Wednesday, March 13, 2019

The Evolution of Orthodox Objectivism

The Ayn Rand Institute has recently introduced a new set of YouTube videos, many of them hosted by Dave Rubin, called "Objectivism on Happiness." The videos give an insight in how a new generation of "orthodox" Objectivists are framing (or rather re-framing) Rand's ideas. In what I've heard from Yaron Brook, Greg Salmieri, Onkar Ghate, and Tara Smith, there seems to exist a drive to portray Rand's philosophy in such a way that it does not come into conflict with the sciences of human nature. Ayn Rand believed that human beings were, at birth, "blank slates," and that it was through exposure to philosophical premises that they developed personalities and character. The strategy that this new breed of Objectivists appear to have concocted to separate themselves from this embarrassing doctrine is to make it clear that, while they have no intention of explicitly denying the possibility of heritable traits of character, they nevertheless continue to insist that, through the use of "reason" and "free will," they can achieve Rand's vision of the self-created man.

While this may be a clever debating tactic, questions can be raised as to its faithfulness to Randian dogma. Harry Binswanger, a member of the old guard, was dusted off and trotted out for the video entitled "Grounding Morality in Facts." At one point in the video, Binswanger announced that he believed that human beings "hard-wired" themselves. Sitting opposite to him, Greg Salmieri, while not daring to question so obvious a point of orthodoxy, nonetheless seemed eager to somehow qualify and sanitize this challenge to scientific knowledge. Luckily for this new guard of orthodox Objectivists like Salmieri, old fogies in the Binswanger mold are exercising less and less influence over time. Soon they will have all retired or moved on to more subterranean perspectives, at which time they will no longer be around to remind people of Rand's embarrassing lack of judgment when it came to the question of heritable traits of character. Yaron Brook and his denizens will then be free to pretend that Rand never advocated views on human nature that clash with all the most recent scientific developments in evolution, genetics, experimental psychology, and cognitive science. But in ignoring and possibly even removing some of the worst (i.e., empirically falsified) elements of Objectivism, what will these new breed of Objectivists have accomplished? Very little, I suspect. For I would contend that it is precisely the bad elements of Rand, the controversial and outlandish stuff, that provides most of the interest. Take that stuff out and what do you have left? A sort of libertarian Sam Harris, minus Harris's scientific credentials and incisive wit. While de-emphasizing the worst parts of Objectivism may allow Rand's ideology to seem a little less implausible, it does little to solve main issue with the creed—which is to say the fact that, as an apologia for libertarianism, Objectivism is hopelessly dated. There are better rationalizations for most of the things Objectivism now stands for. There is a delicious irony at the bottom of all this. More than twenty-five years ago, there was a schism in Objectivism between the orthodox crowd over at ARI and David Kelley and the so-called Atlas Society. The riff between these two factions allegedly arose over the question as to whether Objectivism was a closed or an open system. But that's pretty much a moot point these days. Yaron Brook can insist with all the fervor at his command that Objectivism is a closed system: those are just words, and he doesn't really mean it. If Brook desires to have conversations with IDW luminaries such as Jordan Peterson, Eric Weinstein, Douglass Murray, and Gad Saad, he can't be seen as an advocate of the blank slate view. For in the biological sciences, the blank slate has no more credibility than the flat earth delusion enjoys in the realms of geography and astronomy. And so while giving lip service to the closed system paradigm of Objectivism, Brook and the denizens of ARI must adapt, in practice, the open system approach of David Kelley.

13 comments:

Anonymous said...

In fairness to Rand, she did her mature thinking when the idea of strong genetic influence on behavior or intelligence was seen as suspect, if not racist. Even today, any study that purports to show that genes aren't significant makes headlines, whereas the steady flow of studies that indicate nature is much more important than nurture is ignored.

Yaron Brook said a couple years ago that IQ tests are "bullshit" and that studies show that twins separated at birth and are adopted into different families indicate that family upbringing is more important than genes. OK, Brook is an ignoramus, but would you get a different idea from reading the New York Times?

-NP

Anonymous said...

I have listened to only the first 30 minutes. Salmieri seems smart, but Biswanger is an Objectivist on auto-pilot. He even had to mention the irrationality of the Abraham/Isaac story. Boy, we haven't heard that before (Kant agreed with Binny on that lol).

gregnyquist said...

In fairness to Rand, she did her mature thinking when the idea of strong genetic influence on behavior or intelligence was seen as suspect, if not racist.

Yes, Rand can be cut some slack because her philosophy was developed when the sciences of human nature were still in their infancy. However, since new discoveries have refuted Rand's view, it would seem incumbent on anyone who considers themselves "rational" and "objective" to dismiss that part of Rand's thought that clashes with this new body of knowledge. Because of ARI's commitment to a "closed" interpretation of Rand's thought, that places Brook and other Objectivists in a difficult position. Whatever Brook has said in the past about these issues (or believes privately), he knows well enough not to challenge a Gad Saad or Jordan Peterson on these issues.

gregnyquist said...

Biswanger is an Objectivist on auto-pilot. He even had to mention the irrationality of the Abraham/Isaac story.

