Sunday, September 19, 2010

The McCaskey Schism

There is a new Objectischism brewing, and this one might be the biggest since the David Kelley excommunication in the 1980s. Thus far only John McCaskey has been excommunicated from the movement, but it could be a sign of growing Objectivist frustration with Leonard Peikoff and the tone of orthodox Objectivism.

John McCaskey is a well credentialed Objectivist scholar. He holds a doctorate from Stanford University in the history of science, where he currently teaches. He was, until recently, on the board of directors of the Ayn Rand Institute. He has written for the Objective Standard, the house organ of the ARI. He has spoken at Objectivist Conferences. McCaskey appears to be tight with Allan Gotthelf and Harry Binswanger, but has “rarely spoken” to Peikoff.

McCaskey founded The Anthem Foundation for Objectivist Scholarship in 2001. The Foundation, which was so closely tied to the ARI that it was absorbed by it in 2008, may be the most interesting “special ops” of the ARI. The Foundation sponsors Objectivist professors (always orthodox) at universities through the United States. Intentionally or not it gives the illusion of greater Objectivist penetration in the academic world than it probably has. The Foundation received national attention in 2007 when Texas State University at San Marcos turned down a Foundation grant because of the dogmatic nature and intolerance of orthodox Objectivism.

The roots of this latest schism go back a ways. According to orthodox Objectivism, Rand solved the problem of universals in Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology. The biggest remaining problem in philosophy was the problem of induction, a thorny question which, by common consent, no completely satisfactory solution has been given. Peikoff, Rand’s self-proclaimed “intellectual heir,” teamed up with physicist David Harriman to solve the problem and show how induction worked in science. The result was Peikoff’s 1999 lecture course Induction in Physics and Philosophy which “present[s], for the first time, the solution to the problem of induction—and thereby complete[s], in every essential respect, the validation of reason.” The solution apparently built on Rand’s theory of concepts and, if true, would be a significant extension of Objectivism.

Peikoff and Harriman were for a time collaborating on a book on induction; however Peikoff dropped out of the project deciding to spend more time on his “DIM Hypothesis” book (which, like some other Peikoff book projects, hasn’t appeared). In July 2010, Harriman’s book – The Logical Leap: Induction in Physics – was finally published. The book contains an introduction by Peikoff, who calls it “the first mayor application of Ayn Rand’s philosophy to a field other than philosophy.” Harriman states that theory of induction and concept formation in the book is Peikoff’s. He also acknowledges that the book was funded by the ARI. The history of science isn’t my strong suit, but the Harriman book follows the general Objectivist view of intellectual history: good guys with good (i.e., proto-Objectivist) ideas, bad guys with bad ideas, good ideas leading to good results, bad ideas leading to failure. All contrary evidence is ignored or explained away, as when Harriman claims that Galileo’s notes in his journals that suggested he was a rationalist who used “thought experiments” don’t accurately convey what Galileo was doing. (Harriman, as we will see, is apparently an expert when it comes to what people really mean in their journals.)

Harriman is controversial in Objectivist circles for his (at least partial) opposition to relativity theory and quantum mechanics. He also thinks the big bang theory is a “creation myth” (duly noting that it was developed by Catholic priest). He edited The Journals of Ayn Rand which, according to Jennifer Burns, he rewrote in the process to make it conform to Objectivist orthodoxy. As summarized by Laissez Faire Book’s review:

Burns writes, “On nearly every page of the published journals an unacknowledged change has been made from Rand’s original writing. In the book’s foreword the editor, David Harriman, defends his practice of eliminating Rand’s words and inserting his own as necessary for greater clarity. In many case, however, his editing serves to significantly alter Rand’s meaning.” She says that sentences are “rewritten to sound stronger and more definite” and that the editing “obscures important shifts and changes in Rand’s thought.” She finds “more alarming” the case that “sentences and proper names present in Rand’s original …have vanished entirely, without any ellipses or brackets to indicate a change.”

The result of this unacknowledged editing is that “they add up to a different Rand. In her original notebooks she is more tentative, historically bounded, and contradictory. The edited diaries have transformed her private space, the hidden realm in which she did her thinking, reaching, and groping, replacing it with a slick manufactured world in which all of her ideas are definite, well formulated, and clear.” She concludes that Rand’s Journals, as released by ARI, “are thus best understood as an interpretation of Rand rather than her own writing. Scholars must use these materials with extreme caution.”

