04 January 2011

The unreason of Objectivism

There’s a joke that goes like this:

There are two novels that can change a bookish fourteen-year-old's life: The Lord of the Rings and Atlas Shrugged. One is a childish fantasy that often engenders a lifelong obsession with its unbelievable heroes, leading to an emotionally stunted, socially crippled adulthood, unable to deal with the real world. The other, of course, involves orcs.

I’ve read both books. While I may have exhibited a mild mania for both Middle-earth and Objectivism, fortunately I dodged the emotionally stunted, socially crippled adulthood. Many other young minds haven’t been so lucky. Some have grown up to become forty-year-old live action roleplayers.

My temporary affair with Ayn Rand’s philosophy has made me sympathetic to those who hold religious beliefs. Not because I think there is any compelling reason to cling to antiquated values derived from superstition and myth. Wishful thinking and factual error are no basis for values truly worth having. No, my sympathy comes from observing the parallels between Objectivism and religion. The moral absolutism. The ideological rigidity. The unerring spokespeople. The fantastic stories serving as allegories for ethical instruction. The contradictions. The hypocrisy.

To say that I renounced my Randian faith is an apt metaphor. For all its glorification of reason, Objectivism is ironically an unreasonable collection of beliefs with a pretense to rational certainty, more akin to the blind, unquestioning faith of God botherers than the rigorous yet humbly provisional ideas of ethical philosophers from Socrates through Spinoza to Singer.

But I’ll leave it to someone much more qualified than myself to dissect Rand’s comprehensive system of thought and put its flaws on display. Philosophy professor Massimo Pigliucci has written a four-part series of articles critiquing Objectivism on his blog ‘Rationally Speaking’. He has devoted each article to one aspect of Objectivism – its metaphysics, epistemology, ethics and politics. Even if you’re not familiar with Ayn Rand’s ideas, Pigliucci’s articles are still an education on how not to do philosophy.

As is generally the case with blogs, the comments from readers can be just as instructive as the post itself, often expanding and improving on the arguments made by the author. In this instance, it seems that a dyed-in-the-wool Objectivist (or at least a staunch Rand supporter) has taken it upon himself to refute – and rebuke – Pigliucci and other commenters who take a less approving stance on Objectivism. I remain unpersuaded by his verbose arguments, but I’ll leave it to you to decide if this fellow has successfully defended Rand from Pigliucci and co. Warning: not for the faint-of-heart or short-of-attention-span.



  1. Darrick,

    One of my mother's favorite sayings was "there's nothing more damning than faint praise." It popped into my head again today when I read your back-handed compliment of my replies to Massimo Pigliucci's 4-part 'opus'—but in reverse: "there's no greater praise than faint condemnation."

    It caught me totally by surprise, and made me reread your post again to see if I could detect what might have prompted it instead of me following through on my more immediate conclusion that this is just one more anti-Rand fluff piece. It proved to be, instead, a kind of profound exhibit of a new and now recurring kind of opposition in colloquial thinking: a collection of the usual non-arguments but now hedged by a hint of self-doubt. To see what I mean, you have to identify the nature, in principle, of the thoughts you assembled as arguments:

    1) A joke, and one that has already passed into the realm of tired clichés. Whatever would possess anyone to argue against a complex and comprehensive philosophy with a joke anyway? And particularly one that is ubiquitously found in blogs and forums as drive-by postings of single-time commenters who can't think of anything of substance to say.

    2) Now look at the content of that joke, the other ubiquitous cop-out claiming that Objectivism is for 14-year-olds. Don't you know that the recent explosion of interest in Rand and Objectivism has resulted in a world in which millions are fully aware of the philosophy and the revolutionary identifications it contains—Rand's original theory of concepts, the first ever moral foundation under capitalism, the definition of art, her explanations of the nature of ownership of both physical and intellectual property, etc., etc. And those ideas challenge almost all of conventional thinking. Outside of the ages from 14 to 30 there are precious few open, honest minds not bound to their social and familial pressures to refrain from renouncing the past. It is precisely in the impetuous, overenthusiastic crowd of 14-year olds that the 30-year-old crowd of new intellectuals are hatched who will marginalize Massimo.

