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Sunday, December 23, 2007

Why I'm Not an Objectivist, part 1

Recently someone evidently mistook me for an Objectivist. A natural mistake, I do publish in Objectivist forums on occasion, respect the classcal tradition of Aristotle and the Greeks and hold that, yes Virginia, there is a reality out there that exists independently of the pictures of it inside our heads.

In my youth, I did indeed read Rand and was captivated by her vivid prose - and the permission she gave high school geeks like me to be different.

More to the point, she gave the OK to bright young guys and girls to live for themselves, when everyone else seemed to have plans for us that we were not consulted about.

But... identifying myself with her "movement" and adopting the label? No thanks.

Couple of reasons: first, the notion that you have to accept the philosophy as a whole - or not at all.


As in, Rand never made a mistake in her life? Never had an opinion that was open to disagreement? Never had tastes or preferences that were just tastes and preferences - rather than deep insights into the eternal nature of reality that all "rational" men must obviously hold?

And then there was that pronouncement in the official Objectivist rag about "Never call yourself an Objectivist (without official sanction of course). Call yourself a "student of Objectivism.""

The reaction of anyone with an ounce of spunk to that one might be phrased, "Take a hike bitch!"*

But, there wasn't a reaction of that sort among her followers. Because by that time it was becoming evident that this was less of a movement and more of a cult. With the breakup of the Rand circle over the Brandon affair, it was obvious.

So, does that invalidate the genuine insights Rand developed? Not necessarily. Alfred Korzybski was a bit of a nutty cultist with his notions of "General Semantics" saving the world - but GS went mainstream in universities and became the respectable study of Semantics.

Objectivism seems to have likewise been taken seriously by some actual philosophers who are developing it into a respectible school of thought in academic philosophy.

In the end, the best thing Rand did for her philosophy was to die and get out of its way.

So... vis a vis that bit about accepting the philosophy as a whole or not at all, this seemed as good an excuse as any to dust off this letter I wrote to an Objectivist who asked me to define what I did and didn't agree with about Objectivism:

Dear J,

Your question about what I disagree with about Ayn Rand’s philosophy and views deserves a far longer treatment than this brief letter, and to be fair I’d want to go into more detail about what I like about her as well. Your question really set me thinking and perhaps I’ll deal with it in greater detail when I have more time to think about it. In the meantime, here are some of my thoughts on the subject.

The best and fairest critique of Rand’s philosophy and fiction I’ve ever read was by astrophysicist and writer David Brin in the September 2000 issue of Liberty. I’ll quote one of the most important passages:

“…Objectivism, which begins by proposing that reality exists independent of its perception. This contrasts refreshingly against the subjective-relativism offered by today’s fashionable neo-leftist philosophers, who claim (in total ignorance of science) that “truth” can always be textually redefined by any observer – a truly pitiable, easily disproved, and essentially impotent way of looking at the world.

"So far, so good. Unfortunately, any fledgling alliance between Rand’s doctrine and actual science breaks down soon after that. For she further holds that objective reality is readily accessible by solitary individuals using words and logic alone. This proposition – rejected by nearly all modern scientists – is essentially a restatement of the Platonic worldview, a fundamental axiom of which is that the universe is made up of ideal essences or “values” (the term Rand preferred) that can be discovered, dispassionately examined, and objectively analyzed by those few bold minds who are able to finally free themselves from hoary assumptions of the past. Once freed, any truly rational individual must, by simply applying verbal reasoning, independently reach the same set of fundamental conclusions about life, justice and the universe. (Naturally, any mind that fails to do so must, by definition, not yet be free.)”

Well, already this is starting to get too deep for me, I’m not a philosopher. I have studied formal Logic and liked it very much (that and classical Rhetoric – if only there was a way to make a living at it!) but it’s not my field of expertise.

The way I see it from my limited knowledge, is that Rand seems to hold that it is possible to construct a single model that basically accounts for everything (as in the passage above). To me this seems to involve the old contradiction of the “class of all classes that includes itself”.

What a philosophical model is, is exactly that a model, i.e. an abstraction of reality containing the most important features necessary for the pragmatic task at hand. And like a kid’s model airplane it doesn’t contain every detail – one that did would be an airplane. A complete model of reality would have to be contained in a mind bigger than the universe, the mind of God in fact.

It would seem from this that in life we need to use not one, but a number of different models, each appropriate to the task we face at any given moment.

Interestingly, I met Barbara Branden in Athens years ago and liked her very much. However when making the above point, she didn’t see it. I don’t mean she disagreed, it’s that she didn’t see what I was talking about at all. I pointed to the Acropolis and said that we cannot know everything about it, past the geological structure of the hill and down to the quantum level. She maintained (actually, she interrupted) that someday we could. No, not according to modern physics.

An example I like to use (because I’m an Anthropologist): we know from gravesites that Neanderthal man had some kind of religious sentiment. They often buried their dead in a fetal position covered with red ocher. The symbolism seems obvious; the Earth is or mother and we return to Her when we die.

