Life Is Precious

People who care about their life try to better themselves.
By me, partially inspired by Ayn Rand in We The Living.

It sounds pretty obvious. Here's why it's important:

People often, for a wide variety of reasons, do not give learning their best effort. I knew these people do not care about truth-seeking and creating knowledge as much as Popper or I do. But I hadn't made the connection before that what they don't care about, at root, is their own life, in the way Rand cares about life. Life is not precious to them; they aren't dead set on making the most of it.

When someone is careless and wasteful during their own free time, they are disrespecting their own life. When people decide some of their problems are too hard and permanently give up on solving them, and try to be content settling for less, what they are really giving up on is life.

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We The Living

We The Living (WTL) by Ayn Rand is a very good book. One always hears about Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead. I think those are better, but only by a small margin rather than a large one. WTL deserves attention. (By the way, Anthem is nice too, and only takes about 90 minutes to read.) The rest of this post contains spoilers.

In the introduction it says that Kira is better than Leo or Andrei, and asks which of Andrei or Leo is better. It says Ayn Rand prefers Leo, and that she thinks Leo would be like Francisco D'Anconia if he lived in the USA instead of in Russia.

I disagree. I prefer Andrei. Let's start with Leo: Leo has already largely given up when the book starts, and he gets worse as the book continues. I don't see that Leo did anything impressive in the entire book. I'd note that Kira is attracted to him due to his appearance. Admittedly, in Rand's worlds appearance is a direct indicator of character including heroism, so perhaps when she described his appearance she intended to be telling the reader that he was just like Francisco. But I prefer to judge people by their thoughts and actions, and while Leo is a decent guy sometimes, he never does anything heroic. The closest he comes is buying passage on the boat to try to escape from Russia.

Andrei improves as the book progresses. He learns things. I would say he is the only character in the book who learns much of anything good (some characters learn how to talk like a loyal communist, or other mundane skills). Kira was evidently born heroic. As good as she is, she already had all her merit when the book starts; I think Rand sees having to change as a bit of a weakness, rather than seeing learning as a strength.

My favorite part of WTL is when Kira confesses to Andrei that she slept with him to get money for Leo's medical treatment and that she didn't love him. In particular I like Andrei's reaction. He does not get angry. He does not whine about how his lover betrayed him, and his heart is broken, and all the stuff nearly everyone would say. That alone is wonderful. But Andrei does considerably better than that. He reacts by stopping to think. He doesn't say anything except "I didn't know" until he's thought about it. He's calm and collected even as Kira continues her mean rant. That's great too. But then the really amazing thing is that within minutes of finding all this out, and with Kira fully unapologetic, he has not only forgiven her, but praised her for doing it, said he would have done the same thing, and said it vastly raised his opinion of her. When he found out she was living and sleeping with Leo, what bothered him was not the betrayal but that the best explanation he could think of involved her being a bad person.

Sidenote: Why would that indicate to Andrei that Kira is a bad person? Andrei considers Leo a bad person, so why would Kira want to be involved with him? And also, why would Kira want Andrei's money? Why would she want to take advantage of him? Is she just a whore and a sort of thief? That is incompatible with being heroic.

So when Andrei finds out the truth, that Kira had good reasons, he realizes she was in fact a better person than he'd ever known. She did something very hard, but also important. She epitomizes the heroic values he liked about her even more for doing it. And Andrei recognizes all this right away and is glad about it. That is in many ways even harder than what Kira did. Think about it. A lot of people could lead a double life if they were motivated enough. Nothing about it is really too complicated. But what Andrei did, staying calm and reacting to emotional news in a rational way, most people couldn't even begin to do that. They have no idea how to do it, or even how to start learning to do it.

To sum up: Andrei has this very exceptional moment, and he is the character who learns and improves over the course of the book. That's why I prefer him to Leo. By contrast, Leo lets his life get worse and worse until he gives up and no longer wants to try or think.

The worst thing about Andrei was his suicide. He could have remained friends with Kira, and looked for ways to turn his life around, such as going abroad (even without Kira), or helping anti-communist resistance. Note that if he'd been alive longer, he would have been around when Leo left and Kira decided to escape, and she would have accepted his offer to escape together at that point.

Leo has a lot of serious flaws. He despairs, he doesn't want to think, he wastes money, he turns to crime knowing he's putting his life at serious risk, he doesn't value his life, he befriends bad people, and he mistreats Kira. Leo has a different reaction than Andrei when he finds out about Kira's double life. Andrei reacts heroically. Leo reacts despicably. Leo thinks worse of Kira, and then says he's glad for her to be worse. The worse a person Kira is, the better, is Leo's view. He doesn't want there to be any good in the world, so when he turns his back on good he's less guilty. That's just terrible.

On to Kira. She fails to improve things, but she never gives up, so it's alright. Actually Kira does improve her life in one major way. She forms a relationship with Andrei, and then helps him improve. The more he improves, the better a friend she has in her life. Unfortunately she doesn't recognize this. By the way, I think she should accepted Andrei's offer to go abroad. It would have improved her life! She only stayed for Leo. Self-sacrifice is bad. I know she wanted Leo in her life for her own sake, but he wasn't making her life wonderful, and she should have noticed that and taken the superior opportunity. Note that it would have quite possibly saved both her own life and Andrei's life.

One of the great parts about Kira is the stuff she doesn't notice. Near the beginning of the book her family complains about their poor clothes and poor food. Kira comments that she hadn't noticed. Kira does not think of hardships just like when Roark comments that he doesn't think about Toohey. Kira instead focusses on pursuing her goals and living her life, which is great.

I like Kira's escape attempt because it was her pursuing her values. I like her interest in engineering. I like how she insists on living life her own way. For example, she enrolls in engineering classes against her family's wishes, and she goes to live with Leo even though her family will disown her for it (they forgive her when they are hungry and she has more money than them). By the way, I also like Vasili Ivanovitch, the relative who sells all his possessions but refuses to get a Soviet job.

Kira demonstrates her strength and perseverance by her escape attempt, by maintaining her double life, by never giving up, and by making a great effort to get and keep a job, to wait in all the lines, and so on. Those are the things she has to do to continue her life, so she does them, and she doesn't complain incessantly or turn her mind off or let it destroy her spirit, she just does it and keeps living like a full person, almost like a free person. She also demonstrates it strikingly when Leo leaves. She chooses not to tell him why she slept with Andrei, or where the money for his medicine really came from. A lot of people would be angry with Leo and tell him out of spite. A lot of people would tell him and say it was the truth as an excuse. A lot of people would tell him without even thinking about it first. But Kira is better than that. She judges that Leo is lost to her, so there is no point in telling him. She further judges that Leo does not want to know. Not telling people things they don't want to be told is a good policy. It's respectful of their life; it's living by consent.

Kira stands up to the communists at times. Not in a sacrificial or suicidal way like Sasha (Irina's boyfriend; they are sent to separate camps in Siberia), but only by way of expressing her values and living in the way she wants to. That is nice. Sasha gives up his life for a cause. Kira values her life more than he does. She doesn't want to be a martyr. In one scene Kira considers sacrificing herself to do a good deed. She's in a communist march/parade, and some foreigners are visiting to see Soviet propaganda, and she could run up to them and tell them the truth about Russia. But she thinks of her life with Leo, and doesn't want to give that up, and she puts that ahead of communicating this important truth which has the potential to save every oppressed Russian. Good for her.

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The Comprachicos

These are my comments on The Comprachicos, an essay by Ayn Rand found in http://www.amazon.com/New-Left-Anti-Industrial-Revolution/dp/0452011256

This will make a lot more sense if you read it first. It is not a summary, and it leaves out a lot of good ieas from the essay.

I agree with Rand's pro-children attitude, as opposed to the usual more hateful one. Rand says young children should start learning abstract ideas, and I agree with her.

I agree with her criticisms of "the pack" and conformity and collectivism, and her view that the "problem children" often have the best chance to get through school with their reason in tact.

I agree with many of her specific examples about how some methods of teaching are nonsense, or contradict the educational philosophy the teachers claim to follow. I disagree with her apparent assumption that most of the effects and meaning of teaching methods can be discerned by looking at them and reasoning about them. I think that the bulk of what's done to kids is more subtle than that. And I think kids are resilient and such blatant methods, alone, are not enough to have the affects schools do have.

Rand only mentions parents briefly. She says mistakes of this size aren't made innocently. I don't agree with that logic. I do agree with her assessment that many parents want to get their kids out of their hair, and don't think carefully about what sort of place they are sending their kids, and also don't have thoughtful, rational discussions with their kids.

Rand takes a fairly nature oriented position on some aspects of the nature/nurture debate. She does talk a lot about how education matters, but she also seems to think being more or less intelligent is innate

Rand sometimes appeals to "the evidence" or "scientific research" but fails to cite it or explain what research was done and how it is capable of reaching the conclusion it reaches. This is scientism, but it's mild and she provides arguments for all her conclusions.

Rand overestimates how much teachers hurt children *intentionally*. She thinks they somewhat plan for it. Alright, some do, but they don't actually know how to plan for things and then make them happen, so their planning hardly matters. Rand makes a comment that if they cared about the children they'd notice certain policies are harming children and stop or revise them, and concludes they don't care about children's well being. I disagree with that. I don't think they know how to evaluate what works and what doesn't. Doing that takes skill which they don't have. They have no idea if they are doing harm or not. I don't want to absolve them of all guilt, or even any guilt -- they do see crying children, and they definitely know that many children dislike much of what they do -- but let's not assume they know, plan, or intend more than they do. They are clueless and helpless, and have a mix of callous disregard; superficial, tender love and caring; some meanness; and for many teachers, especially the younger ones, only occasional hatred of the children. Many teachers have given up and don't think about what they are doing.

Rand says schools and culture used to be better and more rational, and the comprachicos only gained control quite recently, and the current educators had a better education themselves. I disagree. Rand doesn't go into detail here. It's true that schools have changed in some ways, and their explicit rhetoric has changed, but I see no reason to think their basic effect has changed. Perhaps Rand is going too much on the schools' explicit messages. If anything, school has gotten better. People are smarter now, and more capable; we can tell because they deal with more complex lives, have more possessions which are more complicated (like computers), there are more knowledge workers, and GDP per capita is much higher. And schools have had reforms, e.g. with corporal punishment. And we now have more and better sources of information (TV, internet, more books, etc).

Rand does a good job of emphasizing how much of a child's learning is inexplicit, and how much of what is taught is inexplicit (for example, she discusses the emotional vibe of the pack). And I agree with her comments on whim.

I agree with Rand's mentions of the *boredom* of school.

I agree with Rand that the primary way to do well in the pack is to learn to manipulate human beings, and this is disgusting, and not something an individualist would want to do. I agree that "socializing" and "fitting in" are wicked.

I liked Rand's comment that non-conformist children have *no one* on their side. Not even themselves, because they don't have much understanding of the nature of their battle. However, she's slightly mistaken: they have Rand on their side! She does indeed sympathize with them. Good for her. And I do too.

I don't agree with Rand's assumption about the developmental status of children being very strongly tied to age. She even mentions that is false at one point by saying children of the same age and intelligence can be at significantly different levels of development if one is educated well and the other isn't. Yet she still refers to what three year olds need, what five year olds need, and so on. (And it's not even clear if these age numbers refer to normal children or properly educated children.)

I generally agree with Rand's comments about how people automate large parts of their thinking. For example, Rand says you have to learn to focus your eyes, or to coordinate your muscles to walk. And this isn't obvious or trivial. Rand says we learn a huge amount in our first two years, and if any adult could learn as much, as quickly, or as well he'd be a genius. But adults have automated the process so much it seems easy.

I agree with Rand that fakers -- for example people who pretend to agree with the pack when they don't -- often become fakers by habit, and then live that way without thinking, and it becomes a major part of them, and the "real" self gets lost and forgotten.

Perhaps my favorite part is on page 197:
At the age of three, when his mind is almost as plastic as his bones, when his need and desire to know are more intense than they will ever be again, a child is delivered -- by a Progressive nursery school -- into the midst of a pack of children as helplessly ignorant as himself. He is not merely left without cognitive guidance -- he is actively discouraged and prevented from pursuing cognitive tasks. He wants to learn; he is told to play. Why? No answer is given. He is made to understand -- by the emotional vibrations permeating the atmosphere of the place, by every crude or subtle means available to the adults whom he cannot understand -- that the most important thing in this peculiar world is not to know, but to get along with the pack. Why? No answer is given.

He does not know what to do; he is told to do anything he feels like. He picks up a toy; it is snatched away from him by another child; he is told that he must learn to share. Why? No answer is given. He sits alone in a corner; he is told that he must join the others. Why? No answer is given. He approaches a group, reaches for their toys and is punched in the nose. He cries, in angry bewilderment; the teacher throws her arms around him and gushes that she loves him.
I like the "Why? No answer is given." theme.

I think Rand's comment that loneliness is only for people who have something of value to share, but can't find any equals to share it with, is insightful. She says the emotion that drives conformists to "belong" is fear. I'm not so sure about that. I think fear plays a role, but there are many other issues, such as not knowing what else to do, and thinking non-conformity is morally wrong.

Rand hates: Kant, John Dewey, Marcuse, Hegel, Logical Positivism, and Language Analysis.

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Rand on Nurture

men are born tabula rasa, both cognitively and morally
Ayn Rand, _The Virtue of Selfishness_, p54

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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 | Permalink | Comments (0)

Critical Review of Ayn Rand Contra Human Nature

I read the book Ayn Rand Contra Human Nature (ARCHN) by Greg Nyquist (GN). ARCHN is also a blog.

Previously I commented on the book's introduction. You can read that here.

Overall, it is a bad book. Some parts are mixed. Some are even pretty decent. But the book has to be evaluated negatively. It has too much hostility, too many insults. It doesn't just have innocent errors. It has errors due to malice and evasion. It is not objective.

GN and his ARCHN blog friends pretend to be fairly objective, and interested in discussion. They claim they respect Rand and consider her worth studying and criticizing. They say they criticize because she's good enough to pay attention to.

They are lying. They attack Rand because they find her ideas offensive. They don't like her or Objectivism.

Let me relate briefly my experience talking with them on their blog. They say they are interested in discussing with Objectivists. But when you advocate an Objectivist position they act surprised, confused and offended. They start saying that "of course" Objectivism is false, and you can't actually or reasonably believe what you're saying. What they want is to talk to non-Objectivists pretending to be Objectivists (like Kelleyites). Those false friends of Objectivism would agree with them that Objectivism is wrong and validate them.

Rather than being interested in learning what Objectivist positions actually are (e.g. that David Kelley is not an Objectivist), their interest is in denying that the real Objectivism exists at all.

I am making strong claims. I know it. I'm serious; I mean it. Details follow.

ARCHN's Reasoning

ARCHN's reasoning for its non-insult criticisms of Objectivism is repetitive. There are several repeated approaches:

  • Objectivism contradicts ARCHN's premises
  • "Evidence" or "facts" contradict Objectivism
  • Specious scientific authority contradicts Objectivism on non-scientific issues (scientism)
  • Objectivism fails to provide "evidence" or "facts" for its positions (often historical evidence)
  • ARCHN quotes a supposed authority who contradicts Objectivism (this is usually ARCHN's idea of providing evidence for its side)
  • ARCHN asserts that only Objectivists are dumb enough to think something, no one else
  • ARCHN asserts that an Objectivist position is obviously false
  • GN does not understand some Objectivist position and treats the gap in his knowledge as a flaw in Objectivism
  • ARCHN is opposed to philosophy itself, which causes frequent disagreements

ARCHN rarely even attempts to point out internal contradictions within Objectivism or make any arguments that would persuade any Objectivist. Rather, ARCHN starts with premises that Objectivism has refuted and then uses them to reach the conclusion that Objectivism is mistaken.

ARCHN makes a big deal out of "evidence" which usually really means "authority". ARCHN is better at appealing to authority than providing arguments. Sometimes it does try to make arguments, but not often enough. Instead it's always demanding "evidence" rather than thinking through arguments. GN seems unaware of the Popperian (and Objectivist too) point that all evidence has to be interpreted by thought and our philosophy matters to how we do that (there's no escaping philosophy and ideas and thinking).

One thing ARCHN doesn't do is improve on any Objectivist idea. It doesn't even try to. An honest critic would sometimes find what he regarded as a small problem and try to fix it. Sometimes he would come up with some solution he considered successful. Then he could explain the issue and how he thinks it can be resolved without any harm to Objectivism. But GN never does that.

Why doesn't ARCHN do better? Maybe because it's dishonest and hostile. We'll take a look at that first and then return to some of the other issues.

