Monday, August 29, 2011

Rand & Human Nature 6

Sexual Attraction. Rand's views on sex constitute one of the most absurd doctrines in her philosophy -- so absurd, in fact, that many Objectivists ignore it:

The men who think that wealth comes from material resources and has no intellectual root or meaning, are the men who think—for the same reason—that sex is a physical capacity which functions independently of one’s mind, choice or code of values. They think that your body creates a desire and makes a choice for you just about in some such way as if iron ore transformed itself into railroad rails of its own volition. Love is blind, they say; sex is impervious to reason and mocks the power of all philosophers. But, in fact, a man’s sexual choice is the result and the sum of his fundamental convictions. Tell me what a man finds sexually attractive and I will tell you his entire philosophy of life. Show me the woman he sleeps with and I will tell you his valuation of himself.

While this doctrine may appear absurd in light of common experience, it is entirely consistent with Rand's general views of human psychology. If, like Rand, you believe that an individual's psychology is the product of his "choice or code of values," then of course his sex psychology must be a product of his "choice or code of values" as well. What is particularly interesting about this passage is the suggestion that desires are a product of choice. Rand had speculated that desires are a product of one's thinking (or choice) in her journal, but she generally kept a distance from that view in her public writings, opting instead to merely insist that emotions, rather than desires, are the product of value-premises. However, as Rand left no detailed account of her view of human nature, it's difficult to determine exactly what she thought, or how far she wished to extend her belief that value-premises and choice determined psychology. As usual for Rand, she opts for grand, sweeping rhetoric, mixed with scolding against unspecified dissenters.

Nonetheless, her insistence that emotions are produced by value-judgments, held "consciously or subconsciously," while controversial and almost certainly wrong, does not begin to reach the heights of absurdity of the belief that one's desires are produced by value-judgments. Yet it is precisely this belief that Rand flirts with in her "metaphysics of sex."

In the passage quoted above, Rand mocks the view that the "body creates a desire and makes choice," equating it with the view that a railroad makes itself of its own volition. But would Rand extend this criticism against the desire of sex to such desires as hunger or thirst? Hunger is every bit as much a desire as sex. Then why can't the same things be said of hunger that Rand says of sex? But when we substitute the word hunger for that of sex Rand's passage leaps from moderate to palpable absurdity in a single bound:

They think that your body creates a desire and makes a choice for you just about in some such way as if iron ore transformed itself into railroad rails of its own volition. Hunger is blind, they say; hunger is impervious to reason and mocks the power of all philosophers. But, in fact, a man’s hunger choices are the result and the sum of his fundamental convictions. Tell me what a man finds appetizing and I will tell you his entire philosophy of life. Show me the food he eats and I will tell you his valuation of himself.

These absurdities aren't noticed because Rand is reasoning on the basis, not of fact and logic, but of her own wishful thinking. Meanwhile, if we glance at some of the scientific research done in the field of sexual desire, we will quickly understand why Rand's views of sex are so easily ridiculed.

According to the best evidence compiled by experimental psychology, "the mind is attuned to an assortment of cues, usually registering below our level of consciousness, that have evolved over time to tip our decisions and direct us toward the most desirable mates." [Desteno & Valdesolo, Out of Character, 64]

Precisely because these cues operate below the threshold of consciousness, we are not aware of them, and while some of them are pretty obvious, some of them are rather odd. The most obvious cue is physical looks. Research demonstrates that these cues begin operating at a very early age, so that they cannot possibly be produced by "fundamental convictions." "Several experiments have revealed that even infants show a preference for faces that adults rated as attractive.... This evidence suggests that concepts of beauty not only are well agreed on but emerge very early and automatically." [ibid, 66] These concepts of beauty are rooted in intuitive cues about the relative health and fitness of potential sexual partners.

Just as we have evolved a taste for sweets because we have a biological need for glucose, we have evolved a taste for particular features of the body and face associate with evolutionary "health": we find certain physical features to be attractive in another person because they signal to us on an intuitive level that this is a person who would be relatively more successful in passing on healthy genes to future generations....

