Thursday, January 12, 2006

Problem with Tabula Rasa

I recently finished reading Scott Ryan's Objectivism and the Corruption of Rationality, and it has got me thinking and researching all the potential problems he raises in the book. Ryan is highly critical of Objectivism and presents numerous arguments that in the end, are quite unconvincing. His lack of persuasiveness comes not because he is not an astute thinker, but mostly because his theoretical framework from which he launches his attacks are itself too abstract and fundamentally depend on mystical faith. Rational Idealism, the philosophy of Brand Blanshard - that Ryan subscribes to - has a fundamental principle that I refuse to reconcile with, and that is it purports human rationality as omniscient, and posits that atleast in theory, knowledge of everything is possible through Reason. Furthermore, Idealism is opposed to realism and materialism, emphasizes the primacy of the Consciousness, and ulimately believes that all existence is essential Ideas. Ryan's Idealism is similar to Hegelian Idealism in that they believe in an theistic Absolute in which all ideas exist. Anyway, there is one point that Ryan makes that I have been grappling with for some time now. And it is one of the fundamental principles of Objectivism - the principle of the Tabula Rasa mind. Ryan argues that if the mind is tabula rasa, then it means that an infant is born with nothing in its consciousness. But, Ryan argues, that goes contrary to Rand's postulate that a consciousness being conscious of nothing is a contradiction of concepts. So, either the mind is tabula rasa, in which case the mind qua consciousness exists but is blank - or that consciousness does not exist at all because a blank consciousness is no consciousness at all. I think Ryan raises a good question there. If we begin with accepting that an infant has no consciousness, then how does it eventually bring consciousness into existence? Is it possible to bring consciousness into existence? Wouldn't it be logical to assume that a "blank slate" exists first inorder for something to be "written" on it? If there is no "slate" (whether blank or not), then nothing can be 'written' on that which does not exist. I have yet to find a satisfying response to Ryan's challenge. Something to think about...


Blogger Semperviva said...

This one was the "chart-topping" cd called CHANT. As gregorian chant goes it okay, but not the best in my opinion. There is a "listen to all" link on the bottom of this page so you can decide for yourself.

I'm gonna go find u some better ones...

1/12/2006 03:53:00 PM  
Blogger Ergo Sum said...

Oh. Thanks! :) I wonder if buying online would be cheaper? Hmmm. I had gone into the Pauline Books stores... I'm sure you've heard of them.

1/12/2006 04:08:00 PM  
Blogger Semperviva said...

This CD is awesome. I have it- i hope the listen to link works for you.

Pauline books, lol, of course I know them! They publish a book entitled "He and I" which is listed as one of my favorite books.

I think it might depend on what cd you eventually decide to buy, cuz online includes shipping and all.

1/12/2006 04:14:00 PM  
Blogger Paul said...

When Objectivists say that the mind at birth is "tabula rasa", it means that there are no innate *ideas* or concepts. The infant mind of course is receiving sensory data (i.e., percepts), so the consciousness of the infant does have *perceptual* content, but no innate *conceptual* content. As the child develops, he or she generates concepts from those percepts.

The ARI website also briefly touches on this topic at:

Hope this helps!

1/13/2006 11:20:00 AM  
Blogger Ergo Sum said...

So, if that's the Objectivist position - that the infact received *perceptual* data from the senses, but has not yet developed *conceptual* data - then is this position really different from any of those who claim that the mind does not really start out as tabula rasa.
I mean, why even postulate an impression of "blankness" when the mind is really never "blank" as such?

btw, thanks for coming over Paul. I love visiting Diana and your sites.

1/13/2006 11:51:00 AM  
Blogger Diana said...

In the history of philosophy, "tabula rasa" has only meant that the mind has no innate conceptual content. Certainly, that's all that Objectivism means by it. Various sloppy critics have created a strawman by claiming that "tabula rasa" means something more than that. (I think I explained this point to you in e-mail recently, actually.)

1/13/2006 12:10:00 PM  
Blogger Ergo Sum said...

Oh, did you? Hmmm... I don't think so. Infact, I was waiting to hear from you in response to my second email to you.

1/13/2006 12:18:00 PM  
Blogger Diana said...

Ergo, I know that I still owe you an e-mail on another matter. (I hope to be able to reply to it soon.) The tabula rasa issue must have been brought up by another person, so my apologies on that score. (It's not a common topic, plus I'm easily confused by pseudonyms!)

That other person was particularly concerned about Pinker's criticisms in _The Blank Slate_, particularly whether "tabula rasa" meant that the mind has no identity. That's a somewhat different worry than yours, but here was my quick response:

Ayn Rand meant "tabula rasa" in a very specific sense: no innate ideas. On her view, all conceptual knowledge is learned. That is the longstanding meaning of "blank slate," but its opponents have often erected a strawman by which it means that man has no nature whatsoever, as if the slate isn't just blank, but wholly non-existent. (I'm not accusing Pinker of that, as I haven't read his books, but I've seen that argument elsewhere.) Obviously, Ayn Rand did, as you say hold that "Man [is] a rational being with a volitional consciousness." She also had far more interest in and respect for the identity of man's consciousness than almost anyone else. But she did reject the possibility of innate knowledge -- and rightly so, I think.

1/13/2006 12:31:00 PM  
Blogger Ergo Sum said...

I see. So, the whole concept of "tabula rasa" had been adulterated by philosopher and other thinkers... hence, the confusion? Hmm..

What you explain as Rand's position makes so much sense. Ofcourse, the "slate" will be blank at birth... but it has to exist... if we understand humans as integrated beings, in that they are mind and body, one being, then ofcourse, the "slate" must exist as the specific identity... though it may be blank.

Gotcha! Thanks, Diana.

1/13/2006 12:40:00 PM  

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