Friday, December 03, 2010

Rand and Empirical Responsibility 2

Man is a being of self-made soul. Rand explains this assertion as follows: "The use or misuse of his cognitive faculty determines a man’s choice of values, which determine his emotions and his character. It is in this sense that man is a being of self-made soul." In other words, a man's "character and emotions" are determined by how he uses (or misuses) his consciousness. Under this view, a man is responsible not merely for how he behaves, but for his personality and emotions.

To describe this viewpoint as controversial greatly understates its tremendous reach. Were it true, it would mean that nearly every scientist in the biological and behavorial sciences, nearly every great poet, dramatist, and novelist, and all great statemen, generals, businessmen, etc. have been wrong; for nearly everyone who has ever studied, described, bargained with, dealt with, or commanded human beings has assumed that man is not a being of self-made soul, that his "soul" (or character) is a product of many factors, and that something called "human nature" most definitely exists and can be used to make generalizations concerning how human beings are likely to react to various incentives. Scientists have discovered, for example, that whether an individual is extroverted or introverted is determined by his genes. As scientists learn more about how DNA influences human character, they are discovering the extent to which a man's personality is innate (it's a rather large extent, estimated somewhere in the neighborhood of 50 to 70 per cent). Rand's assertion that man is a being of self-made soul goes into the very teeth of this evidence. This being so, why should we take Rand's assertion seriously? On the one side, we have a veritable mountain of evidence for the belief that character, at least in some respects, is influenced by genetics. In opposition to this Rand provides us with?--nothing. Rand cites no scientific experiment, no article from a reputable scientific journal, no evidence from experimental psychology. Now how likely is it that Rand is right on this point, and thousands of much better informed scientists, scholars, historians, social scientists, statesmen, etc. are wrong?

Rand is clearly wrong: man is not a being of self-made soul. To accept the Randian nonsense is to suffer from an almost egomaniacal delusion. So why haven't Rand's disciples attempted to remedy this glaring defect in her philosophy? After all, aren't Objectivists supposed to be "objective," concerned for the truth, eager to get the facts right? Isn't that what Rand's philosophy, on its epistemological side, is all about? But no; Rand's followers have no interest in repairing this major faux pas in the Objectivist philosophy. How can they? It's one of their philosophy's chief presuppositions. Without it, the whole structure becomes wobbly, and threatens to fall. If man is not a being of self-made soul, the Objectivist philosophy of history becomes utterly untenable; some of Rand's ethical ideals, particularly her virtues of selfishness, pride, and integrity, become deeply problematic; and her politics becomes unachievable and therefore fabulous and utopian. Rand's entire project of "saving" the world depends on the notion that how a man uses his cognitive faculty ultimately determines his character; for if man has no control, whether direct or indirect, over his character, then we should expect his innate biases to influence him in the future as they have influenced him in the past. Take away Rand's extreme self-determinism, and the old rules apply once again. The conservative (or "Tragic") vision of human nature, dramatized by Sophocles and Shakespeare, limned by James Madison and Alexander Hamilton in the Federalist Papers, scientifically explicated by E.O. Wilson, Steven Pinker, and other scientists, is once more vindicated.


Xtra Laj said...

As scientists learn more about how DNA influences human character, they are discovering the extent to which a man's personality is innate (it's a rather large extent, estimated somewhere in the neighborhood of 50 to 70 per cent).

Some of this is relatively controversial, but I think regardless, the accurate statement is the degree to which variation in individual behavior is explained by genes. Not that stating it in this way makes a difference to people who disagree with you.

gregnyquist said...

Laj: "Some of this is relatively controversial..."

True enough. But—and this is the point lost on most Objectivist—even if it turned out not be true, Rand would still be under the obligation to provide evidence for her view. Even if DNA had no influence on character (although, given the evidence, that is a rather implausible supposition), this would not prove that man is a being of self-made soul. He might be a product of social forces, or of economic forces, or of cultural forces, or anything one like, if the question is settled a priori, without an exhaustive examination of the all the relevant facts.

Michael Prescott said...

