Flannery O'Connor died 50 years ago today. About Ayn Rand she has this to say:
I hope you don’t have friends who recommend Ayn Rand to you. The fiction of Ayn Rand is as low as you can get re fiction. I hope you picked it up off the floor of the subway and threw it in the nearest garbage pail. She makes Mickey Spillane look like Dostoevsky.
The Russian boys were lined up for beer; perhaps one of them couldn't wait his 'transcendental' turn and the other, forsaking duty for inclination, shot him categorically albeit phenomenally. Or maybe the shooter was attempting to demonstrate that the transcendentally ideal can also be empirically real. Or perhaps the shooter was a Randian hothead and the man shot was a Kantian.
This is what comes of ignoring 'motorist' Rodney King's rhetorical question, 'Kant we all just get along?'
For Ayn Rand and her followers, Kant is the devil incarnate. I don't dispute that Rand made some good points, but her tabloid outbursts anent the Sage of Koenigsberg aren't worth the hot air that powered them. Despite her frequent invocations of reason, her work would be a worthy target of a Critique of Poor Reason.
In January and February of 2009 I wrote a number of posts critical of Ayn Rand. The Objectivists, as they call themselves, showed up in force to defend their master. I want to revisit one of the topics today to see if what I said then still holds up. The occasion for this exercise is my having found Allan Gotthelf's On Ayn Rand (Wadsworth 2000) in a used bookstore. Gotthelf is a professional philosopher who teaches at Rutgers. So I thought that if anyone is able to disabuse me of my extremely low opinion of Ayn Rand he would be the one to do it.
On p. 48 of Gotthelf's book, we find:
The "first cause" (or "cosmological") argument maintains that God is needed as the creator and sustainer of the material universe. But that is to say that existence needs consciousness to create or sustain it. It makes a consciousness -- God's consciousness -- metaphysically prior to existence. But existence exists. It can have no beginning, no end, no cause. It just is. And consciousness is a faculty of awareness, not of creation. The first cause argument violates both the axiom of existence and the axiom of consciousness.
Now axioms are self-evident truths needing no proof. (37) So if the cosmological argument violates the two axioms mentioned, it is in bad shape indeed! But what exactly are the axioms?
According to the axiom of existence, "Existence exists." Gotthelf takes this to mean that Something exists. (37) If that is what it means, then it is indeed a self-evident truth. For example, it is self-evident (to me) that I exist, which of course entails that something exists. But it is equally self-evident (to me) that I am conscious. For if I were not conscious then I would not be able to know that I exist and that something exists. "That one exists possessing consciousness is the axiom of consciousness, the second philosophic axiom." (38)
The first axiom is logically prior to the second. This is called the primacy of existence and it too is axiomatic though not a separate axiom. "The thesis that existence comes first -- that things exist independent of consciousness and that consciousness is a faculty not for the creation of its objects but for the discovery of them -- Ayn Rand call the primacy of existence." (39)
Now how does the cosmological argument (CA) violate these axioms? Gotthelf tells us that the argument makes God's consciousness metaphysically prior to existence, and therefore violates the axiom of consciousness. But it does no such thing.
'Existence' just means all existing things taken collectively, as Gotthelf points out. (p. 48, n. 6) So if the CA makes God's consciousness metaphysically prior to existence, then the CA makes God's consciousness metaphysically prior to all existing things. But this is just false: the CA does not make God's consciousness metaphysically prior to God's existence, nor does it make God's consciousness metaphysically prior to the existence of abstract objects. So the CA does not make the divine consciousness metaphysically prior to all existing things. What it does is make God's consciousness metaphysically prior to some existing things, to contingent beings, including all material beings.
One reason, and perhaps the main reason, why the vast majority of professional philosophers consider Ayn Rand to be a hack is that she argues in an intolerably slovenly way. She gives arguments so porous one could drive a Mack truck through them. It is surprising to me that a philosopher with Gotthelf's credentials could uncritically repeat these arguments in the same slovenly way. Surely he understands the difference between all and some. Surely he can see that the argument of his that I quoted is a bad argument trading as it does on an equivocation on 'existence' as between all existing things and some existing things.
A cosmological arguer could cheerfully grant that the following are self-evident truths: Things exist; consciousness exists; the existence of conscious beings is metaphysically prior to their being conscious. The existence of God is logically consistent with each of these truths and with the three of them taken in conjunction.
One of the problems with Rand is that she smuggles substantive, controversial content into what she calls her axioms. I grant that it is axiomatic that "existence exists" if that means that something exists. But how is it supposed to follow from this that the things that exist "have no beginning, no end, no cause"? My desk exists, but it obviously had a beginning, will have an end, and had a cause.
Or does she and Gotthelf mean that what has no beginning, end, or cause is that something or other exists? That is rather more plausible, but obviously doesn't following from the trivial truth that something exists.
Gotthelf uses retortion to show that it is undeniable that something exists. (37) For if you maintain that nothing exists, you succumb to performative inconsistency. The propositional content of the statement that nothing exists is shown to be false by the existence of the speech act of stating, the existence of the one who speaks, and the existence of the context in which he speaks. But please note that there is nothing performatively inconsistent in stating that the things that exist have a beginning, an end, and a cause.
