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Presupposing Intelligence in Epistemology

I've been discussing with Objectivists. I learned something new:

Lots of their thinking about epistemology presupposes an intelligent consciousness and proceeds from there.

They don't say this clearly. They claim to have answers to epistemological problems about how learning works (with perception, concept formation and induction). They claim to start at the beginning and work everything out.

Traditional approaches to induction try to say how intelligence works. They claim they solved the problem of induction. But they aren't actually focusing on the traditional problem. They aren't very clear to themselves about what problem each idea is meant to answer, and don't consistently stick to addressing the same problem.

Their approach to concept formation presupposes intelligence. How do you know which concepts to form? How do you know which similarities and differences are important? How do you decide which of the many patterns in the world to pay attention to? Use common sense. Use intelligent judgement. Think about it. Use your mind. Consider what you value and which patterns are relevant to pursuing your values. Consider your interests and which patterns are relevant to your interests. And, anyway, why do you want a mindless, mechanical answer someone could use without thinking, anyway?

So induction requires concept formation which requires being intelligent. Their take on induction presupposes, rather than explains, intelligence. It's kinda like saying, "You learn by using your intelligence to learn. It handles the learning, somehow. Now here are some tips on how to use your intelligence more effectively..."

They don't realize what's going on but this is a dirty trick. Induction doesn't work. How do you fix it? Well, induction plus intelligent thought is adequate to get intelligent answers. The intelligent thought does all the work! Any gaps in your theory of learning can be filled in if you presuppose an intelligence that is able to learn somehow.

One of the big points of epistemology is to figure out how intelligence learns without presupposing it works somehow. Yes it does work somehow, but let's figure out the details of the somehow!

I say new knowledge is created by evolution. They don't address the problem of how new knowledge can be created. Intelligence can do that, somehow. They don't know how. They seem to think they know how. They say intelligence creates new knowledge using perception, concept formation and induction. But then when you ask about the details of concept formation and induction, they presuppose intelligence...

Note: I do not blame Ayn Rand for this. I don't know how much of this is her fault. As far as I know from studying her writing, she didn't do this herself in her published works.

Elliot Temple on November 5, 2016

Comments (4)


This is the key.

Volitional consciousness, and its 'development' (note, I do not say 'evolution') from instinct-driven animal consciousness, has not yet been explained. It remains an enigma. Rand's definition of the role of language is an important insight and was the jumping off point for my research. Some of my writing on the subject has been published in the UK's popular weekly magazine, New Scientist.

As a developmental biologist, I have thought this through - but when, on a number of occasions, I have raised the question with Harry Binswanger, I have encountered cynical dismissal. Over many years as an Objectivist, I have come to the conclusion that the ARI is not interested in furthering the two areas of knowledge that Rand believed would be important, when more fully developed: neuroscience and mathematics. They are!

I want to explain how - and why.

Will someone give me a platform?

Warm regards,


Christine McNulty at 11:24 AM on February 5, 2017 | #8380
> I want to explain how - and why.
> Will someone give me a platform?

this is a platform. you're welcome to post here.

curi at 11:26 AM on February 5, 2017 | #8381


Ok. The received wisdom, obviously shared by Binswanger etc., is that humans come into the world with mental content; "knowledge", in the writer's terms.

This is also the opinion of Prof. Steven Pinker who wrote the popular and much acclaimed book, 'The Language Instinct'. I think the ARI's leading lights would agree with Pinker.

However, Rand chooses to quote John Locke, who said, humans are born tabula rasa. They have to learn to speak, to think - and to acquire their humanity.

I say language is not an instinct. It is the antithesis of instinct. And I can prove it. As Rand said, humans are not born with an automatic suite of stereotyped behaviours.

This is where the ARI intellectuals go wrong. They are in thrall, for whatever reason, to the notion that there exists a universal consciousness and that if the peoples of the world can just all link up, sans borders and sans annoying nation states, all will be well and peace will prevail. They see a world government - no doubt with themselves advising a bunch of ex-dictators and deracinated politicians on the virtues of rational egoism - in sole charge of a docile flock of lesser but grateful intellects.

Hubris? I think so! Utopian? definitely! Dangerous? Yes!


Christine McNulty at 11:49 AM on February 5, 2017 | #8383
Yes, people are born without language and have to learn it. Yes, people are born tabula rasa is a good way to think about it. Yes, that's what Rand said.

I'm not very familiar with ARI's denial of this but ARI is terrible on lots of things so I'm unsurprised. Note Binswanger banned me from his forum for arguing with him about epistemology. http://curi.us/1930-harry-binswanger-refuses-to-think

Ayn Rand was a fallibilist, and being a fallibilist was the number one thing that got me banned from HBL.

BTW I have some criticism of Objectivists in my bad scholarship blog category: http://curi.us/archives/list_category/77

For example: http://curi.us/1615-aris-false-statistics

If this was simply a mistake it wouldn't be that big a deal. But it's not. It's a pattern of being *and staying* wrong. There's no error correction, no listening to critics and fixing mistakes. They don't have mechanisms to stop being wrong about minor things like this or more major things like their very wrong and dangerous over-estimating of the Democrats. (I talked with Binswanger about that too. He was ignorant of a lot of facts and political writings and unwilling to educate himself or discuss it in a serious, detailed way. E.g. he didn't know much of anything about Alinsky, Soros, David Horowitz and Front Page Magazine, Breitbart, etc. And his grasp of the facts about Trump was heavily biased by the eftist mainstream media he gets his facts from and he didn't want to learn from primary sources like I do. He gets fooled by stuff like Nate Silver and the New York Times. He thinks he already knows they're biased but then he accepts far too much of what they say and gets fooled anyway, which is pretty common among non-intellectuals too.)

I don't know about this "universal consciousness" thing but they're very very wrong to advocate for open borders which will destroy the USA. Laws need to be enforced and letting in criminals and terrorists is bad! And we can only take in a limit amount of people until we repeal a lot of welfare policies! They actually come off kinda like libertarian anarchists on immigration, IMO. And more generally they really hate religion and they like prestige and social popularity and status, and those two things both bias them heavily to the left wing. The left has all the prestigious intellectuals. These same people also care a ton about getting PhDs, publishing in academic journals, etc. And the left controls the universities! And academic journals are mostly trash and peer review is in many cases basically a scam with an inflated reputation. But so many supposed Objectivists really want to impress people and be influential. They're such second-handers. Oh and of course Ayn Rand herself wasn't hateful of Christianity in the way these people are, she was reasonable about it. The supposed followers of Ayn Rand, like ARI, aren't getting their mistakes from Ayn Rand who was so consistently great.

curi at 6:26 PM on February 5, 2017 | #8391

What do you think?

(This is a free speech zone!)