Wednesday, October 31, 2007

The Cognitive Revolution & Objectivism, Part 1

Starting in the 1950s, the sciences of mind, brain, genes, and evolution began forming a new understanding of human nature, based on an ever growing body of empirical data. This "cognitive revolution" presents a formidable challenge to the largely speculative model of the mind implicit in Objectivism.

Here's Steven Pinker's description of the new model of the brain emerging from the cognitive revolution:
Before the revolution, commentators invoked enormous black boxes such as "the intellect" or "the understanding," and they made sweeping pronouncements about human nature, such as that we are essentially noble or essentially nasty. But we now know that the mind is not a homogeneous orb invested with unitary powers or across-the-board traits. The mind is modular, with many parts cooperating to generate a train of thought or an organized action. It has distinct information-processing systems for filtering out distractions, learning skills, controlling the body, remembering facts, holding information temporarily, and storing and executing rules. Cutting across these data-processing systems are mental faculties (sometimes called multiple intelligences) dedicated to different kinds of content, such as language, number, space, tools, and living things.... Still another layer of information-processing systems can be found in the affect programs, that is, the systems for motivation and emotion.

The upshot is that an urge or habit coming out of one module can be translated into behavior in different ways—or suppressed altogether—by some other module.... More generally, the interplay of mental systems can explain how people can entertain revenge fantasies that they never act on, or can commit adultery only in their hearts. In this way the theory of human nature coming out of the cognitive revolution has more in common with the the Judeo-Christian theory of human nature ... than with behaviorism, social constructivism, and other versions of the Blank Slate. Behavior is not just emitted or elicited, nor does it come directly out of culture or society. It comes from an internal struggle among mental modules with differing agendas and goals.

This modular theory of the mind, when combined with behavioral genetics, challenges Rand's tabula rasa view of the mind, her denial that free will is "saddled" with tendencies, and her ideal of a consciousness "in perfect harmony."

Monday, October 29, 2007

The Passion of "Ayn Rand Contra Human Nature"'s Critics

Discovered dissing "Ayn Rand Contra Human Nature" over at at Richard Dawkins' site (registration required), James Valliant, author of "The Passion of Ayn Rand's Critics", offers to personally critique Nyquist's dread tome. But then sadly he changes his mind.

(some scrolling may be required)

Update: Post retitled due to the excellent suggestion of Anon in comments. The exchange is particularly valuable as a verbatim example of what Objectivists such as Valliant pass off as "empirical" support for their views. As I wrote, Valliant simply has "persistent difficulty differentiating an imaginative conjecture from an empirical reality. Something of a problem." This problem is of course perfectly consistent with the marvellous combination of sophistry, sycophancy, and fantasy that is "The Passion of Ayn Rand's Critics", the miscellaneous weirdnesses of which the ARCHNblog has outlined here, here, and here.

It's probably just as well as he didn't mention Rand's views on evolution there...

Rand on Compromise

Special guest poster Neil Parille from Objectiblog takes at look at the difficulties of Rand's view of compromise:

Ayn Rand is often admired for her devotion to principles and unwillingness to compromise. In her biography of Rand, Barbara Branden tells the moving story of how Rand fought heroically to prevent changes to the script of The Fountainhead during its filming. (Branden, The Passion of Ayn Rand, pp. 208-209.)

Rand’s most important discussion of compromise is a brief three page essay in The Virtue of Selfishness entitled “Doesn’t Life Require Compromise?” She boldly proclaims that “there can be no compromise on basic principles or on fundamental issues.” (Rand, The Virtue of Selfishness, p. 80.) She highlights the mixed economy as an example of an unacceptable compromise on moral principles. “There can be no compromise between freedom and government controls; to accept ‘just a few controls’ is to surrender the principle of inalienable individual rights . . . .” (Id., pp. 79-80.)

As is often the case with Rand, she is good on principles, but weak on specifics. She gives examples of acceptable compromises (such as coming to a mutually agreed upon price with a vendor) and unacceptable compromises (attending a religious ceremony to placate one’s family). These examples make sense from the Randian perspective, but why not discuss situations that are more likely to confront the average Objectivist? For example, Rand considered taxation immoral. Yet she faithfully paid her taxes. By paying taxes one isn’t one “sanctioning” the welfare state? What about working for the government? Isn’t this a compromise on moral principles? A state employee’s income comes from money immorally seized by the government. Many Objectivist professors, including Leonard Peikoff, have taught at state run universities. Some, such as Robert Mayhew, have taught at religious schools. Voting appears problematic as well. Unless there is a consistently Objectivist candidate, isn’t it a compromise to vote? Wouldn’t the prudent course be to abstain from voting? Rand, however, voted for Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford. (During the 2006 elections, Leonard Peikoff went so far as to claim that anyone who refused to vote Democratic or abstained from voting “does not understand the philosophy of Objectivism.”)

Throughout her life Rand had little use for economists and conservative intellectuals who were not consistent supporters of the free market economy. In her recently published question and answers, she described Milton Friedman as a “miserable eclectic.” (Mayhew, ed., Ayn Rand Answers, p. 43.) In her marginalia, she launched a nasty attack on Friedrich von Hayek calling him, among other things, a “God damn fool” and a “vicious bastard.” (Mayhew, ed., Ayn Rand’s Marginalia, pp. 149 and 151.)

Interestingly, one compromising free market economist whom Rand admired was Alan Greenspan. Greenspan met Rand in 1951 and remained close friends with her until her death in 1982. He contributed three essays to her anthology Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal, one supporting the gold standard and two criticizing, respectively, antitrust laws and consumer protection regulations.

