In fideism, induction on 23/07/2011 at 6:24 am

Nothing is more characteristic of a dogmatist epistemology than its theory of error. For if some truths are manifest, one must explain how anyone can be mistaken about them, in other words, why the truths are not manifest to everybody. According to its particular theory of error, each dogmatist epistemology offers its particular therapeutics to purge minds from error. (Imre Lakatos)

I’ve heard it said from followers of Rand that a theory (usually one of Rand’s own, or a variation thereof) is unassailable, for any criticism of the theory must necessarily assume the theory in order to criticize it. This, somehow, invalidates all criticism.

Is the supposition “Any criticism must assume the validity of the theory being criticized” self-evident?

One problem: how does one know that all possible criticisms employ that theory? Is anyone familiar with all potential arguments against the theory? Of course not: novel ideas are created every day. Therefore, this assertion, that all criticism must assume the theory is true, is based on an inductive inference, which cannot, as a matter of logic, be as demonstrably self-evident or unconditionally immune to criticism as it first appears.

It might be the case that it is true, but it is hardly evident to me, especially once this doubt is raised. Furthermore, whatever theory is used to demonstrate how the initial theory is self-evident must, of course, be scrutinized to determine if it suffers from the same problem: is this new theory self-evident as well? A regress of ‘unassailable’ theories begins in earnest.

The world is far more interesting than we can imagine: asserting that no criticism could possibly exist speaks only to, I think, their limited intellectual horizon. I conjecture that it is better for an idea to stick its neck out as far as it can, therefore inviting many criticisms, and taking them serious. One criticism, if accepted, is enough. As the followers of Rand would have it, the world can only be a constant construction of sandcastles following the blueprints of the Master, and yet no helpful criticism of the blueprints or their faithful execution is permitted. I might go so far as to say that this meta-theory is self-evident, but of course, I don’t.

Assume that everything I have just said is not the case: assume that the Randian (for they are such an easy punching bag, no?) now says that by any criticism that does not assume the same things as Objectivism is then starting from different — incompatible — assumptions, and is not a viable criticism. This might be a possible defensive maneuver for the Randian, for it disallows criticism of its assumptions and criticism of its coherence. Here we have the gestation of the most uninteresting post-modernists within the Randian (or the religious presuppositionalists like Van Til), for the Randian must not be aware of a reductio ad absurdum.

And this, I should note, is a point that deserves no further clarification on my part, for pointing out incoherence is one of the most powerful criticisms available.


  1. The so-called fallacy of the stolen concept might be a useful case study for explaining objective dogmas.

    Critical rationalism is not just about having a critical or sceptical attitude. So far as the institutions of science go, such subjective humility is not even particularly important. Every theory deserves a thorough and motivated defence, and it’s usually the dogmatists who provide it.

    Critical rationalists are more concerned with identifying and eliminating objective dogmas. An objective dogma is an idea or argumentative strategy which does nothing but deflect criticism. One may have a critical or sceptical attitude and yet be captured by an objective dogma, because its dogmatism depends on the logical structure of the dogma itself rather than one’s subjective feelings.

    An interesting consequence of all this that justificationists are likely to find confounding, is that one is not a critical rationalist just because they say so. For example, I say that I am a critical rationalist, but I may not be. Who knows what objective dogmas pervade my thoughts. Perhaps, despite my efforts, I am unresponsive to criticism, and incapable of being self-critical. I don’t think so, but the nature of objective dogmas is that their hosts are usually unaware of them.

    • Lee,

      Excellent point. I think you should write a book, or at least consider it, for your comments are usually extremely well-put. I actually did not consider such a difference between subjective attitudes and ‘objective dogmas’ when writing the post, but upon reflection it is obvious.


      • Ha! I haven’t even written a philosophy paper.

        Maybe I’ll write a book one day, and plagiarise this blog while I’m at it. Perhaps we can make it a competition: who can write the best book on critical rationalism?

        Honestly, I feel as though I have so much left to study and learn. Writing a book any time soon would be … premature.

  2. I feel the same way.

    You’re welcome to plagiarize whatever you wish (within reason) whenever you get around to writing that book — if that’s any incentive.

  3. Oh good!

    I haven’t got any other feedback yet, even though I know the post has many views. I am a terrible judge of my own work. I’d rather get bad feedback than no feedback.

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