Thursday, August 04, 2005

Some of my Best Friends are Objectivists

Josh writes:

Just so we're clear, I was Philosophy major. I have an MA in Philosophy (and a little bit of Linguistics) from the University of Auckland. In the second year of my MA, I tutored classes in Stage 1 Ethics and Stage 1 Reason & Argument (I think the paper's called "Critical Thinking" these days). The skills I acquired in taking this degree (critical thinking, organising information, and the ability to explain complex concepts in simpler terms in particular) have put me in good stead in both my professional and personal lives. Philosophy is a worthy subject, and the world would be a better (and more well-argued) place if more people took a few Philosophy papers -- certainly the majority of Straw-Man-slinging hypocrites that participate in what is laughingly called "debate" on NZ blogs could do with a course in reason and argumentation.

So when I hear smug Objectivist twats slagging off those airy-fairy, head in the clouds Philosophy students whose abstract musings have no relevance to the real world, well it tends to piss me off a bit. Especially since such people appear to have no idea what goes on in a Philosophy department. Let's clear a few things up, then:

Philosophy Departments do not "teach Subjectivism"
Any student who is paying attention quickly learns that Subjectivism, much like scepticism, is a waste of time. Sure, you can't actually disprove them, but they render any argument pointless as soon as they're invoked, so why waste your breath on them? Furthermore, in Stage 1 Ethics students are introduced to the ethical theory of Cultural Relativism, followed quickly by all of its many flaws and arguments against. (The same then applies to Utilitarianism, Kantianism, etc.)

Philosophy Departments do not "teach" anything
Not in the sense that their critics use the word, anyway (i.e. "telling people what to think"). What is taught is critical thinking, analysis skills, formal logic and reasoning. Students are then introduced to various theories and positions, and the arguments for and against them. Students are encouraged to make up their own minds about the merits, or lack thereof, of any philosophical position they encounter, using the skills they have been taught.

Philosophy has relevance to the real world
Apparently, U of A Philosophy lecturer Robert Nola once said to prominent Objectivist Lindsay Perigo that "logic has nothing to do with reality". No context for that quote is given, so I can't say for sure what he meant by it. (It's worth noting that Bob Nola is remembered for publicly referring to Objectivists as "cultists and crazies", so I can't imagine they'd go out of their way to represent his views charitably.) I do know that reality is so complex that it is practically impossible to analyse it in terms of pure formal logic. Nevertheless, reason is used by real people to solve real problems. While some areas of Philosophy (metaphysics, I'm looking at you) debate issues that, well, they don't really affect us one way or another, other areas relate specifically to real world situations (after Stage 1 Ethics, you go on to Stage 2 Applied Ethics). And some are a bit of both -- Philosophy of Mind may be all abstract and wishy-washy now, but it has very real implications for artificial intelligence technology.

Philosophers do not deny that "existence exists"
This philosophical manifesto-cum bumper sticker is not as unique to Objectivism as its proponents maintain. If my understanding of it as being shorthand for "that things exist can be taken as axiomatic" is correct, then I know of no philosophers or philosophical positions that deny this. Sure, there are plenty of people who question the nature of existence, for instance by arguing that although existence exists, the fact that our senses can be untrustworthy may imply that existence is not as we perceive it to be. The question is not "do things exist?"; rather "what are the things that exist really like?"

Ayn Rand can suck my balls
Well, she could if she wasn't dead. Actually...


HORansome said...

I can explain the Robert Nola quote; logic has nothing to do with reality simply means that whilst logic allows us to infer information it doesn't, on its own, tell us anything about the world we live in (i.e. Logic tells us nothing about our world because it is an axiomatic set of statements true of any possible world, say, like the world made entirely of shrimp). Only in conjunction with statements of particular fact (in this case, true statements about our world obtained a posterior) will logic operators and truth mean anything.

Basically Prof. Nola was teasing the Objectivists with their weird reliance on Rand's views on logic. Good on him, too.

RSJS said...

"certainly the majority of Straw-Man-slinging hypocrites that participate in what is laughingly called "debate" on NZ blogs could do with a course in reason and argumentation"

Nah, straw men fight like pussies, just the way I likes 'em.

Josh said...

I assume that should be a posteriori -- a posterior would be facts pulled out of your ass. Not that there's any shortage of such.