"they are discovering the extent to which a man's personality is innate (it's a rather large extent, estimated somewhere in the neighborhood of 50 to 70 per cent)"

I would bet that some of these claims are overblown. Consider the hype surrounding the Human Genome Project:

Human personality is such a complex subject, it's probably unrealistic to think we can unravel its mysteries any time soon.

That said, I agree that Rand's "self-made soul" claim is a mere assertion ungrounded in evidence. I'm not even sure it makes sense on its own terms. How can the "self" make its own "soul"? As Rand used the terms, they seem to be synonymous, so essentially she's saying that a man's character shapes his own character. This seems incoherent to me.

I gather we're supposed to think that a person forms his character by the choices he makes. But those choices are themselves are a reflection of his character. The whole thing starts to look like circular reasoning, or like an infinite regress.

Dragonfly said...

@Michael: the HGP may not deliver so soon so many results as people had hoped and has been promised, although I still think that it has a tremendous potential, things are just not always so simple as they may seem at first. But that doesn't mean that there isn't very strong evidence that a large part of our personality is innate (in the sense that Xtra Laj indicates).

My personal impression (admittedly from anecdotal evidence) is that the innateness of our personality is even still greater than many scientists think. Well, I certainly can live with that.

Anonymous said...

Interesting how you criticize Rand (a philosopher) for not citing any scientific evidence (which were largely not even available at the time)but you do not cite any to support your own assertions.

Xtra Laj said...


Search the blog if you are looking for references. There are whole series on Objectivism and various issues where Greg cites expert opinion. maybe Greg it Dan should make that clear somewhere on the site.

gregnyquist said...

Mark: "Interesting how you criticize Rand (a philosopher) for not citing any scientific evidence (which were largely not even available at the time)but you do not cite any to support your own assertions."

Even more interesting is that so many errors could be packed in one sentence.

Error 1: The fact that I didn't cite evidence in this post does not get Rand off the hook. Whether Rand is right or wrong on this point cannot be determined by how well her opponents support their position. Because A is wrong doesn't prove B is right: in the absence of evidence, they both may be wrong.

Error 2: If there was no scientific evidence at the time Rand made her assertion, then she shouldn't have made the assertion in the first place. The fact that Rand is a philosopher is no excuse. What we do not know we should not assert. This applies to everyone, including philosophers.

Error 3: As Laj has noted, I have cited evidence elsewhere on this point. I even allude to such evidence in this post, with the mention of Pinker and Wilson. Anyone with any doubts on my evidentiary claims can check out Pinker's Blank Slate or Wilson's On Human Nature.

Error 4: This series is about whether Rand provides evidence for her assertions. I warned in the introduction to this series that the question of the truth of Rand's assertions would be secondary. What's important is whether she provides evidence for any of her controversial assertions about matters of fact. By not doing so (even when her assertions may be true) she is setting a bad example to her followers, making it seem like it's entirely proper to challenge claims based on peer reviewed science/scholarship on the basis of mere assertion (or rationalistic speculation).

Anonymous said...

Interesting take.... I posted a reply to your post.

Curious Reader said...


I have read your post and think you should take some time and reread what is actually being asserted.

Your first assertion is that the quote used about man being a being of self made soul is out of context.

Your elaboration on the quote in no way invalidates the point. The senentce is used in the original as the summation of the paragraph, in what way did Mr. Nyquist use it out of context. Rands assertion is that mans ability to percieve and understand are the foundation of sould/psyche/personality whatever you wish to call it. That is also what mr. nyquist lcaimed.

Your second claim is ALSO missing the point entirely. Every example you show is one where individuals have from the evidance at hand developed theories which they could then link back to said evidence.

The issue with Rand is that your most contentious items link back to NOTHING just her sophistry. Newton and Enstien worked from evidence to conclusion. If you go the other way you are not practicing science no matter how "reasonable" you think you are being.

Your last assertions show that you really don't understand what is at issue here.

The reason rand is treated like a crank in serious philsophical circles is becuase of exactly the issues raised here. She does not provide a serious defense of her idea, or real supporting evidence, but instead talks in circles and in grand ideas with little backing except her opinion.

For all that: Mr. Nyquist does not need form me to defend him at all.

Anonymous said...

