Sunday, December 31, 2006

Some Holiday Reading

I'll be away from a computer most of the time over the next couple of weeks, though Greg may be posting if the mood takes him. So meantime here's a little New Year reading: David Ramsay Steele's "Alice In Wonderland", supposedly a review of Barbara Branden's "The Passion Of Ayn Rand" but really just an excuse to open up a big ol' can of his particular Libertarian brand of whup-ass on Rand and Objectivism as a whole. Here's a small sample:
"The true plot of Atlas Shrugged is: how some good-looking individuals were saved by coming to agree in every particular with Rand, and how everyone else was eternally damned."

Rand's Morality: A Brief Autopsy 2

In an earlier post, Rand's argument for why man needs an "objective" and "rational" code of values was examined. We turn to the next argument in Rand, the argument for why life is the "ultimate" value and the standard by which goals are evaluated, and we immediately find ourselves in great difficulty. In a strict sense, Rand presented no argument -- or at least no strictly logically argument that could be evaulated. Instead, we get a series of disparate, elliptical suggestions:

(1) "The fact that living entitities exist and function necessitates the existence of values and of an ultimate value."
(2) "Only an ultimate goal, an end in itself, makes the existence of values possible."
(3) "Metaphysically, life is the only phenomenon that is an end in itself."
(4) "Epistemologically, the concept of value is genetically dependent on the concept of life."

Out of these statements, or the handful of others associated with this argument, you will never logically derive the conclusion that life is the ultimate value. If, however, you can accept proposition 3, you should have little trouble accepting Rand's conclusion, because proposition 3 merely restates Rand's conclusion in other terms. Let's examine it a little more closely: "Metaphysically, life is the only phenomenon that is an end of itself." Now in proposition 2, Rand equates the phrase "end in life" with "ultimate value." And since "metaphysics," for Rand, is simply that which pertains to reality or existence, we can translate proposition 3 as follows: "In reality, life is the only phenomenon that is an end in itself." But that's her conclusion! Nor does bringing in the epistemologically angle help Rand extricate herself from her difficulties. So what if the concept of value is genetically dependent on the concept of life? In the first place, if by "genetically" Rand means you can't form the concept of value without first forming the concept of life, it's not clear this is true. But even if, per impossible, it were true, it certainly doesn't establish that life is the ultimate value. How a person arrives at a concept cannot prove any matter of fact beyond some fact about how people arrive at concepts.

To sum up: Rand's "arguments," so-called, on behalf of her contention that life is the ultimate value remain a hopeless muddle.

Sunday, December 24, 2006

Light Posting Weeks

The bustling ARCHN headquarters is on skeleton staff during the holidays, so posting will be light. Feel free to talk amongst yourselves.

Friday, December 22, 2006

ARCHN Quote of the Week

"The utility of Objectivism depends on how the individual uses Rand's ideas. If he uses Rand's principles merely as a vague form of inspiration, then he may profit from them. If, on the other hand, he tries to apply Rand's principles in a narrow, excessively literal sense to specific problems in everyday life, he is likely to get himself into trouble." - Greg Nyquist, ARCHN, p355

Saturday, December 16, 2006

Journal of Ayn Rand Studies - Fall 2006

The Fall edition of Chris Sciabarra's "Journal of Ayn Rand Studies" has finally been published. It contains, among other interesting articles, my reply to Seddon's critique of ARCHN, wherein I, in effect, restate the case against Rand. Using evidence compiled by cognitive scientists, neuroscientists, and evolutionary psychologists, I challenge not merely Rand's view of man, but also her epistemology, particularly her overestimation of the role of logic in efficacious thinking. Seddon responds in turn, offering a surprisingly feeble rebutal.

In the next few weeks I will offer brief commentary on some of these articles, particularly as the relate to important issues of Randian criticism.

Friday, December 15, 2006

ARCHN Quote of the Week

"In reading over the remarks about sex scattered through the Objectivist literature, I cannot help thinking that philosophy and sex do not mix well. Most philosophers, as soon as they begin hatching abstruse theories about sex, wind up spouting some of the most ridiculous nonsense on record. Consider the following gem from Leonard Peikoff's treatise on Objectivism:
'Proper human sex...requires men and women of stature, in regard to both moral character and metaphysical outlook.' (OPAR, p348)
(If) a person of high stature in moral character and metaphysical outlook is somone who lives in accordance with Objectivist principles, Peikoff could have expressed what he wanted to say much more clearly by merely insisting that in order to have proper sex, you must be an Objectivist."
- Greg Nyquist, ARCHN, p267

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

ARCHN Quote of the Week

"If we define philistinism as the incapacity or unwillingness to appreciate and admire great art, then there can be little doubt Ayn Rand was a philistine...Rand only cared for art in the abstract sense. Concrete instances of art she usually disliked. In this sense, she was like those humanitarians who love mankind in the abstract yet never fail to mistreat and oppress actual individuals." - Greg Nyquist, ARCHN, p333

Friday, December 01, 2006

Rand's Morality: A Brief Autopsy 1

Rand's theory of morality is the best refuted of her theories. Since there's been much wrangling about her theory in a previous post, I thought it might be helpful to reexamine Rand's arguments and point out what's wrong with them. Rand actually presents several arguments, each devoted to a specific problem. These can be summarized as follows:

(1) "Objective" and "rational" argument for why man needs a code of values based on reason;
(2) Argument for why life is the "ultimate" value and the standard by which all goals are evaluated;
(3) Argument for how happiness is achieved.

The term "argument" is here used rather loosely. Rand offers no clear-cut, formal argument for the last two positions, merely a few vague and rather puzzling hints. Let's start with the first one for why man needs a code of values based on reason. It could be summarized as follows:

(P1) Man is a living organism that faces the fundamental alternative of life and death
(P2) Life requires a specific course of action to sustain itself
(P3) Because of the need for unit-economy, the course of action required to sustain man's life must be reduced to a series of intelligible principles
(P4) Reason is the only means of figuring out the series of principles required to sustains man's life
(C) Man needs a code of values based on reason

Now I have given Rand a little help here. She does not explicitly mention the last two premises, but they are clearly things she presupposes and explicitly endorsed in other places. I will leave the logical analysis of this argument to others. I simply note that, while the first two premises are largely true (indeed, the second is a truism), the last two are dubious. A much more plausible theory states that ethical theories depend, at least in part, on tacit knowledge that cannot be adequately articulated in explicit principles. (See Hayek or M. Polanyi.) Philosophers who reduce morality to a handful of consciously articulated principles end up with ethical maxims that are too broad and leave way too much wiggle room for casuistry.

The fourth premises presents particularly serious difficulties, because it's not clear what "reason" is. If we define it analytically (i.e., as that which is required to find out the principles needed to sustain life), then the statement assumes the very point at issue. If we define it as a process whereby, through observation and "induction," one creates premises and then uses logic to deduce conclusions from those premises, then the proposition is empirically false: that view of knowledge acquisition, originally formulated by Aristotle and the scholastics, is wrong. Cognitive scientists have found no evidence that knowledge works that way, and a great deal of evidence that it works in other ways (i.e., largely through a loose kind of analogical reasoning combined with trial and error testing).

Note how the first two premises, which are the most plausible and easy to defend, are the only ones Rand explicitly enunciates. This is a common trick of rationalizing philosophers: The rationalizer parades the obvious, as if the argument depends only on that, when, in reality, it also depends on dubious presuppositions that are never acknowledged or explicitly stated.

I will examine the other arguments in later posts.

Understanding Objectivist Jargon Pt.1: 'Contextual' Certainty

The first in an occasional series that translates Objectivist jargon into plain language.

"Contextual certainty" = "Definitely maybe"

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

More Great Moments In Randian Argument

In the recent ARCHN Quote of the Week we discover Ayn Rand's amazing insight that the standard proper for determining the requirements of man's life's life!

We realise the profundity of this insight is pretty tough to beat. But fortunately, the greatest philosopher of the past 2000 years is up to the challenge. From her "Introduction To Objectivist Epistemology" Chapter 2, Concept Formation:
"I shall identify as ‘length’ that attribute of any existent possessing it which can be quantitatively related to a unit of length, without specifying the quantity."
Yes folks, according Ayn Rand 'length' is that 'attribute' which can be 'quantitively related' a 'unit of'....wait for it...'length!'

Phew! It's just as well for Western Civilization that Rand was around to straighten out such challenging philosophical issues.

Sunday, November 26, 2006

Give Me Death

The tireless Randzapper brings us more oozings from the pro-genocide, pro-infanticide wing of the Ayn Rand fanbase:

Step forward Mr Fred Weiss:
"I can't imagine her regarding the Arabs as anything but something approaching sub-humans who should be bombed back to the Stone Age if necessary and if that were required to get them to behave. That's pretty much how she viewed the American Indians and she (Rand) fully supported their annihilation."
And Mr Bob Kolker:
"I have no problem with infanticide on a day old infant or a week old infant. I get antsy around a month. This is based on experience with my own children."
So the guy would clearly get a little "antsy" about murdering his own children if they were around a month old - but not before. Get a little "antsy"?

Friday, November 24, 2006

ARCHN Quote of the Week

"An organism's life depends on two factors: the material or fuel which it needs from the outside, from its physical background, and the action of its own body, the action of using that food properly. What standard determines what is proper in this context? The standard is the organism's life, or; that which is required for the organism's survival." - (Ayn Rand, The Virtue of Selfishness, p 16)
This passage demonstrates to perfection Rand's method of demonstration. She begins with an appalling banality: life depends on "the material or fuel which it needs" and on "the action of its own body." This vacuous assertion is used to introduce the next appalling banality. Rand asks:"What standard determines what is proper in this context?" (ie., in the context of the requirements of man's life)? Rand answers: "The standard is the organism's life." In other words, the standard proper for determining the requirements of man's life is man's life! Imagine the profundity of the woman who could come up with such an insight.
- Greg Nyquist, ARCHN, p211

Monday, November 20, 2006 reviews OPAR

Regular commenter Neil Parille over at his Objectiblog points us to David Gordon tearing Leonard Peikoff a new one over at Enjoy. (warning, PDF. Scroll about halfway to find the review)

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Charge the Electrodes

There are the intelligent, thoughtful and articulate Ayn Rand fans. And then there are the others. Thus we at ARCHN hail the new Randzapper blog, boldly trolling the internets seeking the nuttiest Randian commentators - so you don't have to. The ARCHN team recognise at least one batshit crazy unit from round these parts, and should the mysterious owner of Randzapper wish to drop us a line sometime, we're sure we can throw a few other gems their way. (hat tip to Michael Prescott)

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

ARCHN Quote of the Week

"While it is true that Rand's philosophy of Objectivism officially adopts the view that all knowledge ultimately comes from experience of the external world, this concession turns out, on closer examination, to be shallow and unrigorous. All philosophers like to believe their doctrines are in accord with empirical reality. The question, however, is whether this belief is justified." - ARCHN p. xvii

Friday, November 10, 2006

Is Objectivism Dangerous?

