Tuesday, October 05, 2010

Objectivism & “Metaphysics,” Part 14

Objectivist theory of free will vs. the facts of reality. In the last two posts I have documented how the Objectivist metaphysics has helped rationalize the eccentricities of David Harriman and closed the Objectivist mind to scientific research into the paranormal. In the larger scheme of things, these are relatively minor faults. Where the Objectivist metaphysics seriously leads its partisans astray is on the issue of free will and human nature. For Rand, free will is axiomatic, which means, “self-evident” and “fundamentally given and directly perceived.” Now whether free will is self-evident I will leave for another post. Here I’m only interested in specific facts that are sacrificed on the alter of Rand’s free will.

Exhibit 1:

I was astonished at how closed she typically was to any new knowledge [testifies Nathaniel Branden] .…When I tried to tell her of some new research that suggested that certain kinds of depression have a biological basis, she answered angrily, ‘I can tell you what causes depression; I can tell you about rational depression and I can tell you about irrational depression—the second is mostly self-pity—and in neither case does biology enter into it.’ I asked her how she could make a scientific statement with such certainty, since she had never studied the field; she shrugged bitterly and snapped, ‘Because I know how to think.’” (Judgement Day, 1989, 347)


We all know the rationale behind this particular evasion of the facts. Rand is claiming because people have free will, they cannot possibly be influenced by biological factors. But this is merely an a priori rationalization of the worst sort. Claims about the biological basis of an emotion can only be settled experimentally, through empirical testing. The evidence for the hypothesis that biological factors can influence emotions is overwhelming and not in dispute among psychiatrists familiar with the relevant research. If anyone has any doubt on the score, just consider how diseases of the brain can affect emotion and personality.



Exhibit 2:

So how exactly does evolutionary psychology explain the misery, the jealousy, the lying [that occurred as a result of Rand’s affair with Nathaniel Branden]? When Rand and her followers tried to wish away obvious facts about humans' emotional constitution, their feelings didn't change. But they made each other miserable pretending that they felt the way they were supposed to feel. Rand and Nathaniel had to pretend that Nathaniel was attracted to Rand. Their spouses had to pretend that they weren't jealous. Rand and Nathaniel had to pretend that they believed that their spouses weren't jealous. The more they tried to talk themselves into having feelings contrary to human nature, the worse they felt. Nathaniel coped not by admitting error, but by finding a mistress and lying to cover it up. Since Rand had already ruled out the obvious explanation for Nathaniel's behavior, she went on a wild goose chase to find the "real" explanation. Etc...

As Rand says, "[F]acts cannot be altered by a wish, but they can destroy the wisher." I give her a lot of credit for emphasizing that human beings are potentially rational animals. But she evaded (yes, evaded!) the fact that human beings are invariably animals - and paid the price. [Byran Caplan, "Rand vs. Evolutionary Psychology: Part 1"]


Exhibit 3:

OK, so Ayn Rand created a cult. What does this have to do with evolutionary psychology [and human nature]? Simple: Contrary to Rand, the fact that human beings care about the opinions of the people around them doesn't stem from philosophical error. It stems from evolution [or human nature]. Human beings evolved in small groups where good relations were vital for survival. People who weren't interested in other people's opinions had trouble staying alive and reproducing. Caring about the opinions of others isn't as immutable as our sexual preferences, but it's very deeply rooted. Consider: How much would I have to pay you to walk in front of an audience of a hundred strangers and make a fool of yourself?

Rand was no exception. She thought that her affair with Branden was morally above reproach, but made every effort to keep it secret. Why? Because unlike John Galt, she shared our normal human concern about the opinions of other people - including complete strangers:

[A]nother thought struck her and put her in a panic. If he had been underhanded enough to deceive her about his feelings toward her for months or years on end, what else might he be capable of? Would he do something terrible to embarrass her in public or discredit her ideas...? "I can't predict what he'll do, and I'm terrified of what may happen to my name and reputation!" she cried in despair. Growing tired and tearful as the night wore on, she murmured, "My life is over. He took away this earth." [Anne Heller, Ayn Rand and the World She Made]


If people really could stop caring about other people's opinions, Rand's counter-culture never would have gotten off the ground. Within five minutes, prospective members would have adamantly disagreed with Rand about something or other, and she would have purged them. Her counter-culture took root precisely because even avowed individualists will feign agreement in order to fit in. [Byran Caplan, "Rand vs. Evolutionary Psychology: Part 2"]