HORansome said...

Not necessarily the arse; any cavity below the belly button counts as posterior in the human mammal. But yes, dot the 'i' and all.

P.S. I don't know anyone who calls Prof. Nola 'Bob.' We all call him Robert.

RSJS said...

S'funny, Ayn Rand cited "logic has nothing to do with reality" as a Kant argument that proved Kant was destroying the minds of men and putting them onto drugs. I'm sure Lindsay practically shat himself with happiness when he found the villainous Bobby Nola saying this, in whatever context. His angelic objectivist goddess was right. It's an sign.

Kate said...

Philosohpy and religion came out tops in the latest tertiary education commission relevance assessments.
I was talking to a TEC official about it and she said that the reason why they were the most relevant was because they were the only ones who had the ability to interpret the forms to give high quailty answers.
I think this qual puts you in a good place to be able to take an argument pull it apart and put it back together again in a smart way.
Its really relevant and seen as a vital part of NZ's economy because you can take the qual anywhere.

damian_nz said...

I took some phil papers and yes, they most certainly do help me to unravel arguments that the world throws at me and make good sense of them.

However I have found that, much more useful in a debate (a verbal debate, as in not on the internet), is an ability to understand people - ie, communication. The cleanest and best way to obliterate someone's argument is to agree with the argument (as communicated by the words) but disagree with the meaning (as communicated by tones of voice and body language).

Ok, it's a bit more complex than that, but basically, when people say something, they communicate most of what they mean via their body and their tones of voice. Philosophy teaches you to take the words and use them, but to be an effective convincer and idea-changer, you need to be able to take the entirety of the communication.

My life at the moment is the study of charisma, as in a one-on-one situation the charismatic person will do all of this.

HORansome said...

The cleanest and best way to argue against someone is to show that their argument either doesn't entail or strongly suggest its conclusion or that the premises are implausible. Body language, no matter how useful, is a secondary consideration in argumentation. Oh, presentation is important; this is why Creationists are winning the war of Theory. They have the speakers whilst the Evolutionists have the thinkers. Yet their arguments are not good, only persuasuve (and persuasiveness is a virtue of good arguments but not a necessary condition of them).

Body language is also incredibly inaccurate; as a trained public speaker I can lie convincingly because I know the cues that people read and thus either not present them or misuse them to confuse. Body language is also not cross-cultural.

It should also be pointed out that charismatic personalities are only trusted in arguments by a limited set of people. Many of us distrust charisma when people rely upon it to 'prove' a point.

damian_nz said...

I don't think you can disconnect charisma from ability to prove a point.

Often, interesting discussions are disagreements of perspective more than they are disagreements of interpretation of facts. A difference of perspective is not a simple matter of showing an assumption to be false, it's often about revealing an assumption or shifting the point of view so that assumptions originally thought to be important turn out to be unimportant, and new assumptions are revealed.

In order to convince someone else that your viewpoint is right you have to first get them to see things from your perspective. And that takes charisma. You have to be able to convince someone to loosen their grip on their own subjective reality to try and view things from your subjective reality. The cues for this are almost wholly transmitted in non-verbal ways, and best transmitted in covert ways without them realising it (because if they do they will try to block the attack on their subjective reality).

As a general rule, people are very attached to their view on the world, and need to have their fingers prised off it by subtle manipulative forces. In order to change people's mind it is often necessary to confuse them first; the charismatic person is in a much better position to confuse.

HORansome said...

What you seem to be hinting at here is not a matter of charisma but the separation of two often confused tasks in argument evaluation, which are the logical and material tasks.

The logical task is the relationship between the premises and the conclusion; do the premises entail the conclusion or do they strongly suggest it (or, in many cases, do they fail to do either). The material task is whether the premises are plausible. Most people can be persuaded into a consensus on the first task but the second task is more difficult because people have different background assumptions (someone who has been brought up with the belief that conspiracies abound will likely think that a conspiracy about North Head is more likely to be true). Persuading people to take your viewpoint on the material task doesn't require charisma; it takes argumentative prowess (i.e. the ability to provide counterexamples).