It would be a mistake to assume that merely because Objectivism is misguided or wrong, it is therefore dangerous. The assumption that a wrong philosophy must ipso facto be a dangerous one is naive. It fails to take account of (1) to what extent conduct is or is not affected by philosophical beliefs, and (2) what sort of people are likely to embrace a given set of philosophical ideas.

Although Objectivist ideas are intensely moralistic and political, they tend to discourage political involvement. There are several reasons for this. To begin with, Objectivist political principles are impractical and unrealistic. The phrase "laissez-faire," so important to the Rand's political philosophy, is a slogan rather than a coherent policy of political economy. All political action is conducted in the context of intense ideological, personal, and economic rivalries. It is grossly implausible to assume either that one interest or ideology can "impose" laissez-faire on all the others, or that all interests, all ideologies (or even a majority of ideologies and interests) would ever agree to adopt laissez-faire economic policies. And even if (per impossible) laissez-faire could be established, whether by force or consensus, it is not clear that an advanced industrial economy with sophisticated asset markets can be maintained by a strict hands-off approach. Markets require a sophisticated framework of law defining property, contracts, and credit. The notion that any governing body could just declare a "separation" between the state and economy and then proceed to sit back and do nothing cannot be taken seriously. Only a rationalist with no first hand experience with law and economic policy could ever believe that.

People who favor impractical political principles tend to get pushed to the margins in democratic politics. But when they are also unwilling to compromise, this further pushes them out of the mainstream. Representational government is essentially government through compromise. The political mechanism of democratic elections is a kind of game that is played to see which political factions get the lion's share of political power. Coalitions are required to win elections and to pass legislation, and compromise is necessary to form coalitions. Those who refuse to compromise for moral reasons (i.e., because compromise is "evil," as Rand would put it) condemn themselves to having no say in legislative decisions.

Rand appears to have intuitively sensed that she could not change anything through political means. Her experiences campaigning for Wendel Wilkie in 1940 presidential election turned her against political activism. Refusing to play a game in which she could never have her own way, she instead began arguing that metaphysics and epistemology are "fundamental," that is, prior and determinative of ethics and politics, so that if you want to change a society's politics, you must first change their metaphysics and epistemology. Hence, the Randian doctrine that real political change can only be brought about by solving the problem of universals.

Now let us consider for a moment the sort of people who would be attracted to a philosophy that contends that political goals can achieved without ever engaging in political action. Will it attract people eager to engage in politics, people who have a talent for political action, people full of energy and vigor and charisma who are willing to get hands dirty and fight for a place at the political table? No, an anti-political philosophy like Objectivism will turn off such people. This will leave only the dispirited, the lackluster, the armchair intellectuals—those who, in brief, lack energy and initiative and would rather talk about politics than do anything about it. In other words, it leaves just the sort of people we find running the Ayn Rand Institute.

So is Objectivism dangerous? Not in a political sense. Politically, Objectivism is largely impotent and hence does not pose a serious threat or danger to the community. Objectivists may say things that sound dangerous or scary, but without any political power, such verbal histrionics are no more efficacious than the idiotic howlings of a pack of demented, toothless curs.

Get Your DIM On

Peikoff's lecture series outlining his DIM hypothesis is available on line at the ARI. It's free - all you need to do is register.

There are 15 sections, each in two parts, and each part seems to be about 45mins to an hour or more long. So anyone who's got a mere 20-30 hours to spare can, apparently, get the vital philosophic context that is necessary to understand Peikoff's recent nutso remarks.

The ARCHN site's team of trained analysts will of course be sparing no effort to parse Dr P's utterances whilst doing the dishes, folding the washing etc for the next 6 months...;-)

Thursday, November 09, 2006

A Short Theory of Objecti-Schisms

This should really be a longer post, but apropos of the latest Objecti-schism, I want to touch briefly on the recurring topic of exactly why Objectivism is particularly prone to such upheavals - especially over what seem to outsiders as minor issues. There are a number of competing, and often complex theories as to why this is the case, involving the history of the movement, Ayn Rand's particular personality, the machinations of evildoers etc.

However, I'm going to suggest that that there is a simple, logical mechanism that accounts for this, and that logic extends from a basic proposition at the heart of the movement. I will roughly summarise this proposition as follows:

Everything is reducible to philosophy.

That is to say, all human feelings, thoughts, emotions, theories, hopes, preferences, ambitions, and character qualities are, in theory, all consistent with and ultimately reducible to a specific set of philosophic propositions. These propositions in turn can either be correct (ie: Objectivist) or incorrect (anything else).

Once you have accepted the Objectivist propositions, this supposed philosophic consistency offers the possibility of having what is called a "fully integrated" personality, where all one's character traits, from opinions to emotions to subconscious thoughts, are not only perfectly consistent with each other, but also consistent with a true fundamental philosophical basis. This happy ideal would see a perfect harmony from the fundamental to the trivial, both within ourselves, and ultimately between all our fellows, and perhaps is why Rand thought that there could be no conflict between rational men.

However, what is less discussed is what happens when you run the logic the other way: that is if you have disagreements about theories, hopes, preferences, emotions, character qualities etc between Objectivists. Because if we accept that there is no human activity - n matter how trivial - that does not have a fundamental philosophic basis, therefore there is, in principle, no disagreement so trivial that it cannot be explained by a fundamental philosophic disagreement. And as philosophy is the vitally important, all encompassing part of human existence, it is likewise possible - and perhaps even necessary - to escalate trivial disagreements into vitally important, all-encompassing ones!

Of course, one way out of this bind is to simply reject the idea that everything can be reduced to philosophy. But this would be a major rejection of a central Randian doctrine.

Who is the False True Objectivist?

In comments,(scroll down)Dragonfly notes the arrival of Schism #1,376 in Objectivism, triggered by the following statement:
"In my judgment, anyone who votes Republican or abstains from voting in this election has no understanding of the practical role of philosophy in man’s actual life—which means that he does not understand the philosophy of Objectivism, except perhaps as a rationalistic system detached from the world."

- Leonard Peikoff, founder of the Ayn Rand Institute, and self-described as 'the world's foremost authority on Ayn Rand's philosophy, Objectivism.'
It seems that absolute agreement with the ARI leader on politics is necessary in order to be a True Objectivist. Sadly, it seems other True Objectivists disagree - here, here, and here for example. This can only mean one thing: that someone has to be the False True Objectivist. But who will it be? Game on!

Monday, November 06, 2006

Hoisted from comments: Nyquist on the Dualism(s)

From comments on our "Double Trouble" thread below, Greg Nyquist chips in with his take on dualisms in Objectivism:

The apologist(s) for the Randian position have spread more heat than light on this issue of dualism, which is actually critical since it touches upon an important area of difference between those of us who are critics of Rand and those who defend the author of Atlas Shrugged. So a restatement may be in order.

There are two major forms of dualism related to this issue: epistemological dualism and psycho-physical dualism. Epistemological dualism is the view that an idea is not identical with the thing in reality that it represents. Hence the idea of a cat is different from the cat itself. The idea is a mere representation of the cat. This is a view held most famously (and in a rather crude form) by Locke and Descartes. According to the malicious critics of knowledge (i.e. idealists), this is severely problematic, because it leads to a supposedly unanswerable problem, which the philosopher Santayana introduced as follows: "How is it possible to posit an object [i.e., the existence of external object] which is not a datum [i.e., not an idea], and how without knowing positively what this object is can I make it the criterion of truth in my ideas? ... If I know a man only by reputation, how should I judge if the reputation is deserved? If I know things only by representations, are not the representations the only things I know?"

Now how does Rand answer this question? Well, she doesn't really answer it directly, but through scattered remarks throughout her works, we piece together a rather inadequate reply. She begins by accepting the idealist critique of epistemological dualism, which caricatures this dualism as a complete separation of ideas and their objects. But epistemological dualism doesn't separate objects from ideas, it merely distinguishes them. Then Rand conflates epistemological with psycho-physical dualism and dismisses the former as being tainted with the (alleged) mysticism of the latter. Then having dismissed epistemological dualism, she sets up in its stead a view that is, for all intents and purposes, a version of epistemological dualism. For she accepts nearly all the positions held by epistemological dualists. She agrees with them, for example, that ideas (or, in her terminology, concepts) are not identical with the objects in reality they stand for. She also agrees that the mind does not mirror reality. So where does she differ from epistemological dualism? She differs only in that she wouldn't agree with the inevitable conclusion of epistemological dualism. How in fact is the leap from idea to object justified? Rand actually never addresses this issue specifically. Even in IOTE she ends up, perhaps unwittingly, addressing a separate issue (i.e., the relation between sensation and percepts on the one side, and concepts on the other). She dodges the whole issue of how percipient representations "correspond" with their existential objects. It is fairly obvious why she would do so. The simple fact of the matter, there is no viable solution to the problem that Rand would accept, because Rand believed that you had to prove or validate knowledge in order for knowledge to be useful and trustworthy. This is a false ideal deriving from Rand's theory of history. Those who appreciate and understand the problem of epistemological dualism realize that the only viable solution is one that embraces the conjectural nature of knowledge. The leap from idea to object is, as Santayana put, made under the steam of "animal faith," so that knowledge becomes "faith mediated by symbols." But this is not an arbitrary, groundless faith caricatured by Rand, but a justified faith corroborated by every moment of intelligent wakefulness.

Memo from the ARCHN Quality Control Dept.

Due to some recent minor trollular activity, comment moderation will be switched on for a while.

We Have A Winner!

Our team of analysts is proud to announce the incisive Ellen Stuttle is the winner of the 'best comment' prize our recent competition. She gets a free copy of Greg Nyquist's "Ayn Rand Contra Human Nature" courtesy of your soaraway ARCHN site. Well done, ma'am.

Friday, November 03, 2006

Double Trouble

Here's a quick thought for the weekend:
"A philosophy that rejects the monism of idealism or materialism does not thereby become 'dualist.'"
- Leonard Peikoff, 'Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand' p 35
The trouble is then how, exactly, one can reject monism without accepting some form of dualism or pluralism!

Leonard Peikoff's solution is to make up a new word.
"In this situation, a new term is required..."Objectivism"'" (p 35 ibid)
In the common parlance, this is called a fudge. Chris Sciabarra's solution, on the other hand, is to call it "dialectics".
" not anti-dualism any more than it is anti-monism. It is pro-context."
I am not sure we are any the wiser after this either.

