Friday, February 25, 2011

Atlas Shrugged Movie in Actually Quite Good Shock.

At least according to Matt Welch at Reason online. In ARCHNblog comments, Michael Prescott points us to another favorable review. With a budget of around $10m $15m - twice three times that originally reported and around twice that of a hit Coen brothers movie like Fargo - it looks like it may well be better than its thin trailer promised.

Now to the real drama: will the Ayn Rand Institute even acknowledge the movie's existence? Their front page column Ayn Rand In The Culture, and even the link that features press releases about "Atlas Shrugged" somehow has failed to notice it.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Rand and Empirical Responsibility 14

“Self-esteem is reliance on one’s power to think.” It's not clear whether this is meant as a definition or as a statement of fact. Objectivists often confuse the one with the other. A definition merely defines how a term is used. One may define one's terms as one pleases, but once a definition is granted, one needs to stay consistent to the usuage. If Rand's statement was meant as a definition, she is guilty of equivocation; for she does not always stick to that particular usage.

Self-esteem, in Rand and other writers, generally means esteeming one's self. Whether such esteem is based on a reliance of one's power to think is an assertion about matters of fact that requires evidence. Such evidence that is commonly available suggests that there is little relation between personal achievement (whether in thinking or in other areas) and self-esteem. American school children test highest for self-esteem and yet rank among the bottom in academic achievement. Criminals also test remarkably high for self-esteem, although their powers of thought are often sub-mediocre. Sometimes it is precisely who think well of themselves who lack the motivation necessary to become powerful thinkers. Why should they? They think themselves great as it is. Why bother with self-improvement if you already think you're great? On the other hand, there are those whose very lack of self-esteem serves as a motivator for self-improvement.

“Only a rationally selfish man, a man of self-esteem, is capable of love.” This statement packs three assertions, any one of which could easily be dismissed on empirical grounds. It assumes that, in order to be capable of love, one must be (1) rational, (2) selfish and (3) a man of self-esteem. Does Rand provide any evidence of these assertions? No. Indeed, they are hardly plausible. If Rand's view was true, we would have to conclude that most people are incapable of love. Would any sane person actually believe such a thing?

“Humility is not a recognition of one’s failings, but a rejection of morality.” So are humble people immoral (or amoral)? Again, we are confronted by a grossly implausible statement asserted without a jot of evidence to support it. Worse, Rand seems to be trying to redefine humility without making it entirely clear that she is doing so. Rand's tendency to redefine terms, not merely for herself, but for others, constitutes an egregious intellectual vice. She is, in effect, putting words in other people mouths and then condemning them on that basis. If she wishes to redefine humility, then she should do so in forthright terms, with a complete understanding that her usuage of the word has nothing to do with how the word is used in common discourse. And when chooses to use her redefined term in some controversial statement about matters of fact, she needs to back up her statement with factual evidence. Redefinition does not constitute proof.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Rand and Empirical Responsibility 13

“[Intellectual appeasement] is an attempt to apologize for his intellectual concerns and to escape from the loneliness of a thinker by professing that his thinking is dedicated to some social-altruistic goal.” Rand, despite her cluelessness about human nature, nevertheless couldn't help tossing off wildly speculative remarks about the more obscure motivations of the human animal. Where she comes up with some of this stuff is anyone's guess. How, for example, does she know that intellectual appeasement is merely an attempt to apologize for being concerned about intellectual matters? Where would she get such a notion? Where on earth does she come up with the idea that intellectual appeasement involves an "escape from loneliness"? What evidence does she have that such is the case?

Even as a mere conjecture or hypothesis, Rand's remark is not very plausible; yet she emits it as if it were a palpable certainty. On the face of it, Rand is merely indulging in psychological speculation about matters she knows little, if anything, about. The causes of intellectual appeasement, whatever they might be, probably vary from one individual to another. Whether loneliness or self-contempt is the main cause can only be determined (if it can be determined at all) on a case by case basis. In the meantime, a more plausible explanation for intellectual appeasement is to note that most intellectuals, being accustomed to a mode of living that eschews violence, simply either don't have or have never developed any special aptitude for violence, and are therefore prone to cowardice and appeasement.

“Tribalism is … a logical consequence of modern philosophy.” This is a specific application of Rand's theory of history. The trouble with such statements is that, because they are so broad and sweeping, they can neither be corroborated or refuted by empirical evidence. They are merely highly speculative hypotheses, and the question is whether they are plausible in relation to such facts that are known.

Rand makes no attempt to bring any kind of facts in to support her statement, beyond what she gleans from her distorted view of modern philosophy. Despite Rand's tendency to blur distinctions between views that she disagrees with, it would be mistake to regard so-called "modern" philosophy as a mere homogenuous mass. Modern philosophy includes many different positions, often virulently at odds with other positions. It is implausible to suppose that so many disparate views could all lead to tribalism.

