Posts Tagged free will
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.
PREVIOUSLY: John Galt clarified what he believes in — free will, fundamentally and without qualification — he shall pronounce unto us the various evils of believing in… anything else. Specifically, religion. Aaaand GO:
Galt declares that the Christian doctrine of original sin is the foundation of all “mystic” morality and points out various ways in which this doctrine proves religious values perverse.
Note, Galt says, that in the myth of The Fall man’s crime is knowledge, and that the Randian virtues of labor and desire are punishments. Note further that this view of the worldly and physical as fallen pits mind and body against each other. Consider the distress man has suffered for imagining his physical and spiritual desires to be in innate opposition! Fie, fie upon your God! Galt says.
Galt points out two camps of evil proselytizers, “the spiritualists and the materialists, those who believe in consciousness without existence and those who believe in existence without consciousness.” Spiritualists dare to put limits on human knowledge by claiming God is the ultimate reality and beyond our comprehension. Well, fair enough. Doesn’t mean they’re wrong, but it is an accurate summation. Meanwhile, materialists undermine individual liberty by claiming abstract Society is the ultimate good.
So first of all, categorizing materialists as ‘mystics’ seems a little bizarre. Secondly, calling them radical socialists as a class seems… well, par for the course, I guess. Once again Ayn’s attempts to bind her cosmology to her political economy utterly fail to make sense.
Next up: sacrifice. Did you know it’s evil? It is! Well, if you define it strictly as giving up something valuable or virtuous for something shitty and worthless. Which Galt does, with this lovely example:
If a mother buys food for her hungry child rather than a hat for herself, it is not a sacrifice: she values the child higher than the hat; but it is a sacrifice to the kind of mother whose higher value is the hat, who would prefer her child to starve and feeds him only from a sense of duty.
Yes, you awful superficial loveless mother, don’t sacrifice your values — abandon that fucking kid already, like a real hero! Fuck’s sake.
On we go, passing various Gross Mischaracterizations along the way. This train is going off the rails fast, though. Galt has decided that under the logic of sacrifice, all exchanges of value are zero-sum thefts, never mutually beneficial. Sure, if you operate within a narrow definition of sacrifice that you invented just moments ago so as to disqualify inconsequential outlier examples like a mother’s love.
Whatever, it doesn’t matter. Because writ large, a morality of sacrificing your self to meet the world’s needs is impossible to achieve. You would get sacrificed, and the world’s needs would still not be met. Take that, Jesus! Although to be fair I can’t really argue the point.
Spiritualists hide this futility by claiming possession of a sixth sense that contradicts and overrides the physical five. Materialists simply “declare that your senses are not valid, and that [materialist] wisdom consists of perceiving your blindness by some manner of unspecified means.” Pfft, who’s claiming that? (Somewhere in the world, Sam Harris rolls his eyes for reasons he cannot explain, because none of us knows why we really do anything because we don’t have free will.)
Basically, Galt says, both of these camps are just trying to wish reality away. If reality is A, spiritualists would rather it be Not-A. Thus their worship of the unreal, and their aspiration to non-existence. Materialists… well, Galt seems extremely confused as to what materialism actually is.
Really, Galt and Ayn are materialists. They believe in an objective reality that obeys the laws of physics, cause and effect, and they reject the claim that there is a plane of existence outside this.
Yet they also explicitly reject the claim that the mind is a mere byproduct of matter. So they are also spiritualists, since positing a free will that can alter the course of an otherwise physics-bound, deterministic reality necessarily suggests some unknown dimension of reality through which abstract thought can influence tangible matter. EITHER/OR, Ayn! Either/Or!
“The enemy you seek to defeat is the law of causality: it permits you no miracles,” Galt taunts those mystics who would ignore the demands of logic. My point exactly, dude. Go fuck yourself. But no, we must put aside the fact that Galt has stumbled blindly into an eternally recursive paradox defining the relationship between self and reality, because he’s still talking.
And just to add insult to injury he’s whining like a bitch about how the strong are the victims of the weak now. Was that a theme of this book? If so, too subtle! Needed another couple hundred pages of laborious exposition.
Focusing on the “mystics of muscle,” the godless materialists who have taken over the government (Psych 101: Ayn is channeling her childhood memories of Soviets & Bolsheviks!), Galt points out that maxims such as “I know I know nothing” and “There are no absolutes” are paradoxes. Apparently Galt is able to identify paradoxes now. Hey John, I’ve got a couple to run by you…
BAH, Galt cries, don’t you see?! The secret wish of these nihilists-in-charge is to return man to the synesthetic state of a baby, drowning in magical ignorance, unable to distinguish between subjects and objects, unable to think in coherent and discrete thoughts or integrate them into higher knowledge. These bastards want to dissolve the mind and the self into nothingness! A nothingness just like DEATH! DEEAAATTHHH!
Oi, and here we go with the education system again. Our teachers are teachers of DEATH! They instruct the impressionable youth to believe in nothing, and especially not facts about objective reality, and to rely entirely on magical thinking, like a “savage.” Is… is that what college was like in the USSR, Ayn? No wonder they lost the Cold War. And I’m pretty sure the CEO of Boeing didn’t reinvent the laws of aerodynamics, so you can fuck right off.
Despite this Gross Mischaracterization of materialism and a liberal education as promoting magical thinking, Galt does get off a good line against the “free will is an illusion” argument:
Your consciousness, they tell you, consists of ‘reflexes,’ ‘reactions,’ ‘experiences,’ ‘urges,’ and ‘drives’ and refuse to identify the means by which they acquired that knowledge, to identify the act they are performing when they tell it or the act you are performing when you listen.
Zing! And yet somehow this pithy retort becomes part of an argument for laissez faire capitalism. GAH, give it up already! I’m sure there are libertarians out there who believe in material determinism. Come on, Ayn, where’s your imagination?*
[*…and other questions it’s 800 pages too late to ask.]
Galt doesn’t give it up already, obviously, and unleashes another furious rant about how the suffering of rich people is the surest evidence of the dehumanizing nature of modern society. I think downgrading the vast majority of mankind into a category of “subhuman moral pervert” is dehumanizing, but hey, what do I know.
The bottom line is this: a “mystic” is pure evil. If you do not accept Galt/Rand Objectivism explicitly or implicitly, you are a mystic. And whether a mystic seeks to negate the existence of material reality or the existence of ethereal mentality, he seeks to negate his own existence thereby. Therefore, inevitably, a mystic is an “anti-living object who seeks, by devouring the world, to fill the selfless zero of [its] soul. … [H]is ideal is death, his craving is to kill, his only satisfaction is to torture.”
Holy shit, is that what the world looks like from inside Ayn Rand’s head? Because that is fucking terrifying.
Next week, John takes us home by telling us what he actually likes about humanity. Namely, himself.
REFLECTIONS ON THE SPEECH: Ayn Rand’s Fear of Existentialism and Mystery
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.