Sunday, January 30, 2011

Justice for Leonard Peikoff

The following article was written by Glenn Jorgensen, a friend and fellow member of the Houston Objectivism Society. I agree with, and endorse, the contents.

Many Objectivists are aware of the fact that John McCaskey has resigned from the board of the Ayn Rand Institute (ARI). This article assumes familiarity with the events that have occurred in this controversy.

Briefly, McCaskey criticized a major ARI project - David Harriman’s book The Logical Leap. Leonard Peikoff issued an ultimatum to ARI demanding McCaskey’s removal from the board, or Peikoff would end his support for ARI. A flurry of internet activity ensued on various blogs (such as a site run by Paul and Diana Hsieh), 1 podcasts, and by newsletter editors, including Craig Biddle (editor of The Objective Standard).2

Leonard Peikoff has been denounced as unjust for publicly condemning McCaskey and non-objective for offering no evidence to support that condemnation, yet those making these accusations have ignored the fundamental issue in this controversy, focused on non-essentials, and failed to consider all of the available evidence.

In an email to ARI Peikoff stated that McCaskey’s “disagreements … often go the heart of the philosophic principles at issue.”3 An enquiring Objectivist might ask “what are these philosophic principles, and are they identifiable from the evidence available?” This is the fundamental issue in this controversy and there is very clear evidence that Leonard Peikoff is right. Yet virtually all of the commentary has focused on non-essentials such as Peikoff’s phrase “…I hope you still know who I am?”, or his comment about a “higher rung of Hell,” or the fact that Peikoff did not give details of the reason for his position and therefore was being non-objective and unjust.

For evidence of the philosophic principles Leonard Peikoff is referring to, one need only go to McCaskey’s review on,4 and to a series of emails he sent to David Harriman (which are posted on McCaskey’s website).5 The salient statement in his review is:

Galileo’s concept of resistance is not the same as our concept of friction but an immature concept that one would expect Harriman to call a “red light” to scientific progress. The remarkable thing is how much progress Galileo actually made using a concept that conflated two (or three) very different things.

(Harriman calls the development of a needed concept a “green light” to induction, and the lack of a needed concept a “red light” to induction. In other words, a valid concept is required for the inductive process to proceed.)

However, Galileo was not conflating “two (or three) very different things.” His experiments of dropping different objects through various media enabled him to abstract away the drag (or resistance) imposed on the objects by the media. He then omitted the measurements of the drag to form the concept “friction.” As Harriman states in The Logical Leap, this led to Galileo’s discovery that all free bodies fall to earth at the same rate, regardless of material and weight. (“Free” in this context means not impeded by friction.)

But McCaskey insists that inductive generalizations can proceed without the requisite concepts in place. More evidence of this is provided in a quote from McCaskey’s website when he discusses his emails to David Harriman:

I express reservations about the principle that an inchoate concept provides a “red light” to induction and sympathize with William Whewell’s view that a concept’s final formation completes rather than begins an induction.

David Harriman sums up McCaskey’s position very succinctly in a letter to Diana Hsieh (this can be found on the Hsieh’s website):

In effect, scientists stumble around in the dark and somehow discover laws of nature before they grasp the constituent concepts.

Is McCaskey’s viewpoint consistent with the Objectivist theory of concepts, or as Peikoff puts it, “the heart of the philosophical principles at issue”? As Ayn Rand states, “The process of observing the facts of reality and of integrating them into concepts is, in essence, a process of induction.”6 Briefly, concept formation begins with perception of concretes in reality. We mentally isolate essential similarities among these concretes, omit the measurements, and group similar concretes into a single mental unit – a concept. First level concepts are those where the similarities among referents are directly perceivable (e.g. “table”, “chair”, etc.), and higher level concepts are then formed by observing essential similarities among the lower level concepts (e.g. “furniture” is formed from “table”, “chair”, etc.). The first level concepts have similarities that allow integration into the next higher level concepts, and so on up the conceptual ladder. Thus concepts are developed in a hierarchy, with higher level concepts based on the earlier formed lower level concepts.

