Archive | October, 2007

Randian Queries

universal and particulars 1. A theory of universals is traditionally supposed to answer two questions: first, what makes generic identity possible across specific difference (e.g., what makes red horses and brown horses both count as horses?), and second, what makes qualitative identity (whether generic or specific) possible across numerical difference (e.g., how can red-horse-hood exist in both of these red horses at the same time when they are two horses rather than one?).

I understand Rand’s answer to the first question: red horses and brown horses possess different measurements of the same attribute, and we grasp the attribute by mentally omitting the measurements. But this can’t be her answer to the second question, since this solution, by helping itself to the notion of “same attribute,” presupposes that the second question has already been answered.

So what I’m wondering is: what is Rand’s answer to the second question? Does she even address the second question, or does she mistakenly think that all the philosophical fuss about universals has solely been about the first question? One reason for thinking she doesn’t quite see the second question is that when she first introduces the problem of universals (in Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology) she describes it this way:

When we refer to three persons as “men,” what do we designate by that term? The three persons are three individuals who differ in every particular respect and may not possess a single identical characteristic (not even their fingerprints). If you list all their particular characteristics, you will not find one representing “manness.” Where is the “manness” in men?

It’s clear from what Rand says here (e.g. the reference to fingerprints) that by “differ” and “identical” she means to signify qualitative difference and qualitative identity, not numerical difference and numerical identity. But in that case she’s missed half the question. Before we can start worrying about how it’s possible for two things to be qualitatively identical in the generic sense without being qualitatively identical in any specific sense, don’t we first need to justify the puzzling notion of qualitative identity per se?

Ayn Rand 2. In her 1964 article “Patents and Copyrights” (reprinted in Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal) , Rand offers inter alia the following argument:

As an objection to the patent laws, some people cite the fact that two inventors may work independently for years on the same invention, but one will beat the other to the patent office by an hour or a day and will acquire an exclusive monopoly, while the loser’s work will then be totally wasted. This type of objection is based on the error of equating the potential with the actual. The fact that a man might have been first, does not alter the fact that he wasn’t. Since the issue is one of commercial rights, the loser in a case of that kind has to accept the fact that in seeking to trade with others he must face the possibility of a competitor winning the race, which is true of all types of competition.

Here my question is this: does the patent office create the right, or merely record a pre-existing right? Because if the patent office creates the right, that seems to attributing to government a more sweeping authority than Rand ordinarily wishes to grant. But if instead the patent office records a pre-existing right, then that right, existing prior to certification by the state, cannot be lost by failing to receive such certification.

Nor is Rand’s analogy with commercial competition helpful. What I have on entering the market is not an unconditional right to sell my product, but only a right to try to sell it, or in other words, a right to sell it if I find a willing buyer. So if I am outcompeted by a rival seller who snaps up all my potential customers first, I haven’t lost any right. But if my rival beats me to the patent office, I do lose the right to try to find a willing buyer for my product (and the potential buyers likewise lose the right to try to buy from me). What justifies this?

After I wrote the above, I thought to look through my older writings on copyright to see whether I’d commented on Rand’s argument before. Turns out I did, and said basically the same thing:

Rand is suggesting that the competition to get to the patent office first is like any other kind of commercial competition. For example, suppose you and I are competing for the same job, and you happen to get hired simply because you got to the employer before I did. In that case, the fact that I might have gotten there first does not give me any rightful claim to the job. But that is because I have no right to the job in the first place. And once you get the job, your rightful claim to that job depends solely on the fact that your employer chose to hire you.

In the case of patents, however, the story is supposed to be different. The basis of an inventor’s claim to a patent on X is supposedly the fact that he has invented X. (Otherwise, why not offer patent rights over X to anyone who stumbles into the patent office, regardless of whether they’ve ever even heard of X?) Registering one’s invention with the patent office is supposed to record one’s right, not to create it. Hence it follows that the person who arrives at the patent office second has just as much right as the one who arrives first – and this is surely a reductio ad absurdum of the whole notion of patents.

Oh well, I guess there’s nothing wrong with having two different wordings of the same objection out there.

That 70s Show

The latest BSG: Razor flashback offers a double shot of 1970s nostalgia: not only is it our first glimpse of old-style Cylons in action, but it recreates the opening scene of Moonraker (the first James Bond movie I ever saw).


Today in the book section of the grocery store I saw a pair of children’s books titled What Mommies Do Best and What Daddies Do Best. I took a look, wondering to what sort of gender stereotypes I was about to be subjected – only to find, to my unexpected delight, that the two lists of parental tasks (including baking and sewing) were identical!

The mills of God grind slowly ….

Two Problems for the Cosmological Argument

The cosmological argument for the existence of God starts from the assumption that whatever exists contingently requires an explanation. Given the further assumptions that the world around us exists contingently and that infinite regresses of explanation are ruled out, we get the conclusion that there must exist a necessary being – and “this all men call God,” as Aquinas blithely notes.