Study after study shows that we consistently rate people who have more symmetrical features as being more attractive. Why?... In fact, much research has shown that bilateral symmetry is a good predictor of reproductive success.

Mothers of more symmetrical infants, for example, have been found to suffer fewer infectious diseases during pregnancy. Of course, it's not symmetry in and of itself that makes the mother more resistant to infection, it's just that symmetry is a marker for better overall health....

Facial features signaling elevated hormone levels (which are also linked to health and fertility) are also generally interpreted as more attractive.... And in women, elevated estrogen levels are associated with such envious features as high cheekbones and an immaculate complexion....

The mind is loaded with [innate] mechanisms meant to ensure that our genes are passed on, and the urge to have sex with an attractive (and thus genetically fit) stranger is one of them. [ibid, 67-68]
A curious experiment demonstrates the degree to which sexual desire may be triggered by hormones and unconscious mechanisms (rather than by conscious convictions):

[R]esearchers brought women (some ovulating, some not) into a lab and asked them to smell a number of men's unwashed T-shirts and indicate which man's scent they preferred. Keep in mind they never saw these men; they simply sniffed their laundry. We know, it sounds a bit strange, but believe it or not, the ovulating women overwhelmingly preferred the smell of men who have more symmetrical features. They sniffed out the scent of genetic fitness, so to speak. In other words, women in the most fertile phase of their cycle preferred the scent of men whom they probably had more to gain, genetically speaking, by sneaking of into the laboratory closet. This interesting revelation that smell can trigger physical attraction has not been lost on the perfume industry, we might add. [ibid, 69-70]


Now it's important to remember that all these strange cues operate below the threshold of consciousness. That's why they seem so strange. But the research shows that such cues exist, regardless of whatever "conscious convictions" one might have accumulated that may be at odds with them.

Certainly we don't consciously scan the people at the bar to compare relative positioning of a potential mate's eyes and ears. Nor do we give each candidate a good long sniff to determine whether he or she is worthy of our fleeting affections. No, our minds do this work for us. Our intuitive mechanisms are so highly attuned to the subtle cues in our social and physical environments that they can direct our attention in a crowded room, if even for the briefest glance, and tip the scales that determine whether and with whom we may try to score, and at what cost. [ibid, 70-71]



32 comments:

Govi said...

In this case, it's more of a "do as I say, not as I do," as Rand's actions indicate that she didn't even believe this herself. The amount of effort she puts in describing the physical appearance of her manly heroes and all the bodice ripping sex also don't do much to support her claim that sexual attraction is really all just a matter of intellectual compatibility.

Rey said...

I'm sorry, but I can't read that Rand quote without thinking she's talking to directly to Nathaniel Branden.

She may as well have written, "I totally want to bone you for your supremely rational mind, Nathaniel, and not at all because you're a young, handsome man and my husband is a bit of a lush and never takes his gloves off! And since you are a supremely rational man (otherwise I, a supremely rational woman, would not be attracted to you), you have no choice but to want me as well, regardless of our age difference or my notoriously poor personal hygiene. How does next Thursday night sound to you?"

Govi said...

The extreme physicality of the mating in her novels, "wet shirt clinging to his ribs, the long lines of his legs" etc. belie any claims that attraction is really just an intellectual exercise with physical coupling as an afterthought. The scenes were so much like night at Chippendale's fantasy fulfillment soft-focus porn to me, I thought she might have been typing one handed. But of course, all men really want her for her mind.

Dragonfly said...

In this context it's interesting to read in PAR the story how she first met Frank O'Connor, how she immediately fell madly in love with him, without having spoken to him or knowing anything about him.

"Don't let them tell me about love at first sight," she said in future years. "It was love at first sight. I was always on the lookout for my kind of face. I often saw faces that seemed interesting, but here was my ideal face. I have never seen a face that would fit my view of the ideal man quite as well." Here was Cyrus, here was Enjolras, here was everything she loved and everything she wanted.

[Barbara Branden, The Passion of Ayn Rand]

The only conclusion we can draw then is that according to Rand there is a perfect correlation between your looks and your ideas, which comes as no surprise to any reader of Atlas Shrugged.

