Posts Tagged religion
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
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 a post from last week Gwynn Guilford of The Dish starts out exploring Paul Ryan’s monetary beliefs and ends up curating arguments about Ayn Rand. Not that surprising, right? On the relationship between them, Gwynn points out (and isn’t the first) that Ryan’s “rejection of Rand’s philosophy has mainly emphasized his disagreement with her atheism,” and that his economic ideas are textbook Objectivist — something I also highlighted in my “Paul Ryan, Republican Microcosm” post from May.
How can Ryan back Rand’s second-order political beliefs when her first-order metaphysical beliefs directly contradict his own? Easy: Rand’s metaphysical position is not actually atheistic, and her claim that it is is self-deception. As David Foster Wallace once put it (again, hat tip to The Dish),
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.
Rand chooses to worship money; her nominal atheism is superfluous. So the incisive quote I want to focus on today is Ryan’s from 2009, claiming that Ayn “does the best job of anybody to build the moral case for capitalism.” This doesn’t tell us anything we don’t already know about Paul Ryan’s beliefs about the free market. But it does tell us something important about Paul Ryan’s beliefs about morality.
First things first: there is a far better moral case for capitalism than anything Ayn comes up with. The simplest argument is the consequentialist one. Of all the economic systems in recorded history, capitalism has clearly produced the most wealth in the fastest amount of time, and done the most to raise living standards and promote widespread opportunities. In this way it is self-evidently superior to, say, mercantilism or feudalism or communism (let’s table the issue of democratic government’s role in capitalism’s success, for now).
Despite that bit of common sense, Ryan and Rand are libertarians, and as Ron Paul has said (and as I discussed during the GOP debates), libertarianism is indifferent to outcomes. The historical record is immaterial; moral justice comes from a set of first principles that are objectively right, such that when these principles are put into practice, whatever the results are, they’re fundamentally just too. From this position of moral absolutism, consequentialist arguments are moot exactly because they are consequentialist.
And under this moral accounting, consequentialist arguments aren’t just impotent, but are in themselves a symptom of moral degradation. Rand constantly pegs her villains as moral relativists who declare their actions immune to moral judgment because morality is a social construct or simply unknowable. Any departure from an absolute morality is a heresy intimately tied to society’s overall moral bankruptcy.
This philosophical posture extends to Ryan too; you can see the moral absolutism in his “no rape exemption” stance towards abortion (another issue getting press lately). You also see it in the quote I emphasized above: Ryan prefers Rand’s convoluted faith-based justification for capitalism over the basic consequential argument that it makes peoples’ lives better.
Yes, Rand’s love of capitalism is faith-based, and for proof I refer you to Francisco’s speech about the value of money, as I recapped here (Dave Weigel also examines this passage in his Ryan-Rand coverage, excerpted in the Dish post I linked to above). In that recap, I explicate how Frisco isn’t just saying “greed is good,” he’s saying that there is an objective moral law at work in the universe bringing inevitable justice to human affairs. For the atheist materialist Rand, this sounds dangerously metaphysical, so Francisco adds a logically independent premise, that money is an empirically measurable mechanism by which this karmic market operates. Rand thus uses money as a literal token of objectivity, a fig leaf disguising the fact that her premises can’t be reached by logical deduction or induction: they are purely subjective value judgments.
But the strongest psychological glue between Rand and fundamentalist Christianity isn’t the prosperity gospel, it’s the false equivalence they posit between moral relativism and modernism in general.
In a great post at Boingboing, Maggie Koerth-Baker explores why Christian fundamentalists vilify set theory in their math textbooks, honing in on an important point about the fundamentalist worldview:
Modernism, to the publishers of A Beka math books, is sick and wrong. The idea is that if you reject their specific idea of God and their specific idea of The Rules, then you must be living in a crazy, dangerous world. You could kill people, and you would think it was okay, because you’re a modernist and you know there’s really no such thing as right and wrong. Basically, they’ve bumped into a need to separate themselves from the almost inhuman Other on a massive scale, and latched on to modernism as a shorthand for how to do that. It doesn’t matter what you or I actually believe, or even what we actually do. They know what we MUST believe and what we MUST be like because of the tenets of modernism.