Hostility

ARCHN has way too much hostility and insults. The only positive thing I can say about it is that at least GN doesn't try too hard to hide that he's a rotten bastard. Here is the last paragraph of the book, condensed:

... I would give Objectivism very low marks ... based on years of hard work and study. Those who believe I am being unfair to Rand can go out and do the hard work for themselves. Let them read the philosophers Rand so cavalierly denounces ... familiarize themselves with the best that has been said and thought in the disciplines of political science, sociology, and psychology. If they are intelligent enough to profit from their labors, they will see that, whatever errors I might have committed in regards to this detail or that, in the main, I am justified in my low assessment of Rand’s philosophical achievement. No one who is well educated in these matters and is endowed with the ability to think critically can ever regard Objectivism as anything other than a mistake.

This is closed minded and infallibilist. It's an appeal to authority, the authority of being educated. No one who is educated could disagree with GN or like Objectivism.

[Atlas Shrugged] is, in fact, neither great nor important. It is, to be entirely frank, a rather ridiculous and overblown philosophical fantasy populated by stock figures whose resemblance to anything human is merely coincidental. The book ... essentially juvenile—an exercise in unintelligent, excessively romanticized hero-worship. Such, in any case, would likely be the estimate of any great mind.

No, GN does not value Objectivism. No he does not really think it's good enough to be worth studying and paying attention to. He just hates it and wants to harm it.

Note, again, the appeal to authority and attempt at intimidation. Supposedly any "great mind" would likely agree with GN. Or put another way, if you don't agree with GN, he's saying you must not be a great mind.

It would have been best for Rand if she had simply owned up to the fact that her ideal man was a mere phantom of her overly romantic sensibility and to seek to base her philosophy on something for less impalpable. But she was too proud, too self-willed, too implacable to do any such thing. She stuck to her guns to the bitter end, insisting with increasing vehemence that only she was right and that all the great geniuses of intellectual history who had arrived at very different conclusions regarding the nature of man were either complete ignoramuses or vicious, evil man-haters. Rand’s idolatry of her “ideal” man set her against nearly every important thinker and scholar, past and present, of Western Civilization.

This is not a critic who hopes to be helpful with his criticism. It is attack and denunciation. And appeal to authority. Rand contradicted many "geniuses", therefore she must be wrong. If that's what you think, you do not respect Rand or Objectivism.

ARCHN also has simple insults.

It should be clear to anyone whose mind is not clouded by a steamy fog of erotic sentiment that Rand’s description of human sexuality contains about as much scientific value as the screeching of a cat in heat.
It is precisely this ethical taint in the Objectivist politics that prevents Rand and her followers from being able to distinguish between political facts and their own wishful thinking.
Pareto’s truculent realism provides a refreshing contrast to the usual political twaddle presented by soft-headed idealists like Rand and her followers.
It is the practical inexperience of intellectuals like Rand and her followers which, when combined with their intransigent hubris, encourages them to believe that their abstruse chatter can exercise a tangible effect on the course of history. A man of experience would never accept such nonsense.
... Rand and her followers have rendered themselves utterly useless to the cause of freedom.
Rand and her followers are egregious abusers of this fallacious mode of describing historical facts.
If this seems like a cheap verbal trick, well, that is precisely what it is.
The trouble is that [Objectivism's] notion of contextual certainty is entirely worthless.
As usual with rationalizations of this sort, the arguments advanced to defend it were inept and confused.
I do believe [Chris Sciabarra's] suggestion that Hegel and Rand shared the same basic method of thought comes pretty close to hitting the nail on the head.
At bottom, [Objectivism's axioms] are merely pretentious reformulations of several irrelevant truisms.
[Ayn Rand] suffered from the delusion that political problems could be solved by manipulating conceptual constructions.
In [Ayn Rand's] eagerness to prescribe how man ought to be, she blinds herself to what he really is.

OK you get the idea.

Study

It takes a lot of study to understand Objectivism very well. GN did not do an adequate job.

World of Warcraft takes the typical person over 10,000 hours to get good at. When people seem to get good faster, it's because they already had pre-existing relevant skill (e.g. from playing other games). Some people never get good at it.

Chess is a harder game than World of Warcraft. It takes more work to get good, and many more people never get good at it, even after decades.

Objectivism is a lot harder than chess. GN never acknowledges or discusses this. He never considers that maybe sometimes the problem is he didn't study Objectivism well enough. He doesn't explain what he did and didn't do to study Objectivism. He doesn't outline all the great lengths and efforts he went to to learn Objectivism. Did he try very hard at all? Did he try using rational methods? We don't know. (But we can perhaps guess in the negative, judging by the book's content.)

Evidence and History

At the beginning of the nineteenth century, religious belief actually intensified, especially in England and America.

This is an interpretation of history presented as a fact. Usually there would be some authority being quoted and a cite to where the authority asserted it. In this case even that is missing. But the important thing is that ARCHN frequently interprets history according to its own philosophy and premises, then treats its conclusions as historical facts and evidence.

History consists of one long and uninterrupted testimony to this fact. Everywhere in history we find individuals governed either by sentiments (e.g. sentiments of religion, nationalism, humanitarianism, etc.) or by desires (e.g., economic interests, political ambition, vanity, sex drives, etc.).

This is assertion that historical facts prove ARCHN right. It does not acknowledge that he has used his philosophical ideas to interpret history. These are interpretations of history, not plain facts.

No investor will give money to some fledgling entrepreneur just starting out.

Venture capitalists do exactly that today. GN's pessimistic view of life was refuted by practical facts before his book was published (2001). It's easier for new entrepreneurs without reputations to raise money today than in 2001, but it was already possible and happened before 2001.

Rather than observe the world and learn from it, as GN claims to do, what he actually does is take his philosophical theories and assert they are historical facts. This is basically what he accuses Rand of doing. What he doesn't understand is there are no neutral facts without interpretation. Instead we need objectivity and philosophy to help us interpret correctly. If we pretend no interpretation, philosophy or objectivity is needed, the result will be interpreting badly using unacknowledged and ill-considered ideas.

Rome likewise flourished on the basis of force for many centuries, and only collapsed when it stopped being good at using force and could no longer defend itself.

This is a good example of how ARCHN approaches historical evidence. First, it doesn't acknowledge it's doing any interpreting or thinking here. It pretends this is just an indisputable historical fact. Second, this "fact" is dead wrong. In The God of the Machine, Isabel Paterson writes:

For two thousand years the example of Rome has been cited erroneously, to the confusion of nations, as a military empire. It was not. There has never been a military empire, nor ever can be. It is impossible, in the nature of things. When Augustus became emperor, his first move toward consolidating the Roman dominion was to reduce the size of the army. Subsequently, when Rome included within its boundaries most of Europe, the near East, and North Africa, the task was performed with less than four hundred thousand soldiers, of whom half were auxiliaries, that is, regiments supplied by subject nations and officered by Romans. Comparison with the numbers under arms in Europe during recent world wars is proof enough that the Roman armies would have been pitifully inadequate to hold such a wide territory for six months by pure force. In its strictly military capacity the army defended the borders. Its internal duty was mainly that of quashing factional quarrels, police work. There were few genuine popular uprisings. The ordinary man wished to live under Roman law. The victorious Legions were a result and not a cause.
The Roman Wall in Britain marked high tide. When the Legions were withdrawn from the Wall, they had not been defeated by the barbarians; they were pulled back by the ebb of energy, the impossibility of maintaining supplies and reinforcements. The barbarians were not a rising force; they floated in on the ebb. They had no objective, and no ability to take over or set up any system; they came in as wild animals will graze across once-cultivated fields when the cultivator cannot muster sufficient strength to keep his fences in repair. The tax-eaters had absorbed the energy. A map of the Roman empire in the fourth and fifth centuries traced with the routes of the barbarian migrations is a net- work of wandering lines showing where the East Goths and the West Goths, the Huns and the Vandals, simply followed the main trade routes. There was nothing to stop them. The producers were already beaten by the bureaucracy.

Did GN neglect to read The God of the Machine? (It was written by a friend of Ayn Rand's, anyone studying Objectivism seriously should be aware of it.) Regardless, he's unaware of the Objectivist view on this matter and never provides an argument against it. Instead he treats his ideas about history as facts with authority.

Regardless of whether Paterson is correct (I think she is, but I won't go into details here), GN doesn't even address it. Rather than study why an Objectivist might hold the Objectivist position, GN tries to attack what he hasn't understood.

Appeal to Authority

Are emotions entirely the product of thinking? Although many psychologists in recent decades have emphasized the role of thinking and ideas in the generation of emotions, few if any psychologists would accept Rand’s theory that all emotions are generated by man’s cognitive ideas. Anyone with extensive therapeutical experience understands that emotions are far more complicated than Rand makes them out to be. Even psychologists who believe that ideas play a crucial role in the development of emotions would never accept Rand’s extreme version of the theory. Cognitive therapist Albert Ellis is a case in point. ...

Rather than say why ARCHN's position is right, or Objectivism's position is wrong, ARCHN says that other people agree with it. This is an appeal to authority. There are a lot of them in ARCHN and I point out some others in other sections.

Philosophy

ARCHN is openly anti-philosophical (including anti-Popperian). It boldly states:

Any assertion about the factual world that is at all debatable requires supporting evidence. In the absence of such evidence, there is no reason why the assertion should be deemed acceptable.

Philosophical explanation, GN believes, is not valuable and shouldn't persuade anyone. No wonder he doesn't like Ayn Rand. Ayn Rand was a philosopher and GN objects to philosophy itself. (This is a theme and is his reasoning for rejecting many aspects of Objectivism).

Rand wanted to convince herself that she could be certain, but since there is a great deal of evidence suggesting that certainty is not humanly feasible, she invented the notion of “contextual” certainty.

Note the method. Rather than give an argument for why certainty is impossible – let alone refute Rand's arguments – GN simply asserts that "evidence" suggests he's right.

I do not believe it would in fact be possible to construct a social order based on Rand’s political ideals. They may very well be the finest political ideals ever promulgated in the history of mankind, but they remain unrealistic and impracticable for all that.

In this quote, GN is attacking ideas as such. Even if Objectivism's political ideas are the best political philosophy ever invented, he still wouldn't be impressed.

it is entirely gratuitous to assume that you can persuade more than a handful of people to accept a theory on logical grounds alone. Human beings are motivated, not by logic, but by desire and sentiment. If a given theory of rights conflicts with an individual’s desires and sentiments, no amount of logical argumentation will ever persuade him to accept the theory in question.

This is a typical example of ARCHN arguing. ARCHN has some premises about how ideas and philosophy are impotent. It then repeatedly points out that these contradict Objectivism. So what?

But what makes Rand think that human beings can in fact be “rational” about their sexuality? If they have not been rational in the past, on what grounds can we assume that they will be rational in the future?

This is a rejection of philosophy and abstract or conceptual thinking. It assumes that what hasn't happened in the past is impossible. It does not explain why good ideas cannot spread and change the world; it just pretends Objectivists never thought about it.

Omissions

ARCHN pretends to cover Objectivism. Actually it focusses on Rand's non-fiction (and Peikoff and Binswanger get a lot of attention – too much for the book title to say "Ayn Rand" rather than "Objectivism").

The Fountainhead is not in the bibliography, even though it's Ayn Rand's second most important book. We The Living and Anthem are also missing. Atlas Shrugged never gets adequate attention.

Largely ignoring Rand's fiction is ironic given that ARCHN also accuses Rand of philosophical verbalism. If you wanted a different style than her non-fiction, she provided it!

Second handers isn't a topic ARCHN covers. It's a major contribution of Objectivism that many Objectivists value. ARCHN ignores it.

The objectivist view on objectivity is not covered.

GN doesn't understand Ayn Rand's sense of life and largely ignores the topic. He only talks about it in relation to aesthetics. But I don't just mean the term "sense of life". ARCHN largely ignores the Objectivist morality and approach to life.

Rather than understand Objectivism as a whole and discuss it, GN evades significant parts of Objectivism. Look at this:

Central to Rand’s defense of laissez-faire capitalism is her insistence that capitalism is the only “moral” system. Since I have already made clear that I will concede to Rand all her moral claims, I will not question Rand’s ethical defense of laissez-faire. Nor will I question the purely economic claims made on behalf of this system.

By refusing to discuss morality, GN is hiding both his ignorance of Objectivism's morality and the evil of his own moral views.

What ARCHN mostly does is discuss individual philosophical topics from Rand's non-fiction which GN has not integrated together.

Mistakes

ARCHN makes frequent mistakes. There are both misunderstandings of Objectivist positions as well as incorrect arguments. Let's look at a couple examples (more examples can be found in other sections).

The characteristic which defines the state of motherhood is that of having given birth. There are no measurements involved in this characteristic. Either a woman has given birth or she hasn’t.

This is strange. GN doesn't understand what measurement is. Giving birth is empirically measurable. You can count (measure) things like how many children come out of a woman. (Also GN is wrong that giving birth is the criterion of motherhood. Stillbirths don't make you a mother.)

ARCHN also claims colors and materials (like wood vs stone) cannot be measured.

The disciplines of economics, politics, sociology, and psychology are all based on the assumption that some forms of human behavior are more likely than others. Economics, for instance, assumes that there exists an innate predisposition in human beings to buy cheap and sell dear. It is from this predisposition that most of the laws of free market economics are founded, including the law of supply and demand. Imagine trying to run a business without being able to rely on the validity of the basic principles of economics!

Economics makes no such assumption. For example, it could be a cultural predisposition rather than an innate one. Economics has nothing to say about that. (The possibility of cultural tendencies never seems to occur to GN who attributes everything to immutable genetic human nature.)

Partial Agreement

There were some parts where I agreed with some point ARCHN made. Examples include induction, contextual certainty and measurement omission. To be clear, I did not agree with everything ARCHN said about these topics, just the main point.

However, in these cases and all others, I already knew it before I read ARCHN. I thought of the issues myself while studying Objectivism. ARCHN never provided any valuable criticism of Objectivism that I didn't already know.

To go over these topics briefly, with regard to induction I think Karl Popper is correct. For contextual certainty, it isn't really certainty since it's fallible. With regard to measurement omission, the inductive premises are mistaken and it's specific details that get omitted, not necessarily measurements (nor quantifiable).

Reason

For Objectivists, the term reason is a sort of mystical entity whose purpose is to assure them that they are right. As Nathaniel Branden, formerly Rand’s closest associate, once admitted: “Reason was a word we used a great deal. It was a code word, or shorthand, that stood for ... the entire Objectivist philosophy.”

Quoting an opponent of Objectivism attacking Objectivism isn't much of an argument.

Just because GN and Branden don't understand what reason is does not mean Objectivism has no answer.

The way I understand it (and I'm not claiming this is official Objectivism), people already knew what reason was before Objectivism. Objectivism did not invent the concept. What you should do is take the pre-existing understanding of reason and then modify it when Objectivism adds something, clarifies something, changes something, etc... In that way you will arrive at a better, more Objectivist understanding of reason. Objectivism didn't have to give reason a new meaning from scratch.

Further, I think I have an even better answer, which is more Popperian than Objectivist, but which I think is compatible with Objectivism. The point is you can take your best understanding of what reason is and read Rand and improve it a bit and everything works fine. There's no big problem here. And you can even innovate on the topic, come up with a new refined understanding of reason, read Rand, and it still works fine. (Though if your new ideas about reason are bad, then it won't work anymore.)

Here's my approach: Reason has to do with error correction. Rational processes (or approaches, or methods, etc) are ones which are capable of correcting errors (the better at it, the more rational). Irrational processes prevent or disallow error correction. Errors are inevitable, so being able to correct them is really important.

Like me, Atlas Shrugged also talks about fallibility and the importance of the means to correct errors:

"Do not say that you're afraid to trust your mind because you know so little. Are you safer in surrendering to mystics and discarding the little that you know? Live and act within the limit of your knowledge and keep expanding it to the limit of your life. Redeem your mind from the hockshops of authority. Accept the fact that you are not omniscient, but playing a zombie will not give you omniscience—that your mind is fallible, but becoming mindless will not make you infallible—that an error made on your own is safer than ten truths accepted on faith, because the first leaves you the means to correct it, but the second destroys your capacity to distinguish truth from error. In place of your dream of an omniscient automaton, accept the fact that any knowledge man acquires is acquired by his own will and effort, and that that is his distinction in the universe, that is his nature, his morality, his glory.

Evil

While ideas, philosophy and morality are impotent, according to ARCHN, immorality is powerful:

Power and morality do not mix well. Those who wish to dominate their fellow human beings cannot afford to have too many moral scruples, because if they do, they will simply find themselves under the thumb of someone less scrupulous than themselves.