There are similar 'smuggling' problems with respect to the axiom of consciousness. It is indeed axiomatic and self-evident that conscious beings exist. And it too can be proven retorsively. For if you maintain that no one is conscious, then your performance falsifies the content of your claim. (38) But how is it supposed to follow from conscious beings exist that every consciousness is a consciousness of something that exists independently of the consciousness? For this is what Rand and Gotthelf need to show that "The very concept of 'God' violates the axioms . . . ." (49) They need to show that "to postulate a God as creator of the universe is to postulate a consciousness that could exist without anything to be conscious of." (49)
Rand and Gotthelf are making two rather elementary mistakes. The first is to confuse
1. Every consciousness is a consciousness of something (objective genitive)
2. Every consciousness is a consciousness of something that exists. (objective genitive).
(1) may well be true; (2) is obviously false. One who consciously seeks the Fountain of Youth seeks something, but not something that exists. There can be no consciousness without an object, but it does not follow that every intentional object exists.
The second mistake is to think that (2) follows from conscious beings exist. One lands in performative inconsistency if one denies that conscious beings exist. One does not if one denies (2).
It is important not to confuse the subjective and objective genitive construals of (2). (2) is plainly false if the genitive is objective. (2) is trivially true if the genitive is subjective. For it is trivially true that every consciousness is some existing thing's consciousness.
One gets the distinct impression that Rand and Gotthelf are confusing the two construals of (2). They think that because consciousness is always grounded in the existence of something, that every object of consiousness must be an existent object.
Gotthelf's claim that "to postulate a God as creator of the universe is to postulate a consciousness that could exist without anything to be conscious of" (49) is plainly false and deeply confused. For one thing, God is conscious of himself and of all necessarily existent abstract objects. And 'after' the creation of the universe, he has that to be conscious of as well.
What Rand does is simply smuggle the impossibility of a universe-creating conscious being into her axioms. Gotthelf uncritically follows her in this. But that has all the benefits of theft over honest toil, as Russell remarked in a different connection.
Here, via Reppert, who cleverly speaks of Rand's "Jack-hammering":
Ayn Rand was no fan of C.S. Lewis. She called the famous apologist an “abysmal bastard,” a “monstrosity,” a “cheap, awful, miserable, touchy, social-metaphysical mediocrity,” a “pickpocket of concepts,” and a “God-damn, beaten mystic.” (I suspect Lewis would have particularly relished the last of these.)
. . . that music was the moment at which Beethoven finally passed beyond the suffering of his life on earth and reached for the hand of God, as God reaches for the hand of Adam in Michaelangelo's vison of the creation.
Well, either the adagio movement of the 9th or the late piano sonatas, in particular, Opus 109, Opus 110, and Opus 111. To my ear, those late compositions are unsurpassed in depth and beauty.
In these and a few other compositions of the great composers we achieve a glimpse of what music is capable of. Just as one will never appreciate the possibilities of genuine philosophy by reading hacks such as Ayn Rand or positivist philistines (philosophistines?) such as David Stove, one will never appreciate the possibilities of great music and its power of speaking to what is deepest in us if one listens only to contemporary popular music.
I have been enjoying your blog for a couple of years now, and I have to say that I like how your mind works. There are a lot of issues I am thinking about currently regarding philosophy and that didn't change after reading Angus Menuge's book Agents Under Fire. If you haven't read that, I strongly recommend you to. He has some very interesting arguments regarding reason, intentionality, agency, reductionism, materialism etc. One issue is bugging me particularly these days, and it is the ever-lasting question of free will. I hope I am not asking too much, but would you be able to tell me what your position about free will is and briefly explain why you hold that position?
My position, bluntly stated, is that we are libertarianly free. As far as I'm concerned the following argument is decisive:
1. We are morally responsible for at least some of our actions and omissions. 2. Moral responsibility entails libertarian freedom of the will. Therefore 3. We are libertarianly free.
Is this a compelling argument? By no means. (But then no argument for any substantive philosophical thesis is compelling. Nothing substantive in philosophy has ever been proven to the satisfaction of all competent practioners.) One could, with no breach of logical propriety, deny the conclusion and then deny one or both of the premises. As we say in the trade, "One man's modus ponens is another's modus tollens." Any valid argument can be thrown into 'inferential reverse,' the result being a valid argument.
I of course acccept both premises. That I am morally (as opposed to causally, and as opposed to legally) responsible for at least some of what I do and leave undone I take to be more evident than its negation. And, like Kant, I see compatibilism as a shabby evasion, "the freedom of the turnspit."
Some will say that free will and moral responsibility are illusions. I find that incoherent for reasons supplied here. Other posts in the Free Will category touch upon some of the more technical aspects of the problem.
There is a lot of utter rubbish being scribbled by scientists these days about philosophical questions. Typically, these individuals, prominent in their fields, don't have a clue as to the nature, history, or proper exfoliation of these questions. Recently, biologist Jerry Coyne has written a lot of crap about free will that I expose in these posts:
This stuff is crap in the same sense in which most of Ayn Rand's philosophical writings are crap. The crappiness resides not so much in the theses themselves but in the way the theses are presented and argued, and the way objections are dealt with. But if I had to choose between the scientistic crapsters (Krauss, Coyne, Hawking & Mlodinow, et al.) and Rand, I would go with Rand. At least she understands that what she is doing is philosophy and that philosophy is important and indispensable. At least she avoids the monstrous self-deception of the scientistic crapsters who do philosophy while condemning it.
