Jason Petersen on Objectivism and the Laws of Logic
In his article, Petersen presents a question – purportedly from a visitor to his site Answers for Hope - and proceeds as though he had something positively instructive to say in response to it. But since there’s always the possibility that some readers will find themselves more baffled after reading Petersen’s article than before they even knew of its existence,
The questioner, Jay, writes:
I have a question about how objectivsts account for Laws of Logic.
Im sure you know they say its an axiom of existence, not a thing, a nature of existence, etc..
I understand the epistemological problem of this (observe particulars therefore universally true – arbitrary non-sequitur).
Is there anything problematic with this ontologically like how problems arise when you claim they are material?
Logic is epistemological, not metaphysical or ontological. Objectivists will not hesitate to point out the fact that logic is not analogous to the concrete particulars that we find in the world around us, which makes statements like Jay’s above – which insinuates that Objectivists affirm the view that the laws of logic are “material” – all the more indicative of a failure to investigate the matter honestly or responsibly.
To understand the nature of logic fully, one needs to understand the rudiments of conceptualization. But where would a Christian go to discover those rudiments? Do they find them in some chapter in Isaiah or Deuteronomy, in Obadiah or one of the New Testament epistles? Clearly not. The Christian bible offers no informed treatment on the nature of concepts, the process by which they are formed, the ways in which they can be integrated with other concepts, etc. One would have to look outside the Christian bible for this.
Unfortunately, most of those Christian philosophers who have looked outside the bible for answers on epistemological matters have looked in the wrong places and settled too quickly for answers to these issues. This is evident in apologetic programs which continue to treat “the problem of universals” as though it were an ontological quandary rather than an epistemological matter. But this error itself is a product of a religious-driven agenda, namely to relate the conceptual level of cognition to a supernatural realm which is only accessible to human thinkers by means of imagination. The path that apologists use to make such a connection is invariably an argument from ignorance, as though to say: “We don’t know how the mind integrates the material provided by the senses into conceptual form, therefore our ability to do so must be due to some supernatural agency.” Don’t be surprised when such a platform lays buried beneath an array of disguises lurking within the apologist’s talking points.
To me this sounds acceptable within Christianity.
Also ironic here is the fact that virtually any view – especially a bad one – on universals and the laws of logic can be made to “sound… acceptable within Christianity” given the fact that Christianity’s primary source – the Old and New Testaments – gives no informed presentation on either universals or the laws of logic in the first place. What theory of universals “sounds acceptable within” a Harry Potter novel? What “account for” the laws of logic “sounds acceptable within” Alice in Wonderland? So far as I know, none of these pieces of literature provide anything approaching a developed epistemology, and I know of no reason that relevantly distinguishes the books of the Christian bible in this regard.
On this note, it would be instructive to observe, when apologists make pronouncements about universals, the laws of logic, or any other issue falling under the purview of epistemology, whether they do in fact cite biblical passages which inform, substantiate or at any rate support their characterizations of what they take these things to be in terms of their worldview significance. Sadly, in my experience, this is precisely what we typically do not find when apologists discuss such matters. The bible might as well not even exist at that point.
Im not too sold on Laws of Logic being abstract things, instead they are just descriptors of God’s nature and how he thinks.
Simply put, one cannot show that something is prescriptive by describing it. For instance, if the laws of logic are part of the nature of reality, as an objectivist would assert, that description would not justifiably lead to an obligation to follow the laws of logic when we are using reason.
Jay had an additional question for Petersen regarding a blog entry of Petersen’s regarding science (Jay calls it Petersen’s “science article” and Petersen himself refers to it as “my article on operationalism, Christianity, and the philosophy of science”). Readers are free to investigate this portion of Petersen’s blog entry on their own; I will not be examining it in the present entry.
So how does Petersen respond to Jay’s comments and questions? Does Petersen ask for clarification on points that are vague and sloppy? No, he does not. Does he correct Jay’s mischaracterization of Objectivism? No, he does not. Does Petersen demonstrate any informed familiarity with Objectivism insofar as either universals or the laws of logic are concerned? No, he does not. Does Petersen acknowledge his own lack of knowledge of Objectivism and direct Jay to sources which might help him discover the answers to his questions and grow in his understanding of Objectivism? No, he does not. Does Petersen point out that Jay’s own characterization of the laws of logic as descriptive in nature invites one of the very objections he (erroneously) cites against Objectivism? No, he does not.