In 1974, Greenspan was chosen by President Richard Nixon to head his Council of Economic Advisors. After Nixon resigned, President Ford re-nominated him. Rand attended Greenspan’s swearing-in ceremony in the White House. Greenspan states in his memoirs that by this time he had disagreed with Rand’s belief in government financing through voluntary contributions and hints that he had come to reject consistent laissez-faire policies.

Shortly before Rand’s death, Greenspan accepted an appointment by President Ronald Reagan to head the National Commission on Social Security Reform, which recommended large tax increases. The culmination of his career was his lengthy chairmanship of the Federal Reserve Board. As Chairman of “the Fed,” Greenspan, in effect, repudiated his three essays in Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal. The Fed sanctions the printing of paper money, oversees anti-trust laws with respect to bank mergers and heavily regulates consumer transactions. “Compromise,” he now says, is “the price of civilization.”

Rand, of course, had no way of knowing that her friend and disciple would become the enabler-in-chief of the mixed economy, but she could not have been unaware of his partial betrayal of Objectivist principles by 1974. Ten years earlier she had written in “The Cult of Moral Grayness” that a mixed economy is “an immoral war of pressure groups, devoid of principles . . . whose outward form is a game of compromise.” (Rand, The Virtue of Selfishness, p. 91, emphasis is the original.)

- Neil Parille

Friday, October 26, 2007

Saturday Nite Whim-Worshipping

Contra Rand, there are some times when you've got to let your whims rule. For no other conscious purpose other than a joyful racket unto the creator, here is my favourite tune of the moment. Basically the missing link between the Rocksteady Crew and The Fall, with a splash of Sesame St, The Go! Team perform the miracle of surpassing the polymorphous genius of their debut.

Disclaimer: Greg bears no responsibility for my musical tastes...;-)

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Naturalist Theory of Emotions

A naturalist view of emotions is one that accords with the best scientific evidence and harmonizes with the view that human beings are largely (or entirely) the products of natural selection. Here's Steven Pinker's account of a naturalistic, scientifically-based theory of emotions:
The brain strives to put its owner in circumstances like those that caused its ancestors to reproduce. (The brain's goal is not reproduction itself; animals don't know the facts of life, and people who do know them are happy to subvert them, such as when they use contraception.) The goals installed [by natural selection] in Homo sapiens, that problem-solving, social species, are not just the four Fs [i.e., fight, flee, feed, mate]. High on the list are understanding the environment and securing the cooperation of others.

And here is the key to why we have emotions. An animal cannot pursue all its goals at once. If an animal is both hungry and thirsty, it should not stand halfway between a berry bush and a lake, as in the fable about the indecisive ass who starved between two haystacks. Nor should it nibble a berry, walk over and take a sip from the lake, walk back to nibble another berry, and so on. The animal must commit its body to one goal at a time, and the goals have to be matched with the best moments for achieving them.... Different goals are appropriate when a lion has you in its sights, when your child shows up in tears, or when a rival calls you an idiot in public.

The emotions are mechanisms that set the brain's highest-level goals. Once triggered by a propitious moment, an emotion triggers the cascade of subgoals and sub-subgoals that we call thinking and acting. Because the goals and means are woven into a multiple nested control structure of subgoals within subgoals within subgoals, no sharp line divides thinking from feeling, nor does thinking inevitably precede feeling or vice versa (notwithstanding the century of debate within psychology over which comes first). For example, fear is triggered by a signal of impending harm like a predator, a clifftop, or a spoken threat. It lights up the short-term goal of fleeing, subduing, or deflecting danger, and gives the goal high priority, which we experience as a sense of urgency....

Each human emotion mobilizes the mind and body to meet one of the challenges of living and reproducing in the cognitive niche. Some challenges are posed by physical things, and the emotions that deal with them, like disgust, fear, and appreciation of natural beauty, work in straightforward ways. Others are posed by people. The problem in dealing with people is that people can deal back. The emotions that evolved in response to other people's emotions, like anger, gratitude, shame, and romantic love, are played on a complicated chessboard, and they spawn the passion and intrigue that misleads the Romantic.

This view is, in many important respects, different from Rand's. In particular, it challenges Rand's conviction that a "rational man ... has no inner conflicts, his mind and his emotions are integrated, his consciousness is in perfect harmony." This view is difficult to square with the view that emotions are products of natural selection; it is even more difficult to square with the modular view of the mind emerging from the sciences of human nature.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Dear Dr Leonard

Dr Leonard Peikoff now personally answers your philosophical questions via podcast.

Regular ARCHNblog readers who may be interested in tossing the good doctor a few posers can get him at And as a special ARCHNblog offer, a free copy of "Ayn Rand Contra Human Nature" to anyone who actually gets their question answered!*

*bonus copy of "The Ominous Parallels" for mentions of Howard Stern and/or Baba Booey

Friday, October 19, 2007

Rand's Theory of Emotions Examined

The most critical part of Rand's view of man is her theory of emotion. Upon its validity rests not merely her vision of the "ideal" man, but also her philosophy of history with its rather implausible eschatological implications. The plausibility of Rand's moral and political theories also rests heavily on her view of emotion — perhaps more so than is generally recognized. So important a theory, yet Rand provided no systematic exposition of it, only a few ex cathedra statements, intolerably vague to the understanding. The closest we can find to a systematic presentation of it is in Peikoff's OPAR, which offers the theory that emotions are automatized "value-judgments." But where do value judgments come from?
Value-judgments are formed ultimately on the basis of a philosophic view of man and life — of oneself, of others, of the universe; such a view, therefore, conditions all one's emotions. If, for example, a man's basic mental set amounts to the idea that he is a helpless incompetent caught in an unknowable jungle, his will affect his value-judgments in every department of life.... By contrast, if a man holds that his mind is efficacious and the universe intelligible, he will form radically different values and, as a result, experience radically different wants, likes, and dislikes [Emphasis added.].

