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OPAR, Chapter Six
by Jimmy (Jimbo) Wales

Date: 4 Mar 1993
Forum: Moderated Discussion of Objectivist Philosophy
Copyright: Jimmy (Jimbo) Wales

In chapter six of Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand, Peikoff discusses 'man'. What is man? The enquiry of this chapter is a _philosophical_ enquiry, as against psychological, historical, etc. The difference, according to Peikoff, is that a philosophical enquiry is concerned with the kind of fundamentals that are a precondition for these other specialized studies into the nature of human beings. [1]

In particular, Peikoff is interested in this chapter in the particular _philosophical_ things that one can say about humans which have not already been covered and exhausted (in some sense) by metaphysics and epistemology. For this chapter, Peikoff will not proceed in a merely deductive manner from earlier conclusions. New evidence, fresh observations about the world, will be used to argue for new conclusions which are consistent with the claims established in the previous chapters.

The chapter is broken into 3 major sections, proceeding in a typically Peikovian hierarchical manner. [2] First, Peikoff will argue that living organisms are goal-directed and conditional. This bit of argument will later be crucial to Rand's meta-ethical argument about the foundation of values. Second, Peikoff will argue that every organism has a 'means of survival', which for man is reason. This will play a major role in the basic _content_ of Rand's ethical argument, in which (as we will see) rationality is the primary virtue. Third, Peikoff will argue that reason is an attribute of the individual. Here, the major application will be in Rand's political argument. Thus we see that the three major points of this chapter will have applications in metaethics - ethics - politics.

I believe that this particular chapter will be less controversial than some of the earlier chapters on epistemological topics. But we shall see.

I. Living Organisms as Goal-Directed and Conditional

The first and most obvious thing to note about humans is that we are a kind of living organism. Like all living organisms, then, we must pursue certain ends in order to remain in existence. Life is not a random or inert state, but a complicated and often very delicate process, requiring certain preconditions for continuation.

Inanimate objects, by way of contrast, do not require for their continued existence any particular course of action. All that is required for the continued existence of, say, a rock is that it be left alone.

It is possible to become confused here, I think, by confusing life as a process with the physical entity which is alive. There is a sense in which humans, plants, rocks are all identical with respect to continued existence. Each of these could go out of existence in a very hot fire, as physical entities. But the human and the plant can go out of existence _qua_ human or plant (as against 'pile of rotting organic matter') in a relatively easy manner. The key point has been stated compactly by Den Uyl and Rasmussen as follows: "Death, a living thing not-being, does not require any actions for its maintenance." [3]

Peikoff treats briefly a kind of Materialism which would attempt to 'reduce' life to 'nothing but a type of inanimate mechanism, like a highly complex robot'. His point is that an understanding and explanation of biological phenomena can not be used to deny the _existence_ of those biological phenomena. Binswanger makes the same point in reference to the distinction between vegetative goal-directed action and efficient causation: "In general, the reduction of one field to a more basic one does not imply the desirability or even the possibility of dispensing with the derivative field. Reducibility does not imply eliminability. The reduction of chemistry to physics, for example, has not meant the demise of chemistry, nor of its specific concepts, such as 'valence', 'gas', and 'acid'." [4] Similarly, the reduction of biology (and the conditional nature of life) to chemistry (and elements whose existence is, in the relevant sense, unconditional) does not imply the desirability or the possibility of eliminating or ignoring biological concepts such as 'life' and 'death'.

II. Reason as Man's Basic Means of Survival

"Every living organism has a means of survival."

Plants are not conscious and survive by purely physical functions. A plant which needs more sunlight will 'stretch' and grow toward the window of my apartment.

Lower conscious species respond to simple stimuli. Higher conscious species function on a perceptual level, reacting to other things in the environment as entities.

Humans, finally, are the only living organisms with a fully conceptual consciousness. We are rather poorly fitted for physical fighting with other animals, so the nonconceptual kind of hunting activities open to lions is not possible for us. It is simply impossible for human beings to survive for any length of time and in any reliable manner without the use of our conceptual faculty.

For the nonconceptual species, the things needed for survival are present in readily-available form in nature. Squirrels need only look around for nuts, avoid speeding drivers, and other relatively simple conscious tasks. If the materials were not available, then squirrels would die out.

For humans, the things needed for survival are not so readily-available. Humans must think, plan, conceptualize in order to get the goods necessary for survival. Clearly, and similar to squirrels, if sufficient materials were not available, then humans would die out. But because humans are conceptual, the range of actions open to us is much broader, should we choose to think and produce goods.

The implication is clear. Reason is the faculty by which humans come to know about reality. Knowing about reality, in a conceptual way, is necessary for our survival. Reason is the distinctively human means of survival.

Particularly since the Industrial Revolution, says Peikoff, it is clear that reason is practical as a tool for survival, making once and for all claims about the 'unworldly' or 'impractical' nature of theoretical thought clearly misguided.

Peikoff runs through a brief discussion of the consequences of some various attempts to divorce mind and body. Here he makes the claim that the principle of mind-body integration rests on observations made within a proper philosophic context, in particular the metaphysical and epistemological principles he has outlined in earlier chapters. This is an important claim to uniqueness that should perhaps have been filled in more clearly.