So, OK, I get it: ARCHN's worldview is opposite to Objectivism. Objectivism thinks morality is practical. ARCHN thinks immorality is practical, effective and powerful. Objectivism argues its case on this matter extensively. ARCHN asserts a contrary position and appeals to the authority of its own interpretation of historical facts and their implications. But why would any of this change my mind? Where are the criticisms of Objectivism that could persuade someone who doesn't already dislike Objectivism?

A politician who is neither corrupt and dishonest nor bloody and cruel would be at a severe disadvantage against any rival who excelled in these vices.

This stuff just ignores what Objectivism has to say about the issue. Not only does it fail to understand or refute Objectivism's position, it's already been refuted by Objectivist argument before it was written.

It's not so much that GN disagrees that morality is practical, but more that the concept is so foreign to him he didn't realize what Rand was saying. He's not aware that Objectivism thinks immoral behavior has no advantages to offer, nor why.

Now let us suppose that Peter is adept at using force but not so adept at using his wits, while Paul is adept at using his wits but not so adept at using force. Given these parameters, it is impossible that the interests of these individuals should not in some respects conflict. It is in Peter’s interest to live in a society that rewards individuals adept at using force, while it is in Paul’s interest to live in a society that rewards individuals adept at using their wits. Peter would be better off living under a military oligarchy eager to make use of his talents, while Paul would be better off living under a system of democratic capitalism where he would be free to prosper by the use of his wits.

GN is not aware that Rand already addressed this in Atlas Shrugged:

"One of these centuries," said Danneskjold, turning to them for a moment, "the brutes, private or public, who believe that they can rule their betters by force, will learn the lesson of what happens when brute force encounters mind and force."

Skill with wits and skill with force are not independent. GN ignorantly assumes they are in his argument. He could have learned otherwise by studying Objectivism better.

Rather than refute the Objectivist position, GN has only revealed that he doesn't understand it.

There is no evidence to suggest that only men of lesser ability run to the government for help. Historically, almost all the major industrialists and businessmen, regardless of their entrepreneurial expertise, tried to get the government to help them in some way or another. It is simply good business to do so. The astute businessman uses every means possible to make an extra buck. He will try to profit both from his entrepreneurial genius and from his skill at manipulating government officials.

ARCHN takes pleasure in claiming that everyone is bad. One place this leads is, "If your conception of man’s greatness is unrealistic, no man will ever be able to live up to it." ARCHN thinks no one can be great and objects to Objectivism promoting heroism and greatness.

This quote also illustrates the theme of ARCHN considering evidence an authority and typically argues from authority. And it illustrates the theme of not understanding the Objectivist position on a topic and arguing about that topic anyway. GN does not address or refute the Objectivist view on why it is actually bad business to seek government favors; he seems unaware of it.

Popper

I agree with Karl Popper on this issue [induction]

GN claims to agree with Popper's epistemology. He has not understood Popper and actually disagrees with Popper. Consider: how well you would expect him to understand his philosophical opponents, if he doesn't even understand his claimed philosophical allies?

Knowledge concerning how to achieve practical ends comes, not from abstruse philosophical principles, but from day-to-day experience.

This position is incompatible with both Objectivism and Popper. What epistemology is it compatible with? Popper says we learn from conjectures and refutations, not experience.

Hardly anyone ever learns how to earn a living or take care of a household or raise a family from reading Plato or Kant. They learn how to do such things through imitation and practice.

This inductivist approach is incompatible with the claim that GN accepts Popper's rejection of induction. It's also incompatible with Objectivism. Why does GN believe this? He doesn't say. He said he was a Popperian but he's not. What is he?

Popper’s theory of knowledge is based on the idea that the only time we can be certain about a theory is when we have discovered evidence refuting it.

No, Popper's epistemology rejects certainty. GN is ignorant and incompetent not only about Objectivism but also about Popper. As Popper explains in LScD and elsewhere, refuting evidence is itself fallible. Further, Popper's theory of knowledge is not "based" on anything: it rejects foundations and bases.

Innate Ideas

ARCHN makes a big deal out of the innate ideas topic. It's chapter one. It is a major point of disagreement.

According to my theory of human nature, the individual’s conduct proceeds, not from some abstract principle that has been imposed, arbitrarily, on his psyche, but from his inner character. This is precisely where Rand’s wrongheaded theory of human nature gets some of her more scrupulously literal followers into trouble. Rand’s conviction that man creates his character from the basic premises of his mind encourages her followers to believe that what is important is not who they are but what they can become. However, any attempt to assume a type of character that is not in accordance with the individual’s real, congenital character can only lead to emotional repression, neurosis, and misery. If the individual wants to achieve his highest potential, he must, as Nietzsche once put it, become what he is. But in order to do this, he must first determine the true character of his inner nature and then discover the best way of realizing this true character in a world that demands compromise at every turn.

By denying the existence of this fixed, rooted, congenital inner nature, Objectivism discourages individuals from coming to any kind of understanding of their fundamental character. It is in this sense that Objectivism winds up opposing, unwittingly perhaps, the Socratic dictum, nosce te ipsum, know thyself, which forms the very kernel of philosophical wisdom.
philosophical beliefs rarely play a very large role in determining the practical behavior of the individual

ARCHN is saying: you are bad and you can't change. Accept it. Give up, compromise, sacrifice, give in, bend, break.

This dismal view of life is not a criticism of Objectivism. Ayn Rand didn't fail to take GN's position on this matter by mistake. She rejected his sort of thinking on purpose, and said why.

Also he's wrong about Socrates' position. Socrates actually agrees with me, Rand and Popper here. Popper (who GN claims to be familiar with) explains it in The Open Society and Its Enemies (vol 1, ch 7, part IV):

It is important to see that this Socratic intellectualism is decidedly equalitarian. Socrates believed that everyone can be taught; in the Meno, we see him teaching a young slave a version of the now so-called theorem of Pythagoras, in an attempt to prove that any uneducated slave has the capacity to grasp even abstract matters.

Back to ARCHN:

But if becoming a great man depends solely on choosing “honest and correct” convictions, then why aren’t there more great men? If all men can create their own characters, why do so few men choose to be great?

Because they don't know how, and people like GN trick them with bad ideas. Or maybe they are dishonest and evade. Or maybe they think immorality is practical, like GN thinks. There are many, many ways to be mistaken.

Anyway, what GN doesn't understand here is the difference between choosing what to do at each step and choosing where you end up. You don't get to just choose your conclusion directly.

1. Do innate predispositions exist? Rand rejected the existence not only of innate emotional predispositions, but of innate behavioral and cognitive propensities as well. “Man is born with an emotional mechanism, just as he is born with a cognitive mechanism,” she wrote; “but, at birth, both are ‘tabula rasa.’” (1964b, 30)

Does Rand present any evidence for this view? No, she does not. You can go through all of her writings without finding so much as a shred of scientifically validated evidence supporting her contention that innate predispositions do not exist. There is a very good reason for this: no such evidence exists. The scientific evidence for innate, genetic determination of human behavior is enormous. As scientist and naturalist Edward O. Wilson has noted: “The question of interest is no longer whether human social behavior is genetically determined; it is to what extent. The accumulated evidence for a large hereditary component is more detailed and compelling than most persons, including even geneticists, realize. I will go further: it already is decisive.” (1978, 19)

Note the method of demanding "evidence", not researching what evidence agrees with Objectivism, and then making an appeal to authority as his own "evidence".

GN does not provide any arguments for his position here. Rather, he provides a quote of a supposed authority asserting the conclusion GN wants. He continues with quotes of others. He cherry picks arguments from supposed authorities which are on his side, never quotes anything that disagrees with him, and pretends he's won. I'll give one example:

Studies of identical twins provide further evidence that genetics influence human behavior. Such studies reveal a genetic component in a variety of traits affecting the emotional and cognitive development of human beings, including number ability, word fluency, memory, the rate of language acquisition, spelling, grammar, perceptual skills, psycho-motor skills, and extroversion-introversion. Even when the influence of environment has been factored in, identical twins nevertheless demonstrate a greater similarity in general abilities, personal traits, ideals, goals, and vocational interests then would be expected if genetic determination played no role whatsoever. (Wilson, 1978, 45-46; Pinker, 1997, 20-21)

And how was the influence of environment factored in? (I've read a number of studies along these lines, and the answer is it never really is.) GN doesn't worry about whether the people he's quoting are correct. He doesn't learn about the issue and give persuasive arguments. He just quotes whatever he likes as an appeal to authority.

I can cite authorities too, by the way. For example, why hasn't GN read Yet More on the Heritability and Malleability of IQ and answered it? Why hasn't he read and answered Genetics and Reductionism by Sahotra Sarkar? (I didn't just google these now. I read them years ago. I think they are important.) But we won't get anywhere if we just throw authorities at each other. We'll have to think through the topic to learn much.

Now considering the fact that no reputable psychologist believes that emotions are solely the product of our ideas, you would think that Rand would have been eager to back her theory with empirical data.

Another appeal to authority. GN asserts that all authorities in the field disagree with Rand, and he thinks that is impressive. All it really shows is that he's irrational; he doesn't think for himself.

Quickies

ARCHN talks about lying. It is confused and doesn't understand the Objectivist view.

ARCHN talks about conflicts of interest. It doesn't understand the Objectivist view.

ARCHN attacks Objectivist arguments about abortion. It says they are bad arguments. ARCHN unaware of the argument that a fetus has no mind.

ARCHN attacks what sounds to me like a brief philosopher's history, because GN expected a detailed literal history like a historian would write. This is GN's fault for not understanding what type of thing he was reading. What is a philosopher's history? I mean this like a physicist's history. Richard Feynman wrote in QED: The Strange Theory of Light and Matter:

what I have just outlined is what I call a "physicist's history of physics," which is never correct. What I am telling you is a sort of conventionalized myth-story

This is a good thing. The point is to focus on essentials and not worry too much about unimportant details. Tell the main story, get the important ideas across, and suggest enough about the factual history that someone who is interested could figure out the rest with study.

ARCHN attacks James Jerome Hill. Why? Because he's a great man and ARCHN wants to show that there are no great men.

ARCHN is confused by the Objectivist view on the unreality and unimportance of suffering. It doesn't criticize it; it's just confused about what it even is.

ARCHN also doesn't understand what the benevolent universe premise is.

ARCHN does not understand or refute the Objectivist view on compromise.

ARCHN incorrectly presents some ideas as unique to Objectivism and rejected by everyone else. I noticed especially because several of them were ideas I already believed before I knew about Objectivism.

Conclusions

The book was interesting to me because it helped me learn about ways Objectivism is misunderstood and attacked. I would not recommend reading it unless you have "the endurance of an elephant and the patience of a martyr" and already know what I'm quoting.

ARCHN and GN are immoral. They are evaders. They are dishonest haters of Objectivism. Beware.


Elliot Temple | Permalink | Comments (6)

Objectivist and Popperian Epistemology

Ayn Rand has the best moral philosophy ever invented. Karl Popper has the most important breakthrough in epistemology. Most Objectivists seem to think that Popper and Rand are incompatible, and Popper is an enemy of reason. They have not understood him. These lists are intended to help explain my motivation for integrating Rand and Popper, and also help to highlight many similarities they already have.

Points Popperian epistemology and Objectivist epistemology have in common:

(In Popperian epistemology I include additions and improvements by David Deutsch and myself.)

  • opposition to subjectivism and relativism
  • fallibilism
  • says that objective knowledge is attainable (in practice by fallible humans)
  • realism: says reality is objective
  • connected to reality: we have to observe reality, keep our ideas connected to reality
  • asserts there is objective truth
  • attention to context ("problem situation" or sometimes "problem" is the common Popperian term meaning context. E.g. a Popperian will ask "What is the problem this is addressing?" and be asking about context.)
  • pro-science
  • opposition to positivism
  • opposition to the language analysis school of philosophy
  • say that most professional philosophers are rather crap
  • opposition to both skeptical and authoritarian schools of epistemology
  • keeps our concepts "open-end[ed]" (ITOE). That means: possible to improve in the future as we learn more.
  • says that there are objective moral truths
  • does not seek a "frozen, arrested state of knowledge" (ITOE)
  • written clearly and understandably, unlike much philosophy
  • says epistemology is useful and valuable to real people; it matters to life; it's practical
  • you can't force an idea on someone. they can choose to accept it or not
  • you can't implant an idea in someone. you can't pour it in, stick it in with surgery, make them absorb it, etc. they get to think, interpret, choose.
  • free will
  • people are not born with some unchangeable nature and innate ideas. we can be self-made men. we can learn, change, improve, progress
  • emphasis on active use of one's mind, active learning
  • no inherent conflicts due to objective truth
  • understanding of unconscious and inexplicit ideas
  • if two ideas contradict, at least one is false
  • integration of epistemology with morality, politics, and more
  • rejection of authority
  • full rejection of idealism, solipsism
  • strong emphasis on clarity
  • rejection of limits on human minds
  • reject probabilistic approaches to epistemology
  • looks at man as rational and capable
  • value of critical thinking including self-criticism

Strengths of Objectivist epistemology:

  • stolen concept
  • package deal
  • check your premises
  • ideas about integrating all one's knowledge and removing all contradictions
  • measurement omission and concept formation ideas both worthwhile, though flawed
  • good criticisms of many opponents of reason
  • good understanding of essentials vs non-essentials, e.g. for definitions
  • idea about automating some thinking
  • good explanation of what objectivity is
  • Judge, and be prepared to be judged

Strengths of Popperian epistemology:

  • evolution creates knowledge
  • conjectures and refutations method
  • piecemeal, incremental method. value of every little improvement
  • identification of, and solution to, justificationism
  • addresses induction
  • conjectural, fallible, objective knowledge
  • idea that we progress from misconception to better misconception
  • myth of the framework
  • value of culture clash
  • emphasis on bold highly-criticizable claims, sticking your neck out to learn more
  • no shame in mistakes
  • value of criticism. criticism is a gift
  • understanding of rationality as being about error correction
  • unimportance of starting points. you can start anywhere, improve from there
  • criticism of definitions
  • criticism of foundations, bases
  • criticism of essentialism
  • criticism of manifest truth (and self-evidence, obviousness, etc)
  • static and dynamic memes
  • structural epistemology
  • coercion and common preferences
  • understanding of conflict and symmetry
  • applications to parenting, education, relationships
  • understanding of tradition
  • explanation of value of external criticism (if everyone has some blind spots, but some people have different blind spots then each other, then it's productive to share criticism with each other. a little like comparative advantage)
  • emphasis on critical method, criticism (ideas stand unless refuted)
  • let our ideas die in our stead

Want details and elaboration about any of the topics? Please ask. You can ask in comments or at the Fallible Ideas Discussion Group.


Elliot Temple | Permalink | Comments (18)

Epistemology Without Weights and the Mistake Objectivism and Critical Rationalism Both Made

Objectivists accuse Popperians of being skeptics. Popperians accuse Objectivists of being infallibilists. Actually, both philosophies are valuable and largely compatible. I present here some integrating ideas and then a mistake that both philosophies made.

Knowledge is certain, absolute, contextual, conclusive and progressive. The standard of knowledge is conclusiveness not infallibility, perfection or omniscience.

Certain means we should act on it instead of hesitating. We should follow its implications and use it, rather than sitting around doubting, wondering, scared it might be wrong. Certain also means that it is knowledge, as opposed to non-knowledge; it denies skepticism.

Absolute means no contradictions, compromises or exceptions are allowed.

Contextual means that knowledge must be considered in context. A good idea in one context may not be a good idea when transplanted into another context. No knowledge could hold up against arbitrary context switches and context dropping.

Further, knowledge is problem oriented. Knowledge needs some problem(s) or question(s) for context, which it addresses or solves. Knowledge has to be knowledge about something, with some purpose. This implies: if you have an answer to a question, and then in the future you learn more, the old answer still answers the old question. It's still knowledge in its original, intended context.

Consider blood types. People wanted to know which blood transfusions were safe (among other questions) and they created some knowledge of A, B, AB and O blood types. Later they found out more. Actually there is A+, A-, B+, B-, AB+, AB-, O+ and O-. It was proper to act on the earlier knowledge in its context. It would not be proper to act on it today; now we know that some B type blood is incompatible with some other B type blood. Today's superior knowledge of blood types is also contextual. Maybe there will be a new medical breakthrough next year. But it's still knowledge in today's context, and it's proper to act on it.

One thing to learn here is that a false idea can be knowledge. The idea that all B type blood is compatible is contextual knowledge. It was always false, as a matter of fact, and the mistake got some people killed. Yet it was still knowledge. How can that be?

Perfection is not the standard of knowledge. And not all false ideas are equally good. What matters is the early idea about blood types had value, it had useful information, it helped make many correct decisions, and no better idea was available at the time. That value never goes away even when we learn about a mistake. That original value is still knowledge, considered contextually, even though the idea as a whole is now known to be false.