Note the emphasized words. In Objectivism, the ambiguity of words is sometimes used to present two versions of a theory: a strong version and a weak version. The strong version is grossly improbable and cannot to be taken seriously. The weak version, on the other hand, at least enjoys an aura of plausibility. In regard to the Objectivist theory of emotions, the weak theory is the view that one's philosophical views "condition" or "affect" one's value-judgments (and hence, by implication, one's resulting emotions as well). The strong theory, on the other hand, asserts that value-judgments (and the emotions they produce) are entirely (or almost entirely) the product of philosophical views. Which view does Peikoff uphold? Well, in the passage quote above, he seems to lean toward the weaker version, saying that philosophical views only "condition" or "affect," one's value judgments; they don't, presumably then, determine them. But when later we reach the grand conclusion of Peikoff's presentation we are startled to find that following assertion: "Ayn Rand ... holds that man can live exclusively by reason. He can do it because emotions are consequences generated by his conclusions."

Now this assertion depends on the strong version of the theory, and loses whatever logical force it may have without it. For if one's conclusions only "condition" or "affect" one's value-judgments, then, presumably, that would still leave room for other causes, such as innate causes or causes relating to physiological desires. Such causes could affect how one reasons, thereby compromising the claim that "man can live exclusively by reason."

There is yet another problem, and this one appears to be conclusive. It is this: How do individuals go about choosing the philosophical views that determine their value-judgments and their emotions? We know Rand's answer: "Your conscious mind." And if you "default," if your conscious mind doesn't make a concerted effort to form “proper” philosophical views from which rational value-judgments can be deduced, then "you deliver yourself into the power of ideas you do not know you have accepted."

This view of emotions, reason, and consciousness has been refuted by research done in cognitive science, neuroscience, and evolutionary psychology. These sciences have discovered that animals (including human beings) have "primary emotions," which are "innate" and "preorganized" and which depend on limbic system circuitry in the brain. They have discovered that emotions are critical in thinking, so that the notion that "man can live exclusively by reason," when accompanied by the additional notion that "emotions are not tools of cognition," misrepresents what actually happens in cognition. Human beings are not blank slates. Their emotions are not programmed into their “subconscious” by their conscious minds. That view is no more credible than would be an astrological view of emotions. On naturalistic assumptions, emotions are and must be the product of evolution. They are tools of survival, forged in the evolutionary furnace.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

That Winston Tunnel Scene in Full

As part of our "Atlas Shrugged" 50th Anniversary discussions, we present one of the most controversial passages from Ayn Rand's bestseller. Here the doomed Comet train, part of the decaying infrastructure in slow motion collapse due to concomitant political, social and economic collapse, heads towards disaster in the eight-mile Winston tunnel:

"As the tunnel came closer, they saw, at the edge of the sky far to the south, in a void of space and rock, a spot of living fire twisting in the wind. They did not know what it was and did not care to learn.

It is said that catastrophes are a matter of pure chance, and there were those who would have said that the passengers of the Comet were not guilty or responsible for the thing that happened to them.

The man in Bedroom A, Car No. 1, was a professor of sociology who taught that individual ability is of no consequence, that individual effort is futile, that an individual conscience is a useless luxury, that there is no individual mind or character or achievement, that everything is achieved collectively, and that it's masses that count, not men.

The man in Roomette 7, Car No. 2, was a journalist who wrote that it is proper and moral to use compulsion 'for a good cause' who believed that he had the right to unleash physical force upon others - to wreck lives, throttle ambitions, strangle desires, violate convictions, to imprison, to despoil, to murder - for the sake of whatever he chose to consider as his own idea of 'a good cause',which did not even have to be an idea, since he had never defined what he regarded as the good, but had merely stated that he went by 'a feeling' -a feeling unrestrained by any knowledge, since he considered emotion superior to knowledge and relied soley on his own 'good intentions' and on the power of a gun.

The woman in Roomette 10, Car No.3, was an elderly schoolteacher who had spent her life turning class after class of helpless children into miserable cowards, by teaching them that the will of the majority is the only standard of good and evil, and that a majority may do anything it pleases, that they must not assert their own personalities, but must do as others were doing.

The man in Drawing Room B, Car No. 4, was a newspaper publisher who believed that mend are evil by nature and unfit for freedom, that their basic interests, if left unchecked, are to lie, to rob and murder one another - and, therefore, men must be ruled by means of lies, robbery and murder, which must be made the exclusive privilege of the rules, for the purpose of forcing men to work, teaching them to be moral and keeping them within the bounds of order and justice.

The man in Bedroom H, Car No. 5, was a businessman who had acquired his business, an ore mine, with the help of a government loan, under the Equalization of Opportunity Bill.

The man in Drawing Room A, Car No 6, was a financier who had made a fortune by buying 'frozen' railway bonds and getting his friends in Washington to 'defreeze' them.

