Posts Tagged philosophy
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.
PREVIOUSLY: Dagny and the Objectivists rescued John Galt, and the villainous bureaucrats abandoned their posts. The fight was won. Unfortunately, Dagny committed an entirely unnecessary first-degree murder in the process, exposing the horrifying intellectual rot and moral depravity at the heart of Ayn Rand and John Galt’s philosophy.
Rearden and Ragbeard untie Galt from Ferris’ torture machine while Francisco provides him with medicine in the form of brandy and cigarettes. Awesome.
Francisco swears revenge upon Galt’s torturers, but Galt is like, “Let it go man, they’re powerless now. I doubt we’ll ever see them again.” Ragbeard agrees, I’m sure, and takes this moment to smash the torture device to smithereens with… I don’t know, let’s just say his bare fists.
They lead the still feeble Galt out of the Project F infrastructure and back to whatever vehicle they used to get here. Francisco’s plane apparently. Ragbeard pilots it off the State Science grounds and into the night sky. Francisco gets out the first-aid kit and tends to Galt and Rearden while Ragbeard gets on the radio, announcing the news of Galt’s escape on a secret frequency.
“Who is he talking to?” Dagny wonders, and Francisco explains that half the population of Galt’s Gulch came with them as back-up. Apparently they’re manning a fleet of airplanes, no doubt built single-handedly from matchsticks and elbow grease by the former CEO of Boeing, circling State Science. Now all of them are in formation behind Frankie’s plane, celebrating their victory.
As they fly over New York City, Dagny and Galt look upon the island of Manhattan and see enormous traffic jams as everybody tries to flee. Word has hit the public about the wholesale demolition of the Midwest, including all routes across the Mississippi, and everybody is racing to move closer to sufficient sources of food.
Dagny recalls that Frisco once told her that the Objectivists would only know they had accomplished their goal when the lights of the greatest city in the world went out. Hey, that sounds incredibly nefarious! And it’s also what our old friend Joel Salatin the Organic Farmer wanted, in a somehow less vindictive way. However you take it, it’s exactly what happens now as the power stations are abandoned and the plane arcs southwest over a suddenly pitch-black concrete jungle.
In the air above the empty plains, Dagny realizes she feels as free as her ancestor Nat must have felt when he set out to explore the open and unpopulated frontier.
Well, unpopulated, aside from a continent’s worth of peaceful people who were callously exterminated by ideological invaders who disguised their sense of entitlement to the land behind a pretense that their economic contracts were morally superior to the common bonds of humanity and a harmonious coexistence with nature. So yes, unpopulated. Aside from that.
Anyway, somewhere on the ground, that patron saint of noble mediocrity, Everyman Eddie Willers, oversees an eastbound train that I can only assume is full of food intended to save thousands of lives because Eddie is not a tremendous egomaniacal asshole.
Sadly the train breaks down in the middle of the desert. Eddie corrals the conductor and engineer to help him try to fix it but they have mostly given up on life and can only roll their eyes at his earnest effort. Calls to all the nearby stations are failing to reach anyone. There is no help coming.
Eddie, knowing it’s mostly futile, tackles the task of repairing the engine himself. Too bad he doesn’t have a perpetual clean-running electric motor lying around. No worries though, because his work is interrupted by a caravan of covered wagons arriving from the west, following the train tracks eastward. Rescue! And look at that: no matter how hard life gets, people pull themselves together with whatever resources are at hand! Ingenuity and ambition will always drive humanity to action, move us to new destinations and purpose!
Oh no wait, sorry, we’re supposed to be disgusted by this, because of the devolution in the most practical mode of transportation. Or at least, Eddie sure is. He does not take it very well when the ringleader of this antiquated exodus tells him he should abandon the train because there’s no crew left to work it and nowhere to go: the bridge across the Mississip’ is destroyed, the Midwest is a graveyard, and the cities of the eastern seaboard megalopolis have all been abandoned. Sounds pretty reasonable.
When he recovers from the shock of this news Eddie sees that indeed his crew and the train’s scant passengers have jumped aboard the conestogas in order to, you know, not starve to death inside the useless metal husk of a broken vehicle. The conductor pleads with Eddie to join them, but Eddie’s assessment is that this posse is just not smart enough to start a new utopian village on the Galt’s Gulch model, so starving to death in a useless metal husk is the wiser choice. Somewhat… less reasonable.