But does Objectivism really reject both philosophic monism and dualism as aggressively as its rhetoric suggests? Here's Rand herself:
"I want to stress this; it is a very important distinction. A great number of philosophical errors and confusions are created by failing to distinguish between consciousness and existence -- between the process of consciousness and the reality of the world outside, between the perceiver and the perceived." - Ayn Rand, ITOE, "The Role of Words - Words and Concepts"
While this is still vague, it is to all intents and purposes a strongly dualist statement in the entirely ordinary philosophical sense. That is, "a very important distinction" exists between "consciousness" and "existence" ie: the "reality of the world outside." While of course we can then go on to roll up these two elements and call it a "monism" if we want, this would be merely pedantry, as you could equally do this to traditional dualist cosmologies. In short, if walks like a dualism, and quacks like a dualism, it doesn't really matter what you try to dress it up as.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Grandstanding on Islam

Further to my recent post about the Ayn Rand Institute's growing anti-Islamic hysteria, Yaron Brook's UCLA speech is reported in The Daily Bruin The report claims Brook suggested that "a way to defeat these (Islamic totalitarian) regimes is to kill up to hundreds of thousands of their supporters." Well, I suppose that is a way...
Brook said the increase in extremist activities throughout the Islamic world is due to a continued moral weakening in the U.S.

"What challenges us is our own moral weakness," which are multiculturalism and moral relativism, Brook said.

The solution is for the U.S. and the West to find a philosophy that embraces their moral good, which are the ideas of Ayn Rand, an author and founder of objectivism, Brook said. Objectivist philosophy promotes objective reality, rationality, self-interest and capitalism.

The self-interest tenet of objectivism advocates that one's own life is worth defending by any means necessary, which would allow the United States to justify defeating Islamic totalitarianism by killing a large number of its supporters, according to Brook.
Brook seems to be following the standard "talk tough but be sure to carry nothing in the way of actual policy recommendations" so beloved of Objectivist wanna-be-radicals. Given that in reality the man is too terrified to publish his remarks in case Barbara Branden says something mean about him in an internet forum, I doubt the various Islamic totalitarians are losing much sleep over this blowhard.

*PS: Don't let this update distract you from Greg Nyquist's superb examination of Whittaker Chambers' notorious review of 'Atlas Shrugged' below.

Whittaker Chambers' Review of Atlas Shrugged, with commentary

Next year will be 50th anniversary of the publication of Rand's magnum opus, "Atlas Shrugged." In anticipation of this anniversary, I thought I would revisit the most notorious of all the reviews of AS: that of Whittaker Chambers. This review is most notorious for allegedly equating Rand's views with Nazism ("From almost any page of Atlas Shrugged, a voice can be heard, from painful necessity, commanding: 'To a gas chamber — go!'"). The "infamous" quote, as I hope to demonstrate, is not quite as unfair as it has been made out to be. Indeed, in the context of the entire review, it doesn't seem in the least unreasonable.

The review starts by noting a few uncontroversial facts — namely, that AS was not much liked by critical opinion when it came out:

Big Sister Is Watching You
By Whittaker Chambers
December 28, 1957

Several years ago, Miss Ayn Rand wrote The Fountainhead. Despite a generally poor press, it is said to have sold some four hundred thousand copies. Thus, it became a wonder of the book trade of a kind that publishers dream about after taxes. So Atlas Shrugged had a first printing of one hundred thousand copies. It appears to be slowly climbing the best-seller lists.

The news about this book seems to me to be that any ordinarily sensible head could not possibly take it seriously, and that, apparently, a good many do. Somebody has called it: 'Excruciatingly awful.' I find it a remarkably silly book. It is certainly a bumptious one. Its story is preposterous. It reports the final stages of a final conflict (locale: chiefly the United States, some indefinite years hence) between the harried ranks of free enterprise and the 'looters.' These are proponents of proscriptive taxes, government ownership, labor, etc., etc. The mischief here is that the author, dodging into fiction, nevertheless counts on your reading it as political reality. 'This,' she is saying in effect, 'is how things really are. These are the real issues, the real sides. Only your blindness keeps you from seeing it, which, happily, I have come to rescue you from.'

Although admirers of AS are not going to be happy with Chambers' opinion of the book, I see nothing wrong with it. If one believes that a novel should provide depth and insight into the human condition, then AS inevitably will appear remarkably silly.

Since a great many of us dislike much that Miss Rand dislikes, quite as heartily as she does, many incline to take her at her word. It is the more persuasive, in some quarters, because the author deals wholly in the blackest blacks and the whitest whites. In this fiction everything, everybody, is either all good or all bad, without any of those intermediate shades which, in life, complicate reality and perplex the eye that seeks to probe it truly. This kind of simplifying pattern, of course, gives charm to most primitive story known as: The War between the Children of Light and the Children of Darkness. In modern dress, it is a class war. Both sides to it are caricatures.

The Children of Light are largely operatic caricatures. Insofar as any of them suggests anything known to the business community, they resemble the occasional curmudgeon millionaire, tales about whose outrageously crude and shrewd eccentricities sometimes provide the lighter moments in boardrooms. Otherwise, the Children of Light are geniuses. One of them is named (the only smile you see will be your own): Francisco Domingo Carlos Andres Sebastian d'Antonio. This electrifying youth is the world's biggest copper tycoon. Another, no less electrifying, is named: Ragnar Danesjold. He becomes a twentieth-century pirate. All Miss Rand's chief heroes are also breathtakingly beautiful. So is her heroine (she is rather fetchingly vice president in charge of management of a transcontinental railroad).

So much radiant energy might seem to serve a eugenic purpose. For, in this story as in Mark Twain's, 'all the knights marry the princess' — though without benefit of clergy. Yet from the impromptu and surprisingly gymnastic matings of the heroine and three of the heroes, no children — it suddenly strikes you — ever result. The possibility is never entertained. And, indeed, the strenuously sterile world of Atlas Shrugged is scarcely a place for children. You speculate that, in life, children probably irk the author and may make her uneasy. How could it be otherwise when she admiringly names a banker character (by what seems to me a humorless master-stroke): Midas Mulligan? You may fool some adults; you can't fool little boys and girls with such stuff — not for long. They may not know just what is out of line, but they stir uneasily. The Children of Darkness are caricatures, too; and they are really oozy. But at least they are caricatures of something identifiable. Their archetypes are Left-Liberals, New Dealers, Welfare Statists, One Worlders, or, at any rate, such ogreish semblances of these as may stalk the nightmares of those who think little about people as people, but tend to think a great deal in labels and effigies. (And neither Right nor Left, be it noted in passing, has a monopoly of such dreamers, though the horrors in their nightmares wear radically different masks and labels.)

Again, I find nothing to object to here. The line "those who think little about people as people" perfectly captures what I consider the number one failing of AS as literature. The novel, in my view, is supposed to illuminate human nature, not demean or dehumanize it.

In Atlas Shrugged, all this debased inhuman riffraff is lumped as 'looters.' This is a fairly inspired epithet. It enables the author to skewer on one invective word everything and everybody that she fears and hates. This spares her the playguy business of performing one service that her fiction might have performed, namely: that of examining in human depth how so feeble a lot came to exist at all, let alone be powerful enough to be worth hating and fearing. Instead, she bundles them into one undifferentiated damnation.

'Looters' loot because they believe in Robin Hood, and have got a lot of other people believing in him, too. Robin Hood is the author's image of absolute evil — robbing the strong (and hence good) to give to the weak (and hence no good). All 'looters' are base, envious, twisted, malignant minds, motivated wholly by greed for power, combined with the lust of the weak to tear down the strong, out of a deepseated hatred of life and secret longing for destruction and death. There happens to be a tiny (repeat: tiny) seed of truth in this. The full clinical diagnosis can be read in the pages of Friedrich Nietzsche. (Here I must break in with an aside. Miss Rand acknowledges a grudging debt to one, and only one, earlier philosopher: Aristotle. I submit that she is indebted, and much more heavily, to Nietzsche. Just as her operatic businessmen are, in fact, Nietzschean supermen, so her ulcerous leftists are Nietzsche's 'last men,' both deformed in a way to sicken the fastidious recluse of Sils Maria. And much else comes, consciously or not, from the same source.) Happily, in Atlas Shrugged (though not in life), all the Children of Darkness are utterly incompetent.

Here I have a slight disagreement with Chambers. I don't believe that Rand is heavily in debt to Nietzsche. She may have been influenced by a vulgarized misrepresentation of Nietzsche, twisted to serve her own purposes; and she also may have been influenced by some of Nietzsche's vices; but of Nietzsche's virtues, of his irony and his contempt for convictions, certainty, ideology, and rationalization, she has not the vaguest clue. Chambers comment, however, that the children of darkness are not utterly incompetent in real life is shrewd and devastating.

So the Children of Light win handily by declaring a general strike of brains, of which they have a monopoly, letting the world go, literally, to smash. In the end, they troop out of their Rocky Mountain hideaway to repossess the ruins. It is then, in the book's last line, that a character traces in the air, over the desolate earth, the Sign of the Dollar, in lieu of the Sign of the Cross, and in token that a suitably prostrate mankind is at last ready, for its sins, to be redeemed from the related evils of religion and social reform (the 'mysticism of mind' and the 'mysticism of muscle').

That Dollar Sign is not merely provocative, though we sense a sophomoric intent to raise the pious hair on susceptible heads. More importantly, it is meant to seal the fact that mankind is ready to submit abjectly to an elite of technocrats, and their accessories, in a New Order, enlightened and instructed by Miss Rand's ideas that the good life is one which 'has resolved personal worth into exchange value,' 'has left no other nexus between man and man than naked selfinterest, than callous cash-payment.' The author is explicit, in fact deafening, about these prerequisites. Lest you should be in any doubt after 1,168 pages, she assures you with a final stamp of the foot in a postscript:

'And I mean it.' But the words quoted above are those of Karl Marx. He, too, admired 'naked self-interest' (in its time and place), and for much the same reasons as Miss Rand: because, he believed, it cleared away the cobwebs of religion and led to prodigies of industrial and cognate accomplishment. The overlap is not as incongruous as it looks. Atlas Shrugged can be called a novel only by devaluing the term. It is a massive tract for the times. Its story merely serves Miss Rand to get the customers inside the tent, and as a soapbox for delivering her Message. The Message is the thing. It is, in sum, a forthright philosophic materialism. Upperclassmen might incline to sniff and say that the author has, with vast effort, contrived a simple materialist system, one, intellectually, at about the stage of the oxcart, though without mastering the principle of the wheel. Like any consistent materialism, this one begins by rejecting God, religion, original sin, etc., etc. (This book's aggressive atheism and rather unbuttoned 'higher morality,' which chiefly outrage some readers, are, in fact, secondary ripples, and result inevitably from its underpinning premises.) Thus, Randian Man, like Marxian Man, is made the center of a godless world.

Here Chambers overreaches, thereby making his first serious mistake. It is an understandable one. We all of us try to understand the unknown by relating it to the known. Chambers, as a former communist, had a profound understanding of Marx. Although Rand can sometimes seem like a sort of anti-Marx, there are some definite parallels in thought between these two intensely ideological thinkers, particularly the way in which they each mix the pretense of realism, science, and naturalism with a utopian vision of a transformed human nature. Chambers, drawing the parallel a little too far, accuses Rand of "forthright" materialism.

