Archive for category Food for Thought
As this blog bore deeper into the plot of Atlas Shrugged and the election drew closer, the commentary and analysis half of the site became more and more about American politics and less about the implications of Rand’s philosophy for individuals. Now that the election and the book are over and the blog is winding down, the time has come to revisit that angle.
The first thing to say is that I genuinely feel I’ve learned a lot by reading this book, particularly the first time in 2008. As somebody who came of age during the late-era Clinton and especially George W. Bush presidencies, I felt pretty comfortable in my liberalism and reflexively suspicious of big business. So despite the fact that Ayn Rand is a political fundamentalist and in all likelihood a high-functioning sociopath, her views did force me to reconsider the moral merits of libertarianism and private enterprise, to review my existing assumptions with a more critical eye.
On top of Atlas’ contribution to the evolution of my values, Ayn’s emphatic declarations of her own rigor and the book’s meticulous didacticism in general helped me step my intellectual game up. I’m no credentialed scholar or anything, but following my first pass in 2008 I felt especially unprepared to counter her arguments and hunted down essays and papers on Kant and Aristotle to better understand the issues at hand and why Ayn considered herself a genius and mainstream academia considers her a self-evident crackpot.
With that foundation I felt much more capable of dissecting her absurdity this time around, but I still used the book as a launching pad for my own education by reading about a dozen titles on history, current affairs, and political philosophy. This fed back into my interpretation of the book, as I fleshed out the ways the Objectiverse has to be tweaked to truly fit reality — by positing climate change as vital context for the book’s global crisis; by fleshing out Rand’s caricature of the political system to incorporate modern lobbying and campaign finance; by highlighting Rand’s opposition to excessive consumerism, and her embrace of local food, clean energy, and sustainable communities; and most of all, by downplaying Rand’s dogmatic faith in plutocratic capitalism and the wealthy’s sense of entitlement.
This alternate perspective on the story became harder and harder to apply as the book went further down the rabbit hole of Objectivism. The relevance of my interpretation probably peaked during the chapters set in Galt’s Gulch. but went downhill by the middle of Part Three such that by the time we reached Galt’s Speech I was basically aping Ayn’s style to better write my own polemical screed arguing against her’s (which is to say, Galt’s).
So let me at least credit Rand for inspiring me to conduct my own life differently, not primarily on the level of political belief but on the level of personal bearing.
There’s no real way of avoiding the fact that people who describe themselves as Objectivists, or who actively promote Rand as valuable on her own terms, are pretty uniformly insufferable assholes. If you accept her views as written, that attitude is kind of baked into the cake. After all, Objectivism as written is no more or less than a wholesale excuse and unqualified justification for being an asshole.
But divorced from her insane condemnation of empathy, and taking into account the way she confuses being a rhetorical steamroller with being actually logically rigorous, there’s something admirable in her work. If I had to pinpoint it I’d describe it as her portrait of masculinity.
Yes, Ayn’s reverence for and attraction to that sort of old-school, traditional masculinity is what I consider to be the primary value of the book. Even Dagny, as a proto-feminist archetype, is admired in large part for embodying traditionally masculine virtues. Her femininity is always mentioned in the form of a single symbol or token in the midst of her otherwise masculine bearing, be it the curve of her legs, the rMetal bracelet, the cut of her dress… the silent, burning desire to be sexually dominated by every alpha male in the novel. You know, stuff like that.
It might seem like this is an awfully narrow line of credit I’m extending, but I don’t mean to belittle it. The stoicism of Rand’s heroes (even Francisco, who is certainly extroverted but strictly disciplined about sharing his true self with others), and Ayn’s insistence on self-reliance, on the charisma of competence… these are virtues that I feel I should aspire to more than I did back when I first read the book as an impressionable young progressive. It was through this realization of how I could improve myself that I came to be more appreciative of conservative and Republican ideals, particularly the whole “personal responsibility” element, and this in turn played no small part in my increased respect for and understanding of business. I feel this development from the personal to the political is far more organic than what Ayn actually argues for, which really strikes me as a Frankenstein’s monster of contradicting beliefs.
So thanks, Ayn Rand, for offering up so much food for thought. Maybe someday I’ll even read The Fountainhead, next time I’m in the mood for some literary sado-masochism. For now though, I’ll at least admit this: You aren’t just a poison on America’s body politic or a philosophical cancer. I found some real nourishment when I sampled your buffet. Some of the side dishes actually taste good. I might even recommend your establishment to friends with a refined palate. Maybe. Probably not. Let’s put it this way — I recommend the lighter fare. But whatever you do, don’t drink the Kool-Aid.
I like to play devil’s advocate. Among my liberal friends I prefer to make conservative points, to temper opinions with which I agree in broad strokes with conservative virtues they might otherwise dismiss. And among conservatives I try to demonstrate my appreciation for their virtues while suggesting reasons they should reconsider whatever dismissive attitudes they might have toward liberal ones.
I think this is a reflection of the philosophical values I outlined for myself last week, the emphasis on considering multiple angles before settling on an opinion or belief with certainty. And so despite the fact that just two days ago I mimicked Galt’s rhetoric to demolish his reasoning, I’m going to spend today investigating what I consider to be the central question of Atlas Shrugged:
What if John Galt is right?
The very first thing to point out here is that this is NOT the central question of the book as Ayn Rand sees it. You might’ve picked up on her version of the question. It was “Who is John Galt?” And the reason her inquiry is phrased that way is because as far as she’s concerned John Galt is clearly right. The book is built around validating his opinions from page one. So the “mystery” is, who is he, and what is he right about?
Well, one thing he is definitely not right about is his pathetically narrow-minded worldview — his bankrupt definition of value, and his vicious definition of virtue. No, he is basically forced to embrace this hilariously literal form of sociopathy to justify his goal, which is to see modern civilization crumble.
But it’s worth noting that his preferred form of protest is civil disobedience. So what he might be right about — or at least, what I think is worth contemplating he might be right about — is the answer to the following question pondered by liberals and conservatives alike: what if the current course of global civilization is unsustainable, and what if our only option for saving the human spirit is to radically and urgently restructure the way we live? What if, divorced from his nihilistic revelry in the idea, he is right to want to hit the reset button on society?
This question is probably more popular than most would care to admit. On top of all the religious groups who fetishize the idea that the apocalypse will occur in our lifetimes, secular pop culture is supersaturated with images of global devastation, and ultimately it’s the thorough intellectuals and hard scientists who are perhaps most acutely aware of and concerned about an actual, measurable, scientific apocalypse slowly creeping up on us as a direct result of our global development.
Politically, I have seen plenty of evidence that Ayn Rand’s reviled liberal populists agree with John Galt on this score, most recently on facebook of all places. Some decidedly progressive friends of mine posted the following Carl Sagan quote, which I have copied here from a blog that enriched it with links to real life news:
I have a foreboding of an America in my children’s or grandchildren’s time– when we’re a service and information economy; when nearly all the key manufacturing industries have slipped away to other countries; when awesome technological powers are in the hands of a very few, and no one representing the public interest can even grasp the issues; when people have lost the ability to set their own agendas or knowledgeably question those in authority; when, clutching our crystals and consulting our horoscopes, our critical faculties in decline, unable to distinguish between what feels good and what’s true, we slide, almost without noticing, back into superstition.
Honestly ask yourself how much of this is substantively different from Ayn Rand’s fears about the future. Sure, Ayn would abhor Sagan’s invocation of the public interest, but if we grant that she considers her libertarian ideas to be in the public’s interest and is simply rhetorically neurotic, then the quote could very nearly have come out of John Galt’s mouth.
Another example. A young activist of my acquaintance posted this quote from Howard Zinn:
In a highly developed society, the Establishment cannot survive without the obedience and loyalty of millions of people who are given small rewards to keep the system going.
