Objectivity Without Objectivism

by Peter Saint-Andre (2005)

The term 'objectivism' was made famous by Ayn Rand, who chose it as the name for her philosophy of reason, individualism, and freedom. However, there have been objectivists other than those of the Randian variety, even in contemporary philosophy. The most prominent of these, though his work in philosophy is less well known than his spectacular results in logic and the foundations of mathematics, was Kurt Gödel (1906-1978). Gödel was no Randian, for his objectivism is bound up with a thorough-going Platonism. Yet his ideas are eminently worth investigating, and can be profitably contrasted with the approach to philosophical objectivism taken by Ayn Rand. In the end, however, I find neither approach fully satisfying as a consistent path to objectivity.

Gödel's Objectivism

Kurt Gödel is most famous for Gödel's Theorem, also known as the Incompleteness Theorem. Gödel's longtime collaborator Hao Wang presents the following statements of the theorem (Wang 1996, 3):

Many have been the interpretations of this theorem (Nagel and Newman 1958, Hofstadter 1979, Penrose 1990, etc.), ranging from those who celebrate it as an indication of the limits of reason to those who use it to prove the superiority of mind over machine. A particularly fascinating generalization of the theorem was presented by Gödel himself:

A completely unfree society (i.e., one proceeding in everything by strict rules of "conformity") will, in its behavior, be either inconsistent or incomplete, i.e., unable to solve certain problems, perhaps of vital importance. Both, of course, may jeopardize its survival in a difficult situation. A similar remark would also apply to individual human beings (Wang 1996, 4).

Gödel developed the Incompleteness Theorem in 1930 at the age of 24. He credited his ability to discover this theorem, and find similarly fundamental results on other topics, to his philosophical objectivism. Indeed, it is little known that for most of his life Gödel did not continue to work in logic and the foundations of mathematics, but instead pursued philosophical studies that were intended to elucidate the meaning and value of objectivism. It is on these philosophical studies that this essay concentrates, even here focusing not on Gödel's philosophy of mathematics but on his more general philosophical insights.

As noted, Gödel combined objectivism with Platonism. However, as both Wang and Gödel recognize, objectivism is the broader term. By 'Platonism', Gödel means the view that there exists "a non-sensual reality, which exists independently both of the acts and the dispositions of the human mind and is only perceived, and probably perceived very incompletely, by the human mind" (1951, 323). By objectivism he means that "objects and facts (or at least something in them) exist objectively and independently of our mental acts and decisions" (1951, 311). Wang further defines objectivism in a domain as 'the belief that every proposition in it is either true or false' (LJ 243), although it is not clear if this is Gödel's view as well. Objectivity is important for Gödel because of his rationalism, which 'puts universals at the center and views them as stable and knowable by us' (LJ 9); thus Gödel's emphasis on "one of the basic problems of philosophy, namely the question of the objective reality of concepts and their relations" (LJ 7), i.e., the old-fashioned problem of universals (see Saint-Andre 2002).

In his conversations with Wang, Gödel usually defended objectivism rather than Platonism (perhaps because he knew that Wang was not sympathetic to Platonism). Wang reports that Gödel emphasized 'the epistemological priority of objectivity over objects' (LJ 210) and claimed that 'objectivity is better defined for us than objects' (LJ 243). Gödel holds that "out of objectivity we define objects in different ways" (LJ 243), and thus his Platonism does not lead to the view that immediate or infallible knowledge is possible. On the contrary, Gödel's is a 'liberal position of objectivism' (LJ 218) that admits 'the fallibility of our knowledge' (LJ 210).

Gödel's objectivism may have been 'liberal' in this sense, yet it is uncompromising, strongly held, and, Gödel believed, firmly grounded (for example, Gödel thought that objectivity is not seriously challenged by perceptual or set-theoretical paradoxes). For Gödel, "there is nothing concealed" about existence and it is "the clearest concept we have", which "helps us form a good picture of reality" and "is important for supporting a strong philosophical viewpoint" (LJ 150). Further, Gödel holds that thought is in no way metaphysically creative, i.e., thought is not creative in the original, precise sense of making something from nothing (LJ 224). Thus "the purpose of philosophy is not to prove everything from nothing but to assume as given what we see as clearly as shapes and colors" (LJ 305); this may be the reason why Gödel thinks that everyday knowledge is more important for philosophy than scientific knowledge (LJ 130). For Gödel, the power of thought is limited to understanding, analyzing, combining, or reproducing elements given in objective reality; these elements include both particular elements and elements that are, in some sense, abstract. It is these abstract elements that give our conceptual understanding and practical problem-solving an objective quality. One indication of this objective quality is that Gödel speaks of concepts as standing fast over time, with only the perception or understanding of a concept changing and growing as human beings gain a greater or clearer grasp of reality (cf. Rand 1990, 66). As Gödel says, "'Trying to see (i.e., understand) a concept more clearly' is the correct way of expressing the phenomenon vaguely described as 'examining what we mean by a word'" (LJ 233).