More importantly, they know that we are subtle, and use sneaky means to indoctrinate children and lure adults into accepting modernist values. So the art, the literature, the jazz … are all just traps. They’re ways of getting us to reject to One True Path a little bit at a time.
And that paranoid dynamic is found all over Atlas Shrugged. It’s baked right into Rand’s thinking. Just look at the last chapter I recapped, in which the innocent Cheryl comes to understand the nihilism of her relativist husband. Driven mad by his cruelty, she stumbles through Manhattan, seeing only that same nihilistic philosophy implicit in the eyes of everybody she encounters. Rand very explicitly claims the world is overrun with a perverse value system that lures the innocent masses to moral depravity. She explicitly cites art and culture as contagious symptoms of this rot. She denounces the false consciousness of religious thinking, but her train of thought runs on a perfectly parallel track.
This psychological sameness is what keeps intellectual contradictions from tearing today’s Republican party apart along religious v. economic lines. Both sides are united against the world — or more accurately, a shared dehumanizing misconception of the world.
PREVIOUSLY: Dagny returned to work, only to realize more acutely than ever how shitty humans are.
Hank Rearden’s wife Lily, scorned woman, repressed vessel of hellacious fury, and bitter harpy, shows up at Dagny’s office unannounced. Dagny is like, “Goddammit, these assholes expect you to save the world and then never give you a moment alone to do it!”
Lily puts on the pretense of civility but holds back nothing when she tells Dagny she will absolutely go on Leno like her brother asked her to, and assuage the peoples’ fears. Dagny balks.
Relishing the moment, Lil informs Dags that she knows about her years-long affair with Hank. She boasts that Hank sacrificed his rights to rMetal under duress, to prevent a scandal that would ruin Dagny’s reputation for integrity and professionalism. And now, Lilian declares triumphantly, Dagny will also play her part in greasing the wheels of a morally bankrupt society, for the very same reason. Mwa ha ha, etc.
But Dagny is unimpressed. Lillian tries to goad her some more by taking credit for uncovering the adultery and passing that information on to the blackmailers (specifically Dagny’s brother, but she doesn’t mention that). Anyway, still nothing. The lack of reaction is getting to her, and she’s like, “Well?”
Dagny shrugs. “Yeah sure, I’ll go on Leno.”
CUT TO: Jay Leno. Or “Bertram Scudder,” but who cares anymore. Actually, by this description:
He was laboring to sound cynical, skeptical, superior and hysterical together, to sound like a man who sneers at the vanity of all human beliefs and thereby demands an instantaneous belief from his listeners.
He’s clearly Rush Limbaugh. So Rush/Jay/Bert bloviates for a hot minute before turning the mic over to our heroine, who has been primed by his preamble to endorse the totalitarian regime.
BUT! Dagny blows up everyone’s spot. She announces to the nation that neither she nor Hank Rearden endorsed the forfeiture of all economic liberty, regardless of how things seemed. Allow her to explain… Then with one pang of guilt for… hurting John Galt’s feelings? Jesus, shut up…, Dagny confesses:
“I had been Hank Rearden’s mistress. … Not as a shameful confession, but with the highest sense of pride … have I experienced the most violent form of sensual pleasure. Specifically I let him put it in the butt.”*
*I’m paraphrasing that part but it’s almost definitely accurate.
Anyway she continues that she doesn’t care who knows because they were doing it for the right reasons: because they admired and respected each other and inspired each other to be better. Not like Rearden’s sham marriage, or like “most of you” for whom sex is “an act of casual indulgence and mutual contempt.”