These people-the employed, the somewhat privileged-are drawn into alliance with the elite. They become the guards of the system, buffers between the upper and lower classes. If they stop obeying, the system falls.
That will happen, I think, only when all of us who are slightly privileged and slightly uneasy begin to see that … the Establishment, whatever rewards it gives us, will also, if necessary to maintain its control, kill us.
And once again we can see that aside from some categorical inversions about who to blame, the rich or the poor, the public or the private, Zinn’s position is formally the same as Galt’s: the Establishment is intrinsically evil, it is enabled by the complacent masses fooled into playing along, and it must be abandoned as a moral imperative.
When I saw that facebook post I found myself compelled to comment in favor of moderation and conservatism. I feel this is an unfairly cynical take on mainstream society, and that revolutionary idealism is separated from enduring despotism by one fragile thread that is more often than not cut in the act of revolting.
But I swear by epistemic humility, after all, so I must ask myself: what if I am simply promoting the immoral, complicit passivity of the bourgeoisie? Rand, loathe to use such a Marxist term for the middle class, desperate to portray her teleological history as fundamentally different, nonetheless clearly believes this. And it must be admitted that no matter how much one values ideological caution, part of that value is openness to new evidence — and sometimes the evidence demands change sooner rather than later, faster rather than slower, bigger rather than smaller.
So how do we know when to draw the line? How do we sense the tipping point when a complicated problem that can be tackled incrementally becomes a crisis necessitating radical action? And do you see how these questions are vital to transforming Atlas Shrugged from a morally grotesque piece of shit into a troubling but deeply important exploration of current events?
Let’s quickly review the elements of the book through which I’ve considered Rand’s relationship to 21st century reality. There are three major points of comparison and contrast:
1) Climate Change. If incorporated into the Atlas narrative, this is easily the most alarming scientific fact that supports Galt’s radicalism. But it’s problematic for Randians to even admit to, because the only way to realistically address it without, yes, blowing up society, is through collective action among nations, and agreements within communities, to sacrifice certain luxuries and economic efficiencies.
2) Elite Corruption. A universally acknowledged Very Serious Problem, but one that nobody can seem to agree on how to address. Conservatives blame governing elites. Liberals blame corporate elites. Both arguments have merit. But liberal priorities are superior, because the government corruption on which conservatives are focused is largely defined by the implicit sale of legislation to the donor class, which is made up of private sector elites.
3) Consumerism & Intellectual Atrophy. As with the elites, so with the masses: everyone can agree that people need to be better at being people. Everybody from Rand to Zinn finds excessive consumerism abhorrent, intellectual atrophy a cardinal sin, and their pervasiveness the largest cultural obstacle to solving the higher level issues.
These three issues together are basically the case for a Galt-like reboot of social order. And all three could only be truly solved in an enduring way if the entire population of earth had a — no pun intended — “come to Jesus” moment. That sort of moment is the ultimate fantasy of Atlas Shrugged, with Ayn Rand’s brain-with-a-penis, John Galt, as the Messiah. In real life, a universal moment of spiritual revelation like this is, uh… unlikely. To be diplomatic about it.
So as noted in the rundown, at the level of mainstream practical politics, this is why contemporary liberalism is indisputably superior to contemporary conservatism. While both sides are concerned with the issue of moral decay on the individual level (Issue #3), liberals see the true dynamics of Issue #2 more clearly, and beat conservatives on Issue #1 by acknowledging its reality and urgency at all.
This does not mean that conservatives don’t have vitally important points about the dangers of liberalism, points that we should keep in mind when trying to address all of these issues. But that doesn’t change the fact that aside from its merits as constructive criticism, modern conservative ideology has failed to develop any ideas of its own that properly prioritize our objective problems.
For all the obvious reasons this diagnosis of contemporary politics applies equally to Atlas Shrugged. And as I’ve said since this blog started, I believe Atlas as a drama can be improved, um, dramatically. So here is my prescription:
The tragedy of Atlas is that John Galt is a philosophical superhero turned megalomaniac supervillain, who desires to see civilization destroyed because he feels injustice too acutely, because he feels wounded, hurt, and betrayed by the world and wants to reclaim it for all those who are likewise in pain. He is that great trope of comics and adventure fantasy — Anakin Skywalker gone Vader; Hal Jordan fallen from Green Lantern to Parallax; Jean Grey turned to Dark Phoenix; Willow to Dark Willow.
And Galt’s certainty about the need to see society collapse is tragic in the classical, Greek sense too, because if we take away Ayn’s unwarranted epistemic certainty, it is clear that Galt cannot know for sure that collapse is necessary. His actions are justified through arrogance, hubris, presumption. He has abandoned faith in human nature, not restored it. He has sacrificed society, not saved it.
This is where the ambiguity comes in not only for Rand but for us the audience. If Galt can’t know for sure that what he does is necessary, neither can we know for sure that our acceptance of the system is… well, acceptable. To use another pop culture analogy, maybe Tyler Durden really did improve the world by blowing up the credit card companies. Maybe we are better off knocking our tower of Babel over before it falls on us first.
Do you guys see just how good this book could be?
In the end, though, this book is a fictional thought experiment. It allows us to explore transgressive ideas like that, but unless you move to the woods you can only be intellectually honest if you admit you are embracing our society, for all its flaws. Even if we accept that this may represent a dangerous complacency, it is easy to prove as the only morally sound choice.
In the case of climate change, for example, abstention from society will not save the individualistic, hermetic lifestyle. Short of engaging in terrorism, which is clearly morally unjustifiable even to the quasi-anarchist Ayn Rand*, engaging constructively with society is the only logical course of action. It is also the course of hope and hard work and humanity.
[*ED. NOTE: As my friend Max points out in the comments section, Rand actually does endorse terrorism. Certainly the Dread Pirate Ragbeard and Francisco, Galt’s two closest confidantes, employ terrorism on Galt’s behalf. Ayn hedges by focusing on the destruction of property and economic stability, but there’s no way their actions didn’t ruin the lives of millions of innocents and in Ragbeard’s case kill a number of people directly.]
So Rand makes the case that nothing short of civilizational collapse will cure our ills, and that there is no room for compromise in this appraisal. Thank God that none of her believers has acted on this, least of all herself! She was not only happy to join the aristocracy of pull, she collected her entitlement benefits from the U.S. government just like everyone else.
The most important takeaway from Randianism is that those who declare Ayn Rand’s intellectual positions correct yet seek to live in the middle, not living up to the revolutionary implications of their beliefs have accepted Rand’s premise and so must succeed or perish by its conclusions. Some do follow through in this way — the survivalists, those who live remotely and sustainably. Think of Joel Salatin, the self-sufficient survivalist organic farmer. But the middle-dwellers, the Paul Ryans who aspire to the aristocracy of pull, who dedicate their lives to tearing their livelihood down, it is they who evade the responsibility of choice and the reality of their value judgments. It is they who have no respect for truth.
And if that type of person is evil by his own definition and, per Rand, those who face their own evilness must either go mad or commit suicide? Well, the evidence is right in front of our eyes: the Republican Party as an institution has gone mad, and is in the midst of a grand political suicide. Objective reality wins again.
You know, for an atheist Ayn Rand seems strangely hostile to scientific materialism. In fact in “act two” of John Galt’s speech, Galt/Rand argues that both religious thought and materialist philosophy are downright evil. Rand actually considers these schools to be equally mystic, but as I dispute her claims I will generally refer to the one as ‘spirituality’ and the other as ‘rationalism,’ or just ‘materialism’ straight-up.
I consider scientific materialism to be a necessary component of any worldview that seeks to approach truth, but an insufficient component on its own. It’s necessary, because it’s the foundation of the objective knowledge on which our modern lives depend and thus can’t be denied with any honesty or self-awareness. But it’s insufficient, because it’s agnostic towards the meaningfulness of existence, and ascribing meaning to life is inevitable as far as human truth is concerned. Obviously such a truth isn’t eternal, it’s conditional. It’s human — a vital part of any definition of truth relevant to us as people. As David Foster Wallace put it:
In the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship.