Clearly, you are mistaken about Einstein. In fact, his theories were largely inconceivable until recently. You don't believe me, look it up. I did not miss any point, in fact I gained the necessary knowledge of what Mr. Nyquist says: Rand did not back up her assertions with "evidence". I am saying that to call for evidence in every case is just ridiculous. The idea is humorous when it is applied to philosophy.

"I think therefore I am"? Prove your existence! You can't. You must draw a conclusion on the BEST available facts.

Now, to address the quote taken out of context, which it clearly was because Rand not only said a great deal more on the subject, but she also backed it up with sound REASONING. (coincidentally that is also what she based her entire philosophy on.)That the presence of a contradiction makes the assumption/premise invalid. She continues to say that ACCEPTANCE of an invalid assumption/premise invalidates the mind and the individual. How is this wrong? Oh yeah, I forgot; no proof... Well sir, reality is the jury in this instance...

Michael Prescott said...

From Mark Anthony's post:

"However, I must address one particular blooger ..."


"First, let me note that having just recently been made aware of this blooger ..."


"I would like to give a sort of apology to my readers for bringing up a blooger like this ..."


From Mark's comment:

"Clearly, you are mistaken about Einstein. In fact, his theories were largely inconceivable until recently."

If they were inconceivable, how did Einstein conceive of them?

Maybe you mean they were untestable. But Eddington's measurements during a solar eclipse submitted general relativity to empirical testing in 1919.

Xtra Laj said...

If only Objectivists spent as much time studying and understanding as they did creating strawmen... Greg has repeatedly stressed that a controversial statement deserves a thorough review of the evidence that supports it. But Mike is proud to proclaim, as if just to prove Greg's point on Rand's influence on her followers, that not reviewing evidence is excusable.

I accept the premise that God exists. According to an Objectivist, my mind should now be invalid. unfortunately, so would Newton's and Galileo's. so much for sound reasoning. what is it about Objectivist ideas that make smart people's brains turn to mush when reading Rand?

gregnyquist said...


I've read your post and it is merely an exercise in refusing to get the point. While Rand and her disciples (and anyone else for that matter) can say anything they want, if they make controversial statements about matters of fact and they wish to be taken seriously, they need to provide evidence, and if they have no evidence, they can't expect us to take them seriously.

Einstein's theories were based on the evidence of his day, particularly the evidence from the famous Michelson–Morley experiment. Even so, Einstein's theory of relativity was regarded, at best, as a hypothesis and scarcely credited until the Eddington's measurements of 1919 (and even then there were doubters because Eddington's measurements were not very exact).

If a philosopher wants to be taken seriously concerning matters of fact (we're not talking about value judgments here), he must seek to be empirically responsible. Matters of fact concerning controversial issues require the corroboration of evidence. Otherwise they are merely unsubstantiated assertions, which may have value as literature or expressions of wishful thinking, but do not have value as descriptions of facts.

What I am saying here is not controversial: it's merely science 101. If Rand is right about her assertion concerning man as a being of self-made soul, there should be evidence for that belief--for how else could she know that she was right? If so, why not provide it? The best way to settle a dispute about some matter of fact is to examine the relevant evidence. If there is no evidence for a particular assertion, that usually means the assertion is (1) false, or (2) uncertain, unknowable, or, to use Objectivist terminology, "arbitrary." In either case, one shouldn't assert it, as Rand does with her self-made soul statement, as a certainty founded on "reason."

Daniel Barnes said...

>Clearly, you are mistaken about Einstein. In fact, his theories were largely inconceivable until recently. You don't believe me, look it up.

I just keep reading this sentence over and over...;-)

Curious Reader said...


I am an electrical engineer and my university undergrad program focused on electronics which means that I got a great deal of quantum physics because at my university it was petty much felt that the electron tranistor was going to be a reality within our lifetime.

Anyway, I also minored in history and took a great many history of science classes.

You are simply FACTUALLY wrong on Eienstien. The first thing you should know is that relativity is a causal consequence of reality. NEWTONS biggest detractors used an arguement that was basically "a newtonian universe could POSSIBLY be reletivistic. Seriously, this was basically one of contentions leibenz used to prove that Newton's version of calculus was bunk.