In 2000 he ganged up with Leonard Peikoff to attack Allan Gotthelf’s incredibly fawning On Ayn Rand for its overly academic style. Harriman holds masters degrees in philosophy and physics. He would be a second-tier figure in the Objectivist world if it weren’t for his association with Peikoff.

Orthodox Objectivism has well credentialed physicists such as Keith Lockith (Ph.D. from the University of Wisconsin) and Travis Norsen (Ph.D. from the University of Washington). Both have lectured at Objectivist Conferences and have lectures sold by the ARI’s bookstore.

Although Rand didn’t write anything on the philosophy of science, oral tradition has it that she was skeptical of what little she knew of modern physics. Peikoff doesn’t appear to know much about physics and what little he knows is from Harriman. (In Peikoff’s 2006 DIM lecturers Peikoff said he had never heard of Richard Feynman, probably one of the few household names in physics in recent years.) It’s been rumored that there is discontent with the preeminent position Harriman and Peikoff have when it comes to physics.

The first sign a schism was on July 25, when Norsen’s review of The Logical Leap appeared on Amazon. He called it “valuable but disappointing” and gave it three starts (out of five). The review is lengthy, and takes aim specifically at chapter 1 (which is Peikoff’s contribution):

To begin with, I think the three key ideas presented in chapter 1 are important and correct. There *are* first-level generalizations which support and make possible the higher-level sorts of generalizations that scientists are (and unfortunately most philosophers concerned with induction have been) primarily concerned with. And as a matter of epistemological methodology, it is right to focus on these simplest, foundational cases to construct a theory to guide us in the more complex cases. I also think it is profoundly true that causal connections are sometimes perceivable, and Harriman is absolutely right to stress this as the fundamental answer to the skeptical views that emerge ultimately from a Humean, sensationalist account of perception. I would even go so far as to say that this idea (which, however, is not novel -- see for example the important book "Causal Powers" by Madden and Harre) is the key to solving the problem of induction. And second, the idea that generalizations are formed -- i.e., propositions are rendered general -- via the application of (open-ended) concepts to particular causal instances, strikes me as very interesting and pregnant.

However, even at the level of dealing with examples like "balls roll," I find that the book does not go far enough in clarifying and developing these ideas. I see rather large gaps in the account of first-level inductions presented in chapter 1, and these gaps seriously undermine the project of showing, through the subsequent history-of-science case studies, how induction works in physics.

Something must have been “going down” because on August 11 and August 23 Gotthelf (of all people) and Binswanger posted brief five-star reviews on Amazon praising Harriman’s book. Prior to these reviews Gotthelf and Binswanger had a combined eleven reviews on Amazon going back to 1999.

It now turns out that McCaskey had for some time been critical of The Logical Leap, although he never discussed his concerns with Peikoff. Peikoff however got wind of McCaskey’s criticism and took it as a personal attack on him. In an incredible email dated August 30 from Peikoff to ARI legal counsel Arline Mann (and cc’d to ARI director Yaron Brook) Peikoff made it clear that someone had to go and it wasn’t going to be him:

When a great book sponsored by the Institute and championed by me – I hope you still know who I am and what my intellectual status is in Objectivism – is denounced by a member of the Board of the Institute, which I founded someone has to go and will go. It is your prerogative to decide whom.
I do understand how much money M has brought to ARI, and how many college appointments he has gotten and is still getting. As Ayn would have put it, that raises him one rung in Hell, but it does not convert Objectivism into pragmatism.

Three days later McCaskey resigned from the ARI and the Foundation he started.
The next day McCaskey reviewed The Logical Leap, giving it three stars. The money quotes:

Readers of the book should be aware that the historical accounts presented here often differ from those given by academic researchers working on the history of science and often by the scientists themselves.