Now it’s important here not to get caught up on the merits of evolutionary psychology. The important question here is whether sexual jealousy, age differences, attraction to younger women, concern with what other people think are all built-in features, rather than just premises accepted by “free will.” The evidence over-whelmingly supports the view that some sexual feelings, including jealousy, are hardwired. Nor is it in the least plausible to assume that concern with what other people think is a mere premise which can be "deprogrammed" from the mind through psychotherapy. To deny a human nature consisting of innate propensities is a far more serious matter than denying facts about quantum mechanics or Einstienian relativity. Advanced experimental physics may be important in certain technical fields; but in ordinary life, it hardly matters. You don’t need knowledge of such arcana to get a job and raise a family. But if you don’t understand human nature, you’re probably going to have a much harder time of it navigating one’s way through life. Interacting with other people is what everyone must do. The notion of the man who lives entirely by himself, like Robinson Crusoe, is a myth. To get on in this world, it helps to understand what motivates and drives the people around us. Incorrect assumptions about human nature only leads to just the sort of personal dysfunction as is limned in Anne Heller’s biography of Rand.

What makes all of this so much the worse is the intellectual feebleness of Rand’s rationale for evading human nature. But this is a topic which must be reserved for my next post.

17 comments:

Daniel Barnes said...

Greg:
> Nor is it in the least plausible to assume that concern with what other people think is a mere premise which can be "deprogrammed" from the mind through psychotherapy.

The way Objectivists seem think such "deprogramming" can be achieved is via a kind of philopsychotherapy. This adds up to a bunch of scholastic verbalist interrogations of "premises", followed by everyone pretending that this has made some sort of difference. Rand's remarkable bouts of philopsychologising in the diaries reproduced in The Passion of Ayn Rand's Critics give us a record of this process in action.

Anonymous said...

Branden: "I asked her how she could make a scientific statement with such certainty, since she had never studied the field; she shrugged bitterly and snapped, ‘Because I know how to think.’"

Great quote. It says something about the cult of personality involved in objectivism that Branden continued to intellectually revere her after such an unacceptable answer.

Rand coined such terms as "mystics of muscle" and "mystics of the spirit." She was being a "mystic of the intellect" here: it's as if her though process trumped scientific evidence. Indeed, her reply mystifies "thinking" by making it do magical things. Apparently, from this quote (and others in this metaphysics series), Rand believed that her "thinking" can falsify empirical evidence and scientific inquiry.

How?

Your guess is as good as mine.

- Chris

Xtra Laj said...

Greg outdoes himself again. Never knew that Bryan Caplan had such a series. Now I have to go find it.

Matt Warren said...

Powerful post, here. I'm fond of noting that I don't have the philosophical awareness to debate a dyed-in-the-wool Objectivist, but I damned well know when someone's expressing primarily emotional points.

It continues to amaze me that someone so passionate and romantic at Rand tried to pass herself off as a Vulcan.

I just picture her as an adolescent, sweeping all the stuff off her desk in a noisy flourish, then screaming "I am not moody!"

Cavewight said...

Matt,

Oh well, as far as I'm concerned many an Objectivist response boils down to nothing better than that once his pretense at intellectual discussion has evaporated. It seems obvious over the years that while they have learned to mouth the Randian doctrine fairly well, their actual desire is to simply engage in the same theatrical ad hominem style as Rand.

Cavewight said...

I think one of the most enjoyable examples of Rand's ad hominem style is found in her two-part essay entitled "The principals...and the Principles." (The Ayn Rand Letter, vol. II, No. 19.) This concerned the Watergate hearings as broadcast over the airwaves. She starts out part I with an observation, "Television has a peculiar power to reveal the essence of a man's character." And it's all downhill from there - but actually quite amusing because she was so good at what she did best - verbally destroy others through their personality flaws, alleged motives, and even their physical appearances. For example, "[John] Dean's face, with its rodent-like jaw structure, was almost unbearable to watch." This is great stuff even if you happen to disagree with her philosophical analysis of the event.

Cavewight said...

Greg wrote:
>We all know the rationale behind this particular evasion of the facts. Rand is claiming because people have free will, they cannot possibly be influenced by biological factors.

