Monday, January 3, 2011

AS-Ch. 6: Dr. Pritchett, Reductionism, and Determinism

My last post explained reductionism—a notion that complex things including human behavior are “really just” simpler things. This post explains 3 types of reductionism (metaphysical, temporal, and behavioral) and how they lead to determinism.

Metaphysical reductionism explains human behavior by attributing it to general universal realities such as laws and principles. Such explanations reduce human beings to special cases of something more general. Metaphysical reductionism makes it difficult to retain uniqueness and individuality. It logically implies that a person is not really a “person”, but simply a bundle of particular variables operating within a lawful system or structure. For example, a women from her own perspective may understand herself to be participating in her marriage and family out of a sense of love and devotion giving her identity and meaning, In a reductive feminist analysis, on the other hand, the women is understood to be trapped in an inherently inequitable system, exploited and victimized by a powerful structure of gender relations.

Metaphysical reductionism is incompatible with meaning and individualism. If people are “really just” the products of a metaphysical reality (univeral laws, principles, or structures) then their actions are determined or caused by that reality.

Temporal reduction is a the idea that every action arises from a string of previous actions that occurred earlier in time. Things that happened in the past influence our present behaviors, therefore the past controls our present. Breaking free from the past requires that one intervening in the present by creating new consequences to actions. This building up of a “new past” is the essence of behaviorist conditioning. However, this cannot free a person from the past. It only replaces one past for another. Since we cannot change the past, our past causes our actions.

Biological Reduction, like temporal reduction is a type of metaphysical reduction, it reduces our actions to genetic, chemical, or neural processes. As I said in the previous post, Dr. Pritchett believes that humans are “really just” a collection of chemicals. Biological reductionism is currently very popular in psychology and cognitive science. This explanation implies that our actions are also determined by our biology. The loss of meaning is clear in biological reductionism. A husband feeling love for his wife is simply responding to a the particular biological state that he is in. A person cannot really love just a a clock does not really know time.

Reductionism leads to determinism and undermines free will. It takes away meaning and destroys individualism. As Dr. Pritchett said "Man’s metaphysical pretensions," he said, "are preposterous. A miserable bit of protoplasm, full of ugly little concepts and mean little emotions and it imagines itself important! Really, you know, that is the root of all the troubles in the world."

Monday, December 27, 2010

AS-Ch. 6: Dr. Pritchett and Reductionism

Dr. Simon Pritchett is a guest at Reardon's party. He is a pompous philosopher. Ayn Rand inserts this character to reveal a contrasting philosophy to her own. Dr. Pritchett believes in reductionism, determinism, skepticism, and nihilism. I will create a post on each of these.


Reductionism is the philosophical position or scientific paradigm that holds that the simplest explanations are usually the best. The notion of
Ockham's Razor which was popularized in the 1997 movie "Contact" is one example of reductionism. It states that if there are several explanations for an event, the one that makes the fewest unsupported assumptions is the best explanation. At its most basic level, the notion of reductionism is that some complex phenomenon, X, when properly understood will be to shown to really be a simpler phenomenon, Y. Therefore X is really just Y and it follows that the complexity of human behavior is simply the result of mechanical, biological processes. As Dr. Pritchett said, "man is nothing but a collection of chemicals." Therefore life has no more meaning apart from the random mechanical processes of the body.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Atlas Shrugged—Chapter 5

I enjoyed d'Anconia's introduction.
Here is one of my favorite passages so far:

"Don’t you ever think of anything but d’Anconia Copper?" Jim asked him once.
"It seems to me that there are other things in the world."
"Let others think about them."
"Isn’t that a very selfish attitude?"
"It is."
"What are you after?"
"Don’t you have enough?"
"In his lifetime, every one of my ancestors raised the production of d’Anconia Copper by about ten per cent. I intend to raise it by one hundred."
"What for?" Jim asked, in sarcastic imitation of Francisco’s voice.
"When I die, I hope to go to heaven, whatever the hell that is, and I want to be able to afford the price of admission.
"Virtue is the price of admission," Jim said haughtily.
"That’s what I mean, James. So I want to be prepared to claim the greatest virtue of all that I was a man who made money."
"Any grafter can make money."
"James, you ought to discover some day that words have an exact meaning."