Obviously, in a scientific-literalist model this is patently false. Doris Browne is my mother and when I die I’m going to rot. We are not however dealing here with truth-functional statements but metaphors, perhaps even pre-scientific intuitions of something that is real and valid for human beings.

Is it a model that is likely to produce a scientific method and an industrial civilization? Probably not. Will it comfort individuals faced with the certain knowledge of their own extinction (and in the case of the Neanderthals, the extinction of their species!)? Likely so.

Furthermore, vis a vis Rand’s insistence that you took her philosophy whole or not at all; within a single model there is room for a lot of disagreement about specific points. This is true for every scientific model that I know of and I don’t see why a philosophical model should be any different. Nathaniel Branden pointed out once that her contention implies that she had never made an error in her thinking.

For a couple of specific examples on where I disagree with her; in The Virtue of Selfishness (I don’t have a copy to hand and can’t give a page reference, and I’m quoting from memory) she tossed off a remark about “…rational, (i.e. logical) thinking…”.

If I understand correctly, I have to disagree. Equating reason with logic is like saying “carpentry” is “hammer”. A hammer is a tool of carpentry (and other skills as well) as logic is a tool of reason. But logic is not the whole of reason nor is the strict application of formal logic always rational.

In Athens I was invited to give an example of this by a couple of our South American friends. I pointed out that to impugn the honesty of one’s opponent in an argument, rather than dealing solely with the argument, is an example of one of the oldest known of the informal fallacies of logic, the argumentum ad hominem (a favorite tactic of the Left, by the way). However, if you are making an important decision based on the urging of another individual, you’d be well advised to consider whether this person is known to be a liar or not!

Another is about a saying that Objectivists like to repeat (though I can’t recall if it is actually attributable to Rand) is, “Compassion for the guilty is treason to the innocent.” (Actually, this is a restatement of one attributed to Edmund Burke, “Kindness to the guilty is cruelty to the innocent,” a far more defensible proposition.)

This is both contemptible and cowardly. I see nothing impossible about dealing stern justice to the guilty while at the same time having an appreciation for the appalling circumstances of their lives that twisted their humanity into something scarcely recognizable as such. (Consider the horrible childhood of that moral monster Saddam Hussein.)

One can acknowledge that pity tears at you with claws even as you have to pull the trigger, it’s just horribly painful. (Furthermore, it can slow your reflexes in a critical moment.)

My favorite philosopher, Eric Hoffer remarked that all virtues can be corrupted to evil ends, except compassion.

Another issue is that of what we call duty. Objectivists I know reject this idea entirely. For me it’s perhaps a matter of definition more than actual disagreement though. Robert Heinlein said, “Never confuse duty with something you owe somebody else. Duty is something you owe yourself alone.”

What I define duty as is, the price you have to pay in order to think of yourself as the kind of person you wish to think of yourself (based on values you have freely chosen – at least ideally.)

I.e. if you want to think of yourself as a courageous person, you must act on your view of the right at times when it is “inconvenient, unpopular or dangerous to do so”**. In extremis, perhaps even at the cost of your life, if life is not worth living knowing you failed in your duty.

Oh gosh, I could go on but perhaps your eyes are glazing over right now.

I’ve attached an article I wrote inspired by another conversation I had with Barbara about non-rational (NOT irrational) values***, and I thought you’d like a picture I took in Budapest while I was in transit on a rescue mission to Belgrade. It’s the Imre Nagy monument near the parliament building. I came across it unexpectedly and given the circumstances I was moved to tears. I wanted to stand next to him on the bridge and ask him if I was worthy to call him comrade.


Anyone want to guess how the Objectivist replied?

Those of you who know some might guess. It was, "Read Atlas Shrugged."

Stay tuned for Part 2: I Read Atlas Shrugged.

* From an old Objectivist porn comic. The heroes reject women who profess their love because of the opinions of others with that phrase. Couldn't resist.

** Walter Lippmann's definition of honor, "A man has Honor when he adheres to a code of conduct when it is inconvenient, unprofitable or dangerous to do so."

*** See http://rantsand.blogspot.com/2006/12/meditations-on-graves.html


  • At 9:35 PM, Blogger Joshua Zader said…

    Bah! You're just an Objectivist with an ornery streak.

  • At 5:53 AM, Blogger Steve Browne said…

    And what Objectivist doesn't?

    Joshua I could wear the label if it covered a broader field, but the Old One wouldn't want me to, and I have to respect her wishes.

  • At 5:37 AM, Blogger Jim Sullivan said…

    That's great stuff. I especially like David Brin's remarks.

    "Read Atlas Shrugged" That's priceless.

    Good letter, Mr. Browne.

  • At 7:52 PM, Blogger Galt-In-Da-Box said…

    Amen brother! I like Ayn Rand's books and ideas, but having looked into ARI and had a few confrontations with the fanatical atheists there - to say nothing of investigating the Branden affair - I decided early on to "not drink the kool-aid" and commend you heartily.


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