The man in Seat 5, Car No.7, was a worker who believed that he had "a right" to a job, whether his employer wanted him or not.

The woman in Roomette 6, Car no. 8, was a lecturer who believed that, as a consumer, she had "a right" to transportation, whether the railroad people wished to provide it or not.

The man in Roomette 2, Car No. 9, was a professor of economics who advocated the abolition of private property, explaining that intelligence plays no part in industrial production, that man's mind is conditioned by material tools, that anybody can run a factory or a railroad and it's only a matter of seizing the machinery.

The woman in Bedroom D, Car No. 10, was a mother who had put her two children to sleep in the berth above her, carefully tucking them in, protecting them from drafts and jolts; a mother whose husband held a government job enforcing directives, which she defended by saying, 'I don't care, it's only the rich that they hurt. After all, I must think of my children.'

The man in Roomette 3, Car No. 11, was a sniveling little neurotic who wrote cheap little plays into which, as a social message, he inserted cowardly little obscenities to the effect that all businessmen were scoundrels.

The woman in Roomette 9, Car No. 12, was a housewife who believed that she had the right to elect politicians, of whom she knew nothing, to control giant industries, of which she had no knowledge.

The man in Bedroom F, Car No.13, was a lawyer who had said, 'Me? I'll find a way to get along under any political system.'

The man in Bedroom A, Car No.14, was a professor of philosophy who taught that there is no mind - how do you know that the tunnel is dangerous? - no reality - how can you prove that the tunnel exists? - no logic - why do you claim that trains cannot move without motive power? - no principles - why should you be bound by the laws of cause and effect? - no rights - why shouldn't you attach men to their jobs by force? - no morality - what's moral about running a railroad? - no absolutes - what difference does it make to you whether you live or die anyway?. He taught that we know nothing - why oppose the orders of your superiors? - that we can never be certain of anything - how do you know you're right? - that we must act on the expediency of the moment - you don't want to risk your job do you?

The man in Drawing Room B, Car No.15, was an heir who had inherited his fortune, and who had kept repeating, 'Why should Rearden be the only one permitted to manufacture Rearden Metal?'

The man in Bedroom A, Car no. 16, was a humanitarian who had said, 'The men of ability? I do not care what or if they are made to suffer. They must be penalized in order to support the incompetent. Frankly, I do not care whether this is just or not. I take pride in not caring to grant any justice to the able, where mercy to the needy is concerned.'

These passengers were awake; there was not a man aboard the train who did not share one or more of their ideas. As the train went into the tunnel, the flame of Wyatt's Torch was the last thing they saw on earth."
- Ayn Rand, "Atlas Shrugged", p566-568

"From Romantic Fallacy to Holocaustic Imagination"

As the ARCHNblog's "Atlas Shrugged" 50th Anniversary critique-athon continues, we link to a perceptive essay by Thomas F. Bertonneau*, "Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged: From Romantic Fallacy to Holocaustic Imagination."

Bertonneau contends that Rand constitutes "both an early symptom of, and a major influence on," the universal vulgarization of 21st century culture. He also describes the book as "morally incoherent", but not in the way we have usually come to expect. He writes that "in her divulgence of the “altruist” mentality, Rand seems to me accurately to have gleaned much about late-twentieth century left-liberal piety, not least its addiction to righteous display. But, to use one of her own favorite terms, her narrative builds on a borrowed premise." Bertonneau argues that the hidden "borrowed premise" behind "Atlas Shrugged" is sacrifice. Here he is on what he calls Rand's cataclysme a clef; the Winston Tunnel scene:
"In earlier instances we have observed how Rand’s sacrificial imagination can betray itself by a stylistic discrepancy. So it is again with the Tunnel incident... (Rand writes):“It is said that catastrophes are a matter of pure chance, and there were those who would have said that the passengers of the Comet were not guilty or responsible for the thing that happened to them.”...Who are the unnamed “those” in Rand’s sentence who “would have said,” absent a hearing by the rules, that, no legitimate sentence could in the moment attach to the fated ones? We can name them as any readers who at this point in the narrative might feel uneasy about what Rand proposes momentarily to execute in her role as author, she who makes things happen. Note how the passive inflection, “happened,” in the sentence, as though the event could boast of no agent, dissimulates a great deal: primarily it would dissimulate the author herself, were she not,in the writing of the utterance, betraying her manipulative and determining presence. The luckless ones must be made out as guilty. Rand must demonstrate that the random passengers have sinned sufficiently to substitute for the known “looters...”

*We note that contrary to Randian cliche, Bertonneau is a member of The Center for Literate Values, which upholds the Western literary tradition, and his "Declining Standards at Michigan Public Institutions" apparently 'stirred the rancor of teacher's unions for daring to objectify our culture's progressive ignorance."

Friday, October 12, 2007

Honesty in Objectivism

Ayn Rand, "For The New Intellectual::
"Honesty is the recognition of the fact that the unreal is unreal and can have no value, that neither love nor fame nor cash is a value if obtained by fraud - that an attempt to gain value by deceiving the mind of others is an act of raising your victims to a position higher than reality, where you become a pawn of their blindness, a slave of their non-thinking and their evasions, while their intelligence, their rationality, their perceptiveness become enemies you have to dread and flee - that you do not care to live as a dependent, least of all a dependent on the stupidity of others, or as a fool whose source of values is the fools he succeeds in fooling - that honesty is not a social virtue, but the most profoundly selfish virtue a man can practice..."
Ayn Rand Institute press release, Sept 12, 2007:
"Atlas Shrugged" ranks as one of the most influential books of all time, ranking second only to the Bible in a 1991 survey by the Library of Congress."

