Edited and written by David Gordon, senior fellow of the Mises Institute and author of four books and thousands of essays.

Crank versus Crank

Winter 1997

John W. Robbins
The Trinity Foundation, 1997, xvii + 399 pgs.

John Robbins begins with an excellent idea, but unfortunately his book does not fulfill the promise of his initial project. Robbins is a disciple of the late Gordon Clark, a major Calvinist philosopher and theologian. (Robbins's Trinity Foundation has republished almost all of Clark's vast output.) Robbins proposes to evaluate Ayn Rand's thought from the standpoint of Clark's philosophy.

In my view, this is indeed a project worth undertaking, since Clark was on the whole an outstanding thinker. (Though he is best known to non-Calvinists as a scholar of Hellenistic philosophy, his scope was far wider than this.) But Robbins has adopted uncritically some of Clark's least defensible views; and our author fares even worse in the area likely to be of chief interest to many readers, Rand's political philosophy. Here, because Clark wrote comparatively little on politics, Robbins is largely on his own, and he does not come off well. In one place, he deviates from Clark to his cost.

Clark, and his disciple Robbins, agree with Rand on a fundamental point: the theory of knowledge is the linchpin of philosophy. But they could not differ more in their approaches to this subject. For Rand, knowledge arises through abstraction from the particulars of sense. She devised an elaborate account of concepts as measurement, which her acolytes view as one of her foremost achievements.

By contrast, Clark, strongly influenced by St. Augustine, rejected empiricism altogether. Robbins uses Clark's view to great effect in the best part of the book, a devastating analysis of Rand's position on abstraction and knowledge. Many concepts seem totally inexplicable as abstractions from sense particulars: how, for instance, is the concept "not" acquired in this way? Rand does not tell us, nor does she offer any arguments that her account of concept-formation is true.

But, Randians will claim, is it not self-contradictory to deny that we gain knowledge through the senses? Not at all, replies Robbins: "Empiricism does not follow from the absurdity of skepticism. Both Rand and [Nathaniel] Branden begged the question.... The unwarranted leap from the possibility of knowledge to the certainty that knowledge is possible only through the senses is quite obvious in their works" (p. 33).

Robbins's criticism of Rand here strikes home; but his own account of knowledge seems, if anything, much worse than Rand's. His views are infected by an unwarranted skepticism of massive proportions. Science, for instance, has to go: "One of the implications of Clark's logically rigorous analysis of laboratory procedure is this: If there is an infinite number of curves that may be drawn through any series of data-points or data areas, then one's chances of choosing the correct curve are one in infinity, or zero. That means that all the laws of science are false, and all have the same probability: zero" (p. 52).

This will never do. First, why need all scientific theories be reduced to curves passing through data-points? That is empiricism with a vengeance! If a theory consists of more than an arrangement of the data it endeavors to explain, perhaps there is a way to choose between empirically equivalent theories. And what of sciences such as economics whose laws are not curves of points?

And this is the least of the argument's problems. The various curves, by hypothesis, all correctly generate the same data- points. How does it follow from this that they are all false? From "we cannot choose which member of a set is the real curve" to "all the curves are false" is an "inference" the logic of which escapes me. And the zero probability argument assumes without warrant that each curve has an equal probability of truth. In fairness to Clark though, readers should examine his defense of his view of science, Philosophy of Science and Belief in God, for themselves.

Robbins invokes another dubious argument, which he takes from Bertrand Russell, in his assault on science. Induction, it seems, is logically fallacious, since it rests on the logical fallacy of affirming the consequent. My theory predicts the sun will rise tomorrow; it does rise; therefore, I claim confirmation for my view. But do I not reason in this way: "if A, then B; B; therefore A"? And of course this does not follow. "What Russell was illustrating, of course, is the elementary logical fallacy of asserting the consequent, which is the heart of the scientific method. No competent mechanic would make the same mistake as the scientist in dealing with a car that won't start" (p. 55).

But all this shows is that induction is not deduction. Why cannot we say that if the sun comes up, my theory is confirmed, even though it does not deductively follow from the observation that my theory is true? Suppose I toss a coin in the air two hundred times, and each time it comes up heads. Am I wrong to claim strong support for the theory that the coin is loaded? And does Robbins really think that a car mechanic operates purely through deduction?

Since Robbins makes such a fuss about affirmation of the consequent, it is ironic that in one place he falls victim to a variant of the same fallacy. He writes: "Congressman Davy Crockett expressed a similar wish: 'If I ever vote for another unconstitutional law, I wish I may be shot.' Well, Crockett was shot at the Alamo, so he may have voted for another unconstitutional law" (p. xvii). This argument has the form: If A, then B; B; therefore, possibly A. "If the moon is made of green cheese, then Clinton is President; Clinton is President; therefore, possibly the moon is made of green cheese." Robbins might peruse with profit Clark's text, Logic, which his foundation publishes.

The foregoing has perhaps been rather far from the interests of most readers of The Mises Review, so let us abandon epistemology for more congenial climes. Robbins finds no more merit in Rand's political theory than in her epistemology, but here his criticisms usually misfire.

The notion of inalienable rights, in particular, induces in our author his characteristic tone of scorn: "Is not self-defense a violation of rights? If rights are innate and inalienable, how can a criminal lose his rights? If rights come from his identity as a man, is not a criminal still a man, and therefore a possessor of rights? If rights are inalienable by nature, by the law of identity, how can they be alienated" (p. 189)?

Robbins never pauses to ask himself whether any supporter of inalienable rights means by this that an aggressor cannot be resisted, or a criminal punished. A forfeiture of a right and an alienation of a right are two very different things. If you have an inalienable right to liberty, you may not give up that right by selling yourself into slavery; but you may justly have your liberty (and perhaps your life) taken away should you violate the rights of others. Robbins has simply defined "inalienable" in an idiosyncratic way and on this basis refuted a view that no one (except perhaps Robert Le Fevre and his followers) holds.

Robbins should have paid closer attention to his mentor Clark, who appears to have found inalienable rights entirely acceptable. He states, for example: "What is needed to protect our unalienable rights is a popular acceptance of biblical principle" (Gordon Clark, Essays on Ethics and Politics [Trinity Foundation, 1992], p. 160). Robbins would have done well to read this book himself, however much we must thank him for making it available to others.

Our author strongly objects to Rand's "theory of a monopolistic government voluntarily financed by a contract insurance program" (pp. 202-03). A protection agency of this sort, he thinks, could not long prevent competing protection agencies from arising. Perhaps not; but he gives no argument that a monopolistic agency is desirable. Rand also comes under assault because she opposed taxation, a governmental activity Robbins considers entirely justifiable.

Finally, I must strongly protest the following passage: "Murray Rothbard, a Jewish atheist, hated Calvinism passionately, and favored Catholicism. The anarchist Rothbard favored the totalitarian Roman church" (pp. 230 31). This is bigoted and coarse.


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