Conclusive means the current context only allows for one rational conclusion. This conclusion is not infallible, but it's the only reasonable option available. All the alternative ideas have known flaws; they are refuted. There's only one idea left which is not refuted, which could be true, is true as far as we know (no known flaws), and which we should therefore accept. And that is knowledge.

None of this contradicts the progressive character of knowledge. Our knowledge is not frozen and final. We can learn more and better – without limit. We can keep identifying and correcting errors in our ideas and thereby achieve better and better knowledge. (One way knowledge can be better is that it is correct in more contexts and successfully addresses more problems and questions.)

The Mistake

Peikoff says that certainty (meaning conclusive knowledge) is when you get to the point that nothing else is possible. He means that, in the current context, there are no other options. There's just one option, and we should accept it. All the other ideas have something wrong with them, they can't be accepted. This is fine.

Peikoff also says that before you have certainty you have a different situation where there are multiple competing ideas. Fine. And that's not certainty, that's not conclusive knowledge, it's a precursor stage where you're considering the ideas. Fine.

But then Peikoff makes what I think is an important mistake. He says that if you don't have knowledge or certainty, you can still judge by the weight of the evidence. This is a standard view held by many non-Objectivists too. I think this is too compromising. I think the choices are knowledge or irrationality. We need knowledge; nothing less will suffice.

The weight of the evidence is no good. Either you have knowledge or you don't. If it's not knowledge, it's not worth anything. You need to come up with a good idea – no compromises, no contradictions, no known problems – and use that. If you can't or won't do that, all you have left is the irrationality of acting on and believing arbitrary non-knowledge.

I think we can always act on knowledge without contradictions. Knowledge is always possible to man. Not all knowledge instantly, but enough knowledge to act, in time to act. We may not know everything – but we don't need to. We can always know enough to continue life rationally. Living and acting by reason and knowledge is always possible.

(How can we always do this? That will be the subject of another essay. I'm not including any summary or hints because I think it's too confusing and misleading without a full explanation. Edit: here is the follow up essay.)

Knowledge doesn't allow contradictions. Suppose you're considering two ideas that contradict each other. And you don't have a conclusive answer, you don't have knowledge of which is right. Then using or believing either one is irrational. No "weight of the evidence" or anything else can change this.

Don't pick a side when you know there is a contradiction but have not rationally resolved it. Resolve it; create knowledge; learn; think; figure it out. Neither idea being considered is good enough to address the contradiction or refute the other idea – so you know they are both flawed. Don't hope or pray that acting on a known-to-be-flawed idea will work out anyway. Irrationality doesn't work.

That's not good enough. If you discover a contradiction, you should resolve it rationally. If you fail at that – fail at the use of reason – then that's bad, that's a disaster, that's not OK.

Karl Popper made the same mistake in a different form. He said that we critically analyze competing ideas and the one that best survives criticism should be acted on. Again this is too compromising. Either exactly one idea survives criticism, or else there is still a contradiction. "Best survives criticism", and "weight of the evidence", are irrational ways of arbitrarily elevating one flawed idea over another, instead of using reason to come up with a correct idea.

(For some further discussion about weighing ideas, see also the choices chapter of The Beginning of Infinity by David Deutsch.)


Elliot Temple | Permalink | Comments (0)

No One Else Discusses Ayn Rand

This is expanded from a letter I wrote to Per-Olof Samuelsson.

I already knew that quality discussion of Objectivism is virtually impossible to come by. It occurred to me that I've never heard a single word about one of Rand's very best quotes, anywhere, ever, besides by me and my friends who I've quoted it to. I did some Google searches and found a sad situation.

In short, no one really cares about discussing Ayn Rand's ideas in English, online, in public, besides me. (If you're interested, join my discussion group.)

The Return of the Primitive, The “Inexplicable Personal Alchemy”:
Who can take any values seriously if he is offered, for moral inspiration, a choice between two images of youth: an unshaved, barefooted Harvard graduate, throwing bottles and bombs at policemen—or a prim, sun-helmeted, frustrated little autocrat of the Peace Corps, spoon-feeding babies in a jungle clinic?

No, these are not representative of America’s youth—they are, in fact, a very small minority with a very loud group of unpaid p.r. [agents] on university faculties and among the press—but where are its representatives? Where are America’s young fighters for ideas, the rebels against conformity to the gutter—the young men of “inexplicable personal alchemy,” the independent minds dedicated to the supremacy of truth?

With very rare exceptions, they are perishing in silence, unknown and unnoticed. Consciously or subconsciously, philosophically and psychologically, it is against them that the cult of irrationality—i.e., our entire academic and cultural Establishment—is directed.

They perish gradually, giving up, extinguishing their minds before they have a chance to grasp the nature of the evil they are facing. In lonely agony, they go from confident eagerness to bewilderment to indignation to resignation—to obscurity. And while their elders putter about, conserving redwood forests and building sanctuaries for mallard ducks, nobody notices those youths as they drop out of sight one by one, like sparks vanishing in limitless black space; nobody builds sanctuaries for the best of the human species.

So will the young Russian rebels perish spiritually—if they survive their jail terms physically. How long can a man preserve his sacred fire if he knows that jail is the reward for loyalty to reason? No longer than he can preserve it if he is taught that that loyalty is irrelevant—as he is taught both in the East and in the West. There are exceptions who will hold out, no matter what the circumstances. But these are exceptions that mankind has no right to expect.
i did several searches with pieces of the paragraph about building sanctuaries. they turn up around 5 results, which are are google books and copyright violation, my own discussion group, and one quote site has part of it with no discussion.

The Virtue of Selfishness, Doesn’t Life Require Compromise?:
The excuse, given in all such cases, is that the “compromise” is only temporary and that one will reclaim one’s integrity at some indeterminate future date. But one cannot correct a husband’s or wife’s irrationality by giving in to it and encouraging it to grow. One cannot achieve the victory of one’s ideas by helping to propagate their opposite. One cannot offer a literary masterpiece, “when one has become rich and famous,” to a following one has acquired by writing trash. If one found it difficult to maintain one’s loyalty to one’s own convictions at the start, a succession of betrayals—which helped to augment the power of the evil one lacked the courage to fight—will not make it easier at a later date, but will make it virtually impossible.
this one initially appears to have around 100 google results, but there turn out to be only around 19 if you try to go through them all (google’s hit count estimates are often bad – in another case 272 turned out to be 16). most of those are just bad sites with the full text of the essay or book, and there’s also google books, dead links, and me. there is one single link with discussion, a forum post with essay full text and then one short paragraph of poor quality discussion. it received zero replies.

Philosophy: Who Needs It, An Untitled Letter:
Like any overt school of mysticism, a movement seeking to achieve a vicious goal has to invoke the higher mysteries of an incomprehensible authority. An unread and unreadable book serves this purpose. It does not count on men’s intelligence, but on their weaknesses, pretensions and fears. It is not a tool of enlightenment, but of intellectual intimidation. It is not aimed at the reader’s understanding, but at his inferiority complex.

An intelligent man will reject such a book [like Rawl's A Theory of Justice or Kant's Critique of Pure Reason] with contemptuous indignation, refusing to waste his time on untangling what he perceives to be gibberish—which is part of the book’s technique: the man able to refute its arguments will not (unless he has the endurance of an elephant and the patience of a martyr). A young man of average intelligence—particularly a student of philosophy or of political science—under a barrage of authoritative pronouncements acclaiming the book as “scholarly,” “significant,” “profound,” will take the blame for his failure to understand. More often than not, he will assume that the book’s theory has been scientifically proved and that he alone is unable to grasp it; anxious, above all, to hide his inability, he will profess agreement, and the less his understanding, the louder his agreement—while the rest of the class are going through the same mental process. Most of them will accept the book’s doctrine, reluctantly and uneasily, and lose their intellectual integrity, condemning themselves to a chronic fog of approximation, uncertainty, self doubt. Some will give up the intellect (particularly philosophy) and turn belligerently into “pragmatic,” anti-intellectual Babbitts. A few will see through the game and scramble eagerly for the driver’s seat on the bandwagon, grasping the possibilities of a road to the mentally unearned.
This one has one good mention, which has joke replies about sexual endurance and elephants being inferior to humans. (Plus, interestingly, this quote has two non-English pages which have the quote itself in English, one of which appears to have some discussion).

so there you have it. no one else discusses some of the very best of Ayn Rand’s ideas (in english, in public, online). i think this is extremely sad and messed up. i knew decent Objectivism discussion was hard to come by, but these search results are amazing. there’s approximately nothing out there.

Elliot Temple | Permalink | Comments (0)

Ayn Rand Quotes Discussion

The Return of the Primitive, The “Inexplicable Personal Alchemy”:
Who can take any values seriously if he is offered, for moral inspiration, a choice between two images of youth: an unshaved, barefooted Harvard graduate, throwing bottles and bombs at policemen—or a prim, sun-helmeted, frustrated little autocrat of the Peace Corps, spoon-feeding babies in a jungle clinic?

No, these are not representative of America’s youth—they are, in fact, a very small minority with a very loud group of unpaid p.r. [agents] on university faculties and among the press—but where are its representatives? Where are America’s young fighters for ideas, the rebels against conformity to the gutter—the young men of “inexplicable personal alchemy,” the independent minds dedicated to the supremacy of truth?

With very rare exceptions, they are perishing in silence, unknown and unnoticed. Consciously or subconsciously, philosophically and psychologically, it is against them that the cult of irrationality—i.e., our entire academic and cultural Establishment—is directed.

They perish gradually, giving up, extinguishing their minds before they have a chance to grasp the nature of the evil they are facing. In lonely agony, they go from confident eagerness to bewilderment to indignation to resignation—to obscurity. And while their elders putter about, conserving redwood forests and building sanctuaries for mallard ducks, nobody notices those youths as they drop out of sight one by one, like sparks vanishing in limitless black space; nobody builds sanctuaries for the best of the human species.

So will the young Russian rebels perish spiritually—if they survive their jail terms physically. How long can a man preserve his sacred fire if he knows that jail is the reward for loyalty to reason? No longer than he can preserve it if he is taught that that loyalty is irrelevant—as he is taught both in the East and in the West. There are exceptions who will hold out, no matter what the circumstances. But these are exceptions that mankind has no right to expect.
This is about Western culture (it's 45 years old, but still applies). Few people care about truth and reason. There are some loud people who claim to be free thinkers, but actually conform to gutter standards.

The people who care about ideas are discouraged because, wherever they look, it's hard to find anyone else who does. So they are isolated, and surrounded by a culture of irrationality. It wears them down and beats them up, and eventually they lose some of their confident eagerness, and start to see the evil in the world, and find it confusing and awful, and eventually they give up, alone. That's the standard story that happens to most of the best of the human species.

And (almost) no one cares. These bright young minds are not an object of sympathy and charity. Far more help goes to trees and ducks than to men with intellectual integrity. Isn't that awful?

Ayn Rand tried to help these people. I try, too. I pursue ideas publicly and offer the Fallible Ideas Discussion Group. There, people can experience rational discussion in an atmosphere that puts truth before conformity. They can see that some people take ideas seriously, and are eager for criticism and bold thinking. That can be part of their life. And they can learn about and ask questions about philosophy, liberalism, and any other topics.

A few men can hold purely to reason without help, alone, in a world that punishes them for it. But we must not rely on heroes like that for the future of humanity. We should lead the way and offer some better voices into the public discussion. There are people out there to hear reason, and appreciate it, and they could really use the help.



The Virtue of Selfishness, Doesn’t Life Require Compromise?:
The excuse, given in all such cases, is that the “compromise” is only temporary and that one will reclaim one’s integrity at some indeterminate future date. But one cannot correct a husband’s or wife’s irrationality by giving in to it and encouraging it to grow. One cannot achieve the victory of one’s ideas by helping to propagate their opposite. One cannot offer a literary masterpiece, “when one has become rich and famous,” to a following one has acquired by writing trash. If one found it difficult to maintain one’s loyalty to one’s own convictions at the start, a succession of betrayals—which helped to augment the power of the evil one lacked the courage to fight—will not make it easier at a later date, but will make it virtually impossible.
If you aren't taking reason seriously NOW, when will you? How will waiting help? When will things be easier? Never. If you can't stick to principles now, spending a year compromising them won't help. If purity is tough now, how much harder will it be after you spend more time learning to live in a less pure way?

Lowering your standards temporarily is not how you get high standards. Your standards are never going to go back up. You'll get used to living with lower standards. You'll do more things which violate the higher standards. So, later, the higher standards will be more inaccessible than they were before.

Taking life seriously, and really insisting on the best right now, is the only way to live. Pursuing the truth with no boundaries is completely urgent. Do it now, or you never will.



Philosophy: Who Needs It, An Untitled Letter:
Like any overt school of mysticism, a movement seeking to achieve a vicious goal has to invoke the higher mysteries of an incomprehensible authority. An unread and unreadable book serves this purpose. It does not count on men’s intelligence, but on their weaknesses, pretensions and fears. It is not a tool of enlightenment, but of intellectual intimidation. It is not aimed at the reader’s understanding, but at his inferiority complex.

An intelligent man will reject such a book [like Rawl's A Theory of Justice or Kant's Critique of Pure Reason] with contemptuous indignation, refusing to waste his time on untangling what he perceives to be gibberish—which is part of the book’s technique: the man able to refute its arguments will not (unless he has the endurance of an elephant and the patience of a martyr). A young man of average intelligence—particularly a student of philosophy or of political science—under a barrage of authoritative pronouncements acclaiming the book as “scholarly,” “significant,” “profound,” will take the blame for his failure to understand. More often than not, he will assume that the book’s theory has been scientifically proved and that he alone is unable to grasp it; anxious, above all, to hide his inability, he will profess agreement, and the less his understanding, the louder his agreement—while the rest of the class are going through the same mental process. Most of them will accept the book’s doctrine, reluctantly and uneasily, and lose their intellectual integrity, condemning themselves to a chronic fog of approximation, uncertainty, self doubt. Some will give up the intellect (particularly philosophy) and turn belligerently into “pragmatic,” anti-intellectual Babbitts. A few will see through the game and scramble eagerly for the driver’s seat on the bandwagon, grasping the possibilities of a road to the mentally unearned.
It's so hard to stand up to authority after an entire childhood being bullied by your parents and teachers, and taught to obey authority, and punished for disobedience.

Every "Because I said so" from a parent teaches the child to do things because the government said so, too. Or to believe things because Kant or Rawls said so.

Parents are so shortsighted. They are in a position of temporary power over their kid. To make the most of it, they demand universal obedience to authority from their kid. He ends up obeying many other authorities too, some of which they parents don't even like. And once the kid can read books and get access to ideas his parents don't control, he may well find some greater authority than his parents, so they begin losing control.

One of the saddest things is I have refuted a lot of awful ideas, carefully in writing which is publicly available. And what are the results? Hardly anyone wants it. I don't have Kant's authority. They go by authority, not understanding. So it doesn't matter if my arguments are better than Kant, they aren't thinking through the ideas. If it was effective, I'd be happy to untangle more gibberish. I still do it sometimes, but a man has to have some merit to seek out and benefit from the untangling. And it's hard to find many people with merit. Their parents and teachers attack their minds, and their culture tells them that's life and offers rolemodels who no man of intellectual integrity could seek to emulate.

Most of academia is like Rand describes, but on a smaller scale. Not many read it, but fewer will stand up to it. Most of it isn't as confusing as Kant's writing, but it's still awful and littered with gross errors. And when you try to tell people not to believe some "scientific" conclusion which they read second hand in a magazine, because the actual paper is crap, they don't want to think through the issues themselves and they don't want to take your word for it, they just want to accept the authority of academia and magazine writers.

See also my searches for other people discussing this stuff online. In summary, no one else cares.

Elliot Temple | Permalink | Comments (0)

Banned from Ayn Rand Facebook Group

There is a Facebook group about Ayn Rand with 7000 members. I just got banned (I saw this coming and it wasn't valuable anyway). I was trying to post about how Reason is Urgent; Now or Never, which has four Ayn Rand quotes and discusses Objectivist ideas like how big a problem contradictions are, which the moderator deleted, twice. You can see what happened next in the screenshots below (comments are unmoderated).

Michael Brown is very irrational. It's interesting that he controls what might be the largest Objectivist group in the world. I suspect the way he accomplished it was by filling it up with thousands of non-Objectivists (a little like Wynand's large readership):


Elliot Temple | Permalink | Comments (5)

John Galt Should Not Have Been A Track Laborer

It would have been better if John Galt didn't take a job as a track laborer.

