such prominent programs as “evolutionary morality,” where researchers look for moral behavior in the actions of nonvolitional, nonconceptual animals like mice and birds. And in how they search for the roots of morality in evolved behavior “modules” in brains, neglecting the basic fact that the moral is the learned and chosen—not the inbuilt and determined.[2] A sound philosophical foundation would help them be more productive and less prone to these sorts of distractions and blind alleys.

Sacrifice vs. Life

Finally, there is the most disastrous error confusing the scientific study of morality and stopping the New Atheists from knocking D’Souza out of the intellectual ring: they may challenge the existence of God, but they uncritically accept the moral standard that Christianity has injected into Western culture. That is, they accept the moral standard of altruism, literally “other-ism,” a moral standard of sacrifice. This can be seen in various facets of their struggles to explain secular morality: they restrict the domain of morality to the social, they uphold sacrificial sentiments and principles of conduct, and they cite scientists who work to understand the biological basis for morality by searching for altruistic behavior in animals. (Though the scientists muddy the sacrificial core of the concept by also reflexively labeling life-serving, nonsacrificial social behaviors better characterized as cooperation, investment, and trade as “altruism.” Sacrifice means surrendering a higher value for a lower one or no value at all—not giving up a lesser value to gain a greater one.) Having assumed an altruistic standard of morality, the New Atheists and most secular thinkers are likewise led to the conclusion that determining the good merely comes down to determining who or what one has a duty to sacrifice to: neighbor, family, tribe, race, society, nation, leader, species, environment, god.

But sacrifice can’t be the proper standard of morality. In fact, it represents the inversion of a proper moral code because giving up values is inimical to life. Fully and consistently adhering to such a standard means a swift death, so anybody accepting the moral standard of sacrifice lives only through the inconsistency of compromising and diluting it, mixing in elements of its antithesis. But managing to survive poison by mixing it with food doesn’t render it part of a healthy diet, much less a central staple. Sacrifice per se is the opposite of the good, and seeking it is irrational, so the New Atheists will forever flail in trying to scientifically support or rationally justify such an approach to morality.

Genuine virtue consists in creating values, not in surrendering them—in focusing on reality and discovering a vaccine, in searching our spiritual nature and producing a play, in building a stadium, in raising a loving family, in digging a canal, writing a textbook, cooking a meal. This understanding drives the proper response to D’Souza’s charge of rebelliousness: Any healthy person armed with the correct perspective would reject the subjectivist moral code of Christianity and its enshrinement of sacrifice because it is fundamentally set against human life and happiness. Instead, we should seek a morality that is truly absolute, reality-based, scientific, and which rejects human sacrifice in its every form and degree as irrational.[3] We should seek a genuine morality of life.


  1. Ayn Rand demonstrated this in her essay, “The Objectivist Ethics,” which is explored in depth in the book, Viable Values: A Study of Life as the Root and Reward of Morality by Dr. Tara Smith.
  2. This is certainly not to say that evolutionary biology should stand mute on morality—values are rooted in the phenomenon of life, after all. I am arguing that scientists must take care to recognize the difference between the slate and what is written on it. For example, they might profitably investigate the evolutionary basis of what gives rise to and enables morality: the phenomenon of volitional, conceptual minds.
  3. For further investigation of such a morality, I recommend the bite-sized introductory book, Loving Life by Craig Biddle and its scholarly yet accessible big brother from Cambridge University Press, Ayn Rand’s Normative Ethics: The Virtuous Egoist by Dr. Tara Smith.

Right to Primitivism

 Posted by on 2 June 2008 at 11:56 pm  Philosophy, Politics
Jun 022008

My first thought on seeing the headline “‘Uncontacted tribe’ sighted in Amazon” was “Wow, what a fantastic opportunity for anthropologists!” However, on reading the actual story, I saw another agenda was at work. The article says:

Researchers have produced aerial photos of jungle dwellers who they say are among the few remaining peoples on Earth who have had no contact with the outside world. …

More than 100 uncontacted tribes remain worldwide, and about half live in the remote reaches of the Amazonian rainforest in Peru or Brazil, near the recently photographed tribe, according to Survival International, a nonprofit group that advocates for the rights of indigenous people. “All are in grave danger of being forced off their land, killed or decimated by new diseases,” the organization said Thursday.

