Burgess Laughlin

Rationalism

64 posts in this topic

"Introspection" presumes a valid concept of consciousness, which Ayn Rand finally identified. Then you can proceed to define a method based upon the facts about that consciousness, including any criteria for introspection.

This is one point, ELS, that I think need some clarification. In a fundamental sense, introspection does not presume a valid concept of consciousness any more than extrospection presumes a valid concept of existence. Both processes involve observation, one directed inward and the other directed outward. In order to properly validate introspection and be able to fully conceptualize one's observations, a valid concept of consciousness and existence is needed.

I think that is correct. And, though ELS mentioned from Thales on, note that Aristotle did not have a "valid concept of consciousness." But, despite his errors I certainly would not call him a rationalist. And I suspect Aristotle did a fair amount of introspection. :)

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I think the following could be relevant to the discussion of sex tendencies towards rationalism:

Psychologists have found that females and males use different strategies when they are navigating. [...]

Source: N. Sandstrom, J. Kaufman, S. A. Huettel. Males and females use different distal cues in a virtual environment navigation task. Brain Research: Cognitive Brain Research, 1998, 6:351-360.

This finding has recently been confirmed and extended by Deborah Saucier and her colleagues at the University of Saskatchewan and York University. See Saucier et al., "Are sex differences in navigation caused by sexually dimorphic strategies or by differences in the ability to use the strategies?" Behavioral Neuroscience, 116:403-410, 2002.

To answer the objection that these findings were affected by volitional, conceptual, and cultural factors, I would like to mention a study I saw in Scientific American about 10-15 years ago done on male and female rats.

The rats were navigating a maze with the male rats finding their way by learning the general direction of the reward and the females finding their way by "landmarking" -- i.e., by noticing the concrete details of their immediate environment.

The most interesting part was what happened when the rats were given hormones of the opposite sex in utero or shortly after birth. The females found their way by general direction and the males "landmarked!" This suggests to me that the tendency to navigate in a certain way depends on neural structures developed or matured under the influence of sex hormones.

The implication for differences in the occurrence of rationalism may, in part, be related to these findings. Many psychological experiments, and my own experience, tend to confirm that women notice the details of their environment more than men do. They are able to make finer sensory discriminations between different shades of color and various smells and tastes as well as recall details of a scene they witnessed. Men, on the other hand, are more likely to grasp the "big picture" without getting bogged down in details. This leads me to believe that one factor may be that women can, and do, rely more on the perceptual level.

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Not historically, Stephen. The long Rationalistic road from the Thales to Ayn Rand involves more than just the issue of "loose thinking" and "proper introspection".

Is Thales to Ayn Rand just a stand-in way of saying the history of philosophy? The last name is certainly out. But, so is the first, unless someone wants to try to prove Thales was a rationalist. Historically, this issue didn't present itself until Heraclitus and Parmenides. I'd call Thales the first empiricist, but not a rationalist.

I'll always protect the hydro-monist. :)

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A rationalist, without any proper grasp of what his consciousness is , without any inductive theory of concepts, or of epistemological volition, will resort to what he has cognitively available to him: his percepts, and their "given" quality -- which he will then (erroneously) apply to all his cognitive contents.

I think this is the basic reason.

I have never been a rationalist myself, but I have known quite a few and have been extremely puzzled by them. Once I became aware of rationalism, I set it, as my own personal quest, to understand how it happened and what was going on inside. It wasn't easy. I didn't have an introspective referent and asking rationalists I knew what they were doing got me nowhere. After a decade or so I had dozens of examples of rationalism at its most bizarre and several failed hypotheses, but no causal explanation.

Then I had an online dialog with a Humean and made an identification that explained everything.

Up until then, I had assumed that people formed their first-level abstractions, as Ayn Rand said, by a process of abstraction and integration from sense perception. I thought they lost their way and got detached from reality as they moved further from the perceptual level. Then the Humean described how he formed the first-level concept "table."

He didn't abstract or integrate at all. Instead, he perceptually associated the word with the objects people called "tables" without any abstract or conceptual awareness of their properties. That explained at lot.

It explained something that really puzzled me when I took Peikoff's "Logic" course. Dr. Peikoff asked students to define some first-level concepts. I'll never forget how one defined "sandwich" as "something you eat for lunch" and I wondered how he ever got so far off the track. Now I knew. He perceptually associated the word "sandwich" with eating lunch without understanding the properties and essential nature, in reality, of the entities called "sandwiches."

It also explained how rationalists got their floating abstractions and could use them in discussions, as is they were saying something meaningful, without the slightest understanding of what their words meant. They weren't at all different from the Humean's table or the "something you eat for lunch" sandwich. Rationalists connect words to things and to other words by perceptual association, and often by emotional association. It wasn't that there was a difference between the way they formed their first-level concepts and their higher-level concepts. Their first-level concepts were floating too.

The reason I hadn't noticed it for first-level concepts is that a person can get along rather well on that level with just perceptual associations. You can train animals to do amazing things by just perceptual association. It is only with higher level abstractions that the estrangement from reality becomes unmistakable.