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

"To a gas chamber - go!"

With the 50th anniversary of the publication of Atlas Shrugged well upon us, several internet postings of the adulatory sycophantic fustian variety have already appeared to celebrate the occasion, and several of these postings have cited Whitaker Chambers notorious review of Rand's magnum opus, "Big Sister is Watching You", with its famous but often misinterpreted line: "To a gas chamber — go!" In an earlier posting at ARCHNBlog, I attempted, in vain no doubt, to clear up the misconceptions that so many of Rand's partisans entertain about the quote . Contrary to what so many Randian sympathizers believe, Chambers was not accusing Rand of being a genocidal maniac, eager to murder everyone who disagreed with her or committed palpable breaches of morality. He merely was noting that Rand's feelings toward people she didn't like were similar to those of a mass murderer toward his (or her) victims. Where would Chambers have gotten such an idea? That is easily answered: from Rand's evident approval, if not delight, in the demise of the villains of Atlas Shrugged. Recall Rand's commentary on the victims of the tunnel collapse on the train, the implicit upshot of which is: They all deserved to die!. In other words, while Rand certainly never wanted to murder anyone (nor did Chambers ever suggest that she did), she did, as far as we can tell, believe that people who didn't follow Objectivist "reason" would die and, more to the point, that such vile scum deserved to die. Here's Chamber's commentary on this disturbing facet of Rand's thought:
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... [R]esistance 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.

Now we can all argue over whether this passage overreaches or not. Chambers has clearly indulged in a bit of hyperbole to emphasize his point. But the point itself is well worth emphasizing! Atlas Shrugged does indeed exhibit, in the tone of the piece, a very disdainful contempt toward anyone who might be so horrid as to disagree with its author, and that in places it even exults in the deaths of those who refuse to follow Rand's moral ideals.

That Rand and her acolytes delight in the demise of those whom they regard as "immoral" can be demonstrated by quoting a letter Alan Greenspan sent to the New York Times in defense of Atlas, back in the fifties:
Atlas Shrugged is a celebration of life and happiness. Justice is unrelenting. Creative individuals and undeviating purpose and rationality achieve joy and fulfillment. Parasites who persistently avoid either purpose or reason perish as they should.

"Perish as they should"! Keep in mind that the phrase "parasites who persistently avoid either purpose or reason" is a rather wide abstraction that potentially includes, not merely the usual unsympathetic drunk hobos and intransigent shirkers and malingerers, but also the mentally ill, the retarded, congenitally poor reasoners, people who can't make up their mind, and people maimed and demoralized by tragedy. Such people, it is here suggested, not only will die, but should die. "Justice is unrelenting"!

- Greg Nyquist

Atlas Debunked

As "Atlas Shrugged"'s 50th rolls on, no doubt we will hear once again the venerable tale of how it was found by the Library of Congress to be "second only to the Bible" in terms of influence on the American reading public.

Sadly, it turns out this heartwarming story is little more than an urban myth. Jessica Amanda Salmonson retires it here:
'This notion originated initially with the Book of the Month Club advertising department. In 1991, the 2,000 forms labeled "Survey of Lifetime Reading Habits" were sent to Book of the Month Club readers in a bizarre scam that hornswoggled the Library of Congress in promoting the Book Club. The Library of Congress fit it into their reading promotion project but this was a survey of nothing but the effectiveness of Book of the Month Club's advertising. Thus the top ten books included similar offerings from the Book Club come-on-attractions leaflet, Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique, Scott Peck's The Road Less Travelled, & Gail Sheedy's Passages. Truly a list of immortal classics.

A study or a credible survey with any degree of applicability would have required statistical controls & other factors to ensure some degree of scientific validity & would not have been restricted to book club customers selected by the book club. But inasmuch as this was just a promo & not legitimate research on reading in America, the only "statistical finding" required was the finding of good advertisement copy.

This Book of the Month Club promotion mailed out in cooperation with the Library of Congress reading promotion program not surprisingly established that Book of the Month Club titles were very significant to Book Club customers, most especially the few titles listed on the introductory offer form. Among which Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged placed #2, after the Bible.

So this "finding" applied to 1991 Book of the Month Club readers, but somehow in the wake of this phony study it was transmuted into Rand having written the most important book to all Americans for all time. That now decade-plus old ad campaign still gets paraphrased by Randians as "recent" & as "a study" when it is (or was) neither, claiming always that it was conducted by the Library of Congress, since even Randians know that citing ad copy composed by the Book Club sounds just as cheezy as it is.

A bit more recently (in 1999), advertising hacks hired by television producers began promoting a made-for-TV Ayn Rand docudrama, plus a cable documentary, & associated book tie-ins & videos. Being it would seem a cut-rate outfit, they just found the old Book of the Month Club blurbs, paraphrased this so closely that the Book Club ad writers should have sued them as plagiarists, then did a massive press release campaign which repopularized the 1991 Book of the Month Club ad scam in context of how important it is for everyone to watch TV.

That 1999 publicity packet was afterward copied onto the back covers of new editions of Rand, trying to take advantage of the television exposure, so that by now it is "common knowledge" that the Library of Congress proved something it never proved with a study it never conducted..." - Jessica Ann Salmon, (via Mike Huben's "Critiques of Libertarianism" site)

Alas, "Atlas"

Former ARI writer Robert Tracinski plugs "Atlas Shrugged"'s 50th over at Fox News, decrying the somewhat unsympathetic reaction the novel still generates even today among reviewers.