Other formulations of this concept have also appeared on this blog in quotes by such diametric philosophical opposites as Ralph Waldo Emerson and, yes, Ayn Rand. There are many more. And the reason this principle has such broad appeal is that it is what I just talked about above: a psychological truth about the human condition. It is NOT a declaration about the ultimate nature of reality. No, the real metaphysical debate begins when we try to square this subjective truth about ourselves with our objective knowledge about the physical world around us.
So let’s start where John Galt and Christianity both start: the parable of Adam & Eve. Galt/Rand finds it perverse. It presents the attainment of knowledge as a crime and personal responsibility as a punishment. And this is how it’s been interpreted in mainstream religion for much of history, to the benefit of institutional authority. But this interpretation is far too literal. It isn’t a declaration of objective moral truth; it’s a subjective psychological truth.
What the parable of The Fall is actually about, if it is to have value in a scientific era, is the existential absurdity of self-awareness. On the personal scale it’s the story of moving from childhood to adulthood, the loss of innocence, coming-of-age, taking ownership of yourself. On a species-wide evolutionary scale, it’s the story of humanity emerging from animality. It’s about the way metacognition alienates a person from the instinctive behavior of a beast.
This alienation from nature is the essential triumph and sadness of the human condition, and largely synonymous with our understanding of free will. Free will and the (sometimes paralyzing) ability to think about thinking are inextricably linked.
Considered this way, the Garden of Eden story makes much more sense. Adam & Eve live naked and in harmony with animals and nature. When they gain knowledge, specifically of moral concepts like good and evil (nature itself is amoral, after all), they lose access to this harmonious existence. They are alienated from the grace of God and must seek it out again, consciously.
Now I’ve already analogized the Christian notion of acting by the grace of God with the Buddhist notion of right action. Both of these notions are descriptions of the “everybody worships something” psychological reality. Each spiritual tradition offers a different something to worship in order to behave rightly, gracefully.
Christianity preaches that one should seek the grace of God by contemplating God. This is another term taken far too literally; I define it here as an all-encompassing ‘everything’ that cannot be comprehended rationally. Contra Rand, I think that not being able to comprehend everything rationally is perfectly acceptable, because if we take the word ‘rational’ literally it derives from the word ‘ratio,’ which by definition is the division of a whole into parts to be compared. In this case, your conditional existence as a human being already divides the whole of existence into your self on the one side and the world at large on the other. As the Hindu text Bhagavad Gita puts it, you cannot comprehend God for the same reason you cannot bite your own teeth.
Meanwhile, Buddhists preach that one should contemplate a fundamental nothingness. This too cannot be fully comprehended in a rational way; when a ratio encounters a zero, it becomes either equal to zero or simply undefined. This buttresses my argument about the God-like everything — even if you think that ‘everything’ is finite, and thus potentially comprehensible, the only thing with which to compare it (which is to say rationalize it) is ‘nothing,’ and you’ll remember from the last sentence, such ratios are either undefinable or subsumed into nothingness (which is why the nothingness is fundamental).
So the argument both belief systems make is that if one contemplates, or ‘worships’ these ultimately unknowable concepts, the microcosmic self will fall (back) into a harmonic alignment with the macrocosmic reality that transcends our understanding.
Obviously, both these strategies really piss Ayn Rand off because they promote intellectual humility and self sacrifice, not even in a material way but by the nature of the idea that the ego should be subsumed or sublimated into a greater truth about the world. Sadly, Rand’s alternative strategy is to emphatically deny the mysteriousness of the universe and sacralize your inherently conditional ego instead. This avoids grappling with the paradox of free will in a deterministic world, in fact denies the existence of this paradox altogether. That’s an extraordinarily petty form of worship, to say the least.
Compare that to Sam Harris, public atheist extraordinaire, who resolves this paradox by declaring the premise of free will to be false. To wit: observed reality obeys physical laws. Those laws are premised on determinism. Free will is incompatible with determinism. Ergo, determinism is real, and free will is not. Q.E.D.
Yet this argument is more or less useless “in the day-to-day trenches of adult life” (as DFW put it). It may be objectively comprehensive, but subjectively it’s kind of, well… immaterial.
For example, Harris valiantly tries to draw some actionable conclusions. He says that we are all just victims of circumstance, so we should seek to rehabilitate or sequester criminals rather than vindictively punish them, because they aren’t truly responsible for what made them who they are.
Of course our ability to choose how we react to criminality is an implicit premise of Harris’ suggestion. So if we believe we can make a morally superior choice, we must grant that same premise to the criminal’s choices, reintroducing moral responsibility into the equation. In the human moral calculus, the non-existence of free will is effectively a moot point. The idea cancels itself out. Rand actually points out the self-negating nature of this line of thought in Galt’s speech.
But Harris’ basic argument is that accepting the idea that free will is an illusion should not lead to nihilism and despair. It should logically make it easier for us to let go of frustrations and regrets and resentments. It should lead us to be more forgiving of our failings and others’, less prideful and selfish about our successes. Morally and practically, his belief system operates on the same psychological premise as every other: plug the right metaphysical value judgments into your life’s motor, and it will drive you to right action –without your having to will it.
That last part is the key. If free will is synonymous with metacognition, thinking about thinking, directing your self, then the implicit promise of God’s grace, and Buddhist right action, is actually the same as Harris’ promise about accepting rationality into your heart: value the ultimate truth and your instincts will not lead you astray; you will be as free as humanly possible from the alienating power of metacognition. Orient yourself properly in metaphysical space and even as you are buffeted about by the winds of chance and fate, you will feel like you’re flying.
And please note that I say “feel like.” If Harris is right and the universe is strictly deterministic, then the goal here is to have a comfortable attitude toward chance and fate, not to actually influence where they take you.
This ‘attitude’ aspect applies to the religious formulations too. Christians believe in God’s omnipotent will, which is for all practical purposes the same as determinism. Buddhists’ emphasis on selflessness likewise suggests you should just stop fighting the endless phenomenal flux of the universe and embrace it with calmness and serenity.
But despite this shared trait the religions do something that Harris doesn’t, which is impose a specific meaning on this overwhelming reality. The symbol languages that these faith traditions use may be outdated and taken too literally by modern adherents, but a purposeful narrative is there.
Sadly, that woeful literalism hobbles the real merit of religious thought and its allegories: the fact that the concepts these faiths offer up for contemplation aren’t humanly knowable, that the nature of existence is eternally mysterious.
For Harris, reality is eminently knowable through science and logic. Yet Harris too embraces the mysteriousness of causation. Whenever he dismisses the role of your conscious thoughts in causation, he characterizes the actual source of both thought and behavior as “unknowable,” “obscure,” “mysterious.” His diction belies his epistemic surety.
So of the examples in this essay, it is only Ayn Rand who furiously refuses to accept this mysteriousness. “Fuck the universe,” she says, “I’m just as good at existing as it is, if not better!” It’s the very definition of hubris.
And here we see the real dividing line between metaphysically healthy values and destructive ones, and it is about dogma. Valuable religious thought is that which contemplates paradoxes. Harris spends basically his entire tract on free will massaging the cognitive dissonance of believing in yourself even in the context of a strictly objective universe in which you have no creative role. When one finds value in considering paradox, the virtues produced are openness to experience and the ability to withhold judgment. Science, often perceived as a force for judging and limiting imagination, and certainly a mode of thought that seeks to resolve paradox, also cherishes these virtues. The scientific method demands that we always keep our minds open to new evidence as it arises. F. Scott Fitzgerald put it this way — “the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.”