The accusation of materialism has been made (with less excuse) by later critics of Rand — e.g., by Robbins and Ryan. But this is a mistake. Objectivism is actually quite hostile to some of the central positions materialism. A consistent materialist must embrace some form rigorous Darwinism, along the lines preached by Richard Dawkins. Dawkins' vision of man is not compatible with Rand's. Rand herself appears to have understand this and in her journals she expressed skepticism toward the whole idea of Darwinian evolution. After all, how could Howard Roark and John Galt ever be descended from apes? Such naturalism and realism that exists in Objectivism is purely adventitious. It's a polemical device used to beat down traditional religion. And not merely to beat down religion from an irreligious perspective, in the manner of a Voltaire or a Mencken, but from that of a competing religion. Randian man is not, as Chambers suggests, made the center of a godless world. No, Randian man is god. That, in a nutshell, is the whole problem with Objectivism. Chambers continues:

At that point, in any materialism, the main possibilities open up to Man. 1) His tragic fate becomes, without God, more tragic and much lonelier. In general, the tragedy deepens according to the degree of pessimism or stoicism with which he conducts his 'hopeless encounter between human questioning and the silent universe.' Or, 2) Man's fate ceases to be tragic at all. Tragedy is bypassed by the pursuit of happiness. Tragedy is henceforth pointless. Henceforth man's fate, without God, is up to him, and to him alone. His happiness, in strict materialist terms, lies with his own workaday hands and ingenious brain. His happiness becomes, in Miss Rand's words, 'the moral purpose of his life.'

Here occurs a little rub whose effects are just as observable in a free-enterprise system, which is in practice materialist (whatever else it claims or supposes itself to be), as they would be under an atheist socialism, if one were ever to deliver that material abundance that all promise. The rub is that the pursuit of happiness, as an end in itself, tends automatically, and widely, to be replaced by the pursuit of pleasure, with a consequent general softening of the fibers of will, intelligence, spirit. No doubt, Miss Rand has brooded upon that little rub. Hence in part, I presume, her insistence on man as a 'heroic being With productive achievement as his noblest activity.' For, if Man's heroism (some will prefer to say: 'human dignity') no longer derives from God, or is not a function of that godless integrity which was a root of Nietzsche's anguish, then Man becomes merely the most consuming of animals, with glut as the condition of his happiness and its replenishment his foremost activity. So Randian Man, at least in his ruling caste, has to be held 'heroic' in order not to be beastly. And this, of course, suits the author's economics and the politics that must arise from them. For politics, of course, arise, though the author of Atlas Shrugged stares stonily past them, as if this book were not what, in fact, it is, essentially — a political book. And here begins mischief. Systems of philosophic materialism, so long as they merely circle outside this world's atmosphere, matter little to most of us. The trouble is that they keep coming down to earth. It is when a system of materialist ideas presumes to give positive answers to real problems of our real life that mischief starts. In an age like ours, in which a highly complex technological society is everywhere in a high state of instability, such answers, however philosophic, translate quickly into political realities. And in the degree to which problems of complexity and instability are most bewildering to masses of men, a temptation sets in to let some species of Big Brother solve and supervise them.

Here Chambers is guilty of giving Rand too much credit. He assumes that Rand's cult of the ideal man arose to deal with the demoralization that accompanies any excessively hedonistic consumerism. But I doubt Rand was ever very much troubled by such concerns. Her ideal man arises from her hyperbolic romanticism and her female sexuality.

Chambers also overrates Rand's potential influence. By drawing the parallel between Marx and Rand, Chambers assumes the possibility that Rand could one day be as influential as Marx. But Objectivism simply does not have enough appeal ever to represent this sort of threat. Most human beings would not want to live in the future utopia imagined by Rand. (And Rand, with her usual disdain for the "folks next door," probably wouldn't want them to live there either.)

One Big Brother is, of course, a socializing elite (as we know, several cut-rate brands are on the shelves). Miss Rand, as the enemy of any socializing force, calls in a Big Brother of her own contriving to do battle with the other. In the name of free enterprise, therefore, she plumps for a technocratic elite (I find no more inclusive word than technocratic to bracket the industrial-financial-engineering caste she seems to have in mind). When she calls 'productive achievement man's noblest activity,' she means, almost exclusively, technological achievement, supervised by such a managerial political bureau. She might object that she means much, much more; and we can freely entertain her objections. But, in sum, that is just what she means. For that is what, in reality, it works out to. And in reality, too, by contrast with fiction, this can only head into a dictatorship, however benign, living and acting beyond good and evil, a law unto itself (as Miss Rand believes it should be), and feeling any restraint on itself as, in practice, criminal, and, in morals, vicious (as Miss Rand clearly feels it to be). Of course, Miss Rand nowhere calls for a dictatorship. I take her to be calling for an aristocracy of talents. We cannot labor here why, in the modern world, the pre-conditions for aristocracy, an organic growth, no longer exist, so that the impulse toward aristocracy always emerges now in the form of dictatorship.

Nor has the author, apparently, brooded on the degree to which, in a wicked world, a materialism of the Right and a materialism of the Left first surprisingly resemble, then, in action, tend to blend each with each, because, while differing at the top in avowed purpose, and possibly in conflict there, at bottom they are much the same thing. The embarrassing similarities between Hitler's National Socialism and Stalin's brand of Communism are familiar. For the world, as seen in materialist view from the Right, scarcely differs from the same world seen in materialist view from the Left. The question becomes chiefly: who is to run that world in whose interests, or perhaps, at best, who can run it more efficiently?

This is Chambers most controversial assertion: that if put into practice, Rand's philosophy would inevitably bring forth some form of authoritarian or totalitarian dicatorship. But note Chambers' caveat: "Miss Rand nowhere calls for a dictatorship." He is not, as some Randites have maliciously suggested, accusing Rand of advocating dictatorship. I can imagine some apologist for Rand insisting that, far from getting Chambers off the hook, this only damns him the more. After all, he admits that Rand does not want dictatorship, but then goes on to insist that Rand's philosophy will lead to dictatorship. But to take this line or reasoning is to entirely miss Chambers' point. Chambers is contending that Rand's philosophy would inevitably lead to dictatorship, not because that's what Rand wants or advocates, but because that's what happens when fanatical individuals attempt to implement ideological systems that don't take full account of all the relevant realities. Objectivism, if given access to political power, would lapse into dictatorship because the Objectivist leaders would become frustrated with the wickedness of the subject class that were constantly sabotaging and undermining the beautiful Objectivist society they were trying to bring about and would start taking a harder and harder line. Now I don't actually agree with Chambers argument; but it is not a stupid or intellectual dishonest argument, as Rand's apologists would contend.

Something of this implication is fixed in the book's dictatorial tone, which is much its most striking feature. Out of a lifetime of reading, I can recall no other book in which a tone of overriding arrogance was so implacably sustained. Its shrillness is without reprieve. Its dogmatism is without appeal. In addition, the mind which finds this tone natural to it shares other characteristics of its type. 1) It consistently mistakes raw force for strength, and the rawer the force, the more reverent the posture of the mind before it. 2) It supposes itself to be the bringer of a final revelation. Therefore, resistance to the Message cannot be tolerated because disagreement can never be merely honest, prudent, or just humanly fallible. Dissent from revelation so final (because, the author would say, so reasonable) can only be willfully wicked. There are ways of dealing with such wickedness, and, in fact, right reason itself enjoins them. From almost any page of Atlas Shrugged, a voice can be heard, from painful necessity, commanding: 'To a gas chamber — go!' The same inflexibly self-righteous stance results, too (in the total absence of any saving humor), in odd extravagances of inflection and gesture-that Dollar Sign, for example. At first, we try to tell ourselves that these are just lapses, that this mind has, somehow, mislaid the discriminating knack that most of us pray will warn us in time of the difference between what is effective and firm, and what is wildly grotesque and excessive. Soon we suspect something worse. We suspect that this mind finds, precisely in extravagance, some exalting merit; feels a surging release of power and passion precisely in smashing up the house. A tornado might feel this way, or Carrie Nation.

Here is the most controversial section of the review. Once read in its overall context, it doesn't seem in the least unfair. Chambers is not, as is often maliciously implied, accusing Rand of advocating genocide. The phrase "To a gas chamber — go" is a metaphor used to described the extremity of Rand's contempt for those who disagree with her. And that really, in final analysis, is, as Chambers correctly states, the most striking feature of AS. I can think of no great or important work of literature that comes anywhere close to AS in the shrillness of its disdain. Those who admire the book are blind to this eviscerating contempt, because the contempt is not directed at them. Its directed at everybody else — that is, at everyone who refuses to agree with Rand. AS is a book that is difficult to admire or appreciate if you happen to disagree with the author. In this it is unique. You don't have to agree with Dostoevsky or Tolstoy or Dickens or Hugo or Henry James or Proust to enjoy reading their works. These authors don't abuse, don't spout vitriolic disdain and contempt, for readers who refuse to agree with them. This is Rand's one utterly unpardonable sin.

Chambers concludes on the following note:

We struggle to be just. For we cannot help feeling at least a sympathetic pain before the sheer labor, discipline, and patient craftsmanship that went to making this mountain of words. But the words keep shouting us down. In the end that tone dominates. But it should be its own antidote, warning us that anything it shouts is best taken with the usual reservations with which we might sip a patent medicine. Some may like the flavor. In any case, the brew is probably without lasting ill effects. But it is not a cure for anything. Nor would we, ordinarily, place much confidence in the diagnosis of a doctor who supposes that the Hippocratic Oath is a kind of curse.

Chambers here expresses precisely the emotion faced by the intrepid critic of Rand: "sympathetic pain." It is an enormous pity that someone of Rand's genius and determination should have created something as intellectually dubious and morally contemptible as Atlas Shrugged. Rand's life, along with her philosophy, present us with the pathetic spectacle of an unedifying tragedy.

—Greg Nyquist

Saturday, October 21, 2006

The Moral Right to Kill

In his post on Rand's declining influence, Greg Nyquist noted the inversely mounting hysteria emanating from the Ayn Rand Institute, particularly over the Middle East. Now Yaron Brook, President and Executive Director of The Ayn Rand Institute is quoted at the site Objectivist Living as saying the following:
"If you're happy at a Hamas victory, you deserve the bullet of an American soldier."

