Saturday, April 14, 2007

JARS: "Rand and Empirical Responsibility"

The following is my response to Fred Seddon's review of my book Ayn Rand Contra Human Nature. The point of this response was not merely to reply to Seddon's criticisms, but, just as critically, to restate my argument against Rand, which is become even stronger because of new evidence gathered by the sciences of human nature. This essay originally appeared in Fall 2006 edition of The Journal of Ayn Rand Studies, Vol. 8, No. 1, pp. 111-119. Please refer to the JARS issue for a full bibliography.

Rand and Empirical Responsibility

by Greg Nyquist

After going through Fred Seddon’s review of my book, Ayn Rand
Contra Human Nature
, I find myself not so much disagreeing
with his points as regarding them as irrelevant. His review more or
less evades what I consider the main point at issue—namely, whether
Rand is right about human nature. If I attempt to answer Seddon’s
specific criticisms, I will merely be caviling about matters I regard as
trivial. However critical I may be of Rand’s Objectivist system, I do
not regard her as a trivial philosopher. Some of the key points of her
philosophy, if true, would entail a major transvaluation of moral,
social, political, and aesthetic values. Rand considered herself a
radical. Let us not underestimate what this means. She challenged
the view of human nature advanced by most of the great thinkers and
poets of human civilization. If she is right and all the thinkers and
poets wrong, the value of most of the great works of mankind’s
literary and philosophical giants, of the dramas of Sophocles and
Shakespeare, the political writings of Machiavelli and Burke, the
novels of Flaubert and Tolstoy, will in some degree be diminished.
Rand’s dislike of Shakespeare, for example, is no mere personal
idiosyncrasy, something that can be brushed aside as inconsequential.
It derives from her vision of human nature. “I refused to believe that
Lear and Macbeth represent what man really is,” she told Barbara
Branden (1986, 45).

With so much at stake, we need to be very careful in how we go
about determining whether Rand’s vision of man accords with reality.
We don’t want to make a mistake and wind up living in ignorance of
the truth about human nature. This is one of those questions that we
need to get right. Those who fail to understand human nature either
expect too much or too little from other people. Political theories
based on false expectations of other people can be dangerous if those
in power are foolish enough to implement them.

Before any attempt can be made to determine whether Rand’s
theory of man accords with reality, we need to get our epistemological
house in order. How should we go about determining whether
Rand’s view of human nature is true? In my book, I suggested that
the best way to settle questions about matters of fact was to consult
the relevant facts. Seddon, however, will have none of this. He
charges me with the great philosophical crime of positivism. But I
have not, nor have I ever been, a positivist. Seddon has merely
imported positivist meanings into some of my words and phrases
where no such meaning was ever intended. All I was trying to suggest
in my book is that controversial assertions about matters of fact, if
they are to be taken seriously, need to be backed with compelling
evidence. I only emphasized the empirical side of knowledge because
that’s precisely where many philosophers, including Rand, fall short.
If I had been criticizing a philosopher who piled fact on top of fact
without rhyme or reason, I would have emphasized the role that
intelligence plays in interpreting and giving meaning to facts. Would
Seddon have then seen fit to accuse me of being a rationalist?

When assessing a controversial assertion about some matter of
fact, the first order of business for the critic is to examine the
evidence presented on behalf of the assertion. In the case of Rand’s
assertions about human nature, this is not so very difficult. Rand
presented no evidence to back up her theory of human nature, so no
evidence needs to be examined. Typical in this respect is her essay
“The Objectivist Ethics.” If you go through this essay, you will find
several bold assertions about human nature. “Man is born with an
emotional mechanism, just as he is born with a cognitive mechanism,”
contended Rand; “but, at birth, both are ‘tabula rasa.’” “Emotions are
the automatic results of man’s value judgments integrated by the
subconscious.” “Emotions are not tools of cognition” (Rand 1964,
28, 27, 29). These are very interesting assertions. It would be nice if
Rand had provided evidence for these assertions so we could evaluate
whether they are true or at least plausible. But Rand gives us nothing.
Not even the tiniest shred or sliver of evidence.

At other points in the essay, Rand introduces moral ideals that
depend on the validity of certain facts. Again she fails to provide
evidence for those facts. Consider some of her remarks about the
virtue of rationality. “Rationality means the . . . acceptance of reason
as one’s only source of knowledge, one’s only judge of values and
one’s only guide to action.” And not only that, but rationality also
“means . . . that all one’s convictions, values, goals, desires and actions
must be based on, derived from, chosen and validated by a process of
thought—as precise and scrupulous a process of thought, directed by
as ruthlessly strict an application of logic, as one’s fullest capacity
permits” (1964, 25–26). This implies not merely that reason is man’s
only source of knowledge; it also gives logic a critical role in the
reasoning process, suggesting that any form of thought that does not
use logic is invalid or cognitively dubious.