And when it became too obvious to anyone else that Frank was not exactly a Cyrus or a John Galt, Rand invented the absurd rationalization that he was a "John Galt on strike".

Neil Parille said...

DF,

Do you recall where Rand said Frank was "John Galt on strike"?

-Neil Parille

Govi said...

There's so much emphasis on surface attraction, in her books and in her life, it just seems palpably absurd for her to claim that it's really all about the mind. This was a woman that put her libido in front of her longer term rational self interest in her own life. I see her attempt to base sexual attraction on mutually held values as a way of explaining why men *should* be attracted to her even if she didn't have much in the way of appealing surfaces, but she herself was all about surfaces.

Xtra Laj said...

I see her attempt to base sexual attraction on mutually held values as a way of explaining why men *should* be attracted to her even if she didn't have much in the way of appealing surfaces, but she herself was all about surfaces.

I know a blogger who believes that this theme (explaining why the writer is the hottest woman in the room/world) is a common one amongst women who write, and he arguest that it is often the driving motive of a female columnist who complains about something unfair (look for the woman's picture if it is a fashion or weight article).

Govi said...

I just googled William Eric Hickman, and surprise surprise, he was a good looking guy (who was really just misunderstood and only needed the love of a good woman like Ayn).

I wonder what she'd say about Casey Anthony.

Ken said...

@Govi, Xtra Laj: So, do you think that Dagny might be a Mary Sue?

Govi said...

I wasn't familiar with what a Mary Sue is until just now, but now that I am, yes.

If reason, objectivity, and lack of emotion is so sexy, then dressing up like Spock or Tuvok ought to make you a real ladies man.

Come to think of it, Rand and her more choleric followers seem like the exact opposite of Spock or Tuvok, and more like Klingons, who are also rather obessessed with hero worship, have lots of violent sex.

Carlos Omar Fajardo Salguero said...

Hey, do you read the letter of Yaron Brook to millonairies to claim the tax pay?

Daniel Barnes said...

Nope, do you have a link?

Anonymous said...

Rand's twisted view of human sexuality is a result of Borderline Personality Disorder, pure and simple. (*However, BPD is not a simple illness!)

BPD is the giant elephant in the room here at ARCHN blog. Unfortunately, discussions of BPD appear mostly in the comment sections.

This reader would be interested to see a thoroughly researched article on Ayn Rand's affliction with Borderline Personality Disorder.

gregnyquist said...

BPD is the giant elephant in the room here at ARCHN blog.

Hmm. If there really is a giant elephant in the room of that complexion, it's probably more like the pink elephants imagined by drunks than the real elephantine mammal. I've heard the BPD charge against Rand before, but I don't find them compelling. BPDs are supposed to be impulsive, they have a persistently unstable self-image, and recurrent suicidal behavior — none of which really describes Rand, who, far from being impulsive, was a control freak who had a very persistent, unyielding self-image and who never showed the slightest inclination to commit suicide. Even those symptoms which she superficially seems to share with BPDs, such as her pattern of unstable relationships and her anger, are, on more detailed examination, not so obviously BPD. It's not likely, for example, that Rand's anger resulted from any psychological disorder; rather, it seems to be more of an unconscious defense mechanism which protected her from being effectively challenged. And as for her unstable relationships, well, they may seem unstable when looked at from afar and in the abstract, but it has to be kept in mind that some of these relationships lasted many years, which seems to suggest at least a degree of stability beyond what one would expect with an individual afflicted with BPD.

Echo Chamber Escapee said...

@Anon: BPD is the giant elephant in the room here at ARCHN blog.

Sorry, but I don't see an elephant here. BPD isn't a big important topic that people avoid out of fear. I'd say it's more like a fly in the room, a side issue that occasionally demands attention but distracts from the real question.

A diagnosis of mental illness is rarely clear-cut, even for experts who get the opportunity to examine the patient in a clinical context. In Rand's case, Greg's response has already pointed out aspects of her behavior that don't seem consistent with BPD. And various psychologists who knew Rand (although not as a patient, of course) have come up with divergent assessments. For the rest of us, it's a parlor game. Anon says she had BPD; Govi says it's a hormonal disorder; various others here and elsewhere have come up with sociopathy/psychopathy, narcissistic personality disorder, and on and on. I don't think we'll ever know; that would require access to the subject (who has been dead for almost 30 years). We can all take our more or less educated guesses, but I don't see how to get beyond that stage.

