Saturday, October 3, 2009

Out of the Frying Pan, Into Objectivism: Further down the crazy-hole

Before we get started, I want to say that I am equal parts amused, ashamed, and embarrassed (with half a scoop of nostalgia) by all of this; and also that in all quotes, my changes are in [brackets], and my comments are signed in [bracketed italics - D], with all other emphasis and parentheticals preserved.

So there I was, young, high-strung, and full of the dumb, having just shaken off the shackles of Christianity. And who had brought me out but the cantankerous Ayn Rand, priestess of capitalism, founder of Objectivism, the Commie-Hater Supreme herself. As a side note, one of my philosopher friends told me of a study that showed psychoactive drugs tend to reduce one's religious inclinations (through some mechanism or other, I can't remember and was never able to find the study myself), and so wasn't it fascinating that the latest religions - Mormonism, Scientology, and Objectivism - were all very anti-drug? So go smoke a bowl for atheism, if you're so inclined. And if you're not, well... that's OK too, I guess. You can smoke a bowl just 'cuz.

Anyway, the thing is, Objectivism actually has a lot going for it! I could probably write a book extolling the genuine virtues of Objectivism, but I won't - I'll simply point out a couple of examples and then move on to what got me talked out of it:
According to [the idea that there is an inherent clash between the moral and the practical], every man faces a basic alternative: to dedicate himself to the good, the right the noble, to be an "idealist," in which case he must be unworldly, unrealistic, doomed to defeat - or to pursue success, prudence, that which works, to be a "realist," in which case he must dispense with ideals, absolutes, moral principles. (In philosophy, Platonism recommends the first of these choices, pragmatism recommends the second.) The alternative is: be good without earthly purpose, or seek ends while ignoring the necessary means. In other words: commit yourself to virtues or to values - to causes or effects - to ethics or to life.

Objectivism rejects this dichotomy completely.
- Leonard Peikoff, "Virtue as Practical," from Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand
I mean, c'mon, that's just hot! Sure, those are straw-men, but he gives them such a thrashing, he does! I mean, it's a fun oversimplification of a rather complex and ongoing thing (viz. Western philosophy, but I'm sure I could be accused of doing worse to religion), I just like the way he says it. I also love the primacy of existence:
From the outset, consciousness presents itself as something specific - as a faculty of perceiving an object, not of creating or changing it. For instance, a child may hate the food set in front of him and refuse even to look at it. But his inner state does not erase his dinner. Leaving aside physical action, the food is impervious; it is unaffected by a process of consciousness as such. It is unaffected by anyone's perception or nonperception, memory or fantasy, desire or fury - just as a book refuses to roll despite anyone's tantrums, or a pillow to rattle, or a block to float.

The basic fact implicit in such observations is that consciousness, like every other kind of entity, acts in a certain way and only in that way. In adult, philosophic terms, we refer to this fact as the "primacy of existence," a principle that is fundamental to the metaphysics of Objectivism. Existence, this principle declares, comes first.
- "Existence as Possessing Primacy Over Consciousness," Ibid.
Then there's Philosophy: Who Needs It? (answer: everyone), a great lecture which is well-summarized in the Wikipedia article on the book bearing its same title, and you can listen to the whole thing here. (Couldn't find full text online, sorry.) I also love smoking exactly because of Ayn Rand, and I love her for it, despite the addiction:
"I like cigarettes, Miss Taggart. I like to think of fire held in a man's hand. Fire, a dangerous force, tamed at his fingertips. I often wonder about the hours when a man sits alone, watching the smoke of a cigarette, thinking. I wonder what great things have come from such hours. When a man thinks, there is a spot of fire alive in his mind - and it is proper that he should have the burning point of a cigarette as his one expression."
- Ayn Rand, Atlas Shrugged (1992 Signet edition, paperback), p. 64
Another great one is the law of non-contradiction, which can be found in lots of places and is simply stated: "Contradictions do not exist. Whenever you think you are facing a contradiction, check your premises. You will find that one of them is wrong." Well, OK, or your argument is invalid (but yes, the argument is unsound, at any rate, unless it's a proof by contradiction but I guess that's the point). Finally, there's Objectivism: TL;DR version.