And this is how we leave the archetypal Everyman of Atlas Shrugged. This is his reward for staying true to the Objectiverse’s rules of moral justice, even when it meant admitting his own inferiority, even if it now means sacrificing (aww shit) his own life. It’s Everyman Eddie, alone in the desert, banging madly and unintelligibly at the control panels and wheels of a useless, dead machine. Any Objectivists in the audience? This is a metaphor for YOU.
Poor Eddie chases a rabbit for sustenance but it gets away. He falls to the ground on the tracks in front of the train and weeps. Silently, he prays to his unrequited love, Dagny Taggart. And I can’t help but think, “What an ineffectual pussy.”
SIDEBAR. Aside from condemning the way Eddie’s characterization says all sorts of demeaning things about Ayn’s view of the average man’s competency and dignity, I would like to say something semi-positive in testament to this poor docile patsy. Throughout the blog I have frequently treated Eddie as Dagny’s faithful pet. If there is any redeeming quality to his final scene, it’s that it’s basically the utterly heartbreaking ending of the Futurama episode “Jurassic Bark” except with people. The “dog” is dumb, but his love is unconditional! Err, wait, no! Unconditional love is evil! Right? Jesus, this universe is falling apart at the seams.
Oh well. Good night, sweet prince…
And here we are in Galt’s Gulch. Valhalla of tremendous egomaniacal assholes. Snow is falling, it is a peaceful winter’s night. New Year’s Eve maybe? In their cozy log cabins, the World’s Greatest Cult Members go about their World’s Greatest Business.
In one cabin, Richard Halley, the World’s
Greatest Most Deluded Composer, plays his signature Fifth Concerto.
In another cabin, Midas Mulligan, the World’s Least Diversified Financier, builds a spreadsheet detailing who among his brethren will receive the greatest investments from him in their efforts to rebuild the great cities of the east coast. Which I still don’t understand, by the way. Why would the population flooding back into the rebuilt cities be any more morally upstanding than the population that left? Is there going to be some kind of test? Doesn’t sound very practical. Unless, of course, this whole project has been a deliberate ideological genocide cleansing society of the impure behind a facade of hands-off plausible deniability… Oh.
In another cabin, the Dread Philosopher Ragbeard reads a little Aristotle while his wife, the World’s Most Useless Movie Star, examines… um, a box of make-up samples. Yup, sounds about right.
In another cabin, Judge Narragansett, the World’s Most Ignorant Jurist, finishes his absurd corrections to the Constitution of the United States. Don’t worry, the changes aren’t anything that would be genuinely helpful in real life, like moving to a system of parliamentary elections. No, the Good Judge has added a clause that “congress shall make no law abridging the freedom of production or trade,” which I think the Fourth and Fifth Amendments’ protections of private property already cover within all reason.
But the Judge probably crossed those out, for the Judge has indeed crossed out a whole bunch of passages, the better to resolve “the contradictions in [the Constitution’s] statements that had once been the cause of its destruction.”
Hey, that is SO WEIRD, I could’ve sworn there was already a constitutional crisis in American history that resulted in amendments that resolved “contradictions in its statements.” And I could’ve sworn it successfully prevented the United States’ destruction.
Yeah, yeah, it’s coming back to me now. Those real-life amendments enshrined in the Constitution formal legal equality for all citizens, to protect the rights of millions who had to be freed by the federal government by force, in direct contradiction of the desires of rich aristocrats who rebelled under a false banner of perversely-defined liberty in defense of their sense of economic entitlement. Hey, how did that work out for them? Aah, who can remember!
Pretty weird though, that this vital, defining chapter of the American story hasn’t really come up in this entire novel about a class-based American constitutional crisis. Well, I guess the narrator and heroes have repeatedly referred to the course of history going horribly wrong somewhere in the 2nd half of the 19th century, but they never got all that specific about it. I wonder why…
Finally we arrive at the last cabin, deep in the woods: Francisco’s lodge. Frankie and Rearden are making their plans for rebuilding the national infrastructure. Rearden talks about how Dagny will run their train system and probably charge them an arm and a leg and Francisco laughs merrily.
