Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Objectivist Fundamentalism

Commenter Orin T sends us to the following excellent post on fundamentalism by David Sloan Wilson. Wilson analyses Rand and finds her work as fundamentalist as an Hutterite epistle of faith.

I now had a serviceable definition of fundamentalism--a system of beliefs that alleviates serious decision-making on the part of the believer. A fundamentalist belief system is manifestly false as a factual description of the real world; otherwise the believer would be confronted with messy trade-offs. Nevertheless, a fundamentalist belief system can be highly adaptive in the real world, depending upon the actions that it motivates. It can even outcompete a more realistic belief system that leaves the believer fretting endlessly about all those messy trade-offs.

My second insight about fundamentalism came when I coded Ayn Rand's book of essays setting forth her creed of objectivism titled The Virtue of Selfishness, along with a more obscure book titled The Art of Selfishness written by a self-help author named David Seabury. Once again, after dozens of words and phrases had been coded, written by Rand with her highbrow pretentions or Seabury in his homey style, two boxes of my table remained empty. Judging by the absence of tradeoffs, their tracts were every bit as fundamentalist as the Hutterite epistle of faith. It didn't matter that Rand was an atheist who called herself a rationalist. She used her talents to create a belief system that becomes a no-brainer for anyone who steps into it. She even stated explicitly in one of her essays that "there are no conflicts of interest among rational men."


clay barham said...

Rand would only have been correct if she followed the Obama ideals of communty interests being more important than are individual interests, the latter having built America as the free and prosperous nation we should all be ashamed of, I guess.

Unknown said...


The post is truly magnificent. David Sloan Wilson sometimes gets into trouble in evolutionary circles for his support of group selection, but the way he frames the fundamentalism issue is truly interesting and a genuinely novel application of or slant on the falsifiability criterion in my view. On the other hand, I may be unfamiliar with the broader literature but this was really striking.

I guess the question of whether we can or should always find simple rules for decision making in a complex world is open to philosophical debate and I think that is one point on which Wilson is open to attack. And how do we know that an individual just hasn't found a particular issue he can frame in terms of tradeoffs (as opposed to being ideologically predisposed against them)?

All in all, I nod my head with enthusiastic approbation :D.

Daniel Barnes said...

I'm with you Laj.

It's a terrific approach.

Unknown said...


I looked over Sloan's blog and he even has older stuff which I think was posted on his behalf by someone else. Check this out:

Unknown said...

It seems he posts regularly on the Huffington Post and this might be a selective mirror site.

Xtra Laj said...

OK - I just noticed that he moved his blog from Huffington Post to scienceblogs a few months ago.

He seems to make the same critiques of Dennett's and Dawkins's critiques of religion that I did (and in a far more informed manner too) - the New Atheists's criticisms betray a vast amount of what we know about human nature in general and how it contributes to the psychology of religion in particular by trying to pin broad human vices on religion.