Further, and in opposition to Kant, Gödel claims that conceptual categories such as object and entity are not purely subjective impositions of the mind, but contain something objective. A prominent example is the phenomenon of, in Gödel's words, "thinking together" multitudes as unities, i.e., regarding an individual thing as a member of a set or an instance of a concept -- what Rand calls "the ability to regard entities as units" (Rand 1990, 7). About this phenomenon, Gödel says:

The distinction between many and one cannot be further reduced. It is a basic feature of reality that it has many things. It is a primitive idea of our thinking to think of many objects as one object....

In the general matter of universals and particulars, we do not have a merger of the two things, many and one, to the extent that multitudes are themselves unities. Thinking together may seem like a triviality. Yet some pluralities can be thought together as unities, some cannot. Hence, there must be something objective in the forming of unities. (LJ 254)

For Gödel, thinking together pluralities as unities seems on the face of it to be an instance of what he calls "intuition", for it is based not on "sensations or mere combinations of sensations" (data of the first kind), but on abstract qualities or elements of the sensations (data of the second kind). This indicates the power of intuition.

Yet that is not the whole truth, for Gödel holds that intuition contributes only so much to knowledge. For example, in the realm of mathematics, he thinks that "our real intuition is limited to small sets and numbers" (LJ 216) and that there is a "big jump" from seven plus or minus two (Miller 1956) to the entire set of finite numbers (LJ 213), which is achieved through the abstraction of adding one continually to yield larger and larger numbers (ibid.). Abstractive actions or procedures of this kind are instances not of intuition itself, but rather of idealization performed on the materials provided by our intuitions and perceptions. Thus Gödel thinks that in the case of "thinking together" or abstraction, "idealization is decisive" (LJ 260).

In general Wang found that he 'detected from [Gödel's] observations' (LJ 216) a 'dialectic of the criterion of intuition as a way of characterizing our strong and stable beliefs and the procedure of idealization to purify and extend our conceptions' (LJ 230). Together, intuition and idealization serve to create an ever-expanding spiral of knowledge, and such a dialectical approach 'is thought to be instructive, because the interaction of intuition and idealization, vague though they are as concepts, has worked so well so far, and we have every reason to believe that it will continue to work well' (LJ 230).

Philosophy, Science, and Absolute Knowledge

Is the knowledge that humans have gained through intuition and idealization on solid ground? Gödel thinks so. Yet 'he judges the familiar strategy of taking intersubjective agreement as the ultimate criterion of truth to be an inconsistent half-measure. In particular, his belief in our capacity to know objective reality as it is, is at the center of his dissatisfaction with Kant's philosophy' (LJ 221). If intersubjective agreement is not enough, whence knowledge that can be truly termed objective?

Part of the key seems to lie in Gödel's notion of "absolute knowledge". Wang writes of this idea that it is 'knowledge that is feasible and applies to central and stable conceptual achievements. He sees this kind of absolute knowledge as the highest ideal of intellectual pursuit. His favorite example is Newtonian physics' (LJ 302). The significance for Gödel of absolute knowledge and of the Newtonian example derives from 'the central importance of the axiomatic method for philosophy' (LJ 244):

The Newtonian frame is a kind of absolute knowledge. It is a psychological backbone. In this sense absolute knowledge is the frame or backbone or axiom system of a good theory. The backbone of physics remains in Newtonism. Experience fills in the gaps after absolute knowledge is obtained. (LJ 302 – 303)

For Gödel there are two main factors in the acquisition and validation of such absolute or axiomatic knowledge: intuition and "fruitfulness" (LJ 243). This kind of absolute knowledge does not yet exist in philosophy, but it does exist in many or perhaps all of the sciences (or portions thereof, such as mechanics with Newtonism and number theory with the Peano axioms). Gödel thought that "logic and mathematics (just as physics) are built up on axioms with a real content which cannot be explained away'" (Gödel 1944, 132), and seems to have thought that such axioms are possible also in metaphysics.

One goal of Gödel's is for philosophy to achieve absolute knowledge. Thus his claim that "philosophy as exact theory should do for metaphysics as much as Newton did for physics" (Wang 1974, 85). Note that Gödel does not say that ideally philosophy is only an exact theory, but that philosophy as exact theory will provide absolute knowledge. This leaves open the door for philosophy as something else, for example a philosophy to live by. Indeed, Gödel says that one function of philosophy is to investigate "the meaning of the world" (LJ 191), which largely consists in "the separation of wish and fact" (LJ 309). One meaning of this separation is the 'methodological principle' that we need to 'keep our wishes separate from our investigation of the facts, not allowing our wishes to distort our vision' (ibid.). This insight is connected to Gödel's principle that objectivity is more important than objects.