I must admit that I feel very attracted to the notion that money is a barometer of a man's virtue. But...

I really like the admonition about words—sloppy words reveal sloppy thinking.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Atlas Shrugged—Chapter 4

The anti-dog-eat-dog rule was passed forbidding the railroad companies to engage in "destructive competition".
According to the economist Joseph Shumpeter, creative destruction via competition is essential to progress. The typewriter industry had to be destroyed to allow for the innovation of the computer.
An anti-dog-eat-dog policy eliminates accountability because a competitor can blame their poor performance on the competitive practices of others. It is a policy that protects the weak at the expense of the productive. It distorts the market because it prevents the necessary information or feedback that allows creative destruction to occur.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Atlas Shrugged—Chapter 3

The chapter opens with a conversation between Orren Boyle and James Taggart. Setting: Bar. Paul Larkin and Wesley Mooch are also there. Here is part of the conversation:

Boyle: There’s nothing more destructive than a monopoly.
Taggart: "Yes, on the one hand. On the other, there’s the blight of unbridled competition.
Boyle: That’s true. That’s very true. The proper course is always, in my opinion, in the middle. So it is, I think, the duty of society to snip the extremes, now isn’t it?

The tendency to assume a middle position is interesting. The middle way thinking in my opinion is weak and naive. It is a fence-sitting appease position. Today we call it bipartisanship. Anyone can define what they do as "in the middle" or "balanced" by simply defining the extremes around him. But, opinions are constantly shifting. What is extreme today might be mild 100 years from now. For example, the American revolution was considered extreme and radical at the time. Now, those who want to preserve the principles of the revolution are called conservatives. Since what is considered extreme shifts, the middle way is always shifting as well. It is an unprincipled position. It is the lukewarm position we should spit out of our minds.

It turns out that Fascist and Nazi intellectuals constantly touted a "middle" or "Third Way" between socialism and capitalism according to Jonah Goldberg. I do not think that they were weak but were appealing to the enticing nature of middle way thinking by simple calling their position the middle way. But, the Fascist were socialists nonetheless. It reminds me of an argument that says that things are both absolute and relativistic. This argument is silly to me because it ultimately means that everything is relative anyway.

Our goal should not be to find the middle way, but to find the truth. Once we find the truth, we should not move even if we are considered extreme while opinions shift all around us.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Atlas Shrugged—Chapter 2

When Hank Rearden came home after pouring his first order of Rearden Metal, he was met with rudeness from his mother, his wife and his brother Philip. Philip said that Hank worked too hard and his enjoyment of work was a form of neurosis. He called Hank conceited when he gave his wife a bracelet made from the first pouring of Rearden Metal.

Philip was weak and unhealthy and had never started a real career. He was raising money for Friends of Global Progress. He had the gall to ask Hank for money after he insulted him by implying that Hank had no sense of moral duty or social conscience. Hank thought that he would somehow surprise his brother, by instead of taking offense, give him money for the friends of global progress. But Hank was surprised that Phillip wasn't happy about the donation. Hank's wife Lillian said that Hank gave the money for selfish reasons. For Philip it wasn't enough for Hank to give money, Philip wanted Hank to feel the same way he did about the underprivileged children and feel the same way about the society.

Philip reminds me of people that have so much invested in solving a problem, that even when the problem is solved, they must still keep the problem alive to keep themselves employed. Politicians who have never had a real job, environmentalists engaged in doom-mongering, and race hustlers like Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton come to mind. These people seem most prominent in wealthy nations—Nations that have gotten rich through the very capitalism that they despise, nations that have the best environments, and seem to have the least amount of racism in comparison to poor nations. Perhaps collectivism is an natural but ill side-effect of freedom and prosperity.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Atlas Shrugged—Chapter One

I like how Ayn Rand introduces James Taggert. He is non-commital, and waits for to hear the opinions of others. He won't take a stance, but he will complain. He has no principle, but seems to maintain wishy-washy notions about helping others that leads him to disdain people of confidence. For example, he wants to keep the contract with the incompetent Orren Boyle of Associated Steel, because in James' mind, Orren needs a chance, he is his friend, and most importantly, James can escape responsibility by blaming the problems of his company on others. He was reluctant to contract with the competent Hank Rearden. It is as if working with competent people forces one to also be accountable and principled.