"If you wear a tee shirt with a silhouette of bin Laden on it, an American has the moral right to kill you."
While this is not a direct quote, a skim around some Objectivist sites produced the following, equally indirect response from Brook, via Lindsay Perigo at Solopassion (in comments).
"Yaron Brook has replied to my query with a lengthy account of what he remembers having said and the all-important context in which he said it. But he's very explicit that it's for my eyes only—he asks that I not quote him in this context since to do so would grant the premise that the Barbaras of this world are open to rational argument and proceed in good faith. I certainly would like to quote him, and don't agree that to do so would grant such a premise, but I must honour his request. I will say, though, that it's clear from his comments that he doesn't support the gratuitous killing of anyone, even in war."
Strangely, these 'lengthy' comments are too doubleplus-secret for anyone else to see, and the supposed 'context' too 'all-important' to give a straight yes-or-no answer to. There are questions of 'granting premises of rational argument' and 'good faith', and the 'honour' involved in being the privileged vessel for such 'eyes-only' comments.

In other words, we can take that as a 'yes.'

Friday, October 20, 2006

Cringe and Win! - The 5 Most Embarrassing Moments in "PARC"

At last I finally get around to a roundup of the 5 most cringe-inducing moments in James Valliant's deeply cracked "The Passion of Ayn Rand's Critics." As the late great Orson Welles once said, so many options....

Feel free to add your own favourite. Best comment (judged by me, no correspondence entered into etc) wins a free copy of Greg Nyquist's "Ayn Rand Contra Human Nature."

5. The Surprise Party of Evil

Random House (why, even the name is irrationalist!) throw Rand a surprise party to celebrate the launch of 'Atlas Shrugged'. In return, Rand throws a control-freaky snit about other people trying to 'control her context'. Later she launches into a analysis of the merits of surprise parties and hilariously declares that, philosophically, she can find "no valid reason for them". Equally hilariously, Grand High Inquistor Valliant's ever-alert nostrils manage to detect the scent of the devil in the seemingly innocent fact that Nathaniel and Barbara Branden played along with the Surprise Party of Evil: "It was the Brandens who were part of the effort to "control" Rand's context through deception...We shall see that this is not the last time that they will attempt to do this..."

4. Jealous Gal

In a feat perhaps unparallelled in the annals of groupiedom, Valliant manages to insert a compliment to Rand on almost page of PARC; sometimes in every paragraph, and occasionally in every sentence. He attributes to her literally superhuman qualities such as immunity to envy or jealousy - as he must, of course, as such emotions are inconsistent with Rand's philosophy, and Valliant's main objective is rehabilitating her reputation as Objectivism's irreproachable exemplar. Unfortunately, groupiedom is blind; these claims are contradicted by his own book. For example, jealousy:

"Female jealousy, in the traditional sense" writes Valliant, "was alien to Rand, and her ability to remain rational - whatever personal feelings she had on the subject - is truly impressive."

But then from the very pages of PARC itself, here's Rand on Patrecia, Branden's glamorous new young cookie:
"...he kept insisting that he sees some wonderful qualities in her, which he could not define and which were not seen, nor even sensed, by anyone else (most emphatically not by me)..."
"And what did he get in exchange for his mind and soul? Nothing. That is the grotesque emptiness of evil. Nothing but the empty chatter with (Patrecia) at their lunches...listening to the theatrical prattling of a girl who bores much lesser minds within half an hour...what else was there to do with a girl of that kind?...If one looks at the above in realistic, existential terms, it becomes pure insanity: why would would a man want to give up all the values representing his mind and his exchange for this sort of silly, trashy, vulgar, juvenile nonsense?"
"(Patrecia) was disgustingly phoney, and I felt strained..."

"Symbolically, this was a battle between my universe and (Patrecia's). Existentially and objectively, the choice to keep (Patrecia's) and to reject (mine) speaks for itself..."

"Existentially, he must not have any romantic or even friendship relationship with (Patrecia)..."

"I feel the strongest contempt I have ever felt - and I regard (Branden, for his relationship with Patrecia) as the worst traitor and the most immoral person I have ever met..."
Yes folks, it certainly is "remarkable" how Rand rises so objectively above mere "traditional female emotions"!

3. Comic Genius

Hey, who says Rand had no sense of humour?

2. Take My Wife - Please!

Perhaps Valliant's most bizarre flight of fantasy is his depiction of Rand and her husband Frank O'Connor as bold rebels against drab sexual orthodoxy - here to teach mankind a new "science of ethics", no less. Basically, Valliant argues that the Rand/Branden/O'Connor menage a trois - Rand's 18-year adultery with a star-struck Branden some 25 years her junior - was, despite obvious appearances, a supreme example of her "remarkable integrity". How so? Well, because - get this - her husband got off on it too. In support of his superbly pervy thesis, Valliant quotes Rand's notes from "Atlas Shrugged":
"(Rearden) takes pleasure in the thought of Dagny with another man, which is an unconscious acknowledgement that sex, as such, is great and beautiful, not evil and degrading."
Valliant declares that, far from resenting it as ordinary men might, for Rand a male "hero" would actually take pleasure in the thought of their loved one getting it on with "another hero". Not only that, but this type of male psychology is, according to Valliant, "almost certain to be an expression of her husband's own Frank was...the model for her fictional heroes." For as a "loving husband", Valliant concludes that Frank must surely have "appreciated his wife's complex emotional - and intellectual - needs." What a guy! Far from being intensely angry and conflicted as the Brandens testify, and as one might reasonably expect from being cuckolded, Valliant insists that Frank possessed "such a sensitive and daring soul," that it "may well have given him the capacity to embrace his wife's quest for joy..." - perhaps even finding it "a sexual inspiration." As we say here in New Zealand...yeah,right!

And then the cringing clincher:"Such a scenario,"writes Valliant,"however probable..." Yes, that's right, Valliant really says this! Er, James, shouldn't that really read "however improbable"? Poor, poor Frank.

1. "Too Much For Him"

PARC's biggest faux pas is certainly Valliant's decision to publish Rand's personal notes on the breakup of her menage a trois with Nathaniel Branden. As I've written elsewhere, far from rehabilitating her intellectual reputation among non-Objectivists, they're more likely to sink it for all time. On one level, the pseudo-psychological drivel is bad enough; but it's made worse by the almost poignant portrait of self-delusion that these notes paint of Rand herself. She torturously 'analyses' Branden's supposed 'psycho-epistemological repressions' for page after daft page; yet never does she seriously examine her own reponsibility for the state of the relationship. Does she ever think: Gee, it maybe wasn't such a good idea to have an adulterous relationship with a fanboy half my age? That, as the saying goes, there's no fool like an old fool? Does she ever pick up the moral courage to end the years of "greyness" herself with Branden?; to figure out the obvious reality of the situation and simply tell him it's over? Nope. Her self awareness is zero. Everything that's wrong with their relationship is always and everywhere Branden's fault, due to him being a 'secretly repressed social metaphysician'; not because there's no fool like an old fool, and that the whole thing was obviously going to end in tears right from the start. Reality never enters into it. Rand's self-delusion eventually metastatizes into desperate self-aggrandisement in what will surely become an infamous passage:

"I am convinced that the clearest and probably conscious fear in his mind was the fear of admitting that I was 'too much for (Branden).'...I was too much for him - in every sense of the phrase and in a deeper sense than would apply to the type of men he despises. I want to stress this: I was and am too much for him. This is my full conviction, reached with the full power, logic, clarity and context of my mind..."

By this point, "The Passion of Ayn Rand's Critics" is too much for just about anybody.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Hoisted from Comments:"Atlas County"

Commenter Michael Hardesty thinks that the 'Atlas Shrugged' movie would work far better as an epic 'Dallas'-style soap opera, mapping the inexorable philosophic corruption of Mixed Economy USA over many seasons, along with lashings of sex, melodrama and torture sequences.

Working title: "Atlas County"

Here's his casting list:
Jim Taggart - Rudy Giuliani
Dagny - Sandra Bullock
Hank Rearden - David Soul
John Galt - Denzel Washington
Francisco - Morgan Freeman
Lillian Rearden - Christine Taylor
Mr. Thompson - Woody Allen
Floyd Ferris - Alan Alda
Fred Kinnan - Joe Pesci
Eugene Lawson - John Goodman
Orren Boyle -Danny Aiello

Pretty good I reckon. But what about Benecio Del Toro for Francisco? Or if he needs to be smoother, but still a bit dark, obviously Antonio Banderas. He was perfectly ironic in "Femme Fatale".


Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Soon To Be Denounced At A Theatre Near You.

I have to ask: do the makers of 'Atlas Shrugged' really have any idea of the perils of making this movie? Are they going to be able to, say modernise the hammy dialogue to make it sayable without 'corrupting it philosophically'? How are they going to reconcile its basic themes with the traditional Hollywood social homilies, which always include social messages about caring, sharing and families as much as sex and guns? Is a railroad drama going to run in the 21st C? As the budget expands to become a major movie, isn't the individualist radicalism going to get toned down to fit mass-demographic research? Isn't any such transgression, no matter how minor, going to trigger volcanic denunciations from Pope Leonard etc? (He didn't like 'Titanic' one little bit, and that movie is bound to be mentioned on the one-page ) How will they avoid Galt's Gulch turning out like a 1950s industrialist version of Hobbiton? Don't they know Angelina can't open a movie? And of course, who is John Galt? Tom Hanks?

Thursday, September 28, 2006

Is Rand's Influence in Decline?

Daniel Barnes has pointed out to me that Rand's Google trends are in decline. This suggests something I have suspected for a number of years: that interest in Rand and her philosophy is waning, that people just aren't as interested in her than they were 20, 30, 40 years ago. I don't necessarily say this as an opponent exulting in the decline of public interest in Objectivism. As someone who has written a book, albeit a harshly critical one, on Rand's philosophy, this trend does me little good. It simply makes my book less relevant.

So assuming that the Google trends are illustrative of a declining interest in Rand -- a decline further evinced by the fact that Rand 's followers are almost completely ignored by the mainstream media -- what is its cause? I believe there are several reasons for the Randian eclipse:

(1) When Rand first hit the scene, there were very few widely known and widely read intellectuals defending capitalism and political individualism. In America, the closest thing we had to an outspoken defender of individualism was H. L. Mencken, whose reputation was in decline. Later, in the fifties, the conservative movement began to gain steam, but most of its early proponents were dryasdust intellectuals with no more charisma than a corpse. Rand was the first outspoken superstar intellectual of the right -- and, despite her contempt for nearly everyone else on the right, she would remain the most controversial, outspoken, and uncompromising defender of economic individualism well into the eighties. But then Rush LImbaugh and Ann Coulter and others of their ilk came along. Not only were these individuals nearly as outspoken as Rand, they did not share her anti-religious fanaticism or her tendency to quarrel with anyone on the right that did not agree with her en toto. The consequence was that young conservatives looking for an outspoken defender of economic individualism no longer had to turn to Rand. Even better, these conservatives could feel they were part of the major political party that was making changes in the real world, rather than as fringe group that was crying efficaciously in the wilderness.

(2) The fact that Rand is no longer around to comment on current events has also hurt her reputation. Her followers, of course, have tried to comment for her, but no one either at ARI or at TOC has anything close to Rand's charisma. The ARI folks are feeble mediocrities who pathetically try to ape Rand but only succeed in aping her worst defects. Their TOC rivals, though less unpalatable, are little more than watered down Rand -- and who needs that?

