Friday, July 21, 2006

The Cult of Reason and Rand

Yesterday I mentioned Ayn Rand's connection to the oxymoronic phrase 'Kantian Nihilism'. Rand must be particularly memic today, because Brin quotes Stacey quoting Shermer on Randism (Objectivism):
Contrary Brin: An Interesting Guest Posting...

Blake Stacey: "One quick note before I forget: on the subject of Ayn Rand, you should check out (if you haven't already) Michael Shermer's essay 'The Unlikeliest Cult', which was published in **Skeptic** magazine and reprinted as a chapter of his book **Why People Believe Weird Things**. I was able to dredge a copy out of a Google hit parade:

Here's the money quote:

'The cultic flaw in Ayn Rand's philosophy of Objectivism is not in the use of reason, or in the emphasis on individuality, or in the belief that humans are self motivated, or in the conviction that capitalism is the ideal system. The fallacy in Objectivism is the belief that absolute knowledge and final Truths are attainable through reason, and therefore there can be absolute right and wrong knowledge, and absolute moral and immoral thought and action. For Objectivists, once a principle has been discovered through reason to be True, that is the end of the discussion.

If you disagree with the principle, then your reasoning is flawed. If your reasoning is flawed it can be corrected, but if it is not, you remain flawed and do not belong in the group. Excommunication is the final step for such unreformed heretics.'
I don't know if I'd have phrased it the way Shirmer did, though I agree in part. I don't like the implication that "Truth" cannot be obtained by reason. Yes, Goedel proved that any self-consistent non-trivial system of expression has true statements that cannot be proven, but the phrasing suggests another path to "Truth". We don't know of any.

I would say that Rand's flaw is more that values can be intellectually derived. Most modern geeks try that in their youth and give up [1], but Rand persisted [2]. Human values are a byproduct of natural selection, early environment, and memetic flux. They are emergent, not deduced -- though there is a trend over time and wealth towards values of compassion and tolerance. Rand started with 'freedom' and tried to deduce all else, other's start with 'duty' (she hated that). Both are arbitrary starting points. Most of us ride both horses. Her problem wasn't that she chose a horse to ride, it's that she thought her choice was rational. It wasn't and it can't be.

That's why she's the queen of the Cult of Reason.

PS. Ever notice Rand's stories don't have disabled persons or children in them?

[1] I tried to derive a system that wasn't human centric. Not a pretty result.
[2] Oddly enough, I just remembered I once won some sort of prize for an essay on the emergent nature of human ethics. Forgot about that. It was a long time ago ...

Update 7/23/06: Crooked Timber gives us some more background on why Kant was accused of Nihilism. This was the money line for me:
[Andrew Bowie] ... Kant, who himself avowedly believed in God, was regarded as a threat in his own time because he rejected the idea that philosophy can have access to the (theologically) inbuilt structure of reality. However this aspect of Kant’s thought is understood, it evidently puts into question the idea that the ultimate truth of the world is accessible and therefore constitutes the knowable goal of philosophy or natural science.
So now we understand why the Queen of the Cult of Reason (Rand) would coin the phrase 'Kantian Nihilism'. Kant was an (old) threat to the magical belief of Rand and others that Truth (moral virtue) could be deduced by Reason from First Causes. Doesn't work guys. We've been at it for thousands of years. Ethics is a post-hoc justification for the things humans want to do, and the wants (like everything else about humans) are the result of natural selection, happenstance, and social environment ...

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