A Mostly Bibliographic Note on the Objectivist View of the Arbitrary

In his recent post on epistemic possibility, Ben Bayer attributed to Rand the view that “it is evidence that gives claims their cognitive content, such that without it, there is no claim to be assessed: such ‘arbitrary’ claims are neither true nor false.” This is an idea that often raises a lot of questions and putative counter-examples, some of which have come up in the comments on Ben’s post. If there’s interest I may address these questions in a future post, but my aim here is different. Since this is an interesting idea that has often (and I think correctly) been described as part of Objectivism, but that Rand did not herself express directly, I thought it would be useful to indicate the sources for this idea in her own works and in works she endorsed. In doing so, we’ll see a little about the motivation for the theory, and this will shed some light on the questions that have been asked about it, but I’ll hold off on addressing the questions proper for a future post.

The classic treatment of the arbitrary in the Objectivist literature is Leonard Peikoff’s 1991 book Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand (OPAR), which has a section (163–171) titled: “The Arbitrary as Neither True nor False.” Here’s an excerpt:

An arbitrary claim is not merely an unwarranted effusion. By demanding one’s consideration in defiance of all the requirements of reason, it becomes an affront to reason and to the science of epistemology. In the absence of evidence, there is no way to consider any idea, on any subject. There is no way to reach a cognitive verdict, favorable or otherwise, about a statement to which logic, knowledge, and reality are irrelevant. There is nothing the mind can do to or with such a phenomenon except sweep it aside.

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. One cannot allow into the realm of cognition something that repudiates every rule of that realm.

None of the concepts formed to describe human knowledge can be applied to the arbitrary; none of the classifications of epistemology can be usurped in its behalf. Since it has no relation to evidence, an arbitrary statement cannot be subsumed under concepts that identify different amounts of evidence; it cannot be described as “possible,” “probable,” or “certain.” (These concepts are discussed in the next section.) Similarly, such a statement cannot be subsumed under concepts that identify different relations between an idea and reality. An arbitrary statement is neither “true” nor ‘false.” (Peikoff, OPAR 164–165)

OPAR, which was published 9 years after Rand’s death, is not something Rand did or could have endorsed as a presentation of her own ideas, but the book is based on a 1976 lecture series by Peikoff that she endorsed as “the only authorized presentation of the entire theoretical structure of Objectivism, i.e., the only one that I know of my own knowledge to be fully accurate” (“A Last Survey” ARL 4:3 387). The material on the arbitrary can be found in lecture 6, which can be heard or read for free on the Ayn Rand Institute’s site. (The relevant portion begins at 30:30 in the MP3 file.) Here’s an excerpt:

Now, if you understand what we mean by the concept of truth and falsehood, you’ll see why the arbitrary is outside of either concept. Observe the differences. True and false are assessments within the field of human cognition. And they designate a relationship, positive or negative, correspondence or contradiction, a relationship between an idea and reality. The arbitrary, by contrast, is devoid of any relationship to reality at all. It is the wanton, the causeless, the baseless, and as such, it cannot be judged as true or false. It is devoid of any epistemological status. It is outside the realm of cognitive endeavor all together.

Rand was present at the lecture and answers a question on the arbitrary in the Q&A at the end, but the question she addresses does not deal specifically with the point that an arbitrary assertion is neither true nor false, which is the one aspect of Peikoff’s exposition of the view that is not explicit in any earlier Objectivist literature.

Peikoff (in the 1976 lecture) tells us that he “makes[s] a big issue” of the arbitrary, in order to repudiate “agnosticism”—the view that one must treat as possible any claim that one cannot positively disprove. We find points similar to Peikoff’s in Nathaniel Branden’s article on “Agnosticism” in the April 1963 issue of The Objectivist Newsletter:

In the pursuit of knowledge, there is no place for whims. Every claim, statement or proposition has to be based on the facts of reality; nothing may be claimed causelessly, groundlessly, arbitrarily.

Even a hypothesis has to have some factual basis, some factual evidence indicating that it might be true. A hypothesis based on nothing but a blind guess is not admissible into rational consideration.

Rand herself makes the point that rational hypotheses are based on evidence in “The Psychology of Psychologizing” (Voice of Reason 24) and The Art of Nonfiction (89). And Robert Efron, in his review of Hansel’s E.S.P.: A Scientific Evaluation (The Objectivist 6:3), says: “Any attempt to disprove an assertion for which no positive evidence is provided, sanctions the legitimacy of the unsupported assertion and the use which may be made of your failure to disprove that assertion.” Thus to make the attempt is “to invite an epistemological disaster.” But Branden’s 1963 presentation goes deeper than this point to explain why such assertions must be dismissed:

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 this implies the point, which Peikoff would later make explicit, that arbitrary claims are neither true nor false. For if nothing has been said, there is nothing to be true or false.

Readers who are puzzled by this idea point to sentences that might be asserted arbitrarily but that they have no difficulty telling are true or false. (We can see examples of this in the comments.) But to respond that way is to think that the meaning of a proposition somehow resides intrinsically in the concatenation of sounds or marks by which it is expressed, and this is not the case. In both the 1976 lecture and in OPAR, Peikoff likens arbitrary claims to word-like sounds squawked by a parrot and writing-like marks that might be made by the wind. Either might produce a result that, if written or spoken by a person, could express knowledge, but considered simply as the effects of parrots or wind that they are, these effects express nothing at all. They have no content.