(3) The mediocrity of Rand's orthodox followers goes well beyond their inability to bring her thought alive to current events. The fact is, by their slavish yet dismal and unintelligent adherence to the Randian credo, they have squeezed every last drop of life from the Randian philosophic corpus. ARI has mummified Objectivism. They have robbed it of whatever spark or warmth of life it once had. Say what you like for or against Rand, she really believed what she said, and her passion was genuine. Although the current crop of Objectivists, as far as I can tell, also believe what they say, it's a paper belief: there is little if any real passion behind it. It just provides a pretext for angry rants at a world that doesn't give them the respect they think they deserve. How else can one explain the cynical opportunism that exists at ARI? The people at ARI are not all that serious about spreading Rand's ideas. They just dismal bureaucrats not far removed from the villains of Atlas Shrugged. When push comes to shove, Rand's philosophy is little more than meal ticket for them.

(4) Islamic terror has created a world which is not compatible with the sort of individualism advocated by Rand. The full truth of this, of course, has not hit home yet: that will require a second major terrorist attack against America, one that features 100s of thousands of causalities. The world we are heading toward is a militarized world, where security has become more important than "individualism" or freedom. To some extent, I suspect that Rand's followers, at least on a subliminal level, understand this. Hence their desperate pleas for taking drastic action against Islam, including the use of WMDs against Islamic states in order to wipe out all Muslims from the face of the globe. At least some Objectivists understand the threat that Islamic terror poses to Randian ideology.

(5) If the West fails to find an adequate energy alternative to oil, this could also be a huge blow to Rand's reputation. Without a cheap source of energy, the industrial economy of the West could easily lapse into something far more mercantilist and even fascistic. The concomitant decline in living standards could end up giving a huge boost to social conservatism and the religious ideals it espouses.

—Greg Nyquist

Slow Post Weeks

I've been a little tied up of late, but a couple of new pieces will be up soon. One will be on the suprising roots of the Objectivist ethics, the other a wrapup on TPARC.

Friday, September 15, 2006

Did Ayn Rand Understand Objectivism?

Sometimes we wonder...

Objectivists often contend that Ayn Rand's critics do not or cannot grasp her philosophy's fundamental principles like, for example, the 'law of identity'. Thus they are simply unable to comprehend the epochal innovations in the fields of epistemology, ethics, politics, aesthetics and so forth that follow inexorably as a result of Rand's application of these principles. Rand, it is also alleged, wrote clearly and precisely, so if you can't understand them you must be either a)stupid or b)evading or c)both. And perhaps this is the case.

But how good is Rand with these fundamentals herself, even at the level she considers her greatest innovation, in epistemology? Let's take a look. First, we'll invoke her fundamental axiom "Existence exists". We'll call this her Parmenidian axiom, as she derives from it a second postulate which is "Non-existence does not exist", or "there is no such thing as nothing". This seems to leave us with the ancient idea from Parmenides that the existence is "full", with no gaps of "nothing" in its structure. Then we'll take another fundamental axiom: that is, the Law of Identity which can be put as follows: "for a thing to exist, it must have an identity". This we'll call her Aristotelian axiom, as this is to whom it is generally attributed.

We'll then apply these axioms to what Rand considered her most vitally important intellectual work, her theory of Concept Formation in the "Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology".

In Chapter 1, 'Cognition and Measurement', she lays out her theory, starting with the "building block of man's knowledge", the concept "existent". This is what she calls an implicit concept - as opposed to later explicit concepts and which, we presume, are so named because Rand says they require language to be properly formed.

The "implicit" concept "existent" resides even at the level of sensations: for Rand tells us that "A sensation is a sensation of something, as distinguished from the nothing of the preceding and succeeding moments." Of course alert readers will have spotted right away that Rand seems to have blithely violated her Parmenidian axiom, as of course there is no such thing as "nothing" to be 'distinguished' from 'something' in the first place! So her theory is off to a highly questionable start.

Things get substantially worse however as she moves to describe how this 'building block' develops. She describes 3 distinct stages. Stage 1 is the child's awareness of objects, of things, which "represents the (implicit) concept 'entity'" (ITOE, 6). Stage 2 is the "second, and closely allied stage" which is "awareness of specific, particular things which (the child) can recognise and distinguish from the rest of his perceptual field". This stage, Rand tells us, is the implicit concept "identity". Now, alert readers will no doubt have noticed that once again, Rand has forgotten her own fundamental axiom, this time the Law of Identity. For if this law is correct, and an entity without identity cannot exist, there can be no Stage 1. (1)

Stage 2 is clearly just the Law of Identity all over again, so Rand can hardly take credit for this. Stage 3, the final stage, gives us the concept "unit" and consists apparently of "grasping similarities and differences" between identities. But we seem to have already done this in Stage 2, for we are already recognising and distinguishing "specific" things in our perceptual field - and in order to do this, we will surely have to realise that these things are similar to and different from each other. So we can assume there is no Stage 3 either.

Thus, embarrassingly, the very "building block" of Rand's proudest intellectual achievement kicks off with obvious violations of two of her own cherished fundamental axioms, and a redundant restatement of one of them. All that remains of her theory so far is just the Law of Identity (ie:Stage 2), an already well-known logical rule. And of course if you state that a rule is the basis of your system, and violate it at the same time, it tends to indicate you don't understand it in the first place.

1. I do not think attempts to argue that Rand might perhaps be speaking 'epistemologically' instead of 'metaphysically' (as Objectivists call it) succeed, as of course human knowledge is subject to the LOI just like anything else.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

What's the problem?

In the 'Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology' Ayn Rand contends that the famous 'problem of universals' is the great question that has lead to today's corrupt anti-reason philosophies, and that unless it is solved civilisation is toast.

But does she know what she's talking about?

Here's 3 issues that immediately stand out:

1) Is this such a potentially apocalyptic problem as she makes out? Nyquist argues persuasively that the claim that civilisation hangs in the balance is absurdly exaggerated.
2) It is not clear that Rand solved, or even really understood the problem of universals - which can be put simply as "how can different things still be similar?" For while admittedly the ITOE is anything but a coherent or systematic presentation, from what can be made out her ideas like "Conceptual Common Denominator" simply beg the question.
3) If universals are the problem, what has this got to do with Rand's obsession with Kant? Kant was replying to a very different problem: Hume's "problem of induction", which is a far more likely candidate for influencing the state of modern philosophy. Of course, Rand admits that she has not solved the problem of induction (on page 304 or 5 of the ITOE, from memory), and unintentionally also reveals she doesn't get this one either, as she says that one day some 'scientist' will solve it. But the problem of induction is not scientific; it is a logical problem.

Any thoughts?

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

The Real Deal

Till I get around to narrowing down the 5 most cringe-inducing moments in TPARC - it's what you call a target-rich environment - my Amazon review is here:

Sunday, September 10, 2006

The Virtue of Sycophancy (3) - Cringe and Win!

Author and occasional Rand critic Michael Prescott recently described us as "intelligent, calm, and serious". So very true, although he did neglect to mention 'handsome'. Yet despite this, there remain things that, try as we might, defy even our best efforts to read with a straight face. Such is James Valliant's "The Passion of Ayn Rand's Critics". It's not every day we get to read a book as gloriously cracked as this one - in fact we confidently predict Valliant's vast apparatchik tome will do more to enhance Objectivism's cult-like reputation than anything her critics could come up with.

So as an ARCHNblog special competition, in the next day or so we'll be posting the 5 most cringe-inducing moments in TPARC. All you have to do is pick your favourite, and explain why in comments. Best explanation wins a free copy of "Ayn Rand Contra Human Nature" via Amazon and courtesy of us. Bonus points for wretched verbal excess. Stay tuned.

The Virtue of Sycophancy (2)

We are not worthy! James Valliant on Ayn Rand:

"The potential impact of Rand's work is comparable only to that of a great religious or philosophical system."(217)

"Rand's own mind cannot be cut into parts - her extraordinarily logical cognitive method was intimately tied to her passionate 'sense of life.'"(220-21)

"Rand's ignorance of the wide array of lies, however, could not survive the careful moral thinking which Rand was bringing to the matter."(255)

"But Rand's perceptiveness, as usual, goes a step deeper: she concludes that Branden's mind is not functioning in a reality-based way."(265)

"Rand certainly possessed a healthy self-esteem...But Rand also made allowance for a whole range of other values and options just as objective as passionately loving her."(268)

"Rand's advice is sincere and obviously, a powerful, if incomplete diagnosis of Branden's psychology. She may not know all the facts, but this makes her analysis all the more powerful" (282)

"Bullseye, Miss Rand."(282)

"Rand's mind is the equivalent of a Magnetic Resonance Imaging device in psychological diagnosis."(287)

"Again one must be impressed by both the honesty of Rand's sentiments and the power of her insight."(291)

Gee, now that's objectivity for you. My personal favourite so far however is:

"One wants to cry out to Rand and tell her the truth, despite the logical paradoxes involved in time travel"(271)

That qualification added no doubt, just to quell any tiny whisker of irrationality that might be suggested by the term 'time travel'. Of course, when it comes to that distinctive mix of blissful egoism and equally blissful lack of self-awareness, it is hard to go past Rand herself. After Branden breaks off with her she writes:

"I am convinced that the clearest and probably conscious fear in his mind was the fear of admitting that I was 'too much for him.'...I was too much for him - in every sense of the phrase and in a deeper sense than would apply to the type of men he despises. I want to stress this: I was and am too much for him. This is my full conviction, reached with the full power, logic, clarity and context of my mind..."


(Quotes from "The Passion of Ayn Rand's Critics:The Case Against the Brandens")

Saturday, September 09, 2006

The Virtue of Sycophancy (1)

I'm midway through James Valliant's book "The Passion of Ayn Rand's Critics". In it Valliant seeks to polish up Rand's tarnished image and debunk Objectivism's reputation as a 'cult of personality' by blaming everything on Rand's lover and his wife, Nathaniel and Barbara Branden. But the book completely backfires: the 'cult' impressions are hardly going to be dispelled by breathlessly sycophantic doorstops like this; especially when they are also as tendentious as they are fawning.

Valliant manfully tries to establish his objectivity in the introduction:
"I had no illusions that Rand could be without fault or flaw. We will see that Rand herself admitted to being mistaken about something (or someone) on more than one occasion, and even her staunchest defenders have admitted that Rand's anger could sometimes be unjust."(5)

Now I admit I am halfway through, but so far Valliant's self-restraint hasn't lasted further than that paragraph. There is nothing that Rand does wrong that Valliant does not bend over backwards to defend from every angle conceivable - plus several inconceivable ones for good measure. In contrast, there is nothing that the Brandens can do right. Apparently, if Rand cheats on her husband Frank with Nathaniel, that's because she and Frank are intellectual and moral 'giants', whose revolutionary ethical system is obviously far too advanced for the mediocre and irrational society they found themselves living in. On the other hand, if Branden cheats on Rand with his bit of crumpet, that's because he has 'the soul of a rapist'!