Illegal logging in Peru is threatening several uncontacted groups, pushing them over the border with Brazil and toward potential conflicts with about 500 uncontacted Indians living on the Brazilian side, Survival International said. Its director, Stephen Cory, said the new photographs highlight the need to protect uncontacted people from intrusion by the outside world.

“These pictures are further evidence that uncontacted tribes really do exist,” Cory said in a statement. “The world needs to wake up to this, and ensure that their territory is protected in accordance with international law. Otherwise, they will soon be made extinct.”

I can understand a government wishing to protect the rights of primitive peoples living within its territory, as well as protecting them from exposure to potentially life-threatening diseases. Even presupposing an ideal right-respecting government, I see thorny questions about interaction and assimilation with such peoples. (Monica has blogged some good thoughts on this topic.)

Those are not the central concerns expressed in the article, however. Instead, the basic idea is that these primitive tribes must be protected from any contact with the modern world, as a matter of moral obligation and legal right. At first glance, that’s completely baffling. Since the tribe hasn’t been contacted, how can we know that isolation is what its members prefer? Moreover, since the tribe members don’t know about the rest of the world, how could they possibly make an informed decision about whether to remain isolated or integrate with it?

It makes no sense — until one realizes that the philosophic principle at work is that a primitive tribe unsullied by contact with the outside world is an intrinsic value, regardless of and perhaps contrary to the wishes (or would-be wishes) of its members. That’s the inane idea that makes possible all this nonsense of preserving uncontacted tribes.


(Previous in the series: The Best and Worst in Human History and Science vs. Miracles.)

In his op-ed, “Taking aim at God, and missing,” Dinesh D’souza continues his counters to “New Atheists” such as Christopher Hitchens. This time we find him saying that “Thanks to the astounding discoveries of modern science, I think the God hypothesis has a lot more going for it today than it did in the eighteenth century.” What he considers convincing on this front is telling, so I’ll quote him at length:

Modern science has discovered that the universe, far from existing eternally, had a beginning. Not only matter but space and time itself came into existence around 15 billion years ago in the fiery burst that scientists term the Big Bang. The laws of physics themselves originated at that point, and those laws were inoperative “before” the founding moment. So what is the secular explanation for how the universe and its laws came into existence? Is there a natural explanation for nature’s own origin? If so, what is the evidence for it? Hitchens supplies no such theory and no supporting evidence. His rejection of the God hypothesis seems nothing more than an assertion of atheist dogma.

In recent decades, scientists have found innumerable ways in which our universe—not just our planet but the entire universe—is narrowly tailored to permit life. Change the variables of nature by an infinitesimal amount and this would be a very different universe without observers to perceive and study it. As physicist Freeman Dyson puts it, with an intended mystical touch, the universe behaves as though it knew we were coming! So why are the laws constructed in such a way that we are here to discover them? It’s possible that there is a convincing natural explanation, but Hitchens certainly does not produce one. Once again the God hypothesis seems unavoidable.

Now consider man, undoubtedly a product of natural selection, but also possessing qualities such as the ability to tell right from wrong that are unexplained by Darwin and his followers. … There is within us all a moral law that speaks to us gently but firmly, urging though not compelling us to do what is right… If natural selection cannot account for this moral law, where does it come from? I am not saying that science will never explain this, I am saying that science cannot explain it now. It seems much more reasonable, based on existing evidence, to believe that moral laws derive from a divine legislator than to embrace Hitchens’ promissory atheism: one day we’ll figure out a natural way to account for all this.

If only his opponents had the philosophical foundation to resist all those temptations for distraction in debate. In response to this sort of thing, they should be asking a simple question to expose a pervasive methodological problem in religious thought: Since when did not knowing the answer to a puzzle entitle us to go and make one up?

In fact, these sorts of arbitrarily asserted “explanations” pulled out of thin air should be simply dismissed out of hand—a principle long recognized in logic and law. When someone brings a baseless charge before a court, it is to be dismissed as beneath consideration (and could even earn penalties for wasting the court’s time). Likewise, when someone brings a baseless idea before a rational mind, it should be simply dismissed as beneath consideration. And D’Souza consistently relies on the logical fallacy of the “argument from ignorance,” taking peoples’ lack of knowledge around this and that as evidence in support of “the God hypothesis.” That is exactly the error that dishonest magicians rely on to convince gullible people that they are psychics and mediums and instruments of God. Not knowing how the guy did it is not itself evidence that he is actually a psychic or some sort of divine instrument—just as our ignorance of why the laws of nature seem so exquisitely fine-tuned is not evidence that “God did it.” In all such cases, our ignorance only constitutes evidence that we don’t yet understand something.

