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There is a considerable misunderstanding about Objectivism's rejection of A-priori knowledge. The nature of the rejection(like what is specifically being rejected), and whether it's philosophically sound to do so.

Dr. Massimo Pigliucci for example, said this:

"Now, why do we care about any of the above in the context of Objectivism? Because it too rejects the analytic/synthetic distinction, since it wants to deny the possibility of a priori knowledge. I’m not sure why some people are so set against a priori knowledge, but logic and mathematics are darn good examples of it, and I for one wouldn’t want any epistemology that didn’t take logic and mathematics seriously and as distinct from the natural sciences."

Michael Huemer also thinks Objectivism, in rejecting the a-priori, is rejecting logic, math and ethics.

In his essay, he says logic is a-priori because you do not perceive, by the senses, the logical relation between two propositions. And of course this is a problem for Objectivism since it holds that all truths are the product of a logical identification of the facts of experience.

Michael Huemer also considers math a-priori for a bunch of reasons I won't post here, and considers ethics a-priori because you do not literally see, touch, hear, etc, moral value.

How would an Objectivist answer these charges?

asked Feb 18 '14 at 21:25

KineticPhilosophy's gravatar image

KineticPhilosophy
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edited Feb 23 '14 at 15:04

Greg%20Perkins's gravatar image

Greg Perkins ♦♦
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The premise of this question seems to be a denial of any connection between experience and concepts as such. After all, we cannot see or touch any abstractions. That fact doesn't give us the license to assert that they are all a priori knowledge.

(Feb 18 '14 at 22:38) Andrew Dalton ♦ Andrew%20Dalton's gravatar image

@Dalton

No. It's that people like Dr. Pigliucci and Huemer feel that some concepts are not connected to experience. Not that all are not.

(Feb 18 '14 at 23:26) KineticPhilosophy KineticPhilosophy's gravatar image

Oh, I'm sure they don't reject the connection in all cases. But their arguments, as you presented them, don't provide grounds for any distinctions here.

(Feb 19 '14 at 00:31) Andrew Dalton ♦ Andrew%20Dalton's gravatar image
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The answer by Greg, along with his previous answer about "tabula rasa" (linked in his Answer to this question), provide the essence of an Objectivist view of "a priori." I would like to elaborate a little on "a priori," however, since it is closely related to "tabula rasa" but not entirely identical (i.e., not an exact antonym).

The topic of "Tabula Rasa" in The Ayn Rand Lexicon explains, in part:

At birth, a child’s mind is tabula rasa; he has the potential of awareness—the mechanism of a human consciousness—but no content. Speaking metaphorically, he has a camera with an extremely sensitive, unexposed film (his conscious mind), and an extremely complex computer waiting to be programmed (his subconscious). Both are blank. He knows nothing of the external world. He faces an immense chaos which he must learn to perceive by means of the complex mechanism which he must learn to operate.

The topic of "'A Priori'" in the Lexicon explains, in part:

Man’s knowledge is not acquired by logic apart from experience or by experience apart from logic, but by the application of logic to experience. All truths are the product of a logical identification of the facts of experience.

This idea of "processed" awareness as nevertheless objective was totally rejected by Immanuel Kant. Here is a sampling from the topic of "Kant, Immanuel" in the Lexicon:

The “phenomenal” world, said Kant, is not real: reality, as perceived by man’s mind, is a distortion. The distorting mechanism is man’s conceptual faculty: man’s basic concepts (such as time, space, existence) are not derived from experience or reality, but come from an automatic system of filters in his consciousness (labeled “categories” and “forms of perception”) which impose their own design on his perception of the external world and make him incapable of perceiving it in any manner other than the one in which he does perceive it. This proves, said Kant, that man’s concepts are only a delusion, but a collective delusion which no one has the power to escape. Thus reason and science are “limited,” said Kant; they are valid only so long as they deal with this world, with a permanent, pre-determined collective delusion (and thus the criterion of reason’s validity was switched from the objective to the collective), but they are impotent to deal with the fundamental, metaphysical issues of existence, which belong to the “noumenal” world. The “noumenal” world is unknowable; it is the world of “real” reality, “superior” truth and “things in themselves” or “things as they are”—which means: things as they are not perceived by man.

In short, the fact that we cannot perceive concepts directly does not invalidate them as derived from reality. A very key aspect of Objectivism is its theory of concepts, showing that the method by which man forms concepts can be objective if man understands what an objective methodology consists of and chooses to follow it. This represents, in general, a major departure from modern (Kantian inspired) philosophy.

The question states:

In his essay, [Huemer] says logic is a-priori because you do not perceive, by the senses, the logical relation between two propositions. And of course this is a problem for Objectivism since it holds that all truths are the product of a logical identification of the facts of experience.

This is a perfect statement of Kant's view that cognitive processing makes knowledge non-objective. Objectivism rejects Kant's view and explains why. (Logic rests on the law of non-contradiction, which is a corollary of the law of identity, which is demonstrably axiomatic, objectively so.)

Michael Huemer also considers math a-priori for a bunch of reasons I won't post here, and considers ethics a-priori because you do not literally see, touch, hear, etc, moral value.

Objectivism has no problem with math, as the topic of "Mathematics" in the Lexicon explains. Here is a brief sampling:

Mathematics is a science of method (the science of measurement, i.e., of establishing quantitative relationships), a cognitive method that enables man to perform an unlimited series of integrations. Mathematics indicates the pattern of the cognitive role of concepts and the psycho-epistemological need they fulfill.

Math rests most fundamentally on counting concrete units that are considered to be interchangeable for some purpose or context. It should be easy to see that x + 5x = 6x, for example, because if you have five identical things and then add one more, you will then have six of those things. Further mathematical relationships, starting with positive integer numbers, then negative integers, then ratios of integers, then positive and negative real numbers, then complex numbers, and so on, proceed from there. Abstract algebra starts with the rules of concrete algebra and then abstracts the rules to explore relationships that don't directly depend on the properties of concretes. And so on. If one examines mathematics closely, one finds all sorts of "pathways" from even the most esoteric, abstract theorems all the way back to concretes in reality. (Math wouldn't be applicable to reality if such "pathways" didn't exist.)

If anyone wants to question the connections between math and existence, it will take more than "a bunch of reasons," left unstated, to raise a credible challenge.

As for ethics, the connection between Objectivism's view of ethics and reality has recently been a major topic of discussion on this website. Those previous discussions should be consulted, along with Ayn Rand's TOE, for further details. Huemer's view, at root, is just another crude restatement of Kant's view of processed knowledge as inherently non-objective.

From a comment by the questioner:

... people like Dr. Pigliucci and Huemer feel that some concepts are not connected to experience. Not that all are not.

If these intellectuals are actually "mixed cases" -- Kantian premises mixed with Aristotelian leanings -- it would be of great interest to Objectivists to hear more about these intellectuals' Aristotelian leanings (if any).

answered Feb 24 '14 at 23:38

Ideas%20for%20Life's gravatar image

Ideas for Life ♦
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Please see the answers to the related question, "Was Ayn Rand wrong about our being born Tabula Rasa?"

(This is simply the same issue by another name.)

answered Feb 23 '14 at 15:15

Greg%20Perkins's gravatar image

Greg Perkins ♦♦
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Asked: Feb 18 '14 at 21:25

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Last updated: Feb 24 '14 at 23:38