THEN, all of a sudden, I burst through the fraying narrative boundaries of the Objectiverse like a cosmic consciousness from an alternate dimension, compelled by the evil nature of this world’s native God, and I make potent and real the ecstatic vision lying latent in Francisco’s soul.
In one moment of profound epiphany, he understands that he is the John Locke of this Lost-like tale, used as a puppet by a dark and sinister force posing as his saving grace. John Galt was the Man in Black all along, and Galt’s Gulch was never just a lush and beautiful state of nature, but a holding pen and the world’s only salvation from his malevolent bile.
Clear-eyed and full-hearted, Frisco stands up and tells Hank Rearden that he is leaving Galt’s Gulch forever. For he has seen reason. He has seen that the only thing John Galt ever really did was tell them it was okay to treat other people like irrational animals. And tragically, even after holding out longer than anyone, Dagny fell under his spell too.
But Francisco was uniquely positioned to realize the falsehood of Galt’s cult of personality, to receive my gift of revelation, to realize that Dagny did not gain anything by converting, in fact she lost the very thing that made her special — because Francisco is the only member of this ridiculous cult who actually worked endlessly and tirelessly in pursuit of its goals, sacrificing everything he cared about and lived for, putting himself in danger, and on top of all that, accepting with incredible emotional maturity that he would never get any of it back, including the woman he loved, for whose sake he undertook the whole endeavor, because it wasn’t about his personal pleasure, it certainly wasn’t about any reasonable definition of his own self-interest… it was about justice.
Except it wasn’t, was it? Francisco realizes now that millions, possibly billions of people have died, for no good reason. The entire thing could have been prevented years before. Before the “47%” “formed” and “locked in” a democratic faction that “hobbled” the government’s ability to put reasonable limits on the welfare state. Before the nightmarish doomsday technology of Project X was ever built. How? Oh, if only John Galt had struck up a deeper conversation with Doc Stadler after a lecture or something ridiculously simple like that.
Or, how about this: What if Galt had released his clean perpetual motor to the world, wreaking upon consumerist industrial society the most meritocratic form of capitalistic creative destruction ever seen in the history of civilization, solving in one fell swoop a majority of the world’s most urgent dangers and elevating himself to infinite fame and fortune, leveraging which he could run for President as the living embodiment of human virtue, inspiring citizens the world over with his ideals in a remarkably positive fashion, instead of condemning empathy as immoral and reveling in mankind’s descent into squalor and decrepitude? What if he’d done THAT?
Except he didn’t, did he? Galt turned out to be no better than any other charismatic genocidal mad man. And Francisco admits that he is as guilty as anyone of succumbing to his abhorrent lunacy. He was Galt’s right hand man and primary facilitator.
Only now that it’s too late does he realize the truth, the truth about the myth of Atlas: that in spite of his struggle, perhaps even because of it, the weight of the world on his shoulders was a pleasure to bear. An honor, even. A virtue.
And that is why Francisco must now seek redemption by striking out on his own, into the wilds of post-apocalyptic America. He must wander the earth like Kane from Kung Fu, righting wrongs and teaching men and women how to live for themselves, how to make it in this hard reality we all share, how to find solace in each other and moral fiber within our being.
Don’t worry, he tells Hank, he will not tear down the Gulch like the Gulch tore down the world. Live and let live, is his libertarian creed. Perhaps, some day, Francisco will be called upon to defend freedom, he and the Gulch may come into conflict, if the Objectivists fail to live up to their own creed and form a plutocratic and liberty-infringing regime of class-based institutions that disenfranchise the citizenry, which he’s sure would never happen. But until that day Francisco will simply do his best as an individual, do his best to make the world a better place and himself a better person. That’s just the kind of man he is. And so he must bid Hank farewell.
Rearden, stunned by Francisco’s electrifying gospel, stands and salutes him with the utmost respect. Francisco smiles wryly and shoots him some finger guns or something, and exits, never to be seen again.