Commenter Jay provides the link, as he's curious as to what we denizens of the ARCHNblog think is wrong with the book. Well, Greg puts the situation nicely here in his defence of Whittaker Chambers' infamous review for The National Review. My one-liner on it is that Rand's unique combination of the pulp fiction potboiler and "philosophic" self-help manual genres (eg: 'The Road Less Travelled' etc) explains much of its enduring appeal. However, that said I'll tag the excellent David Ramsay Steele and let him put the hurt on Rand's epic folly:
"In 'Atlas Shrugged' a future United States is sinking into interventionist chaos, with more and more government controls causing more and more disorganisation. The rest of the world has long since collapsed into the barbarism of starving "peoples' states". One by one, all the most brilliant intellects in the US - businessmen, artists, scientists. businessmen, philosophers, businessmen, businessmen, and businessmen - mysteriously disappear. The heroine, who manages a large railroad corporation. becomes aware that there is a conspiracy behind the disappearances. The plot is that of a mystery story, but there is no mystery: the solution is obvious before page 50, and is hammered into the reader's head on each of the next few hundred pages. The great achievers are going on strike, because they are fed up with the way everyone else is living off their achievements whilst maligning and persecuting them. The achievers have disappeared into obscurity. and every year they all take a holiday together at Galt's Gulch, a utopian haven in the mountains, based on gold coinage and the mutual respect born of rational greed.

The book has many virtues, including a fundamentally sound plot and a lucid, unpretentious narrative style. It was the first major work I read connected with twentieth-century free market ideas, and I was at first dazzled by its seeming audacity and its eerie, anachronistic, dreamlike quality. I was also inspired by its hints of a fully-worked out theoretical system, a metaphysical. epistemological, and ethical structure which somehow supported the author's political conclusion. It was a great disappointment to find later that this system did not exist. The various speeches and allusions in Atlas Shrugged - so obviously far-fetched and logically slipshod, but perhaps defensible as rhetoric within a novel - are themselves quoted at length in Rand's non-fiction essays on philosophy, art and politics. The horrible, pitiful truth finally dawned: this is all there is to Rand. She really believes that this mouth-frothing sloganeering is philosophy, is reasoning, is the way to persuade rational people.

All the faults of The Fountainhead have become horribly magnified, and most of its saving features have been lost. Atlas Shrugged doesn't contain any convincing characters. only cardboard cut-outs which move jerkily this way and that, while the ventriloquist-author has them spouting her doctrines. The good characters all agree exactly with the author's views on sex, business, music, philosophy, politics and architecture - the only exception is that sometimes one of the good characters hasn't quite grasped a significant point, and when the penny drops and he comes into full conformity with Rand's opinions, this is a highly dramatic development. The bad guys all agree with what the author says all her ideological opponents must believe (almost entirely different from what these opponents actually do believe, outside fiction). Both goodies and baddies continually expound their incredibly shallow Weltanschauungen in Rand's stilted jargon. None of them is authentic or has a personal voice. Unlike Toohey in The Fountainhead, none of the villains is intelligent or effective. (Stadler doesn't count; he is stated to be a genius, but this never affects his described behaviour.)

Just as in real life Rand surrounded herself with yes-persons, hanging on her words and reciting them anxiously back to her so in Atlas Shrugged she creates a world of zombies mouthing her patented terminology and going into the zombie equivalent of convulsions of delight whenever they hit upon another of her conceptual gems. Galt's Gulch is indeed Rand's Utopia: a society where everyone makes speeches all the time expounding Rand's opinions. the listeners all blissfully nodding their heads in agreement. 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. The book has often been described as nightmarish; it has something of the unnerving quality of a delusional system made real which we find in some Philip K. Dick novels, notably Eye in the Sky. (But Dick could really write, and he was doing it on purpose.)

Of all modern tendencies in fiction, Rand's novels are closest in spirit to the socialist realist works favoured by the Stalinist regime. Stalin said: "Artists are engineers of the soul." Rand said: "Art is the technology of the soul."

One of the climactic points of Atlas Shrugged is Galt's long speech. which explains Rand's theories, in Rand's language, over all radio and TV channels simultaneously, and helps to bring about the downfall of "the looters". Actually, airing this tedious drivel over all stations would speedily lead to a revolutionary overthrow of the government which permitted such lax regulation of the airwaves, followed by the guillotining of Galt. With cretins like Rand's villains running the US, I reckon I could take over within a week. given a handful of marines and a few rock 'n' roll tapes, except that plenty of others would get in ahead of me. Galt's speech is 58 pages long, and I suppose 90 percent of readers skip most of it, as I did on my first reading. Branden claims that it took Rand "two full years" to write (266). It feels like two full years reading it.

In Branden's judgement, part of Galt's speech takes "a major step toward solving the problem that haunted philosophers since the time of Aristotle and Plato: the relationship of 'ought' and 'is' - the question of in what manner moral values can be derived from facts." No such problem has haunted philosophers since the times of Plato or Aristotle. In the eighteenth century, David Hume raised a different question. whether values could be derived from facts (alone) at all, but this attracted no attention at the time, and didn't haunt anyone until the twentieth century.