Instead, Petersen seems all too content to allow Jay to remain ignorant on these matters.
Take for example what Petersen states here in response to Jay’s questions:
You already pointed out a major epistemological issue with objectivism so I will not be talking about the problem of universals.
Now, either Jason Petersen knows that Jay’s characterization of Objectivism misconstrues its target in a relevantly significant manner – in which case he is being dishonest when he writes that Jay has “pointed out a major epistemological issue with objectivism”; Or, Petersen is equally clueless on what Objectivist epistemology teaches – in which case he is speaking out of ignorance and is complicit in promulgating a dishonesty by not being forthcoming about his ignorance.
Neither alternative bodes well for Petersen’s credibility as a thinker.
But I will say that it’s good that Petersen does not stick his foot any further in his mouth by choosing not to speak more about “the problem of universals.” Then again, which book, chapter and verse(s) should we consult in the Christian bible to get an “inspired” or “God-breathed” understanding of the problem of universals and the distinctively Christian solution to this problem which has plagued so many philosophers through the ages before Ayn Rand? I would love to see Petersen address this question specifically, but I don’t recommend that we hold our breath.
In spite of statements which call into serious question his familiarity with Objectivism, Petersen continues:
One ontological issue that objectivists face concerning the laws of logic is known as the is-ought problem. Simply put, one cannot show that something is prescriptive by describing it. For instance, if the laws of logic are part of the nature of reality, as an objectivist would assert, that description would not justifiably lead to an obligation to follow the laws of logic when we are using reason.
Again, Petersen shows his deep ignorance of Objectivism in what he does say here. Right off he errs in characterizing what he calls “the is-ought problem” as an “ontological issue.” But this is a moral issue since it pertains to chosen actions and motivations on the part of human thinkers. The ‘is-ought problem’ in philosophy does not fall under the heading of ontology, but under the heading of morality (see for example here and here).
Petersen says that “an objectivist would assert” that “the laws of logic are part of the nature of reality.” Does he cite any sources to support this characterization? What exactly does it mean to say that “the laws of logic are part of the nature of reality”? Would this imply that the laws of logic exist apart from conceptualization? If so – and to the degree that this is what such an expression implies – it has already departed wildly from Objectivism’s conception of the laws of logic. Broadly, such a view ignores the distinction between the subject of consciousness as well as any and all objects of consciousness as well as the distinction between specific concretes and general principles. The principles of logic, according to Objectivism, are conceptual in nature. Of course, to grasp this fully, one needs a theory of concepts, something the Christian worldview does not have. For more on the conceptual nature of logic, see my five-part paper Does Logic Presuppose the Christian God?
Petersen then states that “that description would not justifiably lead to an obligation to follow the laws of logic when we are using reason,” though it did not occur to him to point out how this bears on Jay's own view that the laws of logic "are just descriptors of God's nature and how he thinks."
Moreover, to suggest that there is an “is-ought” problem ignores the fact that, as Peikoff points out in his essay Fact and Value, “values are a type of facts; they are facts considered in relation to the choice to live.” But all such points are completely lost on Petersen; he’s most likely not even aware that criticisms such as his have either been answered directed or headed off at the pass – or even before his horse passed the saloon on the way out of town!
Rand taught that logic is the method of reason (cf. “Faith and Force: The Destroyers of the Modern World,” Philosophy: Who Needs It, 62). It is a conceptual method, which means only a consciousness which has the ability to form concepts can use logic. Since logic is a method, it is not accurate to group logic in the same category as specific concretes, like pebbles, tumbleweeds and hairbrushes. Of course, we would never learn this by reading the bible, which may be a contributing factor to much of Petersen’s persisting confusion on such matters.