I received an e-mail message this morning from David Gordon of the Ludwig von Mises Institute. He tells me that he will be teaching an online course entitled Ayn Rand and Objectivism. He also informs me that the Rand crowd, having got wind of the fact, have begun attacking him. They focus on Gordon's 1994 Journal of Libertarian Studies review of Peikoff's Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand. A bit of the review is reproduced below. I have added some comments in blue and have marked some passages I consider important in red.
Whether one calls it a renaissance or a recrudescence, Rand is on a roll. The Randian resurgence doesn't please David Bentley Hart whose First Thingsattack piece contains the following:
And, really, what can one say about Objectivism? It isn’t so much a philosophy as what someone who has never actually encountered philosophy imagines a philosophy might look like: good hard axiomatic absolutes, a bluff attitude of intellectual superiority, lots of simple atomic premises supposedly immune to doubt, immense and inflexible conclusions, and plenty of assertions about what is “rational” or “objective” or “real.” Oh, and of course an imposing brand name ending with an “-ism.” Rand was so eerily ignorant of all the interesting problems of ontology, epistemology, or logic that she believed she could construct an irrefutable system around a collection of simple maxims like “existence is identity” and “consciousness is identification,” all gathered from the damp fenlands between vacuous tautology and catastrophic category error.
Pleonasm and bombast aside, "Maxims . . . gathered from the damp fenlands of vacuous tautology and catastrophic category error" is on the mark. I will illustrate with the famous Randianism, "Existence exists."
1. There are at least two sensible ways of construing 'Existence exists.' (a) That in virtue of which existing things exist itself exists. For example, if one thought of existence as a property of existing things, and one were a realist about properties, then it would make sense for that person to say that existence exists. He would mean by it that the property of existence exists. (b) Existing things exist. Instead of taking 'existence' as denoting that in virtue of which existing things exist, one could take it as a term that applies to whatever exists. Accordingly, existence is whatever exists. To say that existence exists would then mean that existing things exist, or whatever exists exists. But then the dictum would be a tautology. Of course existing things exist, what else would they be 'doing'? Breathing things breath. Running things run. Whatever is in orbit is in orbit.
2. From Rand's texts it is clear that she intends neither the (a) nor the (b) construal. What she is trying to say is something non-tautological: that the things that exist exist and have the attributes they have independently of us. Here we read, "The primacy of existence (of reality) is the axiom that existence exists, i.e., that the universe exists independent of consciousness (of any consciousness), that things are what they are, that they possess a specific nature, an identity." Rand is advancing a version of metaphysical realism. Existence EXISTS! (Pound the lectern, stamp the foot, flare the nostrils.) In other words, the things that exist -- yonder mountain, the setting sun -- EXIST! where that means that they are real in sublime independence of our thinking and doing and talking, and indeed of any being's thinking and doing. The problem, of course, is that Rand chooses to express herself in an inept and idiosyncratic way using the ambiguous sentence, 'Existence exists.' A careful writer does not package non-tautological claims in sentences the form of which is tautological.
That whatever exists exists independently of any consciousness, including a divine consciousness if there is one, is a substantive metaphysical claim, as can be seen from the fact that it rules out every form of idealism. 'Existing things exist,' however, is a barefaced tautology that rules out nothing.
3. But the problem is not merely infelicity of expression. Even though Rand wants to advance a substantive non-tautological thesis, a thesis of metaphysical realism, she thinks she can accomplish this by either inferring it from or conflating it with the Law of Identity. The law states that for any x, x = x. As Rand puts it, "A =A." Well of course. There is nothing controversial here. But Rand thinks that one can straightaway move to a substantive thesis that is controversial, namely, metaphysical realism according to which things exist and have the natures they have independently of any consciousness. My point is not that metaphysical realism is false; my point is that denying it is not equivalent to denying the Law of Identity. The problem is that Rand packs a hell of a lot into the the law in question, a lot of stuff that doesn't belong there. She puts the following in the mouth of Galt:
To exist is to be something, as distinguished from the nothing of nonexistence, it is to be an entity of a specific nature made of specific attributes. Centuries ago, the man who was—no matter what his errors —the greatest of your philosophers, has stated the formula defining the concept of existence and the rule of all knowledge: A is A. A thing is itself. You have never grasped the meaning of his statement. I am here to complete it: Existence is Identity, Consciousness is Identification.
[. . .]
Are you seeking to know what is wrong with the world? All the disasters that have wrecked your world, came from your leaders’ attempt to evade the fact that A is A. All the secret evil you dread to face within you and all the pain you have ever endured, came from your own attempt to evade the fact that A is A. The purpose of those who taught you to evade it, was to make you forget that Man is Man.
So the disasters of the 20th century originated in the evasion by people like Hitler and Stalin of the fact that A is A! This is just silly. How can the disasters of the 2oth century be laid at the door step of a miserable tautology? Suppose we grant that everything that exists is self-identical and that everything that is self-identical exists. (The first half of the assertion is uncontroversial, but the second half is not and will be contested by followers of Alexius von Meionong.) But suppose we grant it. I myself believe it is true. By what process of reasoning does one arrive at such substantive Randian claims as that (1) Whatever exists exists independently of any consciousness and (2) There is nothing antecedent to existence, nothing apart from it—and no alternative to it?