Dogmatists cannot do this. They cannot cope with cognitive dissonance. They reject it or shut it down, and view the ability to operate with it as a sign of confusion, weakness, or moral relativism. And of course there are times when decisive action and principled stubbornness are called for, but that is not all times. There is strength in flexibility too.
Although Ayn Rand correctly indicts spiritual and material dogmatists for their myopia, her own values and virtues must be brought up on the same charges. She closes herself off to new experience, and judges everything. She chooses ideology over reality.
And because she accepts only absolutes, she sees in both the material and spiritual understanding only nihilism, “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” Well, Atlas, it takes one to know one.
Yet even Rand understands the “psychological value mechanism” in which values lead to behavior, and she therefore implicitly endorses the possibility that not your will, but your beliefs, are the cause of your actions.
And this is where the value mechanism seems to come into conflict with strict determinism, since by that premise even your beliefs are determined for you. If your brain states are physically determined, you cannot actually even choose to accept determinism peacefully. You either will or you won’t, but that’s up to the physical consequences of the initial conditions of the Big Bang rippling through time (and/or God).
I think there is a potential way out of this dilemma, in what the neuroscientist David Chalmers coined “the hard problem of consciousness.” This is the idea that even if we explained every mechanism in the brain that translates into the subjective experience of thought and emotion… why does it translate into a subjective experience at all? If we’re pure objects in a purely objective world, if the world is made of quanta… why are there qualia? Why would a clockwork universe include an abstract sense of self?
I see two explanations for subjectivity as a phenomenon. One is dualism, which in the philosophy of mind means that some aspect or aspects of mind exist independent of the body, non-physically (meta physically). The other is panpsychism, or panexperientialism, which means that there is an underlying unity between qualification and quantification, subjective and objective, mind and body, and that therefore the whole universe experiences phenomena in some subjective way, whether or not it’s recognizable as conscious or cognitive in a human sense.
I prefer panexperientialism for two reasons. One, because it hews more closely to Occam’s Razor and I like the elegance of that. Two, because I find it easier in this model to justify a participatory role for us in causation that is physically undetectable (since the influence of the psychological value mechanism on the course of events would be embedded within physics and not acting as an outside force on physics that should in theory produce noticeable deviations in physical observations).
So I have to admit that at heart I simply reject Harris’ premise. Our universe is not necessarily a strictly determined one. Experimental results always produce some variance, and the accurate readings and laws we derive from them must take into account the law of errors. There is some chaos in the world, some wiggle room. Reality clearly has deep structure, but it isn’t just a streaming video that we watch. A video game has deep structure too, and can also have any number of interactive inflection points.
Yes, we are at the mercy of an unimaginably vast set of complex physical interactions, and our ability to control even our selves within that system is potentially, even likely to be, trivial. But we are a factor, and we operate through that psychological mechanism, that choice of what we worship, what we value.
It’s not the most dignified metaphor, but we’re like a hamster in a ball. Sometimes we get kicked around and can only scramble to keep our balance inside our sealed sphere. But we can also throw our weight around, give our hermetic bubble some angular momentum from the inside, put a little spin on it.
In this way we’re also like a tennis ball — the angle and speed of our ‘spin,’ that is the orientation of our values, will affect the way we bounce when we make contact with solid ground, with hard reality. Our conscious mind, our metacognitive ego, doesn’t willfully cause our behavior moment to moment, Harris is right. But we can mentally and emotionally align our inner selves, such that whatever alignment we choose will impel the spontaneous behavior of our ‘outer’ form in either harmony or discord with the way the physical world likewise compels and constrains us.
This is not a paradigm that asks us to disavow science and scientific inquiry, it is a paradigm for living life as an art form. It’s not about positive thinking as a means of getting what you desire; it’s about being your best self as an end in itself. What goes up must come down –but in the words of Albert Einstein, “gravitation is not responsible for people falling in love.”
I have to admit, though, that after 2500 words and the longest post of the blog so far, I find the final articulation of my vision for the mind’s role in creation to be pretty underwhelming. It’s vague and certainly not as intellectually thorough as I’d like it to be. But this is just a sketch, drawn in a couple days between snarky recaps of a mediocre book. And to some degree the tentative nature of my outline is intentional; my argument about dogma and paradox explains why I don’t feel the need to be definitive here. So what the essay is really trying to say is this:
Ayn Rand believes that our choice in values is binary. We can either affirm existence by declaring the universe comprehensively knowable, or we can succumb to an unknowing nothingness, which is to fall out of existence and die. I think the value choices are far more diverse than this, but let’s accept the binary premise and boil things down: Rand has it twisted up; we have to invert her choices.
I believe that we affirm existence by admitting the universe is not comprehensively knowable, by cherishing the mystery. I believe that undue certainty in our beliefs is what causes us to succumb to intellectual death. And being certain of this particular belief isn’t a paradox, not only because the belief is about accepting paradox, but because the belief itself is a constant reminder to remain humble in our discernment.
I believe that the myths of meaning most suited to our age are parables of math and science. Stories of ratios as an explanation for what rational thought is; of infinities and zeroes as correlates for God and nirvana; of spin and angular momentum, magnetism and gravitation, as metaphors for how we psychologically orient ourselves in some abstract n-dimensional phase space that encompasses all the possible pasts and futures.
In this vein, I offer Godel’s Incompleteness Theorems as a final thought and counterargument to Randian ideology. Godel posits that no matter what set of axioms you start with, if those axioms are usefully consistent, they are inevitably incomplete. They cannot prove every truth about natural numbers, which is to say about nature itself.
To be complete requires paradox. To be consistent is to forego the variety of wholeness. That is the story of the relationship between free will and determinism. That is the story of humanity. Polar opposites are interdependent.
That’s all I can really claim to believe. I promise that all of this navel-gazing will come into play in next week’s final commentary on Galt’s Speech, but if it isn’t satisfying to you, well… you can always consider it something to contemplate.
Let’s talk about Sam Harris. Sam is a neuroscientist and one of the outspoken “New Atheists.” His most recent book Free Will is a short polemic that argues free will is an illusion.
Here’s a quote:
Our wills are simply not of our own making. Thoughts and intentions emerge from background causes of which we are unaware and over which we exert no conscious control.
For all of the criticism I level against Ayn Rand on this blog, I have to admit that this is exactly the sort of public intellectual argument she satirizes in Atlas Shrugged. She is (as I think a lot of people are) viscerally repulsed by the idea that, to put it bluntly, everything exists but you.
This is particularly relevant to the blog since the chapter summaries have finally reached John Galt’s Big Speech (itself kind of viscerally repulsive, I might add), and in this speech Galt declares free will to be THE primary, fundamental fact of human nature, what makes a man a man. And like Harris, Galt posits this not as belief but as fact, as unerring truth.
The difference is that Harris backs up his thesis with empirical scientific evidence, whereas Ayn Rand’s mouthpiece makes a purely abstract argument premised on a set of a priori logical axioms. Ayn Rand’s argument fails to live up to its own standards of logical rigor and loses validity rapidly from there. Harris’ argument, philosophically uncomfortable though it may be, is not quite as easy to dismiss. For example, citing influential experiments by Benjamin Libet in the 1980s, Harris points out “activity in the brain’s motor cortex can be detected some 300 milliseconds before a person feels that he has decided to move.”
There are, of course, disputes over the Libet experiments’ objectivity. Cognitive scientist David Dennett points out that the subjects’ self-report about the exact moment they decided to press a button (which is to say, exercise will power) isn’t really an isolated objective measurement in the same way that the measurements-by-electrode of neuronal activity and muscle movement are.**
[**More details about the experiment and disputive arguments are available on Wikipedia.]
But however we want to interpret it, the fact of the experiment is that if the increase in neuronal activity began at millisecond 0, and the button was ultimately pushed at millisecond 500, the moment the subjects identified as the moment of their conscious choice fell about 60% of the way through the actual physical process of the action. This certainly seems to suggest that our subjective sense of self is just interpreting reality on tape delay.