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A rationalist, without any proper grasp of what his consciousness is , without any inductive theory of concepts, or of epistemological volition , will resort to what he has cognitively available to him: his percepts, and their "given" quality -- which he will then (erroneously) apply to all his cognitive contents.

I don't think this is correct. People begin to think and make integrations long before they reach philosophy and high-level abstractions and principles. Children don't have a "theory of concepts", inductive or otherwise, qua theory. They are not, for instance, taught the finer points of epistemology before they reach pre-Algebra. The way an explicit philosophy would impact the student at this point would be through the doctrine of the teacher and the direction of the parents. The child himself doesn't have a philosophy per se. (A sense of life, sure, and maybe some vague emotional summations like "life is an adventure" or "things should make sense", but those are far from an implicit philosophy, let alone an explicit one.)

I suspect the road to rationalism begins at the transition from childhood to adolescence, when thinking moves into broader and more abstract territory. There are many ways to screw up, misidentify, or default on the method one habituates. Rationalism is one possibility, which is certainly encouraged among the more academically successful through modern education and philosophy.

In a better world, Objectivst teachers could pick up on rationalistic tendencies in student thinking and encourage corrections. Today, unfortunately, the student is often encouraged in poor thinking methods without knowing it.

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3. How can a chronic rationalist uproot the problem?

Following suggestions Dr. Peikoff has made in some of his lectures, what worked best for me was Ayn Rand's approach (mentioned occasionally in Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology): About every dubious or critical idea, asking what facts of reality give rise to this idea?

The facts of reality are the root of every objective idea (that is, one drawn logically from the facts of reality). A rationalist is one whose ideas are not rooted in facts of reality but in something else, such as ideas that just pop into his mind or are just already there, as givens.

Reinforcing my use of this technique of trying to explicitly seek out the roots of an idea in the facts of reality was following Leonard Peikoff's suggestion, in one of his lectures, to always look around to find lots of examples of an idea before formally defining it. Both elements are crucial: looking around and examples. Both are reality-orienting for a recovering rationalist.

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He didn't abstract or integrate at all.  Instead, he perceptually associated the word with the objects people called "tables" without any abstract or conceptual awareness of their properties.... It also explained how rationalists got their floating abstractions and could use them in discussions, as if they were saying something meaningful,  without the slightest understanding of what their words meant. 

This is a fascinating idea. If I understand correctly, then a rationalist would identify concretes by non-essentials. Obviously he would have to be able to identify concretes in some fashion, or he wouldn't be able to communicate. But you seem to be saying that he does so by means of glancing off some accidental particular. If this is correct, then examples might include:

"A house is what a developer is building on an empty lot in my neighborhood."

"A job is getting paid so that I can buy a new car."

"An Ipod is something that allows me to play MP3s that I have downloaded for free."

"Causing an auto accident is the act of making my insurance premiums go up."

"Mass transit is the kind of transportation that governments build."

"Money is what rich people have."

Looking over my own examples, I notice that the choice of particular may not be random or accidental at all. Maybe this is what you meant by “emotional associations”. For example:

"A house is what a developer is building on an empty lot in my neighborhood; therefore, we should restrict his ability to build it because I really liked having an empty lot next door to my house, and never mind that I live in a house that was once built on an empty lot." (Notice that given this person's definition of house, it is easy for him to ignore the principle of a man having a right to his property and man valuing shelter.)

"Causing an auto accident is the act of making my insurance premiums go up; therefore, I will insist that we do not report this accident to the insurance, even though this will certainly make life more difficult for the person I've just harmed. As long as my insurance premiums don't go up, then we've avoided a real serious problem." (Notice that defining the terms properly would have made denying personal responsibility much more difficult, for example, causing an auto accident involves my making a bad decision that caused harm to another.)

"Mass transit is the kind of transportation that governments build; therefore, the only way we can have trains and buses is to raise taxes." (Again, it is obvious that a proper definition would leave open the idea of private mass transit, for example, mass transit is a way of moving lots of people between points.)

If I am correct in my examples, then I have learned something about why some people can be so adept at defining their terms poorly yet consistently, that is, always in a manner that furthers their personal aims. (Isn't this also an example of subjectivism?)

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He didn't abstract or integrate at all.  Instead, he -perceptually associated- the word with the objects people called "tables" without any abstract or conceptual awareness of their properties.... It also explained how rationalists got their floating abstractions and could use them in discussions, as if they were saying something meaningful,  without the slightest understanding of what their words meant. 

This is a fascinating idea. If I understand correctly, then a rationalist would identify concretes by non-essentials. Obviously he would have to be able to identify concretes in some fashion, or he wouldn't be able to communicate. But you seem to be saying that he does so by means of glancing off some accidental particular.

Usually with first-level concepts, the perceptual associations ARE made with a concept's essential characteristic(s) since those essentials characteristics are perceptual. Even if a person does no abstracting or integrating, those perceptual characteristics automatically tend to get associated with the word in his memory.

If I am correct in my examples, then I have learned something about why some people can be so adept at defining their terms poorly yet consistently, that is, always in a manner that furthers their personal aims. (Isn't this also an example of subjectivism?)