The denials of these two propositions are consistent with the Law of Identity and Rand's explication of existence in terms of this law. So the propositions cannot be validly inferred from the law.
Note finally that if there is no alternative to existence, then it is necessarily the case that something exists. For to say that there is no alternative to existence is to say that it is impossible that there be nothing at all. But 'to exist = to be self-identical' is consistent with each thing's existence being contingent, and the whole lot of them being contingent. Therefore, one cannot validly infer 'There is no alternative to existence' from 'To exist = to be self-identical.'
From this we see how slovenly the Randian/Peikoffian 'reasoning' is. The game they play is the following. They advance substantive metaphysical claims in the guise of tautologies. The self-evidence of the latter they illicitly ascribe to the former. This allows them to pass off their sayings as axioms that every rational person must accept. If you patiently expose their confusions as I just did, they resort to invective and name-calling.
Your blog is just about my favorite philosophy blog on the web -- not because I often agree with your political opinions (I don't) but because you write with clarity, humor and just the right amount of personal touch. Salut! I also write about philosophy on my blog Literary Kicks, and you may remember a cross-blog interchange between Litkicks and the Maverick Philosopher over the meaning of Buddhism late last year.
I'm writing you now to ask if I could send you a PDF or Kindle copy of my new book Why Ayn Rand Is Wrong (and Why It Matters), which is currently #21 on the Amazon Politics/Ideologies Kindle bestsellers list. This book offers an unusual and original approach to Ayn Rand's ethical philosophy, and aims to present an alternative conception of practical ethics that cherishes individual freedom while allowing a greater regard for the important place of the collective soul in all our lives. Since you haven't paid much attention to Ayn Rand on your blog, I gather that she is not very present on your philosophical radar, but I hope you'll consider spending a few minutes checking out my short book regardless, because I think this book has wider value as an original approach to popular ethical philosophy.
Here is a brief explanation of why I wrote it. Thanks for your time, and please let me know if I can send a PDF or Kindle version of "Why Ayn Rand is Wrong" for your consideration and/or review. Have a great day!
Thanks for the kind words, Levi, and do send me the PDF file. Actually, there has been a fair amount of discussion of Ayn Rand on this blog. It is collected in the Ayn Rand category. In early 2009 there was a heated debate here about Rand. The posts with open comboxes drew over 200 comments. There were numerous other comments that I deleted. Rand attracts adolescents of all ages and they tend to be uncivilized. I was doing a lot of deleting and blocking in early aught-nine.
But I agree with you: Rand's ideas ought to be discussed, not dismissed.
It is hard to believe that Bobby Fischer has been dead for over three years now. The king of the 64 squares died at age 64 on 17 January 2008. Fischer's sad story well illustrates the perils of monomania. Ayn Rand did not realize how right she was in her 1974 "An Open Letter to Boris Spassky" (Philosophy: Who Needs It, p. 56):
Bobby Fischer's behavior . . . is a clear example of the clash between a chess expert's mind, and reality. The confident, disciplined, obviously brilliant player falls to pieces when he has to deal with the real world. He throws tantrums like a child, breaks agreements, makes arbitrary demands, and indulges in the kind of whim worship one touch of which in the playing of chess would disqualify him from a high school tournament. Thus he brings to the real world the very evil that made him escape it: irrationality.
The following quotations from Rand can be found here, together with references.
An embryo has no rights. Rights do not pertain to a potential, only to an actual being. A child cannot acquire any rights until it is born. The living take precedence over the not-yet-living (or the unborn).
Abortion is a moral right—which should be left to the sole discretion of the woman involved; morally, nothing other than her wish in the matter is to be considered. Who can conceivably have the right to dictate to her what disposition she is to make of the functions of her own body?
If Ayn Rand weren't so popular among adolescents of all ages, if she were an unknown as opposed to a well-known hack, I wouldn't be wasting time refuting this nonsense. But she is very influential, so it is worthwhile exposing her incoherence. If you complain that my tone is harsh and disrespectful, my reply will be that it is no more harsh and disrespectful than hers is: read the quotations on the page to which I have linked. He who is strident and polemical will receive stridency and polemic in return. You reap what you sow.
In the first paragraph above Rand equates the unborn with the not-yet living. This implies that a third trimester fetus is not living. What is it then? Dead? Or is it perhaps neither living nor dead like an inanimate artifact? Obviously, a human fetus is a living biologically human individual. Obviously, one cannot arbitrarily exclude the pre-natal from the class of the living -- unless one is a hack or an ideologue.
Let me expand on this just a bit. One cannot answer philosophical questions by terminological fiat, by arbitrarily rigging your terminology in such a way that the answer you want falls out of the rigging. Would that Rand and her followers understood this. My post Peikoff on the Supernatural carefully exposes another egregious example of the shabby trick of answering philosophical questions by terminological fiat.
Now consider the enthymematic argument of the first two sentences of the first paragraph above. Made explicit, it goes like this. (1) Rights do not pertain to a potential, only to an actual being. (2) An embryo is a potential being. Therefore, (3) An embryo has no rights.
A being is anything that is or exists. So if x is a merely potential being, then of course it cannot have any rights. A merely potential being is either nothing or next-to-nothing. But a human embryo is not a merely potential being; it is an actual human (not canine, not lupine, not bovine, . . .) embryo. Indeed it is an actual biologically human member of the species homo sapiens. That is a plain fact of biology. So the second premise is spectacularly false.