But even more to the point is to reflect on the fact that tribalism, historically, has been the default position for the human race. For hundreds of thousands of years, human beings have existed in tribes; whereas the extended order leading to freedom and civilization only began to develop very recently, in the last ten thousands years or so. Since modern philosophy did not exist during mankind's long tutelage in the hunter-gatherer stage of development, it can't be regarded as a cause of whatever form of tribalism may have been prevalent during those tedious millenia. Indeed, it is far more plausible to suppose that tribalism is a hard-wired feature of human nature, prominent in many human beings, and only weaker or non-existent within the exceptional few. After all, we find its dominance, not only throughout mankind's history, but even in the present, in much of the 3rd world and even among 1st world minorities and ethnic groups. Most of the people in these groups are utterly innocent of so-called "modern" philosophy and would probably be incapable of understanding it were it introduced to them. Whatever strains of tribalism may be found in this or that species of modern philosophy probably has its roots in human psychological tendencies. Philosophy, as Nietzsche noticed more than hundred years ago and which cognitive science and experimental psychology continues to corroborate, often degenerates into a mere rationalization of the the desires, sentiments, and interests that afflict various strains of human nature. In the face of everything we know, Rand's conviction that the causation runs the other way, so that philosophy determines human nature, is rather implausible.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

The Unsocial Network

The trailer for Atlas Shrugged Part 1 is up. It feels roughly like a two hour version of the opening narration in Star Wars Episode One - taxation of trade routes is in dispute! - set to stock photography.

For a bit of fun, here's Hank Rearden (Grant Bowler) in a previous role:

Thursday, February 03, 2011

Would John Galt Collect Social Security?

Everyone's been having fun with the story of Rand and her husband collecting Social Security benefits (at least US$52,000 worth it seems) as well as possibly very likely Medicare. Reason provides an evenhanded summary along with the standard Randian defense that it's ok so long as the recipient "regards it as restitution and opposes all forms of welfare statism."

It's a predictable libertarians-have-to-drive-on-state-highways line of argument (ie it's ok so long as you complain vociferously about statist tyranny while you're driving) and at first glance seems to be straightforward. But I think a subtlety here is being overlooked that undermines this angle.

Freelance writer Patia Stephens, who seems to have picked up on this story first, quotes the original interview by the ARI's Scott McConnell (now in the "100 Voices: An Oral History of Ayn Rand" volume) with New York social worker Evva Joan Pryor from whence this story emerged. Let's go to the tape:
“She [Rand] was coming to a point in her life where she was going to receive the very thing she didn’t like, which was Medicare and Social Security,” Pryor told McConnell. “I remember telling her that this was going to be difficult. For me to do my job she had to recognize that there were exceptions to her theory. So that started our political discussions. From there on – with gusto – we argued all the time.

“The initial argument was on greed,” Pryor continued. “She had to see that there was such a thing as greed in this world. Doctors could cost an awful lot more money than books earn, and she could be totally wiped out by medical bills if she didn’t watch it. Since she had worked her entire life, and had paid into Social Security, she had a right to it. She didn’t feel that an individual should take help.”

McConnell asked: “And did she agree with you about Medicare and Social Security?”

Pryor replied: “After several meetings and arguments, she gave me her power of attorney to deal with all matters having to do with health and Social Security. Whether she agreed or not is not the issue, she saw the necessity for both her and Frank. She was never involved other than to sign the power of attorney; I did the rest.”
The interesting point here is that far from having a clear conscience on the issue, as her defenders try to portray, Rand in fact is obviously conflicted, and only acquiesces after several meetings and arguments - and even then tries to distance herself from the decision by giving power of attorney to the social worker to apply for the government benefits, rather than simply doing it herself. Why this extreme reluctance, when she supposedly had provided her own philosophical get-out-of-jail-clause? I think that Rand sensed that her line of argument was in fact rather weak. After all, if she had simply paid for her own private medical insurance, or had sufficiently saved for her own retirement, she could have set a powerful example of uncompromising self-reliance in reality, and into old age (an area her virile fictional heroes never get to experience). Further, libertarian heroines such as her former mentor Isabel Paterson and Rose Wilder Lane set just such examples themselves, both declining to enrol in what they considered fundamentally immoral programs. Yet here was Rand, taking the government handouts. Rand well understood the power of symbolism; perhaps it was this image that stuck in her craw. There are many things she could have done with that regular social welfare cheque that could have put a PR thumb in the eye of statist authority - for example, announcing she'd fund The Objectivist with it, or donating it an anti-tax foundation or similar prank. Surely this is the kind of thing Howard Roark or John Galt would have done, rather than give a social worker power of attorney to quietly accept it for them.

