Wednesday, June 26, 2019

Does Objectivism Deny the Reality of Change?

Most readers here have probably heard the charge that on “the atheist worldview” everything is “matter in motion,” that everything is “in flux,” and that the resulting constant change can only mean a persistence of chaos and absence of constancy. Such an assumption about reality supposedly follows as a result of not believing that an invisible magic being created the universe and calls all the shots. If apologists don’t actually believe this about non-believers and their outlook on reality, many nevertheless want to use such charges to put them on the defensive, regardless of what they in fact do say on behalf of their view on such matters.

Well, some time back, I had an exchange with a presuppositionalist who took a different approach. This individual actually argued precisely the opposite, namely that because of Objectivism’s conception of causality as identity applied to action, there’s no room for change in Objectivism. (I kid you not!)

As is my usual practice, I’m happy for this fellow to speak for himself:
The problem of identity and change is not a metaphysical frivolity. Indeed, it is at least part of what spurred Aristotle to develop his philosophy. Aristotle’s formulation of the law of non-contradiction reflects his attempt to resolve the difficulty. “One cannot say of something that it is and that it is not in the same respect and at the same time.” Hence, when a changes to b, it remains the same in some respect, while being different in another.  
This solution might look promising, but the problem simply reëmerges when one tries to separate the continuity and discontinuity in identity. Aristotle distinguished between the matter and the form of a substance, the former providing for perseverance of particular identity, and the latter allowing for change. I could go on to explain the failings of Aristotle’s system. However, Objectivism seems to break from Aristotle at his form-matter distinction.  
At the present, it does not appear that Objectivism can account for motion, so long as it links causality to the law of identity. Change, unless logically justifiable, would seem to imply a contradiction; and since contradictions indicate errors in one’s thinking (cf. OPAR, 119), change cannot be deemed real. If change is not real, then perception is not reliable, so axioms based on perception are meaningless. Ultimately, to provide for induction, your worldview must sacrifice everything else.
The first question that should obviously arise in response to this, is: What is motion, and does motion have identity? Or, more broadly, motion as opposed to what? If one can speak about motion, action, and change, if we can isolate them from everything else, then clearly these phenomena must be distinct from other things. And to distinguish them from other things, they must have identity. In other words, the law of identity must apply to them just as it does to entities as such. Hence, even if one gets caught up in the quandaries of ancient Greek arguments, one has already implicitly granted that motion, action and change have identity by calling them out and distinguishing them from anything else. It seems to be that the presuppositionalist’s problem is that he simply doesn’t see something that’s right before his eyes – or even aware of what he himself is doing, for he clearly grants that these concepts (‘motion’, ‘action’ and ‘change’) have meaning, and yet how could this be if the law of identity did not apply in their case?

Notice that the apologist does not confess, “Yes, I use concepts to distinguish the phenomena of motion, action and change from everything else, but that’s because [insert some identity-ignoring explanation here].” And expecting him to do so would probably be granting him too much awareness not only of faulty assumptions he otherwise takes far too much for granted, but in fact of the very cognitive action he himself is performing, for he has failed to realize that he too has applied the law of identity to action in the very raising of the objection in the first place.

A major contributing factor to the apologist’s confusion here, is his lack of a good understanding of concepts. It’s very common for thinkers who do not understand how concepts are formed and nurtured, to equate the meaning of a concept with the definition of a word associated with the concept for which it stands. This is a fundamental mistake, and in my observation it typically happens (all too often, I’ll add) as a result of not grasping the fact that a concept entails so much more than what is specified in a definition. The definition of ‘shoe’ for example, might be “an external covering for the human foot, usually of leather and consisting of a more or less stiff or heavy sole and a lighter upper part ending a short distance above, at, or below the ankle.” It’s likely not explicitly grasped that the concept ‘shoe’ is quantitatively unlimited, including every shoe which currently exists, which has existed, and which will exist. And the assumption that a word’s definition is equivalent to the full meaning of a concept, will not help one grasp the open-ended nature of concepts.