Sadly, D’Souza has a lot of company in these errors: history is littered with examples of something “supernatural” being arbitrarily asserted as the explanation, only to be retracted later as our knowledge expanded. Every gust of wind and bolt of lightning was a direct act of God. But then came Ben Franklin, and we no longer think about meteorology that way. The same thing happened with tornadoes and earthquakes: the Acts of God that insurance policies exclude used to be divine punishment, but with our current understanding the term is really a euphemism for natural disasters. And today, most people don’t consider themselves impious or afflicted with demons just because they catch the flu or get a nasty infection—they know it’s because of germs. The history of mankind has been one long account of religious explanation being crowded out by scientific discoveries and rational understanding. This pattern of poor thinking is so common that it even has its own name: the “God of the Gaps,” where a supernatural agent is cited as the reason behind something we do not understand. Here’s the clincher: just notice how it always goes one way—natural, rational explanations are never displaced by supernatural “explanations.”

What’s a bit humorous about D’Souza’s point is that we can even predict that advances in science will make this sort of sophistry all the more enticing and common. After all, you can’t wonder about the design of the inner workings of the cell until you find out there are cells and that they contain marvelous machinery, and you can’t explore the delicate interplay of cosmological constants until you have discovered those constants in the first place. So sure, if you let your thinking be corrupted by arbitrary God of the Gaps arguments from ignorance, then you’ll believe “the God hypothesis has more going for it today” in our impressive explosion of scientific progress.

D’Souza is a bright and scholarly fellow who certainly understands the basic principles of logic. And he is obviously well-read in the history of Western thought, which has seen the fundamental errors in these religious arguments exposed countless times through the ages. Yet he presents them again with a straight face. His opponents and fans alike should be asking another question as well: Why would the truth need the support of false arguments?

(Upcoming in the series: Morality and Life.)


(Previous in the series: The Best and Worst in Human History.)

Taking on “New Atheists” such as Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, Dinesh D’Souza explains that he wants to strip away a kind of pose: atheists, he says, present themselves as men of data and evidence, merely following where it leads, when in reality they are faith-filled dogmatists who only assume that there are no gods and that miracles are not possible. In his debate with Hitchens, he drove this home by asking his opponent to name just one scientific law which he knows has no exceptions. Hitchens admitted he couldn’t and had to stand there sheepishly while D’Souza crowed that he was leaving room for miracles even while denying them without investigation—that the atheist stance for science and against miracles is only based on faith in certain “metaphysical assumptions.” In his view, the real difference between scientists and theologians is that religious people have enough integrity to admit their beliefs are rooted in faith.

D’Souza’s effectiveness in exposing confusion and sowing skepticism illustrates how the New Atheists and most scientists lack an objective philosophical foundation. With a little training in the actual relationship between philosophy and science, they could explain how science is not perched atop blind faith in “metaphysical assumptions,” and they could articulate exactly why miracles should not be dismissed as merely improbable, or even as inherently unverifiable, but as outright incoherent. In fact, they would know the issue is as stark as this: if miracles are possible, then science isn’t.

To see why, let’s begin by looking at what a miracle has to be. We are not talking about just any improbable happening, and not even something which violates our current understanding of the world as expressed in scientific laws, like D’Souza tries to argue. The entire point of miracles is to provide evidence of divine intervention, and surprises which may only reveal a current lack of understanding can’t accomplish that: by that measure, even the tricks of magicians would count as miracles. Indeed, much of what we enjoy in our modern world would have been considered miraculous in previous times, from vaccines and medications, to cars, and the Internet and on and on. Yet none of these prove or even suggest a possibility that there is a God. No, a meaningful miracle is not merely something which would violate the laws of nature as we currently understand them, but something which would be a violation of any such law we could ever discover. That is, it would have to be a violation of lawfulness itself. That’s a tall order.

