[Previous] Apple is Proud | Home | [Next] Critical Review of Ayn Rand Contra Human Nature

Ayn Rand Contra Human Nature – Introduction Comments

Ayn Rand Contra Human Nature (ARCHN), by Greg Nyquist. All quotes are from this book unless otherwise indicated.
Rand had a unique talent for inspiring cult-like devotion in her admirers.
The book would be more credible without throwing in cliche insults like this. And this one sounds too much like criticizing Rand for being persuasive and inspirational, and for creating a philosophy that actually makes a difference in people's lives. Those are merits.

Now consider what Ayn Rand and the World She Made (ARWSM), by Anne C. Heller, says:
Ironically, Rand made her decision to close NBI on September 2, exactly twenty-two years to the day after she had written, “Who is John Galt?” at the head of a blank sheet of paper. No doubt, she was relieved to be rid of a set of duties she did not enjoy. “I never wanted and do not now want to be the leader of a ‘movement,’” she wrote in The Objectivist. A philosophical and cultural movement had been Branden’s idea and his accomplishment. Now that her brilliant star, as she once called him, had faded in the light of day, his business ventures and the organized following he had built held little interest for her.
Ayn Rand didn't even want a movement, but was a talented cult leader? I'm not convinced.
And since Objectivists have made no secret of their determination to infiltrate the academic establishment, it is not unreasonable to expect these developments to continue well into the future, until finally the Randites manage to carve up a respectable niche of their own within the academic pie.
If you want to be taken seriously by people who aren't hostile to Rand, how about not using the term "Randites"?
What is most astonishing about Rand is not that she made errors (all philosophers make errors), but that she made stupid errors—the kind of errors philosophers make when they are too precipitous in their judgments and haven’t stopped to really think things through.
Strong words. There better be follow up for this. Calling Rand mistaken is one thing, "stupid" is quite another!

Rand is not perfect, but the accusation that she didn't stop to think things through seems initially pretty implausible. How Implausible? ARWSM:
“Thinking is all I do,” she [Rand] said.
Back to ARCHN:
I do not believe that philosophical systems can in fact be refuted. Every philosophical system, no matter how false or mendacious, contains at least some truth.
If something isn't 100% false and worthless, it shouldn't be called "refuted"? This is a strange use of the term "refuted" which means we basically never get to use it on anything. I don't think this is a good idea and ARCHN doesn't clarify what word it prefers.

If the issue was to reject collective refutation, rather than piecemeal refutation of individual ideas, that was not clear. (Just a wild guess at some good idea that could have been intended.)
Despite my low opinion of Rand’s philosophical expertise, I nevertheless regard Rand as an important and perhaps even a great thinker. For even though her philosophy is riddled with non sequiturs, over-generalizations, incompetent formulations, pseudo-empirical inferences, and other palpable bunglings, this does not mean that she cannot in fact be regarded as a great philosopher. Many a philosopher considered great by the denizens of academia is every bit, if not more, culpable of the sort of violations of logic and evidence which characterize Rand and her disciples. Think of all the fallacies and other blatant absurdities to be found in the philosophical systems of Plato, Plotinus, Leibniz, Berkeley, Kant, Fichte, Hegel, Russell, Whitehead, Husserl, Heidegger, and Sartre! Schopenhauer believed in phrenology; William James believed in spiritual mediums and ghosts. Nearly every great philosopher has embraced at least one appalling absurdity, and several have embraced scores of them. Regrettably, the greatness of a philosopher rarely has anything to do with whether his philosophy is faithful to the elemental facts of reality. On the contrary, in many instances, the more a philosopher departs from reality, the greater will be his reputation as a thinker of genius. The reason for this paradox is not hard to fathom. The greatness of a philosopher is usually determined by intellectuals—in other words, by that very class of individuals who are most afraid of reality. This being the case, is it at all surprising that Plato and Hegel, two of the most implacable enemies of common sense that the world has ever seen, should be regarded as great philosophers? What your typical intellectual seeks in a philosophy is not insight into reality, but a way out of reality.
This seems to be confusing which philosophers are objectively great, and which have a reputation as being great. It discusses philosophical greatness in terms of the judgment of some dumb "intellectuals", and doesn't challenge that or suggest more objective criteria.

