Critical rationalism is sometimes mistaken to be little more than a call to be critical. Some object that advocacy of the critical attitude is hardly unique to critical rationalism; every first year philosophy student is instructed to be critical of themselves and others. However, critical rationalism is about a lot more than just an attitude.
Attitudes may not even be particularly important so far as the institutions of science are concerned. Every theory deserves a thorough and motivated defence, and it is often the dogmatists who provide it. Even when individual rationality fails, it can emerge again, given appropriate institutions, on the group level. Critical rationalism has always been about the rationality of social institutions as much as the rationality of individuals.
Critical rationalism is more concerned with objective dogmas. An objective dogma is an idea or argumentative strategy which does nothing but deflect criticism. One may have a critical attitude or stance and yet still play host to an objective dogma: its dogmatism does not depend on any subjective attitude, but rather the logical structure of the dogma itself.
A subjective dogmatist may be relatively benign. If an experiment appears to contradict his dogma, then he may studiously inspect instruments for defects, run the experiment again to reproduce results, or survey possible modifications of the dogma. The subjective dogmatist may fulfill a useful service by exploring possible counter-criticisms; he is certain that someday the apparent refutation will be explained away and, of course, he might be right.
An objective dogma, however, is like a spam filter that casts its net too broadly: it removes inbound criticism before it can properly reach the recipient’s attention. Objective dogmas are usually disguised as pragmatic heuristics, self-effacing scepticism, or even logical fallacies; they immunise their hosts from particular kinds of feedback, while often appearing to be the epitome of self-criticism or logical reasoning.
One objective dogma is the so-called fallacy of the stolen concept. Recognition of the purported fallacy is normally attributed to Ayn Rand, though I suspect others have used similar arguments before her. In his essay, “The Stolen Concept,” objectivist Nathaniel Branden explains the fallacy by using Proudhon’s famous declaration, “All property is theft.”
“Theft” is a concept that logically and genetically depends on the antecedent concept of “rightfully owned property”—and refers to the act of taking that property without the owner’s consent. If no property is rightfully owned, that is, if nothing is property, there can be no such concept as “theft.” Thus, the statement “All property is theft” has an internal contradiction: to use the concept “theft” while denying the validity of the concept of “property,” is to use “theft” as a concept to which one has no logical right—that is, as a stolen concept.
Branden then applies this same argumentative strategy to reject claims that “logical axioms are arbitrary,” “logical axioms are hypothetical,” “all that exists is change and motion,” “man perceives only an illusion or mere appearances,” and “man cannot achieve knowledge.” Finally, he concludes with “one of the most grotesque instances of the stolen concept fallacy,” that is, the claim that commitment to reason is an “act of faith” itself.
Reason is the faculty that identifies and integrates the material provided by the senses. Faith is the acceptance of ideas or allegations without sensory evidence or rational demonstration. “Faith in reason” is a contradiction in terms. “Faith” is a concept that possesses meaning only in contradistinction to reason. The concept of “faith” cannot antecede reason, it cannot provide the grounds for the acceptance of reason—it is the revolt against reason.
This last argument is of particular interest to critical rationalism; one of its central theses is that reason itself cannot be rationally justified. If “faith” is defined as commitment without rational justification, then, according to critical rationalists, commitment to reason itself would then be an “act of faith.” Are objectivists correct? Are critical rationalists guilty of the stolen concept fallacy?
At this juncture, it might appropriate to review the basic argument against justificationism. Let A and B represent propositions, and suppose that A justifies B.
(1) A ⊢ B
From (1) and the law of identity we get
(2) A ⊢ A, B
From the law of identity and principle that additional premises cannot subtract possible conclusions, it follows that
(3) A, B ⊢ A
Since the relation of deducibility is transitive, it follows from (2) and (3) that
(4) A ⇔ A, B
Finally, from (1) and (4) we conclude
(5) (A ⊢ B) ⇔ (A, B ⊢ B)
That is, (1) is logically equivalent to an obviously question begging form of argument. Since (1) exemplifies nothing less than all valid arguments from the non-empty set, it follows that all arguments either have this question begging form or are invalid. Since B can neither be justified by itself nor by an invalid argument, it follows that no possible conclusion is justifiable.
If “knowledge” is defined as justified belief, then knowledge is impossible to achieve. If “faith in reason” is defined as commitment to reason without justification, then commitment to reason must be an “act of faith.” The argumentative strategy here is reductio ad absurdum: “a form of argument in which a proposition is disproven by following its implications logically to an absurd consequence” (from Wikipedia).
However, Branden would reject this conclusion as “a grotesque instance of the stolen concept fallacy,” because it assumes the concept of justification and that something can be justified, while concluding that nothing is justifiable and the concept of justification is incoherent. To paraphrase Branden,
to use the concept “justified belief” while denying the validity of the concept of “justification,” is to use “justified belief” as a concept to which one has no logical right—that is, as a stolen concept.
Therefore, this argument by reductio ad absurdum, in light of the stolen concept fallacy, is inadmissible.
Returning to Branden’s exemplar of the stolen concept fallacy, Proudhon’s declaration “All property is theft,” one might ask what Proudhon meant.
Proudhon believed that the common conception of property conflated two distinct components which, once identified, demonstrated the difference between property used to further tyranny and property used to protect liberty. (From Wikipedia)
As with critical rationalism’s case against justification, Proudhon’s conclusion is the result of argument by reductio ad absurdum. His claim, whether right or wrong, was that the traditional concept of property was incoherent. However, Branden’s argumentative strategy leads him to reject Proudhon’s conclusion without ever addressing his argument.
Branden does not address a single criticism in his essay, because his defensive strategy can deflect any and all inbound criticism in the form of reductio ab absurdum. He is immunised from criticism by both an objective and objectivist dogma: the so-called fallacy of the stolen concept. In his conclusion, Branden is triumphant despite not addressing a single argument against his position.
One will search in vain for a single instance of an attack on reason, on the senses, on the ontological status of the laws of logic, on the cognitive efficacy of man’s mind, that does not rest on the fallacy of the stolen concept … This fallacy must be recognized and repudiated by all thinkers, if truth and reality are their goal.
Indeed, if one accepts Branden’s defensive strategy, then nobody will be able to demonstrate to him that his views are inconsistent, because any such critic can immediately be dismissed for committing the “fallacy” of the stolen concept. Employing this dogmatic argument does not mean Branden did not have a critical attitude; it is precisely because objective dogmas transcend subjective considerations that a mere critical attitude is not enough.
An interesting consequence of all this, that may initially seem confounding, is that one is not a critical rationalist just because one says so. I may regularly say “I am a critical rationalist,” but I may not be. What objective dogmas pervade my thoughts? Perhaps, despite my critical attitude, I am unresponsive to criticism, and incapable of being self-critical. Like Branden, I may use arguments that seem to me like the epitome of self-criticism and logical reasoning, but are, in fact, nothing but objective dogmas that deflect and immunise against criticism. I don’t think so, but it is the way of objective dogmas that their hosts are normally unaware of them.