You really can't make this sort of thing up. Anyway, if I come across any examples where Rand does something wrong - no matter how trivial - and Valliant doesn't mount a weirdly elaborate defence of it, then I'll post it.

Friday, September 08, 2006

To Think Or Not To Think?

From ARCHN, Chapter 1,'Theory Of Human Nature:

...According to Objectivism, man's capacity to choose stems from a "primary choice" which, because it presupposes "all other choices and is itself irreducible," cannot "be explained by anything more fundamental"(1991, 57). What is this "primary choice" ? Leonard Peikoff describes it as "the choice to focus one's consciousness.""Until a man is in focus" Peikoff goes on to explain, "his mental machinery is unable to function in the human sense - to think, judge, or evaluate. The choice to 'throw the switch' is thus the root choice, on which all the others depend...By its nature, it is a first cause within a consciousness, not an effect produced by antecedent factors. It is not a product of parents or teachers, anatomy or conditioning, hereditry or environment...In short it is invalid to ask: why did a man choose to focus? There is no such 'why'. There is only the fact that a man chose: he chose the effort of consciousness, or he chose non-effort and unconsciousness. In this regard, every man at every waking moment is a prime mover."(1)

There are so many questionable statements in this passage I am not sure where to begin...(ARCHN, 13)

Nyquist's right: where do you start with stuff like this? Obviously there's its reliance on one of those handy, all-purpose Platonic/Aristotelian 'first causes' to set human consciousness in motion. Of course, appeals to mysterious 'first causes' can either be phrased as either simple expressions of our ignorance in the face of an incredibly complex problem, or more typically, as philosophic platitudes which pretend to explain, but really tell you nothing. Objectivism opts for the latter.

While I do not doubt that something like 'conscious choice' exists, and that its workings are very mysterious, the Objectivist position offers no special insight into why or how. Further, it seems to wildly overstate the range of its action. "Man, according to Objectivism, is not moved by factors outside of his control. He is a volitional being, who functions freely." Peikoff writes. This is a typical overstatement. Of course we are moved by factors outside of our control every moment. Further, if we have been making 'integrations' since our every waking moment we have had no choice but to be 'moved' by vastly important 'factors outside of our control'. For example, the language we are brought up to speak, the culture we are embedded in, the psychological and genetic traits we learn and inherit from our families. Because they are so deeply embedded, these influences become very difficult to even see objectively, let alone cheerfully program, deprogram and reprogram at will. A simple example is an accent. No-one even notices their own accent; it only becomes evident when contrasted with other people with different ones. And consider how difficult it is to change your accent, how much immense effort would be required to eliminate it fully and permanently. And this is something relatively trivial, without anything like the depth and complexity of changing say a psychological disposition.

Needless to say, with their lack of what Nyquist calls 'empirical responsibility' Peikoff and Rand don't seriously consider - or even suggest - basic counterexamples to their arguments. Peikoff argues that the choice 'to think or not to think' cannot be influenced by anything external:not "parents or teachers, anatomy or conditioning, hereditry or environment." What, not even by reading "Atlas Shrugged"?! Think about it: this means that the person makes the decision 'to think' based on nothing but the indefinable workings of their own mysterious 'selves'.

Obviously there is much hairsplitting that can be done over the word 'think', but seems clear enough what Peikoff means: to focus your mind, to expend effort thinking. And it is true that we often walk through the world in a bit of a dream, not really paying full attention, not really 'using our heads' as the saying goes. Yet it is also quite obvious that in reality, people can be taught by other people to think; they can be trained to focus their attention, to think logically, to judge, to evaluate; and they can personally discover the rewards of this, even if they are reluctant students at first. They can be brought up in households where debate is encouraged, in families, societies and environments which are stimulating and in intellectual traditions that are challenging rather than dogmatic. Physically, they can be properly nourished, and genetically may have more intellectual temperaments. Surely this will result in more 'thinkers' than the opposite situations? Yet according to Peikoff, these factors should make absolutely no difference - we should get exactly the same amount of 'thinkers' regardless. If Peikoff is right, we should find just as many intellectually able kids neglected in a Romanian orphanange as in a typical Western school. But this is hardly the case.

So Peikoff gives us what is really an absurd exaggeration of the situation, and once again illustrates the danger - and laziness - of relying on antique pedantry like 'first causes' and not testing your rationalisations against reality. Appeals to 'first causes' tells us about as much about human consciousness as they do in physics; that is, nothing.

1. "Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand", 50-60

Friday, September 01, 2006

The Absent-Minded Professor

Fred Seddon misses the point of both Greg Nyquist and Ayn Rand.

In his ‘Ayn Rand Contra Human Nature’ Greg Nyquist noted the lack of serious criticism of the novelist Ayn Rand and her philosophy, Objectivism. His book, which is self-published, begins to remedy the situation with the most thorough, accessible and vigorous dissection of Rand yet. However, judging by Fred Seddon’s review (1) in the Journal of Ayn Rand Studies, taking Rand seriously is no guarantee that Randians will return the favour.

Seddon is a professional academic and a somewhat controversial figure within Objectivism, largely due to his courageous, if somewhat oblique, defence of Immanuel Kant, who is a cartoon philosophic hate-figure to Ayn Rand’s followers. Given his modest iconoclasm and JARS mission to bring Rand to the wider academic world one might have hoped for a suitably engaged response to Nyquist’s book. However, the result is lost opportunity as Seddon is clearly not up to the job. He claims the book has a ‘narcotic quality’ on him; but not, I fear, in a good way. It turns out his review is so airheaded if you read it on a plane you could safely switch the engines off.

Seddon’s ineptness is evident from the beginning. He seems to be literally unable to understand the simplest thing Nyquist writes. For example, Seddon quotes Nyquist calling Rand ‘an important and perhaps even a great thinker’ but says that the book leaves him with the opposite impression. After all, Nyquist criticizes her views on everything from epistemology to art, from morality and politics to science and history. “How much remains”, puzzles Seddon, “for her to be a great thinker about?”

But Nyquist is crystal clear about what he means by ‘great thinker’ – all that is required is to read the relevant passage:
”For even though (Rand’s) philosophy is riddled with non-sequiturs, over generalizations, incompetent formulations,pseudo-empirical references, and other palpable bunglings, this does not mean that she cannot in fact be regarded as a great philosopher. Many a philosopher considered great by the denizens of academia is every bit, if not more culpable of the sort of violations of logic and evidence which characterize Rand and her disciples”. (ARCHN, xiv)
Nyquist then offers Plato, Plotinus, Leibniz, Berkeley, Kant, Fichte, Hegel among others as examples of thinkers generally regarded as ‘great’ despite their manifold errors. Simple enough even for a professor of philosophy one would have thought, but somehow Nyquist’s meaning has escaped Seddon. This is especially odd, as this passage occurs immediately following the sentence Seddon quotes. How has he managed to miss it? Perhaps the ‘narcotic quality’ Nyquist’s writing has on the professor caused him, Grandpa Simpson-like, to nod off now and again.

Unfortunately, this is only to be the first of many narcoleptic moments. Seddon is no less obtuse in his critique of Nyquist’s methodology:
“(Nyquist) tells us that he does not have access to Rand’s mind and so he will ‘judge her entirely by her writings.’ But he immediately begins to focus on her intentions…and constantly tells us what she is consciously thinking as well as her subconscious motives.”
But the quoted snippet from Nyquist - ‘judge her entirely by her writings’ - simply does not mean what Seddon thinks it does ie: that Nyquist is ruling Rand’s intentions out-of-bounds for discussion. In fact, Nyquist means quite the opposite. Again, all one needs to do is read the passage in question to see that, far from sidelining Rand’s intentions and motives, Nyquist is indeed focusing on them, and using her writings to establish what they are.
“Now obviously I have no direct access to Rand’s mind. I have to judge her entirely by her writings – which is not always easy. In my opinion, the best way of circumventing some of the difficulties involved in interpreting Rand is to begin by focusing on her intentions as a philosopher. (emphasis DB) Her intentions are at least perfectly comprehensible – something not always the case with her philosophical doctrines, which are often riddled with non-sequiturs and palpable distortions of reality.”(ARCHN, xxix)
Again, simple enough – and again, Nyquist’s meaning is perfectly evident from reading the very next sentence to the one Seddon cites. Yet somehow Seddon contrives to get it completely backwards.

This is bad enough; but worse, it does not appear to have dawned on our absent-minded professor that the entire book is premised on the stated intention of Rand’s philosophy – that is, “the projection of an ideal man.” This is the central argument of Nyquist’s book after all, hammered home from Chapter 1 onwards – that Rand’s ‘ideal man’ is a rationalization that bears no relationship to the empirical reality of human nature; and as a result, Nyquist argues, the philosophy behind this ‘ideal’, Objectivism, despite all its claims to the contrary, becomes simply another variation of rationalism. Understanding Rand’s intentions is the key to the book, yet Seddon has not grasped this remarkably obvious point. Tellingly, while this yawning gap between Rand’s theories and actual human beings forms the central platform for “Ayn Rand Contra Human Nature”’s argument (perhaps the title might have given him a hint?), Seddon does not refer it even once in his review - a quite remarkable feat of missing the point. One suspects if Seddon was reviewing “Anna Karenina” he would think it about the lack of safety precautions in 19th century Russian railway stations.

Perhaps Seddon would have better luck getting ARCHN’s arguments if he spent less of his time in engrossed in trivia. His opening salvo is an extended discussion on the riveting topic of…wait for it…Nyquist’s section headings. I kid you not. Unfortunately even when Seddon does stumble across a reasonable technical point, he can’t seem to make it stick. For example, Seddon worries that as Nyquist is not concerned with verbalism and arguing over definitions, Nyquist might end up using one definition of a term, and Rand another. “Won’t they be talking at cross-purposes?” he frets. Well, maybe. But having voiced this concern, he can only find one possible example of this happening in the entire book – in the discussion of the “self-evident”, which Nyquist refers to as “those things which the self has first-hand experience of” and Rand refers to as that which must be accepted, even to be denied. While he claims that this is Nyquist beating a strawman, Seddon neglects to tell us exactly why this is such an egregious misrepresentation. Are Rand’s inescapable ‘self-evident’ concepts such as ‘existence’ and ‘consciousness’ not things which, in Objectivism, one has first-hand experience of? And if in fact they are compatible with Nyquist’s definition – and it appears at first blush they are - how would this then vitiate Nyquist’s criticisms? In other words, Seddon’s point is…? One suspects he really doesn’t have one.

