The “Bahnsen Burner” Dawson Bethrick is busy writing a number of posts concerning the Problem of Induction that I discussed with him some time ago. In his most recent post Mr. Bethrick repeats where he thinks David Hume went wrong on induction thus allegedly setting himself up for a future post on how Objectivism rids itself of the so-called “problem” of induction. Setting aside a number of mistakes in his exegesis of Hume Mr. Bethrick shows that his last thread of hope in the area of induction will not hold the weight he wants to place on it.
Objectivists constantly make fallacious arguments that have already been raised and refuted by other schools of philosophy when it comes to attempting to solve the Problem of Induction. Given Objectivist empiricism the problem must be solved because of the centrality of induction in empiricist epistemology. It is no wonder that even poor answers to the problem should be advanced since the alternative is to advance no answers at all. At least poor answers can be dressed up in typical Objectivist rhetoric and used to persuade some.
Objectivists like to accuse those who point out problems with Objectivist empiricism of the Stolen Concept Fallacy since the “skeptics” are allegedly attacking the senses using the senses. The assumption behind this accusation is that the senses are ultimately the only route to knowledge. That Objectivism is little more than a confused and confusing empiricism is confirmed by other Objectivist dogma such as the tabula rasa.
Unfortunately for Objectivists David Hume was quite familiar with empiricism and unlike Objectivists was willing to follow it through to its bitter self-defeating end. While he attempted a few answers to his problem he did not make absurd statements about ‘seeing causality’ when a crow flaps its wings in the air (as Bethrick has done in the past) or attempt to apply identity to change (as George Smith tried to do in his radio debate with Greg Bahnsen) or employ the No True Scotsman Fallacy (as Objectivists constantly do). Rather, he reasoned himself into skepticism and remained consistently skeptical of even his skepticism before deciding to go play backgammon.
Since I do not have the time to wade through “all things Bethrickian” right now I will quote Clarkian presuppositionalist John Robbins at length. Dawson Bethrick, Objectivists, and other empiricists will have to come up with a satisfactory answer to the concerns Robbins raises here in quoting Objectivist Nathaniel Branden and interacting with the quote through the work of his teacher Gordon H. Clark. The only time I can ever find Bethrick commenting on John Robbins is when he posts a link to what he considers a “refutation” of the book produced by Robbins. The so-called “refutation” is woefully inadequate to answer the charges brought against Objectivism in that book.
The Objectivist theory of causality also deserves comment in this chapter. The Objectivists hold that “The premise that every action is only a reaction to an antecedent action, rules out, arbitrarily and a priori, the existence of self-generated, goal-directed action.” Consequently, they hold that this premise applies to all reality except man. This is the central problem in their theory of free-will. They also reject the modern notion that causality is a relationship between motions, in favor of an older view that it is a relationship between things.
The view of causality as a relationship between motions is entirely spurious. It is worth noting that, if one accepts this view, there is no way to prove or validate the law of causality. If all that is involved is motion succeeding motion, there is no way to establish necessary relationships between succeeding events: one observes that B follows A, but one has no way to establish that B is the effect or consequence of A. (This, incidentally, is one of the reasons why most philosophers, who accept this notion of causality, have been unable to answer Hume’s argument that one cannot prove the law of causality. One can’t – unless one grasps its relationship to the law of identity. But this entails rejecting the motion-to-motion view of causality.)
Furthermore, the motion-to-motion view obscures the explanatory nature of the law of causality. If one wishes to understand why entities act as they do, in a given context, one must seek the answer through an understanding of the properties of the entities involved. And, in fact, any explanation via references to antecedent actions always implies and presupposes this understanding. For example, if one states that the action of a wastebasket catching fire was caused by the action of a lighted match being thrown into it, this constitutes a satisfactory causal explanation only if one understands the nature of paper and of lighted matches; a description of the action sequence, in the absence of such knowledge, would explain nothing.
The above quotation is a terribly confused defense of causality, for it presupposes that which an empiricist cannot presuppose: that he somehow “knows” the nature (or identity) of a thing apart from observation of it. Observation, of course, does not mean staring at an immutable object, but manipulation of an object and watching the changes it undergoes or “causes”. This is precisely Hume’s point, and one which the Objectivists – or any other empiricists – have never been able to refute. The observation of change (of motion-to-motion causality to use Branden’s term) is the only observation that can be made. In the example Branden uses, no empiricist, including Ayn Rand, can state truthfully that the lighted match caused the wastebasket to burn. Causality is not observed at all. What is observed is a change in the condition of the wastebasket following the placement of a lighted match in it. On empiricist grounds, to say that the latter caused the former is the fallacy post hoc ergo proper hoc. The Objectivists illegitimately separate knowledge of events (motions) and knowledge of things (identities) and seek to establish causality on the latter, while conveniently ignoring that knowledge of things (identities), insofar as it deserves to be called knowledge at all, on empirical grounds must be identical with knowledge of motions. To say that it is the nature of a lighted match to ignite a wastebasket is to say no more than “I (or others) have seen wastebaskets ignite after lighted matches have been dropped into them.” The problems with the Objectivist theory of causality stem from their theory of knowledge, i.e., that the mind is a tabula rasa at birth and that all its knowledge comes by the senses. By accepting this premise, they must also maintain that the three laws of thought are derived from experience, unless they wish to deny that the three laws are knowledge. But the establishment of the law of identity, for instance, as an ontological law on the grounds of experience, cannot be done. It would involve knowing the objects of experience in some non-sensory manner and comparing this knowledge with one’s sensory data.
…Aristotle’s claim that the law of contradiction is an ontological law as well as a law of thought involves a hysteron proteron. To suppose that logic is adequate to reality requires a knowledge of reality prior to and independent of the law. But the law itself denies that there is any knowledge independent of it. Therefore, concludes Nietzsche, we can never know that the world of things corresponds to our laws of thought.
Just as the three laws as ontological laws cannot be established by an appeal to experience so neither can the knowledge of “identities” be established by experience of events. Events are all that is experienced by man’s senses. To claim some sort of superior knowledge of “identities” as the Objectivists do, is to claim a means of knowledge other than the senses. Their view of causality is radically at odds with their epistemology.
John W. Robbins. Answer to Ayn Rand: A Critique of the Philosophy of Objectivism. Mount Vernon Publishing Co., Inc. Washington, D.C. 61-63.
First quoted section is from Nathaniel Branden, The Objectivist, March 1966, pgs. 11-12.
Second quoted section is from Gordon H. Clark, The Philosophy of Gordon H. Clark, pgs. 35-36.
“All things Bethrickian” is a lovely little line from Steve Hays at Triablogue.