How will philosophy attain such absolute or objective knowledge? Wang comments that "Gödel saw one function of philosophy as the suggestion of seminal ideas" (as atomic theory was suggested by Democritus), and another as "the reduction of philosophical to scientific problems" (LJ 20). And Gödel thought this could be done by thinking carefully about the basic concepts of philosophy: just as "the beginning of physics was Newton's work of 1687, which needs only very simple primitives: force, mass, law", so also Gödel said "I look for a similar theory for philosophy or metaphysics" (LJ 167), starting with the primitives of object and concept.

Interestingly, Ayn Rand too wanted to put the various branches of philosophy on a scientific basis through clear analysis of their basic concepts. I would argue that Rand's primitives were:

Each of these primitive concepts requires much more unpacking than can be completed in a brief essay (on entity, see Jilk 2003; on concept, see Rand 1990; on value, see Saint-Andre 1993; on rights, see Rand 1963; on image, see Saint-Andre 2005). Yet it is striking that Rand thought they could all be elucidated through specifically philosophical reflection, without much help from what she called the special sciences.

By contrast, I would argue that physics, chemistry, biology, and other sciences can tell us a great deal about the nature of entities; that there is much to learn about the processes of knowledge and conceptualization from cognitive psychology as well as from the practical methods of the sciences (e.g., biological taxonomy); that ethics must be informed by insights from anthropology, evolutionary psychology, biology, sociology, history, and related disciplines; that politics is not a standalone discipline in which one can opine once and for all regarding the nature of societal interaction and the necessity for government, but instead must be pursued in an almost experimental manner, informed by history, economics, law, psychology, and business; and that even in the traditionally autonomous realm of art we have come to see that art does not exist for art's sake but for the sake of human beings and in particular human groups: the work of Ellen Dissanayake has revealed deep connections between the arts and biology, psychology, ethology, and technology (Dissanayake 1988).

Phenomenography and Consilience

Indeed, I would go farther: I think that the relentless march of science will eventually lead, not to a new kind of philosophy, but to the extinction of philosophy altogether. I see the discipline of philosophy as a kind of intellectual nebula or Oort cloud: a hot, gaseous region in which stars are birthed. Once upon a time, philosophy contained many disciplines that have since emerged as sciences unto themselves: astronomy, cosmology, economics, psychology, political science, logic, jurisprudence, and so on. With the advancement of knowledge, we can expect further sciences to emerge from philosophy (a process already underway): decision theory, information theory, cognitive science, even (eventually) notoriously thorny fields like ethics and aesthetics.

One approach to this kind of intellectual synthesis is what Hao Wang called "phenomenography" (or, in his later writings, "phenography"): an updated pursuit of something like Francis Bacon's Great Instauration, which would map out the terrain of accumulated human knowledge and thereby move beyond analytic philosophy by doing justice to what we know (see Wang 1986, 1987, 1996). At a basic grammatical level, there are three aspects to Wang's conception: what we know (as opposed to how we know), what we know (as opposed to what gods could know, what humans knew in the past or might know in the future, etc.), and what we know (as opposed to what we believe, feel, etc.). One attractive aspect of Wang's approach is that it is intellectually honest: we attempt to do full justice to what we know, not to spin theories or craft ideologies. In large measure, phenomenography would leave things as and where they are. While fitting everything into an unambigious perimeter (see the introduction to Nozick 1972) can result in a pretty picture, it is crucial to recognize that those boundaries are drawn just so for the sake of human convenience and understanding. Not that human convenience and understanding are unimportant -- after all, often we cannot in fact know something without the presence of a picture, model, or metaphor to give it human context. But we would do well to be able to separate the thing from the picture, the actual terrain from its representation on the map of our (current) knowledge. A hard task, but one that scientists and historians have been pursuing for centuries.

Wang's proposal was to do this by describing certain higher-level principles that apply to multiple disciplines (e.g., "like implies like" or "equal until proven unequal", which overturns the hierarchical world of the ancients both physically and socially). A more reductionist project of intellectual synthesis has been proposed by the biologist E.O. Wilson, which he calls consilience (Wilson 1998); he writes as follows regarding the relationship between his project and the tradition of philosophical investigation:

Philosophy plays a vital role in intellectual synthesis, and it keeps us alive to the power and continuity of thought through the centuries. It also peers into the future to give shape to the unknown -- and that has always been its vocation of choice. One of its most distinguished practitioners, Alexander Rosenberg, has recently argued that philosophy in fact addresses just two issues: the questions that the sciences -- physical, biological, and social -- cannot answer, and the reasons for that incapacity. "Now of course," he concludes, "there may not be any questions that the sciences cannot answer eventually, in the long run, when all the facts are in, but certainly there are questions that the sciences cannot answer yet." This assessment is admirably clear and honest and convincing. It neglects, however, the fact that scientists are equally qualified to judge what remains to be discovered, and why. There has never been a better time for collaboration between scientists and philosophers, especially where they meet in the borderlands between biology, the social sciences, and the humanities. We are approaching a new age of synthesis, when the testing of consilience is the greatest of all intellectual challenges. Philosophy, the contemplation of the unknown, is a shrinking dominion. We have the common goal of turning as much philosophy as possible into science.