There's a bit of back story behind that remark. I suspect Binswanger brought it up as a subtle dig against Jordan Peterson, who has done a lecture series on stories from the Bible (including the Abraham/Isaac story). Binswanger has been highly critical of Peterson. Dave Rubin has been on tour with Peterson and is a close friend. So how does Binswanger get his shot at Peterson without alienating Rubin? Well, first he finds something he can say that's complimentary to Peterson (Peterson stood up against the compelled speech fascists). Then, without mentioning Peterson's name, he goes after the Biblical stories (and, by implication, Peterson's lectures on biblical stories). This kind of simplistic/vulgar attack on Western culture (and that's what it amounts to in the end) constitutes one of the least appetizing aspects of orthodox Objectivism, and it's not all that different from some of the attacks we get on Western culture from the far left (although these radical left attack's are based on very different rationalizations).

Anonymous said...

From what little I've read, you can hard wire your brain to some extent, although certainly not as much as Binswanger thinks.

In his 2018 book on free will, ARI psychologist Edwin Locke writes that IQ tests measure intelligence and intelligence is 50-80% genetic. (He also says that some Amazon tribes are lesser evolved humans). This is the first time I've heard an ARI type admit that about intelligence.

I suppose one might ask how would Objectivism change if it were conceded that people aren't blank slates in the sense that Rand conceived of the idea.

-NP

Anonymous said...

"admit"? "claim" would be better.

Gordon Burkowski said...


"I suppose one might ask how would Objectivism change if it were conceded that people aren't blank slates in the sense that Rand conceived of the idea."

Bluntly: she would never concede any such thing. This is a deductive system based on premises that Rand regarded as axiomatic. If any facts seemed to contradict those basic premises, she would simply assert that the report of the facts must be wrong. And that, of course, is what Objectivists still do, what they have to do, and will continue to do. Unless, of course, they abandon Objectivism.

Unknown said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Anonymous said...

Speaking of blank slatism, this article is interesting:

https://quillette.com/2019/05/03/selective-blank-slatism-and-ideologically-motivated-misunderstandings/?fbclid=IwAR3aKiTpaC7CBwA_UxyHNu0oG83MOb83VmtwUXjwALUvGN6GHgro541e2wE

NP

Anonymous is back said...

Gordon said:

"[Rand] would never concede [that people aren't blank slates in the sense that she conceived of the idea]. This is a deductive system based on premises that Rand regarded as axiomatic. If any facts seemed to contradict those basic premises, she would simply assert that the report of the facts must be wrong. And that, of course, is what Objectivists still do, what they have to do, and will continue to do. Unless, of course, they abandon Objectivism."

Gordon is right. Rand's blank slate theory logically grounds her metaphysical view of Man (or human nature), which logically grounds the Objectivist Ethics, etc. The whole philosophy is built on it. A deductive system for sure, despite Peikoff's cosmetic attempts to emphasize inductive reasoning in his last years. Rand herself says in "Ayn Rand Answers" (last question of Chapter 3): "I'd prefer that people raise their IQ from 110 to 150. It can be done." Does she mean by eugenic breeding? Certainly not. She is always talking about the individual, not the collective. Eugenic breeding would be collectivist muscle-mysticism (or some such term). So does she mean implanting electrodes in the individual's brain? No: her position is that philosophical truth has to be based on no special scientific apparatus, so the nature of Man's mind means his "unaided" mind. (The phrase "unaided mind" has a long history in Enlightenment philosophies, to whose general line she subscribed, and she herself often used the phrase.) Given her premises, her meaning is clear: the individual can choose to raise his IQ by almost three standard deviations, by using his unaided rational mind. That cannot be squared with anything in the sciences of human nature. It is the reductio ad absurdum of the blank slate.

She would be the first to say there is no such thing as "a little blank slate-ism." You either believe Man's mind is a blank slate, or you do not: 50%-80% heritable intelligence is not a *blank* slate.

Discarding the blank slate in favor of an empirically-ascertained mixture of nurture and nature collapses Objectivism's logical structure, as outlined in Peikoff's OPAR and passim in her writings, leaving as Greg said, "A sort of libertarian Sam Harris [philosophy], minus Harris's scientific credentials and incisive wit." Objectivism cannot be salvaged by the Dave Rubins of the world, the kind who say, "Why can't we have both blank slate and heritable intelligence too?" in between drags on a joint.

Anonymous said...

Quote:

Rand herself says in "Ayn Rand Answers" (last question of Chapter 3): "I'd prefer that people raise their IQ from 110 to 150. It can be done."

*****

Given her premises, her meaning is clear: the individual can choose to raise his IQ by almost three standard deviations, by using his unaided rational mind. That cannot be squared with anything in the sciences of human nature. It is the reductio ad absurdum of the blank slate.

End quote.

To be fair, this statement was from 1967. That was before Jensen's 1969 article and Hernsteins '72 (I think that's the date, it was in the Atlantic) in which the idea that intelligence had a high genetic component made it into the public consciousness. I recall when The Bell Curve came out, it wasn't just race that got the attention but just the fact (which was consensus at the time) that intelligence was largely genetic.

Rand's reading was limited to the New York Times so I doubt she was ever presented with the evidence for a high genetic component to intelligence. Even today plenty of people who should know better (though not those trained in psychometrics) attack IQ testing and the high heritability of intelligence.

But yeah, I think if Rand were alive today she'd do all she could to minimize these things out of an allegiance to the blank slate.

Anonymous said...

Even if you have high IQ you still have to study.

Many a Napoleon has remained in the counting house!

T. Rasa said...

Interviewer: "Miss Rand, what evidence do you have that the human mind is a blank slate?"

Miss Rand: "MY mind has always been blank, it is my greatest pride!"