Reason, Naturalism, and Free Will

People familiar with Objectivism will remember an old article by Nathaniel Branden titled, “The Contradiction of Determinism,” (Objectivist Newsletter, May 1963). In it, he argues, not that the doctrine of free will is true, nor that determinism is false. Rather, he argues that if determinism is true, we cannot know it. And the reason we can’t know it is that, if determinism is true, no knowledge is possible at all.

The argument is that knowledge must be validated by a process of reason. Our suppositions about the world are not self-certifying. The mere presence of an idea in your mind does not establish that it is true. Therefore, we have to evaluate our suppositions about the world by means of sensory evidence and other tests, such as coherence. This must be done by a process of reason. But the process of reason cannot be realized by merely mechanical causation of the sort that is expressed by causal laws. Causal laws determine that a certain sort of event results in consequence of a certain sort of prior event, and this sort of determination is entirely different from that of seeing reasons or recognizing logical connections.

For example, an electronic calculator outputs “4” in response to “2+2=”, not because it recognizes that this is logically required, but because it is wired to do so. If it were wired differently, it would produce a different answer. If some of its wiring becomes faulty, it will produce a different answer. Of course, an electronic calculator is not very sophisticated, and so it cannot be expected to correct such errors. We can imagine a more sophisticated machine built with safeguards to protect against errors. But this doesn’t affect the central point, which is that a machine, no matter how sophisticated, does not act on the basis of reasons, but only of causes. A machine transitions from one state to the next on the basis of its previous state in accordance with causal laws. That is fundamentally different from recognizing a logical relation.

If physical causation is fundamentally different from (and incapable of) recognizing logical relations, and if recognizing logical relations is necessary for reason, and if reason is necessary for knowledge, then an entity that operates entirely by physical causation can’t know anything. Therefore, if determinism claims that every human being operates entirely by physical causation, then it implies that no human being can know anything, which includes the truth of determinism (assuming determinism to be true).

Unfortunately, Branden’s statement of the argument is not completely clear. But I think what he intended is more or less as I have stated it. Here is what he says:

Knowledge is the correct identification of the facts of reality; and in order for man to know that the contents of his mind do constitute knowledge, in order for him to know that he has identified the facts of reality correctly, he requires a means of testing his conclusions. The means is the process of reasoning—of testing his conclusions against reality and checking for contradictions. It is thus that he validates his conclusions. But this validation is possible only if his capacity to judge is free—that is, non-conditional (given a normal brain state). If his capacity to judge is not free, there is no way for a man to discriminate between his beliefs and those of a raving lunatic.

And he uses the machine example to illustrate that a machine, even a sophisticated one, would not be using reason and logic. Unfortunately, he does not explicitly contrast physical causation with seeing reasons. Thus, his complaint about the sophisticated machine is only that if its self-correcting safeguards are programmed improperly, it won’t be able to fix them. But one could make a similar complaint about a dull human—or about a smart human faced with a sufficiently complex problem. It isn’t about errors. A human equipped with reason might repeatedly fail to spot a mistake, might be uncreative in figuring out how to test a supposition, or be unable to solve some problem or identify the answer to some question of fact. On the other hand, machines are already much more reliable at identifying certain matters of fact than humans are, and at the rate AI is going, a truly general purpose problem solving and learning machine may soon be with us. But there would still be an important difference—apparently—between any machine and us, which is that a machine does not see reasons or recognize logical relations, and we do.

To get an indication of the difference I am pointing to, consider Wittgenstein’s rule-following argument (e.g., Philosophical Investigations, §§185–205). The argument is somewhat obscure (after all, it’s Wittgenstein), but it is common to suppose that Wittgenstein is issuing a skeptical challenge to say what constitutes one practice, as opposed to any other, being the correct way to apply a given rule in a novel situation. This is how Kripke (in Wittgenstein on Rules and Private Language), for example, interprets Wittgenstein. For example, suppose I am applying a rule, “+1”, to generate a series of numbers. Starting with 0, I generate 1, 2, 3, … And now suppose I get to 1000, which I have never counted to using this rule before. What number correctly continues the series? 1001, presumably. But what if I write 1002 instead? Or 10,001? Or 5? What determines that any of these is incorrect?

Kripke’s way putting the challenge is to have the skeptic suggest an alternative rule and ask what determines that the “normal” rule is the correct one, not the alternative. Thus, in the example above, the normal rule would be plus, which would dictate that when I reach 1000, the next number in a +1 series is 1001. An alternative rule might be quus, which acts like plus for quantities less than 1000, but which dictates a result of 5 for any quantity greater than or equal to 1000. Therefore, if quus is the rule, then the next number in a +1 series after I reach 1000 is 5. Now the question can be put by asking what determines that plus is the rule I am following, not quus. After all, if all of my experience up to now has been with quantities below 1000, then the sum total of my past training and behavior is compatible with both rules. What is there to show that I didn’t really have quus in mind all along, so that when I apply +1 to 1000 and get 5, that is completely correct and consistent with what I always intended?

Perhaps we could somehow identify my pre-existing behavioral dispositions or neuronal pathways and show that they would have determined me to put 1001, not 5, so that if I put 5 now, that must be the result of some performance error. But the trouble with this is that if physical dispositions or structures are to be the criterion, then there can be no nonphysical standard by which to say they are ever wrong. Thus, if I put 5 instead of 1001, despite the fact that my physical dispositions or wiring previously would have made me put 1001, how are we to say this is a mistake? Why isn’t the change part of the system? Perhaps we will want to say that certain physical structures became deformed or weakened and thus failed to perform normally, but by what standard are we to say this? Obviously, to say that the standard is that the physical system should realize the rule plus is to beg the question. Indeed, no appeal to any abstract ideal of performance, such as we might find in an engineering specification, for instance, will do, since that amounts to one more rule (like plus or quus) which the system is to follow. The whole problem is that we need a criterion by which to say what actual performance is dictated by an “abstract ideal of performance.” Therefore, to say that a physical system will be correct when it satisfies an abstract ideal, such as an engineering spec, is to beg the question.

Of course, this suggests a direct way of solving the problem, which would be to say that I understand the rule, which is plus, and that I can recognize how to apply it to numbers I have never encountered before (since the application depends on common features of the system of numbers). On this view, the rule is the criterion, and nothing further is needed. A rule is an abstract entity, which I have the cognitive ability to understand and apply. Of course, this solution depends on a lot of nonphysical talk, like “understand,” “recognize,” “abstract,” “cognition,” and for that matter “rule.”

