Friday, March 23, 2012

Ayn Rand & Human Nature 21

Innate components of religion. Objectivism considers religion a mere execrescence of irrationality, a product of wrong premises misintregrated into the subconscious. What evidence do Objectivists present on behalf of this hypothesis? None whatsoever. In fact, Rand herself does not appear to have even considered the issue of evidence.

One problem that Objectivism runs into right from the start is the near universality of religion. We find it nearly everywhere, even among isolated peoples. If religion were merely a product of premises, we would expect to find more variety in the world at large, as some cultures would choose religious premises and hence become religious, while other cultures would choose non-religious premises and hence become secular. Moreover, since religion (at least according to Objectivism) is "irrational," and since the irrational is impractical and even "evil," we would expect non-religious cultures to have a competitive advantage over religious cultures, so that over time, the non-religious, through a kind of natural selection, would triumph over and replace the religious. Oddly enough, this has not happened.

There is one major exception to the universality of religion: contemporary Europe. Soviet Russia and communist China could also be seen as exceptions as well, except for the fact that religion was brutally repressed in those countries, and that communism itself is a sort of secular religion. Europe, however, is one example that might fit within Rand's theory. The problem is, it might not fit. There may exist special circumstances in Europe which enable the natural proclivities toward religion to be supressed. After all, if Europeans have chosen non-religious premises, there must be a reason for this. While Objectivism often ignores the whole issue of why individuals in a special set of circumstances might choose one premise rather than another, it nonetheless would appear an important question to address if one is interested in discovering the truth of the matter.

In the United States, religion still remains a fairly strong force. More than half of Americans attend church at least once a month, and more than a third attend church once a week. Over three-quarters of Americans identify themselves as Christian. Nonetheless, 20% of Americans never attend church, and another 25% "seldom" attend church. Oddly, church attendance rose in the weeks following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, but returned to pre-9/11 levels within two months. This suggests that religiousity increases, not as a result of any inexplicable or causeless acceptance of "religious" premises, but because many (perhaps even most) people are hardwired to turn to religious constructs when they feel seriously threatened. It might very well be that Europe is predominantly secular and non-religious because Europeans are wealthy and they feel safe. Take away the wealth and the safety, and Europe would return to religion (or the secular equivalent thereof).

Monday, March 05, 2012

Ayn Rand & Human Nature 20

Rationality within the limits of human nature. Rand regarded "reason" as the supreme virtue: "I am not primarily an advocate of capitalism, but of egoism," she wrote; "and I am not primarily an advocate of egoism, but of reason. If one recognizes the supremacy of reason and applies it consistently, all the rest follows." Empirical studies have shown, however, that human beings do not "follow" reason, but rather tend to use their reasoning skills to justify whatever conclusions they reach via emotion, desire, sentiment, and/or intuition.

To a certain extent, Rand was aware of this: it is a theme of much exasperation in her writings. But rather than assuming that the non-rational was a built-in feature (or bug) of human nature, Rand hunted for an explanation for why so many human beings refused to "follow" reason. She found her answer in a contrived and implausible theory of history, where she placed the failure of human rationality squarely on the shoulders of modern philosophers, particularly Kant. "The man who . . . closed the door of philosophy to reason, was Immanuel Kant," she averred. People don't follow reason because philosophers have told them that the human mind is impotent and that they must do as they are told. While Rand and her disciples sometimes add conditions or elaborations to this view, basically that is what it amounts to. The inability of modern philosophers to "validate" reason (by solving the problem of universals) explains why people don't follow "reason" and accept Rand's views.

It was by framing the issue is such extravagently anti-empirical terms that Rand was able to avoid the more obvious conclusion: namely, that human beings don't follow reason because, as Hume explained, reason as at best a method, not an aim or desire; and, morever, the attempt to reason from "is" premises to an "ought" conclusion is invalid. Rand appears not to have understood any of this. She assumed that reason was man's only means of knowledge and from this premise tacitly presumed that human beings must achieve rationality through individual reason. It never occured to her that rationality might be achieved through some other means than individual reasoning, or that there may be other means of knowledge which, in certain circumstances, could prove useful, if not necessary.