If we apply what we learn here about concepts to the concept of ‘identity’, it should not be difficult to grasp that the identity of an entity includes everything about it, its nature, its attributes, as well as its actions. The recognition that one entity is distinct from everything else that exists, is not an implicit denial of its ability to perform actions any more than the concept ‘eagle’ entails a denial of any particular eagle’s ability to soar over the desert floor.

If, however, we act on the assumption – operative as it clearly is in the presuppositionalist’s objections, but nevertheless entirely unargued – that ‘identity’ necessarily implies a fixed, static, immutable state to entities, then of course we’re going to face a series of quandaries in any effort to “account for” motion, action and change as such. For it is entities which act, and if our view is that a concept has the ability hold every entity completely motionless, then clearly we’re tacitly granting metaphysical primacy of consciousness over the entities which exist, for we’re essentially saying that a category that we form in our minds somehow has the power to restrain the objects of our consciousness from being and acting independently of our conscious activity. Thus there is lurking in the presuppositionalist’s presuppositions an insidious assumption of the primacy of consciousness which enjoys undetected sway over his reasoning. This is as invalid as saying “that eagle can’t fly because I see him perched in the tree above me!” One’s conceptions do not limit the actions of entities any more than his perception of it. But without a good understanding of concepts, how might one grasp these fundamental points? After all, while there may be a difference between sleeping on the one hand, and blindly assuming something on the other, it may very well be, for some individuals, a difference in terms of degrees rather than essentials!

It’s important to point out that identifying an action, such as a bird flying through the air, is not an instance of saying that something is what it is and also what it is not. If we say that a bird is flying, stating that it is flying is not also stating that it is not flying. Nor is observing that a bird is flying an instance of saying A has changed into B. Whether the bird is perched on a high wire or flying over a desert floor, it is still a bird, and the concept ‘bird’ includes all these and other aspects of a bird’s actions. Additionally, the Objectivist concept ‘entity’ overcomes the perils invited by distinguishing between “the matter and the form of a substance” in order to satisfy the supposed requirements of two opposites thought to be wedded in a single whole, for the concept ‘entity’ treats an object as an integrated whole whose attributes, actions and potential relationships are not viewed as opposites which must be reconciled by philosophic speculation, but as part and parcel of the entity which possesses those attributes and performs those actions which it can perform.

As Rand observed in Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology (p. 15),
The first concepts man forms are concepts of entities—since entities are the only primary existents. (Attributes cannot exist by themselves, they are merely the characteristics of entities; motions are motions of entities; relationships are relationships among entities.)
And our cognitive development into the realm of concepts must start with entities (as opposed to their attributes, actions or relationships with other entities) because ontologically everything else depends on entities. If conceptual awareness of the world is a natural phenomenon (cf. The Biological Nature of Consciousness), wouldn’t we expect its development to conform to the natural order established by the relationship between entities and their attributes, actions and relationships to other entities?

Porter makes an insightful observation when he comments on this statement of Rand’s (Ayn Rand’s Theory of Knowledge, p. 46):
The first concepts a child forms are concepts of people; they’re primary to him. Ordinary physical objects are primary to us. If we were microscopic or galactic, different features of the universe would be primary. But they’d be different-sized things [i.e., entities], not attributes, motions or relations. Because things are still what we’d need to deal with, what we’d need knowledge about. We deal with whole entities, not isolated aspects.
While it may or may not be the case that a child’s first concepts are concepts of people, Porter’s overall point here rings true: if we operated on a dramatically different scale, we would still, given the nature of how our consciousness operates and how we form concepts, treat entities – wholes that are perceptually distinct from other wholes – as primaries, and only then isolate aspects (attributes, actions, relations) from our awareness of these wholes and treat them as such. (We better do so, otherwise we will quickly lose sight of continuity and wind up somewhere along the path where Hume got lost.)