    3) Then, yet another cliché—i.e., that you tried it as a child and outgrew it. The obvious problem with that is that those ideas I mentioned in 2) above you never even got to. Then, as it became evident that Objectivism requires one to validate every idea independently before adopting it and the work that entailed, unlike those who persisted in tackling each issue with her help one by one, you just quit. You did not grow up out of Ayn Rand, you gave up. If you ever were able to prove her wrong, it vanished before you wrote this post.

  2. 4) Now, with only whatever little understanding of Objectivism you retained from your brief flirtation, and perhaps a bit perturbed by the sight of Rand's influence engulfing the discussions of ideas everywhere you turn, you write this post. The title promises some indication of why Rand's ideas are not as rational as she pretends. but you fail to actually demonstrate to us the unreason in any one of her ideas. You characterize her, the ideas, the spokespeople, her stories, etc. But not one of your characterizations is accompanied by a word or two to substantiate them. They're uttered as if they were a product of papal infallibility.

    5) I doubt you saw that implication, however, or you would not have tried to accuse Rand of lapsing into faith and religiosity. You suggest and rely heavily on the religious connotations of "moral absolutism" and "ideological rigidity" in apparent oblivion of the fact that those are virtues in a philosophy that deals exclusively in objective truths. It is as if you can't distinguish between a certainty systematically derived and proven by a rational mind and a certainty of faith asserted on the strength of feelings alone. The ultimate absurdity of such an accusation, is that anyone who treated the philosophy as a religion or entertained a religious epistemology in the slightest would be ipso facto disqualified from claiming to be an Objectivist.

    5) Finally you arrived at the last lifeboat on the ship. You cite the philosophical professional who appears to be an authority. You commit the classic fallacy of appeal to authority in lieu of presenting cogent ideas of your own. But because you failed to assemble a thorough understanding of Rand in your post-14 years, you failed to recognize that Massimo's blog is just a candy store, and the lifeboat you count on is just a confection to entertain the tastes of his comrades who gather there to toy with the minds of the unsuspecting. Find me one single argument of substance in the entire 4-part series.

    6) And even as he was deceiving you with his faux erudition, he victimized you with his lament that the length of a 4-part post was somehow an argument against it. (You will note, that he never attempted to rebut a single point of it.) The word "verbose" brought your point down to his level in which the efficacy of one's thinking can be qualified by quantitative measurements. That put you in the box with those who skipped Galt's speech in Atlas Shrugged, because it and the book were too long—a place you do not want to be.

    Now if anyone else had made the above errors, they would have ended with a flourish of clichéd or sarcastic characterizations of me and my arguments. You did not. What stopped you? What could I have said that even suggested that I might have "successfully defended Rand from Pigliucci and co.? If you were taking your own critique seriously, the thought that anyone at all could successfully defend her would be impossible.

    If you were not just provisionally hedging, it was the unexpected juxtaposition of Massimo's fluff against the tightly wound arguments learned from Rand and honed in bouts of blogging that tempered your certainty about just how much "unreason" was there. In that uncertain context, "I remain unpersuaded" is a throw away line. If this was the first such experience, then it's early yet.

    And it is time for you now to revisit Rand and Objectivism—if for no other reason than to uplift your next critique

  3. Michael,

    Objectivism is unreasonable because it ignores the role that neurobiology and psychology play in the exercise of reason and irrationality. Rand’s tunnel-visioned focus on philosophical axioms and abstract foundations excludes the very real effects of involuntary cognitive biases caused to a significant extent by our neurobiology. This is what I mean when I refer to the hypocrisy of Objectivism. Objectivists claim that human beings are capable of exercising pure reason unadulterated by flawed premises or assumptions. Yet the neurobiological and psychological facts show that such an ideal kind of rationality simply does not exist, not even for Objectivists. Whether it’s confirmation bias, mental blind spots, pareidolia, bounded rationality, evolutionary psychology or subconscious inclinations (to name a few inherent human cognitive traits – what a less generous person may call ‘flaws’), no one can claim to be immune or exempt from such ‘facticity’, to use an existentialist phrase. Not even Ayn Rand.