I respect the principle not to spend wealth from Galt's Gulch outside the valley. Don't create value there then bring it back to the regular world to aid non-members.

But Galt had better things to do with his time, like work in his lab, and I see a simple solution. Francisco could have simply given Galt a million dollars. Galt could pay him back in some way in the Gulch, or not, I don't think it matters too much. Francisco already had plenty of outside world money and wouldn't be harmed by giving some to Galt (he was in the process of destroying his outside wealth anyway).

Consider the effect on the outside world. In the one case, Galt does some minimally productive work, then spends money on food. In the other case, Galt doesn't do that work, then spends money on food. In both cases, the grocery store gets some dollar bills for their food, and Galt eats the same thing. In one case, an outside world company gets some extra help, though not of a kind or amount that made any fundamental difference.

If Galt just wanted to observe Dagny and chat with Eddie, he could have found another way to visit that was less time consuming than a full time job.

I don't see how Galt doing track laborer work was a good idea. I think it was a real shame he didn't spend most of that time doing physics, reading, thinking about how to recruit Rearden, etc, rather than doing manual labor. And I think the manual labor was unnecessary.

Elliot Temple | Permalink | Comments (36)

Benevolent Universe

The Early Ayn Rand, in a story preface by Peikoff:
“Good Copy” reminds us of another crucial aspect of Ayn Rand’s philosophy: her view that suffering is an exception, not the rule of life. The rule, she held, should not be pain or even heroic endurance, but gaiety and lighthearted joy in living. It is on this premise that “Good Copy” was written.

... Their objection was not to the story’s flaws but to its essential spirit. “It is so unserious,” the criticism went. “It doesn’t deal with big issues like your novels; it has no profound passions, no immortal struggles, no philosophic meaning.”

Miss Rand replied, in effect: “It deals with only one ‘big issue,’ the biggest of all: can man live on earth or not?”

She went on to explain that malevolence—the feeling that man by nature is doomed to suffering and defeat—is all-pervasive in our era; that even those who claim to reject such a viewpoint tend to feel, today, that the pursuit of values must be a painful, teeth-clenched crusade, a holy but grim struggle against evil. This attitude, she said, ascribes far too much power to evil. Evil, she held, is essentially impotent (see Atlas Shrugged); the universe is not set against man, but is “benevolent.” This means that man’s values (if based on reason) are achievable here and in this life; and therefore happiness is not to be regarded as a freak accident, but, metaphysically, as the normal, the natural, the to-be-expected.

Philosophically, in short, the deepest essence of man’s life is not grave, crisis-ridden solemnity, but lighthearted cheerfulness.
This particularly stood out to me:
even those who claim to reject such a viewpoint [malevolent universe] tend to feel, today, that the pursuit of values must be a painful, teeth-clenched crusade, a holy but grim struggle against evil.
lots of people are scared of embracing FI/reason/etc, they think of it like a holy but painful struggle. that's so very wrong. there's nothing to be afraid of. values do have a chance in this world. try for it.

reminds me of The Virtue of Selfishness, "How Does One Lead a Rational Life in an Irrational Society?":
And then, on some gray, middle-aged morning, such a man realizes suddenly that he has betrayed all the values he had loved in his distant spring, and wonders how it happened, and slams his mind shut to the answer, by telling himself hastily that the fear he had felt in his worst, most shameful moments was right and that values have no chance in this world. [my emphasis]
values do have a chance. and like the tramp who steals a ride on Dagny's train says in Atlas Shrugged, make a try for it:
I think that it's a sin to sit down and let your life go, without making a try for it.

Elliot Temple | Permalink | Comments (10)

Elliot Temple | Permalink | Comments (136)

Measurement Omission Disagreement

I consider measurement omission a narrow aspect of a broader issue. Objectivism, on the other hand, presents measurement omission as a huge, broad principle. There's a disagreement there.

When looking at stuff, we always must choose which attributes to pay attention to, because there are infinitely many attributes which are possible to look at. (This idea partly comes from Karl Popper.) We have to find ways to omit or condense some stuff or we'll have too much information to handle. Like Peikoff's principle of the crow, we can only deal with so much at once. So we use techniques like integrating, condensing, omitting, and providing references (like footnotes and links).

Regarding infinite attributes, let's look at a table. A table has infinitely many attributes you can define and could pay attention to. Most of them are dumb and irrelevant. Examples: the number of specks of dust on the table, the number of specks of dust with weight in a certain range, the number of specs of dust with color in a certain range. And just by varying the start and end of those ranges, you can get infinitely many attributes you could measure.

The way we choose to pay attention to some attributes in life, and not others, is not especially about measurement. Some attributes aren't measurements. I think some attributes aren't quantifiable in principle. Some attributes may be quantifiable in the future, but we don't know how to quantify them today. For example, do you feel inspired when looking at a painting? We don't know how to measure inspiration or what units to quantify it in.

Deciding which attributes are relevant to what you're doing requires judgement. While many cases are pretty easy to judge, some cases are more borderline and tricky. How do you judge well? I'm not going to try to explain that right now, I just want to say I don't think omitting measurements answers it overall (the measurement omission stuff definitely does help with some cases).


Elliot Temple | Permalink | Comments (0)

Review of Hospers on Rand

Conversations With Ayn Rand, Part 1, by John Hospers

I recommend reading the entire article before my comments.

Hospers met and discussed with Ayn Rand many times. He's vague about the timeframe but he visited her every two weeks or so for "many months". I get the sense, from all the stories, that it may have lasted a couple years.

Hospers is an unreliable narrator. As he tells it, Rand has a severe anger problem while he's always perfectly calm. He claims that Rand would get angry and then be illogical and irrational for the rest of the night, and he blames 100% of the discussion difficulties on Rand. It's similar to some accounts of Karl Popper I've read. It's hard to tell what portion of the claims are true, but I do think part of the matter is people having trouble with strong, clear criticism. It's easy to misunderstand an unconventional person who's much smarter than you and highly critical.

Hospers doesn't say anything self-critical, but he does reveal some flaws by accident. He would hide lots of criticism and disagreements from his discussions with Ayn Rand rather than addressing the problems he was having (e.g. confronting her about her supposed temper and hearing her side of the story). And he gets lots of intellectual issues wrong throughout the article.

The article, while superficially presenting somewhat opposite themes, is a testament to the extreme tolerance and patience of Ayn Rand. Hospers was far inferior to her. She did so much to help him learn, starting from basics like the broken window fallacy, and he had trouble grasping principles. He'd get one issue wrong, and she'd explain it, and then he'd get another similar issue wrong. And he was always wanting to make exceptions to principles, showing he never really understood them.

I'm being literal about the broken window fallacy, btw. But you may have missed it:

At Ayn's suggestion I bought a copy of Henry Hazlitt's Economics in One Lesson and it transformed my entire thinking about economics

The theme of that book is explaining the broken window fallacy. Reading about broken windows "transformed [Hospers'] entire thinking about economics".

Rand also taught him about Mises, not initiating force, not violating rights, etc

And then what would he do? Time after time he came up with justifications for government force, each of which was wrong in the same way as the previous one. first he wants government force for orphans, then for roads, then against racism, then in Peru. he kept failing at conceptual thinking.

Hospers is the sort of philosopher who likes artificial puzzles. one is you're driving and your car will hit either your dog or a stranger. which do you choose? he thought you'd save your dog. he found Rand's answer kinda unclear. I think it's very easy. If you kill the person on purpose, to avoid property damage, you are a murderer.

and he likes word games. he doesn't know what "force" or "voluntary" means. he has common sense intuitions about it, which are vague and aren't integrated into his logical thinking. and he has definitions which are precise and logical but don't work. but he doesn't know how to handle words correctly. Popper could have helped him out a lot here – start with any halfway decent concept and then improve it as problems come up.

my favorite parts were:

1) the part about ideas ruling the world, which Popperians should appreciate:

"That's where you're wrong," she said. "You deal in ideas, and ideas rule the world." (I seldom quote Ayn directly, and do so only when I clearly remember exactly what she said.)

this is a great them of Objectivism. and i appreciate Hospers' attitude of only using quotes when he's confident.

2) Rand reminding us of the value of good people:

On another occasion I mentioned the inequality in the educational system, which did not confer as much time or money on children from the slums, or on those who could learn in time but could not keep up with the rest.

"And what about the geniuses?" she asked -- the ultra-bright children who could go ahead much faster, but were kept back by the mediocrities. One genius, a Newton or a Pasteur, could improve the lot of all humanity, but many of them, she thought, had been stifled by the educational system catering to the dull-witted.

about Newton and Pasteur, Roark made a similar point:

“Throughout the centuries there were men who took first steps down new roads armed with nothing but their own vision. Their goals differed, but they all had this in common: that the step was first, the road new, the vision unborrowed, and the response they received—hatred. The great creators—the thinkers, the artists, the scientists, the inventors—stood alone against the men of their time. Every great new thought was opposed. Every great new invention was denounced. The first motor was considered foolish. The airplane was considered impossible. The power loom was considered vicious. Anesthesia was considered sinful. But the men of unborrowed vision went ahead. They fought, they suffered and they paid. But they won.

and so did Rearden about Galt and his motor:

"Hank, do you know what that motor would have meant, if built?"

He chuckled briefly. "I'd say: about ten years added to the life of every person in this country

and about the genius kids:

Then Gail Wynand’s arm went up. The teacher nodded to him. He rose. “Why,” he asked, “should I swill everything down ten times? I know all that.” “You are not the only one in the class,” said the teacher.

And Rand made a similar point in one of my very favorite book quotes, in The “Inexplicable Personal Alchemy” in The Return of the Primitive:

In lonely agony, they go from confident eagerness to bewilderment to indignation to resignation—to obscurity. And while their elders putter about, conserving redwood forests and building sanctuaries for mallard ducks, nobody notices those youths as they drop out of sight one by one, like sparks vanishing in limitless black space; nobody builds sanctuaries for the best of the human species.

3) the idea of looking at things from the perspective of the producers, not the needy:

She then told me again somewhat brusquely that I was looking at the issue from the wrong end. I was viewing it from the point of view of the needy; I should look at it instead from the point of view of the producers of wealth

:)

anyway, Hospers is such a leftist on issue after issue. he consistently doesn't understand liberalism or Objectivism. and Rand kept inviting him over. it says a lot about the world that she, despite her fame, was unable to find better people to interact with. (yes she had some like Mises, but not enough to fill her schedule. Hospers made the cut.) That's really sad and worrying about the quality of thinkers to be found in the world. (it also speaks ill of libertarians that Hospers, who just fundamentally doesn't get liberalism, and is always wanting the government to violate liberty for this or that excuse, is considered a libertarian and is actually the first guy they ran for US president.)


part 2 is much less interesting. a lot of it is Hospers talking about his own (confused) philosophy. one notable part is he's so gullible that he was fooled by ESP (extra sensory perception) claims. and he was very surprised by Ayn Rand's opposition to ESP. previously he was surprised by her opposition to large-scale government confiscation and redistribution of land. he doesn't seem to have known much about her perspective. Hospers is also condescending to Rand in lots of places. Towards the end Hospers is shocked that Rand doesn't respect tenure, and doesn't understand her respect for children's privacy. this part was notable:

Not long after, New York University's philosopher Sidney Hook attacked her in print, and she wanted me to take him on as well. Knowing Sidney, I was disinclined to do this. He already knew about my acquaintance with Ayn, but we had never discussed it further (I hardly ever saw him). Should I now condemn him publicly and destroy a long-standing friendship? I knew that this friendship would be at an end if I condemned him.

what a coward with no intellectual integrity! he cares for maintaining friendships with villains over speaking the truth.

after that there's some nice stuff about Rand's views again. even though the narrator is distorting the hell out of her positions, some good stuff comes through about having standards for friends. why would you want to be friends with a very immoral person?

then they breakup because he dishonestly attacks her ideas, not b/c he thinks they are wrong, but b/c he thinks the social situation requires it. what a rotten bastard with no respect for the intellect this Hospers is! quote:

In general I agreed with it; but a commentator cannot simply say "That was a fine paper" and then sit down.

so he thought it was a fine paper, then said something else. he threw Rand under the bus, by speaking ill of her work, because he wasn't comfortably saying what he considered true. she didn't like it. and he blames her for being unreasonable and doesn't see his fault. (he says she got really angry but that could easily be a misinterpretation, it's hard to tell. and even if she did and that was an emotional mistake, she was still in the right on the substantive issues.)

he says he was friends with Rand for 2.5 years.

Hospers is chronically dishonest. it's so ingrained in his life that he actually shares it, throughout, by accident. he doesn't realize how he caused most of the problems with his immorality.


Elliot Temple | Permalink | Comment (1)

Presupposing Intelligence in Epistemology

I've been discussing with Objectivists. I learned something new:

Lots of their thinking about epistemology presupposes an intelligent consciousness and proceeds from there.

They don't say this clearly. They claim to have answers to epistemological problems about how learning works (with perception, concept formation and induction). They claim to start at the beginning and work everything out.

Traditional approaches to induction try to say how intelligence works. They claim they solved the problem of induction. But they aren't actually focusing on the traditional problem. They aren't very clear to themselves about what problem each idea is meant to answer, and don't consistently stick to addressing the same problem.

Their approach to concept formation presupposes intelligence. How do you know which concepts to form? How do you know which similarities and differences are important? How do you decide which of the many patterns in the world to pay attention to? Use common sense. Use intelligent judgement. Think about it. Use your mind. Consider what you value and which patterns are relevant to pursuing your values. Consider your interests and which patterns are relevant to your interests. And, anyway, why do you want a mindless, mechanical answer someone could use without thinking, anyway?

So induction requires concept formation which requires being intelligent. Their take on induction presupposes, rather than explains, intelligence. It's kinda like saying, "You learn by using your intelligence to learn. It handles the learning, somehow. Now here are some tips on how to use your intelligence more effectively..."

They don't realize what's going on but this is a dirty trick. Induction doesn't work. How do you fix it? Well, induction plus intelligent thought is adequate to get intelligent answers. The intelligent thought does all the work! Any gaps in your theory of learning can be filled in if you presuppose an intelligence that is able to learn somehow.

One of the big points of epistemology is to figure out how intelligence learns without presupposing it works somehow. Yes it does work somehow, but let's figure out the details of the somehow!

I say new knowledge is created by evolution. They don't address the problem of how new knowledge can be created. Intelligence can do that, somehow. They don't know how. They seem to think they know how. They say intelligence creates new knowledge using perception, concept formation and induction. But then when you ask about the details of concept formation and induction, they presuppose intelligence...

Note: I do not blame Ayn Rand for this. I don't know how much of this is her fault. As far as I know from studying her writing, she didn't do this herself in her published works.


Elliot Temple | Permalink | Comments (4)

Harry Binswanger Refuses To Think

Harry Binswanger banned me – an active-minded philosopher who studies and loves Ayn Rand – from his Objectivist discussion forum.

Binswanger is a well known Objectivist. He knew Rand and Leonard Peikoff. He's affiliated with the Ayn Rand Institute and has been involved with some Objectivist books like the second edition of Introduction To Objectivist Epistemology and the Ayn Rand Lexicon. He wrote a book on epistemology, How We Know: Epistemology on an Objectivist Foundation. He published and edited The Objectivist Forum journal. Binswanger now runs an online paid Objectivist discussion forum, The Harry Binswanger Letter (HBL), which he started in 1998.

I participated at HBL for the last month. My contributions are publicly available (link).

Binswanger banned me, without warning, because he didn't like my ideas. I wasn't banned for violating any written rule. He didn't try to solve the problem. He hid the problem until the breaking point.

Subjective moderation makes discussion forums bad. Having discussions unpredictably shut down discourages anyone from putting effort into them. (Before banning me he shut down discussions about epistemology, because some readers didn't like them. And he shut down discussion about psychiatry, for no reason given.)

The unwritten HBL moderation policies disallow publicizing any mises.org webpage or George Reisman's Capitalism: A Treatise On Economics, but allow publicizing the evil, anti-capitalist huffingtonpost.com and Paul Krugman.

I advise members to find a better forum.

The announcement banning me, which hides the issue behind the title "Administrative note", reads (bold added, except in the first line):

One-line summary: I have removed Elliot Temple’s posting privileges

After much consideration, I decided to remove Elliot Temple’s posting privileges. His posts were not adding value to HBL, and they were: 1) coming from an alien context, 2) nearly always filled with wrong ideas–sometimes startlingly wrong (your eyes are, he says, “opinionated”)–ideas not well argued for, 3) combative, and 4) skating on the edge of violating our etiquette policy. They also were often too long.

All in all, I began to cringe when I saw his name on a post. Instead of the question “Is anything he’s written actually bad enough to take away his posting privileges?” I realized the question was more, “Why do I want him posting on my list, if almost every post brings me grief?”