It may be felt that this is a little unsatisfying, even if we don’t mind the nonphysical talk. Shouldn’t there be some criterion for correct application of a rule? In many cases, there might be, depending on the rule (e.g., if it is not fully specified in itself). Also, many rules, especially if they are elaborate or derivative, might be part of systems of rules that interlock, so that the violation of the one rule involves violations of others also. Nevertheless, there must be some rules that an individual can simply understand and apply without any further criterion. This is the point of Lewis Carroll’s famous article, “What the Tortoise Said to Achilles.” Suppose the tortoise has learned the meaning of the material conditional, symbolized by “⊃” (to be read as “If…, then…”). And suppose he agrees to take as given the propositions “P ⊃ Q” and “P”. But suppose he insists that he cannot see that “Q” follows from these. What can Achilles say to compel his assent? Perhaps Achilles will introduce an explicit rule, “((P ⊃ Q) and P) ⊃ Q”, and get the tortoise to agree to this rule. Now since the antecedents of the new rule, “P ⊃ Q” and “P”, are both given and accepted by the tortoise, and the rule is accepted also, surely he cannot avoid accepting “Q”. But of course, in truth if the tortoise could not see before that “Q” follows from “P ⊃ Q” and “P” alone, the new rule will be of no help. Obviously, to apply the new rule requires the tortoise to grasp the principle of conditional elimination that would have enabled him to make the earlier inference. Or in other words, to derive “Q” from “((P ⊃ Q) and P) ⊃ Q”, “P ⊃ Q”, and “P” is just a more elaborate version of the same inference form as deriving “Q” from “P ⊃ Q” and “P”. So, if he could not follow the latter, he will not follow the former. And indeed, if he could not follow the latter, it is hard to see what other rule there could be that would make him see it. The moral is that there cannot be a separate criterion of correctness for every rule. Some logical relations you have to just “see” by the “light of reason.” If there are no logical relations you can understand and apply primitively, there is nothing further to be done. There are some reasoning processes we have to be innately equipped to perform. Otherwise, the reasoning power of the individual can never get going.

(It is noteworthy that something like this is the way Aristotle proceeds to develop his theory of the syllogism in the Prior Analytics. He says that certain basic syllogisms are “perfect” in that what is stated in the syllogism alone is sufficient to make the necessity of the conclusion “evident.” Other, less evident forms are shown to be evident by relation to the perfect forms.)

I have long thought that, for all the ballyhoo about the rule-following argument, it shows no more than what Lewis Carroll already pointed out, namely that if you need a criterion of correct application for every rule, you’re sunk. Some rules and their applications we simply have the power to understand, and, from the standpoint of reason (as opposed to psychology), there is no more to be said about it. Of course, this is not the use to which Wittgenstein puts his argument. His conclusion is roughly that, since there is no internal or individual—“private”—criterion for the correct application of a rule, the criterion is public. To follow a rule is to participate in a custom or usage or institution, and this is why there can be, for example, no private language (since a language is constituted of rules). It is curious that, an individual behavioral or neuronal criterion having been rejected on the grounds that there can be no physical standard of error, a public behavioral criterion is accepted, although it seems to be subject to the same criticism. After all, on the institutional view of rules, if by some mass delusion we all started applying quus instead of plus, there would be no standard by which to say that was an error. Of course, maybe that’s sociologically correct! Maybe that’s exactly what we would do, and do do. Think of linguistic change, for example. Today’s common English usage errors become (annoyingly) tomorrow’s standard usage. But if so, then notice that the supposed proof that a private language is impossible has failed. If an ideal standard of error is not needed for institutional rules, it will not be needed for private rules either. An individual’s private rules could be constituted by his own habits of usage, and errors could be just those performances he would chide himself for, by analogy with public, institutional rules. Therefore, if there can be public rules on this model, there can be private rules also.

However, all this is rather beside the point I introduced the rule-following problem to illustrate, which is that reason is not reducible to causal processes. If there is an answer to the skeptic’s challenge in the rule-following argument, it must appeal to our having the cognitive ability to understand and apply a rule, and this ability is not reducible to behavioral dispositions or neuronal activity—or so I have argued. This is the way in which a machine, if it is governed entirely by processes of physical causation, does not see reasons or recognize logical relations, and so functions in a way entirely different from us. This is not an outré or radical idea. For instance, I think this is just the sort of view of reason that motivates the “anomalous monism” of such a pillar of analytic philosophy as Donald Davidson (see “Mental Events”). Of course, Davidson’s anomalous monism was supposed to show how the two worlds, mental and physical, can coexist despite running on entirely different principles, so that a machine can have reason after all (including freedom!). However, I don’t think Davidson’s theory succeeds in that, and my impression is that few other philosophers have been persuaded either. And Davidson’s theory, even if it were correct, still would deny that reason is reducible to physical causation.

A way of putting my point is to say that reason is not a naturalistic process. I am not particularly comfortable with the term “naturalistic.” I hardly mean to say that reason is supernatural, much less that it is incomprehensible or mysterious. Nor would I call it “unnatural.” I use the term “naturalism” because it seems to be the common term, and I haven’t thought of a better one. What I mean by saying that any phenomenon is not naturalistic is just that it is inexplicable by physical science or causal laws.

It seems to me that naturalism is deeply embedded in the current zeitgeist, to the point of not even being on most people’s minds—not even most philosophers’—as an explicit commitment. It often manifests itself just as a feeling of slight embarrassment or discomfort whenever somebody is so gauche as to violate it. That is, when they violate it explicitly. For, phenomena that at least apparently violate it are ubiquitous. Besides reason, there is qualitative experience (“qualia”), color (whether experienced or not), consciousness, intentionality, signification, and knowledge. I hope the way in which at least most of these are nonreducible is at least vaguely apparent. For some indications of what I have in mind, on qualitative experience and consciousness, see the work of David Chalmers (e.g., “Consciousness and Its Place in Nature”); on color, see the work of C. L. Hardin (e.g., Color for Philosophers); on intentionality and signification, Tyler Burge (e.g., “Perceptual Entitlement” and “Modest Dualism”); on knowledge, Timothy Williamson (e.g., Knowledge and Its Limits). I think it is remarkable that so many people (including myself most of the time) seem to blithely assume that naturalism will ultimately prevail in spite of all the phenomena that appear to violate it. For many of these, I think there is at present no realistic program at all for naturalizing them. I suppose the common assumption of naturalism is a testament to the enormous prestige that now accrues to physical science.