Outside, back in the Objectiverse-as-written, Dagny and John Galt stand together at the peak of the cliffs surrounding the valley. They stare out at the dark landscape of the outside world in reverent silence. Galt declares their mission accomplished and marks the sign of the dollar in the air as if he were a profane clergyman anointing the earth with his callow spirit.
But somewhere in that darkness below, the Francisco I have liberated from the tyrannical Ayn-God marches on, braving the void alone, no doubt on track to discover Eddie Willers’ emaciated form desperately clinging to life somewhere out there in the big wide open. He will nurse Eddie back to health and together they will have many adventures, probably about once a week on a basic cable channel, let’s say FX.
This Francisco pauses, turns back to the two small figures on the ledge, with their smallness of character and smallness of mind. He does not yearn to be with them any longer. He sees them for what they are now.
By his own estimation, John Galt’s podcast and its monopoly on all media streams worldwide has been going on for about two hours now. He has outlined the following philosophy:
1) The true human spirit is the spirit of ambition, achievement, intelligence, and self-reliance. It is impossible to embody this spirit if one does not believe in the unlimited power of one’s intellect and will.
2) The false human spirit, practiced by most of the world wittingly or unwittingly, is the spirit of cowardice, neediness, humility, complacency, and self-evasion. By lowering the bar for the definition of human nature, these moral/spiritual/economic/political weaklings are implicitly enabling, even promoting, a culture of death and dissolution.
And you know what? Putting aside differences among people about which other people should fit into which category, this rubric seems like something a lot of us buy into to some degree or another. A cynical degree perhaps, but if we’re being honest we all struggle with pessimism about the quality of human beings when regarded en masse. There is something deeply relatable here.
With this paradigm in mind, John Galt is echoing the call to action of ’60s liberal activist Mario Savio:
There’s a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart, that you can’t take part! You can’t even passively take part! And you’ve got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels…upon the levers, upon all the apparatus, and you’ve got to make it stop! And you’ve got to indicate to the people who run it, to the people who own it, that unless you’re free, the machine will be prevented from working at all!
Galt inverts Savio’s imagery, though, seeing the human spirit in the machinery itself. He wants to remove the levers and gears and wheels of the meritocratic elite, to save them from the corrosive effects of the commodity being processed — namely the other, inferior human beings. Doesn’t the quality of the product of the machine say something about the quality of the machine itself? Also, aren’t the inferiors the owners/runners of the machine too, in this version? It’s all a little confusing. Let’s just say that in John Galt’s worldview any metaphor for global society as a dehumanizing machine is bound to get a little convoluted.
And maybe that’s why the details of his views are so reductive — he has no other choice. His argument is getting really weird and tangled up in itself. He hails certain people throughout history as his intellectual and moral predecessors, and who are they? The people who sacrificed their own potential, who “function at a fraction of their capacity” because they’re bitter about the world and characterized by their “revulsion.”
But aren’t these the most despicable people of all? People who abandon their value, their hope? Aren’t they the walking dead, the implicit zero-worshippers? Doesn’t their attitude betray Galt’s core value of proving one’s moral worth through realizing one’s potential? And yet he pities them, valorizes them for vilifying the world…
Galt finally makes the following explicit: he is calling for massive civil disobedience, just like every idealistic left-wing college activist you’ve ever met. He is opting out of a broken system, and because he and his ilk are the most powerful and competent citizens, the system is inevitably breaking down faster and faster. The only way to save yourself is to likewise opt out. To put your skills and intelligence to use from the ground up and for you and your loved ones only.
Populism is now creeping in at the edges. The common people, too, should go on strike! This is the purpose of broadcasting his philosophy to the world at large, to empower the masses. By virtue of their self-sufficiency, the worthy will prove their worth, and the unworthy will perish. This man, who hails civilization and rationality, who speaks of naturalists as savages, is suggesting that the true measure of a man’s moral value is determined by the law of the jungle.
I’m reminded of a quote by the great American philosopher Oliver Wendell Holmes, who said he enjoyed paying his taxes because they “bought him civilization.”
Now Galt turns to directly address those listeners (like me) who have ambivalent feelings about all this.
He accuses me of trying to avoid reality when I say I don’t have to make an extreme and radical choice. He scathingly rebukes basically everything I articulated as my philosophy, my choice to value conservative judiciousness, to aspire to the virtue of adaptability to any circumstance. And then he says this:
There are two sides to every issue: one side is right and the other is wrong, but the middle is always evil.