    Note that the sort of cognitive ‘flaws’ I’m referring to are not ones that can be consciously willed away, or at least not consistently. So long as you are a human being with a normally functioning brain, you are subject to a less-than-perfect consciousness. Objectivism lost my respect when I realised it’s an ideology that pretends that airtight reason is possible, when clearly it is not.

    Let me make one thing clear: I am not saying that Objectivism is an entirely false or deluded philosophy. Clearly it has many ideas that can only benefit people; the promotion of reason, the rejection of the supernatural and mystical, the encouragement of self-reliance and personal responsibility, the injunction against violence and force, the belief in material and ethical progress. I still accept, even embrace, these ideas. But not at the cost of hermetically sealing my mind away in a Randian bubble that ignores cold, hard facts about our cognitive limitations while paradoxically claiming to respect nothing but the facts of existence.

    One more thing: I’m surprised that you didn’t recognise the irony in your claim that I appeal to authority in lieu of coming up with my own original arguments. The great bulk of your arguments, both here and in Prof. Pigluicci’s blog, have been nothing but implicit and sometimes explicit appeals to Ayn Rand’s superhuman powers of rational infallibility, penetrative philosophy and unerring commentary on human psychology, ethics and politics. Two words for you, Michael – pot and kettle.

  4. Darrick,

    You are invited to point out an act by me of faith in Ayn Rand, as distinctly opposed to an idea that I learned from her and was able to independently validate on my own. You have characterized my comments as such, but that will remain an empty assertion until you show that it actually applies.

    As for considering neurobiological facts, those are discovered and defined in applied sciences that study the mind and its functions from an entirely different aspect as philosophy. And without a viable philosophy explicitly or implicitly in place beforehand, those sciences could not be practiced at all. Where would neuro-science be without the conceptual thinking that it cannot explain and validate as epistemology does?

    Obligingly, you accompany this error with your own self-contradiction that is its consequence. Any science that posits inherent "cognitive flaws" is self-invalidating. An inherently flawed consciousness would have no way to know whether any one of its conclusions was a product of its successful identification of the nature of reality or was merely a product of the flaw. One cannot posit such a limitation of volition without implicitly forfeiting the concept "truth." I am presuming, of course, that you are offering the idea as "true".

    The only limitation on the mind's ability to ascertain certain truths is the requirement that all knowledge be contextual—i.e. based solely on evidence at hand.

  5. Michael,

    If you claim that your acceptance of Rand’s ideas is not faith-based, then I assume there may be some aspects of her philosophy that you disagree with, or perhaps would modify given the 60+ years that have elapsed since The Fountainhead was published, time in which much progress has been made in neuroscience, psychology and philosophy. However, if you believe that Rand’s ideas are entirely and eternally correct, with no personal qualms whatsoever on your part, then you do indeed display ‘faith’ in her teachings, and are no different from any devotee of a similarly ‘infallible’ guru or messiah-like figure. But if you do disagree with any of Rand’s ideas, please do elaborate on which ones, and why. Then you will convince me that your appreciation of Objectivism is not faith-based. Otherwise you simply prove my far from empty assertion.

    Yes, epistemology underpins the practise of science. But that does not necessarily mean that science and scientists have to be flawless – conceptually for the former, consciousness-wise for the latter – in order for provisionally true, objective scientific facts to be discovered. Facts about the fallibility of cognition and the limits of reason are not any less factual just because they run counter to a uniquely Randian insistence on cognitive perfection, or at least perfectibility. Put it this way: you, Michael, and all other Objectivists, can never declare with absolute certainty that your beliefs have not been influenced by cognitive bias of any kind. And yet the psychological and neuroscientific facts of cognitive bias exist. So your only options are either (1) admit that you, like the rest of humanity, are susceptible to errors in cognition which may influence the ideas you adopt as true, or (2) deny the facts.