So that's pretty much how I got taken in. Like my Bible-thumping days, I was counting hits and ignoring misses; there were just more and better hits to count with Objectivism. I had read Anthem in junior high for an essay contest (never wrote for it, but I do have participation awards for Optimist's Club essay contests!), and I liked it, so I started reading The Fountainhead, and that led to Atlas Shrugged, and by the time I was twenty I had We the Living and Peikoff's Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand under my belt as well. Even in those early days, the seeds of doubt were already being planted: my father, who has some familiarity with Rand's work and philosophy, said something to the effect that Objectivism would be great if only we could truly be objective; a high-school English teacher of mine had said that The Fountainhead was his favorite book, but when we talked more about it, he said that Gail Wynand was the only "real person" in the story (everyone else is absurd caricatures, and it took me a while to appreciate that). A friend once told me, when we first met, that he didn't like Robert Pirsig's Lila as much as Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance because it was "a little too Atlas Shrugged" for him, which fascinated me because he had read all of these books like I had but had completely different opinions on pretty much everything about them. These criticisms stuck with me throughout my entire Objectivist phase, and I apologized them away. It was OK, I thought, they just didn't get it.

For context, I was still reading Atlas Shrugged during my first year of college (I was on scholarship, which I lost), then I finished that and read all of Peikoff's Objectivism during the next year, which I had taken off of school to decide "what I wanted to do with my life." I was in love with Ms. Rand for this entire time, and all my friends were in different towns for college. I also went to work for The Man and took a swift dive down into Business Ethics Hell, but that's yet another story (though it was very, very instructive). In fall '04, I had decided to enroll for spring in a local community college with my major changed from physics to philosophy. My courses over the next few semesters included an introductory psych course, a course in ethics, a course in logic and a course in world religions from the same instructor, and a tandem course in theatre and psychology (which was awesome). In short, these three courses laid the groundwork for my falling out with Rand, because they taught me that life is complicated: people are complicated, governance is complicated, social dynamics are complicated, the economy is complicated, it's all a huge fucking mess and Objectivism flatly fails, fails, fails to make sense of it.

The medium-length version is that, while I can't really say that this or that thing "clinched it" for me, there were three "main themes" that continuously pecked away at the underpinnings of my Objectivist leanings:
  • Objectivism fails at recognizing intersubjectivity (I didn't know the term back then, though this caused friction in arguments when trying to agree to definitions).
  • Objectivism ignores the fact of luck entirely. Or just calls it "virtue 'cuz results."
  • Objectivism is incompatible with human nature (both our psychology and our limitations).
I didn't know those things back then, so there I would be in class, spouting my Objectivist nonsense, and honing my arguments against my "opponents" (the instructor and anyone who disagreed with me). The particular debates are tedious and embarrassing, so I'm going to skip them, except to say that one hinged upon a rather crucial misunderstanding of the word "arbitrary1." The professor actually said, "I don't think that word means what you think it means," and was right. I mean, jeez.

Anyway, seeing the vigorous disagreement in ethics initially disgusted me, but ultimately eroded my Objectivist ethos, as I began to see that it is possible for equivalently intelligent and informed persons to rationally disagree on things like, oh, the meaning of "good." Learning about how languages evolve, and how they shape (and are shaped by) our minds, eroded my confidence in humanity's ability to be absolutely objective with language. And my aforementioned philosopher friend explained some history to me, chiefly concerning Objectivism as a movement (check this story) and Rand's affair with Nathaniel Branden in particular, which eroded my confidence in both the character of Objectivists and the ability of Objectivism to improve upon a person. And so the journey was another long, smooth transition, much like my deconversion from Christianity. Medium length version: done.

Enough broad strokes, it's time to get down to brass tacks. Hoo-boy, real-time update: as I'm writing this, I just cracked open Peikoff's Objectivism for the first time in years, and apparently I took notes during my deconversion (there was "a second reading," you see...). The margins are full of "WTF retarded," "Wow... just wow," "MORON," and "BS!" Lots of underlining. Yeesh. I'm not gonna lie, I could spend years trying to pick the best points to refute, so I'm just going to pick three at random.

1. From "Knowledge as Hierarchical":
As an example [of context-dropping], I will quote from a recent skeptic, who asks: "How can I be sure that, every time I believe something, such as that there are rocks, I am not deceived into so believing by... a mad scientist who, by means of electrodes implanted in my brain, manipulates my beliefs?" According to this approach, we cannot be sure that there are rocks; such a belief is regarded as a complex matter open to doubt and discussion. But what we can properly take as our starting point in considering the matter and explaining our doubt is: there are scientists, there are electrodes, men have brains, scientists can go mad, electrodes can affect brain function. All of this, it seems, is self-evident information, which anyone can invoke whenever he feels like it. How is it possible to know such sophisticated facts, yet not know that there are rocks?
How about if you grew up on a space station, douchebag?! And it misses the point, even if nobody ever grows up on a space station. The point is this: what if we're being deceived in a way that we cannot discover? Well, then we're being deceived in a way that we can't discover. That's all. Peikoff seems to have a problem with this idea, though, and instead argues that since we can't possibly know if it is the case, then we know for sure that it's not. WTF.