I agree, even though she doesn't specifically state this reason. Or does she?

However, it is not an unusual albeit ignorant stance to take on human pathology. There are many people, knowing nothing of Rand or philosophy, whose opinion about mental illness is that it displays a flaw in one's character. For example, "Schizophrenics just need to straighten up their lives and find gainful employment." Rand was simply passing off this ignorance as intelligent reasoning. She rationalized a great many such evil beliefs. Most telling of all, perhaps, is her well-known disbelief in hypnosis, a well-established phenomenon, far more so than paranormal phenomena. NB reports that even when he convinced her of the reality of hypnosis by direct demonstration, within a month or so she had lapsed back into disbelief.

Behemoth said...

For someone who so explicitly derided the idea of a "mind-body (or soul-body) dichotomy," Rand sure seemed to consider the human mind to be almost other-worldly in its ability to not be affected by biology.

Ayn Rand Lexicon entry on "Soul-Body Dichotomy":
http://tinyurl.com/23sdp37

Her emphatic insistence that hers was the only philosophy that denied this dichotomy has always bugged me, especially since Eastern philosophers seem to have a much better grasp of the mind and body as an integrated unit.

Cavewight said...

Greg wrote:
>The evidence for the hypothesis that biological factors can influence emotions is overwhelming and not in dispute among psychiatrists familiar with the relevant research. If anyone has any doubt on the score, just consider how diseases of the brain can affect emotion and personality.

Isn't it true anyway that Rand took anti-depressants?

Xtra Laj said...

In Rand's defense, cognitive therapy is effective. Of course, many have pointed out that cognitive therapy is not as dismissive of the importance of biology.

Cavewight said...

Xtra,

Are you sure you're thinking of Objectivism? Cognitive therapy was invented by Ayn Rand's sworn enemy, Albert Ellis.

Cavewight said...

Cognitive therapy was Aaron Beck's child. Ellis had rational-emotive therapy, but that one is also cognitive. I'm not sure if Objectivist psychotherapy qualifies as cognitive with its fantasy about subconscious premises.

Cavewight said...

This bears some interesting similarity to Objectivism:
http://brentslife.com/article/upload/psychotherapy/CBT%20and%20Naturalism.pdf
' [Aaron] Beck would probably agree with Karl Jaspers (1954) when he noted that, "There is no escape from philosophy. The question is only whether [a philosophy] is good or bad, muddled or clear. Anyone who rejects philosophy is himself unconsciously practicing a philosophy" (p. 12). In this sense,
many cognitive-behavioral theorists seem sensitive to the inescapability of philosophical assumptions. Indeed, this is the reason that some types of cognitive-behavioral therapy are often devoted to modifying, rather than removing, assumptions, because to remove all assumptions is to remove all “meaning and value” (Beck et al., 1979, p. 244). '

The great distinction I see here is that Objectivist psychotherapy practices purging of bad subconscious premises, while in the quote above it is recommended to modify them.

It doesn't surprise me, however, that Rand and/or Nathaniel Branden "borrowed" some ideas from here and there without even the vaguest hint at a citation. Rand is notorious for citing herself.

gregnyquist said...

"It doesn't surprise me, however, that Rand and/or Nathaniel Branden 'borrowed' some ideas from here"

Actually, the evidence suggests that Rand made the doctrine up all by herself. There are journal entries relating to it going back to the thirties. Indeed, in her journals, she even went so far as to ascribe desires, not merely emotions, to thoughts in the mind.

Branden, incidentally, disowned this doctrine after separating from Rand.

Cavewight said...

Greg,

Rand wrote in her notes to The Fountainhead that Peter Keating had no philosophy, set politics, or ethics. Later on in life, Rand claimed that everybody has a philosophy, implicit or explicit, etc. So apparently she changed her mind somewhere along the way.

Nathaniel, after the schism, preached about the primacy of focusing attention which is closely related to his earlier views on the primacy of thinking.

Cavewight said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Cavewight said...

Greg wrote:
>We all know the rationale behind this particular evasion of the facts. Rand is claiming because people have free will, they cannot possibly be influenced by biological factors.

This is nothing new, it's over 2000 years old and it's called Stoicism.

Rand tried to be original but there's really nothing new under the sun.
John Galt on the torture rack in Atlas Shrugged is a perfect example of Stoicism.