And what's the prize in the guessing game? Even if we could show that Rand had (or very likely had) BPD, what would that contribute to the problem of evaluating her ideas? Mentally ill people can have brilliant ideas or awful ideas, just like "normal" people. (As they say, there's a fine line between genius and madness.) An argument that "Rand had BPD; therefore, none of her ideas has any merit" is ad hominem. It's not convincing to a critical thinker; what is convincing is informed crticism of the ideas themselves.

Also, in terms of whether ARCHN should play this guessing game, it may be worth keeping in mind that Objectivists secretly love it when critics of Rand focus on her personality rather than the substance of her philosophy. It's "proof" that Rand's enemies have been so thoroughly defeated on the field of Logic that all they have left is ad hominem. Objectivists largely ignore this site and Greg's book, probably because they can't deny that both are full of substantive criticism that they don't know how to refute.

Echo Chamber Escapee said...

Going back to the original post, Greg correctly notes that Rand's doctrine of sexual attraction is "so absurd, in fact, that many Objectivists ignore it."

Too true. Even Peikoff can't give it more than lip service. I recall listening to his podcast a couple years ago and being surprised to hear him endorse sexual exploration (basically, casual sex) for young adults who are still trying to figure out what their values are. As I recall, the only constraints he put on it were that both partners were "basically rational" and there was no dishonesty (or coercion) involved.

I don't recall that he explained how to square this with Rand's idea that "a man’s sexual choice is the result and the sum of his fundamental convictions." That's probably because it can't be done. If these young adults haven't figured out their fundamental convictions yet, then on Rand's theory how can they make a proper sexual choice? If they want to sleep with someone, it can only be because they're trying to use sex as a substitute for values they haven't earned. And that, says Rand, is neither rational nor honest.

Or maybe Peikoff decided that it's okay to follow your sexual urges if you haven't yet formed enough fundamental value judgments to make choices directing those urges. But where would those urges come from if not your values? Why, that would suggest that "your body creates a desire and makes a choice for you," a view Rand utterly rejects.

And Peikoff isn't the only one. This particular absurdity turns out to be a fun way to tweak Objectivists on their worldview. At a general level, they earnestly believe that all emotions are products of value judgments, and they'll explain the "rational" basis for their various likes and dislikes. But if you ask them specifically about sexual feeling, they tend to get really uncomfortable. I'm pretty sure it's because they've all experienced sexual attraction that has nothing to do with -- or even clashes with -- their chosen values. They can't figure out how to rationalize that.

Xtra Laj said...

The whole BPD angle, if it has any validity, need to be taken up by a professional psychologist to have any legs. I think that should be obvious to Anonymous.

Xtra Laj said...

At a general level, they earnestly believe that all emotions are products of value judgments, and they'll explain the "rational" basis for their various likes and dislikes. But if you ask them specifically about sexual feeling, they tend to get really uncomfortable. I'm pretty sure it's because they've all experienced sexual attraction that has nothing to do with -- or even clashes with -- their chosen values. They can't figure out how to rationalize that.

A post Greg wrote a while back and what you wrote up here had me thinking. Objectivism, like many philosophies that do not discuss, evaluate and criticize detail experiments before arriving at their conclusions, is the kind of escape from common sense that only an intelligent man can take seriously.

Daniel Barnes said...

ECE:
>Also, in terms of whether ARCHN should play this guessing game, it may be worth keeping in mind that Objectivists secretly love it when critics of Rand focus on her personality rather than the substance of her philosophy.

Well said ECE. The ARCHNblog rarely if ever focuses on her personal issues, whatever they might be.

Govi said...

I don't see why her personal issues shouldn't be on the table, though it's correct to focus mostly focus on the problems in her philosophy. She did after all spend her life telling people exactly how to live down to the minutest detail, and claimed her life was a postscript to her philosophy, which makes it a real world test of how just viable it is.