2. From "Loyalty to Rational Principles":
[T]he good has to be an issue of "all or nothing," "black or white," and [...] evil has to be partial, occasional, "gray." Observe that a "liar" in common parlance is not a man who always, conscientiously, tells falsehoods [and so on...].

To be evil "only sometimes" is to be evil. To be good is to be good all of the time, i.e., as a matter of consistent, unbreached principle.

The above is the full reason why Objectivism condemns as vicious today's cult of compromise. [...] Evil is delighted to compromise - for it, such a deal is total victory, the only kind of victory it can ever achieve: the victory of plundering, subverting, and ultimately destroying the good.
Yeah, so I guess we're all evil forever, then. Sorry, pal, but "good" is a word, words are categorically made-up, and you're an idiot. Well, OK, I'll give him a B for effort (points off for absolutism), mainly out of sympathy because ethics is such a splintered subject. Anyway, one more from the big book, this time from Chapter 11: Capitalism (they're defiantly not superstitious!). It starts pretty well, and then takes a turn for The Stupid:
The economic value of goods and services is their price (this term subsumes all forms of price, including wages, rents, and interest rates); and prices on a free market are determined by the law of supply and demand [... which are] two perspectives on a single fact: a man's supply is his demand; it is his only means of demanding another man's supply [I swear to Dennis Miller, there's a joke in there! - D]. The market price of a product is determined by the conjunction of two evaluations, i.e., by the voluntary agreement of sellers and buyers. If sellers decide to charge a thousand dollars for a barrel of flour because they feel "greed," there will be no buyers; if buyers decide to pay only a nickel a barrel because they feel "need," there will be no sellers and no flour. The market price is based not on arbitrary wishes, but on a definite mechanism: it is at once the highest price sellers can command and the lowest price buyers can find.

Economic value thus determined is objective. [And not dialectical?! - D]

[...] It is essential here to grasp Ayn Rand's distinction between two forms of the objective: the philosophically objective and the socially objective. [...] The philosophically objective value of a product is the evaluation reached by the men with the best grasp of reality (in a specific category and context), regardless of whether or not they are involved in buying and selling the product [armchair philosophers = economic conscience of the nation - D]. The socially objective value is the evaluation reached by the actual buyers and sellers. These two evaluations are not necessarily the same [for obvious reasons, blah, blah, blah].
Marginal utility, Ockham's razor, GTFO. Done. No need to posit stupidly unnecessary "objective monetary values of objects and services" (except the uninterestingly tautological "objective fact of a unit price paid"). I suppose Peikoff might like to backpedal and say, "Wait! Marginal utility is part of this whole 'context' thing!" OK, fine. Now explain how to choose whether to make the same profit $x by selling at high price to few customers or at low price to many customers, or somewhere in between, and how the unit prices thus obtained are in any way objective instead of arbitrary. Also, "socially objective" is "intersubjective" in a funny hat (in other words, not objective at all). And that "philosophically objective" idea is just a mess - you try defining "best grasp of reality" and stack-ranking people along a linear continuum. (You know a lawyer's gonna need that some day!)

Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead are still great fiction, to my mind, and the bit about Wyatt's Torch still makes me tingle. But this is getting tedious. A couple of quickies before I wrap this up:
The rules of Chess are arbitrary. And they're intersubjectively true, if you get them from Wikipedia. They are neither objectively anything (besides arbitrary), nor entirely subjective (though they are of course violable). According to Peikoff, "The arbitrary, if a man indulges in it, assaults his cognitive faculty; it wipes out or makes impossible in his mind the concept of rational cognition and thus entrenches his inner chaos for life." Chess: corrupting the intellect of humanity at least since 600 AD. Did I mention that language is pretty arbitrary, too?
Luck happens, you steely bitch. Sometimes people get dicked and need a hand up. Charity can be seen as an investment in the human capacity to turn one's life around, and institutionalized charity (such as welfare) is nothing if not insurance against one big screw-up ruining one's life. Sure, some people abuse the system, and they suck. But that comes with the territory. Besides, it would just be irrational to object to welfare-as-insurance, because that one big screw-up could happen to anyone, and "anyone" includes "you" (it's only short-sighted teenage invincibility that disagrees).
Objectivism is at best a conspiracy of doves, and at worst guilty of contradiction. This is what opposes it to human nature. It's like this: perfect people need no governance, but imperfect people can neither govern perfectly, nor perfectly be governed. Look, OK, if everyone lived out Objectivist values, then people would always be honest, kind, intelligent, and hard-working. But that's what every utopia looks like! And really, one guy can pretty much ruin the whole thing, as long as he's clever enough, and at some point there will be that one guy for whom the temptation is just too great.