Causality and Identity

When we talk about how things act and what they do and why, we are talking about causality. As Aristotle observed some 2500 years ago, things act according to their natures (their identities). They act the way they do because of what they are—balls roll when pushed, and piles of dirt don’t. Eggs break when dropped because that is an expression of their identity as things with a brittle shell and goo inside, crashing against a hard floor. Action is an expression of identity, and to understand why and how things act the way they do, we seek to understand what those things are. We seek to understand their identities. So if an egg broke into song instead of a messy puddle, it wouldn’t be a normal egg—it would have to be something else. Because identities include capacities for action, we know and classify things by what they do, too.

The crucial thing to keep in mind about action being an expression of identity is that everything has identity merely in virtue of existing, not because of any dictate. Think of this as a law of existence, something true of Being itself. As Ayn Rand observed some 50 years ago: to be, is to be something—to be something particular, to be this and not that, to be capable of these actions and reactions and transformations, and not those. Or from the opposite perspective: to not be anything particular, is to simply not be. And this is not any article of faith or merely a “metaphysical assumption.” This is a philosophical axiom reaching below any will to the bedrock of existence itself, a self-evident truth that lies at the base of all truths and all thinking, a fact so absolute and inescapable that it is actually reaffirmed by any attempt to deny it.

It is this ironclad law of existence that tells us there are scientific laws to pursue in the first place. It is how we can have absolute confidence that we are in a position to plumb the depths of the world, that we can seek to understand the identities of the things which are acting and interacting in nature, and that it is worth working to understand it all in terms of ever broader and deeper principles. The fruitfulness of this pursuit can’t be denied: just look around and marvel at how our striving for a rational, scientific understanding of the world has improved our lives in countless ways.

And it is this very same law of existence that also guarantees there can be no miracles for us to pursue. If we were to somehow experience an “egg miracle,” it isn’t that we would have found something we thought was a regular egg that surprised us and needs more study. No, the very idea of miracles requires violating causality. It requires that a normal egg break into song. Or picking something from the Christian tradition: it requires a normal loaf of bread to break into 1000 servings. In short, a genuine miracle requires a thing to act against its own identity—to have a contradictory identity—to literally not be what it is, which is incoherent. Everything is what it is, and contradictions can only exist inside peoples’ confused thinking.


That is why it is one or the other, science or miracles. Accepting the possibility of miracles means rejecting the very basis of science; accepting the basis of science means rejecting any possibility of miracles. Indeed, to the degree that scientists entertain the possibility of miracles, they tragically undercut their own psychological motive and ability to pursue such knowledge: there is no point in looking for the laws of nature when existence isn’t actually lawful and there is no real understanding to be found. Even if scientists think they can be “practical” and approach the world as being “almost always lawful,” they are still fatally compromised because every surprise they meet could be a clue that an idea is in need of refinement or correction—or it could be an inexplicable miracle from the arbitrary will of God. The harder and more important the puzzle, the harder it will be to resist that nihilistic pull to simply throw up their hands and give up being a scientist to blindly assert that it must be an arbitrary intervention.

All of those potential advances lost to scientists giving up on science are a tragedy—and any effort spent repelling that call to give up is a waste. At the dawn of science, Francis Bacon said that “nature, to be commanded, must be obeyed.” Knowledge is power precisely because existence is in fact lawful, and every advance we’ve achieved up through the wonders of modern civilization is a brilliant testament to this simple truth.

(Upcoming in the series: The Gap in Religious Thought and Morality and Life.)


In the firefight between Christian apologist Dinesh D’Souza and “New Atheists” such as Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, and Sam Harris, the New Atheists are suffering serious damage. The tragedy is that D’Souza wouldn’t stand a snowball’s chance if they had a strong philosophical grounding.

For example, several of the New Atheists point to the Inquisition and Crusades and Witch Trials of early Christianity, the deadly Jihad waged in the name of Islam today, and so on—and D’Souza agrees this is a terrible toll that religion is responsible for. But he goes on to argue that when you actually look at the numbers, this responsibility is minuscule in comparison to the slaughter of over 100 million by the atheistic regimes of the 20th century. So he contends it is obvious that “Atheism, not religion, is responsible for the mass murders of history.”