Then she transitions to how their extramarital fuckathons are morally similar to building railroads and stuff, because that’s the next logical step. More to the point, anybody who judges their affair negatively she accuses of being a soured soul who wants to destroy all human happiness. Because that’s what she has attained, after all, and the haters are just jealous.
At this point Limbaugh tries to take back the reins, because as we all know he’s not into sluts or women taking pride in their sexuality generally. Dagny brushes him off, concludes that it was only through explicit blackmail and implicit moral perversity that the powers-that-be kept Rearden in line while she was gone.
The goverment handlers hanging ominously in the shadows step forward and cut the signal. Jim and Lillian, watching from the studio audience, rush the booth. Everyone’s flipping their shit, trying to figure out what to put on in place of dead air. Dagny just slips out the back.
Back at her apartment, Dags is surprised to find the door open and the lights on. Hank has returned! He indicates the TV/radio/whatever and she knows that he heard. But he looks relaxed, happy, confident, etc. It’s a weight off his chest too. Overwhelmed with everything, she crumples in his embrace and cries her little heart out. OH THE HUMANITY. Literally.
Eventually she calms down and braces herself to tell Hank they can’t sleep together anymore because she’s got a crush on L. Ron Hubbard, but he’s like, “Shh, shh, shhhh… let me go first.”
“Dagny,” he says, “I love you, always have, always will. But we can’t sleep together anymore.” Allow him to explain…
So the gist here is that he feels they’ve run their course in a totally mutual way. They have successfully exchanged value for value and don’t need to stay together out of some sense of obligation.
See, when they first slept together he was all ashamed of sex, believed the body to be sinful, etc. But it was only his guilt and shame that gave their enemies leverage over him. He now rejects what he calls the “mystic’s” false distinction between mind and body. Which, good for him, I guess.
Except that he’s blithely conflating the philosophy of every spiritual and theological belief system into one tenet about how sex shouldn’t be fun, which is… false. Untrue. Hiding from reality, to use Rand’s condemnatory phrase. Afterall, not only are there myriad spiritual traditions that celebrate the holistic nature of the self as encompassing both mind and body, but Western intellectual rationalism hasn’t exactly resolved its own contradictory attitudes towards the mind/body problem either.
Which is to say that for the length of a very boring monologue, Hank lumps everything bad in the Objectiverse under the heading of “the mystics’ morality.” Then he declares everything that is not specifically Objectivist in nature as falling into that category. Somehow this results in an epiphany that ancient patriarchical attitudes towards sex are exactly like Keynesian economics. Outside Dagny’s window, the Fonz leaps over an entire school of sharks.
Even Hank admits that he would find his own conclusions laughable if he hadn’t been convinced by his 800 pages of existence in a universe specifically designed to prove that exact point to him. Wow yeah, isn’t that weird? Here, I’ll give you guys a hint: the conclusions are still laughable, and SO IS YOUR UNIVERSE.
Long story short Hank lets Dagny down easy. He knows she already found somebody else, because she spoke about their affair in the past tense when she was on the air. He’s not jealous or upset, just happy they helped each other grow as people.
Dagny is relieved. Hank is pleased. But also kind of curious as to who her new beau is, and she can’t really tell him, but he pieces it together that she found The Destroyer, and that it was John Galt, and that he invented the miraculous ion drive, and that now she’s banished from her love for wanting to save the world. Somebody get this guy a pipe and a magnifying glass.
And so, with the Galt-Taggart-D’Anconia-Rearden-Rearden love pentahedron finally resolved, Dagny and Hank bask in the satisfied afterglow of personal drama averted, even as the darkening world outside continues to gnaw insidiously at their idealistic guts.
(OR, How Conservative Arguments About Birth Control Really Mean They Wanted More Radical Obamacare)
So contraception’s been in the news lately, and I could tell right away that the debate about it was relevant here, since the blog is about where progressives and libertarians meet and the debate is about that exactly. But I haven’t had the time to address it here until now, so let’s do this thing:
The issue has been framed two ways — one as a matter of women’s rights, and the other as a matter of religious freedom. For those who’ve been following this blog, these two views represent the two different types of liberty (which I discussed here).