    Science deals with provisional truths. This is the intellectually honest position to recognise. Hence there is no need for Randian notions of ‘truth’ and ‘flawlessness’ in order for science to be effective in discovering knowledge. Epistemic doubt is accepted as part of the scientific enterprise. Unless you care to throw the baby (scientific progress) out with the bathwater (epistemic uncertainty), you have to concede that scientific facts are clearly not dependent on flawless i.e. Randian epistemology. But of course we can improve. That’s the point. Unlike Rand, scientists and science philosophers generally don’t have the conceit of access to a sui generis epistemology that bodes no further discussion. They muddle through it all and somehow still come up with discoveries that tangibly benefit humanity, all the while trying to make the process less muddlesome.

    The only limitation on the mind's ability to ascertain certain truths is the requirement that all knowledge be contextual—i.e. based solely on evidence at hand.

    I agree with this, but I wonder if you fully appreciate the implications of this statement on your Objectivist position.

  6. "However, if you believe that Rand’s ideas are entirely and eternally correct, with no personal qualms whatsoever on your part, then you do indeed display ‘faith’ in her teachings, and are no different from any devotee of a similarly ‘infallible’ guru or messiah-like figure."

    Scare quoting hyperbole is redundant, not to mention self-degrading in a discussion of serious ideas.

    Faith cannot be identified by numerically quantifying agreement. And although it is theoretically possible that some human form of life has read Rand and considered her thereafter to be infallible and Messiah-like, I have in 43 years as an active Objectivist neither encountered such a person or evidence that such a person has ever existed. Let's see fewer unsubstantiated assertions and more evidence Mr. Scientist. You can start by naming some tenet of Objectivism that is without evidence to support it.


    "Facts about the fallibility of cognition and the limits of reason ..."

    The fallibility of cognition is a corollary of volition. You don't need neuroscience to tell you that.

    Reason is the capacity to abstract similarities and differences from units of sense perceptions and integrate them into concepts that we concretize with word symbols. To put a limit on reason, you would have to invalidate some sensory perceptions or point to some kind of or set of perceptions from which the mind would be unable to isolate and integrate similarities and differences as concepts. Or you might demonstrate that there are some higher level concepts that cannot be further integrated. Realize, however, that it will not be possible for you to do anything like that without self-refuting your own proposition by having to perform those tasks in order to prove they are not possible..


    "And yet the psychological and neuroscientific facts of cognitive bias exist."

    And why is this not just a cognitive bias of yours? And what means did you use to answer this question that avoided being compromised by your cognitive bias?


    Me: "The only limitation on the mind's ability to ascertain certain truths is the requirement that all knowledge be contextual—i.e. based solely on evidence at hand.
    You: I agree with this, but I wonder if you fully appreciate the implications of this statement on your Objectivist position."

    You need to be more concerned with its implications on your position.

    What it implies is that there are 3 states of knowledge: 1) just a little non-contradictory evidence = possibility. 2) just a little evidence missing from a lot of non-contradictory evidence = probability. 3) sufficient evidence = certainty.

    With the exception of self-evident facts, all science pursues certainty via possibility and probability. As long as provisional truths are those that are possible/probable but not yet certain, you do not disagree with Rand. If, however, you erect a barrier between that and certainty that precludes scientific certainty, you not only disagree with her, you disagree with yourself. As a matter of principle, one can never be certain that certainty is not attainable.

  7. Michael,

    You have a habit of demanding that others provide evidence to support their assertions (which is fair enough) but when asked to answer direct questions, you slip, slide, dodge and weave your way out of giving a straightforward answer that isn’t obfuscated by Rand-speak (which is hypocritical).

    So do you agree with Rand that a woman shouldn’t become President? If yes, why? If no, why? You’re probably aware that with either answer, you demonstrate the absurdity of at least one Randian idea, and in the process allow me to provide you with one example of Randian unreason which you have requested. It would seem that Rand’s thought isn’t quite as invulnerable as her disciples perceive it.

