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In Defense of Ayn Rand

5 Post author: ryjm 10 April 2012 01:53AM

 

In Defense of Ayn Rand

WARNING: Do not read the footnotes if have not read Atlas Shrugged, they contain primarily quotes from the book. They don't reveal much in terms of plot (except for #6) so read them if you feel daring.

Preface: This is NOT a defense of objectivism nor is it a defense of the cultish nature of followers of objectivism. This is a defense of Ayn Rand the woman and a response to her portrayal in the essay The Guardians of Ayn Rand. I realize that the essay was making a point about cults and not primarily a criticism of Ayn Rand, but since she was the focal point of the ideas and the piece is a part of the Sequences, I felt it necessary to write this. There are enough people who criticize Ayn Rand, and the literature of her critics is vast - but to spit on her contributions with little reference to any factual details and with a huge emphasis on her personal life just did not seem to fit with the spirit of this website. If Rand really was as poor of a thinker as she is being portrayed, some evidence would be very much appreciated. It was originally a comment, but it became way too long. I am NOT an expert on objectivism whatsoever. Please correct me on any inaccuracies.

Note: I am using the word rationality as Rand uses it.

"And yet Ayn Rand acknowledged no superior, in the past, or in the future yet to come. Rand, who began in admiring reason and individuality, ended by ostracizing anyone who dared contradict her. Shermer: "[Barbara] Branden recalled an evening when a friend of Rand's remarked that he enjoyed the music of Richard Strauss. 'When he left at the end of the evening, Ayn said, in a reaction becoming increasingly typical, 'Now I understand why he and I can never be real soulmates. The distance in our sense of life is too great.' Often she did not wait until a friend had left to make such remarks.""

Rand's choice of companions was governed by her life philosophy, which with respect to relationships was akin to a business deal, selfishly trading her willingness to interact with an individual for that person's virtue1. If she did not find another's virtue a sufficient payment for her companionship, she would not interact with them.

The part about Rand's professed superiority just seems like a blatant falsehood. All of her writings are based (it says so on the back of the books) on the existence of heroes in humanity. How can she acknowledge no superior ever and still feel comfortable with her ideas? Even further, her whole philosophy is based on seeing reality exactly as it is 2.

Her excommunication of Branden is a fine example of her irrationality in her private life. It is all that was needed in The Guardians of Ayn Rand to make the point. Clearly, it shows Rand's inability to match her actions with her words, and shows an irrational example of her tendency to ostracize people (I think there are justifications of her actions, and I believe her journal writings shed a different light on the situation, but I will agree with the analysis on this point unless some very strong evidence to the contrary appears).

But she rationally ostracized people who disagreed with her because she herself has said that she completely and fully embodies her philosophy - if you disagree with her, you disagree with her philosophy. Since her philosophy is so entrenched in the actions of an individual, it is no wonder why she would choose to ostracize those who disagree with her from her personal circle of companions! The core of her philosophy rests on the assertion that no man should live for another and that no man should take steps to fake reality on account of another person3.

One's rational perception of the world is of the utmost importance; Rand's conclusion that one person will not become her soulmate is the result of her rational perception of his actions. Her knowledge of music might not be the same knowledge held by a composer, but that is of no consequence in determining the reality of a situation4. One's choice of musical preference seems to be, in Rand's eyes, reflective of the values they uphold. This is her rational view of reality which she has arrived at through conscious perception and thought; someone else might think it is the right perception while another might not. If confronted with this, she would most likely (from my readings of her philosophy) seek to justify her assertion through proof based on her own rational perception of the world. Refusing to do so would be an example of an irrational action on her part5.

Eliezer presented proof of his assertion that her actions are not justifiable with only a couple of anecdotes that reveal no context. The description of her actions are taken from a biography written by the wife of Nathaniel Branden, who had a significant personal conflict with Rand. This may or may not be important, but I think it is worth mentioning.

The observation that she chose to crush those of whom she disapproves only refers to her influence in her own personal circle of companions (and of course she has done it elsewhere, though I have not seen event where such an action has contradicted her philosophy besides the Branden affair). Her right to do so is implicit in her philosophy and is encouraged, yet her actions are portrayed as a failure to recognize a cognitive bias rather than a factual failure in her philosophy. Many aspects2 of Rand's philosophy are consequent with the ideas in the sequences too (though the similarities stop with respect to Aristotle).

"It's noteworthy, I think, that Ayn Rand's fictional heroes were architects and engineers; John Galt, her ultimate, was a physicist; and yet Ayn Rand herself wasn't a great scientist. As far as I know, she wasn't particularly good at math. She could not aspire to rival her own heroes. Maybe that's why she began to lose track of Tsuyoku Naritai".

Rand's fictional heroes were not just architects and engineers, and the point about her not being a great scientist is irrelevant with regard to the nature and purpose of her philosophy. The top comment also sheds light on the facts:

Eliezer: "As far as I know, [Rand] wasn't particularly good at math."

