Re: Objectivism and Extropianism

Technotranscendence (
Sat, 9 May 1998 09:23:13 -0400 (EDT)

All: sorry this is so long and boring.:)

At 11:53 AM 5/7/98 -0700, Mark Crosby <> wrote:
>checked out Mark J. Gardner's "What is Objectivism?"
>ORG page

Haven't checked it out yet. So what follows is based on my
views influenced by other sources.

>There, under METAPHYSICS, Gardner says:
>"The things we observe with our senses are real and
>primary; the contents of our minds -- ideas and
>emotions -- are secondary, and have no independent
>validity unless they correspond to the facts of the
>outside world."

I question his "no independent validity" though I think I
agree with him.:)

>This sounds reasonable; but, being naturally playful,
>I like to invert this somewhat and propose:
>Our sensation of and embodied interaction with the
>world is real and primary; there are no independent
>objects and theories apart from this interaction.

If you accept that things which interact must because
they interact be somehow independent -- otherwise,
they would not need to interact; they'd be part of the
same whole -- then things come before sensations of
things. Theories are a different story. They would not
be independent on this model but based upon things,
albeit indirectly through experience of things.

This does not make them less valid -- any more so than my
inability to observe the idea of "color" -- I can only see
the various things which have particular colors, such
as the light green of my copy of _Independent Review_
sitting on my bed -- makes it an invalid idea.

>Looking under EPISTEMOLOGY (Gardner is referencing:
>Rand, _Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology_):
>"Animals can only know what trees they have seen in
>their lifetime; because of concepts, man can reach
>basic conclusions about all trees -- including those
>he has never seen."
>I wonder how Objectivists can know this so certainly
>about animals and other humans! What kind of "basic
>conclusion" would I want to reach about a tree that I
>had never seen? If I was a person indigenous to an
>environment near the Arctic circle and had only seen
>an occasional evergreen tree I might erroneously
>decide that deciduous trees of lower latitudes were
>not trees at all.

The conclusion made about nonhuman animals, though
sound to me, sounds like a leap. I've read of studies,
such as _How Monkeys See the World_, which might
be interpreted as some species of monkeys having
a rudimentary (if very limited) ability to form concepts.

As for the Northern botanist you posit, she might form a
concept of "tree" based solely on evergreens, then
form another concept, let's say "abu," that corresponds
to our "deciduous tree," then come to see "tree" and
"abu" share lots of important similarities that "tree" and
"grass" (or "abu" and "fern") don't share and form
another concept "blok" that subsumes both.

The problem here is that concepts need not always be
formed the same way. Given different contexts, different
sets of concepts apply. It's been reported that Inuits
have many words for snow and ice, moreso than the
short list I've learned living in the USA. Does that mean
that the Inuit concepts clash with mine? Hardly. It
merely means that they live in a place where such
differentiations are more important than they are in
mine. (If I'm lucky, I see snow and ice about three
months out the year.) This does not expose any fatal
flaws for Objectivist epistemology -- any more than it
would for any other flavor of epistemology.

>So, this seems somewhat contradictory to what follows
>(which I basically agree with):
>"Induction is merely one half of the process of
>thought; true knowledge must not only be based on the
>observed facts of reality, it must integrate in a
>non-contradictory manner with all one's other
>knowledge." In practice, I usually manage to
>accomplish this well enough to survive and thrive.

Well, epistemology can be approached as a perscriptive
or a descriptive discipline. As the former, it would offer
rules of evidence and justification to arrive at knowledge.
For the latter, we have to recognize that people arrived
at knowledge long before they starting inquiring into the
proper means.

>In principle, though (that is, in thought), I find
>this impossible, and am often perturbed by seemingly
>contradictory concepts (like metaphorical Baobab
>trees with their 'roots' in the air).

Or hydroponics?:) Such seeming contradictions should
not be hard on a robust epistemology, especially one
which seeks to understand the universe -- as opposed to
fit it into a preconceived scheme.

>So, Rand's epistemology is logic. There seem to be
>several types of logic, however. Some excellent
>discourse on these, conducted over a century ago by
>Charles S. Peirce, is 'still' available online at
> (cf., "Questions Concerning
>Certain Faculties Claimed for Man", "On a New List of
>Categories", and "Some Consequences of Four
>Incapacities" - looking briefly at these again, this
>last one looks especially relevant to debates about

I've only read a bit of Peirce and found him, on the whole,
quite agreeable. I'll have to look into this.