* * *

Generally, scholars who try to recreate the development of scientific concepts in the minds of great scientists are struck by how successful these scientists are in making propositional generalizations while still forming--and often themselves never fully forming--the concepts that constitute the generalizations. The narrative these scholars present (using Harriman's metaphor, not theirs) is not that a fully formed concept comes into the mind of the scientist who then uses it as a green light to an inductive propositional generalization, but that a partly formed concept serves as a flickering greenish light to a partial generalization, which acts as a less flickering, somewhat greener light to a better concept, which in turn improves the generalization, which then improves the concept, and so on, until well-defined concepts and associated propositional generalizations emerge fully formed together (at which point, the subjectivist says, "See, it's all just a matter of definitions.") Most scholars find the process of scientific progress less linear than Harriman indicates and much more iterative and spiral.
I cannot say that the conventional narratives (or my own) are all correct and Harriman's all wrong--certainly they are not--nor do I want to say how any inaccuracies would affect the theory of induction presented in The Logical Leap. I merely want to alert readers unfamiliar with the field that Harriman's narratives are often not the ones accepted by other scholars who research the conceptual development of great scientists and often not the ones that the scientists themselves give.
The theory of induction proposed here is potentially seminal; a theory that grounds inductive inference in concept-formation is welcome indeed. But the theory is still inchoate. If it is to be widely adopted, it will need to be better reconciled with the historical record as the theory gets fleshed out and refined.

What to make of this latest schism? It’s never easy to determine what is really happening in the noumenal realm of orthodox Objectivism. Even long-time Objectivism watchers with degrees in Kremlinology are having a hard time here. But let’s make some guesses:

1. Now that Harriman’s book is out and Peikoff has given the imprimatur to Harrimanesque physics, orthodox ARI physicists have decided that they aren’t going to let a philosopher with little knowledge of physics dictate how their work is done.

2. Objectivists are getting tired of Peikoff’s reign. With Peikoff’s retirement from the daily affairs of the ARI and his age they think can get along just fine without him.

3. Peikoff’s behavior has become increasingly erratic. In 2006 he issued a fatwa against anyone who was considering not voting Democratic, going so far as to claim that they didn’t understand Objectivism. He recently made a similar statement concerning Objectivists who believe that Moslems have a legal right to build a Mosque near the site of the September 11 attacks in New York City. He has called for a nuclear attack on Iran. He’s so self-important that when he speaks at an Objectivist Conference a disclaimer is published that his attendance doesn’t mean he agrees with everything other speakers say.

4. Peikoff, for whatever contributions he has made to Objectivism, has actually hurt Rand’s reputation. For example, in 2005 he sponsored James Valliant’s cracked The Passion of Ayn Rand’s Critics, a book which, far from rescuing Rand, made her look worse. He has permitted people like Harriman to rewrite the published versions of Rand’s posthumous material in classic cult of personality fashion. Peikoff said in 1987 that Barbara Branden’s biography of Rand was “arbitrary” and would eventually be countered by an authorized biography. No such biography has appeared, but two independent biographies were published in 2009 both generally supportive of Branden’s. It must be increasingly obvious to younger Objectivists that the Peikoff line that Rand’s only character flaw was occasionally blowing her top was dishonest.

In 1968, Rand kicked out Nathaniel Branden (a psychologist). In 1977 she so harangued Alan Blumenthal (a psychiatrist) that he quit. Shortly before her death she booted out Robert Hessen (a historian). Leonard Peikoff has excommunicated not only David Kelly but George Reisman (an economist) and his wife Edith Packer (a psychologist). The McCaskey excommunication continues a trend of Rand and Peikoff breaking with independent thinkers who for ideological or personal reasons don’t toe the party line.


FreeZoneThetan said...

"Peikoff said he had never heard of Richard Feynman"
That is tragic, not simply because of how ignorant he must be of physics, but because Feynman was a great individualist and a brilliant mind and is well worth reading by any intelligent person.

As a Scientologist and Objectivist, I have for years been frustrated with the fact that orthodox Objectivism and the Church of Scientology represented a sort of perverse inversion of what they were meant to be. These people are destroying and subverting the very philosophies they purport to advance.

And, to put it simply, Peikoff is a conceited son of a bitch. There is a difference between being confident and blind to your own faults. Peikoff crossed that line decades ago.

Anonymous said...

Ha. An Scientologist and an Objectivist. That is funny. So, what is your objective proof that Xenu murdered his followers in volcanoes? lololol