After I made the decision, but before he knew of it, he posted a piece charging our dismissal of many of his “criticisms” as evasion–the cardinal sin for Objectivism. But, again, I read that only after reaching my decision.

In private email, he asked me to post the following for him:

1) I’ve been banned from posting to HBL, so don’t expect me to reply anymore.

2) It’s not my choice to end the discussions. I didn’t give up.

3) If anyone wants to continue a discussion, email me (elliot@fallibleideas.com). I’m happy to continue any of the discussions and respond to outstanding points, but only if people choose to contact me.

Binswanger considers critics "combative". He cringed each time I'd post a new criticism. He wants passive participants who drop unresolved issues without trying to pursue them to a conclusion. He isn't interested in different perspectives on Ayn Rand's ideas. After thinking about his feelings, he realized he wanted me gone, whether I'd done something wrong or not. He shut down discussion because of his emotional states of cringing and grief.

He says my ideas are wrong. He selected one example to present, but it illustrates his own dishonesty. I said that eyes can see green but not infrared, Binswanger replied accusing me of primacy of consciousness, I clarified again, and Binswanger dropped the topic.

My point, which Binswanger evaded, is that eyes have an opinionated design in the same sense an iPhone camera does. Apple engineers formed opinions about what types of photos are good and designed their camera to produce those photos. They chose lenses according to their judgement of what photos have value to their customers. They run software algorithms to adjust photos to better please their customers. The iPhone doesn't try to show you raw data, it tries to show you (Apple's opinion of) a good photo. (This is not a criticism of Apple's photography opinions, which I consider objectively good. The point is that Apple's judgement is present in the photo you see.)

Biological evolution created a particular range of human eye designs, and not others. Our eyes see some things and not others, and process the data with some algorithms. Our eyes don't just present raw data. They are not the only possible eye designs. These designs were evolutionary selected over others because of their value to the replication of the genes. The human eye is like an opinionated take on which way of seeing has survival value for humans on Earth – like the iPhone camera, it's designed to be particularly good at some things and bad at others, rather than having a neutral design.

I don't know what Binswanger thinks about opinionated camera designs or evolution's design of human eyes. He refused to discuss it.

It's dishonest for Binswanger to use this example to say I was wrong. He took my words out of context to imply I think eyes are conscious (which is ridiculous), rather than fairly presenting my actual views about opinionated designs. And this was the best attack he could come up with to excuse banning dissent.

No one made a complete case that I was mistaken about any idea I presented on HBL. No one pointed out a mistake I made and then argued the point to a conclusion. Nothing got resolved. They did hit-and-run attacks and then didn't address my counter-arguments. Or they'd misunderstand something, then drop the issue when I clarified.

Seeing how our initial discussions weren't reaching resolutions, I started to post about the topic of how to have a discussion. How to resolve debates is a difficult skill worth discussing. I expected discussing our differences to take time, but Binswanger was already out of patience. I talked about how to pursue issues to conclusions. Rather than reply, Binswanger banned me.

HBL is for Objectivists. I'm an Objectivist. I've extensively studied and discussed Objectivism, including over 50 readings of books by Ayn Rand. I agree with Rand more than most, perhaps all, HBL members. I've also studied other Objectivist thinkers, like Peikoff and Binswanger, but I disagree with them more (e.g. regarding induction and their leftwing political sympathies.)

Philosophical Detection

To get into more detail, I'll analyze Ayn Rand's Philosophical Detection, from Philosophy: Who Needs It. I'll compare her views to mine and to Binswanger's. Italics are from Rand, bold is from me.

A detective seeks to discover the truth about a crime. A philosophical detective must seek to determine the truth or falsehood of an abstract system and thus discover whether he is dealing with a great achievement or an intellectual crime.

Ayn Rand (AR) says philosophical detectives "must" figure out what's true and false. That means taking issues to conclusions, not just making a few arguments and stopping before anything is resolved.

The layman’s error, in regard to philosophy, is the tendency to accept consequences while ignoring their causes—to take the end result of a long sequence of thought as the given and to regard it as “self-evident” or as an irreducible primary, while negating its preconditions. ...

As a philosophical detective, you must remember that nothing is self-evident except the material of sensory perception—and that an irreducible primary is a fact which cannot be analyzed (i.e., broken into components) or derived from antecedent facts. You must examine your own convictions and any idea or theory you study, by asking: Is this an irreducible primary—and, if not, what does it depend on?

Binswanger said some of his ideas, like 2+3=5, were unquestionable. He said they were too simple to analyze, criticize, or be mistaken about. He maintained this even after two ways to break 2+3=5 down into components were discussed in detail. (One way involves computer circuits, the other involves Peano Axioms.) Binswanger objected to analyzing the components of arithmetic because he thought consciousness just adds and it's trivial. He treated a long sequence of learning math at school as an irreducible primary.

"2", "+", and "3" are components! Are they too trivial to misunderstand? Binswanger himself makes claims about integers that most people disagree with. Either he's mistaken, or others are, so someone misunderstands integers. Binswanger says infinity is a mistake and even says that very large numbers don't exist, like 10100100.

In modern history, the philosophy of Kant is a systematic rationalization of every major psychological vice. ...

... The wish to perceive “things in themselves” unprocessed by any consciousness, is a rationalization for the wish to escape the effort and responsibility of cognition

Binswanger was consistently hostile to my statements about how we don't perceive things in themselves, and have to actually think to figure out what's in reality. We have to take steps like understanding the physical properties of our eyes, the algorithmic information processing done by our visual system, the physical properties of photons, etc... We have to interpret what we see, taking into account many complex factors. This was the issue he chose to highlight when banning me. AR considers his attitude Kantian.

Perception is one of the areas where Binswanger openly disagrees with AR. He says he disagrees with her in footnote 22 on page 64 of his book How We Know.

Correspondence to reality is the standard of value by which one estimates a theory. If a theory is inapplicable to reality, by what standards can it be estimated as “good”?

This is another area where Binswanger and I disagree. Like AR, I value reality (meaning physical reality!) and I care about how theories correspond to reality. Consequently, I was interested in connecting my claims about epistemology to physics (the science which studies reality). And I spoke about what is and isn't physically possible (possible in reality).

Binswanger didn't care about the project of understanding epistemology in terms of physical reality and physical processes. He was content to treat intelligent consciousness as an irreducible primary without concern for the physical components. And he's a dualist! (That means he thinks consciousness is separate from physical reality.)

Rather than consider topics like evolution and computation which relate epistemology to physical reality, Binswanger treats consciousness as a starting point and believes it has special characteristics unrelated to physical reality. He just wants to do philosophy without worrying about physics too. Why dual major in both like John Galt?

Human brains, being physical objects (and computers in particular), do (physical) information processing. This computation replicates, varies and selects information. It's evolution, literally, and that's how humans are able to learn in physical reality. But Binswanger isn't interested in ideas like these. He'd rather divorce consciousness from the physical world.

The problems Binswanger is trying to address, which drive him to dualism, include dealing with the reality of abstractions and understanding emergent properties. David Deutsch has explained these issues in his books. Binswanger won't read the books which explain better views than he has, nor does he know of any refutation of the books by anyone, nor does he care that the books contain unanswered criticism of his positions.

You must attach clear, specific meanings to words, i.e., be able to identify their referents in reality. This is a precondition, without which neither critical judgment nor thinking of any kind is possible. All philosophical con games count on your using words as vague approximations. You must not take a catch phrase—or any abstract statement—as if it were approximate. Take it literally. Don’t translate it ... Take it straight, for what it does say and mean.

Binswanger repeatedly treated words and explanations approximately. He was unable or unwilling to discuss what Popper and I literally said. His attacks were routinely against unsaid conclusions he jumped to, which we denied. He translated our statements into approximate gists and got confused by narrow, limited statements.

Instead of dismissing the catch phrase, accept it—for a few brief moments. Tell yourself, in effect: “If I were to accept it as true, what would follow?” This is the best way of unmasking any philosophical fraud.

Binswanger used tactics like saying his ideas were unquestionable, and smearing critics as skeptics, rather than carefully and literally considering their arguments. Rather than consider and try to unmask philosophical errors, he spent his time presenting excuses for not thinking about criticism.

Since an emotion is experienced as an immediate primary, but is, in fact, a complex, derivative sum, it permits men to practice one of the ugliest of psychological phenomena: rationalization. Rationalization is a cover-up, a process of providing one’s emotions with a false identity, of giving them spurious explanations and justifications—in order to hide one’s motives, not just from others, but primarily from oneself. The price of rationalizing is the hampering, the distortion and, ultimately, the destruction of one’s cognitive faculty. Rationalization is a process not of perceiving reality, but of attempting to make reality fit one’s emotions.

Binswanger spent more effort rationalizing why not to engage with my ideas than considering my ideas. He felt grief and cringed when I wrote about ideas. He blamed me for his bad feelings. He says he doesn't like my ideas because I'm wrong. He says he dropped out of every discussion because I'm wrong. He came up with rationalizations for his negative emotions about my criticism.

Binswanger didn't win a debate on any point. He dropped out every time. And when I kept talking about ideas, he banned me.

Binswanger didn't make a rational case that I was ruining debate and preventing any conclusion from being reached. He didn't even try. He didn't know of some error I was making that would prevent him from from showing I was mistaken about one point. He just wasn't interested in being challenged. He has a passive mind.

I approached discussion in an active way. When one thing didn't work, I'd try something else. I demonstrated patience and perseverance. For example, I asked people to point out any errors in my methods, but no one had anything to say. And I made a long video where I thought out loud and recorded my writing process. I hoped someone could use the video to point out an error in my approach, but no one did.

I saw Binswanger approach discussion badly in a way which prevented reaching conclusions. He'd make a few arguments, hear a few counter-arguments, and just stop there. He'd refuse to read books. He'd refuse to answer questions. He'd refuse to answer criticisms. He'd misunderstand the same point in the same way, repeatedly, even after multiple clarifications. When I brought this up, I was banned instead of answered. I could have dealt with all those flaws if he'd continued to engage in discussion, but he wouldn't.

I've developed an approach I call Paths Forward for how to take discussions to conclusions. One can always take discussions to conclusions and address all criticism in a timely manner! Isn't that great? Binswanger wasn't interested. He doesn't want to write down his views in public, endorse good writing by others, expose all this to public judgment, and then work to improve his system of ideas to deal with critical challenges. He's content to think he's right, according to his own system of rationalizations, and refuse to deal with mistakes that people point out.

I have an epistemology which gives absolute yes/no answers instead of concluding with the vague maybes that Binswanger favors. Binswanger, like Peikoff, says ideas have a status like possibly, probably or certainly true, rather than dealing decisively with absolutes like true or false. I explained how we can always achieve an up-or-down verdict on an idea in a timely manner. Binswanger wasn't interested.

I say one must address every criticism of one's ideas. I talk about how this can be done without taking up too much time. Binswanger wasn't interested. He felt bad and banned me. What does AR say?

At their first encounter with modern philosophy [like Kant], many people make the mistake of dropping it and running, with the thought: “I know it’s false, but I can’t prove it. I know something’s wrong there, but I can’t waste my time and effort trying to untangle it.” Here is the danger of such a policy: ...

Even if I was advocating Kant (the worst of the worst), AR would say to answer my arguments!

Why bother dealing with criticism? Because you have no way to know which ideas are true or false if you don't. And:

What objectivity and the study of philosophy require is not an “open mind,” but an active mind—a mind able and eagerly willing to examine ideas, but to examine them critically.

Critical discussion is just what I advocated and emphasized, and Binswanger banned me to avoid. I was eager to examine ideas; Binswanger was unwilling.

An active mind does not grant equal status to truth and falsehood; it does not remain floating forever in a stagnant vacuum of neutrality and uncertainty; by assuming the responsibility of judgment, it reaches firm convictions and holds to them.

AR is saying to pursue ideas to the point of actually reaching answers! Don't just stop in the middle! That's what I attempted. Binswanger faked it. He announced some conclusions (I'm wrong!) that he hadn't rationally reached. (What was I wrong about? He declared I was wrong in the middle of the discussion, then didn't allow me to speak further.)

Since it is able to prove its convictions, an active mind achieves an unassailable certainty in confrontations with assailants—a certainty untainted by spots of blind faith, approximation, evasion and fear.

This is what I do and have achieved. I deal with all criticism, and have no fear of it. I have no need to dismiss ideas without answering them because I have answers.

People are welcome to try to assail my ideas. That helps me learn. I've now become familiar with all the common assaults. I learned answers to them or, in some cases, changed my mind.

I wish I could find critics with ideas that would take more effort to answer. Unlike Binswanger, I'd love that. It's one of the things I hoped to find at HBL. I seek out criticism that will require effort for me to address. I seek out challenging ideas.

If you keep an active mind, you will discover (assuming that you started with common-sense rationality) that every challenge you examine will strengthen your convictions, that the conscious, reasoned rejection of false theories will help you to clarify and amplify the true ones, that your ideological enemies will make you invulnerable by providing countless demonstrations of their own impotence.

That's been exactly my experience. But Binswanger banned me rather than deal with a challenge.

No, you will not have to keep your mind eternally open to the task of examining every new variant of the same old falsehoods. You will discover that they are variants or attacks on certain philosophical essentials—and that the entire, gigantic battle of philosophy (and of human history) revolves around the upholding or the destruction of these essentials. You will learn to recognize at a glance a given theory’s stand on these essentials, and to reject the attacks without lengthy consideration—because you will know (and will be able to prove) in what way any given attack, old or new, is made of contradictions and “stolen concepts.”

Of course! If criticisms get repetitive, come up with counter-arguments which address entire categories of criticism at once. Then write them down and reuse them. Learn to recognize when ideas make known errors which already have a written refutation, then give a reference instead of writing something new. This is what I advocate and do, but Binswanger couldn't or wouldn't do it.

Philosophical rationalizations are not always easy to detect. Some of them are so complex that an innocent man may be taken in and paralyzed by intellectual confusion.

I agree. But Binswanger finds it offensive to say you think someone is rationalizing or evading and to explain your reasoning. What's offensive about trying to share useful information about a difficult problem? He doesn't want criticism to tarnish his reputation and he doesn't want to reconsider his ideas.

if the false premises of an influential philosopher are not challenged, generations of his followers—acting as the culture’s subconscious—milk them down to their ultimate consequences.

I challenged Binswanger, who is influential in Objectivist circles, and he banned me for challenging him. One of his excuses was that some of his followers had been complaining. He's attracted followers who don't like challenges, and he tries to please them. (Several people contacted me with positive messages. I think they're too intimidated to tell Binswanger what they think.)

If, in the course of philosophical detection, you find yourself, at times, stopped by the indignantly bewildered question: “How could anyone arrive at such nonsense?”—you will begin to understand it when you discover that evil philosophies are systems of rationalization.

AR's position is like my position, which Binswanger opposed: Rational thinking centers around error correction!

How's it the same? AR says "evil", I say "irrational" and consider irrationality evil. AR says "systems of rationalization", and I know those prevent correcting errors.

AR and I agree: It's the blocking of discussion, the refusal to think about criticism, that's really evil and irrational. That's how people not only arrive at nonsense, but keep believing it over time.

I'd be happy to forgive Binswanger a thousand misconceptions. What ruins him is that he approaches philosophy with an elaborate system for refusing to deal with criticism. He's set things up so that when he's wrong, he stays wrong.

A “closed mind” is usually taken to mean the attitude of a man impervious to ideas, arguments, facts and logic, who clings stubbornly to some mixture of unwarranted assumptions, fashionable catch phrases, tribal prejudices—and emotions. But this is not a “closed” mind, it is a passive one. It is a mind that has dispensed with (or never acquired) the practice of thinking or judging, and feels threatened by any request to consider anything.

Binswanger has a passive mind. Rather than be curious about new ideas, he bans them. Rather than actively consider challenging ideas, Binswanger passively, stubbornly clings to a mix of unwarranted assumptions, catch phrases, prejudices, mistakes – and emotions. Binswanger doesn't pursue ideas to conclusions, so he's missing out on the limitless possibilities of The Beginning of Infinity.

Binswanger Quotes

Here's a brief sample of what Binswanger said on his forum over the last month. (His italics, my bold.)

There's no computation done anywhere outside the human mind. Even computers don't actually compute. In philosophy, we have to speak literally, not metaphorically.

He refused to explain what he means.

I think that it is unquestionable that counting is a simple operation. And it is unquestionable that an adult who adds, with reasonable care, 2 to 3 cannot be mistaken about what the answer is.

(He clarified that he declares it irrational to question the ideas he declares "unquestionable".)

