John Robbins and the Foreclosure of His Critique of Objectivism
For the benefit of the uninitiated, it should be noted that the rivalry between Van Til and Clark spawned a blood feud which continues to boil to this day among their ideological heirs. Consider for instance the recent controversy brewing between Vantillian James Anderson and Clarkian Gary Crampton on the issue of “paradox” or “apparently contradictory” teachings. The constant believer-versus-believer imbroglios which have characterized Christianity since the Pauline epistles summons to mind the old “Spy vs. Spy” cartoons in Mad Magazine: humorous and inconsequential.
John Robbins (1948-2008) was a die-hard Clarkian who eventually died. He is probably best known for his work with the Trinity Foundation and sundry trouble-making on the internet. Robbins did write a book attempting to refute Objectivism called Without a Prayer: Ayn Rand and the Close of Her System (Hobbs, New Mexico: The Trinity Foundation, 1997. 399 pp.). The cover of Robbins’ book features a photograph of Ayn Rand’s headstone. This book offers a glimpse into the horrific sophistry of the Calvinist mindset, and has been reviewed by several non-Clarkians (see for instance Bryan Register’s and Jim Peron’s).
Now when a Vantillian presuppositionalist runs to Robbins as his savior, you can be assured that he’s on the ropes. Vantillians and Clarkians are bitter enemies, but in my experience Vantillians tend to cave into the Clarkian camp before Clarkians ever resort to Van Til. This is because the Clarkian position is more consistently mystical. For instance, it denies empiricism in toto (and just so readers know that I’m not making this up, check out this monstrosity). As such, it is only logical – on the basis of Christianity’s premises – for believers who are faced with insurmountable difficulties to retreat into the thick forest of an overtly subjective viewpoint, even if it belongs to one of their arch-rivals. So in a sense, Bolt is right on schedule.
Robbins on the Objectivist Conception of Causality
Unfortunately, Robbins makes numerous mistakes in his attempt to challenge the Objectivist position, and scores zero points in discrediting the conception of causality which I have presented in this blog. Some of Robbins’ mistakes are incidental, while others demonstrate a significant failure to grasp the position which he was critiquing.
As an example of a somewhat easily corrected mistake, consider the following. Robbins quotes (purportedly) an Objectivist source (no citation is given in the portion which he quotes from Robbins’ book) stating:
the premise that every action is only a reaction to an antecedent action, rules out, arbitrarily and a priori, the existence of self-generated goal-directed action
Only a living entity can have goals or can originate them. And it is only a living organism that has the capacity for self-generated, goal-directed action. On the physical level, the functions of all living organisms, from the simplest to the most complex—from the nutritive function in the single cell of an amoeba to the blood circulation in the body of a man—are actions generated by the organism itself and directed to a single goal: the maintenance of the organism’s life. (“The Objectivist Ethics,” The Virtue of Selfishness, p. 16)
Also, it is arguable that some entities other than biological organisms are capable at least of self-generated action (apart from goal-orientation), such as magnets and celestial bodies exerting gravitational pull on others. At any rate, Robbins is wrong to assume that Objectivists hold that only man is capable of self-generated action.
Robbins then states (in reaction to the quote above purportedly from an Objectivist source):
This is the central problem in their theory of free-will.
Robbins continues, saying:
They also reject the modern notion that causality is a relationship between motions, in favor of an older view that it is a relationship between things.
Taking such confusions as a point of departure, Robbins presses on only to prove himself to be a rather belligerent thinker. After quoting Nathaniel Branden at length (see Bolt’s post for the entire quote; Bolt states that Robbins is quoting Branden from The Objectivist, March 1966, pp. 11-12), Robbins accuses Branden’s position of
presuppos[ing] that which an empiricist cannot presuppose: that he somehow ‘knows’ the nature (or identity) of a thing apart from observation of it.
Robbins goes on to stipulate that
observation, of course, does not mean staring at an immutable object, but manipulation of an object and watching the changes it undergoes or “causes”.
At this point Robbins says that “this is precisely Hume’s point,” but what specifically does Robbins have in mind here as “Hume’s point”: that we cannot know the identity or nature of something without observing it, or that observation entails manipulating an object and “watching the changes it undergoes or ‘causes’”? I ask, because Robbins’ own statement here suffers from imprecision and clumsiness.
Contrary to what Robbins is saying, Hume’s point was precisely what Branden states, namely that
If all that is involved [in causality] is motion succeeding motion, there is no way to establish necessary relationships between succeeding events: one observes that B follows A, but one has no way to establish that B is the effect or consequence of A.
the observation of change (of motion-to-motion causality to use Branden’s term) is the only observation that can be made.
Even more to the point, Objectivists would be right to point out to Robbins that when we observe change, we are observing some thing that is undergoing the change, not just the change itself as if it could exist independent of the thing which is changing. When I observe the second hand moving in radial fashion around the face of a clock, I’m observing the second hand - a thing,not merely “change” in and of itself.
