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Writings based on Objectivism, the philosophy of Ayn Rand

Ayn Rand's most popular novels are Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead, which present her philosophy, Objectivism, in vivid characterizations.

  Metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, esthetics, and  politics are the five main branches of philosophy that she identifies. Utilizing her methodology, one can be rational about all aspects of life. These essays present my understanding of Objectivism.

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Date: Sun, 14 Jun 1998
The Possibility of Discovery
Thomas M. Miovas, Jr.

>From: Tom Bowden
>
>When does metaphysical possibility justify further
>investigation or testing of a proposition for which
>there is currently no evidence?

I think if one is going to ask the question in this manner, then
one is backing oneself into an epistemological corner from the
beginning.

"Metaphysical possibility" is based on evidence -- evidence of
what things are (identity) and how they act (causality). Once
one knows a set of similar existents, and has organized them
into a concept, one can investigate further into just how
similar they are. This is the guiding principle.

Take investigating the possibility of life existing on other
planets. Given what one knows about life on Earth, and the
conditions required to sustain it, if similar conditions are
found on other planets, then an investigation into that specific
possibility is warranted, but not otherwise.

For example, it can be deduced that Mars was once similar to the
Earth billions of years ago, and both planets evolved similarly
for quite some time. Since life arose on Earth, it's possible
that it arose on Mars as well. In fact, during the recent Mars
exploration, I noticed a closer connection between Earth and
Mars; namely that the red dust and rocks visible in the
photographs were quite similar to red dust and rocks found in
Australia, which are known to be due to bacteria and their
remains. Further investigations are definitely warranted!

In criminal investigations, one has to go by the evidence -- not
just what is found by the police per se, but your knowledge of
people and their motivations. If a given individual has
similarities to an innocent man in his mannerisms, or the
evidence can be "added up" several ways that is logically
consistent with all the known facts, at least one of which
excuses the accused, then investigations into further
exculpating evidence is warranted, but not otherwise.

I'm not familiar enough with trial procedures to give a good
example here. Perhaps you could provide us with one, while
respecting the privacy and rights of your patrons?

As far as scientific advances are concerned, generally speaking
the scientist who comes up with a new theory focuses on evidence
that others are too prone to overlook. That is, he finds a
similarity in the things most people are willing to write off as
"due to error" or "that wasn't supposed to happen" or some
variant of such. If he can validate a similarity in the
observations, he is warranted to do further investigations, but
not otherwise.

This was how the transmissions of radio waves was discovered. In
dealing with telegraph equipment, which used an electric circuit
with a needle making contact, it was noticed by many that a
spark often erupted just before full contact was made. Nobody
thought much of it. Of course a spark would leap, I mean, it's
electricity, after all. Sometimes, when similar equipment was
right next to one another, a spark would be emitted by the next
one over, when contact was being made on the one being used to
transmit a signal. They just thought they didn't have enough
insulation or distance between the telegraph keys, resulting in
a short circuit -- i.e. it was just an error.

However, some scientists / inventors (Thomas Edison being one of
them) noticed this happened far too often to be merely due to
error, and they created the "spark gap generator" to test out a
theory that there was some, as yet unknown, principle at work
making this occur. It was found that if two "spark gap
generators" were made to identical specs, and a spark was
created in one of them, another spark would erupt in the other
one, even when they were too far apart and too well insulated
for there to have been a short circuit between the two -- and
the radio wave theory began to take shape.


In any case of searching for a possibility, there must be some
evidence to support one's claim, meaning it must be similar to
something already known, or one has no epistemological ground to
stand on; and therefore no moral ground to stand on, since
morality is applied epistemology.


Date: Fri, 26 Jun 1998 03:27:53 -0400 (EDT)
The Possibility of Discovery
Thomas M. Miovas, Jr. <excerpted by me--HB>

>From Tom Bowden:

>In short, philosophy does not forbid fishing expeditions.
[clip]
>How ironic it would be to use the concept of "arbitrary"
>to brand as irrational those who spend their time *searching*
>for evidence that might expand mankind's stock of true
>propositions.

A rational philosophy forbids the arbitrary, so the question
becomes: Is a "random walk" (a "fishing expedition") in nature
arbitrary? Except for very young children, I think it is.
Children go through a stage where they are fascinated with
everything, and they go around collecting a hodge podge of
information that isn't very well organized. It has to start off
this way, because man is born tabula rasa -- the child has no
prior context of knowledge to use as a guide. Adult scientists
have a much better method.

Perhaps my example of the theory of radio waves didn't quite
have enough context established, but the reason Edison and
others were looking for another explanation for the sparks was
because the only other known possibility was actually an
impossibility. There was no way anyone could account for the
sparks by reference to short circuits, because there weren't
any, so something else *had* to be going on.

Now, could Edison have chosen to tinker around with electrical
devices and have stumbled around to the same conclusion without
the evidence presented by the telegraphers? Sure, it's possible.
But he could just as easily have tinkered around for his entire
life and *not* discovered sparks erupting without a short
circuit. That's the nature of a "random walk" -- it may or may
not be fruitful. How do you know what you will find until you
take that "random walk"?