Be all this as it may, in the remainder I want to point out that the claim that reason is non-naturalistic is not the same as the claim that it requires free will or implies that we have free will. This means that, although I agree with Branden that human knowledge requires reason and reason does not operate by physical causation—and indeed must be in some way liberated from determination by physical causation—I don’t agree that the process of reason is necessarily free. Indeed, it seems likely to me that it is not free.

The idea that the use of reason makes us free is most closely associated, I think, with Immanuel Kant. (This is of course a bit ironic in view of Objectivism’s hostility to Kant.) In the Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, Kant distinguished between what he called the “autonomy” and the “heteronomy” of the will. The autonomous will is a law to itself: it acts in obedience to laws—universal, rational principles of action—which it gives to itself. The heteronomous will takes its determination from some object outside of itself. Usually, this means some object of desire, such as to be healthy, to be admired, to be wealthy, etc. Thus, the heteronomous will is clearly not free, since it allows itself to be determined by its passions or by other aspects of its empirical psychology (or, sometimes, by irrational “ideals” it cooks up for itself by the ungrounded use of “pure reason”).

(As a side note, notice the identification of the self with the rational will, while the passions are treated as alien. This is a commonplace in thinkers ever since Plato. “You” is your rational ego. Your desires and feelings are not you. I mention this to point out that not everyone has always agreed. For example, Aristotle argues that actions done under the influence of the passions such as anger or lust should still count as voluntary because they are no less a part of you than your reason (Nicomachean Ethics, III.1, 1111a21–1111b3). He says, “What is the difference in respect of involuntariness between errors committed upon calculation and those committed in anger? Both are to be avoided, but the irrational passions are thought to be not less human than reason is, and therefore also the actions which proceed from anger or appetite are the man’s actions. It would be odd, then, to treat them as involuntary.”)

Autonomous action, by contrast, is free. “What, then, can freedom of the will be other than autonomy, that is, the will’s property of being a law to itself?” (Groundwork, Sec. III, 4:447). For the will to be a law to itself is incompatible with its being determined or even influenced by anything else. Not coincidentally, Kant’s supreme principle of morals, the categorical imperative, says precisely that the will should act only on maxims it lays down for itself as universal laws. Therefore, the autonomous will is the moral will, and to act morally is to become autonomous and therefore free. By acting morally, we make ourselves free and give ourselves dignity. For Kant, this is the payoff of morality.

But although the doctrine that reason gives us freedom is (I think) most famously associated with Kant, he is not the originator of it. John Locke had said something similar nearly 100 years earlier: “were we determined by anything but the last result of our own minds, judging of the good or evil of any action, we were not free; the very end of our freedom being, that we may attain the good we choose. And therefore, every man is put under a necessity, by his constitution as an intelligent being, to be determined in willing by his own thought and judgment what is best for him to do: else he would be under the determination of some other than himself, which is want of liberty” (Essay Concerning Human Understanding, II.xxi.49). Unlike Kant, Locke does not explicitly state that the use of reason requires liberation from any predetermination by the chain of physical causation. Nevertheless, this seems implicit in his repeated use of terms like “free”, “unbiased”, and “liberty” in connection with reason.

The linkage of freedom with reason may well go back further than Locke, but that is as far as I have traced it.

Nevertheless, as I’ve said, it does not seem to me that the non-naturalistic nature of reason means that it gives us freedom. The reason is simply that the recognition of reasons and logical relations is not particularly free. Going back to our example of addition, suppose that “2+2=4” is a truth of reason. Is reason free to disregard it? On the contrary, to the extent that it is reason, it is compelled to accept it! It has no choice. And similarly, I should think, for all reasons and logical relations. If reason consists in the power to recognize reasons and logical relations, then it is constrained by this power. It can do no more or less, rather as the visual system has no choice about what visual information to process and how to process it, once the eyes are open and focused on a scene.

This jibes with the point that belief is involuntary. People sometimes speak of “deciding to believe” this or that, but no one literally does this. You cannot make yourself believe any arbitrary proposition simply by deciding to believe it. I cannot make myself believe, say, that grass is red, by a direct act of will—and neither can you. Of course, we can say that we believe in, say, God or whatever, but that is not the same as actually believing. Rather, we believe what we have evidence and reason for, and we do not arbitrarily decide these, either. Strictly speaking, we do not decide them at all, we recognize them. There is a logical reason for this. To believe something is to think it is true. But to think something is true is incompatible with the thought that you simply decided it. Therefore, only considerations that imply the truth of something—reasons, evidence, logic—can be a basis for belief, and these are not up to us. We don’t decide them, we recognize them. (On this point, see Bernard Williams, “Deciding to Believe.”)

The kind of freedom we want when we talk about free will seems to be that we are in some way the initiator of our own decisions and actions. Reason per se does not do that. Therefore, reason per se cannot be the agency of free will. Nor does having reason guarantee that we have free will. Nor would determinism mean that we do not have reason or knowledge (though the sort of predetermination we would be subject to in that case would not be exclusively that of physical causation). It is tempting to suppose that the non-naturalistic nature of reason, its freedom from the chain of physical causation, means that reason itself is free and that we are free through it. But this is just a mistake. There can be kinds of predetermination other than that imposed by the chain of physical causation. Free will requires something more than just non-naturalistic reason.


  • Branden, Nathaniel. 1963. “The Contradiction of Determinism.” Objectivist Newsletter, 2 (5): 17–20.
  • Burge, Tyler. 2003. “Perceptual Entitlement.” Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, 67 (3): 503–538.
  • ———. 2010. “Modest Dualism.” In Robert C. Koons and George Bealer (eds.), The Waning of Materialism, Oxford University Press, 2010: 233–250.
  • Carroll, Lewis. 1895. “What the Tortoise Said to Achilles.” Mind, 4 (14): 278–280.
  • Chalmers, David J. 2002. “Consciousness and Its Place in Nature.” In David J. Chalmers (ed.), Philosophy of Mind: Classical and Contemporary Readings. Oxford University Press, 2002: 247–272.
  • Davidson, Donald. 1970. “Mental Events.” Reprinted in Donald Davidson, Essays on Actions and Events. Oxford University Press, 1980: 207–227.
  • Hardin, C. L. 1988. Color for Philosophers: Unweaving the Rainbow. Expanded Edition. Hackett.
  • Kripke, Saul A. 1982. Wittgenstein on Rules and Private Language. Harvard University Press.
  • Williams, Bernard. 1970. “Deciding to Believe.” Reprinted in Bernard Willams, Problems of the Self, Cambridge University Press, 1973: 136–151.
  • Williamson, Timothy. 2000. Knowledge and Its Limits. Oxford University Press.