So if, contrary to what Robbins asserts (without argument, mind you), we observe not only “change” but also the entities which undergo the changes we observe, and we understand that there is a necessary relationship between an entity and the actions it performs, we observe not only the action (or change) but also the entity which performs it. We are not observing merely a succession of “events,” but rather entities in action. But even here, Robbins seems to think that, neither can we observe entities in action, but to have knowledge of what entities do we need some kind of non-sensory input. Not surprisingly, Robbins never explains how this works.
Robbins then asserts:
In the example Branden uses, no empiricist, including Ayn Rand, can state truthfully that the lighted match caused the wastebasket to burn.
Notice that throughout all this, Robbins gives no indication of any alternative means by which one can know these things, nor does he make any genuine attempt to refute the recognition that action has identity or the view that an entity’s actions depends on the nature of the entity performing that action.
But Robbins has not exhausted his appetite for bald assertions. He continues, saying:
Causality is not observed at all.
What is observed is a change in the condition of the wastebasket following the placement of a lighted match in it.
Robbins then seeks to charge “empiricists” with an elementary fallacy:
On empiricist grounds, to say that the latter caused the former is the fallacy post hoc ergo proper [SIC] hoc.
Meanwhile, Robbins demonstrates that he can only beg the question against Objectivism by assuming – without argument or any attempt to validate it – the Humean conception of causality while advancing his criticisms of the Objectivist alternative. All that he accomplishes is to deny the Objectivist position while assuming it to be false. He denies that we observe causality, only “change” or “events,” and claims arbitrarily that we cannot know that an action rests on the nature of the entity performing it except through some non-sensory means which he never identifies or explains.
Robbins offers the following highly confused summary of what Objectivism (as he disunderstands it) to entail:
The Objectivists illegitimately separate knowledge of events (motions) and knowledge of things (identities) and seek to establish causality on the latter, while conveniently ignoring that knowledge of things (identities), insofar as it deserves to be called knowledge at all, on empirical grounds must be identical with knowledge of motions.
Does Objectivism “seek to establish causality on the latter [i.e., on “knowledge of things (identities)”], while conveniently ignoring that knowledge of things (identities)… must be identical with knowledge of motions”? No, it does not. Apparently Robbins (and I suspect other detractors of Objectivism) interpret the Objectivist view of applying the law of identity to action in formulating the law of causality, as affirming that an entity and its actions are one and the same, that they are not distinct. If that is the case, then they have completely misread what Objectivism teaches. Objectivism teaches precisely the twin components which I explicated above, namely that:
(1) action has identity (since action exists, it is something; concepts denoting certain actions confirms this), and(2) the actions which an entity performs depends on the nature of the entity which performs it (i.e., an entity acts according to its nature).
Back to the point, when an individual, operating on the Objectivist view of the world, says that it is the nature of a match to ignite a wastebasket, he is not (as Robbins stipulates) merely saying “no more than ‘I (or others) have seen wastebaskets ignite after lighted matches have been dropped into them’,” but rather applying the law of causality to entity classes, a capacity for which Robbins’ (and Bolt’s) Christian worldview cannot account (since it lacks a theory of concepts as well as a consistent understanding of causality), and which their attempts to exegete and discount are self-undermining.
Robbins, clearly failing to have seen the manifold shortcomings of his own analysis of the Objectivist position, attributes the “problems” he says he’s uncovered to Objectivism’s theory of knowledge, namely
that the mind is a tabula rasa at birth and that all its knowledge comes by the senses. By accepting this premise, they must also maintain that the three laws of thought are derived from experience, unless they wish to deny the three laws are knowledge. But the establishment of the law of identity, for instance, as an ontological law on the grounds of experience, cannot be done. It would involve knowing the objects of experience in some non-sensory manner and comparing this knowledge with one’s sensory data.
…Aristotle’s claim that the law of contradiction is an ontological law as well as a law of thought involves a hysteron proteron. To suppose that logic is adequate to reality requires a knowledge of reality prior to and independent of the law. But the law itself denies that there is any knowledge independent of it. Therefore, concludes Nietzsche, we can never know that the world of things corresponds to our laws of thought.
Just as the three laws as ontological laws cannot be established by an appeal to experience so neither can the knowledge of “identities’ be established by experience of events. Events are all that is experienced by man’s senses. To claim that some sort of superior knowledge of “identities” as the Objectivists do, is to claim a means of knowledge other than the senses. Their view of causality is radically at odds with their epistemology.
Now it is hard to see how any mature thinker could seriously deny this aspect of man’s nature, and the reasons which Clark-Robbins give are not the primary motivation for rejecting this view. Mystics have historically had problems with the tabula rasa model because it threatens their enshrinement of the imaginary. Since imaginary beings cannot be perceived, for instance, mystics find it necessary to oppose any epistemology which endorses an objective process for discovering and validating knowledge. An objective process for discovering and validating knowledge begins with sense perception and adheres to the primacy of existence. But as we have seen, theists reject (either in full or in part) the fact that human awareness begins with sense perception of objects existing independent of their cognitive activity, and are continually befuddled when confronted with the primacy of existence.