And so on in an increasingly hapless vein. He seizes upon Nyquist’s demonstration that Rand uses vague definitions to ‘prove anything’ (ARCHN, 150) she wants and shows that formally in logic there are in fact some things you can’t prove, whether the terms are vague or not. But narcolepsy has struck again – Seddon does not appear to have read the qualifying sentence that immediately follows Nyquist’s demonstration - “just about anything” (ARCHN,151, italics DB) - which shows that Nyquist was not speaking formally in the first place. So Seddon’s point is another fizzer.

Things descend into outright farce when Seddon mischaracterises Nyquist as a ‘positivist’ just because, pace Karl Popper, Nyquist mocks the empty verbalism commonly associated with the word ‘metaphysics’ and considers the best test of the ‘certainty’ of a theory to be how it stands up to the empirical facts. “If one claims that all swans are white and produces a white swan, or a 1,000 white swans, as evidence for his claim, is that the end of the matter?” Seddon intones. “Popper built a career on the importance of falsifiability. Has Nyquist forgotten this fact?” Perhaps a better question is: has Seddon dozed off completely? It seems he has. Turning to the text, we find Nyquist spends a page and a half outlining the famous ‘problem of induction’ in ARCHN’s intro (ARCHN, xix-xx), including the standard ‘white swan’ example Seddon claims to be confused about. More embarrassing still, in chapter 3 - the very same chapter Seddon is discussing – we find nothing less than a lengthy and thoroughly approving discussion of the importance of falsifiability. (ARCHN, 171-174) – again, complete with the ‘white swan’ example. Nyquist quotes Popper:
“…no matter how many instances of white swans we might have observed, this does not justify the conclusion that all swans are white” (ARCHN, 171)
and also writes:
“The best that can be said on behalf of a theory is that it has survived every attempt to refute it.” (ARCHN, 174)
Thus the answers to our bemused professor’s questions above are, clearly, “no”, and “no”. Who is Seddon trying to kid? Firstly, anyone who read the book – or even the chapter - half-attentively would realise this. Secondly, having stated the formal case against inductive ‘certainty’ at considerable length, Nyquist is again just speaking colloquially when he says “certainty” or “once and for all” or “know” or “probably” or similarly philosophically troubling phrases. As Nyquist says, again in the same chapter, "I will do everything in my power to avoid being technically excessive or abstruse..." (ARCHN, 100) And of course Popper did exactly the same thing in his own writing. Thirdly, surely Seddon knows enough about 20th Century philosophy to know that as Popper is the most famous critic of Logical Positivism, anyone who right from the outset declares himself a Popper fan is unlikely to be much of a 'positivist'. (Seddon invokes Wittgenstein and the Vienna Circle; yet despite Nyquist's impressive array of intellectual sources I could find no reference to either in ARCHN)

It appears that, true to form, Seddon has simply not understood what he has read. He cites Nyquist:
“If you want to know whether causality is valid, study the empirical word of facts. Only by observing the facts can you know what they are.” (ARCHN, 195)
Seddon seems to think this passage equates ‘observation’ with ‘knowledge’ and is both ‘bad Rand’ and ‘bad Popper.’ In fact it is just bad Seddon. Nyquist is not saying, as Seddon thinks, that the only way you can develop theories (or what Popper calls ‘knowledge’) is from observing facts. This would be bad Popper indeed. He is saying – and merely reading the second sentence of the quote makes it quite obvious - that the only way to get the facts is by observing them. Hardly an interesting statement, let alone a controversial one, and certainly not a statement that anyone, especially Popper, would be ‘vituperative’ about. Seddon is clutching at straws. After all, Leonard Peikoff himself makes the exact same point as Nyquist: he writes, “Thinking, to be valid, must adhere to reality”(OPAR, 110) and claims the old Dragnet line ”Just give us the facts, ma’am” is his motto. So is Peikoff now a ‘positivist’ too? Would Seddon rate OPAR as the Tractatus all over again?

By now it is difficult to avoid the impression that Seddon has not really read, let alone engaged with, the book he is purported to be reviewing – and what few sentences he has read, he appears to have misunderstood. One charitably assumes this is merely serial incompetence, and not a deliberate attempt by Seddon to mislead his readers. Whatever the case, we can only wonder: as a professional thinker, would he accept such standards from one of his students? One can only hope not. And while I know little about JARS other than its aim of improving Objectivism’s credibility in academia, this kind of clowning can only have the reverse effect.

As such, his criticisms of ARCHN probably don’t merit further discussion. While Seddon either misstates or fails to address Nyquist’s otherwise clear and forceful arguments, he does however have a positive gift for the inane – perhaps his taking Nyquist to task for not calling Leonard Peikoff “Dr Peikoff” takes the prize here. But just when I was about to write it off as little more than an insight into the mind of the unpaid academic reviewer on deadline – surely JARS cannot have fronted up with cash for this effort – Seddon suddenly becomes interesting. But his topic is not Nyquist, but Rand – in particular Rand’s theory of ‘contextual certainty’.

Seddon starts with a discussion about whether he can be ‘certain’ there is not a naked woman in his bedroom (did I mention ‘inane’?). He defends the idea that he can achieve not just ‘certainty’ of the truth of this proposition, but an accompanying ‘proliferation of certainties’. So, clearly, as far as Seddon is concerned and contra Nyquist (and Popper), ‘certain truth’ is easy and prolific; indeed manifest. All one apparently has to do is, as Seddon does in his bedroom, simply look around. (2)

But then having come out all in favour of a manifest truth, Seddon then executes a startling 180 degree shift away from such a doctrine. “In defense of Nyquist” Seddon suddenly backpedals, “I do think that Rand is really a radical here. Her notion of certainty is one that challenges the usual definition of knowledge as “justified true belief,” a notion that probably goes back to Plato. This definition insists that in order to know P, P must be true. Rand, for better or worse, sees this as a variant of intrinsicism and rejects it. Therefore, and Nyquist is quite right about this, you can know P, yet P may be false.”(emphasis DB)

If this is really what Rand intended by her theory it is quite a turn-up for the books. For if Rand really rejects ‘justified true belief’ and ‘to know P, P must be true’ in favour of ‘you can know P, yet P may be false’ then she effectively has the same epistemology as Karl Popper – that all human knowledge is ultimately hypothetical and may turn out to be wrong (yes, even including this theory), and that there is no such thing as a justified ‘certainty’; not even about the existence (or otherwise) of a naked woman in one’s bedroom. If this is what she meant all along then I look forward to the coming rapprochement between Objectivism and Popper’s Critical Rationalism, given that – if we are to believe Seddon - they have the exact same fundamental epistemological basis.

But Seddon goes further than this. In a truly eyebrow-raising section he writes:
“…in the social sciences we do have more work to do after the descriptions are in. By their very nature, as the postulations of ideals, one cannot expect them to be actual. This means that they will deviate in part or in whole from what is the case. Given this, laissez-faire capitalism is more of a goal to be aim at than anything that may actually be.” (italics DB)
If he is still talking about Rand here - and presumably he is - it now seems she was arguing all along that the ideals she advocated like laissez-faire capitalism - and we can assume, her ‘ideal man’ - are not realizable in reality – that like all such abstractions, “one cannot expect them to be actual”. They are merely goals “to be aimed at”, not things “that may actually be”. This is a truly remarkable take on Rand, who furiously railed against any ‘dichotomy’ between theory and practice, against all forms of compromise, against “the hopeless swamps of the approximate, the not-quite, the not-yet, the not-at-all” and insisted that “nothing but perfection will do.” Seddon is effectively saying: she didn’t really mean it.

Of course I don’t believe for a moment that Seddon is right about Rand any more than he is right about Nyquist. It seems to me that Objectivism is just another in that same long line of philosophies Seddon mentions, traceable at least back to Plato, searching for the method of obtaining ‘justified true belief”. That Rand had to settle for a transparent verbal fudge such as “contextual certainty” – indistinguishable in practice, as Nyquist ruthlessly demonstrates, from your regular, common-or-garden uncertainty - is merely proof that just like those who came before her, she did not find it. As a result what remains of her various ‘absolutes’ is, as Nyquist’s book also demonstrates, really just hopped-up rhetoric designed to fill the sizable gap between her ambitions and her achievements.

In sum, in Seddon we seem to be dealing with someone who insists on his own, let us be kind...idiosyncratic philosophic interpretations, with little or no regard to the facts. As I have shown with regard to “Ayn Rand Contra Human Nature”, Seddon’s criticisms are mostly based on nothing more than his own seeming inability to read plain English. With regard to Rand, while it would itself be Seddon-ish to read too much into a few sentences, I would be most interested in how the rest of the Objectivist community views what appear to be major concessions – albeit offhandedly expressed - to moderns such as Popper on key issues. And on reflection, this may be the key to it. Perhaps the man is not as incompetent as he seems. Perhaps he is simply in a difficult position, having to straddle the world of academia and the world of Objectivism, both brutally critical and both diametrically opposed. Perhaps in all his obviously facile criticisms of Nyquist’s book he hoped to reassure the Objectivist community that he was keeping the faith; simultaneously offering sotto voce key concessions to reassure academia that he could not possibly support anything as outrĂ© as ‘justified true belief.’

Whatever the case, on the basis of work of this quality Seddon will be certainly retaining his reputation as somewhat controversial. But not, I fear, in a good way.


(1) "Nyquist Contra Rand," The Journal of Ayn Rand Studies 4, no. 2 (Spring 2003): 361 72. The review is available online here

(2) I suppose it is worth noting, in passing, some simple refutations of the standard arguments Rand raised against the meaning of ‘certainty’ or ‘absolute certainty’ as it is commonly used. Firstly she claims that it represents ‘the standard of omniscience’ and that as man is not omniscient this is an invalid, Platonic-mystical standard that cannot be applied. But this is a poor argument for the following reasons. One, rather like we might usefully propose “absolute zero” as a hypothetical standard, despite the fact that it seems impossible we will ever actually achieve it, it is always possible by way of analogy to propose “absolute certainty” as a hypothetical standard which we also may never achieve. Two, sometimes Objectivists argue that if there is no basis for uncertainty in a particular case, no contrary evidence or fault in the logic, we can say that we are ‘certain’ in an 'absolute' sense. But in reply we can simply turn to our own experience (and the experience of mankind in general) to encounter many examples where this ‘certainty’ has failed us; where we have overlooked contrary evidence, or a fault in our logic. We are humans, and humans can err. And even in those rare cases where we have had all the facts in front of us, no particular evidence for doubt, clear definitions and a compelling logical argument, there has been the odd time we have still ended up being wrong. What we learn from these experiences is that it is perfectly reasonable to doubt such ‘certainties’ could be described in any reliable way as “absolute”. (We always hope for the best, but this is hardly the same thing). For we have all experienced the feeling of being absolutely certain that something is true. And we have all occasionally experienced the shock of discovering that this cherished belief is in fact false. There is nothing mystical or invalid about either counterargument.