Perhaps the question for philosophers is: what can they do to help the new sciences emerge? Part of the work remaining for philosophers is to clarify what John McDowell calls "constitutive conditions" (that which makes a thing what it is), which help determine what investigators need to look for in a certain field of study. These are quite close to Kurt Gödel's primitives. Yet I think Gödel's search was overly broad. It is unrealistic to try to do for metaphysics what Newton did for physics. Better to work on more tightly-focused parts of philosophy or in areas that were once part of philosophy but could be separated off from it, such as decision theory. Indeed, Gödel himself did just that in the realm of mathematical logic (which was once considered part of philosophy but no longer is). Hao Wang claimed that John Rawls obtained similarly fundamental results with regard to a theory of justice, but I have my doubts -- Rawls made some progress toward a clearer understanding of justice as a "primitive" in social affairs, but he got enough wrong (especially from the more libertarian perspective of contract and other voluntary relations) that his work is not particularly helpful in moving toward a fully free society.

Philosophy vs. Science in the Randian Tradition

Objectivist thinkers need to decide whether they will be part of the problem or part of the solution. Consider ethics. Part of the challenge for Objectivists is that their conception of human nature is seriously cramped and indeed inaccurate. In order to develop a true philosophy for living on earth, one would need to develop an accurate picture of human nature by integrating the large volume of work done over the last hundred or so years in anthropology, ethology, evolutionary biology, social psychology, and related disciplines. Yet the Objectivists haven't done this, because to date they seem to have been more interested in ideology than in reality. There is a great deal of work to be done in fully understanding human nature. It's not all pretty (we humans are a crafty bunch), and Randian claims such as "there are no conflicts of interest among rational men" are true only on a desiccated vision of what it means to be a rational human being. If old Aristotle were alive today you can be sure he'd be integrating the insights of anthropology and evolutionary psychology as fast as they were coming in. Those who would move forward with a philosophy for living on earth need to drop the ideology and get scientific in a humanistic way (Jacob Bronowski provided a good example of such an approach, I think, but science has come a long way since the 1960s, when Bronowski did most of his writing).

Another implication of this line of thinking is that history matters. For a history major, Rand was often depressingly a-historical. The current context of human experience involves a great deal of hard-won knowledge that is embedded in institutions, laws, practices, organizations, technologies, habits of mind, and the like. Granted, also embedded in these phenomena are misconceptions, irrationalities, and outright falsehoods. Is the modern welfare-warfare state far from the ideal form of government? Are modern mega-corporations partially inimical to human flourishing? Well, yes, but reality is messy and perfection is not an option. So we try to do the best we can with what we've got -- which is a lot. Modern gadgetry fulfills Clarke's third law of technology by bordering on magic, modern science has begun to reveal the secrets of biological nature, modern economics shows more and more the connection between prosperity and freedom, and so on.

The great challenge as I see it is to integrate all of the theoretical and practical knowledge that we as a species have been gaining, and gaining in a greatly accelerated fashion. Rand's followers exist in an ideological vacuum, even a kind of scientific deprivation experiment. They prattle on about metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, politics, and aesthetics as if philosophy were some lordly queen of the sciences who needs only to legislate and never to listen. All the while, the sciences and practical arts have made incredible progress over the last 500 years, especially over the last 100 years, and amazingly so even in the last generation.

Whether we call it phenomenography, consilience, ontography, science, or simply objective knowledge, the process of building an ever-more accurate map of reality will be hard work. One thing that makes it especially hard is that we must do justice not only to the "hard" sciences (which are relatively easy), but also what we have learned about our human selves, about social interactions, organizational forms, technological inventions, and artistic creations. Naturally the map would be drawn to a certain scale; no map provides infinite detail, else it would not be usable. The challenge is to find the right scale that will enhance our ability to navigate and explore realities both familiar and unknown, then to fill in the map with greater detail over time through an iterative process of improvement. Philosophers may not be enthusiastic about helping the new sciences emerge, since at the same time they will be working to make themselves obsolete. But I think we can safely say that, just as with the original Oort cloud (whose collapse formed the sun and planets), philosophy's contraction will be humanity's gain.


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