This point has devastated the New Atheists. They try to defuse it by arguing for some causal association between religion and those bloody regimes: if not explicitly by talking about the Catholicism in Hitler and Nazi Germany, then implicitly by gesturing to a “religious mindset” or some other vague influence of religion. But discussion of the Catholic connection to Hitler and Nazi Germany quickly turns into a back-and-forth of citations from competing historical experts. And while the dust is swirling over whether religion might be connected to that one part of 20th Century totalitarianism, D’Souza points to the explicitly godless Communist regimes. The New Atheists have been reduced to weakly objecting that the Crusades and Inquisition were done “in the name of” Christianity, while Communism and Nazism weren’t done in the name of atheism—but given all the references that can be made to those regimes’ explicit work to eradicate God, this approach is not convincing. The New Atheists are struggling because they aren’t able to frame the issue properly.

What Atheism Isn’t

First, consider that atheism is not itself an ideology; there is no such thing as an “atheist mindset” or an “atheist movement.” Atheism per se hasn’t inspired and doesn’t lead to anything in particular because it is an effect—not a cause—and there are countless reasons for a person to not believe in God, ranging from vicious to innocent to noble. The newborn baby lacks a belief in God, as does the Postmodern Nihilist, the Communist, and the Objectivist—but each for entirely different reasons having dramatically different implications. So lumping all of these together under the “atheist” label as if that were a meaningful connection is profoundly confused. Yet this is exactly what the New Atheists do and encourage: they talk about how there are so many atheists out there, and advocate their banding together into an atheist community to seek fellowship, foster cultural change, build a political voice, and so on.[1] But what would a committed Communist and an Objectivist have in common—regarding what they do believe, why they believe it, how that leads them to live personally, the sort of social system they would strive for in government? Nothing. They are polar opposites in principle and practice, across the philosophical board.

The New Atheists can’t rebuff D’Souza because he is actually following their own lead to associate them with brutal totalitarian regimes. And worse, that confusion makes it difficult to see the fundamental cause of the misery and bloodshed found across all of those failures of humanity—from the early Christian Crusades and Inquisition, through the 20th Century totalitarian regimes, up to the Islamic theocracies in the Middle East today. The important contrast is not atheism vs. religion, but rather rationality vs. irrationality.

The Wages of Irrationality

All of that bloodshed is a result of people rejecting reason as the way to do business in reality—which means rejecting our only means of peaceful and productive coexistence. Operating in the realm of reason, people are oriented to the facts, their means of dealing with one another is persuasion, and reality is the court of final appeal when there is disagreement. Take scientists, for example: necessarily focused on reason and reality, they resolve their scientific disputes with logic and by reference to facts. We don’t find them fragmenting into sects and breaking out into violence over their disagreements. Indeed, just the opposite happens: the body of scientific knowledge converges over time as disagreements are sorted out and facts are acknowledged. Their successes and this convergence don’t come from the use of guns and clubs, but from a commitment to reason and reality, facts and logic.

While it is easy to see brutes in totalitarian regimes reaching for a gun rather than peacefully persuading free minds, the connection to force may not be so obvious in the case of people of faith. Yet just as reason and freedom go together, so do their antagonists, faith and force. As Ayn Rand observed, “every period of history dominated by mysticism, was a period of statism, of dictatorship, of tyranny”—and she underscored this shared rejection of reason in identifying the two as species of the same basic animal: the brutes as “mystics of muscle,” and the faithful as “mystics of spirit.” To see how religious faith plays into the use of force, consider theologians in contrast to the scientists discussed above. Here we find ever-expanding divergence and fragmentation in their body of thought—just notice how religions and the denominations within them have multiplied through history. And we don’t see believers resolving disagreements over their articles of faith by persuasion and reference to the facts of reality—whether it is Muslims vs. Christians, Catholics vs. Protestants, Baptists vs. Mormons, or one part of a congregation breaking away from another. This is because articles of faith aren’t based on a grasp of the facts of reality, and so they can’t be explained or defended by references to the facts of reality. Since people of faith can’t resolve such differences using facts and rational persuasion, they are left with only one alternative: force.