If Rand were to say something intelligent, she would have to argue like this:
(1*) Rights do not pertain to potential persons, only to actual persons. (2*) An embryo is a potential person. Therefore, (3) An embyo has no rights. Unlike Rand's argument, this argument is worth discussing. But it is not the argument Rand gives. I have countered it elsewhere. See Abortion category.
The second paragraph quoted above is as sophomoric as the first -- if that's not an insult to sophomores. It is a clumsy gesture in the direction of what is often called the Woman's Body Argument. Follow the link for the refutation.
Politically, Rand wanted to provide liberal capitalism with a moral foundation, challenging the notion that communism was a noble but unrealistic ideal while the free market was a necessary evil best suited to humanity's flawed nature.
[. . .]
But Rand's work also has a darker, more disturbing aspect--one that, unfortunately, is all too good a fit for this moment in America's political life. That is her intellectual intolerance and her tendency to demonize her opponents. Speaking through her hero John Galt, Rand declared, There are two sides to every issue: one side is right and the other is wrong, but the middle is always evil.
Readers of this weblog know that I am no friend of those benighted purveyors of misplaced moral enthusiasm, the 'tobacco wackos.' But the best way to oppose fanaticism is not by an equal and opposite fanaticism, but by moderation and good sense, qualities usually absent in cults. In The Sociology of the Ayn Rand Cult, a very good essay, Murray Rothbard relates the Randian party line on smoking:
An extremely bright autodidact who is also supremely self-confident will often prove to be unteachable. If such a person should then acquire a worshipful cult-like following, and if she never exposes her work to professional scrutiny, and excommunicates even those well disposed to her when they dare criticize, John Hospers being one example, the result is unteachability in excelsis. This is the case of Ayn Rand. Click on the following links for some fascinating reading. The lady could have learned so much from Hospers if she hadn't been such a pigheaded ideologue.
Here is a remarkable passage from Ayn Rand's Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, expanded 2nd ed., p. 41:
Ostensive definitions are usually regarded as applicable only to conceptualized sensations. But they are applicable to axioms as well. Since axiomatic concepts are identifications of irreducible primaries, the only way to define one is by means of an ostensive definition -- e.g., to define 'existence,' one would have to sweep one's arm around and say: 'I mean this.'
Now that's an interesting suggestion! Let's put it to the test.
This is a guest post by Peter Lupu. Minor editing by BV.
1) In One Fallacy of Objectivism (henceforth, OFO) I gave an argument that a distinction Objectivists insist upon between “metaphysical” or natural-facts vs. volitional-facts logically presupposes the traditional modal distinction between contingent vs. necessary -- a logical presupposition they vehemently deny. Three kinds of objections were presented against my argument. The first kind challenged my argument by questioning the sense in which the distinction between natural vs. volitional facts logically presupposes the modal distinction. The second kind of objection alleges that since the contingent and the possible are the offspring of human volitional action, they cannot possibly exist antecedently to and independently from the sphere of human volition. The third kind of objection maintains that a certain Objectivist theory about concept acquisition and concept formation refutes my argument. I shall ignore here objections that belong to this last category because they deserve a separate treatment. So I shall focus exclusively on the first two objections.
If nothing exists, there can be no consciousness: a consciousness with nothing to be conscious of is a contradiction in terms. A consciousness conscious of nothing but itself is a contradiction in terms: before it could identify itself as consciousness, it had to be conscious of something. If that which you claim to perceive does not exist, what you possess is not consciousness. (FNI, 124)
Directly or indirectly, every phenomenon of consciousness is derived from one’s awareness of the external world. Some object, i.e., some content, is involved in every state of awareness. Extrospection is a process of cognition directed outward—a process of apprehending some existent(s) of the external world. Introspection is a process of cognition directed inward—a process of apprehending one’s own psychological actions in regard to some existent(s) of the external world, such actions as thinking, feeling, reminiscing, etc. It is only in relation to the external world that the various actions of a consciousness can be experienced, grasped, defined or communicated. Awareness is awareness of something. A content-less state of consciousness is a contradiction in terms. (ITOE, 37)
This sort of writing is typical of Rand and Peikoff, et al. It is confused and confusing and will be dismissed out of hand by most philosophers. Yet there may be a solid point here that someone like Harry Binswanger could develop and make persuasive. It is clear from the above passages and others that Rand wants to show that there exist entities that are transcendent of consciousness. Indeed, she wants to show that the denial of such transcendent entities is self-contradictory. But how will she achieve this goal?
I've run into this argument on several occasions and while the author(s) insist theists will accept the premises, it's more the validity I'd appreciate your take on.
1) If God is possible, then God is a necessary being. 2) If God is a necessary being, then unjustified evil is impossible. 3) Unjustified evil is possible. Therefore, God is not possible.
In this post I explain the distinction between validity and soundness, explain why validity is a modal concept, and then use this fact to show that the modal distinction between the necessary and the contingent applies outside the sphere of human volition, contrary to what followers of Ayn Rand maintain. Finally, I demonstrate the validity of the above atheist argument.
Leonard Peikoff, Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand, Meridian 1993, p. 31:
"Supernatural," etymologically, means that which is above or beyond nature. "Nature," in turn denotes existence viewed friom a certain perspective. Nature is existence regarded as a system of interconnected entities governed by law; it is the universe of entities acting and interacting in accordance with their identities. What then is a "super-nature"? It would have to be a form of existence beyond existence; a thing beyond entities; a something beyond identity.