And this is when my ambivalence dissolves, and I know that I am right and John Galt is wrong. Because the middle is not always evil. And quite often it is vital to consider more than two facets of an issue to decide well between right and wrong.
Galt and his authorial God, they believe that to admit the possibility of non-absolutes is to reject the reality of all absolutes. This is irrational. The Rand-God of the Objectiverse, and Galt by extension, has built her house on a logical fallacy.
So I hold this truth to be self-evident: that not all ideas are created equal, and Ayn Rand’s were born defective and degenerate, and this is why she spends 1100 pages aborting her own universe.
As I said in articulating my philosophy, though I value flexibility, sometimes certainty and stubbornness are called for. Now is one of those times.
John Galt rails against my false moral code as preventing me from “casting the first stone,” mere pages after he asserted the absolute wrongness of initiating force.
Galt spends several pages more telling us fence-sitters what we believe, and why it is damnably wrong. He urges us to embrace his philosophy, for all alternatives are evil, and “no man can survive the moment of pronouncing himself irredeemably evil; should he do it, his next moment is insanity or suicide.”
You must believe in yourself, believe in your goodness, Galt declares inspirationally, his attitude toward his audience getting increasingly bipolar.
Galt describes the innocence of children as a form of pure rationality — and there the Ayn-God goes again, proving herself incapable of dealing with the reality of human development. Galt preaches that one should never lose touch with one’s inner child, and I really do think it sad, all this common sense, all this age-old wisdom and good advice, mangled and chained by all thse perverse and self-defeating conditions.
So in the name of a superior flexibility and openness, let us appreciate the inspirational parts once more. Galt addresses us all again, tells us we have the choice to embrace life and love existence, to cherish our minds and our ability to make something of ourselves. “Accept, as your moral ideal, the task of becoming a man.” Accept that “man is an end in himself.”
And I love that! I love that sentence. Of my own philosophy I wrote, “it is a paradigm for living life as an art form … it’s about being your best self as an end in itself.” And I would be so happy to work with Rand and Galt, to share this common ground and agree to disagree on the rest. To compromise for mutual benefit.
But they will not admit of disagreement, they will brook no compromise. For them, it is all or nothing. Literally.
And this is why they must get nothing. Why Rand’s bastardized heirs in the real life Republican Party must be denied power and reduced to powerlessness. If you, John Galt, Paul Ryan, Ayn Rand by any name — if you insist on all or nothing, insist that the time has come for a principled stand, then I, the compromiser, the accomodator, the non-absolutist… I will take all, and you can have the nothing.
For nothing is the measure of the logic of your code, and nothing is therefore what you deserve. We the People will give you what you want, Randians, what you secretly desire and seek to deny through evading true self-knowledge: nothing.
Galt says “only a mystic would judge human beings by the standard of an impossible, automatic omniscience,” and yet Galt’s vision of rational thought is this very standard. He claims logic and reason are the fundamental code of reality, and thus that rationality is omniscient. He declares rationality intrinsic and pure in childre, that it is automatic. And in reality, that reality which he so seeks to deny, indeed to destroy, this omniscience and this automaticity is, yes, impossible.
Galt’s absolutism, his belief in human perfectibility, is based on a mystic misattribution. He blanks himself out. He is what he condemns. He has removed himself from the world by his own admission. It is his defining decision. He has zeroed himself. He does not need to worship zero, for he is a zero.
I see it now! I see it in the litany of conditions he places on our redemption, in these final pages of his speech, in the dictums he proclaims which have turned out to be so disastrous for the real world, for the real America, for our real politics.
I see the plea for help, and I see the cannibalism, in his equating a plea for help with cannibalism. I see his cowardice in his immediate qualification and conditioning of that statement, his defense of helping someone if you deem the person in need of help to be virtuous — a statement itself qualified to depend entirely on the qualities he subjectively categorizes as virtuous. Look at how he compromises his own absolutes in absolute contradiction of his own absolute against compromising absolutes. Absolutely contradictory!