Rand’s failure to provide evidence supporting her view of human
nature would not, in itself, indicate that she is wrong. Before any kind
of judgment can be made on the veracity of Rand’s views, the relevant
evidence must be examined. Does there exist any compelling evidence
that stands witness against Rand’s theories?

As a matter of fact, such evidence does exist. Neither the “tabula
rasa” view of human nature advocated by Rand, nor her theory that
emotions are derived from value judgments, would be taken very
seriously by cognitive scientists, neuroscientists, or evolutionary
psychologists working today (Pinker 1997, 31–36, 363–424; Pinker
2002, 38–41; Damasio 1994, 127–64). Even her insistence that
emotions have no legitimate role in cognition would be rejected by
those researchers acquainted with the relevant evidence. “The action
of biological drives, body states, and emotions may be an indispens-
able foundation for rationality,” suggested the neuroscientist Antonio
Damasio (1994, 200), whose research provides compelling evidence
for the role of emotion in the reasoning process (165–222). The
cognitive scientists George Lakoff and Mark Johnson are much less
tentative than Damasio on this issue. “The idea of a pure reason that
can function in the moral domain independent of emotion is
empirically untenable,” they insist (1999, 439).

The most surprising evidence to emerge from these new sciences
of human nature challenges Rand’s contention that reason “is man’s
only means of grasping reality and of acquiring knowledge” ([1971]
1975, 84). If “reason” includes the conscious application of logic (as
Rand would have it), this statement is simply not true. Indeed,
cognitive scientists at the University of Iowa have found that certain
facts of reality can be grasped unconsciously, before any process of
consciously deliberated reason even has a chance to occur.
Yet this is not the least of it. By studying how people actually
think, cognitive scientists have found that thinking based on formal
logic is, for most practical purposes, not terribly useful. The cognitive
scientist Paul E. Johnson, after extensive analysis of how experts in
medicine, engineering, and other skilled professions think when
solving problems related to their specialties, made the following

I’m continually struck by the fact that the experts in our
studies very seldom engage in formal logical thinking. Most
of what they do is plausible-inferential thinking based on the
recognition of similarities. That kind of thinking calls for a
great deal of experience, as we say, a large data base. If
anybody’s going to be logical in a task, it’s the neophyte,
who’s desperate for some way to generate answers, but the
expert finds logical thinking a pain in the neck and far too
slow. So the medical specialist, for instance, doesn’t do
hypothetical-deductive, step-by-step diagnosis, the way he
was taught in medical school. Instead, by means of his
wealth of experience he recognizes some symptom or
syndrome, he quickly gets an idea, he suspects a possibility,
and he starts right in looking for data that will confirm or
disconfirm his guess. (Hunt 1982, 139–40)

I have quoted this lengthy passage because it goes to the very
heart of my critique of Objectivism. Most practical knowledge (i.e.,
the sort of knowledge used to confront and solve the problems that
we face in everyday life) is based on generalizations drawn from
experience. By making logic one of the essential foundations of
human cognition, Rand, by implication, invalidates the practical
knowledge of everyday life, which depends on logically invalid forms
of reasoning. Most of what we know about human nature, for
example, exists as generalizations from experience. Rand’s tabula rasa
view of human nature, however, rejects any type of generalization that
threatens her over-romanticized conception of man.

As an illustration of this, consider the human tendency toward
self-deception. Literally hundreds of experiments in social psychology
have shown that most people think better of themselves than is
warranted by the facts. “Indeed, most people claim they are above
average in any positive trait you name,” notes the cognitive scientist
Steven Pinker (1997, 422). In other words, most people are incapable
of judging themselves objectively. Worse, they don’t even realize this.
They regard their self-estimations as fair and objective (Pinker 2002,

If most people are and always have been like this, it poses a
serious problem to Rand’s virtue of pride, which requires at the very
least that people be honest about themselves. If there exists a
biological predisposition toward self-deception—and the evidence
strongly suggests that such a predisposition does in fact exist (45–51,
263–66)—then making a virtue of pride may not be such a great idea.
Perhaps it would be far wiser to encourage most people to be humble
as a countermeasure to their tendency toward self-deception and false

Rand, of course, would never have accepted the notion that
human nature somehow renders pride unattainable for most people.
We know that Rand did not believe in human nature in the traditional
sense of the term; that she believed, instead, that man was a blank
slate who could shape “his soul in the image of his moral ideal, in the
image of . . . the rational being he is born able to create” (1961, 160).
Instead of providing empirical evidence for this rather extraordinary
view, she based it on a logical argument. Free will, she argues, is
“axiomatic” because the opposite view, determinism, is self-contradic-
tory. But if people have free will, they cannot have biological
predispositions or tendencies, Rand concluded, because this would
violate their freedom of choice (169).