Actually Aquinas knows perfectly well that the argument isn’t finished at that point, and goes on to argue that a necessary being would have to have the traditional attributes of God – uniqueness, goodness, omnipotence, omniscience, etc. But those arguments, whatever their merits, aren’t my current concern. Nor shall I consider the assumption that the world around us is contingent, though that assumption is open to challenge as well. My present beef is with the initial assumption that whatever exists contingently requires an explanation.

I have two objections. Here’s the first. Suppose X is a contingent being. In that case, X’s existence is supposed to require an explanation. But why? Presumably because if something is the case which might not have been the case, we need an explanation for why it’s the case rather than otherwise. But then it seems to follow that if X did not exist, its nonexistence, being likewise contingent rather than necessary, would likewise require an explanation.

marbles At this point the demand for an explanation of why X exists begins to look puzzling. Since X is a contingent being, X’s existence is somehow supposed to be metaphysically surprising and to require explanation. But now it turns out that X’s nonexistence would also be metaphysically surprising. But X’s existence and X’s nonexistence are the only logically possible options; how can they both be surprising?

Suppose I reach into an urn containing 10,000 marbles, and I randomly pull one out. Then I reflect: “The odds of my getting this marble were one in 10,000! How amazing! What explains this extraordinary event?” This would be a confusion. By reaching into the urn I guaranteed that I would get one or another of those 10,000 marbles; if there’s nothing special about this marble that the other marbles lack, then there’s nothing to be surprised about – since whatever marble I got was guaranteed to be one in 10,000. By the same logic, if X’s existence and X’s nonexistence are both contingent, and yet those are the only two possible options, then it’s guaranteed that some non-necessary state of affairs will be the case. If that’s so, then there’s nothing metaphysically surprising about it – so why must it require an explanation?

So my first objection is that we don’t need an explanation for every contingent being. My second objection goes farther: that there couldn’t be an explanation for every contingent being.

dominoes Why not? Well, granting that every explanatory chain must be finite, consider the causal origin Y in which the explanation of contingent being X terminates. Y is ex hypothesi a necessary being. But what about Y’s causing X? Is that necessary or contingent? If it’s contingent – that is, if Y could have existed without causing X – then we still have an unexplained contingent being (and the fact that Y’s own existence is necessary doesn’t help).

On the other hand, if Y’s causing X is necessary, then since Y’s existence is necessary too, it follows that X’s existence is likewise necessary – in which case we haven’t explained the existence of a contingent being at all, since X turns out to be a necessary being rather than a contingent one.

It follows that if there are any contingent beings at all, then necessarily some of them have no explanation for their existence. In which case the cosmological argument can’t get off the ground.

For example, if Y is supposed to be God, then the question is whether the act of will whereby God creates X is necessary or contingent. If it’s necessary, then so is X, belying the original premise of X’s contingency. And if instead God’s act of will is contingent, then we still have an unexplained contingency – now it’s just the act of will leading to X rather than X itself.

Unless, of course, one wishes to say that something can explain X without being sufficient for X. Now in fact I have no problem with saying that. But once one has said that, then one has granted that explanation can be contingent, in which case the whole rationale for chains of explanation terminating in something necessary has been given up.

Grendel’s Mom Has Got It Going On

I’ve finished reading the comic book adaptation of the new Neil Gaiman film version of Beowulf, so I can give a summary for those who want one.

a different Beowulf comic bookLet me first refresh your memory concerning the original story. The monster Grendel and his mum live in a lake near Heorot, castle of King Hrothgar. (No father is in evidence; our conservative friends would probably invoke this fact to explain Grendel’s troubled career.) Enraged by the sound of revelry (evidently Grendel is a Menckenite Puritan), Grendel periodically visits the castle to smash puny humans. No warrior is able to withstand him until Beowulf shows up to save the day. Beowulf lies in wait for the monster and defeats him.

But the castle’s troubles are not over. Next, Grendel’s fearsome mother attacks the castle to avenge her son’s death. Beowulf tracks her back to her watery lair and dispatches her as well.

Then Beowulf returns home and the story fast-forwards. Now he is an aging king who has to deal with a new menace: a fiery dragon, accidentally wakened by a treasure-thief, is ravaging the countryside. Beowulf manages to slay the dragon but, less robust than in his youth, dies in the process. He receives a cool Viking funeral and the saga ends.

So how close does the new movie stick to this plot? For the SPOILER-averse, I’ve buried the answer in the comments section.

The Madwoman in the Basement

Mary Wollstonecraft Regrettably, I’ve never gotten to London’s National Portrait Gallery (I only got as far as the plain old National Gallery nearby). But this story of the fate of Mary Wollstonecraft’s portrait therein is worth a read.

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