Man needs reason – and therefore logic as its method – not in order to satisfy some “obligation,” but because he is neither omniscient nor infallible. Man needs a method by which he can learn new knowledge and protect his knowledge from error to whatever extent he is capable. Reason, with its method logic, is the faculty which equips him for just this. Many men do in fact choose to forego the use of reason, pretending that logic can provide them with knowledge of reality without the input of reason, all the while ignoring the nature of both logic and reason as well as the reasons why they need reason in the first place. Such individuals are naturally drawn to religion of one sort or another in their quest for unearned knowledge.
Petersen raises another pseudo-problem:
There is another question that also arises as well: Are the laws of logic a priori or a posteriori? A priori knowledge is knowledge that is known priori to experience. A posteriori knowledge is knowledge that is gained from experience. Ayn Rand, the woman that developed the philosophy of objectivism, followed the lead of the Greek philosopher Aristotle when she claimed that we all start off with blank minds. This, of course, means that objectivists completely reject the notion of a priori knowledge.
Knowledge of logic is not automatic, innate, or indicative of anamnesis or any other alleged mystical means of “knowing.” The entire history of the philosophical development of logic should be sufficient to testify to precisely this: thinkers through the ages, beginning with Aristotle, have poured countless amounts of time and energy into pondering logic, discovering its principles, its relationships, its integrating prowess. To call this an example of “a priori knowledge” just shows the crass willingness to take great human achievements completely for granted in an expression of ignorance of biblical proportions.
Moreover, if logic is conceptual in nature, as I have argued (again, see here), then the concepts which inform logical principles need to be formed by a mental process. In other words, human beings who want to learn logical principles need to perform conceptual labor. This is not possible without experience (i.e., conscious interaction with the objects we discover in the world by looking outward) any more than breathing on the moon is possible without a space suit. An experience-starved brain is no more functional than an oxygen-starved body.
It is ultimately sheer ignorance about the nature, not only of logic, but also of concepts and the process by which the human mind forms them, that apologists retreat to the “a priori” cave of their primitive philosophical ancestors. And for them, given the ignorance to which they stubbornly cling, this seems most expedient, especially since it allows them to point to the deity which they concoct and enshrine in their imaginations as the “answer” to their willfully unanswered questions about the nature of logic. Apologists raise the issue of the laws of logic precisely because their lack of understanding of both logic and concepts has created an enormous gap in their understanding into which they are zealously eager to insert their god. The premise of “a priori knowledge” is simply a means to furthering this illicit, subjective end.
But if logic is in fact conceptual in nature, and we have a theory of concepts which explains how the human mind forms concepts (qua general classes and categories) from perceptual input, as the objective theory of concepts does, then there is no inscrutable mystery here which compels us to posit supernatural solutions. That we do in fact form concepts from what we perceive and retain our knowledge of the world in the form of concepts is indisputable (let anyone who disputes this, frame his disputation without recourse to concepts).
Consider the fact that our most basic concepts – those which Objectivism identifies as axiomatic concepts, are based directly on perceptual input and entirely general in nature. The concept ‘existence’, for example, denotes everything that exists, all in one mental unit. To speak of all of existence is to speak as widely as possible, leaving out nothing that actually exists. This is not a concept that we form absent of perceptual input, and thus not a concept available to us prior to or apart from experience. Who remembers “knowing” this concept before they were born, or before they were conceived for that matter (for it could be argued that, even in the womb, we experience things – medical ultrasonography records how unborn babies react to stimuli, and it is held that a fetus can feel pain)? If axiomatic concepts, the most basic concepts of all, are formed on the basis of perceptual input, as the objective theory of concepts demonstrates, then the notion that logic is “a priori” must be rejected in toto. Indeed, what argument does Petersen give for the conclusion that logic is “a priori”? Blank out.
This is problematic because if the law of contradiction is not known prior to experience, then no experience would be intelligible.
The problem with what Petersen proposes here is that it commits the fallacy of the stolen concept. This fallacy occurs when one makes use of a concept while ignoring or denying its genetic roots. The concept in this case is the concept ‘knowledge’, which Petersen wants to use apart from and prior to experience – i.e., its genetic roots. So-called “knowledge” without experience would be knowledge without objective input, and thus without discernable content. It would at best be knowledge formed in a subjective vacuum, starved of objective content and therefore entirely lacking any basis in reality.