The problem with this argument is that it goes in the face of a
growing body of scientific evidence that shows that genes account for
about half of the variation in most psychological traits (Pinker 2002,
48). The tabula rasa view of human nature does not accord with the
best scientific opinion. Nor does it accord with human experience, as
we find it represented in literature. Yet Rand, on the basis of a mere
“logical” rationalization, would turn her back on the empirical
evidence provided by scientific research and by ordinary human

In my book, I sought to challenge not merely Rand’s vision of
human nature, but also the method of logical rationalization used to
defend it. At one point in his review, Seddon (2003, 366) wonders
“what [I] would have Rand do if not use logic?” I have no problem
with Rand using logic to settle logical problems. I do, however, have
a problem when Rand attempts to settle matters of fact without doing
the necessary empirical research. That is not a very reliable method
of settling controversial issues regarding matters of fact. It is not the
method used by scientists, who seek to supplement their logical
reasonings with a copious fund of empirical research; nor is it the
method primarily used in everyday life, where logically invalid
inferences drawn from accumulated experiences are used much of

The problem with Rand is that she was not an empirically
responsible philosopher. She makes all kinds of controversial
assertions about matters of fact without backing them up with the
relevant empirical evidence. How does Seddon respond to this
criticism? By accusing me (1) of positivism and (2) of equating
sensory observation with knowledge (368–69). But even if I were
guilty of these philosophical sins, that would not get Rand off the
hook. All I have done in my book is compare some of Rand’s most
controversial assertions about matters of fact with the relevant
evidence compiled by cognitive scientists, evolutionary psychologists,
neuroscientists, social psychologists, and sociobiologists. Excellent
research is being done in these fields—research that is helping us
develop an understanding of the human mind based on empirical
science rather than on mere philosophical speculation. Rand’s views
of human nature and cognition don’t altogether square with this
research. Indeed, other than Rand’s insistence on unit economy, most
of her epistemology is either irrelevant and trivial or exaggerated and
untrue. Much the same could be said of her view of human nature,
particularly her tabula rasa view of human psychology. The latest
scientific evidence simply does not support the Randian view on these

Although Rand’s theories of morality and politics are largely
untouched by recent scientific developments, there are still problems
to be noted. In my book, I argued that her social and political ideals
were unrealizable, and could be dismissed on those grounds alone.
Seddon objects to this line of inquiry, accusing me of “an unwilling-
ness to even consider” normative political theory and of “totally”
misunderstanding “the logic of the social sciences versus the natural
sciences” (371). But the misunderstanding is on Seddon’s part, who
fails to grasp how easily normative political theory degenerates into
advocacy theory and special pleading. Political partisanship, when
combined with the human tendency to self-deception, constitutes an
immense threat to descriptive theory (Hunt 1982, 128–30; Burnham
1963, 287–305). For those of us who prefer truth to ideology and
science to rationalization, one of the techniques to help us avoid the
pitfalls of special pleading and rank partisanship is to zealously
separate descriptive social science from normative theory. But note:
this separation is not motivated by any sort of unwillingness to
“consider” normative social science. We simply don’t want to give
way to the all-too-human temptation to allow our political and social
prejudices from contaminating our scientific work.

Near the end of his review, Seddon expresses puzzlement that I
should consider Rand an important and perhaps even great thinker,
despite regarding her philosophy as a mistake. But here context is
everything. Her philosophy is only a mistake if we assume that Rand
was trying to provide apt description of human nature and the human
condition. On these issues, Objectivism is a failure. It would,
however, be unfair to dismiss Rand and her philosophy on these
grounds alone. If we examine the history of philosophy, it becomes
increasingly evident that most philosophers, as Nietzsche (1968, 202)
pointed out, are “advocates who resent the name.” Philosophy, if we
define it by the example of the great philosophers, is primarily
concerned with providing rationalizations for the idols of human
sentiment. So if, as I contended in my book, Objectivism is largely a
rationalization of Rand’s peculiar vision of man and society, that does
not necessarily make Rand a bad philosopher. After all, isn’t she
merely following in the footsteps of Plato, Hegel, Marx and other
great philosophers, who also rationalized preconceived notions? All
I am seeking to accomplish in my book is to refute Rand’s pretensions
as a realist, as a purveyor of truth and wisdom. She is none of these
things. But as philosophical rationalizer, as casuist par excellence, she
may, for all I know, deserve very high marks.

Although I have little use, personally, for the rationalizing type of
philosophy, I am not so prejudiced as to contend that there is no
merit in it at all. There are, to be sure, some very serious disadvan-
tages to rationalizing a misconceived vision of the world. But there
are some advantages as well that must be weighed in the balance.
When Seddon (2003, 371), for example, suggests that Rand’s “laissez-
faire capitalism is more of a goal to be aimed at than anything that
may actually be,” he has stumbled upon what could prove a rich vein
of analysis. Extend this line of thinking to all of Rand’s thought, and
suddenly Objectivism is transformed into a kind of Sorelian myth.
Rand’s ideals of man and society, as descriptions of truth, may fall
considerably short of the mark, but as myths that inspire individuals
to reach the summit of their potential, there may be real utility in

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