|Robert Campbell wrote:
Bill, Good question. Peikoff writes:
You've been doing great work with this three-part essay.
Thanks, Bob. I especially appreciate the way you tie Schwartz's claims about true conclusions arrived at for wrong reasons with Peikoff's, er, expansive treatment of "the arbitrary" in OPAR.
I'm curious how you would evaluate the various purported examples of "the arbitrary" that Peikoff gives. How many do you think should actually be classified as arbitrary and not taken seriously in a discussion?
Whether one should dismiss such claims without discussion depends, I suppose, on whether one thinks that there is something to be gained by discussing them. Let's take Peikoff's first example about the soul's surviving death. People will argue that the soul survives death, because God said so. Does the claim become non-arbitrary, because the bible is invoked on its behalf? Others will argue that out-of-body experiences are evidence that the soul survives death. One could, of course, dismiss out-of-body experiences as illegitimate evidence, on the grounds that they are hallucinogenic. But in doing so, one would not be dismissing them without consideration. And even if no such "evidence" were offered to support the idea of a disembodied soul, one could still point out that the soul depends on a functional body, and that when the body dies the soul dies as well. This would refute both the biblical and the paranormalist claims for a disembodied soul.
An arbitrary claim is one for which there is no evidence either peceptual or conceptual. It is a brazen assertion, based neither on direct observation nor on any attempted logical inference therefrom. For example, a man tells you that the soul survives the death of the body; or that your fate will be determined by your birth on the cusp of Capricorn and Aquarius; or that he has a sixth sense which, surpasses your five; or that a convention of gremlins is studying Hegel's Logic on the planet Venus. If you ask him "Why?" he offers no argument. "I can't prove any of these statements," he admits -- "but you can't disprove them, either."
The answer to all such statements, according to Objectivism, is: an arbitrary claim is automatically invalidated. The rational response to such a claim is to dismiss it, without discussion, consideration, or argument.
The biblical "evidence" that the soul survives deaths raises the question of whether or not a belief in God is arbitrary, since the bible does not qualify as legitimate evidence. There are, of course, the arguments advanced by Thomas Aquinas. But these too are illegitimate - mere rationalizations to support a religious doctrine accepted on faith. Should a belief in God be dismissed without discussion, consideration or argument? Peikoff certainly made a point of refuting the arguments for God in a lecture he gave for Branden's Basic Principles series. If someone gives a spurious argument on behalf of a baseless claim, does it deserve a response? Is a spurious argument enough to make an absurd claim non-arbitrary? And, lacking legitimate reasons, is the argument itself to be considered arbitrary and therefore unworthy of discussion or consideration? Do Aquinas' arguments for God qualify as "conceptual" evidence, even though they're patently fallacious? And if they do not, then is there no justification for considering or refuting them? Perhaps, Peikoff would say that even though the arguments are patently fallacious, they are still an attempt to provide evidential support and therefore cannot be considered genuinely arbitrary.
What about Peikoff's other examples, viz., that your fate will be determined by your birth on the cusp of Capricorn and Aquarius; or that someone has a sixth sense which, surpasses your five; or that a convention of gremlins is studying Hegel's Logic on the planet Venus? Well, the astrological claim has its defenders who will argue that there is indeed evidence that your birth sign influences your future. Of course, their "evidence" is bogus, but does their claim deserve to be ignored. Skeptics have addressed such claims and shown them to be utterly without merit. Were the skeptics wrong to have taken them seriously? Perhaps, but their refutation may well have convinced previous adherents. Similar considerations would apply to any claim of extra-sensory (or "anomalous") perception, which Nathaniel Branden himself considers credible, and he will gladly provide you with evidence to support them. Once again, perhaps Peikoff would say that such claims are arbitrary only if no evidence is offered on their behalf. As for the convention of gremlins studying Hegel on Venus, what exactly is a "gremlin"? Isn't it a fictitious entity? If so, then the statement is false. There are no fictious entities studying Hegel on Venus.
Also, are you familiar with Nathaniel Branden's 1963 article on agnosticism, which appeared in the Intellectual Ammunition Department of The Objectivist Newsletter? NB's conception of the arbitrary (in that old article) is a good deal less expansive than Peikoff's (in OPAR). Are there reasons to prefer it to Peikoff's? Yes, I'm familiar with Branden's article. The only difference between his example and the one's that Peikoff gives is that some of Peikoff's examples can be refuted on their face, whereas the one that Branden gives -- of an arbitrary allegation of murder -- cannot. But, of course, such an allegation deserves no serious consideration, since the onus is on the accuser to provide evidence for the allegation. The fact that such an allegation could conceivably be true does not mean that it deserves to be taken seriously. Suppose that I assert, quite arbitrarily, that you have prostate cancer. It is true that my assertion is not evidence and there is no reason for you to take it seriously. But my assertion is still true or false. Either you have prostate cancer or you don't. And this could be verified or falsified by the appropriate medical examination. Therefore, it doesn't follow, contrary to Peikoff, that because my assertion is arbitrary, it's neither true nor false.
However, I don't think there is any substantive difference between Peikoff's position and Branden's. In the article to which you refer ("What is the Objectivist view of agnosticism?", in the April 1963 issue of the The Objectivist Newsletter, Branden writes:
Compare this statement with Peikoff's:
When a person makes an assertion for which no rational grounds are given, his statement is -- epistemologically -- without cognitive content. It is as though nothing had been said.
And, of course, if a statement lacks cognitive content, then it is neither true nor false, which means that Branden, as well as Peikoff, would subscribe to the notion that an arbitrary statement is neither true nor false. But an arbitrary statement is a statement nonetheless. It is not bereft of cognitive content; if it were, it wouldn't be a statement, but a meaningless utterance. Moreover, just where is the evidence for the assertion that an arbitrary statement lacks cognitive content? Does the arbitrary statement, "There is life on Venus," lack cognitive content? Of course not. Therefore, since Peikoff and Branden offer no evidence for their assertion that an arbitrary statement lacks cognitive content, their assertion is itself arbitrary, which means that, on their theory, it is neither true nor false. Thus, not only is their concept of an arbitrary statement false; it is self-refuting as well.
An arbitrary idea must be given the exact treatment its nature demands. One must treat it as though nothing had been said. The reason is that, cognitively speaking, nothing has been said. (OPAR, pp. 164, 165)
(Edited by William Dwyer
on 8/29, 3:08pm)
(Edited by William Dwyer
on 8/29, 8:18pm)