As can be expected from a thinker who bases his pronouncements about human knowledge on ignorance, Petersen backs up his unargued assertion with a question. He asks:
How would one be able to tell the difference between a true proposition and a false proposition if the law of contradiction is not known prior to experience?
But consider how much awareness of the world perception alone gives us, before we ever even begin forming our first propositions. If you place a tennis ball and a basketball before a toddler, before it has ever formed the concepts ‘big’, ‘bigger’ and ‘biggest’, the child can, at the perceptual level of awareness, discern which ball is larger than the other, just from what is perceptually self-evident. The concepts ‘big’ and ‘bigger’ are not metaphysical preconditions for either the size relationship between such objects or this kind of discernment at the perceptual level to take place.
We can demonstrate this by means of experiments with animals which have not reached the conceptual level of cognition. For example, if you roll both a basketball and a tennis ball towards a dog, it will attempt to pick up the tennis ball in its mouth before it ever tries to do so with the basketball. In fact, I would wager that most dogs would not even attempt to pick up a basketball in their mouths, but I’ve known many dogs who apparently experience great pleasure in retrieving a tennis ball. The point is that discriminated experience is already taking place in the perceptual level of cognition well before (and apart from) the administration of the conceptual level of consciousness. It is when we get to the conceptual level that we identify such distinctions in conceptual form. But those distinctions existed before we identified them (they had to – otherwise we wouldn’t have them to identify in the first place), and we were aware of them prior to identifying them (which is why we are in the position necessary for us to be able to identify them). We perceive things prior to identifying them. Otherwise we would be identifying something that we are not aware of. How much sense would that make? But this is precisely where Petersen’s “epistemology” leads: ‘knowledge’ in a complete void.
But Petersen, in his haste to manufacture any objection he can muster against Objectivism, has run roughshod over such fundamentals, ignoring discriminating cognition which already takes place at the perceptual level. This is clear from what he states here:
If you can’t recognize whether or not the proposition is trustworthy, then you cannot learn by experience.
In our earliest months and years of life, we in fact do learn from experience, long before we form basic propositions or acquire even a basic understanding of logical principles. A toddler who burns himself by touching a hot stove will learn very quickly to be more careful around stoves; a toddler who is confronted with an aggressive dog will likewise learn very quickly to be careful around animals. Discerning the trustworthiness of propositions is a much more complex mental task. In fact, Petersen has it completely backwards: if we cannot learn from experience, we will never be able to determine the trustworthiness of propositions.
The objectivist’s ontological views of the law of logic leads to a self-refuting skepticism, for if the law of contradiction not being known a priori results in a worldview where knowledge simply isn’t possible.
Unlike Christianity, Objectivism actually has an epistemology – beginning with the objective theory of concepts – and in no way seeks to do away with epistemology (such as when thinkers affirm the notion of “a priori knowledge”). Moreover, Objectivism bases logic on the axiomatic concept of identity, a concept which Christianity seeks to evade and whose philosophical tenets obliterate. Logic is not possible on Christian grounds. A worldview which requires of its adherents the unthinking acceptance of mystical dogma is wholly antagonistic to the very essence of logic. And Petersen, a defender of Christian mysticism, charges that Objectivism “leads to a self-refuting skepticism”? Skepticism is the Christian’s very starting point: “We can’t know, so we might as well believe.” That is not the path to knowledge. The announcement that “We know without knowing how we know” signals that no promising epistemology is to be expected from such a worldview.
I agree with you that the laws of logic are not abstract objects.
In fact, William Lane Craig is working on a book on abstract objects. At one time, he used to view things like numbers and laws of logic as abstract objects, but he has recently come out and said that he has changed his position on this matter. I think his new book will be an interesting read for all Christians once it comes out.
In sum, I submit that we have here, once again, another fine example of Jason Petersen pontificating out of his own gaping chasms of ignorance. Will he use my corrections as an opportunity to learn? Sadly, I very much doubt it.
by Dawson Bethrick