Next you have to understand that reltivity defiantly came from a progression with Einstien. Remember that what he won the nobel prize for was the photoelectric effect: not reletivity. Wave/partical duality was the GREAT question of turn of the century physics. The implications of which were the basis for special reletivity. general of course grows out of that.

Note however, that for each of these steps Einstien provided mathematics and the theory had implications that allowed for testable hypthotheses.

The light bending/solar shifting experiments of Eddington acted as verifcation. Note, however, that other observatories in the period claimed to have seen no reletavistic effects and this lead to many bitter battles. However, the battles were over the EVIDENCE and what it said about the universe and not over the "reasoning."

Science as a process is 9 parts evolutionary and 1 part revolutionary. As our ability to test grows and as our ability to control the enviroment around us grows we accumulate ideas that break with our existing world view. The normal course of action is to attempt to reconcile both our worldview and our new knowledge. This is good, its what allows for civilization with all its benefits like division of labor.

However, once in a while there we develop new worldviews from all the ill-fitting knowledge that we have developed and we get a paradigm shift. James Burke has spent a lifetime developing these connections and views on days the universe changed. I suggest you give him a read.

We have the world today because we have stood on the shoulders of giants, and our decendants will undoubltedly see our contributions in a similar way, being both astounded at the level of insight we were able to achieve and flabergasted at the things that we hold as true that are so obviously false wtih there level of technology and worldview.

Curious Reader said...


In my haste I feel I have spoken about newton in a way that is not clear and could be called "false" without a little more background.

Principia Mathematica was NOT popular in its day. In reality, it was in some ways treated more harshly than even reltivity was.

Newtons forces were invisible imparted actors. Many of Newton's contemporaries felt that this was akin to saying that the universe worked by "magic."

Consider the "Normal" force that acts on a body that is in contact with another. Lets say you have a pen on a table. In a simplified example the table exerts a normal force equal and opposite to gravity so that the pen stays where it is. If you pick up the pen, a normal force to resist the pen is now exerted by the surface of your hand.

In Newtons day this was crazy talk. Where did the old force go? Was it transfered to the hand? In the enlightment the alternate name for "action at a distance" was MAGIC.

However, Netwon had GEOMETRIC solutions that were derived from his calculus that worked really well at predicting things.

Leibinz would argue against the implications of newtonian physics becuase even at in that period it was possible to create within the mathematics an observer problem similar to what is implied by reletivity. As EVERYBODY in that period felt that that solution was meaningless and outside of reality it was often felt that it was a stining criticsm of Newton. Now, not so much.

Anonymous said...

To Curious Reader, In short: I believe that we can both agree that Einstein and Newton were both geniuses and their contributions to science is amazing AND terrifying.

You said in your first post "We have the world today because we have stood on the shoulders of giants, and our decendants will undoubltedly see our contributions in a similar way..."

I couldn't agree with you more. In fact you have come a long way around to agreeing with me. My point to bring in Einstein and Newton was to show that great minds have accomplished a lot by going "out on a limb", shall we say, and learning about knowledge that didn't even exist. There was no evidence to back up a large part of their theories until recently. I'm afraid that you, and everyone else, has completely missed the mark (pun intended).

First, not once did I even talk about the theory of relativity. If you look back to your history classes you will find that Einstein had his hand in many more aspects of science. I was more specifically talking about his theories on light. I am not a scientist and won't argue the facts, but to jump to a conclusion like that I was talking about the theory of relativity is simply stupid. All of everyone's talk about how "wrong" I am is hilarious considering that I'm not even talking about what they assume...

This is my point, you have proven it by mistake. To require evidence in every aspect of thought is just dumb. Philosophers are thinkers, that is what they do. I do not intend to defend only Rand however, thinking outside of the box and against the tide is what is truly valuable.

A person mocked the fact that he/she accepts the premise of God. I do not disagree with him/her, and yes objectivist's would say that to accept a premise that cannot be proven invalidates his/her own confidence. But he obviously must have some proof to believe such a thing. I believe that Rand was talking more about accepting a KNOWN FALSE.

I'm currently writing another post to elaborate this tiny point...