The apologist tips his hand insofar as what motivates his objections, poorly informed as they are, of the Objectivist position, when he seeks to leverage his misguided assessment that “it does not appear that Objectivism can account for motion, so long as it links causality with the law of identity” as license to attack the axioms, or really any knowledge based on perception. The apologist ignores the fact that the axioms must be true for him even to contemplate such a twisted course of reasoning, and even though the error is obvious (clearly there is change, things do have identity, and entities do perform actions, etc.), he nowhere suggests that he is willing to consider whether or not he has understood Objectivism correctly on its own terms, or imported premises foreign to Objectivism in order to argue against it. The motivation here is clearly to distort and find fault, not to understand and learn.

The apologist continues:
According to Objectivism, the Law of Identity follows necessarily from the primacy of existence; and from the Law of Identity follows causality as a necessary corollary. Hence, according to a basic syllogism, Objectivism teaches that its identity-based explanation of causality is a necessary consequence of the primacy of existence. I have asserted that explaining causality by the Law of Identity produces the absurd result of the impossibility of motion and change. On this basis I have rejected a core tenet of Objectivism. It happens as well that, if this tenet is incorrect, and if this tenet is, as Objectivism asserts, a necessary consequence of the primacy of existence, then the primacy of the existence is incorrect by way of modus tollens.
Actually, it’s a mistake to say that “the Law of Identity follows necessarily from the primacy of existence.” The law of identity stands on the axiom of existence. To put it another way: while the primacy of existence denotes the proper relationship between things that exist and the activity of consciousness, the things which exist have identity (i.e., their nature) by virtue of the fact that they exist, not as a consequence of our conscious interaction or relationship with them. In other words, the law of identity is independent of the primacy of existence for the very same reasons which make the primacy of existence true, namely that existence exists (cf., things are what they are) independent of conscious activity. That is to say, things are what they are (A is A) regardless of whether or not there’s any consciousness to perceive or behold them. An entity’s nature is not dependent on the nature of the relationship between itself and something that might be conscious of it. This is simply a consistent application of the primacy of existence to the genuine meaning of the axiom of identity. But for some reason, the apologist thinks otherwise; notice that he does not quote an Objectivist source for his characterization of Objectivism here.

Now on to the next point: If identity is the nature of something that exists, and actions exist (which they surely do), then clearly actions must have identity. That’s the application of the law of identity to action! Walking across a street is distinct from sitting down in a chair just as evaluating a moral argument is distinct from throwing a book on ethics into a fireplace. If we can distinction an action from other actions, there must be some objective basis for drawing such a distinction. Actions must have identity in order for a thinker to draw such distinctions, and in order for those distinctions to be objective, they must obtain independent of any conscious activity involved in identifying and recognizing those distinctions. That’s the nature of causality qua identity applied to action: actions have identity by virtue of the fact that they are real, just as entities have identity by virtue of the fact that they are real. So from what assumptions, imported as they must be from outside Objectivism, can one suppose that Objectivism’s conception of causality as identity applied to action, mean that motion, action and change must therefore be impossible? Indeed, we have here a conclusion drawn as the result of an external critique in which unchecked assumptions from outside Objectivism are applied in developing objections against Objectivism as if those objections could be sustained on Objectivism’s own principles. Yet, they cannot!

The very fact that we form concepts of verbs – concepts which identify and distinguish various types of actions from other types of actions, and everything else – not only confirms the Objectivist analysis of causality as the application of identity to action, but in itself could not be possible if actions did not have identity to begin with. Thus, the very denial of the Objectivist conception of causality on the objection which the presuppositionalist has given, constitutes an instance of the fallacy of the stolen concept, for he makes use of a concept while denying its very basis in presenting his denial!

The apologist continued:
I did not assert that the recognition that some things are susceptible to change implies that everything is flux. We both presumably recognize that pi is constant and the weather is not; we agree that the phenomena of experience exhibit both change and permanency. However, my claim is that any instance of change is inconsistent with the explanation of causality by the Law of Identity. Objectivism does, at least at this point, appear capable of accounting for constancy: but it is the change in experience that is problematic, and so it is this on which we must focus.
Okay, let’s explore this. Specifically, I’m curious what assumptions the apologist brings to the table here in order to make this announcement. It is refreshing to find a theistic critic of Objectivism concede that Objectivism is not mired with the “everything is matter in motion” and “all is flux” mantra that apologists typically use to brand non-theistic viewpoints. If Objectivism can “account for” constancy, that’s good for Objectivism!