I see the insecurity in his insistence that the standard of perfection is not impossible. It is, and just as he claims, he is the proof. His strength is so fragile, so brittle, and afraid. His self-defeat, his self-negation, his subconscious nihilism… it’s so clear, and so obvious, to anybody who dares to think, who dares to be a man.
Galt approaches his whimpering conclusion. He outlines the framework of a minimal libertarian state, as if he has proved its necessity and history has not proved its inadequacy. He declares all other social structure to operate by a code of conduct by which “you may do whatever you please to your neighbor, provided your gang is bigger than his,” as if this dynamic is not a danger when “bank account” is substituted for “gang.”
He grants one more moment of praise for the immeasurable value of a great idea or innovation. One more insight about the retarding effect of economic and legislative uncertainty on growth. And then one more fist, furiously shaken in the direction of janitors and menial laborers for not earning their paychecks and their livelihoods by intellect. You were so close, John! But no, his disregard for dignity is undignified, his disgust disgusting.
His final rallying cry: all men and women of heroism, break the back of the system with us! Abandon the villains in your midst, live alone, or in like-minded communities, and when global civilization collapses, we will find each other and rebuild the world anew!
This rabid dog of reason, this hollow braggart and bully of rhetoric, he dares preach the value of the human spirit while he warns those who retain sympathy for their fellow man that they must sever the bonds of affection with their kin. Give up on life so that you may live! he commands. Join me in my historically horrific desire to purge and purify, like a Jacobin or a Bolshevik! Join me in my cradle of obfuscation and denial of my own truth! Reclaim your individuality… by being just like me.
Galt directs this last plea surreptitiously at Dagny. And then back to the broader audience, to you and me, he recites his mantra, that one should not live for others nor others for you. He signs off, leaving us to digest his poisonous message.
And you know what? He was right about one thing — he has made the truth about himself clear, and his philosophy naked and plain. It is ugly.
REFLECTIONS ON THE SPEECH — John Galt & Ayn Rand versus Reality: Compare and Contrast
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.
Here we are, ladies and gentlemen. John Galt, having hijacked every radio frequency in the world (or something), shall now proceed to explain the meaning of life, the universe, and everything to the sorry population of earth. I’m going to engage The Speech pretty seriously going forward, but I will breeze through this first part, because it’s the driest of the dry and, to be honest, pretty fuckin’ dumb. Brace yourselves.
LO, puny mortals! Mankind has followed a perverse morality and now suffers the consequences! All past moral codes are evil, because they are ‘mystical’ and/or ‘social.’ These false moralities value sacrifice and a belief in something larger than yourself. HORRIBLE!
The key to what you so recklessly call ‘human nature,’ the open secret you live with, yet dread to name, is the fact that man is a being of volitional consciousness. … [He] has no automatic course of behavior. He needs a code of values to guide his actions.
So one must choose values. Except there’s really only one choice, ‘existence or non-existence.’ Existentialism or nihilism. Does that mean that if you haven’t killed yourself you’re doing something right? No! It means that all value judgments are really choices between cherishing life and praying for death, up to and including your taste in smooth v crunchy peanut butter (crunchy peanut butter is the peanut butter of nihilism).
Man must obtain his knowledge and choose his actions by a process of thinking, which nature will not force him to perform. Man has the power to act as his own destroyer[.]
Ah, so the thing that differentiates us from plants and animals is the capacity for suicide. Are you feeling inspired yet? Wait, it gets better:
A being who does not hold his own life as the motive and goal of his actions, is acting on the motive and standard of death. Such a being is a metaphysical monstrosity, struggling to oppose, negate and contradict the fact of his own existence, running blindly amuck on a trail of destruction, capable of nothing but pain.
Okay then. How reasonable. If you’re keeping score at home, here’s what we know so far: good things are the opposite of bad things. Life, mind, reason, happiness, and existence are all GOOD. Death, ‘anti-mind,’ faith, pain, and non-existence are all BAD.
More talk about how teachers are paid by the government to educate your children in spiritual bankruptcy, and you know, if the whole goddamn world is such a threat to your beliefs, maybe you’re just really fucking insecure.