Having it Both Ways

Besides trying to tar his opponents with the worst atrocities in history, D’Souza regularly tries to give Christianity credit for mankind’s positive strides. For instance, he argues in an op-ed that “Christianity has illuminated the greatest achievements of the culture” such as the rise of science, human rights, equality for women and minorities, ending slavery, and so forth. That “when you examine history you find that all of these values came into the world because of Christianity.” He contrasts Christianity and atheism, saying that these advances arrived in Christendom and by the hands of Christians—not atheists. And he uses this to score extra points in debate by asking his opponents what atheism has to offer humanity, other than the chance to undermine all that progress.

Once again, such a comparison is fundamentally confused. Recall that atheism is not itself an ideology and therefore doesn’t lead people to do anything in particular—good or bad. So again we need to approach the issue in terms that will actually shed some light. The illuminating question to consider is: What does reason offer humanity over faith?

Here we see a striking contrast. Every discovery, every invention, every new idea that guided every step we have taken up from the poor, nasty, brutish, and short lives of those who came before has been made possible by one thing: thinking. Revelation never delivered a vaccine or explained the rainbow. Faith never designed a building or fed a baby. Submission to authority never discovered a better social organization or put a man on the moon. The power of this-worldly reason did.

Even the broadest strokes of history make this clear: Mankind stagnated for a thousand years through the Dark Ages while the Christian faith reigned supreme. Then what changed? Mankind started to believe that this world matters and that we are worthy and capable of living in it. The suffocating grip of faith and otherworldliness began to loosen as more people turned to reason and reality, and the West clawed its way from darkness into the Renaissance and Enlightenment. It took this-worldly thinking to discover the methods of science—not scripture and revelation, which had been present for millennia. It took free minds aimed at the task of living on earth to ignite the Industrial Revolution and the Information Revolution, and to deliver every bounty in the explosion of progress that followed—not prayer and intercession, which have been with us for all time.

Correlation isn’t causation. Obviously, long-standing Christianity only accommodated the relatively recent changes that unleashed minds brought while its overwhelming authority eroded. We were delivered from the Christian Dark Ages despite Christianity, not because of it. Countless lives were made shorter and more miserable by its cruel stranglehold—and how much higher would we be flying now without its dead weight?

The New Atheists haven’t been able to slam-dunk D’Souza because they lack the objective philosophical perspective necessary to penetrate to the core of these issues. In this case, their struggles reveal a failure to genuinely appreciate how religion is not itself the fundamental problem—irrationality is. Religion constitutes just one form of unreason, and the only thing that makes it particularly noteworthy and dangerous is that it has at its heart an explicit, committed, philosophical attack on reason: extolling faith as a virtue.

(Upcoming in the series: Science vs. Miracles, The Gap in Religious Thought, and Morality and Life.)


  1. Sam Harris stands out as an exception to advocating atheists banding together under the atheist banner, though his rejection of the label appears to be more of a pragmatic move to avoid troublesome connotations than a principled avoidance of the basic mistake it represents.

Apr 262008

This question is one of the topics in the upcoming June 2008 issue of the European Mathematical Society Newsletter. As Science News reports, this subject “has provided fodder for arguments among mathematicians and philosophers” for thousands of years, with no seeming resolution.

On one hand, there are Platonists who believe this:

…[A] mathematician discovers timeless truths independent of human observation and free of the transient nature of physical reality. “The abstract realm in which a mathematician works is by dint of prolonged intimacy more concrete to him than the chair he happens to sit on,” says Ulf Persson of Chalmers University of Technology in Sweden, a self-described Platonist.

But the Platonists are forced to deal with some tricky implications of their views:

Those who espouse discovery note that mathematical statements are true or false regardless of personal beliefs, suggesting that they have some external reality. But this leads to some odd notions. Where, exactly, do these mathematical truths exist? Can a mathematical truth really exist before anyone has ever imagined it?

In contrast, there are those who believe that such talk of an abstract realm is just mystical hogwash:

Brian Davies, a mathematician at King’s College London, writes that Platonism “has more in common with mystical religions than with modern science.” And modern science, he believes, provides evidence to show that the Platonic view is just plain wrong. He titled his article “Let Platonism Die.”

…Reuben Hersh of the University of New Mexico …rejects the Platonic view, arguing instead that mathematics is a product of human culture, not fundamentally different from other human creations like music or law or money.

But the latter school is faced with a different set of intractable questions:

On the other hand, if math is invented, then why can’t a mathematician legitimately invent that 2 + 2 = 5?