But the reality of change seems to be the sticky issue here, at least so far as the apologist is concern. So what are his premises? Are the premises driving his assessment native, or foreign, to Objectivism?

When it’s pointed out that an entity’s actions are an aspect of its nature, that when an entity acts, it acts in accordance with its identity, and therefore that motion and change are consistent with the conception of causality as the application of identity to action, the apologist still insists that Objectivism has a problem here:
We agree that the general order in experience is manifested by the fact that when an entity changes, the way in which it changes is consistent with its own nature. But this recognition does not solve Objectivism’s problem. A thing having-been-changed is recognizable as having a common identity with the same thing prior-to-its change.
So far, there’s no problem for Objectivism here. None of what the apologist describes here would be possible if existents did not have identity. I stand before my closet wondering what to wear. I am I. I remove my pajama top, select a dress shirt and put it on. I am still I, even though there’s been some change. No one can reasonably dispute this.

But notice also that the actions involved here themselves have identity. This is the fundamental point that the apologist overlooks in generating his understanding of causality and his assessment of Objectivism. Removing a pajama top is distinct from dialing a number on a telephone or pulling a garbage can to the curb. All of these actions are distinct. Why? Because they have identity. The axiom of identity essentially says that, if A exists, it must be A – that is, if something exists, it must have identity, a nature. It must be itself. The Objectivist conception of causality is the recognition that this principle applies to action, since action clearly exists (cf. For the New Intellectual, p. 151.). And any particular action is an example which thoroughly confirms this, whether it’s a bird flying through the air, a pencil tip breaking, a tea kettle whistling, a washing machine reaching full spin cycle, etc. All of these are actions are what they are, distinct from other actions.

The apologist continues:
This recognition is possible in spite of the fact that the thing having-been-changed is different in some way from the thing prior-to-its-change.
I don’t think “in spite of” is the appropriate connector here. All such recognitions are possible because the law of identity applies to everything involved, including the actions of the entities in question. The law of identity is a crucial fundamental linking it all together. The law of identity does not persist “in spite of” action. Actions themselves have identity! Baking a cake is distinct from eating the cake. Assembling a chair is distinct from using it as a stepstool to reach a burnt-out bulb. Freezing ice is distinct from melting it. Swimming in a swimming pool is distinct from swimming through paperwork! And even though the apologist himself uses verbs to denote various actions and thereby distinguish them, the rudimentary fact that action has identity appears to be completely lost on him.

The apologist offered an example to help make his point:
Consider the example of a match. Someone has a new match in his hand, and then strikes, lights, and extinguishes it. The match having-been-changed is the same match as the match prior-to-its-change. But it would be absurd to say that the match having-been-changed is entirely identical to the match prior-to-its-change. The person sees that whereas formerly he had an unused match, he now has a used match in his hand.
Notice the verbs which the apologist himself uses in his example: “strikes, lights, and extinguishes.” How could these verbs have any objective meaning unless the actions they denote were distinct from each other? And how could these actions be distinct from each other if they did not have identity? What does it mean to “strike” a match”? Is that the same as “striking” a pose? Of course not. Is striking a match distinct from extinguishing it? Clearly it is. So how is it that one can assume, as the apologist here clearly does, that different actions are distinct from each other, and yet assert, as the apologist insists, that the law of identity does not apply to action? It’s frightening to observe how an otherwise very intelligent individual can be so blind to such fundamental contradictions as this.

Also, the Objectivist conception of causality nowhere stipulates that “the match-having-been-changed is entirely identical to the match prior-to-its-change.” The axiom of identity does not deny distinctions – on the contrary, it includes the recognition that distinctions themselves have identity.

In spite of assuming that action has identity in forming his very case for the position that identity cannot apply to action, the apologist continues:
If causality is linked to identity, then the match cannot change from being an unused match to being a used match.
Why? The apologist does not explain. Essentially, he’s arguing on the basis of the assumption or set of assumptions, which he has not made explicit (let alone argued for) , to the effect that identity prohibits change. But if it’s in the nature of an entity that it is capable of performing certain actions, what could possibly justify such an assumption? And what could prohibit it from acting? My suspicion is that this is another example of the unchecked influence of the primacy of consciousness, as if to say that linking identity to causality (a conscious action), will prevent otherwise independently existing entities from changing or acting in some (or any) way.