It also claims to be somewhat nice to Rand by saying she is "perhaps even a great thinker". But then it goes on to talk about "great" in terms of reputation, not actual objective greatness. So it wasn't really granting Rand anything except that if you sell millions of books you "perhaps" have a reputation.

Put another way: you might assume calling Rand "great" would be a compliment, but ARCHN is using words in a bad way so that it isn't actually a compliment. At the same time it grants undo and unchallenged legitimacy and authority to some people who don't deserve it (and whom Rand, to her credit, challenged and contradicted).
Of course, what she said [about any philosophical problem] was never as logical and apposite as it may have sounded, but only someone with a great deal of philosophical acumen would be capable of realizing this.
If you want a reasonable discussion, do not say that "of course" your opponent "never" has a fully logical answer to a single important philosophical issue. Either you're unreasonably holding Rand to the standard of omniscient infallibility, or you're saying she was wrong about everything. If she is substantively wrong about everything, that is not a matter "of course", it's a substantive non-obvious claim. To have a discussion you'd kind of need to acknowledge that much.
But the truth of a philosophy is not gauged by how well it can be used in a debate. The ability to articulate a point of view and defend it against those who raise objections to it says little, if anything, as to its truth. Truth, especially in its deeper manifestations, can often be so inordinately complex that it defies articulation. This is the trouble with all these philosophies which, like Objectivism, seek to reduce the entire universe to a handful of rhetorical constructions. They assume that all truth, regardless of how complicated it may be, can ultimately be expressed by a few pithy phrases.
That all truth can be expressed in a few pithy phrases is not the Objectivist position. This is a straw man attack.

Objectivism does not seek to reduce the entire universe to a "handful" of things either. If it did, why bother writing Atlas Shrugged, which is a long book with many things? Atlas Shrugged would be unnecessary. If Objectivists really thought only a handful of things were needed, they would write them down in a 3 page essay/list and state "the philosophy rests".

I also disagree with the idea that debating requires pithy phrases. Rational, serious debate, with complex ideas, is possible, and can be productive.
it should be obvious from everyday life that articulation is not necessary for knowledge.
This kind of appeal to obviousness is a fallacy, as well as deeply contradictory to Popperian epistemology (and also incompatible with Objectivism). I am not impressed.
Knowledge comes, not from words, but from experience. The knowledge of any complex skill, whether it is cooking, judging the motives of other people, or writing a novel, can only be learned from immersing oneself in the activity from which the knowledge springs. To learn how to cook, you go into the kitchen;
Now, instead of analyzing Objectivism, the book is putting forward its own false epistemology which is incompatible with both Popper and Rand. Why?

That knowledge either comes from "words" or "experience" is a false dichotomy.

That knowledge of cooking can "only" be learned in the kitchen, by cooking, is false. Some people learn all about an activity from books and then do it well there first time. Maybe that's rare, but it happens. It only takes one counter example to refute a claim about what "only" works.

To take another example, my record the league for Hero Academy (a strategy game) is currently 33-0. How did start out good at the game? How come I didn't have to play 100 games and lose 50 of them to get enough experience to be a skilled player? The answer involves being good at chess and other games, and a lot of the skill carrying over. So again we see that you don't necessarily need experience with something to be skillful at it.
Of course, learning in this way [from experience] is difficult and time-consuming. Hence the appeal of philosophers who, like Rand, declare that knowledge comes from words.
Citation needed on Rand declaring that.
Rand’s entire theory of knowledge is tantamount to a denial of the old adage that wisdom comes from experience.
Even if ARCHN was basically correct so far, this still wouldn't be true of Rand's "entire" theory of knowledge. Again ARCHN makes a false exaggeration.
All philosophers like to believe that their doctrines are in accord with empirical reality.
Now I'm wondering how much experience the ARCHN author has with philosophers :)