Robbins attempts to find fault with the tabula rasa model by insisting that those who accept it
must also maintain that the three laws of thought are derived from experience, unless they wish to deny the three laws are knowledge.
It should also be noted that the axiomatic concepts of existence, consciousness and identity put to rest the remainder of Robbins’ concerns by tying human knowledge directly to reality at the most fundamental level of cognition. Robbins holds that
the establishment of the law of identity, for instance, as an ontological law on the grounds of experience, cannot be done. It would involve knowing the objects of experience in some non-sensory manner and comparing this knowledge with one’s sensory data.
Man grasps [the concept of “existent”] implicitly on the perceptual level—i.e., he grasps the constituents of the concept “existent,” the data which are later to be integrated by that concept. It is this implicit knowledge that permits his consciousness to develop further. (Ayn Rand, Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, p. 6)
In grasping the axiomatic concepts explicitly, one does not need to acquire non-sensory awareness of objects and then compare it to sensory data. To suggest this is simply ridiculous.
Robbins then states that
Just as the three laws as ontological laws cannot be established by an appeal to experience so neither can the knowledge of “identities” be established by experience of events.
A “perception” is a group of sensations automatically retained and integrated by the brain of a living organism, which gives it the ability to be aware, not of single stimuli, but of entities, of things. (Ayn Rand, “The Objectivist Ethics,” The Virtue of Selfishness, p. 19)
Apparently Robbins was eager to make his intellectual belligerence plain for all to see, for he states:
Events are all that is experienced by man’s senses.
If I look at a picture hanging on a wall which stands motionless before me, I’m apparently unable to experience anything, since there’s no action here, and therefore no “event” taking place. I’m awake, I’m conscious, but there’s no object to my consciousness, because there’s no activity, and – according to Robbins – “events are all that is experienced by man’s senses.”
Does Robbins provide an argument for this claim? Of course not. Indeed, in order to provide an argument, he would hardly be able to contain its disastrous implications any more than by leaving it as a mere assertion as he does. Sadly, Robbins comes across as someone who embraces the Humean view of causality entirely uncritically, and who has no discriminated awareness of what he himself as a conscious subject perceives.
In all, I cannot find anything that Robbins gets right in his attempt to critique Objectivism. He exhibits in concrete form Rand’s dictum (attributed by Barbara Branden) that people who believe in God are either stupid or dishonest. It seems that in Robbins’ case, he was both, at least to some degree.
Now we shouldn’t want to make the mistake of supposing that the steady stream of mistakes uncovered here is any indication of the validity of any of Robbins’ criticisms in the remainder of his book. This could open us up to the charge of hasty generalization, and that wouldn’t be very nice. After all, it could be that the section of the book where Robbins interacts with the Objectivist understanding of causality is marked by circular reasoning, context-dropping, baseless assertions, unstated alternatives, false dichotomies, and the like, while the rest of Robbins’ book exhibits scholarship of the most exquisite caliber. Indeed, one could adopt the mentality expressed in a now-retired campaign slogan for John Kerry, which stated:
It may be the case that Al Qaeda is in Afghanistan, Pakistan, the Philippines, Indonesia, Bali, Malaysia, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the Sudan, Somalia, Spain, Germany, Czech Republic, Florida, Oregon and Ohio. But don’t expect me to believe that they’re in IRAQ! Vote John Kerry for President!
It may be the case that virtually every sentence of the quoted section of John Robbins’ book is dripping in misstatements and fallacy, but don’t expect me to believe that faults such as these will be encountered elsewhere in his writings!
As a side note, I must say that Robbins, apart from his pervasive confusions, was quite a character. I recall the days in the late 1990s when I encountered him firsthand in a mock e-mail forum which a friend of mine had assembled (he had the e-mail address “firstname.lastname@example.org”). Robbins inserted himself into every discussion as if he had some endangered reputation to protect. Truly, he was one of the most presumptuous individuals I had ever encountered in life up to that point. He exhibited no limit to the amount of hot air he was able to produce. His angst against the senses was ever-present in virtually every message that he submitted to that forum, insisting that no knowledge could ever be gained from what we perceived. It seemed difficult for him to hold back his resentment for the human mind, particularly the ability to generate inductive generalizations. After he had made some statement condemning inductive generalizations, one of the participants asked how he could know that his criticism could apply to all inductive generalizations without relying on induction. I remember specifically that he avoided answering this question. And yet he continued to participate, railing against the role of sense perception in developing knowledge. When the obvious question was asked how he could acquire knowledge of his god’s will from the writing in the biblical storybook, he still insisted that one cannot acquire knowledge from “scribbles inked on a page.” When I asked how he knew what he saw on the page were “scribbles inked on a page,” he confessed in reply to this, “I don’t know the answer to your question,” and soon abandoned the discussion entirely. One little pin prick is all it takes to pop an over-inflated balloon.
By the way, now that John Robbins is dead, should Objectivists publish a book with a photograph of Robbins’ grave on the cover? The title of the book could be something like, John Robbins: A Man Who Prayed and Then Died. Just a thought…
by Dawson Bethrick