Saturday, March 29, 2008

Smarter than Rand? You didn't hear it from me!

I received a comment recently from someone who claimed I'm just like a bunch of other Rand critics who think they're smarter than Rand. I chose to reject the comment because the person who sent it really didn't get into specifics and I felt that the accusation was unfounded. Perhaps I was too hasty.

I certainly am not claiming to be smarter than Rand nor do I claim to have answers to questions that are posed here. It's not an issue of intelligence. It's an issue of intellectual honesty and objectivity. I'm encouraging people to think critically about the philosophy they're advocating. For years I accepted what I read because it sounded true and was in line with general conclusions I had come to on my own or was predisposed to accepting. I'm sure there are lots of you out there in the same boat. That's fine.

My reading of various philosophers who are generally influenced by Aristotle (and some who aren't) plus my own research and life experience spurred me to take a harder look at Objectivism. Right now I have more questions than answers. If I were so smart, as the commenter claims, I'd have all of the answers!

Introductory Thoughts (continued)

Just realized that I missed one key component: epistemology.

Rand held that our senses can be trusted to accurately perceive reality and that we can form concepts tied to reality. Truth describes the relationship of our knowledge to reality. While I agree in broad terms with this there are still some thorny questions.

Here is one. Given that the emotional mechanism of our brain, the limbic system, predates the development of the neo-cortex, considered the seat of rational thinking, how do we ensure that our emotions do not adversely affect our objectivity?

I know Rand named her philosophy on the idea that the universe exists independently of our hopes, fears and wishes. I think the term “objectivism” should also apply to our frame of mind: that it behooves us to strive to be objective when coming to conclusions. As Daniel Goleman explains in Emotional Intelligence, our rational faculty developed only recently compared to the emotional centers of our brain with their roots stretching back to the beginning of our evolutionary development. Reason, the newcomer, tries to bridle an ancient, powerful emotional mechanism. “There was an emotional brain long before there was a rational one.” Most of the time, reason and emotion can successfully work together. Occasionally, however, our emotions can “hijack’ our nervous system.

The prime culprit in these hijackings is the amygdala, a center in the limbic system. The amygdala occupies a unique position: it receives the same sensory signals as the neocortex but does so before the neocortex. In addition, the amygdala constantly scans incoming data for threats. If it senses a threat, “the amygdala reacts instantaneously, like a neural tripwire, telegraphing a message of crisis to all parts of the brain.” The amygdala leaps into action before the neocortex can analyze and assess the situation, making it difficult to corral the emotions.

Unfortunately, some people have amygdalas wired with a hair trigger. Furthermore, traumatic events can indelibly imprint the amygdala so deeply that years later it can be triggered by sensory input bearing just a passing resemblance to the original event. These people have to contend with this imprinting for the rest of their lives.

The basic conclusion is that being objective is much tougher and involves more work than we might realize.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Introductory Thoughts

As the title of this blog indicates I intend to take a critical look at Objectivism from a friendly point of view. I’m not a Rand basher; I believe Rand offered some important ideas. The core concepts are:

  1. that an objective reality exists (metaphysics),
  2. that we have the right to live our own lives and pursue values for our benefit (egoism),
  3. and that the free market operating within the framework of a limited government that protects our rights is needed to give us the freedom and opportunity to pursue our happiness (politics and economics).

Over time I plan to raise questions and offer suggested answers for some of them. I’ll admit up front that there are some subjects for which I definitely don’t have answers, such as resolving quantum mechanics with Objectivism. I’m hoping someone out there might have some input.

I believe Rand and many of her fans make the same mistake of other “isms.” They latch onto a kernel (or kernels) of truth then claim these kernels represent the whole truth. Ken Wilber, one of my favorite writers, likes to say that no one is so brilliant that they’re 100% wrong. I like to reverse it and say no one is so brilliant that they’re 100% right. In Rand’s case I think she didn’t have the patience or temperament to think through the nuances, implications and potential weaknesses of her positions. I like to describe my position as Objective-BUT-ism, meaning I agree with a certain premise or conclusion BUT with a caveat or a modification.

In essence, I feel reality is much more complicated than Rand acknowledged and therefore her philosophy needs to be more nuanced. The final result of addressing these nuances might end up with conclusions that Rand and her followers would not label “Objectivism.” So be it. I prefer to take the approach Anthony Flew recommends: follow where the evidence leads. It’s more important to me if a given conclusion is true than if it is deemed “Objectivist.” (This also gets us into the debate whether Objectivism is an open or a closed philosophy. Obviously, I’m in the “open” camp.)

Below are some brief examples which I hope to explore as this blog develops.


  • How does quantum mechanics and relativity theory square with Rand’s positions?
  • Intelligent design. Is ID merely the ranting of whim worshipping mystics or do they ask questions worth investigating?
  • How does Objectivism deal with the Big Bang theory?


  • Do ALL acts have to serve one’s self-interest?
  • Are there appropriate acts which don’t necessarily threaten your survival that benefit someone else?
  • How does an ethic of self-interest help us decide between two choices, neither one of which threatens our survival? What criteria do we use? (This was the subject of my paper Is Self-Interest Enough?)
  • Exactly how does parenthood further my survival?