Still, the argument against free will has an unavoidable “Who’re you gonna believe, me or your lyin’ mind?” quality to it. Even if I concede that my subjective experience is really a retroactive interpretation of physically determined phenomena, practically speaking I still have to choose what to eat for lunch, when to text that girl back, and which life goals to work toward. I can “go with the flow” and forsake willful action, but I can also undertake willful action to alter the flow. From the subjective perspective, there is a clear experiential difference, even if objectively it’s all cosmic clockwork. To borrow a phrase usually applied to God by the religious, “You don’t have to believe in free will; free will believes in you.”
Which brings us back around to Ayn Rand and her unshakeable faith in free will’s reality. At the same time she insists on conscious volition, she insists on objectivity and rationality as the only modes of thought proper to its constructive exercise. And at the same time she insists on that, she declares that any science that might objectively, rationally dispute her initial premise is fraudulent and philosophically bankrupt.
So not to belabor a point, but Rand is not actually a champion of knowledge or progress. Though she is a champion of individualism, ambition, and liberty (all of which are clearly relevant to the matter of free will), her opinions about history and the arc of the Atlas Shrugged narrative expose her as a reactionary and a luddite at heart. One of the fundamental questions this blog is meant to explore is: how much value can I grant to Rand’s faith in free will and the value of the individual in light of the fact that most of her other beliefs are absurdly radical and mentally toxic?
The answer in general is not very much; there are plenty of better writers to find defending those ideals without all of the psychopathic baggage. But when faced with a militant logician arguing against the existence of free will, I suddenly find Rand’s similarly aggressive stubbornness in free will’s defense kind of sweet, even charming. In this light, I can almost make out a faint impression of Ayn’s shriveled, callous heart.
But do I actually agree with Rand’s position? I’d like to believe in our minds’ ability to impact the course of physical reality, and I intend to outline a case for that next week, but unlike Ayn I want to genuinely grapple with how difficult it is to reconcile that belief with the reality of physics.
I mean, let’s face it: physical science has a lot of credibility. Every time you use a phone or a car or a plane, every time you ride an elevator or eat at McDonald’s, you are relying on the predictive power of physical science to ensure your safety. And it works! But the whole reason physical science’s predictions are reliable is because it assumes the universe can be computed, that it is a causally coherent, deterministic material system– after all, that’s the kind of universe where one could write an equation that explains gravity consistently across all of space and time. And lo and behold, there is an equation that does just that.
So long before neuroscience entered the, um, equation… the implications of scientific success dating back to the Newtonian revolution would suggest there is no room in the cosmos for human free will.
This is the point where a lot of people start looking for a back door for free will in quantum physics. But as Lisa Randall explains in her 2011 book Knocking on Heaven’s Door, quantum effects by definition don’t undermine macro-level classical physics: if they did, then classical physics’ predictive power would break down. We know that any physical uncertainty due to quantum mechanics is already accounted for once we get to scales where a classical equation accurately describes and recreates the mechanics of the universe, because the classical equation accurately describes and recreates the mechanics of the universe.
As you can see, this thoroughness of logic is totally fucking depressing. And Ayn Rand, of all people, will have nothing to do with it. “You’ve got to stand up,” she says like Howard Beale in Network, “you’ve got to say ‘I’m a human being, damn it! My life has VALUE!'”
Unless you’re poor.
Oops! See, Rand’s obsession with objectivity, rationality, and explaining the world through mechanical and transactional metaphors makes it basically impossible for her to argue against a physically deterministic universe. But in such a universe, free will simply can’t exist. Her philosophy is a paradox.
In this way, Sam Harris is a more intellectually honest representative of Ayn’s metaphysics than Ayn herself, just like Joel Salatin the libertarian organic farmer is a more honest representative of her politics and economics.
Next week, when John Galt tackles the evils of irrational faith in the recap, I will seek to reconcile the paradox of free will with physical determinism in the reax. And I will do this by looking at religious thought, the one place Ayn Rand would never dare to tread.
As this blog finally takes on John Galt’s infamous speech, it’s worth tying together all we’ve learned about Ayn Rand and Objectivism so far:
The Atlas Society, Washington’s most explicitly Randian think tank, declares on its website that Rand’s work
was credited by stunned intellectuals as having single-handedly solved an ancient philosophical puzzle.
Sounds impressive! Except not only does Ayn’s writing fail to actually do this, but she is ignored as a crackpot among mainstream philosophers. Why oh why might that be?
The plot of Atlas is a riff on F.A. Hayek’s road to serfdom argument. But Hayek’s belief in the moral superiority of laissez faire capitalism was based on the premise that it produced the best humanitarian outcomes — a consequentialist moral logic. By this reasoning, Hayek tempered his libertarianism by admitting that some form of universal health insurance and a bare-bones social safety net would be wise for human stability and prosperity.
By contrast, Ayn argues for her even more radical libertarianism — really, anarcho-capitalism — in morally absolutist terms. In contrast to Hayek’s consequentialist ethics, Rand’s are deontological, or rule-based. Hey, you know what system of thought is traditionally associated with an absolutist, rule-based morality? Yep, religious thought! Even though she is an atheist rationalist materialist, Rand’s morality is awkwardly akin to a declaration of faith — faith in what? The infallibility of her own reasoning.
But since honest faith is anathema to Rand’s sensibilities, she claims to have objectified and quantified her belief in moral justice by declaring money a measure of it.
Awkward: this is effectively synonymous with the prosperity gospel practiced by many evangelical Christians today. Man, did Ayn Rand hate Christians. Nonetheless, both she and Joel Osteen claim that adopting the right metaphysical value judgments will inevitably lead to material success.
This position of a moral law also evokes religious ideas of karma and ‘right action’ sourced from the non-theistic eastern philosophies that she hates even more than Christianity, if that’s possible. Taoism and Buddhism preach that emptying one’s self of passions and desires will make one sensitive to the true nature of the world, and thereby allow one to live in harmony with reality — what a Christian might describe as acting by the grace of God. Similarly, John Galt warns Dagny that she will have to learn the wisdom of non-attachment to join the elect in their utopian Atlantis. Jai guru galta om?
So the mechanisms of moral reckoning and spiritual alignment in Objectivism are not all that different than those of religious tradition. It should be no surprise that the intellectual pitfalls of faith that Ayn inveighs against — denial of reality, blindness to man’s nature, epistemic closure — are all sins that Ayn herself commits.
Yet Rand doubles down! She commands her believers to mistrust all other sources of potentially authoritative knowledge. She adapts Shakespeare’s famous “First let’s kill all the lawyers,” into “First let’s kill all the teachers.” She considers science — and particularly physics, the fundamental science that investigates the nature of material reality — corrupt, as illustrated in Atlas Shrugged by the character of Doc Stadler and noted in this excellent 2009 essay by Jonathan Chait. This is the behavior of a cult leader.
In short Ayn Rand is glaringly ignorant about her own metacognition. By indiscriminately applying Aristotle’s law of the excluded middle to propositions that do not fulfill its requirements, she tricks herself into holding beliefs that are strikingly similar to the beliefs she hates most, because her logical process dictates they must be exact mirror images of each other. She fails to see that diametrically opposed points are symmetrical.
Ayn obscures her philosophical incompetence (from herself as much as from her readers) by presenting the fictional world of Atlas Shrugged as if it accurately accounts for objective reality. Never mind that her interpretation of modern and ancient history is riddled with errors and mischaracterizations, quickly disproving any equivalence between her Objectiverse and the actual universe. She seems to think she can validate Objectivism regardless by proving it true in the Objectiverse, which she created for the specific purpose of proving Objectivism true.