The idea of the "supernatural" is an assault on everything man knows about reality. It is a contradiction of every essential of a rational metaphysics. It represents a rejection of the basic axioms of philosophy . . . .
Is this a good argument? That alone is the question.
The following comment is by Peter Lupu. It deserves to be brought up from the nether reaches of the ComBox to the top of the page. Minor editing and highlighting in red by BV.
One Fallacy of Objectivism
1) Objectivists seem to hold two theses:
Thesis A: There is a fundamental conceptual distinction everyone does or ought to accept between “metaphysical facts” vs. “volitional or man-made facts”; for the sake of brevity of exposition I shall occasionally refer to this distinction as the ‘Randian distinction’.
Thesis B: The content of the traditional philosophical distinction between contingent vs. necessary facts is either reducible to the Randian distinction or to the extent it is not so reducible it is conceptually incoherent, superfluous, or cannot be clearly demarcated; for the sake of brevity I shall occasionally refer to the distinction between contingent (and possible) vs. necessary facts as the ‘Modal distinction’.
Bill also evaluates Rand’s argument to the effect that “to grasp the axiom that existence exists, means to grasp the fact that nature, i.e., the universe as a whole, cannot be created or annihilated, that it cannot come into or go out of existence.” He sees in this an inadvertent echo of modal Spinozism, and not implausibly. But to me it is even more reminiscent of the even more extreme metaphysics of Parmenides . . . .
The Parmenides connection is very interesting. When I asked Harry Binswanger why he thinks that the existence of nature is logically necessary, he replied,
Well, the first part is axiomatic: "existence exists." What makes that logically necessary? The fact that "existence doesn't exist" is a contradiction. "What is, is; what is not, is not" Parmenides wisely said.
Ernst Haeckel said that ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny, that the development of the individual recapitulates the development of the species. Whether or not this is true in biology, it is often true with amateur philosophers: these members of the Philo-phylum have a tendency to 'reinvent the wheel' while at the same time failing to appreciate the defects of their primitive reinvented 'wheel.'
Now you might want to dismiss what I just wrote as a cheapshot, but you will see that it is not if you study what I say here and here and here. There is no 'Rand-bashing' here, contra what some opine; there is the careful and critical examination of ideas. That is part of what philosophy is.
My diagnosis of our disagreement is as follows. You think that what is causally necessitated (e.g. the lunar craters) is broadly-logically necessary (BL-necessary) whereas I think that what is causally necessitated is broadly-logically contingent. Because you think that what is causally necessitated is BL-necessary, you naturally think that my having my hat on is not causally necessitated. If I've understood you correctly, you do not deny that there are BL-contingent events, an example being my freely choosing to put on my hat. What you deny is that there are any BL-contingent events in nature (the realm of the non-man-made).
Your scheme makes sense if (i) time is [metrically] infinite in the past direction; (ii) nature always existed; (iii) nature exists of BL-necessity (also known in the trade as metaphysical necessity) and nothing about nature is BL-contingent. On these assumptions, every event is BL-necessary. Add to that the assumption that every event in nature is causally determined, and we get the extensional equivalence of the causally necessitated and the BL-necessary. Man-made facts, which you grant are BL-contingent, are not causally necessitated because, for you, X is causally necessitated if and only if X is BL-necessary.
If the foregoing expresses your view, then I think I have isolated the source of our disagreement: we disagree over (iii). I see no reason to accept it. Do you have an argument?
Your "diagnosis" is correct in spirit. I have quarrels over formulation, but there's no need to discuss them here. So we disagree about (iii): the existence of nature is logically necessary and nothing about nature is logically contingent.
You ask for an argument for that. Well, the first part is axiomatic: "existence exists." What makes that logically necessary? The fact that "existence doesn't exist" is a contradiction. "What is, is; what is not, is not" Parmenides wisely said.
The second part is non-axiomatic, and derives from causality. Objectivism holds that causality is the application of the law of identity to action. Things do what they do because they are what they are. For the fragile to act as non-fragile would be the same kind of contradiction as for glass to be not glass. This view of causality rejects the Humean event-to-event idea of causation (which actually originated with Telesio, I believe). We go back to the pre-Renaissance (broadly Greek) view of causation as a relation between entities and their actions.
What do you mean by "necessity"? By "necessity," we mean that things are a certain way and had to be. I would maintain that the statement "Things are," when referring to non-man-made occurrences, is the synonym of "They had to be." Because unless we start with the premise of an arbitrary God who creates nature, what is had to be. (IOE, 2nd ed., p. 299)
Rand's argument may be set forth as follows:
1. If there are alternative ways non-man-made things might have been, then an arbitrary (free) God exists.
2. It is not the case that an arbitrary (free) God exists. Ergo,
3. There are no alternative ways non-man-made things might have been.
I rigged the argument so that it is valid in point of logical form: the conclusion follows from the premises. But are the premises true? A more tractable question: Do we have good reason to accept them?
I thank Dr. Binswanger for commenting on the post, Modal Confusion in Rand/Peikoff. His stimulating comments deserve to be brought to the top of the page. I have reproduced them verbatim below. I have intercalated my responses in blue. The ComBox is open, but the usual rules apply: be civil, address what is actually said, argue your points, etc.