20 thoughts on “Reason, Naturalism, and Free Will

  1. Incidentally, the argument that we have to have (incompatibilist) free will in order to be justified in any knowledge claims appears to go back to Epicurus — who appears to have been both an indeterminist and a materialist, though also appears not to have been inclined to the reductionism or eliminativism of Democritean materialism (hedging my bets with “appears” because the interpretation of the relevant passages is highly controversial):

    “We rebuke, oppose and reform each other as if the responsibility lay also in ourselves, and not just in our original constitution and in the accidental necessity of that which surrounds and penetrates us. For if someone were to attribute to the very processes of rebuking and being rebuked the accidental necessity of whatever happens to be present to oneself at the time … this sort of account is self refuting, and can never prove that everything is of the kind called ‘of necessity;’ but he debates this very question on the assumption that his opponent is himself responsible for talking nonsense. And even if he goes on to infinity saying that this action of his is in turn of necessity, always appealing to arguments, he is not reasoning it empirically so long as he goes on imputing to himself the responsibility for having reasoned correctly and to his opponent that for having reasoned incorrectly ….” (from the fragments of On Nature)

    (While I’m an incompatibilist myself, I don’t think this self-refutation argument works, FWIW. The compatibilist position that the causal chain runs through our reasoning rather than bypassing it seems fine as far as it goes.)

    Whether Locke was defending a compatibilist or incomaptibilist conception of rational choice is a tricky question. He sounds incompatibilist in the passage you mention, but his overall account — — is usually interpreted as compatibilist, and I think a case could be made either way. (Anthony Collins certainly thought he was following Locke.)

    I’ve never been sure what “naturalism” means, so I’m unwilling either to embrace or to reject the term. But I think Putnam’s peg-in-hole example — pp. 131-132 of: — already shows that the lower level can’t fully explain the higher level even in the case of inanimate objects, before we even get minds into the picture.

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    • I’ve come to think that “naturalism” only makes sense as a correlative term in a very specific context: it only has application in contexts where someone is making the assertion that something, X, transcends nature. In order to make that assertion, the person making the assertion has to be presupposing a conception of nature such that X transcends it. In that context, a determinate conception of nature may (or may not) be at work. Otherwise, I share the skepticism that both of you express about it.


    • Sorry to be so long in responding, but I’ve had a house full of out-of-town guests for the past week.

      Thanks for the tip re Epicurus. If I ever knew about that, I’d forgotten. Epicurus actually seems to invoke a contradiction between determinism and knowledge claims that is quite explicit, unlike what I find in Locke and Kant.

      It is also interesting—and a bit surprising—to see Epicurus interpreted as a non-reductionist. If Long and Sedley are right, this goes way beyond the Davidsonian non-reductionism I alluded to in my post (a brand of token-identity theory). It is an emergence theory of at least Searle’s kind, if not stronger. As an interpretation of Epicurus, it seems to have an obvious problem, which is that a major motivation behind Eprcurus’s atomistic “natural philosophy” is to promote ataraxia by dispelling worries about witchcraft, divination, and supernatural causation. Since everything has a natural cause in terms of atomic motion, your enemies can’t hurt you by casting spells, praying to the gods to savage you, etc. But now, if Long and Sedley are right, it turns out that there can be emergent causes that move your body in ways that are not only not predicted by the motions of its constituent atoms, but that imply emergent, novel powers beyond anything that could be compounded out of the powers of the atoms themselves. In that case, there seems to be no reason in principle why there might not be witchcraft, divine prophesy, or special powers of the gods or other spirits. Anyway, if there are constraints that make these things impossible, we now are in need of seeing them spelled out, since the principles of atomic motion themselves no longer fill the bill.


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  3. Thanks for these considerations, David.

    If the machine were alive, even though a man-made device, if the machine had ends including as survival, and its instrumentation and control system were geared to that end with as much life-reflection consciousness as the gearing of humans, then we come back round to the question we started with, and we are left with the question of whether the teleological behavior of this machine is fully ex ante deterministic. (I wonder if the course of biological evolution is considered deterministic. If not, then a living machine [and we too?] equipped with selection over an internal random generator-of-diversity [the GOD module, some quip] would seem not deterministic in that whatever sense.) That is to say, introduction of machine in Branden argument seems problematic in the way Rand’s invulnerable robot is problematic if it is assumed that because the Branden machine is called a machine and because it is man-made, then like usual machines, it is not alive, vulnerable, and autonomous in avoiding injury. Rand’s robot setup was criticized for begging the question of the province of value. She didn’t need the robot argument; one can become persuaded about the life-province of value without the robot loop, such being the argument in AS. A relative of Rand’s value-free robot and Branden’s knowledge-free, logic-free machine is Rand’s talk in her radio-speech of AS of the senses being machine-like and therefore lacking ability to make any errors. I’d have to look up and see who in the history of philosophy first introduced machine-talk in defending inerrancy of the senses (Descartes?). On Epicurus I have a promising book on my shelf titled EPICURUS ON FREEDOM (2005) by Tim O’Keefe, which I still hope to study in this lifetime.


    • I’m not sure I really follow you, Stephen. I don’t mean to appeal to a distinction between life, as being capable of reason, and non-life, as being merely mechanical. I am making the reason–causation split primitive, rather than dependent on anything else (that I know of). So, for all I know, there could be a reasoning machine (which is not alive), and there could be a living organism that is based purely on chemical and mechanical processes. But, if what I’m saying is right, such a reasoning machine would not function entirely by physical causation, and such an organism would not have reason.

      I am not even quite sure whether “seeing reasons” requires consciousness! The contrast I mean to draw is between the sort of causation which is described by scientific laws, such as Newton’s laws or Maxwell’s equations, and the sort which consists in applying logical relations. It is natural to speak of the former as “blind” and of the latter as “the light of reason,” but I have no idea what the conditions are for the existence of this “reason.” This seems to be an area about which little is known—a situation which I think is illustrated by the unsatisfactory flailings of David Chalmers after a theory of consciousness.