It’s no wonder that someone so solipsistic would wind up making criticisms of faith and ideology that apply best to her own. And no wonder that such a self-contradicting thinker would claim to champion progress and intellectual innovation while vilifying one hundred years’ worth of it. Atlas Shrugged is not the solution to an ancient philosophical puzzle; it’s a crappy pulp novel from 1957 that might have been an intriguing sci-fi novel… in 1857.
Ayn thought Reagan’s fusion of religiosity and political ideology would be a disaster for America. And yet that combustible mix is exactly what Ayn herself has advanced, despite a truly epic number of logical contortions adopted to avoid this self-awareness (in the psychological style of Jim Taggart, her nihilistic antagonist).
For all her nominal praise of intelligence and advancement, she expressed views that are anti-education, anti-science, anti-social, pro-greed, and pro-apocalypse. She invented an alternate reality, filled it with nostalgia for an earlier era that never existed, and then called this a prophecy and a way forward.
So when Ayn Rand darkly foretold the now-obvious long-term consequences of Ronald Reagan’s political coalition, she was just as accurately condemning herself, and the happy absorption of her beliefs into that very same coalition is the proof.
Objectivism isn’t some sound philosophy with which to disagree. It is a failure by its own standards: it is a contradiction that must be maintained by its believers to avoid grappling with an objective reality they are not prepared to deal with, in the style of Jim Taggart, Rand’s nihilistic… well, you get the idea.
Who is John Galt? A joke.
In my last post I discussed the contradictory attitudes toward globalized industrial capitalism that Ayn Rand exhibits in Atlas Shrugged. She sanctifies the processes and artifacts of this system while denouncing the consumerism and amorality that are its primary cultural effects. While this ambivalence doesn’t square with Rand’s political reputation, it’s implicit in her story in any number of ways, and there is no better issue with which to illustrate these tensions than the issue of food.
I’ve just finished reading Michael Pollan’s seminal Omnivore’s Dilemma, and about a third of it chronicles Pollan’s time spent on the farm of Joel Salatin, a self-described Christian-conservative-libertarian-environmentalist. Salatin is a fascinating character, and many of his most memorable quotes could have come straight from one of Rand’s characters. But not all.
Salatin prizes personal independence, self-sufficiency, competence, and unwavering integrity. In this he embodies all of the positive aspects of Rand’s heroic archetype. And like Rand, he takes issue with the unsustainability of consumerism and the role of the government in perpetuating it.
Where Salatin and Rand diverge is that he detests economies of scale, global finance, mass industry and capital. Rand is obsessed with civilization and progress, with the image of the railroad as a straight line shooting forward to infinity. She fetishizes the domination and exploitation of nature as overcoming the savage and irrational. By contrast, Salatin organizes his entire life around the self-contained and self-sustaining cycles of the natural world. His Christianity, which Rand abhors, plays some part in this philosophy.
Essentially, Salatin’s farm runs without the farmer having to purchase anything that he can’t produce there himself. All the waste on the farm is composted and fed back to the grasses that feed the animals that produce the waste. All the animals eat the diet that they evolved to eat, and are moved frequently to keep the pasture (and their menu) fresh and varied. Like Rand, Salatin believes everything in his life should be an expression of his worldview. In Salatin’s case, it is.
But there is a dark side to this consistency. When Pollan asks Salatin how a place like New York City would get enough food in his idealized vision of replacing industrial agriculture with locally-grown organic farming and one-to-one farmer-customer relationships, Salatin replies that there just wouldn’t be a New York City. Pollan is perturbed.
This is, I think, inherent in the premise of Atlas Shrugged, insofar as the book is about an industrial world collapsing under society’s moral bankruptcy versus an intimate pastoral world that redeems human virtue. Yet Rand loves New York City and the industry it represents. The Galt cult expresses their intention to rebuild industrial society after its collapse without any consideration of how this might recreate the very problems they identify as justifying said collapse.
Another way in which Salatin is a purer, more honest libertarian than Rand is that his dislike of government is inherently tied to a perception that government policies are written by and for “Wall Street,” his (appropriate) shorthand for all corporate industry. He is wholly anti-institution. Once again, this is Salatin affirming a position that is implicit and unavoidable in Rand’s vision, one that she ignores. Sure, she glances sidelong at the corrupt collusion of big business and the legislature, but does not seriously reflect on how this real-world fact should affect her unqualified worship of ruthless capitalism or her indiscriminate vitriol toward public service.
Stepping back from Salatin and his non-partisan radicalism, the food industry as a whole serves as an equally apt demonstration of Rand’s merits and faults.
For example, government subsidies for corn farming put in place by the Nixon administration in the ’70s have contributed to an absurdly large and unnecessary surplus of the stuff, causing its price in the market to plummet and corn farmers to become ever more reliant on the subsidy to keep their heads above water. Point Rand.
At the same time, the corporations lobbying for this subsidy have capitalized on corn in wildly innovative ways. Agribusiness continually expands the annual yield of the raw material and the variety of the finished foods into which the corn is then chemically rearranged. But the toxin build-up in the soil, plants, and animals; the fossil fuels burned in massive quantities to assemble the meals; the calorie-rich, nutrient-light nature of the results — all have had a perverse effect on the food economy, stable ecology, and human health and nutrition. Industrial innovation producing rampant and spiritually hollow consumption? Rand’s point is deducted.
Also, because the cost of these side effects is passed on to the taxpayers, consumers, and health care providers, industrial food is priced artificially low. Not only does this violate Rand’s belief in market prices’ karmic integrity (even accounting for the tax subsidy side of the equation), but it obstructs the growth of organic food chains in the marketplace. Here we see that the miracle of capitalism that Rand praises is, basically, its ability to consume more than it produces and write off the difference as a negative externality — the behavior Rand vilifies.
But, finally, it’s worth emphasizing that our options for addressing these issues in the real world are not stark “Either/Or” propositions like Ayn Rand suggests and Joel Salatin endorses.
On the one hand, corn-related policies from the 1930s to the ’70s were far more sensible: the government bought excess corn from farmers in the years when the crop exceeded demand, and then sold the banked corn in years of drought or when the harvest was lean. This stabilized a volatile market without warping the natural equilibrium of supply and demand. The basic logic of Keynesian economics is similar, and similarly sound.
On the other hand, the vigorous entrepreneurial spirit of the private sector is undeniably necessary if we are to restore our food system to a Galt’s Gulch-like sustainability. As we speak, a cadre of former McDonald’s executives are launching a new venture that seeks to combine sustainable food practices with franchisable fast food convenience.
Which is to say the narrative of Atlas Shrugged, a direct product of Ayn Rand’s philosophy, is reflected most honestly not in the life of Ayn Rand but in the life of Joel Salatin. By studying the contrast between them, we see that Rand fails to embody her own convictions, to fully face reality and the logical consequences of her beliefs. She contradicts herself. Which of her premises is false? Comfortingly, it is that the tensions between progress and social justice — between industrial and organic — are irreconilable. They aren’t. It isn’t “either/or.” It’s “yes, and…”
F. Scott Fitzgerald once said that there are no second acts in American lives. In the case of Ayn Rand, there is a second act, she just sucks at writing it.
But now we’re near the end of the literary death march known as “Part Two: Either/Or” and things are finally starting to pick up again. The nation is firmly and totally under the control of corrupt executives and bureaucrats. Francisco has confirmed the existence of a conspiracy among the off-the-grid elites. And Rand’s morally abhorrent moral philosophy is beginning to come into sharper focus.
If we take a step back though, what becomes clear is that Rand’s morals are exactly what keeps Atlas from being more impressive. She has after all created a world of exhausted energy resources and excessive consumerism, where the heroes pursue technological advances that will create a more sustainable and renewable civilization, and the villains are vested big-money interests and the willfully ignorant politicians who enable them. Yet for some reason this book is about how the poor as a class should be treated as subhuman. What?