Basically, when you consider the issue as one of reproductive rights, it’s a matter of positive liberty because you’re saying a woman has a right TO something. Considered as a matter of religious conscience it’s about negative liberty because you’re saying an employer has a right to be free FROM something.
So if the government guarantees women access to birth control, it is protecting their right to choose at the expense of their employers’ right to choose, but if the government leaves the employers free to choose, it will take choices out of women’s hands.
Rather than get bogged down in arguments about whose rights take priority, however, we could just acknowledge that this entire debate would not exist if individuals didn’t rely on their employers for health insurance.
Again, if individuals had any kind of negotiating power in the health care market, there would be no conflict of interest here. If we had, oh I don’t know, some kind of clear relationship between health care services and every single payer, differences in the moral beliefs of employers and employees that have no bearing on their business relationship would have no bearing on their business relationship. Women’s rights wouldn’t conflict with religious liberty at all.
So conservatives worried this is an attack on religious freedom are actually making a good argument that Obamacare wasn’t liberal enough.
Let’s, er, apply Ayn Rand as an example. The official Ayn Rand Lexicon entry on birth control proves that Rand would have been on the progressive side of this argument — as if her hatred of religion and love of kinky sex hadn’t made that abundantly clear already. Yet in this case, protecting a woman’s right “to her own life and happiness” (Rand’s phrasing) would mean government interference in the economy, which she hated. So we know already that the current conversation is a tangled mess.
Let’s clean it up, shall we?
To start with we have individuals and doctors. Currently between them are employers, insurance companies, and government, all negotiating amongst themselves what the individuals and doctors can do. Despite all the controversy over Obamacare, that basic framework was true before it passed and it’s still true now.
The most radical liberal option during the health care debate would have been to break the backs of the insurance companies and replace them with a single-payer system that would remove employers from the equation too, leaving only one arbiter between people and their doctors, and the same arbiter for everyone, thus radically simplifying people’s interactions with health care providers and making it clear who to petition for changes in the system in the future. Counter-intuitively, even though this would be the ‘big government’ solution, it would in many ways increase individual liberty — positive liberty.
But that course of action wasn’t on the table. A ‘public option’ would have essentially been a single-payer system competing against the insurance companies in the free market, which is a more American approach to reform anyway. But that would’ve meant the insurance companies would have to actually, you know, compete. So powerful corporate interests that they are, they mobilized an army of lobbyists (like Rand’s Wesley Mouch) to water down the law as much as possible and stop it from being too innovative or efficient. The individual mandate, which is obviously a huge infringement on negative liberty, was originally a Republican idea in the ’90s and basically hands the insurance companies lots of new business.
Which means, if we review the chain of events really quickly, well-established corporations with well-funded lobbies and a status quo bias (the villains in Atlas Shrugged) were facing upstarts who wanted to boost efficiency (just like in Atlas Shrugged), and they sabotaged this effort by helping to rewrite the law in their own interests (just like in Atlas Shrugged), the results of which have led to unnecessary conflicts and limits on freedom (just like in Atlas Shrugged), conflicts now blamed on those who were attempting reform in the first place (just like in Atlas Shrugged), reformers who in this case were progressive elected officials (the exact opposite of Atlas Shrugged).
So. As I have pointed out on multiple occasions, people who claim that real life since 2008 is just like in Atlas Shrugged are actually on to something in terms of the plot, because that comparison is revisiting the book in reality’s terms, retrospectively. But taking Rand’s political prejudices in Atlas Shrugged and prejudging real people by them in terms of character, the comparison is reframing reality in the book’s terms, which is just failing to face reality on its own terms.
And in that ideological mismatch, Rand fans end up supporting policies and politicians that only worsen the economic problems that scared them in the first place… which is just like in Atlas Shrugged.