Leonard Peikoff writes, "Is God the creator of the universe? There can be no creation of something out of nothing. There is no nothing."
Peikoff is arguing that God cannot be the creator of the universe because creation is creation of something out of nothing, and there is no nothing. Is this a good argument or a bad argument? Justify your answer. Be clear and concise.
rand, n. An angry tirade occasioned by mistaking philosophical disagreement for a personal attack and/or evidence of unspeakable moral corruption. "When I questioned his second premise, he flew into a rand." Also, to attack or stigmatise through a rand. "When I defended socialised medicine, I was randed as a communist."
Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, 2nd ed., p. 299, Rand speaking:
What do you mean by "necessity"? By "necessity," we mean that things are a certain way and had to be. I would maintain that the statement "Things are," when referring to non-man-made occurrences, is the synonym of "They had to be." Because unless we start with the premise of an arbitrary God who creates nature, what is had to be. We have to drop any mystical premise and keep the full context in mind. Then, aside from human action, what things are is what they had to be.
The alternative of what "had to be" versus "what didn't have to be" doesn't apply metaphysically. It applies only to the realm of human action and human choice."
First of all, 'Things are' and 'Things had to be' cannot be synonyms since they obviously have different meanings as anyone who understands English knows. But let's be charitable. What Rand is trying to say is that every non-man-made occurrence is such that 'had to be' applies to it, and every man-made occurrence is such that 'did not have to be' applies to it. Charitably construed, she is not making a false semantic point, but two modal points. The first is that nothing non-man-made is contingent or, equivalently, that everything non-man-made is necessary. The second modal point is that the man-made is contingent. I will discuss only the first modal point. It is not obvious and is denied by many philosophers both theists and atheists. So it is legitimate to demand an argument for the thesis.
Every argument for God and every attribute ascribed to Him rests on a false metaphysical premise. None can survive for a moment on a correct metaphysics . . . .
Existence exists, and only existence exists. Existence is a primary: it is uncreated, indestructible, eternal. So if you are to postulate something beyond existence—some supernatural realm—you must do it by openly denying reason, dispensing with definitions, proofs, arguments, and saying flatly, “To Hell with argument, I have faith.” That, of course, is a willful rejection of reason.
Objectivism advocates reason as man’s sole means of knowledge, and therefore, for the reasons I have already given, it is atheist. It denies any supernatural dimension presented as a contradiction of nature, of existence. This applies not only to God, but also to every variant of the supernatural ever advocated or to be advocated. In other words, we accept reality, and that’s all.
In this passage we meet once again our old friend 'Existence exists.' And we note the sort of linguistic mischief that Rand/Peikoff engage in. It cannot be denied that existing things exist, and only existing things exist. This is entirely trivial. Anyone who denies it embraces a contradiction: There are existing things that do not exist. We should all agree, then, with the first sentence of the second paragraph. So far, so good.
But then Peikoff tells us that to postulate something supernatural such as God is "to postulate something beyond existence." Now it may well be that there is no God or anything beyond nature. It may well be that everything that exists is a thing of nature. But the nonexistence of God does not follow from the triviality that everything that exists exists. Does it take a genius to see that the following argument is invalid?
1. Existence exists, ergo
2. God does not exist.
One cannot derive a substantive metaphysical conclusion from a mere tautology. No doubt, whatever exists exists. But one cannot exclude God from the company of what exists by asserting that whatever exists exists. Now it is not nice to call people stupid, but anyone who cannot appreciate the simple point I have just made is, I am afraid, either stupid, or not paying attention, or willfully obtuse. Here is an example of a valid argument:
3. Nothing supernatural exists
4. God is supernatural, ergo
5. God does not exist.
For Peikoff to get the result he wants, the nonexistence of God, from the premise 'Existence exists,' he must engage in the linguistic mischief of using 'existence' to mean 'natural existence.' Instead of saying "only existence exists," he should have said 'only natural existence exists.' But then he would lose the self-evidence of "Existence exists and only existence exists."
Conflating a trivial self-evident thesis with a nontrivial controversial thesis has all the advantages of theft over honest toil as Russell said in a different connection. It would take a certain amount of honest philosophical toil to construct a really good argument for the nonexistence of any and all supernatural entities. But terminological mischief is easy. What Peikoff is doing above is smuggling the nonexistence of the supernatural into the term 'existence' Now if you cannot see that that is an intellectually dispreputable move, then I must say you are hopeless.
It is like a bad ontological argument in reverse. On one bad version of the ontological argument, one defines God into existence by smuggling the notion of existence into the concept of God and then announcing that since we have the concept of God, God must exist. Peikoff is doing the opposite: he defines God and the supernatural out of existence by importing their nonexistence into the term 'existence.' But you can no more define God into existence than you can define him out of existence.
There are other egregious blunders in the above passage. But if I were to expose every mistake of the Randians, I might attain the age of a Methuselah and still not be done. Or perhaps I should liken it unto a Sisyphean labor, one of endless and futile toil. Futile, because the Randians I have so far encountered seem quite unteachable.
