Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Understanding Objectivist Jargon Pt 12: "Benevolent Universe Premise"

"Benevolent Universe Premise" = The universe is in fact neutral. Thus, success and happiness are metaphysically to be expected. This is because the universe is indifferent to you. If you act in accordance with Objectivism you are certain to achieve your values. Unless there is some kind of accident, in which case, you won't. Hey, that's the universe for you. If this seems to make no sense, just remember that Ayn Rand always thought and wrote clearly and precisely, not like other philosophers.

8 comments:

Jay Cross said...

Actually, nobody said "you are certain to achieve your values" if you act in accordance with Objectivism. What Peikoff said is that values cannot be achieved in lieu of virtuous living. He addresses the benevolent universe premise squarely in "Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand." I am paraphrasing, but he even says something along the lines of..

"This does not mean that success is automatically guaranteed to a conscientious Objectivist."

Daniel Barnes said...

Jay wrote:
>Actually, nobody said "you are certain to achieve your values" if you act in accordance with Objectivism.

Actually, Peikoff did.

"But reality is "benevolent" in the sense that if you do adapt to it - i.e., if you do think, value, and act rationally then you can (and barring accidents you will) achieve your values." (emphasis DB) - Leonard Peikoff, The Ayn Rand Lexicon, p51

I'm not saying his theory is coherent...;-) I'm saying that's what he said. (He does not seem to be aware that his off hand "barring accidents" completely undoes his premise!)

Jay said...

The "barring accidents" part of your quote is the context I'm talking about. To me, that's a far cry from "If you act in accordance with Objectivism you are certain to achieve your values"

Jay said...

And how does "barring accidents" undo his premise? He isn't claiming that the universe likes us or wants us to succeed. He says it has a definite nature and that our success will rise or fall by how well we adapt ourselves to it.

From what I can see you are putting words in his mouth.

Daniel Barnes said...

Jay:
>The "barring accidents" part of your quote is the context I'm talking about. To me, that's a far cry from "If you act in accordance with Objectivism you are certain to achieve your values"

That's not my problem, but Peikoff's. He's the one saying that you not just can, but will achieve your values.

Then in the same breath he writes himself a massive qualification..."barring accidents". Gee, like they almost never happen...

Now, you may think this is a profound fomulation, and you are welcome to such a belief. I, on the other hand, regard it as basically philosophic double-talk. If I was to receive a firm quotation from a contractor on what a job will cost, I would find it highly suspicious if they immediately tacked on a vague qualification about "barring accidents"....;-)

Amazingly, accidents happen all the time in our lives in the universe! This is because the universe really is neutral. Peikoff says this, but then says it is "benevolent" at the same time. This switch to a different sense just pointlessly confuses matters. Dude, it's either "neutral" or it isn't.

There is plenty of such verbalist double-talk in Rand and Peikoff's work (and also the work of many other philosophers). My wild guess is this whole "benevolent/malevolent universe" thing is just a bit packaging; a bit of brand-differentiation to give Objectivists an edge over existentialists (did you know Rand was originally going call Objectivism "existentialism", but it was already taken?) It then allowed the Randians to mischaracterise the existentialists as supposedly "malevolent" universers. Actually, underneath the packaging, both portray a neutral, uncaring cosmology in which the responsibility for what you do lies with you.

Jay said...

From all I have read, Peikoff described the benevolent universe premise as the idea that we can, with the proper actions and attitude, succeed in the world we live in. Of course this excludes accidents. Humans are not infallible and accidents can still obstruct the success of the most conscientious Objectivist. As Peikoff said "Virtue is not automatically rewarded, but this does not change the fact that it IS rewarded."

It seems to me that "benevolent" in this context means "offers the potential to flourish." Reasonable people can disagree over whether benevolent or neutral is the right word but the substance of what he's saying is completely clear to me.

Olivia Pierson said...

The Benevolent Universe Premise is about what to expect.

Yes, objectively, the universe is neutral. But we are part of it... it is our natural environment and our happiness within it is dependent on our willingness to adapt to the nature of its reality. The universe supports our life if we do the things necessary for our survival, and in this sense is benevolent toward our existence.

It's like our immune system. Barring something foreign invading our bodies - a virus, a bug or a bullet - we expect to enjoy vital health and well-being most of the time - and do. When... (not if) we do become sick or maimed in some way, it is an exception to normality (while we are still non-geriatrics) rather than a rule. If we value our lives and act toward dealing to the foreign invader, our body has a natural tendency to heal itself many times over. In this sense, our bodies are benevolently disposed toward us.... except for when they aren't! ;-)

Daniel Barnes said...

Olivia:
>The Benevolent Universe Premise is about what to expect.

Hi O,

I think we must be careful not to accidentally conflate the universe, which exists objectivley, with our expectations, which are subjective.

>Yes, objectively, the universe is neutral.

Well, why not simply call it the "Neutral Universe Premise" then?

>The universe supports our life if we do the things necessary for our survival, and in this sense is benevolent toward our existence.

Actually, the universe is a rather large place, with an almost infinitely small part of it that could even speculatively sustain life, let alone the infinitely small fraction of that that is actually known to sustain life. Almost all of it is an immense freezing void, or blasted with heat and deadly radiation, and subjec to either crushing or feeble gravitational forces. Calling this situation "benevolent" seems to be something of a stretch...;-) When you really think about it, it's more like a incredible cosmic fluke that the first amoebae came to exist on this tiny grain of dust at all. We are really very lucky, to make a vast understatement.

Your analogy with the immune system is really about the body's inbuilt "expectations", which are indeed analogous to our conscious expectations. That is, they presuppose certain regularities in our particular environment, regularities (food, water, air etc) without which they cannot function.

But just as with our conscious expectations, we must not conflate our body's expectations with the environment it exists in. Our expectations, - physical or mental - and the universe they have to deal with are two different things. There are plenty of situations where the human body is completely unable to meet its expectations - like the expectation of being able to breathe - in a particular part of the universe it finds itself in, - and this would be true for almost every part of the universe!

Anyway, I don't mean to belabour the point, which is really that if what Rand means to say is that the universe is objectively neutral - and I agree - it is really rather odd and misleading for her to call it "benevolent"...;-)