But you know what's worse? Intelligent, rational people are not all Objectivists, but they should be, if it is indeed "true" or whatever:
  • Assumption: Intelligent, rational people have read and understood Rand's work.
  • Assumption: Objectivism is true.
  • If Objectivism is true, then A) those who read it should be able to perceive its truth, B) living as an Objectivist is the rational thing for them to do, and C) one should act rationally.
  • Therefore, if Objectivism is true, then intelligent, rational people should agree with it upon understanding it, and then do the rational thing and live as Objectivists. (Ethics from pure reason? How deliciously Kantian!)
But this isn't what we see, is it? So let's check our premises: either Objectivism is not true, or not all the intelligent, rational people who've read it are able to understand it (so for her to say that Objectivism is true, she at least implicitly says that being unconvinced is stupid). But, to continue the very first quote I mentioned above:
The moral man's concept of the good, we hold, is his fundamental standard of practicality. Such a man experiences no conflict between what he thinks he ought to pursue (self-preservation) and what he wants to pursue. He defines all of his goals, fundamental and derivative alike, by reference to reality. As a result, he pursues only objects that are attainable by man, consistent with one another, and possible to him; he uses his mind to discover the means (including the principles) necessary to reach these objects; and he applies his knowledge in action, refusing to evade what he knows, to drift purposelessly, or to sacrifice his interests. This, in Ayn Rand's view, is the description of human nobility. What other policies could practicality require?
I couldn't agree more. That's why I'm a Humanist.

1. OK, I can't resist. I quote Peikoff's Objectivism, "The Arbitrary as Neither True Nor False":
An arbitrary claim is one for which there is no evidence, either perceptual or conceptual. It is a brazen assertion, based neither on direct observation nor on any attempted logical inference therefrom. For example, a man tells you that the soul survives the death of the body; or that your fate will be determined by your birth on the cusp of Capricorn and Aquarius; or [blah, blah, blah]. If you ask him "Why?" he offers no argument. "I can't prove any of these statements," he admits - "but you can't disprove them, either."
In the first place, that last description more appropriately refers to unfalsifiable statements. And, uhh, I wrote "Take THAT, Hume!" in the margin (apparently I took notes the first time through, too), because I thought this somehow solved the problem of induction at some point (the actual refutation, later on in the book, is... significantly less inappropriate than this). Anyway, in my logic class (the one with the Protestant-turned-Catholic instructor and the Catholic-turned-Protestant student), we were discussing the liar's paradox. I responded that since the statement could neither be resolved as true nor as false, and since there was no outside evidence that could possibly decide the question, that it must therefore be arbitrary and thus unworthy of our consideration. Umm... that didn't work. Like, at all. But I did listen to what the professor had to say, and I learned from the experience, and he conceded a point when I retreated to, "Well, OK, how about we say that the liar's paradox is just nonsense, like speaking of a square triangle?" This was pretty much the "formal start" of my deconversion.


ashling said...

Hi D,

I found my way to your blog via Daylight Atheism and enjoyed your deconversion stories.

I was particularly interested in your Objectivism deconversion, as I remember being interested by some of the concepts behind Atlas Shrugged (which I read after taking a Myers Briggs personality test that said I had the same personality type as Ayn Rand - that seemed like more of a compliment at the time!).

I didn't drink the Objectivism kool-aid though, it was a little too extreme for my tastes - I have some slightly-to-the-right economic views but mostly left social views (if that even makes sense).

I also struggle with a love of holding tamed fire at my fingertips :)

D said...

Hi, and welcome to the party, ashling! I'm glad you enjoyed my deconversions, and I'm also glad you didn't drink the Kool-Aid. I'm also fiscally conservative but socially liberal, that's not really all that weird at all.