Charisma will only get you so far; studies undertaken in the States show that it is possible to persuade someone of a view contrary to their own for short term gain only. An Evolutionist can persuade a Creationist of their viewpoint, but release the subject back into its peer group and the original view will not only surface but will usually take a stronger or more hardline position, especially if the subject believes they were tricked into the contrary view. The student of argumentative theory does not want this and looks for more long term solutions, such as simply providing more data to show that the assumptions the person has made really either aren't plausible or are controversial.

(Depressingly enough, the average timespan to convert a Creationist is approximately ten to twelve years.)

Duncan Bayne said...

Josh - scarily enough, your comment about Ayn Rand & your balls (oooh, bad imagery, bad imagery) led me to think of this "song", possibly the worst I've ever heard, that I found while searching for Ayn Rand audio clips.

On a more serious & relevant note, I'll get back to you (probably with a blog post of my own, I've been neglecting my blog terribly of late) with an explanation of why so many Objectivists have contempt for the contemporary study of Philosophy.

The answer in brief is that many of them have very bad experiences of studying Philosophy - see here for an example of that.

Personally I'm studying Philosophy on my own, slowly but steadily (especially slowly on Aristotle, he's *so* pedantic and dry, although that might just be the translation process at work).

Once I have a grounding that I'm happy with (IOW, at the point where I'd be comfortable discussing matters with a professional Philosopher), I might consider taking some Philosophy papers from a local University. But until then, I've heard so many Bad Things (TM) about the way in which it's taught, I'm very wary of approaching it as an innocent undergrad.

Hell, if Massey teaches Philosophy to the same standard it teaches IS (I remember talking an IS lecturer through setting up her email, which was a painful experience - especially as I was one of her extramural students while working for the IT dept. at Massey) I'm surprised their graduates come out able to walk, let alone think.

Duncan Bayne said...

Oh, and w.r.t. Creationism, I think Gary Larson said it best.

HORansome said...

To quote some of my colleagues, why are you reading Aristotle?

It's actually a really good question; whilst Aristotle might well be the beginning of my discipline (he advocated the basics of our current logic system and asked some interesting naturalistic questions about reality (unlike Socrates/Plato)) he is also three thousand years dead and somewhat out of date on nearly all major issues.

The current big names (and believe me, these people are big) like Lewis, Mackie, Chomsky, Derrida (not that I Iike Derrida), Hurst, Mulgan, Rawls et al are taught. Rand is not, partly because she is incoherent as a systematist but mostly because her arguments rest on controversial assumptions that we have better arguments against than for.

As for the article you linked to... On one level there are some very good points in it about how things are taught. Current pedagogical practice in Philosophy is to teach current theories that are in active development. This is a product of our university system being research driven; lecturers only want to teach the material being studied by them. This means that the real meat of the subject really only appears in the last year of your BA and in your MA. It's a recognised problem and one that won't be fixed until we have an emphasis on good teaching in our university system. Thus first year students really do get a potpurri of subjects. However (big 'but' time) what they are taught are skills that can be transposed to other courses in any other department or faculty.

Because that is what Philosophy is; a skill set.

We don't teach Philosophy as a set of answers because it isn't. We teach our discipline simply as a way to ask further questions. It works; you can ram social contract theory down the mouths of students but not everyone will buy into it. I'm a virtue ethicist, even though when I was being taught ethics (we teach ethics rather than morality) Consequentialism and Utilitarianism were more happily taught to students. I was a dualist (of Mental phenomena) when I entered uni and over the years I became a materialist (of mental phenomena). All because I asked questions.

Also, 'This sentence is false' is not only a very interesting proposition but students love discussing it.

Josh said...

I think I'll leave a substantial comment until I see what you've got to say on your blog, Duncan, but from reading that article, it does sound like there was some lousy teaching going on, but also a bit of missing the point. Especially when it comes to metaphysics - it is very abstract, and can involve a lot of examples that may be silly and pedantic in and of themselves, but are designed to make you think in ways that will develop the skill set that Morthos is talking about.

And maybe things have changed since he and I were fresh-faced Stage I students, but I was taught Kant, Aristotle, Kierkegaard, Heidegger, Augustine, Aquinas and various other dead white men all in my first year.

HORansome said...

Aye; over the course of my studies I have gained a fairly good grasp on Socrates/Plato, Aristotle, Kant, Hegel, Heideigger, Hume, Locke and all the old names. As a tutor and a lecturer I have also taught students on these figures. None of these are essential studies for a firm grasp of Philosophy, however.