Notice that one cannot perceive “furniture” directly; one perceives “tables,” “chairs,” etc. For a higher level concept to be valid it must be reducible down through the hierarchy to the directly observable first level concepts. And to understand a concept one must be able to perform this reduction. As Ayn Rand states, “The meaning of furniture cannot be grasped unless one has first grasped the meaning of its constituent concepts; these are its link to reality.”7 One must be able to trace the link from the concept “furniture” down to the observable concretes of “tables” and “chairs”. Reduction is the means of connecting concepts to the perceptual level – i.e. reality.

Once concepts are formed they are used to acquire knowledge. Quoting Harriman:

Concepts are tools of knowledge … but are not by themselves claims to knowledge (although they presuppose knowledge)… If we are to gain knowledge with these tools, they must be used to create a cognitive product, such as a generalization which either does or does not correspond to reality.8

He then goes on to explain that generalizations are hierarchical, just as concepts are. The generalizations discovered by scientists rest on a large number of preceding generalizations. And throughout the entire process of observation and experiment, new concepts are formed that aid scientists in discovering further knowledge. Galileo’s discovery of the law of free fall, after forming the concept friction is an example of this.

How does one know that this advanced scientific knowledge corresponds to reality? By the same process that higher level concepts are validated – reduction. Again, reduction is the means of connecting higher level generalizations to reality.

Now consider McCaskey’s viewpoint that progress can be made using “a concept that conflate[s] two (or three) very different things.” How could a valid concept be formed if it tried to integrate concretes that are essentially different? A “concept” like this could not be reduced to the perceptual level. And how valid would an inductive generalization be if it used a “concept” that was not tied to reality? Just like the “concept that conflated two (or three) very different things,” this generalization also could not be reduced to the perceptual level. McCaskey provides more evidence for this same viewpoint when he states “a concept’s final formation completes rather than begins an induction.”

McCaskey denies the Objectivist view of what a concept is: he claims that a concept can be formed that “conflates[s]… very different things.” In other words, concepts are formed on the basis of loose similarities – a matter of convenience –rather than on the basis of the essential characteristics of the constituent concretes. This amounts to the subjectivist view of concepts that says “anything goes” when it comes to forming a concept, and therefore denies the objectivity of concepts that is the essence of the Objectivist theory of concepts.

And what of McCaskey’s view that Galileo could discover the law of free fall while simultaneously claiming “friction” was an “immature” concept at the time? This denies the hierarchical nature of knowledge. It ignores the requirement that higher level generalizations of reality be reducible to the perceptual level. In effect, he claims knowledge of reality is possible without reference to reality. And, while it is outside the scope of this article to discuss the details of scientific history, analyzing McCaskey’s own discussion of Galileo’s concept of friction (on his website) demonstrates that Galileo did have the proper concept, which supports Harriman’s viewpoint in The Logical Leap, not McCaskey’s non-Objectivist view of concepts.

Whether one is talking of Newton’s identification that force is the product of mass and acceleration, or a first level generalization like “pushing a ball causes it to roll,” the constituent concepts must be understood to draw a valid conclusion. Can you imagine a child understanding that a ball will roll when pushed, without understanding “ball” or “roll” or “push”? The principle is the same regardless of the level of knowledge.

So, how should we evaluate John McCaskey? Should he be evaluated based on Craig Biddle’s claim that he was always “thoughtful, professional, and polite”? Should we take the stance, as Biddle has done, that “… even if McCaskey did issue criticisms amounting to such claims [that Peikoff and Harriman are misguided or that Objectivism is inadequate on this issue], unless he did so in a dishonest, unjust, or baseless manner, such criticisms would not warrant moral condemnation”?  Should he be evaluated based on his “…remarkable achievements with the Anthem Foundation” or that “In every interaction, Dr. McCaskey has always been the consummate gentleman -- unfailingly polite and even-keeled. He's a scholar in the best sense -- concerned to draw the proper conclusions…” as the Hsieh’s state on their website? Some of these statements may be true, but they are irrelevant to the issue raised by Peikoff – an issue that has been ignored by his detractors. It should be noted that the Hsieh’s softened their stance somewhat in a later post, though their view of McCaskey apparently has not changed.