I encourage people to be less presumptuous and more open to alternative solutions. Or solutions that work for that matter. To do that you must break the author's own writings and actually CHALLENGE the common way of thought.

gregnyquist said...

"My point to bring in Einstein and Newton was to show that great minds have accomplished a lot by going "out on a limb", shall we say, and learning about knowledge that didn't even exist. There was no evidence to back up a large part of their theories until recently."

That is not true. Einstein's and Newton's theories puzzled people at first, but it was precisely the evidence for these theories that convinced the doubters and gave these theories their enormous perstige. Hume's Treatise of Human Nature sought to apply Newton's methods to the "moral" sciences, as they were then known. And Kant was hugely influenced by Newton, and even made some contributions in astronomy. Eddington's solar eclipse findings, along with more accurate measurements of later solar eclipses, resolved most of the doubts concerning Einstein's theory of relativity.

What is important to note in all of this is the evidence was decisive in evaluating these theories. It's an exaggeration to say that Newton and Einstein went "out on a limb," since it's not as if their theories were based on wild guesses or rationalistic speculation. Even so, the theories were introduced as hypotheses, and were only later regarded as something more than that when further empirical tests corroborated their more controversial claims. Rand, on the other hand, does not regard her "self-made soul" theory as a hypothesis, but as a certainty that has to be accepted immediately, regardless of all the evidence that stands against it (e.g., the twin studies, sociological studies by Sumner, Pareto, etc.). In her philosophy, she uses the exact same method that was used to prove the existence of witches or find the philosopher's stone, i.e., she rationalizes.

If Mark wishes to regard Rand's assertions in this matter as uncoroborated hypotheses, that is his business. But if he expects anybody to accept them as accurate descriptions of reality without evidence he is not being entirely rational.

Curious Reader said...


Where to start:


I completely diagree that science is the result of great minds going out on a limb. It is EXACTLY the opposite. The whole GREAT MINDS idea is one I find very destrubing.

Einstiens work with light, for which he won the nobel prize, was based on the work of others. Plank and Maxwell and others who worked before or contemporary to him.

Further, the reason he won the nobel prize was because of the experimentation that gave the theory credence. See, in the world of science you don't win for painting the best picture, you win if you can show that your picture is the most accurate and accoutns for the most facts.

Second: You now claim that you were not talking about reletivity, however without any additional context it was the most logical choice to assume that is where you were headed with Einstien. Similarly, we don't assume that when you talk about the brilliance of newton as a scientist that you are speaking of him as a naturalist (although I read one biography where he was described as above average at that persuit as well)

To argue that everyone missunderstood you is exactly the sort of self exucusing rehtoric we find so unaccpetable in rands work. It also makes it difficult to have enlightnend discourse because how can we discuss meaning if you are going to retcon your points when they teader on the brink.

On your point about needing evidence:
I am trained in the sciences. I think that way because it is a logical and, as far as I can extend it a "reasonable" way to go about things.

To paraphrase my favorite archeaologist "[The Sciences] are the search for FACT, not truth"

If you are going to use the works of scientists to support your position then FACT and evidence are serious matters that must be contended with.

Rand's contemporaries DID consult with scientists, and sociologists to develop philsophies in the modern era. Rawlsian justice is the way it is because of 20th century phychology in addition to its logic as a philosphical system for just governance.

The standard of proof to which you hold the philsopher can be set by other specialists within that field and might be lower than say partical physics. However, in the end it is still a standard.

Thats what is at issue here with Rand. It is simply NOT acceptable for the philsopher to argue in circles. Or to substitute rehtoric for logic or proof. These are the issues repeadtely discussed on this sight.

Additionally, these are the issues that prevent Rand from being taken seriously by the philsophical establishment.

However, I think i have strayed somewhat from my expertise and I will let others carry the standard from here.

Daniel Barnes said...

Great posts from Curious Reader.

The issue is, once again, how exactly useful debate can be conducted with the followers of a philosophy which considers dogmatic self-assertion a prime virtue. Time and time again we see that that Rand's philosophy, adopted with the sincerity she insisted upon, renders them as ineducable as she was. Perhaps this is the worst thing of all about her doctrines.