It would be remiss to study Marxism-Leninism and neglect to read up on how well real world Marxist-Leninist states did, so Rand's life (and the life outcomes of other avowed Randists) is instructive in how well the theory actually works in practice.

Anonymous said...

It's unfortunate that some people still believe suicidal behavior is required for a BPD diagnosis. Current literature on BPD says otherwise.

It's also unfortunate that most of the mainstream media is unable and/or unwilling to address BPD, despite the fact that at least several of its high profile celebrities have it. Marilyn Monroe certainly had BPD. Read that pitiful eulogy that Rand penned about her again. It's chock full of BPD signifiers, for those who can recognize them.

In the meantime, Rand's admirers who have BPD can continue to fly under the radar, perhaps realizing quietly that something is wrong with them, but never addressing the illness directly.

Regarding the issue of self-harm; Rand's adherents with BPD now have a relatively new and socially acceptable way to mutilate their bodies and experience controlled physical pain: Ayn Rand tattoos (quotes and/or images). Don't believe it? Search "Ayn Rand tattoos" on google images.

Xtra Laj said...

It's unfortunate that some people still believe suicidal behavior is required for a BPD diagnosis. Current literature on BPD says otherwise.

Anonymous,

IF you are a psychologist or someone with a personal experience/expertise, write something and send it to one of the site owners anonymously. There are all kinds of mental disorders people have that we don't take seriously in the bigger context of things (I'm sure I have a few, and I'm fairly sure there are others on one side of my family). For Rand, they only matter in explaining tendencies and placing some of her behavior into context. But when it comes to criticizing her ideas, they are not as important.

Govi said...

@ Echo Chamber Escapee - I don't recall that he explained how to square this with Rand's idea that "a man’s sexual choice is the result and the sum of his fundamental convictions." That's probably because it can't be done.

It can't be done even in fiction, and even by Ayn Rand. If this were true (and if she actually believed this) then the amorous scenes in her novels would be like this:

Male and female encounter each other at a Chamber of Commerce Meeting, where they each become mutually aroused through their common views on the abolition of the corporate income tax. They mate like birds, developing a lifelong pair bond based on their commonly held "sense of life."

Instead what happens in Rand's novels is this:

Sexually frustrated woman (and thinly veiled ideological pulp romance novelist) ogles sweaty construction worker, who she invites to "fix her fireplace." (Cue sexy porn soundtrack). They proceed to mate like cats, with much yowling and biting. Male leaves immediately after coitus.

Mark Plus said...

Supposedly BPD sufferers often cut themselves. Dominique does exactly that with broken glass, and in what reads like an attempt at describing a state of mental dissociation, in the bombing scene in The Fountainhead.

Mark Plus said...

Regarding Hickman, I wonder if his victim Marion Parker makes a cameo appearance in "Atlas" as the braces girl Millie Bush?

Lloyd Flack said...

I doubt it. I don't think she was that sick.

Loyal Opposition said...

"Love is blind, they say; sex is impervious to reason and mocks the power of all philosophers. But, in fact, a man’s sexual choice is the result and the sum of his fundamental convictions. Tell me what a man finds sexually attractive and I will tell you his entire philosophy of life. Show me the woman he sleeps with and I will tell you his valuation of himself."
[Francisco, IIRC...]

aw, come on, Greg, is this the best you can do? one source?
Desteno & Valdesolo, Out of Character: Surprising Truths About the Liar, Cheat, Sinner (and Saint) Lurking In All of Us (Crown Archetype, 2011)
It's current, I'll grant you that, but this really isn't about pheromones or infant imprinting, is it? Just answer Francisco's stupid question: what do you find attractive, and how deep can you go to find out why?

@Govi (#1): "... her claim that sexual attraction is really all just a matter of intellectual compatibility." where are you getting this? Of course it's not - that's the whole point! Sheesh.

Govi said...

Err. in fact he just directly quoted Rand saying "But, in fact, a man’s sexual choice is the result and the sum of his fundamental convictions. Tell me what a man finds sexually attractive and I will tell you his entire philosophy of life. Show me the woman he sleeps with and I will tell you his valuation of himself." So did you.