In particular, Peikoff makes the claim that "If one accepts the primacy of consciousness, he will expect desire to clash with external reality." This seems to me to be a very odd claim. Indeed, if I were asked to make a brief critique of 'primacy of consciousness' for a newcomer to philosophy, I would explain that one problem with primacy of consciousness is that it can easily be used to attempt to elevate 'desires' to the level of 'reality'. If one accepts the primacy of consciousness, he will expect reality to conform to his desires, not (as Peikoff claims) to clash with them.

Peikoff then closes the section with a brief reference to the general empirical facts about the success of reason in furthering human survival.

III. Reason as an Attribute of the Individual

Here Peikoff is interested in pointing out that all rational thought must be done on an individual-by-individual basis. In order to make the case here, he must deal with several simple questions. What about decisions or projects that are carried out by groups of humans? To what degree are humans really independent of others? What about the nurture vs. nature debate?

Humans can and do work together. We can learn from other people, of course. But learning remains an active process of the individual. In a very real sense, to learn from others is to earn the knowledge through hard work. When I study real analysis, I receive a great value from my professor and from his teachers before him. But the study, the process of understanding the arguments, proofs, and conclusions is private and individual.

An agreement reached by a group of people is simply the consequence of the individual thought processes of some or all of the members of that group. And individuals can share conclusions (the product of the process of thought). But they cannot share that process of thought itself.

Peikoff attacks the common claim that language is a 'social creation'. Here, as in many other places, I wish that Peikoff would give us some indication about WHICH philosophers or sociologists advocate the particular view he is attacking. Clearly there are some people who, when claiming that language is a 'social creation', are claiming nothing that we would really find controversial. Peikoff appears to be aiming at the person who would make more extravagant claims.

The overall point, though, is that even joint undertakings taken by a number of humans remain the work of individuals working together. A jump from individuals working in a group to some notion of 'group mind' is invalid.

So finally, if reason is an attribute of the individual, claims Peikoff, then the individual is sovereign in a certain way. This is not a value-judgment at this point, merely an empirical observation. Humans are such that they think individually. Each sane person is capable of making judgments for themselves, and must bear the _psychological_ and existential results which flow from those judgments. The point is not to claim that we choose our emotions directly, for obviously we do not. But we do have a kind of long-range control over our emotions through our ability to think and rethink decisions that we have made and conclusions that we have reached.

Peikoff is finally interested in refuting what he characterizes as two schools of determinism: the hereditary school and the environmental school.

The first is invalid by virtue of the fact that it treats human emotions (as well as other important attributes of the human) as a mere product of genetic structure. The second is invalid by virtue of the fact that it treats emotions (as well as other important attributes of the human) as entirely as influenced by others. The cure for both is a proper perspective on the nature of mankind. <5>

Advocacy of 'free will' is the usual way out of the false dichotomy posed by the nature/nuture debate. But Peikoff notes that the usual theories of free will are inadequate, to the extent that they posit some mystical element in humans to make the will arbitrary.

Finally, Peikoff closes with a pointer toward the next chapter. Given the nature of the human as we have described so far, what should man do?


[1] In my own writing, I try to use gender-neutral terminology whenever such terminology appears to be more accurate and desirable. I therefore prefer to refer to 'humans' rather than 'men' when I am not specifically referring to males. But there are subtle difficulties here. In common parlance, an enquiry into the nature of 'man' would be different than an enquiry into the nature of 'human beings'. The latter construction appears to be more focussed on _individual_ humans, this or that person, while the former appears to be more focussed on _all_ humans. I hope that the context will serve as a guide.

[2] I believe that hierarchical presentation is a major virtue of this chapter.

[3] Den Uyl, Douglas J., and Rasmussen, Douglas B., "Nozick on the Randian Argument", The Personalist, April 1978.

<4> Binswanger, Harry, "Life-Based Teleology and the Foundations of Ethics", The Monist, January 1992.

[4] Peikoff's exact presentation of 'environmental determinism' is, I think, weak. He presents the theory as proceeding in the following way. A child observes (perceptually) the actions of others and then builds up a body of habitual reactions, emotions, etc. This theory, according to Peikoff, is flawed because percepts qua percepts do not evoke emotions. Only percepts as interpreted and evaluated can generate emotions, that is, only percepts which are conceptualized. And this is not a group function.

I'm fairly sure that this is a straw man presentation. Children _are_ taught concepts, evaluations, etc. These (and not just percepts) are what a child spends so much of his or her early years discovering and thinking about. The fact that the conceptualization is an individual act does not preclude the (possibly quite strong) influence of parents and teachers on the process. So, an environmental determinist might argue, these taught concepts are so difficult to 'shake' as an adult that children _are_ determined by their home environment. I think that the proper answer to _this_ version of environmental determinism is empirical data.

I would give the following simple anecdotal presentation. Children are born tabula rosa. They learn many things on their own, and many things from other children and adults. Children are generally much smarter than adults give them credit for. Most of us can remember to this day particular teachers or adults who were rational beacons. It only takes one sensible and happy person a short amount of time (in class or what have you) to profoundly influence a child. So even the conceptual version of environmental determinism (which has conceded that concepts are formed by individuals, perhaps a stronger concession than some would be willing to make) fails to meet the empirical data.

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