Sunday, June 13, 2010

The Problem With Molyneux - or - Why Mysticism Always Wins

There are a couple of people out there who I follow quite closely. Stefan Molyneux is one of them. While I may have only read one or two of his essays, I’m pretty sure I’ve seen most, if not all, of his YouTube videos that have come out in the last six months or so. While I find some flaws in his presentation method, his spontaneous emotionalism for example, I think he is quite a brilliant theoretician. And even though I might have some slight differences of opinion, Molyneux makes a great holistic case for liberty that incorporates biology, economics, psychology, and sociology. His contribution, in my honest opinion, is very important. But no one is perfect. The problem I have with Molyneux is fundamentally the same as the problem I have with Ayn Rand and by-the-book objectivists as well as a variety of other atheist proponents of liberty or ethical norms: they are inconsistent and overly absolutist on the face of it.

In the video, Molyneux discusses the television program Lost. I’ve never seen the show though after hearing his take on it I am now very intrigued and interested in maybe signing up with Netflix to watch it. Stefan is heavily focused on the battle between mysticism (promoted by John Locke) and reason (promoted by Jack Shephard). Molyneux criticizes the triumph of mysticism over reason and bemoans the falling of Jack to the dark side (mysticism). He then goes on to articulate how the defeat of reason is indicative of our current society and how reason is correlated in art and reality with misery.

Here’s the problem: Molyneux is a mystic. In fact, all humans are mystics.

What Molyneux, Rand, et al fail to understand is that there is no such thing, from the human perspective, as a rational end. All ends are ultimately unreasoned and axiomatic.

This can be seen quite clearly by explaining reasoned decision making. A person eats. Why does a person eat? A person eats so that he does not starve. A rational person having already decided that he wants to avoid starvation, will eat to avoid starvation. But the decision to avoid starvation isn’t necessarily rational. This doesn’t mean, however, that all ends are equal, but rather that they are all axioms. The person may reason that he doesn’t want to starve so that they will not feel hunger pains. But again, the end of not wanting to feel pain is not a reasoned decision -- one cannot provide a reason for wanting to avoid pain or death or for anything else unless they are simply going to refer back to another means to a different axiomatic end.

To reference the picture above, rationality is a tool for achieving the end we’ve (or someone else has) set for ourselves. Contained within each end is likely to be various smaller ends which are themselves means to the ultimate end. A person sets his sights on an ultimate goal (Y). But Y cannot usually be achieved immediately. As in the food example, you must gather or grow food before you can eat it. Each subordinated end is integral and necessary for the achievement of Y. The means-ends relationship is a sequence of events where rationality plays an important role in getting “from here to there.”

To be sure, “getting from here to there” involves more than just rationality. It involves wisdom, knowledge, empiricism, logic, purpose, etc, but rationality is the glue. A person's rationality helps determine how much of each, what kind of balance and role each should play. If you want to build a bridge, you need to decide what kind of materials to use. Involved in such decision making are consideration of price and quality, how tall and how wide to make it, etc. This involves using knowledge and determining purpose, but those things can only be themselves bridged if a separate tool, rationality, is used. (Molyneux seems to be making some mistakes when he argues as if rationality equals empiricism or that empiricism is the tool of rationalists. Depending on the goal, spirituality and subjective interpretation of metaphysics can be integral to rationality.)

Rationality also can be very useful in trying to determine which goals are worthy ultimate ends. But this is only comparative in nature. For example, ends that are or near impossible could be rationally discounted. Ends that can be shown to be logically inconsistent with means can also be discounted. Higher rationality, or hyper-rationality as I like to call it, helps us to refine our goals. But the goals that still remain valid are definitionally axiomatic.

Rationality implies mysticism. It is because of this that Molyneux and Rand, etc make no sense when they advocate morality, a specified uber-value set, or whatever. Nihilism is more in line with each of their axioms. Ryan Faulk, an ethical nihilist, provides a much more consistent version of what Molyneux and Rand ostensibly advocate. Furthermore, when they criticize mysticism as such it can be said that they are being even more mystical. That they’ve refined things down to a more specific level of goals makes the case that they are being mystical even stronger since some things can’t be rejected.

Molyneux and Rand both need a “god” to underpin their beliefs and their morality. Otherwise everything is a mirage. There is no truth value in the human created morality. What’s the purpose of survival? Of non-aggression? Of production? Or whatever virtue it is they are trying to promote? While I have a variety of arguments with regard to “god,” the most important thing to point out at this moment is that the absolutism from Molyneux, his merciless agitation against violence and theft, is unwarranted given the inherent mysticism of his positions. Other than that his contribution is inspiring.

As for the values themselves, just because an abstract and non-provable hypothesis is made does not mean that it doesn’t have truth value. You can guess the answer to a math problem and still get the right answer or close to the right answer. This is where I part with ethical nihilists. Otherwise I’d join their team as they are at least philosophically consistent, though I doubt their existence.

To clarify a little bit, I've used "mysticism" as a pejorative before. In such a case, I was using it loosely to describe mysticism as a means to an end (which it can't be). The only mysticism I advocate for is "purpose" which I believe can only be justified through the use of a deity. The kind of religion I'd ascribe to myself would be somewhere along the lines of deism, pantheism, or panentheism. Of all philosophy, the most fundamental question to my mind is "What is god?" If purpose is derived from belief in "god," then existence is demonstration of the belief where belief is even possible. Hopefully I will have time to explain my case for "god" in the future. Right now, that is a corollary, but not integral to my argument made above.