Go Forth and Integrate

 Posted by on 27 June 2007 at 9:30 am  Uncategorized
Jun 272007

When Paul posted this story about the exciting discovery of a new method of converting blood types

Scientists have developed a way of converting one blood group into another.

The technique potentially enables blood from groups A, B and AB to be converted into group O negative, which can be safely transplanted into any patient.

The method, which makes use of newly discovered enzymes, may help relieve shortages of blood for transfusions.

…he joked to me, “Well, now the Objectivist epistemology is toast!”

Leonard Peikoff used the example of the incompatibility of blood types in Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand to illustrate the principle “since a later discovery rests hierarchically on earlier knowledge, it cannot contradict its own base” (173). So the irony would be downright gooey if this new technique actually overturned our prior understanding of the incompatibility of blood types. Of course — and hence the joke — the new technique is based on that prior knowledge, meaning that it is actually a perfect example of the principle at work.

However, Paul’s comment did have a more serious point, namely that Dr. Peikoff’s fine example has become something of an Objectivist bromide, overused (and misused) by other Objectivists, such that the principle might seem to rest largely on that single example. The same thing happens with Ayn Rand’s various furniture concepts (e.g. coffee table, desk, table, bookcase, furniture) as examples of a low-level hierarchy of concepts. Those examples have been so overused that sometimes it seems like the Objectivist theory of concepts is good for nothing but forming concepts of furniture! (One side-effect is ignorance of the difficulties of forming some low-level concepts, e.g. those those of species of living organisms.)

As I tell my students, if you can’t construct your own examples, then you really don’t understand the abstract principle in question. Using Ayn Rand’s own examples might be legitimate in some contexts, e.g. when introducing Rand’s own views to those unfamiliar with her work. However, the re-use of standard Objectivist examples often seems to stem from haste (i.e. inadequate time to think of a new example), laziness (i.e. unwillingness to exert the effort to develop a new example), or timidity (i.e. fear of using a misbegotten, half-baked, or problematic example).

However, the root problem is that of inadequate connections between abstractions with concretes. A person who really understands some abstract point should have a wide range of clear examples thereof within relatively easy mental grasp. That “shutttling” between abstractions and concretes is a particular specialty of Yaron Brook: when speaking of some abstraction, he is never at a loss for concrete examples. So what he knows, he really knows. It’s damn impressive.

Developing those connections between abstractions and concretes does not require scholarly study or special training. It just requires consciously adopting a policy of identifying all kinds of phenomena in conceptual form as you go about life. So you make a conscious mental note to yourself: “Oh, that’s an instance of X” or “That’s like Y in Z respect.” (Remember to include internal mental states as well as phenomena out in the world.) If you do that regularly, you’ll find yourself with a wide range of examples to draw on in discussion, with firmer grasp of the abstraction, and with a greater capacity to make new integrations.

If you have a terrible memory like me, you might also want to write down the better examples. (That’s one of the reasons I blog: it helps me remember interesting concrete instances of abstract principles.) For example, the recent discovery about converting blood types mentioned above is not merely an instance of the principle that new knowledge cannot contradict its own base, it’s also an instance of Francis Bacon’s dictum “Nature, to be commanded, must be obeyed.” The discovery of a method of altering those blood types would be impossible without the acceptance of the incompatibility of blood types as metaphysical fact.

I’m not as consistent about this policy of conceptualization as I’d like to be. So I’m facile in some areas and bumbling in others. That’s one reason why I’ve chosen to blog about it: the process of writing this post will help remind me to implement the necessary standing orders!

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