      It is not entirely clear that “seeing reasons” is a genuine phenomenon. It is tempting to take the safe, “physics-approved” way out and say that the sense we have of seeing reasons is an illusion, just as determinists say that the sense we have of generating decisions and actions is an illusion. It feels like we generate original causes, but really everything we do is the inevitable result of antecedent causes. Similarly, we seem to see logical relations, but really all of our cognitive activity is a process of blind, physical causation. This seems to me to be Wittgenstein’s conclusion, along with many other philosophers.

      What I like about the rule-following argument is the precision it brings to the question. “Seeing a reason” is vague. What’s the difference, exactly, between seeing a reason and responding to a stimulus? The rule-following argument makes clear what is at issue by taking a clear logical rule, like plus or conditional elimination or transitivity of identity, and showing that it cannot be applied, qua logical rule, by any process of purely physical causation. This doesn’t prove that there is anything non-naturalistic about our cognition, of course; this could still be an illusion. But at least it’s clear what is at stake—what we stand to lose if there isn’t.

      I am intensely aware that it is odd and even embarrassing to be advocating non-naturalism. (I mean, what would Dennett say?) I am saying that there is more out there than is (or ever will be) written in the book of physics (or that supervenes on what is written in the book of physics). It is not through any religious or spiritual impulse that I do so—far from it. I have just gradually come to think that it is true, and moreover, that once one recognizes that it is true, the phenomena that exemplify it are evident all around us. We don’t notice these because we are wearing ideological blinders.

      I have started out talking about this with a relatively weak case for non-naturalism—weak because the reality of reason is subject to doubt in the way I just described. Before the summer is over, I hope to say more and make a stronger case.

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  4. That should be “had ends including its survival . . . .”

    I do agree with Rand-Branden that life-free machines necessarily do not actually engage in even the most elementary logic, but that is for reasons that although sprung from Rand, I’m developing far in ways she had not sensed.


  5. “The relationship of such forms as concept, judgment, and syllogism to others, e.g. causality and so forth, can emerge only within logic itself.”

    “It is commonly said that logic deals with forms only and that it must take its content from somewhere else. However, the logical thoughts are not some accessory over against all this content. Rather, all this other content is merely an accessory compared to the logical forms. They are the ground, existing in and for itself, of everything.”

    That is two cents from Hegel in §24 of THE ENCYCLOPEDIA LOGIC.

    That way of things will not sweep you up I imagine. Against Hegel here, for my part, I take it that the only thing existing in and for itself is life, that (as in my poem Matters) “whirl of mind is life in life,” that there are no recognitions or seeings (or valuations) by anything not life, that life-free existence occasions some states which, when recognized, are instances of some of the elementary logical operations, but that not all elementary logical operations have such existence-occasions where the existence is without life (or machines and their controls descended from living intelligence) among existents.

    It looks to me some very fertile territory you explore here, David. Some work from Centuries 20-21 additional to or related to those you have mentioned, possibly of assistance:


    John Haugland’s “Truth and Rule-Following” in HAVING THOUGHT

    (I’ve got this one, but haven’t read yet.)
    Bradford Skow’s REASONS WHY


    • I’d not think of “seeing reasons” as an illusion even if it were entirely explicable in terms of causal potentials exploited in human constructions. When we design a scientific instrument, we recognize a certain train of causal sequence organized in the instrument would deliver certain information about the trigger, and that physical setup would seem still worth distinguishing from the natural world and not anything false or illusory.

      PS – The spelling of John’s last name should have an ‘e’ – Haugeland.


  6. I’d wanted to comment on this, but (as you know), I’ve been traveling, and haven’t had the chance. I’m still recovering a bit from my travels, but when I do get the chance, I want to run a very different version of the Objectivist argument past you, one that I think gets at the real issue Branden was trying to get at it. But until I do, here’s a question about something you say. I’m particularly curious about the parenthetical:

    I think it is remarkable that so many people (including myself most of the time) seem to blithely assume that naturalism will ultimately prevail in spite of all the phenomena that appear to violate it. For many of these, I think there is at present no realistic program at all for naturalizing them. I suppose the common assumption of naturalism is a testament to the enormous prestige that now accrues to physical science.

    Why is that? (Granted, I got C’s in high school chemistry and physics, but I still feel entitled to my puzzlement.)

    In other words, why do so many philosophers regard naturalism as nearly axiomatic, given (a) the unclarity of the term itself, (b) the absence of any knock-down arguments for it (right?), and (c) the number of things out there that haven’t been “naturalized” (whatever that means), and don’t seem easy candidates for naturalization?

    Is it facile or uncharitable to regard the naturalistic turn as a kind of “equal and opposite” fideistic lurch away from the influence of the supernaturalist religions? It seems awfully simplistic to put things that way, but also awfully explanatory:

    Religion is characterized by appeal to the supernatural. But religion is a terrible thing, and it’s had a monopoly or near-monopoly on philosophy for far too long. The time has come to declare our independence from the intellectual imperialism of theology. The time has come for…Naturalism.”

    Pressed for content, “naturalism” just comes to mean “the non-theological ontology that we get out of natural science.”

    You say that allegiance to naturalism is “testament to the enormous prestige that now accrues to physical science,” which at some level is doubtless true, but is also extremely puzzling. The physical sciences have next to nothing to say about the topics that exercise the philosophical imagination. So there’s something puzzling, at least to me, about someone who thinks, “My gosh, look at the wonders of physics,” and then turns around and says, “Well, with successes like that going on in the Physics Department, I guess we have no choice but to naturalize the mind. Because if physics gives us air travel, well, once we naturalize the mind, our judgments about moral responsibility will become as clear as the Departures monitor at an airport.” Yes, that sounds like an absurd, tendentious series of non-sequiturs. But that’s what naturalism sounds like to me. I’ve just never understood what it is that naturalism was supposed to do for philosophy. So the “prestige of science” explanation only goes so far.

    If the anti-religious motivation really turned out to be the rationale for naturalism, we all seem to be victims of a “meet the new boss, same as the old boss” fallacy. Maybe this is just another kind of fideism, but I’d like to think that things are better than that?