It’s also important to note that Ayn didn’t realize the depletion of natural resources was an actual looming danger, or that unchecked consumption poisons the earth as well as society. According to Ayn, the problems in the Randverse could have been solved long ago if Hank Rearden and Ellis Wyatt were left free to “Drill baby drill,” if only those yellow-bellied liberal pussies wouldn’t hold them back.
The irony, of course, is that the sustainability dangers are real in an objective way, verifiable by applied science and deductive reasoning. “Drill baby drill” might be a necessary stalling tactic to keep society running while renewable energy gains traction, but it is at best a stopgap measure. Rand’s Objectivist version has none of this foresight. Arthur C. Clarke she ain’t.
So in Objectivism (if not objective reality), threats of fossil fuel consumption and environmental corrosion are just false fronts for the liberals to enact an evil agenda that they won’t admit to anyone, least of all themselves. You can really see here just how influential the Rand worldview is on Republican ideology today.
This is why, now that we’re getting back to the thematically meaty part of the book, I’ve started replacing the protagonists’ talk of moochers and looters with vulture capitalists, moral vampires, and consumer zombies. The two sets of terms are vaguely synonymous but differ vitally in the details. Specifically, my descriptors cut across class and political boundaries whereas Rand’s place blame for society’s ills squarely on one side of the income and political spectra.
By making this change, I like to think I make the Randverse more widely relatable, not to mention recognizable as a relevant commentary on our world today. The American right circa 2012 thinks Ayn’s O.G. interpretation of Atlas is a relevant commentary on politics today, but their worldview simply doesn’t line up with the facts, the objective reality, in which we actually exist.
With this slight shift in the focus of moral blame I think the story actually gains potency as Ayn’s critiques get more extreme, rather than the original version in which the author’s awkward and bizarre proselytizing ruins the dramatic tension. Now, though the crisis is still rooted in moral degradation as Rand claims, the failings are not attributable to just one class or political party.
Part Two, as I mentioned above, is titled “Either/Or.” Either Objectivism, or nihilism. And, well… I choose Neither. Insofar as it encourages a perilous, willful denialism, a false consciousness about the objective state of the world that endangers that world, Objectivism can itself be nihilistic. It is not always and necessarily so, but neither is altruism or progressivism. There is no mutual exclusivity between the two sides of Ayn’s “either/or” proposition; no contradiction. And once you surgically remove Ayn’s insistence that there is, Atlas Shrugged gets waaaay way better.
“Already we have far too much of this insipidity — masses of people … letting slip whatever native culture they had, … substituting for it only the most rudimentary American culture of the cheap newspaper, the “movies,” popular song, the ubiquitous automobile.” –Randolph Bourne in The Atlantic, 1916
This blog has touched on the end of the Gilded Age and rise of the Progressive Era before, albeit tangentially. As we begin to tackle how best to fuse liberalism and libertarianism here in the 21st century, it is worthwhile to revisit it, and to that end I’ll be drawing on Louis Menand’s excellent history of the period, The Metaphysical Club.
Menand chronicles how the rise of industrial capitalism radically intensified the disorienting aspects of modern life borne of relentless change and innovation. Politically, this turmoil manifested in the rise of progressivism as it sought to provide a necessary counter-weight to the opressively concentrated wealth of laissez-faire economics. Culturally — as illustrated by the quote above — it manifested as concerns about the corrosive effects of the new mass-produced consumer culture. And philosophically it manifested in the creed of pragmatism, as developed most famously in the writings of William James and John Dewey.
Cut to Ayn Rand, writing from the 1950s, valorizing the Gilded Age laissez-faire society and condemning the rise of progressive politics as the death knell of actual progress. Like the thinkers of the time, Rand expresses concerns about vapid consumer culture — even though industrial capitalism is what made mass pop culture viable — while on the philosophical level, Rand’s Objectivism is a radical departure from the approach taken by that era’s great American minds.
What was their thinking? The school of pragmatism evolved as a response to intense mid-19th century debates about metaphysics, provoked by the rise of Darwinism and the attendant rise of material determinism.
Pragmatism took its name from the idea that as a philosophy it should be more than an intellectually satisfying theory, it should be a practical system of thought useful for people in authoring their lives. To that end, it adopted a stance of metaphysical agnosticism. For example, pragmatists assumed free will exists, not as a claim about the metaphysical truth but for the simple reason that people experience situations involving decision-making all the time, so any philosophy that discards free will is void of practical application.
Ayn Rand also believes in free will (to put it mildly), but she asserts this as a given metaphysical truth, just like her claims about the moral nature of money are metaphysical claims not supported by logic.
In fact her broadest and most problematic metaphysical claim is her ontology of logic, which we have already exposed as faulty here. The truth is that Aristotle’s First Law of Thought, that “A is A,” isn’t making a claim to metaphysical truth per se, which is how Rand wields it; it is claiming that for anybody to meaningfully communicate thoughts with anybody else, they must first agree on the meaning of the terms and symbols they employ in their language. It is a metaphysically modest claim grounded in pragmatic utility — the laws of thought are not irrefutable truths about the nature of reality (that would make them the laws of reality), they are the rules regarding form that a human must follow to successfully convey content.
The man who founded the pragmatist ethos, Charles Pierce, said of logic’s role in human affairs,
[Reasoning] inexorably requires that our interests … must not stop at our own fate, but must embrace the whole community. He who would not sacrifice his own soul to save the whole world is, as it seems to me, illogical in all his inferences collectively. Logic is rooted in the social principle.
Pierce’s premise here is that the collected observations and inferences of any one individual are inevitably insufficient for a comprehensive or verifiably accurate account of reality. A body of objective knowledge can only be built and sustained by a society dedicated to that common pursuit within and between generations.
Here we see that pragmatism, unlike Objectivism, is concerned with both liberty in the form of aiding man in the exercise of free will, and with the legitimacy of society as a whole. At the time pragmatism became ascendant, laissez-faire capitalism had reached a turning point. The economic right to freedom of contract had begun to violate the contract of freedom — the social contract.
Historical evidence of the dictatorial power of private parties to govern the lives of the masses during the Gilded Age includes JP Morgan’s centralized economic management as handled through the corporatization & conglomeration of formerly entrepreneurial and individualistic industry. But another key example is the Pullman strike, the national crisis that launched Eugene Debs to fame and first brought serious momentum to the labor and socialism movements in America.
In 1894, Illinois was the lynchpin of the nation’s railroad system, and the workers at the Pullman Palace Car Company all lived in the company town of Pullman. Facing a drop in revenues during a recession, Pullman cut their wages. But he didn’t lower their rent or the cost of goods in Pullman, all of which he obviously controlled. So it was very clear to the laborers that they were getting screwed, bearing the costs of the macroeconomy while those with enough power to better influence that economy simply preserved its benefits for themselves.
As with Morgan, the Pullman dynamic is ironically akin to the excess authority and impossible demands of Rand’s government planners. Not only that, but the strike was eventually broken by the government acting on the side of management, because the disruption of rail service itself threatened the macroeconomy. All of which is starkly opposed to Rand’s fictional government — not to mention her fictional 19th century.
Clearly the huddled masses couldn’t directly engage in fair negotiation with their corporate overlords. If they wanted real opportunities to exercise economic liberty, they would have to work through democratic institutions to petition for a renewal of the social contract.
The moral here is that while Rand’s view of anarcho-capitalism (as expressed by Rearden in 2:4) prizes economic liberty as an inviolate moral ideal, such fidelity produces blind spots — in this case that a social order emerging from the bottom up through privately-negotiated contracts can still produce despotic, top-down governing bodies as a practical reality. In the words of Homer Simpson, “Sure it works in theory, Marge. Communism works in theory.”