No they don't "all" like that. They are actually a very diverse bunch and some do not value empirical reality.
The question, however, is whether this belief is justified.
So ARCHN is a justificationist, not Popperian, book. (Or a confused mix is also possible.) I was hoping for better after some decent Popper related comments on the ARCHN blog.
Before commencing with a critique of Rand’s views, I think it is only fair that I briefly indicate my own philosophical positions. There are few things more annoying in philosophical criticism than to have to guess the viewpoint of some particular critic who, in order to make himself appear impartial and objective, pretends that he has no point of view of his own.
I agree. Good attitude!
Every philosophy starts with a vision of the limits and possibilities of human nature. At one extreme is the naturalistic view, which holds that human beings will continue to behave as they have in the past, and that consequently the possibilities of human nature, at least in terms of moral or spiritual progress, are extremely limited. At the other extreme is the utopian view of human nature which holds that the possibilities for man’s moral and spiritual progress are much greater than the historical record would lead us to believe, and that human nature can be regenerated either by changing social conditions or converting men to a more enlightened point of view. In addition to these two extremes, there exists a whole host of intermediate positions; and it is somewhere between the two extremes that you will find most social theorists.

On this issue, I consider myself to be pretty much of an extreme naturalist. If you cannot find any historical evidence for a certain theory of human nature, I will tend to believe that your theory is not in accord with the facts of reality.
I applaud this statement for openly taking a position, and being clear about what the position is.

However, I disagree with the position. I think this dichotomy is flawed. But if I had to go on it, I'd be a strong "utopian" (a word I don't want!).

It'd be a large digression, so I won't go into my reasoning right now. But I'll give you a quick lead. You could learn about my position by reading the (Popperian) book The Beginning of Infinity by David Deutsch.
The longer a given conjecture can remain unrefuted, the more our faith in it will be justified.
ARCHN claims to agree with Popper about induction and states this in the elaboration of Popperian epistemology. The problem is that faith and justification are not part of Popperian epistemology. And even if there were, I would reject them anyways.

(Once upon a time, Popper made an unfortunate, mistaken comment about faith in reason. He did not actually like or want faith. And epistemology doesn't actually require faith, so there is no reason to take that view. Regarding justification, Popper is even clearer in rejecting it.)

If ARCHN is claiming to agree with Popper and still getting Popper wrong, then I'm concerned about how well it will have understood Rand whom it doesn't like.
My ethical philosophy is grounded in a firm and unrepentant naturalism. I believe in the validity of the is-ought gap, which asserts that no moral value can be proven on the basis of fact alone.
But what was that about being a Popperian earlier? We can't prove anything on any basis. We're fallible!

We have conjectures, refutations, arguments, criticisms, guesses, imagination, and so on, but not proofs. (Mathematicians and logicians like to call their arguments "proofs", but they are just particularly rigorous and logical arguments.)

We don't have to prove our moral values for them to be valuable conjectural knowledge. Nor do we need proofs to improve and refine them.
the all too obvious fact
The truth is not obvious. There are a lot of comments like this in ARCHN.
Although I support the free enterprise system, I am not all that sympathetic with the form of “corporate capitalism” dominant today. I am for this reason not entirely sympathetic with Rand’s unconditional support of laissez-faire capitalism; but I am not entirely antagonistic either.
Does this passage say that today's corporate capitalism is (or is compatible with) the laissez-faire capitalism Rand wanted? That'd be very wrong (Atlas Shrugged is full of criticisms of what could be called "corporate capitalism"). I'm not sure how to read it.
Now obviously I have no direct access to Rand’s mind. I have to judge her entirely by her writings—which is not always easy.
This is way too careless. It's a false statement, and there's no excuse. A book author ought to do better.

Rand left more than writings. There are also audio recordings of her talking. He could listen to some of those.
Another defect of Rand’s critics (and, incidentally, her defenders as well) has been the unfortunate tendency to get involved in merely verbal controversies over the meanings of words. In this book, I shall do everything in my power to avoid such futile disputes. I am content to allow Rand and her disciples to define their terms in any way they see fit, provided that I am granted the same liberty in my criticism of Objectivism. Philosophical criticism should not be about disputes over the definitions of words.
I agree.

That covers the introduction. Here is my post about the rest of the book.

Elliot Temple on June 27, 2013


What do you think?

(This is a free speech zone!)