    • I, perhaps like Irfan, have never been inclined to take ‘naturalism’ all that seriously, though it took me a while to appreciate just how little substance there is to it. Its meaning seems to veer between (i) atheism and rejection of immaterial substances to (ii) the view that current physics, and just possibly chemistry, tell us what is real, and whatever doesn’t figure in those sciences must be either reduced or eliminated from our ontology. Maybe somewhere in between is (iii) the view that current natural science provides the only respectable method for finding out what’s true. But the meaning seems to shift unstably between these. I can see no good reason to believe (ii), and (iii) seems either wholly implausible or trivial depending on how the method is understood. (i) is by no means trivial, but is far from a sort of unified view, and can’t really be what people have in mind when they talk about naturalism prevailing despite phenomena that seem to violate it (since hardly anything, relatively speaking, clearly violates (i)). Though I’m not keen on substance dualism, I don’t think there’s a conclusive case even against (i). The notion that (i)-(iii) stand or fall together strikes me as weird. I don’t see good reason to think that if various phenomena resist naturalization in the sense of (ii) or even (iii), we’ll be compelled to be theists and substance dualists.

      I sometimes suspect that Irfan’s suggestion is right, that the rage for naturalism in its various senses has its roots in anti-religious sentiments. I’m not sure that’s all there is to it, though. Part of seems to be a reaction to various forms of idealism and at least apparent anti-scientism, and perhaps to certain sorts of anti-realism in a broad sense. Early analytic philosophy was largely in reaction against idealism, and though analytic philosophy in the 20th century was not invariably naturalist in senses (ii) or (iii), deference to empirical science and impatience with metaphysics long outlasted the refutation of logical positivism. This is the tradition of thought in which most ‘naturalizing’ philosophers were trained, so it’s not much of a surprise if the attitudes of earlier generations get replicated in the newer (there seem to me to be far fewer ‘naturalists’ in ethics and political philosophy now that a few generations have come up in the wake of philosophers like Anscombe, Foot, Williams, and Rawls, who all rejected naturalism in senses (ii) and (iii)). In fact I wonder whether the anti-religious sentiment is less the driving force than just a kind of rhetorical device to block certain kinds of heterodox departures from the scientistic norm. I’m reminded of Searle’s remarks in The Rediscovery of the Mind about the ‘heroic-age-of-science maneuver’; it appeals to pre-existing anti-religious prejudices, but in the service of dismissing views that are entirely compatible with naturalism in sense (i). Searle himself is guilty of appealing to anti-religious myths (as in his dismissal of biological functions on the grounds that Darwin refuted teleology), but his views seem like a perfect illustration of the distance between naturalism (i) and naturalism (ii) and (iii); whatever one thinks about his philosophy of mind, it doesn’t fail because it violates naturalism in sense (i).

      It seems to me that it would be all for the better if people stopped using the general term ‘naturalism’ and opted for less ambiguous labels instead. It might then become less of a surprise or a scandal that reductive/eliminative scientistic naturalism can’t account for much.

      But I’m looking forward to David’s further thoughts on the broader issues here, whatever labels he wants to use.

      Liked by 1 person

    • The cover of Scientific American for July 2019 proclaims HOW THE MIND ARISES – Network Interactions in the Brain Create Thought. That article appears on pages 26-33. The title there is How Matter Becomes Mind. The authors are bioengineer Danielle Bassett and neuroscientist (undergrad was phi and psy) Max Bertolero. The footer “In Brief” reads: “How does the brain give rise to who we are? This question has led to the new field of network neuroscience, which uses a branch of mathematics, graph theory, to model the brain connections that let us read, calculate, or simply sit and tap our fingers. Graph theory, which is also used by chemists, quantum field theorists and linguists, models the physical pathways that build functional networks from which our cognitive capacities emerge, whether for vision, attention or self-control. By understanding networks at increasing levels of abstraction, researchers have begun to bridge the gap between matter and mind. Practical benefits could entail new ways of diagnosing and treating disorders such as depression.”

      This is not hand waving. Whatever one’s formula of naturalism to embrace or oppose, I’m pretty sure that going serious on it requires getting going on what this article is reporting.


      • The problem with that summary is that apart from the lip service paid to “self control,” it leaves no room whatsoever for human agency. The brain “gives rise” to what we are. Brain connections “let us” read, calculate, and so on. Cognitive capacities “emerge,” but if the brain “gives rise” to their actualization, or brain connections “let” the actualizations happen, human beings become a locus for events, but not a source of actions.

        This approach to mind strikes me intensifying the wrong ways of thinking about mental disorder, not generating usefully new ways of thinking about it. Depression is already too reflexively conceived as a disease with a neurophysiological etiology. The legitimate insight of cognitive psychologists (like Beck), to the effect that depression arises from false core beliefs about self and the world, is now in danger of being swallowed up by the claim that the false beliefs arise from brain disorder rather than cognitive acts that the agent controls. This approach to mental health basically treats the whole domain as the monopoly of psychiatrists and their prescription pads. It strikes me as “more of the same,” not something new.


      • There is nothing in that summary that a substance dualist can’t accept. There is certainly nothing that a theist can’t embrace. There is nothing in it inconsistent with denying either that there is nothing more to reality than physics and chemistry (indeed, prima facie the views here reported contradict that claim) or that narrowly scientific methods of empirical experiment and mathematical modeling are the only respectable forms of inquiry. There is no substantive sense of ‘naturalism’ on which it involves nothing stronger than the claim that the natural sciences can tell us things about how things work.


        • Qualification: there’s nothing in that summary that a substance dualist has to accept on pain of inconsistency with empirical science. The language of ‘giving rise,’ ’emerging,’ ‘letting,’ and so on might be taken (as Irfan seems to take it) as making strong metaphysical claims inconsistent with substance dualism (and much else). But it need not be taken that way, and more importantly, it is virtually certain that nothing in the empirical evidence settles whether we have to take it that way on pain of inconsistency with the empirical evidence.

          Note that I’m not claiming that substance dualism is especially plausible. It seems to me to face severe problems, both of the sort that David Potts mentions in his first general argument for naturalism and more broadly, and the standard arguments for substance dualism of which I’m aware seem to be far from compelling. But the problem with substance dualism is not that it’s inconsistent with empirical science, because it isn’t. Caricatures of substance dualism aren’t, but that’s trivial. Substance dualists have no trouble recognizing that the physical causal efficacy of mental states (among other features of mentality) depends on physiology. My claim isn’t that substance dualism is ultimately defensible, let alone the most defensible or plausible view; it’s that one doesn’t show it to be false simply by doing more empirical science.