Peikoff’s example of the parrot squawks evokes Rand’s earlier uses of this same in Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology (1966) and “The Comprachicos” (1970):

Learning to speak does not consist of memorizing sounds—that is the process by which a parrot learns to “speak.” Learning consists of grasping meanings, i.e., of grasping the referents of words, the kinds of existents that words denote in reality. In this respect, the learning of words is an invaluable accelerator of a child’s cognitive development, but it is not a substitute for the process of concept-formation; nothing is. (ITOE 20)

An error of that kind [viz. holding that wider concepts have less cognitive content than narrower ones] is possible only on the basis of assuming that man learns concepts by memorizing their definitions, i.e., on the basis of studying the epistemology of a parrot. But that is not what we are here studying. To grasp a concept is to grasp and, in part, to retrace the process by which it was formed. To retrace that process is to grasp at least some of the units which it subsumes (and thus to link one’s understanding of the concept to the facts of reality). (ITOE 27)

Ideas, i.e., abstractions, have no reality to [a perceptual-level mentality]: abstractions involve the past and the future, as well as the present; nothing is fully real to him except the present. Concepts, in his mind, become percepts—percepts of people uttering sounds; and percepts end when the stimuli vanish. When he uses words, his mental operations are closer to those of a parrot than of a human being. In the strict sense of the word, he has not learned to speak. (“The Comprachicos” ROTP 77)

In all three passages, Rand makes the point that people often function with words in a manner that is essentially non-cognitive. In proper human cognition, words stand for concepts, which are vehicles of integration—a complex cognitive process that must be initiated and sustained. It is only insofar as they play their proper role in this process that words are meaningful at all. When and to the extent that a person fails to perform this process, cognition is replaced by a sort of aping or parroting, in which there is no genuine meaning and no genuine thoughts.

The difference between this sort of functioning and genuinely cognitive (or rational) functioning is a central idea in Rand’s thought. We can see it for example in The Fountainhead’s portrayal of secondhanders, in the idea that “an unfocused mind is not conscious” in “the sense of the word applicable to man” (VOS 22), and in Rand’s view that irrational people do not have values. (On this point, see especially my Chapter 3 in A Companion to Ayn Rand.) The idea that arbitrary assertions are not meaningful (and, therefore, that the alternative of truth vs. falsity does not apply to them) is just another application of this idea.

The idea also illustrates why Rand thought that a theory of concepts is central to epistemology. Whereas most philosophers treat the meaningfulness of propositions and concepts as something separate from and prior to the question of how we can know (or be justified in believing) that a proposition is true, Rand thought of the process of forming, maintaining, and applying concepts as the essential process by which we know the world. This is a rational, evidence-intensive process that is guided by epistemology. And it is only in connection with this process that propositions come about and are meaningful. (For more on this issue, see my “Conceptualization and Justification” in Concepts and Their Role In Knowledge, esp. 62–64.) Because of this, semantics cannot be separated from epistemology: violations of epistemic norms compromise the meaningfulness of one’s concepts and propositions, and to indulge in the arbitrary is to flout epistemology as such.

But this does not mean that arbitrary assertions will strike a listener (or the speaker) as mere noise. There are two reasons for this, both of which can be seen by the analogy to parrot squawkings. First, though the sounds a parrot emits do not stand for concepts in the parrot’s mind, as the words spoken by a rational person do, the sounds are evidently associated with various memories, images, feelings, and expectations, all of which prompt the parrot to make the relevant sounds in certain circumstances (e.g., in response to certain prompts) and not in others. Likewise for someone engaged in arbitrary speech (or in an arbitrary internal monologue). The process taking place in him is essentially different from the rational process on which Rand argues genuine thought depends, and so the words are not functioning as symbols of concepts, but the sounds may continue to be rich in associations, some of which may derive from the genuine (cognitive) meaning that the sounds convey when used rationally. Thus, when one indulges in the arbitrary, one’s utterances do not feel to one like nonsense—nor, however, do they feel like genuine cognition. Second, though arbitrary utterances and parrot squawkings are both meaningless in their own right, they may well be repetitions of statements that were meaningful when made by someone in some context, and often the sounds can prompt a hearer to reconstruct the context in which they were meaningful. When hearing an arbitrary assertion, we can generously supply the sort of cognitive context and types of reasons that it would presuppose if it were made as a rational judgment. However, if we do this, in the natural course of working with the judgment, we will find that we need to probe into these reasons, and we’ll soon find that they’re not really there and the claim becomes a sort of amorphous moving target.

One final point. Entertaining arbitrary assertions should not be confused with fantasizing. Fantasizing—the process of imagining situations and thinking about what would follow if they were the case—is a normal and necessary part of human mental life, which is made possible by cognition and can assist it. Concepts can be meaningfully used in this process (or else fiction would be impossible). But someone who is (properly) fantasizing does not regard the products of his imagination as real or present them to others as such. Such intrusions of fantasy into cognition would be cases of entertaining the arbitrary, and at the point that one does it one’s thinking is compromised and the meanings of one’s terms become progressively indeterminate. Things presented as counterexamples to the point that the arbitrary is meaningless are often simply fantasized scenarios, which, so long as they are treated as such, are non-arbitrary and wholly meaningful. To test the claim that they lose their meaning when asserted arbitrarily, you have to try to treat them as genuine hypotheses and to work with them as such. When one does, it quickly becomes indeterminate what they mean, and what follows from them.

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