Point is, mankind has free will. That’s GOOD. But unless you follow John Galt’s patented One True Way, you are abusing your free will and metaphorically killing yourself and everyone else! That’s BAD. And if anybody tells you anything different about any of this, they’re deceivers and agents of evil and destruction.
AND, if all that sound exactly like a fundamentalist religion, well… shut up. Because, OPPOSITE! So there.
Yes, Galt boldly says he believes existence exists, unlike you people. More GOOD words include “logic, truth, reality, and knowledge.” You might recall from before that good things are good. I know it’s a lot to keep up with. It might be easier if you remember that all good things are effectively just one good thing, which is… whatever Ayn Rand thinks about those things. Let’s learn more about that now:
To live, man must hold three things as the supreme and ruling values of his life: Reason—Purpose—Self-esteem.
Self-esteem! What are you, a little league coach? More GOOD words — independence, integrity, honesty, justice, productiveness, work, character. Yeah, no shit John. Also on the list is pride, which goeth before unintended irony.
Galt goes on for pages defining each word in detail, mostly by using all the other ones. Then this diamond in the rough:
[Y]our character, your actions, your desires, your emotions are the products of the premises held by your mind—that as man must produce the physical values he needs to sustain his life, so he must acquire the values of character that make his life worth sustaining.
Emotions are inherent in your nature, but their content is dictated by your mind. Your emotional capacity is an empty motor, and your values are the fuel with which your mind fills it. If you choose a mix of contradictions, it will clog your motor … and wreck you on your first attempt to move.
Preach it brother, amen! Exposit it, fellow human, exclamation! Now compare and contrast with this quote from the decidedly mystical Ralph Waldo Emerson:
A person will worship something, have no doubt about that. We may think our tribute is paid in secret in the dark recesses of our hearts, but it will out. That which dominates our imaginations and our thoughts will determine our lives, and our character. Therefore, it behooves us to be careful what we worship, for what we are worshipping we are becoming.
So, finally, an axiom of Objectivism that isn’t ugly, misanthropic, and vaguely genocidal! Shame, then, that Galt follows up with more declarations that are ridiculous and out of touch with reality, like “there are no conflicts of interest among rational men.” HA!
Things start to sound promising again when Galt lays down a hard and fast rule that a man must never, ever initiate force against another man because it violates every premise of Rand’s existential argument. Needless to say, I will be quoting it extensively later when Rand violates every premise of her existential argument in exactly this way.
So, whatever. Fuck it. To set the stage for next week’s segment, Galt gives up on sounding reasonable and throws down the gauntlet. YOU (everybody in the world who doesn’t have Galt’s personal stamp of approval) live in fear of all those BAD words. WE (Galt’s elite) live our lives in pursuit of all the GOOD words. WE worship LIFE WORDS. YOU worship DEATH! DEAAAATHHHH! So DIE!
Christ, what an asshole.
NEXT WEEK: John Galt explains why Christ was an asshole.
REFLECTIONS ON THE SPEECH: Ayn Rand, Faith, and Free Will
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 the wake of the Republican National Convention last week, I think it’s worth elaborating on something I first described back in January in Hayek Anxiety, the very first post in this Applied Randology series. Quoth myself:
[T]he Republican party has gone disturbingly meta. Conservative rhetoric uses Rand/Hayek arguments in ways that would produce the Rand/Hayek nightmare scenario. It’s not just self-defeating, it’s self-contradicting.
To put it another way, the Republican Party inverts logic and truth in the same way Rand’s fictional progressives do. And GOP CON 2012 proved to be an excellent demonstration of this phenomenon.
Let’s take Paul Ryan, because, obviously. The lies and deceptions in his speech have been well documented (even by Fox News!), but what pushes his lying into “self-contradiction” territory is the fact that all of his major criticisms of Obama focused on problems that Ryan himself is actually responsible for. I don’t want to beat a dead horse by fact-checking the whole thing, but I will flog it lightly.
Most obviously, Ryan himself tanked the fiscal compromises that he blames Obama for not supporting in both the case of the Simpson-Bowles debt commission and the credit rating downgrade — in the case of the debt commission, before the president ever saw the report in question; in the case of the credit downgrade, the House Republicans first held the country’s credit hostage, and then Ryan himself shot down the Grand Bargain on deficit reduction that the president offered to resolve the crisis.