Counting is a physical process which occurs in reality, so how simple it is depends on the laws of physics (and the method used). Physics is not only questionable, it's highly controversial.

it is impossible that I could be mistaken in saying “Two plus three is five.”

The obvious fact is that ... “2 + 3 = 5” cannot be wrong.

That's a tiny sample of his many infallibilist claims. Meanwhile he cast doubt on his own understanding of numbers:

it is widely believed that there’s a number like: 10^100^100. There isn’t.

He also has a problem with infinity.

[The claim that] You can’t guarantee that you reached your decision rationally. [That claim is] false. You can and had damn well better be sure you reached your decision rationally.

He thinks he can't be mistaken about whether his thinking is rational. He claims an infallible guarantee letting him ignore all criticism of his rationality.

Although I hesitate to use terms from an alien context, the closest, of the conventional terms, for the Objectivist semi-position on the mind-brain issue is “property dualism.”

... I’m not sure, myself, whether or not the issue is exclusively scientific.

What I'm resisting is the idea that on the subconscious side there is some unconscious equivalent of computing, judging, deciding. There isn't and couldn't be.

Addition is an action of consciousness.

He thinks the subconscious is like a hard drive that doesn't do any thinking or even compute any algorithms like addition.

Mr. Temple raises the question of how knowledge arises from non-knowledge. It doesn’t.

Also, when you write that you are not “afraid” of the arbitrary, I think you should be. If arbitrary assertions are good until refuted, nothing can be refuted.

positive support comes down to sameness; non-contradiction comes down to difference.

A child pushes a ball and sees it start to move. That is positive support for “Pushing balls makes them move.”

He's a naive inductivist. You look at the world and you see what causes what (somehow).

Now what can epistemology say about the [process of selecting ideas]? Several things, but none that will result in an algorithm, i.e., a mechanically applicable formula replacing judgment.

He presupposes an intelligent consciousness using intelligent judgment as the base of his epistemology. We know by using our intelligent judgment to know! He has no answers to how an intelligent consciousness actually works.

Conclusions

Ayn Rand wrote in The Virtue of Selfishness, How Does One Lead a Rational Life in an Irrational Society?:

One must never fail to pronounce moral judgment.
...
to pronounce moral judgment is an enormous responsibility. To be a judge, one must possess an unimpeachable character; one need not be omniscient or infallible, and it is not an issue of errors of knowledge; one needs an un-breached integrity, that is, the absence of any indulgence in conscious, willful evil. ...
... A judge puts himself on trial every time he pronounces a verdict. ... a man is to be judged by the judgments he pronounces.
...
The moral principle to adopt in this issue, is: “Judge, and be prepared to be judged.”
...
When one pronounces moral judgment, whether in praise or in blame, one must be prepared to answer “Why?” and to prove one’s case—to oneself and to any rational inquirer.
...
Moral values are the motive power of a man’s actions. By pronouncing moral judgment, one protects the clarity of one’s own perception and the rationality of the course one chooses to pursue. ...
Observe how many people evade, rationalize and drive their minds into a state of blind stupor, in dread of discovering that those they deal with—their “loved ones” or friends or business associates or political rulers—are not merely mistaken, but evil. Observe that this dread leads them to sanction, to help and to spread the very evil whose existence they fear to acknowledge.

I judge Harry Binswanger to be immoral. He lacks patience, curiosity, honesty and precision. He wants to tell others what to think and be admired, but doesn't want to learn. He has a system of rationalizations instead of an active mind. He calls his ideas obvious and unquestionable, and claims infallibility, to evade critical debate. He doesn't know how to resolve disagreements, judge ideas, or reach conclusions. He bans dissent that he emotionally dislikes.

If you have questions, criticism, or doubts, write them in the comments below. Don't just tell yourself that I'm mistaken and evade my counter-arguments. Either pursue the issue to a conclusion or don't judge it. And remember that my HBL posts are publicly available to read, so you can fact check my claims.

I'll close with Atlas Shrugged (my bold):

There were people who had listened, but now hurried away, and people who said, "It's horrible!"—"It's not true!"—"How vicious and selfish!"—saying it loudly and guardedly at once, as if wishing that their neighbors would hear them, but hoping that Francisco would not.

"Senor d'Anconia," declared the woman with the earrings, "I don't agree with you!"

"If you can refute a single sentence I uttered, madame, I shall hear it gratefully."

"Oh, I can't answer you. I don't have any answers, my mind doesn't work that way, but I don't feel that you're right, so I know that you're wrong."

"How do you know it?"

"I feel it. I don't go by my head, but by my heart. You might be good at logic, but you're heartless."

"Madame, when we'll see men dying of starvation around us, your heart won't be of any earthly use to save them. And I'm heartless enough to say that when you'll scream, 'But I didn't know it!'—you will not be forgiven."

Update: I've been banned from reading HBL for writing this post (previously I was only banned from posting). Binswanger offered no explanation or reply.


Elliot Temple | Permalink | Comments (52)

Ayn Rand on Thomas Szasz

Rewriting Rand is a long article about how Mayhew and others have made changes to the Rand archive material which has been made public. Books like Ayn Rand Answers don't actually present Rand's original words.

Mayhew also left out a bunch of interesting material include this:

To a question about the ideas of maverick psychiatrist Thomas Szasz, Rand replied, in part, “He seems to be for individual rights, but I cannot always follow his argument—I have questions, I have certain serious questions about some of his premises—therefore, I have not read enough to criticize him. All I can say is he’s promising” (Ford Hall Forum 1976, 40:55–41:32).

I like to find comments by my favorite philosophers about each other. They're interesting. I'm glad Rand recognized that Szasz was promising and was in favor of individual rights.

I wonder why Rand didn't write Szasz a letter and ask her questions. I'm confident he would have answered.


Elliot Temple | Permalink | Comments (0)

Atlas Shrugged Theme: Don't Overreach

One of the themes of Atlas Shrugged is one of the themes of my own philosophy: Don't overreach.

I say: If you exceed your abilities, if you try to do more than you can manage, then you will make more mistakes. More things will go wrong. If you do this too much it'll overwhelm your capability to deal with mistakes. That's overreaching: doing activities where your rate of making mistakes is too high for your ability to find and fix mistakes. Overreaching is bad, and pretty much all adult lives have tons of overreaching. The situation is so bad people just give up on correctness and try to muddle through life putting up with many unsolved mistakes.

Rand doesn't say that. But she says something related.

In Atlas Shrugged, the world has a bunch of nasty problems. Dagny tries to ignore them and run a railroad anyway, but the problems are pretty damn overwhelming and this doesn't work out in the long run despite how amazing Dagny is. What should she have done instead? Retreat from a world where she and her values aren't wanted. Give up the railroad. Give up on big accomplishments in screwed up world. Live her own life. Keep it simpler and smaller, like how they live in Galt's Gulch. But keep it pure with no corruption. Live in a way where everything works and there's no compromises, downsides, disasters, people working to make your life harder, looters stealing from you, taxes draining you, and so on.

In other words, Atlas Shrugged says to scale back your ambitions to projects which are reasonably possible in good ways – without tons of stuff going wrong. That's what John Galt and his allies do. They won't participate in corrupt, broken projects. They will only live life in ways that work. They'd rather have a single hand-tooled tractor in Galt's Gulch, or a little farm, or a few barrels of day of oil production, or a cabin instead of a skyscraper ... as long as it's fully theirs, it's fully pure and proper and correct ... there's nothing broken or wrong or bad about it.

In other words, it's better to have less without errors, corruptions, sacrifices, and moral compromises, rather than to have more at the cost of your soul or the cost of it not actually working right.

It's also like how you should learn things in general (e.g. typing, martial arts moves, or video game techniques): do it slowly and correctly and then speed up. Do not do it fast and wrong and try to fix the mistakes when there's a bunch of them. Speed up gradually so you only deal with a few mistakes at a time and keep the mistakes manageable.

In the introduction of Atlas Shrugged (35th anniversary edition), Peikoff quotes Rand's notes:

Her [Dagny's] error—and the cause of her refusal to join the strike—is over-optimism and over-confidence (particularly this last).

...

Over-confidence-in that she thinks she can do more than an individual actually can. She thinks she can run a railroad (or the world) single-handed, she can make people do what she wants or needs, what is right, by the sheer force of her own talent

Overreaching isn't just for beginners who try to act like experts. Even a great hero can overreach.


Elliot Temple | Permalink | Comments (44)

Open Letter to Charles Tew

Charles Tew is an Objectivist philosopher who makes lots of YouTube Videos. He writes:

After my experience with formal education, I decided that the most productive and rewarding path for a modern philosopher lay outside of the academic system, so I chose to work and teach independently online.

I appreciate the rejection of academia, and I liked his criticism of Alex Epstein, so I wrote a letter to him, below:


Charles Tew,

https://youtu.be/1d80WTH573k?t=15m10s

You say, "I seem to be critical of Objectivists in a way no one else is willing to be".

I am. For example, I have published criticism of Alex Epstein:

  1. http://curi.us/1688-alex-epstein-attacks-liberty
  2. http://curi.us/1618-alex-epstein-scholarship-problem
  3. http://curi.us/1852-alex-epsteins-pinnacle

I'm an Objectivist and Popperian philosopher who rejected academia. I independently write and make videos. See: https://elliottemple.com

I liked your criticism of Alex.

I worked with Alex for a while when CIP was newer. I did research for him, learned stuff about environmentalism from him, and wrote these articles for CIP:

http://industrialprogress.com/in-defense-of-plastic-bags/
http://industrialprogress.com/dont-take-power-for-granted/

Alex liked me and said I was one of the few people smart enough to contribute ideas to CIP. He has some good qualities, but I broke things off with him because of his unwillingness to discuss some disagreements to a resolution, and a few other flaws. He was content to ignore the disagreements, but I wasn't. Later I saw he was trying to do social status climbing and to suck up to various groups in ways I thought were immoral (see link #3 above for some info). I think Alex is on the road to become Gail Wynand (as the best case scenario, if he gets what he wants rather than staying somewhat obscure).

Some of the original disagreements:

Following Thomas Szasz, I consider "mental illness" a myth and psychiatry dangerous. Alex says things that aid psychiatry and refused to stop and replace them with neutral statements, while also refusing to refute my arguments or Szasz's books.

I wanted to discuss Popper and induction, but Alex chose never to get around to it. (This I could have accepted, but I think it's worth mentioning.)

Alex was unwilling to read the criticism of sustainability in The Beginning of Infinity by David Deustsch (a physicist and philosopher who is an Ayn Rand fan, a Popperian, and who I worked with extensively and learned a lot from for many years). I thought this was unreasonable because there aren't that many philosophical allies for Alex writing new books, so I considered it his job to become familiar with highly relevant ideas in his field. http://beginningofinfinity.com

We had some disagreements about physics which got in the way of Alex publishing an article about sustainability I was working on for him. (If Alex had read The Beginning of Infinity, he could have learned the physics I was talking about and how it's relevant to anti-sustainability arguments.)

Alex wasn't serious and careful enough about fact checking and sources/citations. See link #2 above for an example. I consider almost everyone to do an inadequate job with this. I have a scholarship blog category which mostly contains criticisms of various intellectual and books for this kind of problem. http://curi.us/archives/list_category/77

In drafts for Moral Case for Fossil Fuels, Alex attacked the tobacco industry and smokers. I asked him not to and thought it was an unnecessary tangent in addition to being wrong, but he kept it in. After the book came out, I criticized it in post #1 linked above.

Alex thought I was too arrogant because I criticized Peikoff. He said I should give Peikoff the benefit of the doubt. I did give Peikoff the benefit of the doubt, a ton, but I still reached some critical views anyway. (Despite his flaws, I still appreciate lots of Peikoff's work, especially his old audio recordings. I generally find his old stuff superior to his new stuff. My guess is it's because back then either Rand was still alive and guiding him, or less time had passed for him to go his own way.)

Some of my Peikoff criticism:

http://curi.us/1807-leonard-peikoff-says-hes-not-a-philosopher
http://curi.us/1976-peikoff-getting-parmenides-wrong
http://curi.us/1776-peikoff-children-are-property
http://curi.us/1694-leonard-peikoff-betrays-israel


Alex was part of the inspiration for my writing on what I call Paths Forward. It's about how and why to have some kinda path open by which your mistakes can be corrected and rational people can resolve disagreements with you instead of hitting a 100% impasse with no way to make progress. We should expect to be mistaken about some of our ideas (we're fallible), and in some cases other people know a better idea and would like to tell us, and it's bad to design our intellectual life in a way that that help cannot reach us. I've found pretty much all intellectuals in the world are uninterested in criticism and corrections. Many will discuss a bit, but then they just stop without having any methods of reaching some sort of resolution, and they don't really care. You can ask them something like: "What if you're wrong and your response to me essentially means you plan to stay wrong for the rest of your life? If you're wrong, much of your career will be a waste or actively harmful. And yet you have not addressed the following arguments that you're wrong, nor can you link to anyone else who has ever answered them..." And the answer is generally just: "I guess I'll risk it." And they don't care enough to take an interest in trying to create methods to enable a better answer. Sad! http://fallibleideas.com/paths-forward

An aspect of this which came up with Alex is he would respond to disagreements a few times but then stop, rather than doing enough back-and-forth to make serious progress. So I explained to him the proper pattern of discussion with really knowledgeable people who disagree:

I say something that Alex already has an answer to. We can't skip this step because I don't know which answer Alex will give. He briefly gives the answer, which I've heard before, and I say my answer to that. He can't predict my answer because there are several common answers. Then he says his next answer (that I've heard before, and already have an answer to, but can't predict due to there being other answers that other people use). And so on. You have to go back and forth repeatedly (but it should go quickly) to get to the first part where someone says something the other guy hasn't heard before. But he wouldn't do that, so it shut down discussion. (Virtually no one will do it.)

Alex was not receptive to this explanation and approach (nor did he explain why it's false). He seemed to think basically what everyone else also seems to think: that he was busy and that it was fine for him to just make unexplained judgement calls about what issues to pursue and what issues to be confident he's right about and ignore criticism regarding. Whereas I think that basically a serious intellectual should either answer a challenge, acknowledge he hasn't gotten around to answering it and therefore doesn't know in advance what conclusion he would reach if he had time for it (stay neutral), or link to anything written by anyone (other people or yourself in the past) which addressed the issue and you will endorse and take responsibility for. See the Paths Forward essays for more info.

BTW I found that Harry Binswanger was willing to discuss more than Alex, but it was only temporary and he then banned my dissent because – he said – some of his customers didn't like it. But if that was the whole issue, he would have continued discussing with me on another forum or privately. See my final summary, criticism, and moral judgement regarding Binswanger: http://curi.us/1930-harry-binswanger-refuses-to-think

My best judgement is that George Reisman is in the right in his dispute with Peikoff/ARI/Binswanger.


I hope you'll be interested in discussing some of this or some philosophy ideas. I bet we could find something we disagree about, in which case at least one of us could learn that we were mistaken. That appeals to me and hopefully to you too.


Update: I wrote some additional Thoughts on Charles Tew.


Elliot Temple | Permalink | Comments (45)

Thoughts on Charles Tew

Charles Tew (CT) is an Objectivist philosopher. I watched more of his YouTube videos and looked around his web presence. I have some comments. This is not a review. This is not a complete evaluation. It's some particular things I noticed, many of which are tangential to his main points.

This post will make more sense if you've already read my Open Letter to Charles Tew, and perhaps seen some of CT's videos. Also if you're familiar with Objectivism.


Some things CT said were really good. He has at least a sliver of greatness, which is rare. And I appreciate that he's a content creator, that he's trying to make stuff, share ideas, do something.

CT aims to be a firebrand. I appreciate that. There were sections of his videos which fit this and which I particularly liked. I think he's correct in his claim that aspects of his style are similar to Ayn Rand, and that ARI's style is dissimilar to Rand.

I surveyed the comments on several videos. The discussion quality in comments is terrible. I wondered how and why he attracted those people to comment, and if he values a higher view count without concern for who is watching and why. That's the kind of thing he's criticized others for. I wonder if CT thinks low quality comments are just inevitably part of how YouTube works, rather than depending on the audience you attract. Or perhaps he's concerned about it and wishes to improve the situation. Or didn't think of the issue and just took some normal social interaction stuff for granted.

CT replied "thank you" to two YouTube commenters who wrote generic praise. I didn't read that many comments, so there's presumably many more similar comments. That is not what Howard Roark would have done. It's sucking up get a larger audience of boring or bad people. It helps bring in more of the kind of people who write low quality comments. It signals not being a firebrand. There were other relevant signs too, like he said something about doing off-topic bits at the start of a video because Sam Harris structured videos that way – which suggests he's trying to copy what's popular instead of thinking about what, in his own opinion, makes the best format intellectually. (I just jump into the content in my videos. People don't or shouldn't care about my issues with audio equipment. That's far from the most important thing I have to talk about.)