Further, given her advocation of life-long self-responsibility, of thinking outside of the "range of the moment" to the long-term consequences of one's actions, it is puzzling how, given her undoubtedly considerable means she might now find herself needing to take this less than ideal option. Is it simply because, like so many people late in life, she found she'd ended up in a situation she didn't quite expect? And if so, how is the average income earner supposed to allow for their future circumstances any better?

In the end, Rand was an elderly woman of frail health with no family to support her, the fearful burden of a husband suffering from dementia, and facing a future that their means might not be sufficient for. In other words, she was the very person government programs such as Medicare and Social Security was designed for. Equally naturally, she looked at the options and took the money. The only question is why she would still consider the fact that option even existed to be ultimately evil.

Rand and Empirical Responsibility 12

“The process of forming a concept is not complete until its constituent units have been integrated into a single mental unit by means of a specific word.” This assertion reflects Rand's bias against tacit knowledge. Rand was always mistrustful of anything that smacked of "just knowing." She shared the rationalist's contempt for non-explicated knowledge. The problem with this attitude is that does not square with what is known as the "cognitive unconscious," which plays a much larger role in cognition than Rand could have ever imagined. Hence the pressing need for Objectivists to come up with a large body of compelling, scientifically validated evidence to back Rand's extraordinary assertion about the necessity of words for the "completion" of a concept. The fact is, there are far more meanings (i.e., concepts) than there are words to stand for them. To declare that these unworded meanings are incomplete is sheer prejudice. Indeed, Rand herself seems to have thought better of it; for her notion of "implicit concept" contradicts her view that concepts require explicit words.

“The battle of human history is fought and determined by those who are predominantly consistent, those who … are committed to and motivated by their chosen psycho-epistemology and its corollary view of existence.” Leonard Peikoff, Rand's most orthodox disciple, has attempted to provide evidence for this view in his book Ominous Parallels. Unfortunately, that book cannot be taken very seriously. It suffers from an extreme case of confirmation bias. It has eyes for only that evidence which supports Rand's view, while ignoring the large body of evidence that goes against it. Worse, it even distorts and mauls such evidence that is brought forth to support the Objectivist position.

Consider, as one example, Peikoff's treatment of Kant, who is regarded, by both Rand and Peikoff, as a "predominantly consistent" advocate of all that they deplore. This, however, is not a very compelling position, for a whole host of reasons. In the first place, hardly anyone outside of Objectivism regards Rand's view of Kant as fair or accurate. But even if it were, questions arise over Kant's supposed consistency. Kant, for example, believed in the ideality of time, space, and causality; which means, if he had been "predominantly consistent", he would have been forced to regard all multiple and successive experiences as purely mental and imaginary. Nonetheless, Kant had no difficulty squaring these bizarre speculative allegiances with his work on astronomy and in his comforting postulates about immortality. Kant was also one of the principle figures of the so-called "Enlightenment," and gave voice to many things esteemed by Rand and her disciples. This aspect of Kant, while acknowledged by Peikoff, is dismissed as "inessential" and inconsequential. Why so? Even on Objectivist assumptions, Kant's advocacy of Enlightenment ideals must be regarded as a deep and abiding inconsistency.

“Only three brief periods of history were culturally dominated by a philosophy of reason: ancient Greece, the Renaissance, the nineteenth century.” This statement is so vague it's not clear its empirically testable. But to the extent that any meaning can be drawn from it, it is largely false. If by "reason" we mean something logical, we find the same examples of illogic and non-logic governing all periods of history. The human being is not a logical animal, but a sentimental animal. Ancient Greece, for example, was still rife with superstition; and Plato, Socrates, and even Aristotle, despite all their fine words about "reason," were hardly shining exemplars of scientific thinking. The Renaissance was the age of Luther and Savronola; it featured a revival of interest in the mysticism of Plato. The 19th Century, on the other hand, was "philosophically" dominated, in Germany, England, and America, by the horrors of neo-Hegelianism (although this so-called domination played hardly any influence outside of academia).

The assault on man’s conceptual faculty has been accelerating since Kant, widening the breach between man’s mind and reality. Given the immense progress made in science and medicine made since the 18th century, this is a grossly implausible view. In the 18th century, doctors bled people. Men rode around on horses. Plows were drawn by ox or mules. The majority of people in the West believed in the literal truth of Genesis. Anti-semitism and various forms of racism were rife. Blacks were bought in Africa and sold to colonists in the New World. It's not clear, given everything that has been learned in the interval, how anyone with even a rudimentary of history can believe that the breach between man's mind and reality has been "widening" since the 18th century.