One of my Rand posts has inspired some vigorous discussion at Triablogue. My nominalist sparring partner 'Ocham' over at Beyond Necessity comments here on part of the Triablogue discussion:
Tennant points out the 'Existence exists' is incoherent - existence is commonly regarded as a second-order property. Not by everyone, I should point out, but certainly Frege's view that existence is a second-order predicate is accepted by nearly all those in mainstream analytic philosophy. Nor is Donohue's restatement, "whatever exists exists" in any way useful, because it is either merely tautological and doesn't tell us anything, or it is equally incoherent (for it dubiously assumes that existence is a first-order predicate).
Let me try to sort this out. Neither Tennant nor 'Ocham' understand what Rand is saying. Donohue may understand it, but he doesn't see what is wrong with it.
. . . I should point out that there are professional philosophers who take Rand's work seriously. See The Ayn Rand Society. Some years ago I read something by Douglas Rasmussen, one of the members of the society, and I found it quite good.
I suppose one could compare Rand with Nietzsche on the score of professional respectability. There are philosophers who have utter contempt for Nietzsche and deny that he is a philosopher at all. In the early '90s I had a conversation with the late Gregory Fitch, then chairman of the Arizona State University Philosophy Department. I asked him if anyone in his department had an interest in Nietzsche. He snorted that that no one there was interested in "that junk." But not all analytic philosophers are narrow Fitch-style bigots. There are other analytic philosophers who find Nietzsche's ideas worthy of study and reconstruction.
Like Nietzsche, Rand is untrained in philosophy, rants and raves, argues in an abominably slovenly fashion when she argues at all, is supremely confident of her own towering significance, is muddled and idiosyncratic -- Existence exists! -- , expresses contempt for her opponents, all the while psychologizing them and making little attempt to understand their actual positions. And like Nietzsche, she is immensely attractive to adolescents of all ages. Still, there are ideas there worth discussing, if only to show how one can go wrong. Same with Nietzsche: he goes wrong in very interesting ways.
Recall what got me started on this current Rand jag. It was 'Ocham's' question whether Rand counts as a professional or an amateur. I have been making a case that she and Peikoff are amateurs. (This is consistent with their ideas being worth discussing.) But it is no surprise to me that amateurs fail to appreciate the merits of my case. More to come.
A tip of the hat to Paul Manata of Triablogue for a clever link entitled A = A: Rand = Hack Philosopher. One might pedantically raise a quibble over an identity sentence sporting a proper name on one side and a general term on the other. But you catch the drift, which is similar to 'CNN = News.' Other examples that might be fun to analyze: the loony Left's 'Bush = Hitler' and Chrysler's 'Drive = Love.'
Comments are on. If you have something intelligent and civil to contribute, please do. But I have zero tolerance for cyberpunks. If you fail to address what I actually say, or thoughtlessly spout the Rand party line, or show the least bit of disrespect to me or my commenters, then I will delete your comment.
Ayn Rand's Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology includes an essay by Leonard Peikoff entitled "The Analytic-Synthetic Dichotomy." The section "Necessity and Contingency" concludes with the following paragraph:
Truth is the identification of a fact with reality. Whether the fact in question is metaphysical or man-made, the fact determines the truth: if the fact exists, there is no alternative in regard to what is true. For instance, the fact that the U.S. has 50 states was not metaphysically necessary -- but as long as this is men's choice, the proposition that "The U.S. has 50 states" is necessarily true. A true proposition must describe the facts as they are. In this sense, a "necessary truth" is a redundancy, and a "contingent truth" a self-contradiction. (Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, 2nd ed., eds. Binswanger and Peikoff, NAL Books, 1990, p. 111, emphasis in original.)
I have no objection to part of what is being said in this passage, in fact I heartily agree with it, namely, that facts determine truths. The non-man-made fact of the moon's having craters makes-true the proposition expressed by 'The moon has craters.' And similarly for the man-made fact regarding the 50 states cited by Peikoff. So I cheerfully agree that "if the fact exists, there is no alternative in regard to what is true." We can put the point as follows given that there is a fact F and a proposition p that records F:
I thank our old friend Ockham for adding links to two of my Rand posts to the Wikipedia Ayn Rand entry. (See note 4.) I am about to repost a slightly emended version of the more technical of the two posts, the one on existence. This is from my first weblog and was originally posted May 28, 2004. But first I refer you to Ockham's post Ayn Rand and Wikipedia in which he reports a disagreement at Wikipedia ". . . about whether the article about her should qualify her as a 'popular' or 'commercially successful' philosopher, or an 'amateur philosopher' (as Anthony Quinton did in his article on popular philosophy in the Oxford Companion to philosophy), or whether she is a philosopher without qualification."
Is Rand a philosopher? Yes. But she is not very good if among the criteria of goodness you include rigor of thought and objectivity of expression. No reputable professional journal or press would publish her work. So in one sense of the term she is not a professional, which makes her an amateur philosopher. But then so is Nietzsche. Both are well worth reading by amateurs and professionals alike. Both are passionate partisans of interesting and challenging ideas. If nothing else, they show pitfalls to avoid. If you seek respite from the buttoned-down prose of dessicated academicians, they provide it.
Since I am about to lay into Rand, let me begin with something nice about her. In the 20th century, she brought more people to philosophy than Immanuel Kant, let alone John Rawls. That can't be bad. She came to our shores, mastered our difficult language, and made it her own way by her own efforts. She understood the promise and greatness of America, and did it her way, celebrating the traditional American values of self-reliance and rugged individualism. She gave leftists hell.