CT said the only active intellectual today that he respects much is Harry Binswanger. I hope he'll reply to my Binswanger criticism, which I included in my letter to CT.

CT said he is not a member of HBL. He didn't explain why. I find that really strange. If I only admired one living intellectual, and they had a forum, I'd join it! I'd want to read their stuff and talk with them.

CT focuses many videos on popular non-Objectivists who are actively creating content today, like Stephan Molyneux, Sam Harris, Sargon of Akkad, or Jordan Peterson. I don't know why, but I don't agree with that emphasis. I spend a larger portion of my own time talking about ideas in general, or about ideas in relation to people who are important to philosophy (that's mostly dead people like Socrates, Aristotle, Godwin, Burke, Popper, Rand), or talking about ideas in relation to people I find notable and interesting in some way (who often happen to be obscure, like CT). Maybe CT is attracted to current social popularity. Why doesn't CT do more commentary and analysis regarding Binswanger (his favorite living content creator other than himself) or Ayn Rand (there is a shortage of quality material explaining Rand's books and helping people understand them correctly – who else makes stuff like my Atlas Shrugged Close Reading?).

People like Harris, Molyneux, Akkad and Peterson are not very important in the big picture. Responding to them won't change the world. (I'm responding to CT right now, but the primary purpose is to organize my own thoughts, and the secondary purpose is to share stuff about how I think and view the world which I think is important, valuable content. And I only do this kind of response as the minority of what I make.) If CT is actually important and right about almost everything – as he claims to believe – then he should find something better to do (like his books – except see my comments on that below). He should make really important material that's great for people who don't care at all about Harris/Peterson/etc. He should make timeless material about what really matters and what will actually potentially persuade many people and change the world. He should be trying to make improved versions of some of Ayn Rand's work – since Ayn Rand's work, great as it was, was inadequate to fix things and set the tone of the world. If that's too hard for him today, he should try to improve his philosophy so he can do that. He should aim for something that would make a big difference, not work to build up a bit more audience of people with little if anything to contribute. If his videos are just him practicing, that'd be OK but I don't think they are presented that way and they don't strike me as optimized for practicing and self-learning.

CT has videos about addiction. I didn't watch those. I focused on clicking video titles I thought I'd agree with or like for two reasons. One, those are more enjoyable in the straightforward way: I like things I like. There's plenty of things I dislike in the world and I don't seek them out without a specific reason. Two, I don't know if CT is open to discussion. This comes up with lots of content. I think it's wrong, and there's no way to fix that problem, no way to correct the author (or get corrected myself). Formulating my criticisms seems a bit pointless, if there's no discussion, when it's standard stuff I've already thought and written about a dozen times. And if I wanted to cover it again, I'd typically be better off doing it my own way – thinking about how I want to approach the material this time and why – instead of responding to a particular person. If CT is open to discussion and to engaging with important literature like Szasz (which he's either already read or ought to be happy to fill in the gap in his knowledge enough to have some opinion of Szasz's ideas), I'd be more interested in his views that I expect to disagree with in ways I've been over repeatedly in the past.

I didn't see CT learning much of anything from non-Objectivists, which concerns me because there are good ideas which Rand didn't know, which other people figured out. That includes plenty which don't contradict Objectivism, and also, IMO, a few which do correct Objectivism in some way (usually fairly minor in terms of how much it changes Objectivism – the one big correction I'm aware of is about induction, but even that is mostly a correction of Rand's followers like Peikoff – Rand herself wrote little about induction, said she wasn't an expert on it, and didn't claim to have a solution to the problem of induction. And Popper's solution, despite rejecting induction itself, solves the important problem and offers everything I think Rand would have wanted in an epistemology – in particular, that people can and do create legitimate knowledge).

I don't think CT should use Patreon. That site hates his values and kicks people off who they disagree with politically, e.g. Lauren Southern. CT could easily be kicked off Patreon if he gets enough income/fans/attention to be noticed. Even relying on YouTube much is risky – YouTube kicks some people off for having right wing political views, they're very biased. (I don't know if iTunes kicks off podcasts for political reasons.)

Reading

CT says he doesn't like reading that much. That's bizarre for someone saying they are a philosopher. Actually it's totally normal, but it's a mistake that seems weird to me because I know better. Part of a philosopher's job is to read a lot (and listen and watch material too). That involves developing skills including being great at (and, ideally, liking):

  • reading pretty fast
  • reading slowly and carefully
  • speed reading, preferably with multiple techniques so you can match the technique to the content
  • skimming
  • targeted, selective reading, including by using an index or a software feature to search for words
  • watching videos and listening to audio at high speed
  • using text to speech software, and broadly being good at converting things into other formats so you have a lot of control of how you go through content so you can choose the best options each time
  • reading Amazon reviews, using amazon's preview of the book, finding it on google books, googling the author, etc, to quickly get some info about a book
  • using the library
  • knowing how to quickly survey many books on a topic (some never getting past the online research phase, others you actually read parts of) and figuring out which are good or bad and why, and which to read (and which parts of them, or the whole thing) and which not to read

(I also think it's a philosopher's job to learn to write and to learn to like writing. Video and audio are only secondary formats. They have some good things about them but they aren't the primary way to communicate ideas with serious people. I have some more comments related to this below.)

Sanctuaries for the Best of the Human Species

Another thing I was wondering is whether CT wants to be alone in the world, to be special. He says things like that others don't criticize Objectivism like he does. Is he bragging, or would he be thrilled to find out I exist and eager to discuss with me? He hasn't replied to my letter yet, but it's only been a day. Maybe he's reading through the many links or he happens to be busy this weekend. Who knows. I will wait and see. This is not a criticism, it's just a potential issue I thought of, a way he could be. I'm not accusing him, just considering the possibilities. It's interesting to me because I consider myself to be in a similar position to what CT thinks his situation is. I think I'm pretty alone in a world of dumb people. This is a common belief. I have various reasons to think it which are not common. CT has some legitimate reasons to think this kinda thing, too. But anyway, I don't like it. I want better people to talk with, to get criticism from, to get suggestions from, to have more articles worth reading and videos worth watching, etc. But lots of people actually don't want that. It's intuitive to me to want it, and I kinda assumed CT would want it when I wrote my letter, but it occurred to me that my perspective is unusual, so maybe he's not interested in finding someone reasonably like-minded who he can talk with as perhaps an equal or even someone who is anywhere near equal. (Related, why wouldn't he be on HBL talking with Binswanger? Binswanger is actually pretty responsive to people who post on his HBL forum. So CT could be talking more with someone he admires, if he wanted to.) I think one should want to find, meet and talk with great people. One should care enough to pursue leads on that, and definitely not feel threatened by it. One of my favorite passages from Atlas Shrugged:

“Miss Taggart, do you know the hallmark of the second-rater? It’s resentment of another man’s achievement. Those touchy mediocrities who sit trembling lest someone’s work prove greater than their own—they have no inkling of the loneliness that comes when you reach the top. The loneliness for an equal—for a mind to respect and an achievement to admire. They bare their teeth at you from out of their rat holes, thinking that you take pleasure in letting your brilliance dim them—while you’d give a year of your life to see a flicker of talent anywhere among them. They envy achievement, and their dream of greatness is a world where all men have become their acknowledged inferiors. They don’t know that that dream is the infallible proof of mediocrity, because that sort of world is what the man of achievement would not be able to bear. They have no way of knowing what he feels when surrounded by inferiors—hatred? no, not hatred, but boredom—the terrible, hopeless, draining, paralyzing boredom. Of what account are praise and adulation from men whom you don’t respect? Have you ever felt the longing for someone you could admire? For something, not to look down at, but up to?”

“I’ve felt it all my life,” she said. It was an answer she could not refuse him.

Also there's one of my favorite Rand quotes that I've never seen any other Objectivists take notice of, from The “Inexplicable Personal Alchemy” in The Return of the Primitive:

Where are America’s young fighters for ideas, the rebels against conformity to the gutter—the young men of “inexplicable personal alchemy,” the independent minds dedicated to the supremacy of truth?

With very rare exceptions, they are perishing in silence, unknown and unnoticed. Consciously or subconsciously, philosophically and psychologically, it is against them that the cult of irrationality—i.e., our entire academic and cultural Establishment—is directed.

They perish gradually, giving up, extinguishing their minds before they have a chance to grasp the nature of the evil they are facing. In lonely agony, they go from confident eagerness to bewilderment to indignation to resignation—to obscurity. And while their elders putter about, conserving redwood forests and building sanctuaries for mallard ducks, nobody notices those youths as they drop out of sight one by one, like sparks vanishing in limitless black space; nobody builds sanctuaries for the best of the human species.

I have a discussion forum (plus websites, articles, videos, open blog comments, and a public email address) that attempts to offer some sanctuary for the best of the human species, especially fighters for ideas. I am unaware of any serious attempt by anyone else to build such a sanctuary (and I've looked quite a lot, both for sanctuaries and for people to invite to mine or discuss with). I hope CT will appreciate and join my sanctuary, or at least care enough to say what he thinks is wrong with it – or, in the alternative (or additionally) I hope he'll care to build his own sanctuary and try to offer sanctuary to me (or tell me why I'm not worthy of such a sanctuary – what am I so wrong or dumb about, that I'm not at all the person I think I am, and is there any way to fix it?). If CT is the person he thinks he is and claims to be, he ought to know this quote and have thought about it, and be taking action accordingly, right? Or if he missed it, perhaps he'll thank me for pointing him to it and start living by it. I know he's trying to be a fighter for ideas, and I respect that, and I am too, and I hope that can lead to some mutually beneficial interaction – but I've had similar hopes with many people and routinely been disappointed by how bad and unreasonable they turn out to be. And unlike most people who say that, I have much of it publicly documented and anyone is welcome to point out how I'm mistaken in my evaluations of what happened. But I haven't given up and have e.g. contacted CT!

Also related to my own view of the world: when I wrote my letter to CT, at the end I suggested discussion. I had in mind asychronous text discussion, particularly on a forum with support for nested quoting and permalinks. He may have thought I wanted a verbal discussion, perhaps to go on YouTube. He seems to favor that kinda format. But I don't think verbal discussion is very good compared to text, especially when it's done in real time so people are rushed. Text with proper quoting is the most serious format which is best for making intellectual progress. It's easier to clear up miscommunications with text, easier to avoid talking past each other, easier to double check things (rereading is much easier than asking people to repeat things), it's easier to be calm and unemotional, it's easier to edit, it's easier for other people to skim or engage with, and so on.

And guys, this isn't just about CT. If you're reading this, and you think you're a fighter for ideas, or want to be, say something. Type a comment below.

Book Writing

CT is writing multiple books but doesn't seem to have any (public) essays. He should build up to books. Writing is hard. People should start small, e.g. tweets.

Master writing tweets. Then 250 word essays, then 500 word essays. Write dozens or hundreds. Work your way up to long essays (like 3000 words). Get really experienced with that. Find out all kinds of ways it's hard, what problems come up, etc, and make progress as a writer. Get fast and comfortable at writing and editing, so it's natural and intuitive and partly automated.

And try dozens of writing styles and see what works well for you, what you like, etc. Experiment.

And read stuff about how to write. Look for tips. Look for in-depth guides. See what ideas are out there and start forming opinions of them and trying most of them out at least a little.

Try to figure out what types of editing and polishing produce a lot of value, and what's unnecessary except for your most polished material, and what's unnecessary in all cases. How can you best spend your writing time to efficiently create a lot of value? What is less efficient but worth doing in special cases? What is common stuff people do that you shouldn't do at all?

After long essays, don't just keep making slightly longer things until you get to books. That won't work well. Long essays can be written with certain kinds of organizational techniques (and, indeed, with limited knowledge of organizing writing at all) and books need other, different ones. To work towards books, the next step after long essays is to try different ways of organizing what you write.

Try different methods of outlining. Try different approaches without an outline. Try different ways of writing notes about the essay in advance to see what helps or not. (Some of this will have been learned while writing essays in the first place, but focus on it more now.) Try dividing essays into named or unnamed sections more. Try writing strictly or loosely to an outline. Try more or less detailed outlining. Try various methods of brainstorming about what to write. Try writing by inspiration for topic and content. Try writing in a more methodical way or more casually and off-hand like speaking in real time or like stream of consciousness writing. Try writing test essays about a topic and seeing how they come out, then a separate real one. Try writing a really-quick, super-rough draft, then editing the hell out of it. Try approaches with more or less editing. Try developing the skill of writing good material the first time that doesn't need much editing – quickly, without a high effort – and see if you can do that effectively. And so on.

And then try putting together longer stuff in various ways, e.g. by writing a 15k word piece that involves 5 long essays glued together, and try different ways of gluing smaller pieces into bigger works. Try making bigger works with fairly independent parts, and with more interconnections, and compare the results and the difficulty of creating them. And think about whether tight coupling of sections of writing is good or bad and why. Tight coupling is the programmer term for having lots of dependencies between parts of a program and, spoiler alert, it's broadly considered bad. Find out issues like that exist – there are many others worth knowing about – and learn about them.

Books are hard – especially some types more than others – and many people spend a ton of time on writing a book and get a bad result. It's better to spend a ton of time on practicing and learning and get to the point you're more reasonably confident you know how to do a good book, and you have the skills so that it won't cost so much time and energy to make. Also, before books, one needs to debate hundreds of people, if not thousands (not as video taped social performances, but mostly as asynchronous text discussion). One really needs to do his best to get criticism from all comers, to find out every reason anyone knows that the ideas you plan to put in the book may be mistaken, and address that. One needs to subject all the book ideas to Paths Forward. One should normally only write books about ideas that one already has public essays about (to allow people to reply to the ideas before you put all the work into making a book version). (BTW, I'm not picky about publication mediums. Blog posts are a type of essay. It doesn't have to be prestigious. You can self-publish on your own website, no problem. You do need to visit other people's forums to seek out more discussion and feedback though, especially if you're obscure.)

Book writing is normally overreaching. People make an overwhelmingly large amount of errors while writing books – which overwhelms their ability to correct errors, and so the books end up with tons of errors in them – because they don't have the massive amount of background knowledge one needs to properly prepare.

In general, people should mostly do fairly easy things. If something isn't easy for you, that means it has a high resource cost (time, energy, etc) for you to do it. If you built up your skills more first – if you focused on self-improvement and self-education more for a while – then you could do the same thing for a cheaper resource cost. If you keep becoming more powerful and practicing and learning, things get easier and easier, so you can do them at a lower resource cost and have way more resources left over to keep learning even more. It's important for life to be a virtuous cycle with a big focus on making progress, and you keep getting better at doing things so you can do more and more stuff more easily. But what people usually do is they focus so much on doing things (like writing books) way too early on, and it's really expensive and takes all their time and energy away from making progress, and so they are always resource-starved (too busy) to learn as much as they should, and so they never get very far in life. And they think they can't take time out to do a bunch more learning and practicing because they don't have time for it, but such activities save time in the long run!

I don't know if CT is making these mistakes but I suspect it (not an accusation, just my initial guess that I will readily change my mind about if I get more information indicating otherwise) and I wanted to write about them again, and some of my comments about how to build up towards writing a book are new.


Elliot Temple | Permalink | Comments (17)

Objectivism and Empathy Discussion

A new guy joined the Fallible Ideas chatroom on Discord (come join us and ask a question!) and had some questions about Objectivism. Excerpt:

The objectivist ideology is lacking in empathy. <-- this is the claim

How likely is that to be the case?

Objectivism strongly lacks empathy in some cases, and has plenty in others. it depends on the situation and the things at stake. Harris doesn't attempt to define empathy, investigate when it's good or bad, appropriate or inappropriate, and engage with the Objectivist position on the matter or explain his own mainstream position on the matter.

...

In one of my favorite Rand quotes, she suggests redirecting empathy from some less important causes to another more important cause. The point is a disagreement about which things (smart youths or ducks) are more deserving of empathy, charity, help.

They [young fighters for ideas, rebels against conformity, independent minds seeking the truth] perish gradually, giving up, extinguishing their minds before they have a chance to grasp the nature of the evil they are facing [our irrational culture]. In lonely agony, they go from confident eagerness to bewilderment to indignation to resignation—to obscurity. And while their elders putter about, conserving redwood forests and building sanctuaries for mallard ducks, nobody notices those youths as they drop out of sight one by one, like sparks vanishing in limitless black space; nobody builds sanctuaries for the best of the human species.

Read the full conversation: 12 page PDF


Elliot Temple | Permalink | Comments (0)