Not necessarily. While subjectivism might follow from trying to further one's personal aims, furthering one's aims is also the goal of rational cognition. Knowing what things really are is how I get what I want.

As to subjectivism, one point I have made in my thread on judging others is that, because of free will, there can be many different causes for the same behavior. Learning words by perceptual association instead of concept-formation is no exception. The most common causes are ignorance and laziness.

Perceptual association is a completely automatic process. Words will get associated with percepts, emotional states, and other words without any extra mental effort. Some people, especially young children, find that is sufficient (If it ain't broke, don't fix it) and are completely unaware that there is any other way of doing it. Later, they may notice that grown-ups and the "smart kids" seem to know a lot more and can do a lot more, and some may learn how to abstract and integrate and other may not.

Some people, when they become aware of the process of concept formation, will still prefer perceptual association because concept formation requires effort while association is automatic and easier. The Jim Taggarts of the world (Don't bother me! Don't bother me! Don't bother me!) don't want to be bothered with making the effort to fully understand if they can get away "running on automatic."

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Usually with first-level concepts, the perceptual associations ARE made with a concept's essential characteristic(s) since those essentials characteristics are perceptual.

I must have misunderstood the sandwich example, then. It seems like this individual failed to see that you can eat a sandwich any time of day and that you can eat lots of very different things for lunch besides just sandwiches, so he should have seen that the idea of sandwich must have something more to do with slices of bread, etc. In other words, it appears to me that he was focussing on some actual particular that was visible to him, but it was not the essential particular.

Do my own examples miss your point, then?

Not necessarily. While subjectivism might follow from trying to further one's personal aims, furthering one's aims is also the goal of rational cognition. Knowing what things really are is how I get what I want.

I had a certain kind of behavior in mind — specifically letting consciousness overrule identity, and doing so in a manner that is consistently motivated (as my examples seemed to suggest). I wasn't thinking merely of furthering one's aims in a rational pursuit of values. But as you say, this gets into the art and science of judging people. Already I can see that my own examples may not necessarily be caused by subjectivism. I will work through the other thread before I post any more on this one. No point in doubling up the effort.

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This is one point, ELS, that I think need some clarification.  In a fundamental sense, introspection does not presume a valid concept of consciousness any more than extrospection presumes a valid concept of existence.  Both processes involve observation, one directed inward and the other directed outward.

Thanks Paul; you're correct. I should have said having a grasp of the nature of consciousness ( e.g., that it's volitional) rather than having a valid concept per se. :)

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Thoyd Loki,Nov 18 2005, 01:40 AM]

Is Thales to Ayn Rand just a stand-in way of saying the history of philosophy? The last name is certainly out. But, so is the first, unless someone wants to try to prove Thales was a rationalist. Historically, this issue didn't present itself until Heraclitus and Parmenides. I'd call Thales the first empiricist, but not a rationalist.

Thanks, Loki. I did mean the history of philosophy. ( I should have just gone to bed last night! :))

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Ed from OC,Nov 18 2005, 02:51 AM]

[...] I suspect the road to rationalism begins at the transition from childhood to adolescence, when thinking moves into broader and more abstract territory.

No doubt that's where it has to begin.

In a better world, Objectivst teachers could pick up on rationalistic tendencies in student thinking and encourage corrections.  Today, unfortunately, the student is often encouraged in poor thinking methods without knowing it.

Some home-school and private institution Objectivist teachers are doing just what you advocate right now. I'm sure you'll find stories on this forum and elsewhere of teachers spreading a perspective (Objectivism) counter to rationalism.

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Thanks Paul; you're correct. I should have said having a grasp of the nature of consciousness ( e.g., that it's volitional) rather than having a valid concept per se. :)

There is one more point that I think is pertinent. Introspection is a prerequisite for the identification that one is conscious. What a proper identification of the concept of consciousness does (thanks to Rand) is to allow introspection and extrospection to become an objective process in acquiring knowledge of reality (by properly distinguishing consciousness from existence).

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Usually with first-level concepts, the perceptual associations ARE made with a concept's essential characteristic(s) since those essentials characteristics are perceptual.
I must have misunderstood the sandwich example, then. It seems like this individual failed to see that you can eat a sandwich any time of day and that you can eat lots of very different things for lunch besides just sandwiches, so he should have seen that the idea of sandwich must have something more to do with slices of bread, etc. In other words, it appears to me that he was focussing on some actual particular that was visible to him, but it was not the essential particular.

Very true. That's why I said "Usually with first-level concepts, the perceptual associations are made with a concept's essential characteristic(s)." What made the "sandwich" case memorable was that it involved a perceptual association that was so non-essential. I now believe that most people grasp and use most of their concepts -- even first-level concepts -- by a process of perceptual association, but the reason I didn't grasp it sooner is that most of them lock onto more essential characteristics than Mr. Sandwich.

Do my own examples miss your point, then?

I don't think they are examples of my point about first-level concepts since they involve political and ethical ideas farther removed from the perceptual level, but it is true that associations made with emotions and other words, rather than associations with perceptual qualities, do become more common as someone gets further from the perceptual level. The reason why is that, once they go beyond percepts, emotions are the only automatic thing they have left.

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