>Regarding ETHICS, bouncing back to Gardner's ORG page
>on this, the first thing I see is: "Valuing is solely
>an attribute of animate matter. Inanimate matter
>cannot act, because it has nothing to act for;
>although its form can change, matter itself cannot be
>destroyed, i.e., go out of existence."
>Just for fun, I'd like to contrast this with the
>following excerpt from William T. Powers' essay "The
>Origins Of Purpose: The First Metasystem Transitions"
>(Powers has been developing perceptual control
>systems since the early 1950s; this essay is
>available at
>"In a control-system model, a purpose is simply a
>reference signal... The purpose of a control system,
>in the final analysis, is to control some effect of
>the environment on it, via its sensors, around a
>specific state or condition or level... This concept
>of purpose, of course, does not entail any cognitive
>abilities or any ability to symbolize the purpose, to
>think about it. It is simply an inherent property of
>a control system, whether simple or complex." Powers
>gives an interesting example of how even molecules in
>a solution can comprise a very simple control system.

There does seem to be a difference, though, between
a control system in general and a living system. The
living one, after all, evolved in such a way that it's
self-control furthers its existence. For example, a
plant's ability to turn its leaves to the light helps it to
live, while my car's cruise control's ability to keep the
car going at a steady speed does not. The latter's
existence is indifferent to whether it achieves its goal
or not. The former's existence depends on it.

I think a big part of being alive has to do with one's
actions having an impact on living. Surely, an
organism whose actions did not affect its ability to
survive would be unlike any organism we know of.

>Powers' conclusion here, I think, is worth quoting:
>"Knowing control theory, we can freely use such terms
>as intending, having a purpose, willing, and
>desiring, because we can now see that the fundamental
>meaning of such terms is defined by a particular
>relationship between a system and its environment, a
>relationship that has nothing to do with
>verbalizations, reasoning, or cognitions of any kind.
>Purpose is a far more fundamental phenomenon than any
>of its various manifestations. It is, I propose, the
>very basis of life."

Well, to split hair here, we can distinguish between things
a bit different. Control systems designed by humans seem
to be designed for a specific conscious purpose. This is
a bit different from the conscious purpose of individual
humans, such as one's mission to the refrigerator duing
commercial break. Both of these are different from the
type of behavior exhibited by the plant turning its leaves
to the sun.

>When Gardner says "Values are thus the means to
>sustaining life: that which furthers life is a value,
>and is the good; that which harms or destroys life is
>a disvalue, and is bad or evil", I have to say that
>this seems somewhat simplistic when the means to
>sustaining my life sometimes involves destroying
>other life.

Since life only exists in individuals and only individuals
can value, I see not problem. The furthering of one life
might involve the taking of another -- such as when I eat
plants (I'm now vegan:). The plants do not continue to live,
you know? Or when someone shoots someone else in

>Although this is a very brief overview, I agree with
>it wholeheartedly, even as I am unsure of all its
>ramifications. As an example, consider the current
>debate over 'intellectual property' and the Thomas
>Jefferson quote: "That ideas should freely spread
>from one to another over the globe, for the moral and
>mutual instruction of man, and improvement of his
>condition, seems to have been peculiarly and
>benevolently designed by nature..."

I think intellectual property is a tough issue for any
system of rights -- whether Rand's, Locke's, Kant's
or whomever's. While we might recite the pros and
cons here, I have doubts about solving the problem.:/

>BTW, there was an excerpt from Michael Spicer,
>"Public Administration, Social Science, And Political
>Association". _Administration & Society_ (March 1998)
>on the Hayek list last week (see
>that made the interesting distinction between
>'purposive' and 'civil' associations:
>" ,,, In a purposive association, it is necessary
>that individual actions be conducive to the
>attainment of the substantive ends of the state... On
>the other hand, in a civil association, it is not
>necessary that individuals undertake particular
>actions that conform to certain substantive ends of
>the state because a civil association does not
>explicitly posit any such ends."
>What's most interesting to me here is the
>implications for human knowledge (citing same article):
>"In particular, given the availability of individual
>discretion over actions within a civil association,
>much of the information or knowledge that men and
>women use in deciding on what actions they will
>undertake is inevitably dispersed and is, therefore,
>inaccessible to any single mind or group of minds,
>including those of social scientists."
>Somehow this doesn't sound like an Objectivist
>definition of knowledge to me, but that may be due to
>my shallow understanding of understanding in
>Objectivist terms.