Another pragmatist quote, this time by the more well-known American philosopher John Dewey:
The bigger the unit you deal with, the hollower, the more brutal, the more mendacious is the life displayed. So I am against all big organizations as such, … and in favor of the eternal forces of truth … underdogs always, till history comes, after they are long dead, and puts them on the top.
One could find support for Rand’s fears of dystopian statism in this quote about bigness, but one could also read into it a progressive’s suspicions towards dystopian capitalism. After all, both of these anxieties are rooted in the dangers of excessively concentrated power, and they both feel the need to support Davids over Goliaths in response. The schism is over what institutional arrangements best to mitigate this problem.
Pragmatism, of course, prefers whichever arrangement produces real experiential liberty for the most people. Since pragmatism is so, well, pragmatic, it is better suited to deal with the muddy compromises of reality than the theoretically pure forms of either libertarian capitalism or socialist democracy. As we see in the quote up top, in an era of eugenics and scientific racism, the Dewey-taught Randolph Bourne argues for a multi-cultural America with each race and ethnic group sustaining age-old traditions as a bulwark against spiritually empty consumerism. This is not dissimilar to the Deist founding fathers encouraging a religious populace for the sake of social cohesion. As always, the argument is a practical and metaphysically humble one.
But this adaptability to circumstances leaves pragmatism open to charges of moral relativism, which is not entirely an accident. The thinkers who developed pragmatism came of age during the Civil War and its aftermath, and the lesson they took was that moral absolutism led to immense human suffering. Yet after the meaningless slaughter of World War I, this philosophy fell out of favor to make way for ideologies more proactive about asserting moral values once again. Nonetheless, I believe the pragmatists’ metaphysical agnosticism — which is to say their epistemic skepticism — was immensely valuable. Certainly the dogmatic ideologies that took hold in the 20s and 30s only contributed to greater atrocities, atrocities by design even, in World War II.
So as much as Rand idolizes the period out of which pragmatism grew, she has discarded the lessons learned by those who lived through it. This is self-evident in her fables about Nat Taggart, in which she portrays the era with willful inaccuracy. And to end this quote-heavy essay on a famous one by George Santayana, those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.
The primary side effect of this tactic is that Rand backs herself into a philosophical corner and the novel itself becomes unbearably pedantic. By treating most of the history of human intellectual achievement as a nihilistic parody, and then defining Objectivism as the direct opposite and negation of it, Objectivism itself becomes a parody, a caricature of itself. Rand doesn’t just reduce her most-loathed views to the absurd; she reduces her own to the absurd, too. That’s why Francisco, my favorite character, has so far spent Part Two making questionable sermons in praise of illogical ideals.
Take Ayn’s belief in the moral incorruptibility of money, for example, which she forces into Francisco’s mouth in the “greed is good” speech from Chapter 2:2. S/he claims that “To trade by means of money is the code of men of good will.” But the code of men of good will is, obviously, to act by good will. Trade can be mutually beneficial without money as long as both parties negotiate in good faith. Money can make those transactions more efficient, but the moral character of the deal is decided by the parties and not the medium of exchange.
What Rand is really trying to do, then, is outline the code of morals by which ‘the moral law’ — or, for those of us who don’t categorically dismiss eastern philosophy, ‘karma’ — operates. Treating money as a spiritual totem and objective measure of karma is a totally unnecessary addition to this project. It is certainly not arrived at by deductive reasoning — the premise of an objective moral law that rewards honor, integrity, and hard work does not inevitably lead to the conclusion that those rewards come in a directly proportional pecuniary form. Furthermore, in an attempt to make the sanctification of money fit the experiential evidence, Rand admits her conclusion cannot be arrived at by inductive reasoning either.
Specifically, Francisco hedges that ‘money is only a tool’ whose karmic effects are only visible ‘in the long run.’ He claims that the only person fit to inherit a fortune is the one who would earn one anyway — which does not preclude people from inheriting undeserved fortunes — and that anyone with a fortune they don’t work to maintain will lose it.
This last qualification flies in the face of reality — anybody with sufficient funds can live off the interest and pay others to manage their investments, thereby purchasing more responsible financial management than they themselves could provide and thereby divorcing their net worth from their competency and merit, a.k.a. their moral worth.
Furthermore, fortunes can be created in bad faith and by exploitation, which Rand denies, and they can be used to oppress the less wealthy and accumulate unearned privilege, which Rand implicitly admits in her portrayal of Francisco’s corrupt ‘crony capitalist’ investors and their use of money to purchase laws squelching the liberties of the masses. Wealth does not by nature punish entitlement and laziness and can in fact be used to enable those same vices.
And since the idolatry of money cannot be arrived at as a necessary part of a moral code of honor, personal integrity, and hard work by deductive or inductive reasoning, Rand is ultimately making a faith-based claim about nature, a claim that describes the noumenal qualities of money as a Platonic ideal, rather than as a phenomenal reality. And faith-based claims, not to mention Platonism, are anathema to Rand’s stated beliefs. She is essentially preaching a prosperity gospel here.
This all follows from the fact that Ayn can’t just reject the Biblical wisdom that “love of money is the root of all evil” (1 Timothy 6:10) — a verse which demonstrates that the prosperity gospel of the real world is itself a contradiction. No, Ayn must embrace the opposite stance, that money must be the root of all good. Yet this “either/or” choice is, again, a logical fallacy. Money doesn’t have to be the root of anything. Both positions are absolutist caricatures of a nuanced and multivalent reality.
Another example of Rand’s faulty invocation of the law of the excluded middle is in Francisco’s 2:3 speech to Rearden, when he’s declaring that the mythic Atlas should shrug if the world he supports is about to break his back. Whereas the former speech illustrated how Rand’s worship of money is literally unreasonable, this latter one exposes her irrational damning of humanity.
Early in the 2:3 conversation, Francisco tells Rearden that there are three kinds of people. There are Rearden’s equals, ‘giants of productive energy.’ There are Eddie Willers types, ‘men who could not equal the power of your mind, but who would equal your moral integrity.’ And then there are ‘whining rotters who … drift from failure to failure and expect you to pay their bills.’
Now even if you think that’s too reductive, it at least includes a “middle ground” option in the loyal, true, competent-not-excellent Eddie Willers. That’s more than one can say for most of Rand’s assessments of the world’s possibilities, except that Rand’s worldview as exemplified in the Randverse ignores even this middle ground that she herself provides. To wit —
After laying out the three categories of man, Francisco asks Rearden which type of person is riding the rMetal rails he and Dagny built, and Rearden admits it is the ‘whining rotters.’ But even with all Rearden’s equals going off the grid, where did all the Eddie Willers’ of the world go? Eddie is the book’s everyman character, the average Joe, and yet the character of the Randverse’s average man implied by her portrayal of the general populace, the “public at large,” is an intellectually insufficient and morally suspect character, a moocher. Not exactly our pal Eddie. Dare I say Ayn’s attitudes towards humanity are… contradictory?
Suffice it to say, that suffices to say. I don’t intend to spend all of Part Two picking apart the many reductively absurd arguments Rand makes. Having spent Part One roughly delineating the ways in which I think the Randverse is relevant and/or irrelevant to our ‘verse, I now consider Rand’s erroneous delineation of same as mostly an obstacle to appreciating what actually works in this book. This dissonance will only get worse throughout Part Two’s remaining chapters.
So going forward I’m going to focus these analytic posts on articulating a stronger left-libertarian alternative to Rand’s over-the-top vision. If I spent Part One considering Rand’s thesis (the effective parallels to real 21st century issues, the shout-outs to Hayek and the attendant fealty to negative liberty), my Part Two will consider a reasonable antithesis.
That will come in handy in Part Three, when the Randverse delivers resolutions and conclusions to the issues it’s raised. There, I will seek a satisfying synthesis — in contrast to Ayn, who doesn’t so much synthesize her theories as bludgeon her antithesis to death with a mallet.