…The challenge, [Hersh] admits, is to explain why it is that mathematical statements can be definitively true or false, not subject to taste or whim.

The solution to this millenia-old argument is to abandon both the intrisicist approach of the Platonists and the subjectivist approach of their opponents. Instead, mathematical concepts (like all concepts) are neither intrinsic nor subjective but objective. It is in debates like this where the Objectivist approach to epistemology and concept formation prove their value — in being able to cut through the errors made over the centuries by struggling philosophers and mathematicians.

Of course, properly applying Rand’s theory of concept formation to the philosophy of mathematics is a non-trivial task. Concepts of number are both seemingly self-evident, but also represent feats of tremendous abstraction. But scholars such as Dr. Pat Corvini have made a good start. Her course at the 2007 OCON, “Two, Three, Four and All That“, was on precisely that topic — namely how to apply the Objectivist theory of concept formation to concepts of number:

The concept of number as used in science today is one of man’s greatest achievements: a grand-scale integration capping centuries of effort and enabling a vastly expanded efficacy in all areas of life. But the growth in complexity of the number system has rendered the meaning of number ever more mysterious; number is seen both as a touchstone of certainty and as an arbitrary human construct whose applicability to the real world is a deep mystery. This is because the nature of number has not been properly identified; and as Ayn Rand pointed out, that imprecision is dangerous.

This course clarifies the meaning of “number” by examining it in the light of Miss Rand’s theory of concepts. Recognizing the objectivity of number provides a new framework for resolving both historical and modern debates, and yields a heightened appreciation for the science of mathematics as a whole—further reinforcing the value of Objectivist epistemology.

She is also offering a follow-up course at this year’s 2008 OCON, “Two, Three, Four and All That: The Sequel“:

Science shelves of bookstores are today awash in accounts of modern extensions of the idea of number, including infinity and the continuum, set theory, transfinite numbers, and the like. Many of these ideas, and the “mysteries” that proceed from them, figure prominently in modern philosophy and in popular discussion of the nature and limits of reason.

In this course, Dr. Corvini explains and evaluates some of the most influential of these ideas, using as a frame of reference both their historical context and the view of number as objective developed in her earlier courses. By identifying the fundamental nature of the ideas and of the errors involved, we see again the importance of a proper theory of concepts, and clarify the differences between an objective approach to mathematics and the more traditional views.

I have long had an interest in those topics such as foundations of set theory, the nature of the concept “infinity”, etc. Hence, if her 2008 course is as good as her 2007 course, then it promises to be a real treat. Diana and I have already signed up for it.

Although I have a degree in mathematics (B.S., MIT, 1984), her courses do not require any advanced math background. Dr. Corvini is a very clear and engaging lecturer, and she is excellent at explaining the relevant mathematical concepts to a general audience. If you can count to 10 and you are a normal intelligent adult, then you can follow her lectures.

So if you want to see how the power of the Objectivist theory of concepts can resolve questions that have stumped some of history’s greatest minds for thousands of years, check out her courses!

(I don’t believe that her 2007 course is available yet through the Ayn Rand Bookstore, but I expect that it will be eventually. It was available for purchase by 2007 conference attendees as part of the usual post-conference package, and hence I think it will eventually make it to the main bookstore listing.)

Bad News for Philosophy Majors

 Posted by on 16 April 2008 at 12:46 pm  Business, Philosophy
Apr 162008

This graph is why parents aren’t always thrilled when their children tell them that they’ve decided to major in philosophy.

(Yes, philosophy can be a fine major. No, I don’t think that this graph says much about long-term earning potential. Many philosophy majors go to law school, and that has a good effect on long-term earnings. It’s philosophy graduate school that kills a person’s earning potential!)

Prospectus Defense

 Posted by on 25 January 2008 at 6:28 pm  Moral Luck, Philosophy, Prospectus
Jan 252008

Hooray for me!
Hooray for me!
Hooray for me!

I successfully defended my prospectus today. It went fabulously well. The four (of five) faculty on my committee able to attend seemed broadly supportive of my project, with good questions, comments, and challenges. They voted to pass me, so now the only work left for my Ph.D is my already-in-progress dissertation.

Paul and I are headed out to celebrate by consuming vast quantities of delicious calories!

Hooray for me!
Hooray for me!
Hooray for me!

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