It's true that Rand and other Objectivists (e.g., Larry
Sechrest) have been critical of much of Hayek, I
think some of the latter's ideas are compatible with
[some variants of] Objectivism. E.g., I know much
more about my condition than anyone in Washington,
D.C. This doesn't mean I'm always right about me,
but given the constant failures of intervention in
people's lives, I think it does show, I would be and
am right more often than not. (I also have an interest
in being right, moreso than anyone else, right? No
pun intended!:)

>I'm not really comfortable with the notion of
>romantic heroism, at least not with focusing on such
>escapades, because, as LDC put it the other day: "The
>myth of the small lone inventor coming up with a
>unique and marvellous idea out of nothing in his
>garage is fairy tale... A /true/ creative mind
>honestly acknowledges that nothing is created in a
>vacuum; every 'creation' is a synthesis of old ideas
>from a thousand sources, and maybe one or two
>randomly strewn new ones."

I think LDC is making a caricature. Lone inventors
do come up with great ideas, and, of course, they
do not exist on desert islands with no influence form
other people. This does not marr their achievement.
Thomas Edison benefited greatly from living in a
society that not only rewarded his inventiveness
but had a culture of percolating ideas. Surely, he
stood on the shoulders of others, but he still created
many great things -- some of which, I'm sure, would
have taken decades or longer to invent without him.

>Gardner's page on this declares: "Thus the type of
>art most consistent with man's nature is romantic
>realism. This school emphasizes the fact that man is
>a volitional being, capable of setting values and
>striving to achieve them."

I don't know. I do have many disagreements with
this line. See my "Interesting Parallels: Kenyon Cox
and Ayn Rand on Art," "Architecture: The Missing
Art Form," and "Toward and Esthetics of Horror"
for an elaboration of these. They are at:

Also, I believe the Romantic Realism as exists today
tend to be too formulaic. Artistic movements typically
start long before their manifestoes are published. This
does not mean all Objectivist ranting on the subject is
worthless, just that it's a bit early to see if a true
movement has come about. I tend to think that art
is shifting in that direction, but less because of Rand
and her cohorts and more because Modern and Post-
Modern Art are becoming more and more pace.

>I, too, see no esthetic value in emphasizing despair
>and negativity (I wonder: is "Crucifix in Urine" a
>positive, negative or irrelevant artistic statement
>to an atheist?); yet, striving *is* about overcoming
>obstacles, and some of the most satisfying works of
>'art', to me, are simply natural (and cultural)
>scenes where decay and growth are juxtaposed.

That can be pleasing. There is a difference too between
esthetics as a branch of philosophy and one's reaction
to particular works of art. The former is a reasoned study
of art, its origins, its effects, etc. The latter is a highly
personal thing. I find myself drawn to things or repulsed
by them in ways I cannot always explain. Does this means
esthetics is useless? Hardly, but one should not think of
it as a means of remolding one's tastes overnight.

(I do think some remolding is in order sometimes, though
this is a matter for much debate. I think art does have a
major role in self-betterment and self-perfection -- much
as it seems Natasha Vita More agree. What do you
think, Natasha?:)

>The supposedly Balinese aphorism - "we have no art;
>we do everything as beautifully as we can" - works
>well for me.

Being unfamiliar with the Balinese, their culture and the
like, I've no way to judge how well.

>I wonder if the core of Objectivism could be
>abbreviated to Reality, Reason & Romanticism?

Well, the original abbrevation is a bit too much also. I
think it might be a good starting point, but Objectivism
is controversial on so many points, it's best to keep in
mind that the distillation leaves a lot out.

>John K
>Clark doesn't like the magic number 3 (Extropians
>debate with Tony Hollick a while back) but I always
>seem to find myself thinking with triplex Peircean
>logic :-)

No argument from me on that preference. No doubt,
it helps to always seek something extra -- as opposed
being bogged down in a system which misses some
important aspects of reality.

Daniel Ust