However, if we recognize that (a) it is in the nature of a match to undergo certain changes given certain conditions (such as when it is struck on certain types of surfaces) and (b) that the actions involved are of a certain type and thus distinct from other types of actions (such as submerging the match in a glass of water), then not only have we not affirmed any contradiction, we have indeed appropriately applied the law of identity.

The apologist reasons:
It may be in the nature of an unused match that it is susceptible to change by being struck, ignited and extinguished. However, it is in the nature of a used match that it is incapable of being ignited through striking. The match having-been-changed does not have exactly the same nature as the match prior-to-its-change. But if the match having-been-changed is not the same as the match prior-to-its-change, then A having-been-changed is not the same as A prior-to-its-change, and causality cannot be explained by the Law of Identity.
What was the nature of the change that caused the match to be unusable a second time? Notice how this question answers the objection on behalf of Objection, for clearly a change occurs (which Objectivism in no way denies) and the change which occurs is distinct from other kinds of changes that could occur. For example, if one merely breaks the shaft of the match, the business end still works, but the match has changed. Thus the nature of the change is certainly relevant to whether or not the match can still function as a match (i.e., be struck and lit), but still it has changed. This can only mean: changes have natures. But that’s the law of identity applied to action! That’s the law of causality as Objectivism informs it.

If there’s some reason why we cannot consider change as having a nature, what could at all be meaningful to the question every 6-year-old asks as a matter of habit, “What happened?” If change has no nature, the proper reply to such questions would be: “What do you mean? There’s no ‘what’ to what happened. To say ‘X is what happened’ is to utter a contradiction.” And with that would go our ability to explain anything, let alone document any kind of history or progress, plan a wedding, investigate a crime, forecast a marketing campaign, etc. That’s clearly nonsensical, but this is what a denial of the applicability of identity to action would essentially amount to.

If an action can be distinguished from other actions, or if one type of action can be distinguished from other types of actions, how is it not the case that the actions being distinguished do not have identity? Is writing distinct from swimming? Is jogging distinct from calculating? Is folding a sheet of paper distinct from tearing it in half?

Indeed, if we’ve formed concepts (grammatically we call these verbs) to identify various types of actions, how could we have done this if actions have no identity? The applicability of the law of identity to action is preconditional to forming such concepts to begin with. Thus, a denial of the applicability of the law of identity to action constitutes a most fundamental example of the fallacy of the stolen concept. And in spite of its fundamentality to human thought, it flies right over the apologist’s head.

Now, given that the presuppositionalist has rejected the Objectivist view that causality is essentially identity applied to action, what does this say for presuppositionalism? In fact, this paints the presuppositionalist into a most awkward corner, to put it mildly. For on the presuppositionalist view, if identity cannot be applied to action without making action impossible, on what basis does the presuppositionalist distinguish between various types of actions? After all, he distinguishes between believing and denying, asserting and arguing, reasoning and suppressing truth. How can he do this if action as such has no identity?

I’m glad these aren’t my problems!

by Dawson Bethrick


Ydemoc said...

Excellent once again, Dawson!

Thank you!


bom de vagas said...

At the last paragraph I was expecting the traditional "I am glad these aren't my problems" and it came. LOL. Great entry Dawson! You only get better with the years.

Bahnsen Burner said...

Thanks, Bom! I have to admit, I really do enjoy deploying that tagline... I trust readers don't think I overuse it! I mean, it's important to count one's own blessings, right?

And thanks for your encouraging words - and yours too, Ydemoc! I find as the years move forward, there's less time to do the things I need as well as want to do. So much is competing for my time. I'm working on more posts now, but it's slow-going, so I appreciate everyone's patience. Hopefully whatever I publish will be worth the wait. In the meantime, there's so much else out there to explore, discover and enjoy.