          A fortiori, scientific accounts like these won’t show that views less metaphysically ambitious than substance dualism are mistaken, either.


  7. To David Potts:

    I agree with the criticisms you make of Branden’s argument. It seems to me, however, that a better version of the Objectivist argument might be formulated along the following lines. (This isn’t actually an argument, but a schematic presentation of a would-be argument.)

    1. If we introspect on our mental states, we directly “perceive” the fact that some of our mental acts are basic, and those basic mental acts are within our exclusive control.
    2. Conceptual analysis tells us that the existence of basic mental acts exclusively within the agent’s control is incompatible with determinism with respect to those acts.
    3. Either the introspective “perception” mentioned in (1) is veridical or it’s illusory.
    4. If the introspective perception mentioned in (1) is veridical, determinism is false (by 2).
    5. But if the introspective perception mentioned in (1) is illusory, human beings are the victims of ubiquitous, inescapable introspective illusion. In other words, we ubiquitously and inescapably think we have control over our mental life, but in fact have no such thing.
    6. Given the account of knowledge (or higher-order concept formation) presented in the middle chapters of Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, higher-order or conceptual-level knowledge requires that introspection be fundamentally veridical. In other words, given the nature of knowledge, an agent in the grips ubiquitous introspective illusion could not have conceptual-level knowledge. (This step of the “argument” is very truncated, but I think the gaps could be filled by anyone familiar with the claims of IOE on “concepts of consciousness” and “abstraction from abstraction.”)
    7. But determinism is an instance of conceptual-level knowledge.
    8. Hence determinism is self-refuting: it either contradicts our veridical introspection of control, or it subjects us to ubiquitous introspective illusion incompatible with knowledge (a fortiori incompatible with knowledge of determinism).

    This quasi-argument obviously leaves a lot to be desired and filled out. It takes (1) as essentially self-evident. It requires sustained conceptual analysis at (2) of a kind that Objectivists haven’t given. But those two steps, at least, would get us to (4).

    Step (5) packs a lot into the phrase “ubiquitous.” It could be that our introspective sense of control is more limited than the argument requires. But if it is ubiquitous, we get (5), which (I think) coheres with the account of reasons you’ve given.

    Obviously step (6) presupposes not only the truth of IOE, but presupposes a specific interpretation of it that makes control central to the mental acts described there. That, I take it, is where the action is, or would have to be, for a defender of the Objectivist argument. But once we get an argument for (6), it’s not hard to get to (8).

    Anyway, regardless of what Branden (and Peikoff) actually wrote, something like the preceding is the argument I think they were actually gesturing at.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Two tangential thoughts, one that belatedly occurred to me, and one that came to me in passing:

    Has anyone read Joseph Boyle’s 1976 book Free Choice? Apparently, it’s a book-length presentation of the Branden-like thesis that determinism is self-refuting:

    Copies of it used to be a dime a dozen when I was a grad student at Notre Dame. For some reason, I never picked one up (much less read it), and now they’re $233 a copy. An Amazon reviewer complains that the argument is too complicated to follow, but that just perversely convinces me that it’s got to lead somewhere worth going. Of course, a rabbit hole may answer to that description–if you’re a rabbit.

    On “seeing reasons,” this excerpt is only (very) vaguely relevant (if that), but I’m still tempted to quote it. It’s from Martin Goodman’s Rome and Jerusalem: The Clash of Ancient Civilizations, pp. 299-300:

    Jewish culture was more oral than visual: when Jews referred to themselves in Hebrew as understanding a truth or a command, they would say that they had heard it; by contrast, in Latin, as in Greek and in English, the metaphor for comprehension is to “see” the truth. The aural metaphor, however, cannot have been overwhelming in the Jewish mentality, for Philo, writing in Greek, refers repeatedly to a false etymology of the name “Israel” as derived from the Hebrew ish-ra’ah-el, taken to be “he who sees God.”

    The point being simply that metaphors are highly contingent, and we should put some, but not too much stock in them.


    • I haven’t read it, but I’m familiar with the basic gist of the argument from its frequent appearance in other works influenced by Grisez (note that the book was co-authored by Boyle, Grisez, and Olaf Tollefsen). It’s broadly similar to the argument under discussion here, but relies on a more intricately worked out taxonomy of self-referential statements and varieties of self-referential inconsistency; in the summary versions I’ve encountered, it also strikes me as not relying on anything quite like your premise 1, and it doesn’t depend on purported requirements for knowledge, though the focus on self-referential inconsistency is applied to the activity of considering whether determinism is true (and, by extension, considering whether anything is true — so there’s a kind of epistemic generality about it similar to the argument under discussion here). Robert George appeals to it in numerous places; a very brief but easily accessible version shows up about half the way through his reply to Josh Dever here: (a somewhat entertaining exchange between Dever and George in which they mostly talk past each other while making apparently weird generalizations about what “secular” philosophers do or don’t believe). I don’t think the summary versions are likely to offer much insight, since the interest of the argument is in the details, and the summary versions don’t give those. One reason I’ve never dug deeper is that it doesn’t seem to me that logical refinements will strengthen the argument all that much in the grand scheme of things. The basic idea is that deliberation and rational inquiry as we understand them seem to presuppose the falsity of determinism (true, I think, on all but the weakest versions of determinism), but it seems to me that determinism can’t really be defeated that way; for that, we need a plausible and defensible theory of the metaphysics of agency that makes sense of free-will and is not egregiously ad hoc.

      Reviews here, neither of which seem to think the argument quite succeeds:

      ToC and foreword here:

      Liked by 1 person

    • To Irfan and David: Thanks for your comments. I’m afraid I don’t have any thoughts very well worked out on motives for naturalism. But I can think of two common arguments in its favor, the first fairly strong, the second less so, so here they are.

      First is an argument from the conservation of mass/energy. This has been a bedrock principle of physical science for a long time, and it is thought to be an absolute, in that it is never violated. The total mass/energy of any system remains constant in the absence any influences from outside the system. This implies that the physical laws that govern the system are the only ones there can be. Nothing can be added or subtracted except in accordance with the physical laws that govern such events and entail reciprocal events so that the total mass/energy of the system remains constant. For example, there can be no Epicurean “swerves,” since these represent changes in the momentum of the particle, and thus of the system as a whole, without any compensating change of momentum in anything else. This also presents a problem for the idea of time travel, if going back in time would mean that the traveler’s mass simply vanishes, without being replaced by anything else.