According to Galt's speech, in a passage singled out by Branden, "there is only one fundamental alternative in the universe: existence or non- existence - and it pertains to a single class of entities: to living organisms." This is false. Any class of matter (atoms. crystals. stars, etc.), not just living organisms, may exist or not exist. Galt (Rand) also emphasises that: "to think is an act of choice ... man is a being of volitional consciousness." This too is false. Thinking is involuntary, like digestion or blood clotting. If you don't believe this, try to stop thinking for a few seconds. Galt (Rand) also keeps insisting that "existence exists". This seems to he of momentous importance to Galt (Rand), but in the only sense I can make of it (that 'existence' is something which exists in addition to all the things which exist) it is not evident, and I believe it is false. (If what is meant is that "Things which exist exist' - existence exists - then that is trite and has never been denied by anyone.) And so it goes on, 58 pages of it. one pompous vacuity after another.

There is the possibility that Atlas Shrugged may be produced as a TV mini-series. This would probably be its most favourable incarnation. The characterisation is not up to the level of Falcon Crest, but the plot is a lot more interesting, and thankfully most of the pedantic dialogue would have to be cut. Galt's speech could be eliminated altogether and something should he done about the fact that Rand's 'future' is now impossible, since she did not forsee such developments as the eclipse of rail by air travel. Maybe Dagny Taggart should run an airline instead of a railroad."

- 'Alice In Wonderland', David Ramsay Steele

Thursday, October 04, 2007

Understanding Objectivist Jargon Pt 13: "Sacrifice"

"Sacrifice"= giving up a greater value for a lesser value.

As someone once remarked about Gertrude Stein, Ayn Rand often does not seem to know what words mean. This peculiar usage is quite opposed to the standard meaning of "sacrifice", which is usually where one gives up something of lesser value for a greater value - for example, sacrificing a Queen to win a game of chess. As a result of this basic confusion, Rand ends up with confounding formulations such as the following:

"The word that has destroyed you is 'sacrifice'...If you wish to save the last of your dignity, do not call your best actions a 'sacrifice': that term brands you as immoral. If a mother buys food for her hungry child rather than a hat for herself, it is not a sacrifice: she values the child higher than the hat; but it is a sacrifice to the kind of mother whose higher value is the hat, who would prefer her child to starve and feeds him only from a sense of duty."- Ayn Rand, "Atlas Shrugged"
Ergo: It is immoral for the mother whose highest value is buying a hat to feed her starving child instead!

Either Rand intended this absurdity to be her argument - perfectly possible, given the thrust of her theory - or she got tangled up by her own inversions of meaning. Either way, it's yet another Randian pronouncement which is at first plausible, but on examination we might - with maximum charity - describe as confused.

Ayn Rand Quote of the Week - 4/10/07

Ayn Rand on the American Indian:
"They didn’t have any rights to the land, and there was no reason for anyone to grant them rights which they had not conceived and were not using . . . . What was it that they were fighting for, when they opposed white men on this continent? For their wish to continue a primitive existence, their ‘right’ to keep part of the earth untouched, unused and not even as property, but just keep everybody out so that you will live practically like an animal, or a few caves above it. Any white person who brings the element of civilization has the right to take over this continent."- Address to West Point, 1974

Monday, October 01, 2007

Anon: "As for your point about the rationalization of philosophic speculation, I don't know where it's coming from. Objectivism views philosophic reasoning and scientific reasoning as of a piece."

Perhaps Anon and I have very different ways of making truth judgments, and that's getting in the way. Or maybe Anon is focussing exclusively on the intention of the Objectivist theory, rather than on its practical results. My tendency is to judge from the outside, not the inside. I'm not greatly interested in the so-called inner logic of theories and doctrines, but in their practical effect. What is the practical effect of Rand's epistemological convictions? How do they effect the cognitive behavior of those who think they are true? To answer these questions, I examine Rand's actual knowledge claims. Are her knowledge claims better, more true, more plausible, as a result of her epistemological theories? Or are they less so?

Now I realize that this is a somewhat conjectural proceeding. It's quite possible that Rand's epistemological theories have nothing to do with her knowledge claims, that the Objectivist epistemology is just window dressing. But in that case, I would seriously question the practical relevance of her epistemology. In any case, it's hard to square the window dressing view with textual references in Rand's own works, where the practicality of her theories is stressed.

"If Rand made assertions that you take to be contrary to what some scientists say, then either she was simply mistaken in her reasoning or the scientists are. The problem has nothing to do with her theory of concepts."

Not necessarily. If her theory of concepts gave in her unjustified confidence in her abstract reasonings (which I suspect is the case), then it would simply be naive to suggest there's no connection. Anon appears to think that it is only a problem of logic. But I believe — and findings in cognitive science support this — that this view of the matter is naive. Psychology also plays an important role in thinking. It particularly influences those who don't realize this, because they don't think to take counter measures against it.

"Next you say that Rand does not accept that some sciences may involve degrees of uncertainty. I don't know where you're getting that from or why, once again, it relates to the epistemological relevance of a theory of concepts."
Well, actually what I said is "Rand does not appear to have accepted the notion" that some sciences may involve degrees of uncertainty—a subtle but important difference. Where did I get the notion? Why, from Rand's own practice: from the fact that her statements about economics and politics are made as if she knew them to be certain. My contention is they can't be, and one of the reasons why this is so is because of that problem of oversimplified premises I noted in the earlier post. Take the issue of free trade, for example. Does anyone seriously believe that Rand did not regard the economic arguments for free trade as not being certain? But given the fact that they're based on over-simplified premises, that's problematic. There are, in fact, compelling arguments, ignored by most economists, that, under specialized conditions, some kinds of tariffs may increase output — a view, moreover, that's actually more consistent with the (admittedly not entirely conclusive) empirical evidence.