The closest Edison ever came to operating this way, was when he
was trying to find a filament for his light bulb that wouldn't
burn out after a few minutes. He went through *thousands* of
materials and combinations of materials until he hit upon the
correct combination. This took a long, long time. Usually,
Edison is praised for his perseverance in this endeavor, but
several of his contemporaries -- especially Tesla -- chastised
him for not using a scientific method. There were certain
theories of materials available that could have taken months off
his search.

A "random walk" is costly, and that's why it shouldn't be done.
That is, one can only use one's time to investigate existence to
the extent one has the resources to do so. Which means one can
gain new knowledge only by using one's reserves gained by
applying old knowledge. Without a proper method, one's resources
are easily squandered.

This is what I meant when I said morality is applied
epistemology. You can't know what to do, until you have
knowledge of what is, and have applied this knowledge to your
life, giving yourself the means of living and a reserve to draw
from. This is not a "Catch-22" situation, because, as a child,
you drew on your parent's reserve, as they drew on their's. If
you were cast into the wilderness, before gaining the
appropriate knowledge, you would perish. If you use all of your
resources to gain new knowledge, to the exclusion of everything
else, you will perish.

So, the possibility of discovering possibilities as yet unknown
is dependent upon what is already known, both for the resources
that prior knowledge earns, and as a guide for what else might
be discovered. If one's prior knowledge is appropriately
organized (according to commensurate characteristics), one will
find there are many things in that organization that have yet to
be explained. It is these things one should investigate, since
the similarities can be further analyzed.

Going after new things as a "random walk" will leave one with
too many items that can't be integrated with the rest of one's
knowledge. One can retain them in memory to some extent, but
they will soon be forgotten (because they can't be
conceptualized until similarities are found), and one will be
left "chasing rainbows" and dying of starvation in the process.


Date: Mon, 29 Jun 1998 15:11:25 -0400 (EDT)
The Possibility of Discovery 

From: Thomas M. Miovas, Jr. <I agree with the basic thrust of
this. I think the two sides have been talking about different issues--HB>

Betsy Speicher wrote:

>_Epistemology_ forbids the arbitrary, but ethics does not
>forbid the search for truth unless you already know with
>certainty that what you seek is impossible. As a matter
>of fact, Objectivist ethics encourages truth-seeking
>as a means to live.

I think there is a misunderstanding of my position. I never said
one shouldn't seek new knowledge. The point I'm trying to get
across is that such seeking should be done in a *systematic*
manner. Like a good detective in a criminal investigation, a
good scientist follows leads based on his prior knowledge. If
there are no leads, he may have to put the investigation aside,
while giving himself a "standing order" to be on the look-out --
in general -- for evidence that may support his investigation.
Instead of wasting his time stumbling around in the dark, he
takes on some other task, for which he does have supporting
evidence. When evidence does turn up for his previous
investigation, his "standing order" alerts him to this, and,
depending on his priorities, he can continue the original
investigation.

Since someone else mentioned Edison's search for a suitable
light bulb filament, I think it's worth pointing out that Edison
himself rejected that procedure for the rest of his inventions.
When he had the idea of making a motion picture camera, for
example, he thought a flexible film would be the best way of
storing the images. He also knew he didn't know enough about
photography to undertake the task of inventing flexible film,
and sought an expert. Fortunately, that expert had been thinking
about improving film technology along the same lines -- and
already had some flexible film, but wasn't sure what could be
done with it!

I wonder sometimes why it is that Edison is most remembered for
inventing the light bulb, when so many other of his inventions
went more smoothly? By contrast, all the myriad inventions
needed to get the light bulb into wide-scale use -- the wiring,
the generators, the voltage regulators, the fuses, the switches,
etc. -- were a cake walk. Could it be the "no pain, no gain"
premise at work?

>> A "random walk" is costly, and that's why it shouldn't be done.
>
>I _strongly_ disagree with this. There are some things so worth doing
>that it doesn't matter that they are costly. For instance, if a man were
>suffering from a fatal disease for which there were no known cure or even
>a known possibility of a lead to a cure, I would never tell him that
>seeking a cure "shouldn't be done."

I'd like to know what advice you would give him. Would you tell
him to say "Hail Mary" ten times each morning? or maybe he
should spin around until he gets dizzy, fall flat on his face,
then cover himself with ashes? I mean, nothing else worked, why
not try these? At least he's doing *something*!

Of course you wouldn't tell him any of the above. Why not?
Because you know they have nothing to do with curing diseases.
The best approach would be to re-investigate the nature of the
disease, and the nature of the attempts at curing it, and try to
gain further insights. If absolutely no insights are to be had,
by you or anyone else, well, sorry, man is not omniscient, and
you are going to die of a fatal disease.

For a very good movie based on this premise, I highly recommend
"Lorenzo's Oil." In that movie, Lorenzo, a young child, gets a
disease that strips his neurons of their insulating material,
leading to a lose of motor control and eventually death. After
contacting numerous experts, the parents found there was no
known cure, and they were merely told to keep him comfortable.
But they chose a different course -- especially the father, the
true hero of the story. He read everything he could about the
disease, and became an expert himself. I won't give away the
ending of the story, because it is an epistemological detective
story. If you are alert, you will spot the insight before the
father does -- the evidence is presented that clearly!

I don't really think the counter-examples of going on vacation
and fishing for the pleasure of it are germane to the issue. For
one thing, people go on vacation to places they already know
something about, and people go fishing with baits and apparati
necessary to catch certain types of fish. Neither one is done
randomly by a rational man.


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