Then, from the Ayn Rand lexicon: "Sex is one of the most important aspects of man’s life and, therefore, must never be approached lightly or casually. A sexual relationship is proper only on the ground of the highest values one can find in a human being. Sex must not be anything other than a response to values.

I think Greg's done a pretty good job.

Govi said...

And more: "To begin with, man does not possess any instincts. Physically, sex is merely a capacity. But how a man will exercise this capacity and whom he will find attractive depends on his standard of value. It depends on his premises, which he may hold consciously or subconsciously, and which determine his choices. It is in this manner that his philosophy directs his sex life."

I don't think there's been any mischaracterization.

Xtra Laj said...

Govi,

I think Loyal Opposition is attacking Greg's use of a single source of evidence against Rand's claims. Loyal should realize that Greg is using a source that relies heavily on peer reviewed material and in general, those are the kinds of sources the Greg uses (and in some cases, classic works of philosophy).

gregnyquist said...

aw, come on, Greg, is this the best you can do? one source?

Here's what my "one" source writes: "Study after study shows that we consistently rate people who have more symmetrical features as being more attractive." "Several experiments have revealed..."
In other words, Valdesolo and Desteno cite multiple sources, all peer reviewed, as Laj has already noted. If you think they're lying, then cite your evidence. If you have no evidence, then wouldn't even Objectivism regard your cavils as "arbitary"?

And, incidentally, how many peer reviewed scientific sources does Rand cite on behalf of her theory? The answer: zero.

but this really isn't about pheromones or infant imprinting, is it?

Why not read the material and find out for yourself? This is my primary objection to Objectivism: it leads to a kind of intellectual arrogance that seeks to arbitrarily dismiss any science that goes against the Randian grain. We hear, from Objectivist quarters, all this fine sounding noise for rationality and reality and against "faking" or "evading" reality; yet whenever Objectivists are confronted with any peer reviewed science that challenges Rand's arbitrary claims, they begin desperately searching for pretexts to dismiss the science out of hand. Do you really think the question whether there is a strong innate component in sexual attraction rests on how many sources I cite in short blog post? It's based not merely on the scientific research cited by Valdesolo and Desteno (and by Pinker and E. O. Wilson, if you prefer a broader treatment of the question), but on what is observed in real life, indeed, in Rand herself, all of whose heroes and heroines are physically attractive.

And if Objectivists pride themselves on being rational and attached to reality, why are they so quick to dismiss or belittle peer reviewed scientific evidence they are unfamiliar with and probably don't even understand?

It's current, I'll grant you that, but this really isn't about pheromones or infant imprinting, is it?

Echo Chamber Escapee said...

@Greg Nyquist: And if Objectivists pride themselves on being rational and attached to reality, why are they so quick to dismiss or belittle peer reviewed scientific evidence they are unfamiliar with and probably don't even understand?

At risk of completely derailing this thread, I'll note that this is exactly the Objectivists' attitude toward climate science. They don't want it to be true that industrial activity is contributing to global warming, and they evaluate reports on climate change on exactly this standard. They rush to embrace anything that denies warming, that claims that any warming is driven by natural causes, or that purports to show that warming is beneficial -- and they rush with at least equal fervor to denounce any research that goes against these foregone conclusions. They don't have to know anything about the science, because their philosophy tells them that industrial civilization is good. That's all they need to know.

Same with sexual attraction. Their philosophy tells them it's based on values, so who cares what actual psychology research comes up with? If the studies don't support the philosophy, there must be something wrong with the studies -- or the psycho-epistemology of the researchers.

The lesson to be learned is that Objectivism is a fundamentally anti-scientific philosophy. It goes back to Rand, who decided philosophy should have a veto power over science. Science is accepted only as long as it conforms to the Rand-ordained "rational" worldview. If science undermines that worldview, then it's the science that's wrong.

But science doesn't, and can't, work that way. In science, you go where the data leads -- even if it means giving up cherished religious or philosophic notions.

Many factors conspired to get me out of the echo chamber. A big one was the realization that no one can be an Objectivist and a scientist ... and the recognition of which choice is really reality-based.