Food for Thought #7: Breaking the Laws of Thought

“Do I contradict myself? Very well then, I contradict myself. (I am large; I contain multitudes.)” -Walt Whitman

We’re at the end of Atlas Shrugged Part One, so before we dive into Parts Two and Three I think it’s time I cut to the chase and just directly explain the fatal flaw in Ayn Rand’s logical process that causes all the bizarre outcomes in her thinking. Frankly, it’s pretty easy to do, and it can be done using just the three parts’ titles.

In order, they are “Non-Contradiction,” “Either/Or,” and “A Is A.” These are references to the three laws of thought first articulated by Aristotle in the 4th century BC. But Aristotle’s laws come in a different order than the order Rand uses.

The first law is the Law of Identity: A is A. B is B. You are you. Existence exists. It is what it is, and what it is is the most fundamental law. And Ayn saves it for the climax of the book — “A is A” is the title of Part Three.

The second law is the Law of Non-Contradiction. A is A, but is A also B? That depends. Is A definitely not B? Let’s say A is not B, like if A was sandwiches and B was Mahatma Gandhi. In that case “A is B” makes no sense; it contradicts the truth. But if A is B, like if A was Grover Cleveland and B was 19th Century U.S. Presidents, then “A is not B” contradicts the truth.

What if A is “There is nothing living in the oceans beneath the icy surface of Jupiter’s moon Europa,” and B is “There is an advanced civilization of exotic space dolphins living under the surface of Europa”? We can’t say with certainty that either one is true, but we do know that A is not B and they can’t both be true. A could be true and B could be false, or B could be true and A could be false, or they could both be false if there’s life on Europa but no sentient marine mammals. Any of those truth values resolves the contradiction, yet all we know for sure is that A and B are mutually exclusive.

So “Non-Contradiction” is the title of Ayn’s Part One, which concerns Dagny trying to figure out how all the people she admires can be simultaneously (A) the most responsible people in the world, and (B) abandoning their responsibilities. She must alter her understanding of at least one of these two premises for her situation to make sense, as Francisco & Akston both advise her.

The third law is the Law of the Excluded Middle. What if A was “There is life on Europa” and B was “There is no life on Europa”? In this case one must be true and the other must be false. There is no middle ground, there is only Either/Or. And “Either/Or” is the name of Atlas Shrugged Part Two.

There is one more logical concept it’s important to mention here. The Fallacy of the Excluded Middle — that’s a false dilemma where you take a statement A and a statement B and treat them like the Law of the Excluded Middle applies when it really doesn’t. The “Dead Planet v. Space Dolphins” proposition has to obey the law of non-contradiction, but it is not strictly an “either/or” proposition, it’s a “this, that, or the other” proposition.

And pretty much all of the things that ruin Atlas Shrugged can be traced back to this distinction. Ayn Rand chronically commits the Fallacy of the Excluded Middle when she thinks she’s applying the Law of the Excluded Middle. The sorry bastards who live in the Randverse are doomed by their cruel authorial God to live in a universe of strictly either/or choices, forever blind to the vast multiverse of “this, that, or the other” options that exists outside the “laws” of Ayn Rand’s thinking.

So way back in the About the Book post, I mentioned that Rand defines art as “a selective re-creation of reality according to an artist’s metaphysical value judgements.” And at first glance, “a selective recreation” seems to mean that there is more to reality than an artist can possibly know, so the artist makes some imperfect decisions about what she believes is true, and then based on those decisions creates an incomplete model of reality that will (hopefully) convey some truth nonetheless.

But at least when she applied it to herself, I don’t think Rand actually meant it like that. Reading Atlas Shrugged you get the impression that she earnestly believed she had applied the classical laws of thought to reality with such rigor that she had abolished all false value judgments from her mind, so that her re-creation of reality would not be selective in the sense of choosing from many things that could be true, but would be selective in the sense of choosing only the things that are true, such that through her selectivity her re-creation of reality would be, in effect, Pure Truth.

This interpretation makes the fact that Rand puts the three laws in the wrong order seem awfully pernicious. In the proper order, the first law is the most universal while the second and third laws are increasingly conditional. But in Rand’s order, the first law is placed misleadingly at the end of this general-to-specific trajectory.

In Part One under the Law of Non-Contradiction, the metaphysical truth of the Randverse could exist in an unspecified statement A, or some statement B that contradicts A, or some other third statement that renders A and B a false choice. That’s where we’ve gotten so far.

But in Part Two, under the Law of the Excluded Middle, the metaphysical truth of the Randverse must be either statement A or statement B. And to eliminate the possibility that “A or B” is a false choice, Rand must prove that everything except “A or B” is a false choice. That’s why, for Rand’s purposes, all the characters have to be caricatures and all the politics have to be parodies. She is deliberately trying to exclude the middle by using the logical tactic of the reductio ad absurdum to invalidate everything outside her argument as being disproved by contradiction.

And this way, in Part Three, when Ayn says “A is A,” the trajectory of her logical axioms and her aesthetic choices suggests that what she really means is that in the choice of metaphysical truth values “A or B,” the answer is A. A is the truth. The truth is A.

Therefore the ultimate goal of Atlas Shrugged is to make the terms of her statements A and B specific and clear. And metaphysical spoiler alert — A is Objectivism and B is nihilism and by the fallacy of false choices everything that is not A is just a slippery slope towards B.

So if Rand believed that her conclusions were the inevitable result of rigorously applying the three laws of thought to reality, that would explain:

*Why she stopped writing fiction after Atlas Shrugged.

*Why the climax of Atlas Shrugged is literally a philosophical dissertation.

*Why she used the word “objective” as the root of her philosophy’s name.

And yet we can see that Rand’s conclusions are premised on false choices between her particular positions and a grab bag of absurdly reductive positions that she vehemently opposes. By posing choices this way, Rand can successfully construct a system of thought that is sufficiently strong enough to be consistent, but per Godel’s incompleteness theorem (or just by comparing the book to what real life is actually like), we know that such a system of thought is incomplete.

As the philosophy professor Douglas Rasmussen puts it in this essay from Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged: A Philosophical and Literary Companion:

Reality is intelligible, and Rand understands this perhaps better than any other philosopher. Yet, she does not fully appreciate the difference between logic and reality and as a result becomes entangled in some serious conceptual knots. It is in avoiding these confusions that the wisdom of Aristotelian tradition’s account of logic remains vitally significant.

True that, Doug. True. That. Ayn doesn’t use logic to break through historical limits on human knowledge in Atlas Shrugged. She trips over logic and stumbles ass-backwards into metaphysical solipsism in Atlas Shrugged, ultimately mistaking her re-creation of reality for reality itself. Which, dear readers, is why she thought she was the most original thinker alive, even as she was violating the original laws of thought.

Contradiction resolved, bitch.

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  1. #1 by BenjaminTheAss on March 31, 2012 - 12:21 am

    Man, you said it way better than I did. I salute you for your commitment. I burned out after The Fountainhead, and Atlas has been slow going.

    You really do a great job at getting at how she gets so many things backwards. She occasionally makes some good points, but they’re the kind of thing that are basically taken for granted; that she inverts the order of Aristotle’s laws is a perfect explanation of why ordinary premises become, in her thinking, a ‘startling’ conclusion.

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