But what does all this talk about theories have to do with the theory of concepts? Well, it partly goes back to Anon's statement that the point of the hierarchy was "to show how abstract reasoning connects to perceptual evidence." I wanted to provide a relatively simple argument showing why I don't believe the Randian theory succeeds in achieving this goal. But there is another consideration which I have been hesitant to introduce because of the added complexity, and it is this: I regard concepts as theory-laden. To my mind, it is the theoretical content of concepts which makes them interesting and important. The emphasis in Objectivism on "validation of conceptual knowledge" is misplaced. As Karl Popper (who helped clarify this issue for me) puts it:
If so many philosophers and scientists still think that concepts and conceptual systems (and problems of their meaning, or the meanings of words) are comparable in importance to theories and theoretical systems (and problems of their truth, or the truth of statements), then they are still suffering from Plato's main error, ... which is [a] traditional [error], ... known as "the problem of universals." This should be replaced by "the problem of theories," or "the problem of the theoretical content of all human language."

What Rand would have said about the notion of concepts as theory-laden I don't know. Since it is a position that, at least in some respects, challenges the Aristotlean tradition (see Open Society and Its Enemies, vol 2, p. 9-21), I wouldn't expect Rand, who admired Aristotle immensely, to react all that favorably toward it.

Isn't it important to know whether the concepts we use in our theories our "valid"? No, not in practice. In fact, it's not helpful in the least — quite the contrary. After all, what does it mean to say that a concept is valid? Any arguments about "valid" or "invalid" concepts will often, in practice, reduce themselves to mere wranglings about the meaning of words. That is why scientists don't get their fur ruffled over the definitions of terms. That way madness lies! Indeed, there is no compelling evidence, either from science or from common life, that errors in cognition are caused by "inappropriate" or "invalid" concept formation. (And what is an "invalid" concept, anyway?) In successful sciences, like physics and chemistry, people argue, not about concepts or words, but about theories and assertions about facts. Those philosophers who, following in the tradition of Aristotle and Plato, were obsessed with concepts and conceptual systems, wound up becoming inextricably tangled in futile arguments about the meanings of words (e.g., medieval scholasticism). If the history of philosophy can be our guide in this manner, obsession with concepts and theories about the "justification" of concept-formation, must, because of the very futility of it (concepts being formed largely unconsciously) must lead, in practical terms, to what Popper calls "verbalism" — i.e., useless argumentation attempting to determine the "proper" definition, or the proper "validation," of this or that concept.

I regard the phrase "Galileo had to justify the concept of inertia as a rather inapt way of describing the fact that Galileo had to corroborate the theory of inertia. Even worse is the phrase "Both inertia and value are abstract and need to be abstracted in the proper order, connected to the proper evidence," because it suggests that the critical aspect of any knowledge-claim involves the formation of the concept in which that claim is expressed, and not the development of a theory about concept's referents. The phrase "abstracted in the proper order," is particularly mischievous, because it suggests that a concept's theory can be tested by examining the place of that concept in the hierarchy, all the way down to the so-called perceptual level. In practice, this would appear to be mean examining a concept in the light of other concepts. In short, it means what Popper calls "verbalism" and others call rationalism.

Having spent years studying the rationalizations of ideologues, I have found that one very important aspect of verbalism involves taking advantage of the ambiguity of "wider" concepts to carry forth points that are contrary to logic and fact. This is why Rand's defense of such high-level abstractions arouses my suspicions. "When concepts are integrated into a wider one, the new concept includes all the characteristics of its constituent units," she insists in IOTE. But this is psychologically misleading. Wider concepts generally have more varied referents. And some of those referents may have important differences that are ignored when one simply refers to them under the wider concept. Anon unwittingly provides an illustrative example in his post, where he writes "the cognitive view of emotions is hardly distinctive to Objectivism. It has been held by Aristotelians for decades (see Magda Arnold), and more recently by the highly successful discipline of cognitive-behavioral therapy." At first glance, this seems like a respectable argument. Since both Rand and cognitive-behavioral therapy share a "cognitive view of emotions," Anon can use the success of CBT as evidence for the Randian theory of emotions. But what is not noticed is the critical details that have been ignored under the concept cognitive view of emotions. The fact of the matter is, that Rand's particularly version of the theory has not been accepted by the CBT community. We know this because one of the most important figures in CBT, Albert Ellis, who wrote for the first critical book about Objectivism (i.e., Is Objectivism a Religion?), declared that the relationship Rand posits between thought and emotions is "nonexistent." So the fact that Rand's theory can be classified under the wider category of cognitive view of emotions along with CBT does not mean that evidence for CBT can also be regarded as possible evidence for Rand's theory!

Now I realize it could be argued that Anon's error is a logical fallacy (namely, the fallacy of equivocation). While this is true, it misses the larger point. In abstract reasonings, there can be scores of wide level concepts that could all be positively drenched in the logical sin of equivocation. It is a thankless task, and utterly futile, for the intrepid critic to comb over some particularly abstruse piece of abstract reasoning and try to pick out all the equivocation fallacies embedded, like so many land mines, within it. Much more easier simply to examine the conclusions of those reasonings and subject them to as rigorous empirical criticism as the circumstances allow.

Anon's post is so rich in many of the issues it raises that there still remains a great deal more to be covered. But that will have to wait for other posts.