For the answer to how McCaskey should be evaluated, I suggest reviewing Leonard Peikoff’s excellent article “Fact and Value”, which is available for viewing on the ARI website.9 Discussing Ayn Rand’s evaluation of Kant in that article, Leonard Peikoff states:

In the final issue of The Objectivist, Ayn Rand described Kant as “the most evil man in mankind’s history.” She said it knowing full well that, apart from his ideas, Kant’s actions were unexceptionable, even exemplary. Like Ellsworth Toohey, he was a peaceful citizen, a witty lecturer, a popular dinner guest, a prolific writer. She said it because of what Kant wrote—and why—and what it would have to do to mankind. [bold added]

In summary, ideas require an evaluation with man’s life as the standard of value. McCaskey should be evaluated for what he said about scientific induction, and what it would mean for science. He should be evaluated for a viewpoint that denies the fundamental principles of Objectivist epistemology, and for the consequences of what that viewpoint would lead to. The results of such a viewpoint can be seen today with notions such as “the big bang theory” and “string theory.”  These theories float with no connection to reality (see The Logical Leap for details). Science cannot advance with a method that severs concepts from reality because the generalizations that are based on such “concepts” are equally severed from reality.  How could science aid man’s life, if it does not deal with reality? And wider, what are the implications if one were to try to defend egoism, individual rights, or capitalism using this epistemological method? How could you defend a statement such as “Capitalism is the only moral social system” with the epistemological method underlying McCaskey’s view? This is precisely what conservatives do when they argue capitalism “works” while advocating altruism; it is what Libertarians do when they advocate “freedom” divorced from ethics.

The Logical Leap is a great book. David Harriman and Leonard Peikoff should be commended for the work they have done to produce this ground breaking theory on induction. McCaskey has done more than just question the validity of that theory.  He has attacked its epistemological foundation – the Objectivist theory of concepts.

Should McCaskey be excused for condemning the book? Should he be a board member of ARI, which is dedicated to spreading Objectivism, when he denies the foundation of Objectivism? I think the answers are obvious. Contrary to the claims of many, this controversy is not about McCaskey’s accusation of historical inaccuracy. This is, to quote Leonard Peikoff, a disagreement that goes “to the heart of the philosophic principles at issue.”

Leonard Peikoff was not being “authoritarian” in issuing an ultimatum, nor was he unjust in his evaluation of McCaskey. It should also be pointed out that he never intended his condemnation of McCaskey to be made public. The condemnation was made public by McCaskey himself, when he posted Leonard Peikoff’s private email to ARI on his website (with the permission of Peikoff and ARI).

The sign of a great philosopher is his or her ability to get to the essence of an issue and understand its implications. Ayn Rand was the pre-eminent expert at this – for example, see her reviews of Kant and Aristotle. When the essence of an issue is not identified, however, volumes of words are written on irrelevancies, non-essentials, and minutiae that cloud the intellectual horizon and distract people from the truth. And in the process the people who do not see the essence of a given issue level non-objective accusations against those who do. This is what has occurred in this controversy.

Leonard Peikoff was able to identify the essence of McCaskey’s viewpoint and properly condemned him as being inconsistent with Objectivism. Peikoff should be commended and admired for having the courage to take a firm stance towards ARI. He should be given the justice he deserves.

Glenn Jorgensen
Houston, Texas

(Thanks to Brian Phillips for many valuable suggestions in writing this article.)

6) Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, page 28
7) Ibid, page 22
8) The Logical Leap, page 14