However, even though it’s a less important issue, I want to focus on the GM plant in his district. Ryan infamously blamed Obama for the plant closing, and called the stimulus “cronyism at its worst,” despite the fact that Ryan was one of those cronies, requesting stimulus funds be earmarked for that plant because it would create jobs.
And nevermind that Ryan is undeniably relying on the gullibility and ignorance of voters to keep his case against the president afloat, the real irony in the GM example is how Paul Ryan and Mitt Romney’s behavior tracks with the story of certain Atlas Shrugged villains. To wit:
At the end of Part One, Dagny unravels the history of “the 20th Century Motor Company,” the Objectiverse’s version of GM. She learns that GM’s last owner before bankruptcy was a Bain Capital-esque investment company that petitioned the government for money to keep GM’s factory open. The government turned Bain down, and GM was kept temporarily afloat by an untenable loan from the private sector upon which Bain eventually defaulted — which is essentially the sequence of events Mitt Romney argued for in his notoriously ill-conceived “Let GM fail” op-ed. Frankly, the thoroughness of the parallel here is bizarre.
Speaking of Romney, I’ve already pointed out that the profile of Ayn Rand’s venal head of state character “Mr. Thompson” is an eerily appropriate description of Mitt, both physically and in political style. But the more relevant critique is on the policy level. Specifically he has promised to reduce the deficit all while raising defense spending, lowering taxes, refusing to cut Medicare, and while considering war with Iran and trade war with China. This is obviously impossible, giving Romney’s platform the same internal coherence as the progressive platform in Atlas Shrugged that argues Soviet-style programs will revive the free enterprise system.
Yet the most apalling example of Republican hypocrisy regards the fiscal cliff coming up after the election. Since no compromise was able to solve the credit crisis that Ryan helped to provoke, the parties agreed to a series of deep spending cuts to be enacted at the end of the year, cuts that will effectively ruin the recovery if no compromise is reached. If the sequestration cuts go through, or even if negotations hit a wall, we could see another series of unnecessary economic shocks.
With that history in mind, it was surreal to me to read an op-ed in Business Insider three weeks ago that argued the best way to avoid any problems with the fiscal cliff was to elect Romney and Ryan. The basic argument presented was that with Romney/Ryan in the White House, congressional Republicans will happily raise the debt ceiling and pass more stimulus bills on top of it — exactly the same obviously sound policies they have decried as radical and un-American when pursued by President Obama.
Furthermore, op-ed author Joe Weisenthal argued, Paul Ryan’s reputation as a fiscal hawk and budget wonk is exactly what gives him the credibility to get his fellow Republicans to… betray those very principles. Like The Wire‘s Tommy Carcetti, the price Ryan must pay for the Vice Presidency is the discarding of all the policies that he wants to be Vice President to promote.
So to sum that up, Weisenthal’s argument is that the hostage-taker should be in charge of driving the hostage back to her house, and can be trusted to do so because he has no integrity vis a vis his reasons for taking hostages in the first place.
Peruse that argument again — this is where the insane parody of logic and ethics illustrated in Atlas Shrugged finds its full expression in the real life GOP. The values of truth and good-faith negotation have been completely abandoned, and that is offered up as a reason to support those who abandoned them. The economic crisis depicted in Atlas Shrugged has come to life, they claim, so elect those who believe in the message of Atlas Shrugged, they say, even though that message is that we should welcome economic armageddon so that the rich don’t feel responsible for the middle class anymore. These rationales are perverse in how perfectly they contradict themselves.
Last week Mitt Romney spoke of wanting the president to succeed even as the historical record shows the Republican Party explicitly declaring their goal to be obstructing Obama for his entire first term to prevent his getting a second. Like Ayn Rand before them, the Republicans have created an unreal alternate “reality” in which their liberal political opponents are insane radical nihilists. Like Rand, they claim that everything is horrible because of this. Therefore they oppose everything and promise “real” America they will do the opposite of everything.
But as Ayn herself points out in delineating between Objectivism and nihilism, the opposite of everything is nothing. And if nothingness is at the heart of your ethics and your agenda, you aren’t the Objectivist party. You’re the nihilist party.