      So, a problem with the idea that there are, say, “mind waves” that enable clairvoyance or telekinesis or some such, if these mind waves are not supposed to be realized entirely and exclusively by ordinary physical processes, is that they would introduce energy into the system, by changing a person’s behavior, bending a spoon, or whatnot, in violation of conservation of mass/energy. And it would be a problem for Descartes’s substance dualism, since a nonphysical entity would impose changes on the brain and its processes in violation of the ordinary physical laws. And the same goes for processes of “reason,” “decision,” “focus,” and so on. If “recognizing that 2+2=4” is not realized by entirely physical processes, then it can have no effect on a person’s behavior, on pain of violating the conservation principle. And again, a claim that we have free will, in the sense of being able to originate some action of our own that is not a consequence of antecedent events in accordance with ordinary physical laws, is obviously in serious danger of running afoul of conservation of mass/energy.

      A common way of avoiding this difficulty is to say that, in claiming that certain phenomena are irreducible—such as intentionality perhaps—we don’t mean they aren’t physically realized. Rather, we only mean they can’t be identified with entities and processes as physically described. That is, we can’t say that any matter configured thus and so, operating under such and such physical laws, recognizes that 2+2=4. This would be the anomalous monism idea I mentioned in the original post, now often called “token identity”: not everything is something physical, but everything is realized by something physical. An example is money. It is hopeless to try to physically describe money, because money—money per se—just isn’t a physical thing. But this is compatible with saying that every particular item of money is something physical, such as a piece of paper or metal, a value stored in an electronic computer, etc. The reason money per se can’t be physically described is that it can take infinitely many possible physical forms, and this is why money is not itself physical, although it is always physically realized. A consequence of this is that we can speak of there being nonphysical things without really adding anything nonphysical to our ontology. All the “nonphysical” things supervene on physical things. This doesn’t add anything nonphysical to our ontology because it implies that once all the physical facts are determined, all the facts are determined.

      I assume we are all pretty familiar with the foregoing. The thing is that this token identity scheme will not save your non-naturalistic bacon. Not mine, anyway. It has become the dominant theory, and most naturalists agree with it. More importantly, it is no help in explaining how free will can be an original cause without violating the conservation of mass/energy. It also is no help in explaining how conscious awareness can exist, if conscious awareness has to be made out of physical components such as chemicals and substances that have no conscious awareness. Conscious awareness isn’t like money, something any token of which can always be easily identified with a physical token, such as a bill or coin. What physical token is identical with my current view of my computer screen? It’s easy to say, “some of my brain activity,” but our ideas about exactly what brain activity this is are vague and based on indirect evidence. Worse, although we can say what makes a given physical token a piece of money without much difficulty—basically, it’s money because we treat it as money—we have no good idea at all what makes some of my current brain activity my current view of my computer screen. Certainly not that we treat it as such! Conscious awareness is there regardless of what we say, and it is evidently of a radically different character from anything written in the Book of Physics. So, the prospects for accounting for conscious awareness with the ontology of token identity theory are very poor.

      Does conscious awareness violate the conservation of mass/energy? That will depend on one’s theory of conscious awareness, obviously, but if conscious awareness is supposed to make a difference to a person’s physical actions (and I think it does), then it’s going to be hard to avoid the conflict. But I don’t offhand see any knock-down arguments either way, and this is starting to get overly speculative, so… on to the second argument.

      This second argument is like djr’s naturalism (iii). It says that science simply is the method of all empirical knowledge, therefore all empirical knowledge, in any domain, should be compatible with science, both methodologically (it should employ the methods of science) and in content (its findings should be consistent with—and ideally form a unity with—other scientific knowledge). I think we are seeing this idea, for example, when Karl Popper says that science is just the ordinary method of human knowledge “writ large” and even more when Quine says, “Philosophy of science is philosophy enough.”

      Although this argument seems superficially strong, it really does not make much sense, as several people here have pointed out. The main problem with it, it seems to me, is that it assumes without argument that all domains of knowledge are fundamentally the same: whether physics, chemistry, geology, or psychology, we’re talking about a law-governed domain of publicly observable phenomena, and the task is to catalog the phenomena and discover the laws. But there is no reason a priori why this must be true, and obviously if it is not true, then it is a mistake to shoehorn nonconforming domains into this mold. Reasoning about logical relations would seem to be just such a nonconforming domain. Such reasoning doesn’t work by causal laws of the type that govern electrons or planets, and trying to force it to do so, by behavioristic psychology or even by contemporary cognitive psychology, is bound to be inadequate. The domain of reasons more broadly is liable to be similar. I have in mind reasoning with concepts and reasoning about “internal relations,” for example. However it is we know that orange is more similar to red than it is to green, I doubt such knowledge can be adequately represented in terms of causal laws. The same is likely to go for intentionality, reference, and knowledge itself, if the stubborn resistance of these concepts to conventional philosophical analysis over the past several decades is any indication.

      Concerning Irfan’s version of the Branden argument, I agree that the action of the argument is in step (6), but I’m not sure I really see what that action is supposed to be. If the idea is that higher-order concepts and concepts of consciousness depend for their validity on our having correct introspective access to lower-order concepts and phenomena of consciousness, how is this threatened by the specific illusion of free will? This would seem to mean, for example, that my ability to form the concept of furniture from the concepts of table, chair, sofa, and bookcase is somehow ruined by my illusory notion that my ability to focus on these concepts is my own metaphysically free choice. But why? I think there must be something I don’t understand here.

      I never heard of Joseph Boyle or his book Free Choice, but it reminds me of the books of Archie Bahm. Do you remember those? As I recall, they were everywhere. I had the impression he mailed them on his own to philosophy departments. They mostly looked self-published, and they looked like dreck. There would always be several copies of different Archie Bahm books in the lounge (where they were not snapped up).

      Interesting about hearing as preferred metaphor for understanding in Jewish culture. It is interesting how metaphors of perception are ubiquitous for “understand”: seeing, hearing, feeling, grasping (an Ayn Rand favorite), and perceiving itself. Not sure what it means, but I totally agree that we should be wary of them.


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