When I start responding to a comment on a previous post and find that my answer is getting longer than a paragraph, that means it’s time to either stop or to make a proper blog post out of it. This morning a newish (I guess) listener named Lewis posted a comment on a post I wrote last summer on “reason” as used by Ayn Rand and others. We’ll be covering Rand in episode #78, which we’ll be recording in less than two weeks. By that point, I should have my thoughts together; this is just some initial spitballing that I wouldn’t mind hearing some of your reactions to.
Objectivism identifies three “conceptually irreducible primaries” that are the stopping point of inquiry. They are supposed to be epistemically basic and sufficient to found (and they’re the only possible basis for founding) the rest of Rand’s system. This idea of unavoidable, basic starting points and a Descartes-like justification of a system runs directly counter to the picture that Deleuze gives of a multiplicity of possible planes of immanence each of which encourages a set of philosophical concepts. I say “encourages” because it doesn’t logically entail them, but is compatible with them and does contain the problems that the concepts are then designed by the philosopher to address. The analytic philosopher in me has trouble really understanding Deleuze’s picture, and it sure would be nice if instead something more like Rand’s (or Descartes’s, or Russell’s) picture with experientially and logically undeniable starting points were instead correct.
Rand’s three basic axioms are:
1. Existence exists (there is something rather than nothing).
2. To exist is to be something (the law of idenitity or A = A).
3. Consciousness exists (any assertion about reality implies that some conscious entity is making the assertion).
These seem obvious enough; how or why would one attack them? (I will ignore here the snide Randian answer to the why question that would sound something like “because one is corrupt.”)
Well, you can either argue that these aren’t in fact basic, or that they are empty enough that you can’t use them to found a whole system in the way that Rand thinks. Let me take each premise briefly in turn.
1. “Existence exists.” When Rand says this, she means that skepticism is false: that the material world is more or less as we experience it, and so science is (not in an particular case, where there could always be a methodological error, but in general) justified. But really, all we’re given is that there is some object of consciousness, and this is totally compatible with Berkeley (the classic idealist who said that objects are all just ideas in the mind of God that we share), Kant (the transcendental idealist who says we construct objects through common human faculties but don’t really have much idea how this happens or what raw materials, if any, we’re actually connecting up to in order to make such judgments, Husserl (who puts the entire ontological question on hold but nonetheless finds it perfectly sensible to talk about existence as an object of consciousness), or a pragmatist (who regards “existence” in this sense as an operational term, meaning that we can do things with it, so let’s call it existent, whereas if we reached out to the alleged object and our hand went right through it, we’d have to call it something else). In all these cases, the philosopher admits that the object has objectivity, in that we can sense and manipulate it, and others can too. This is enough to justify the validity (i.e. the applicability) of science. So saying that existence exists, or that objects are objective, is not sufficient to establish an ontology.
This means that it is sensible to ask what “existence” means philosophically; it’s not irreducible. Is it material existence? And what, underlyingly, is that? Rand, like a logical positivist, wants to deny any sense to these kind of inquiries, and apparently didn’t understand Kant’s picture, which affirms science, and affirms that objects are “material” insofar as science categorizes them as matter (as opposed to energy or my thoughts), yet Kant still thought that there was still a metaphysical question remaining after this was done. Now, the irony is that Kant was actually trying to banish past metaphysics as a load of unjustified nonsense, just like Rand, but among those positions banished would be a naive materialism, which mistakes nitty-gritty science for a metaphysical theory. (Per my most recent post, Deleuze gives one formulation for how these differ.)
It still may be that “existence” as a term is irreducible. Heidegger, for one, spent his whole career trying to “ask the question of Being” that doesn’t just take existing for granted, but he’s in the minority. And Rand is right in saying that “existence” is not a property that existing things have; that was Kant’s response to the ontological argument for the existence of God and a point made formally in mathematics by Russell.
2. “To be is to be something.” Rand, following Aristotle, thinks that things have essences, and she claims that this is not the case in any mysterious way. I think this is problematic, but want to wait for the podcast to get into it. We have already spent quite a lot of time on the podcast trying to figure out how we “distinguish this from that” (as Dylan my fellow podcaster often puts it), and the persistent answer has been that it’s for pragmatic reasons. Why is the book in front of me an object but not the book along with the bit of desk it’s sitting on? Because of the way it hangs together physically; for most purposes, I need to consider the book a unit. However, if I’m pointing a flamethrower at that area and am thinking “do I want to fire this?” it would do just as well to consider, as a unit the entirety of mass in its wake. If we had flamethrowers for arms (like Daleks?), then we might pick out objects differently.
Now, Rand actually acknowledges that for epistemic purposes, how we pick things out does depend on the fact that we’re human, but then, since of course that fact doesn’t change, she discounts its importance and takes #2 here to be a metaphysical and not just an epistemic principle. She uses it to bludgeon people she thinks are trying to escape reality by denying the identity of things. She’s denying the practical importance of multiple perspectives. Now, this may work OK with books and things, but she uses this most centrally to claim that human nature is fixed, determinate. There are certain things that fulfill us and certain things that just don’t.
This is difficult to discuss without hashing through a lot of examples, which I don’t wish to do here, but here’s an important one: she claims that an essential part of human nature is free will. To me, this is a prime example of one of those facts that is true (or to put it better, applicable) for some purposes and not for others. We should all by now be familiar with the classic free will-determinism debate. We usually feel pretty free, and seem to be able to distinguish our choice, which feel free, from feelings or physical incapacities that seem to fight our choices on some occasions, as when you’re drunk or tired or on edge. So as a way to psych yourself up, it’s generally useful to consider yourself free, and if you make excuses, you’re in bad faith, or as Rand calls it, evasion. However, knowing the physiological facts, which support either determinism or if you’re into quantum theory determinism plus some randomness (which is not the same as freedom), you can likely admit that if you pump someone full of chemicals, they’ll make decisions that seem free to them, but which they would not otherwise have made. Freedom is not a matter of self-evident human nature, but something that needs investigating neuroscientifically, and we (and Rand) are making a mistake if we think we can straightforwardly apply traditional modes of praise and blame without considering what else there is to know on the matter.
Again, this free will discussion is just supposed to counter the abuse of “a=a,” as Rand often puts it. The statement is totally uninformative, yet she uses it to say “in most cases it accords with our experience to say we are free, therefore we are free beings with total responsibility for our choices no matter our brain chemistry or the circumstances that may have fed into our current physiological state.” My argument here does not hinge on whether or not Rand’s view of freedom (which is Sartre’s too, incidentally) is correct, but only whether it follows from basic observation and the law of identity. It doesn’t; it’s a substantial philosophical theory.
3. “Consciousness exists.” As with #1, this is highly ambiguous. If it implies, following Descartes, that the knower here is fundamentally different than the known, then that’s going considerably beyond what the experience actually tells us. Consciousness for Sartre, for Pirsig, for Hegel, and many others is not best described as a subject meeting an object. Instead, these are abstractions we impose upon experience. Experience just is objects, or more precisely a flow which we then (per my discussion of #2) somehow break into objects to make it comprehensible. So yes, as a human coping mechanism, there are subjects and objects, but this doesn’t actually address the question of what metaphysically is really going on. (The argument here would be similar to my points re. #1 above.) This statement is only conceptually basic if you’re particularly incurious.