    I gather from your Objectivist bias that ‘volition’ is something you ascribe to all human beings as being totally voluntary. Nevermind that human minds are susceptible to subconscious involuntary processes that can affect their choices. Nevermind that determinist factors like neurobiology evidently play a part in human cognition. As an Objectivist, you reject determinism in matters relating to consciousness. But as I have mentioned, in the 60+ years since Rand fired her opening salvo, philosophy has progressed to take into account the findings of neuroscience which indicate a determinist component in consciousness. But Objectivists prefer to live in a time-warp where such convergence hasn’t occurred, because it upsets their anti-determinist ideology. The idea that in certain contexts people truly cannot help acting/thinking/choosing the way they do is anathema to Objectivists. So instead of treating the complex matter with the intellectual rigour and honesty it deserves (because as yet there are few conclusive answers as scientists and philosophers grapple with the difficult questions), far easier for Objectivists to just deny the determinist factors and their implications.

    I hope you realise by now that your counter-arguments along the lines of “but how can you be certain that you, Darrick, have not been affected by cognitive bias/flaws” misses the point. I totally accept that I am indeed affected by cognitive bias, but because I do not share your simplistic equation that cognitive bias = inability to reason or form coherent thoughts, I can exercise my cognition without depending on a Randian kind of infallibility as a crutch. In other words, I can argue and reason to the best of my ability without presuming that I’m somehow exempt from cognitive bias, a position that Objectivists like yourself cannot adopt without self-contradiction.

    In effect, Michael, Objectivists like you have built your own restraints. Of course, you may boast that this only demonstrates your unwavering dedication to iron-clad rules of reasoning. But you don’t realise the full extent of your humanity, with all its inherent flaws, proclivities and biases, which you reject with your intellectual asceticism.

    You referred earlier to this to-and-fro between us as a ‘discussion’. It isn’t, Michael. You may have convinced yourself that all these years of engaging with non-believers in blogs or in real life constitute as discussions. But they’re actually more like lectures, or sermons. This is because you display absolutely no interest in considering that a non-Objectivist viewpoint may have merit, or even intellectual heft. Given that both you and I have no chance of convincing each other of our respective positions, I don’t see any point in continuing this non-discussion. I do enjoy discussions, Michael. Just not talking-past-each-other engagements.

    I leave you with this little diagram for your consideration. I believe it applies not only to religious proselytisers, but also non-religious ones like yourself. I think it would be good for you if you stopped deluding yourself that you engage in ‘discussions’ relating to Objectivism. I’ll say it again Michael: what you do, here and elsewhere, is not called a discussion. It’s called preaching.

  8. To Michael and any other Objectivist reading this, I would like to draw your attention to this website.

    Until you can convincingly refute the criticisms contained therein, please do not fool yourselves that your so-called discussions with non-Objectivists constitute a rational dialogue. If you cannot or will not answer your critics, you have no right to expect your flawed ideas to be given serious, respectful treatment.

  9. The thrust of objectivism is if I disagree with conclusions that Rand has come to, without reading and being able to systematically quote her ENTIRE body of work, I am being either intellectually dishonest or de facto disqualified from talking about her at all. It's either all or none. You can't dislike something halfway through and decide that you don't want to finish it anymore AND be qualified to explain why you don't like it.

    The problem that I have with reading the entire body of work is that a lot of it relies on the dramatic effect of emotional devices rather than on reason in order to form the underpinnings of a philosophy supposedly BASED on reason. For being "Objectivist" is sure as hell isn't very objective, which is to say disinterested in the outcome regarding the analysis. To put that more plainly, it seems as though Ayn writes with a particular conclusion in mind before she starts, and uses any means necessary in order to justify that conclusion, be it reason or appeals to emotion. But since Ayn Rand is dead, it is impossible to ask her in order to KNOW if that was her methodology, so there goes knowing at least that little tid bit as certain.