David Hume Is Rolling In His Grave

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.


4 Comments

noen

Are you picking on Objectivists? Talk about low hanging fruit….

Science Is Guesswork | Choosing Hats

[…] also commented here to ask, “Are you picking on Objectivists?” and to hand wave Objectivism with, “Talk about low […]

Rearden Metal

This is all such garbage. I don’t understand why these issues are even focused on.
By analyzing the cause and effect relationship of things, we can discover rules of nature. We can know all kinds of things.
Socialism is theft and the destruction of the mind any way you slice it; this is all you need to take from Ayn Rand. Capitalism can be cruel, but with rules based on reason that are enforced, it is the best system. (Doesn’t mean no regulation, just means no regulation set up to favor one man over another.)
Everything she says is basically right even if it is ugly. You may not wish to live by her writings’ descriptions of a non-religious puritanistic lifestyle, and that’s fine.
But to deny that we can observe causality is just a lie. The destruction of collectivism and elevation of man’s mind is her goal. To quibble about these unnecessary philosophical descriptions is to avoid the real issue.
You are born with instincts and the capacity to learn; and government power should always be feared as corrupt. Why get in the weeds about all this crap that doesn’t affect the validity of how best to run an economy?

C.L. Bolt

“This is all such garbage.”
Thanks for sharing.

“I don’t understand why these issues are even focused on.”
That says much more about you than it does the issues in question.

“By analyzing the cause and effect relationship of things, we can discover rules of nature.”
I do not know what you mean by analyzing the cause and effect relationship of things. Given a non-theistic view of the universe I see no a priori analysis of cause and effect being possible, and per some of the concerns raised in the post above I see no a posteriori analysis of cause and effect being possible. Why would you assume that there are causes and effects rather than correlations? Further, even if it were possible to analyze cause and effect per your theory above it would be a great leap of faith to assume that analyzing particular instances of cause and effect as you have suggested results in our being able to make judgments concerning universal laws. What does one instance of cause and effect have to do with any other? How do we even know that there are other instances of cause and effect?

“We can know all kinds of things.”
In practice, but not in principal, which is to say that you are able to know things (and actually do know things) despite your worldview, not because of it.

“Socialism is theft and the destruction of the mind any way you slice it;”
I agree.

“…this is all you need to take from Ayn Rand.”
Objectivists disagree.

“Capitalism can be cruel,”
I disagree that capitalism is cruel.

“…but with rules based on reason that are enforced, it is the best system.”
Is reason itself based on any rules?

“(Doesn’t mean no regulation, just means no regulation set up to favor one man over another.)”
Okay.

“Everything she says is basically right even if it is ugly.”
It’s good to know you are capable of such high levels of critical thought. 😉

“You may not wish to live by her writings’ descriptions of a non-religious puritanistic lifestyle, and that’s fine.”
Glad to have your permission to reject Ayn Rand’s despicably sinful lifestyle.

Why are you talking about capitalism on a post that’s talking about induction?

“But to deny that we can observe causality is just a lie.”
That’s an assertion, not an argument. Do you have an argument? What does causality look like? Does it have red hair and large teeth?

“The destruction of collectivism and elevation of man’s mind is her goal.”
That’s nice.

“To quibble about these unnecessary philosophical descriptions is to avoid the real issue.”
Actually, you’re avoiding the real issue of the post, which was induction, not capitalism or Ayn Rand, and induction is very much necessary to Ayn Rand’s entire system, including her capitalism. You may need to reread the post.

“You are born with instincts and the capacity to learn;”
I agree, but what does this have to do with anything, and how do you account for those instincts and capacities upon your understanding of the world?

“…and government power should always be feared as corrupt.”
Much of it is, but I am not afraid of it, and I know how to make sense of a concept like “corrupt.” Do you?

“Why get in the weeds about all this crap that doesn’t affect the validity of how best to run an economy?”
Because there is more to life than how to run an economy, and because your ideas on how to run an economy are based upon induction as the post explains.


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