  • Do we observe the rights of others strictly because it’s in our self-interest? Can there be another legitimate reason?
  • Do rights come with responsibilities?
  • Should the government NEVER help people? What about those who simply do not have the means to support themselves thanks to the lottery of birth such as those born with severe defects?
  • Speaking of birth, are ALL abortions OK? Even late in the third trimester? What about partial birth abortions?
  • Is altruism the only or even the primary reason why politics in the U.S. is constantly drifting to the Left?

This gives a taste of the kind of issues this blog will discuss. I don’t claim to have answers to all (or even most) of the questions. My goal is to spark thought and discussion.

Saturday, March 8, 2008

Kudos for the Ayn Rand Institute

Anyone who happens to find this blog would probably know that I harbor some criticisms of Objectivism which would automatically disqualify me from being associated with ARI. To modify something Woody Allen said, I won’t belong to an organization that won’t have me. In any case, my first exposure to Ayn Rand was in 1968 as a freshman entering college, the year of the Rand-Branden split. Two of the people I hung out with in college who had been studying Objectivism for about a year originally sided with Rand. (One of them is a staff member of The Atlas Society but I won’t divulge the name in case this person objects.) Years later when Barbara Branden published The Passion of Ayn Rand I had come to the conclusion that there was more to the story about the Branden excommunication than the official version. I also concluded that Branden’s biography probably was a reasonably accurate depiction of Rand’s personality and its affects on the “Inner Circle” as well as those on the periphery.

Over the years my reading expanded beyond the usual Objectivist-approved books to include modern Aristotelians such as John Kekes and David Norton. (Norton’s Personal Destinies is still one of my favorite books.) Within the last 10 years I happened to also read Ken Wilber’s works after Nathaniel Branden referred to Wilber in a Full Context interview. (By the way, I used to write for Full Context.)

In the meantime I’ve subscribed to TAS's The New Individualist but not to any of the ARI-friendly mailing groups because I cannot in good conscience sign their loyalty oath. (Nor, as I said above, do I think they'd accept me.)

Why all of this personal information? To set the context for this post. Diana Hsieh posted a link to a video of ARI’s president Yaron Brook in which he discusses why he is optimistic about the future. He explained how ARI has placed about 1 million of Ayn Rand’s novels into the hands of teachers since 2002. Brook estimates that as many as 5 million kids could be exposed to her novels over the next several years. Visiting the ARI web site I also noticed they have developed lesson plans for teachers to use.

I think this is a clever and potentially successful strategy. Rand often said the route to cultural change was through the universities where kids are exposed to ideas at a time when they’re forming their own views on politics and life in general. The ARI approach of catching ‘em when they’re young and before kids enter college could help build a grassroots movement. Speaking from experience in raising twin girls I know they’re exposed to (politically) liberal, anti-free market ideas in high school but the intensity of this exposure seems to increase in college.

I think ARI folks realize that some percentage of these kids will be influenced enough to pursue Rand’s non-fiction and get heavily into the philosophy. Some percentage will read the books and move on. Others won’t dig into the philosophy but will like her approach. I’ve met several people through work and just recently in my tennis group who are confident and somewhat politically conservative. When they see me carrying a book related to Rand they’d say that they loved her novels. I’m sure over time this affect will spread as Brook predicts. If so, we should give ARI some credit for their role in this.

Sunday, March 2, 2008

The Happiness Hypothesis

After reading The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom by Jonathan Haidt last year I've struggled with how to review it on this blog. It is one of the most interesting, wide-ranging and thought-provoking books I've read in a while. But I wanted to say more than just what the previous sentence does. I debated whether to break the review into pieces to cover the major themes or try to cover the book in one post. So time passed by with me getting no closer to posting something. Recently I came across a web page called The Edge in which Haidt does a nice job summarizing his book. Even so, this summary is 10 pages long! The link is provided here so you can read it yourself.

His essay comments on a group he calls the New Atheists: David Sloan Wilson, Michael Shermer, Sam Harris and others. They responded to Haidt's essay with Haidt getting the final word at the end.

Why do I have a post on Haidt's book? Because I believe Objectivists would benefit from his observations even if you ultimately disagree with him. The Objectivist literature is quiet on how our evolution as a species affects how we think and feel. Rand did say we are rational animals but I believe the animal part of this formulation was shed and/or buried in the emphasis on reason. Our brains evolved over millions of years with the rational portion being a fairly late development. Our emotional mechanism was in place long before our reasoning capabilities emerged. I believe we need to address this in our philosophy.

Below are a few selected quotes from Haidt's Edge essay.
I'll have more on this subject in the weeks ahead.

morality, and rationality itself, were crucially dependent on the proper functioning of emotional circuits in the prefrontal cortex.

If the building blocks of morality were shaped by natural selection long before language arose, and if those evolved structures work largely by giving us feelings that shape our behavior automatically, then why should we be focusing on the verbal reasons that people give to explain their judgments in hypothetical moral dilemmas?

Studies of everyday reasoning show that we usually use reason to search for evidence to support our initial judgment, which was made in milliseconds.

we did not evolve language and reasoning because they helped us to find truth; we evolved these skills because they were useful to their bearers, and among their greatest benefits were reputation management and manipulation.