A relevant passage from Barbara Branden's biography of Rand:

"The subject [Rand] most enjoyed during her high school years, the one subject of which she never tired, was mathematics. 'My mathematics teacher was delighted with me. When I graduated, he said, "It will be a crime if you don't go into mathematics." I said only, "That's not enough of a career." I felt that it was too abstract, it had nothing to do with real life. I loved it, but I didn't intend to be an engineer or to go into any applied profession, and to study mathematics as such seemed too ivory tower, too purposeless—and I would say so today.' Mathematics, she thought, was a method. Like logic, it was an invaluable tool, but it was a means to an end, not an end in itself. She wanted an activity that, while drawing on her theoretical capacity, would unite theory and its practical application. That desire was an essential element in the continuing appeal that fiction held for her: fiction made possible the integration of wide abstract principles and their direct expression in and application to man's life." (Barbara Branden, The Passion of Ayn Rand, page 35 of my edition)

– Z.M Davis

And she did tell her followers (and even people who weren't her followers) to study science. She even gave a speech at MIT in the 60's entitled "To Young Scientists" (You can find the transcript somewhere, though you may have to pay for it). She also wrote an eyewitness account of the Apollo 11 launch that vehemently shows her appreciation and awe of the products of science. If that isn't an encouragement to study science, I don't know what is6.

This analysis is not fair. There is nothing fair about representing a figure in an incredibly poor light in order to emphasize a point about cults. Using her very public affair and the cultish nature of her followers would have been sufficient, but attacking her actions without mention of the underlying philosophy guiding them was unnecessary and, at many points (more evidence in the comments of the essay), factually incorrect. The tone of the essay was also incredibly arrogant, portraying Rand as some delusional crackpot and downplaying her accomplishments:

"Ayn Rand fled the Soviet Union, wrote a book about individualism that a lot of people liked, got plenty of compliments, and formed a coterie of admirers. Her admirers found nicer and nicer things to say about her (happy death spiral), and she enjoyed it too much to tell them to shut up. She found herself with the power to crush those of whom she disapproved, and she didn't resist the temptation of power"

I mean, come on! For someone who consistently encourages a charitable reading of his writing, this usage of Rand as an example of irrationality and poor judgement is disheartening. At the very least, some semblance of respect for her accomplishments would not be out of place.

Afterthought: It is my opinion that the treatment of Ayn Rand's personal life was not in the spirit of rational discussion. However, as is most often the case with Eliezer's writings, the ideas in the essay for which Rand was supposed to be a foil to were incredibly thought provoking. In particular, the philosophical implications of closed vs open systems. Here is an excerpt of an essay I found on the Ayn Rand Institute's website, defending objectivism as a closed system, that gives some much needed context absent from the previous discussion:

IN HIS LAST PARAGRAPH, Kelley states that Ayn Rand’s philosophy, though magnificent, “is not a closed system.” Yes, it is. Philosophy, as Ayn Rand often observed, deals only with the kinds of issues available to men in any era; it does not change with the growth of human knowledge, since it is the base and precondition of that growth. Every philosophy, by the nature of the subject, is immutable. New implications, applications, integrations can always be discovered; but the essence of the system—its fundamental principles and their consequences in every branch—is laid down once and for all by the philosophy’s author. If this applies to any philosophy, think how much more obviously it applies to Objectivism. Objectivism holds that every truth is an absolute, and that a proper philosophy is an integrated whole, any change in any element of which would destroy the entire system.

In yet another expression of his subjectivism in epistemology, Kelley decries, as intolerant, any Objectivist’s (or indeed anyone’s) “obsession with official or authorized doctrine,” which “obsession” he regards as appropriate only to dogmatic viewpoints. In other words, the alternative once again is whim or dogma: either anyone is free to rewrite Objectivism as he wishes or else, through the arbitrary fiat of some authority figure, his intellectual freedom is being stifled. My answer is: Objectivism does have an “official, authorized doctrine,” but it is not dogma. It is stated and validated objectively in Ayn Rand’s works.

“Objectivism” is the name of Ayn Rand’s achievement. Anyone else's interpretation or development of her ideas, my own work emphatically included, is precisely that: an interpretation or development, which may or may not be logically consistent with what she wrote. In regard to the consistency of any such derivative work, each man must reach his own verdict, by weighing all the relevant evidence. The “official, authorized doctrine,” however, remains unchanged and untouched in Ayn Rand’s books; it is not affected by any interpreters.

The Constitution and the Declaration of Independence state the “official” doctrine of the government of the United States, and no one, including the Supreme Court, can alter the meaning of this doctrine. What the Constitution and the Declaration are to the United States, Atlas Shrugged and Ayn Rand’s other works are to Objectivism. Objectivism, therefore, is “rigid,” “narrow,” “intolerant” and “closed-minded.” If anyone wants to reject Ayn Rand’s ideas and invent a new viewpoint, he is free to do so—but he cannot, as a matter of honesty, label his new ideas or himself “Objectivist.”

Objectivism is not just “common sense”; it is a revolutionary philosophy, which is a fact we do not always keep in mind. Ayn Rand challenges every fundamental that men have accepted for millennia. The essence of her revolution lies in her concept of “objectivity,” which applies to epistemology and to ethics, i.e., to cognition and to evaluation. At this early stage of history, a great many people, though bright and initially drawn to Ayn Rand, are still unable (or unwilling) fully to grasp this central concept. They accept various ideas from Ayn Rand out of context, without digesting them by penetrating to the foundation; thus they never uproot all the contradictory ideas they have accepted, the ones which guided the formation of their own souls and minds. Such people are torn by an impossible conflict: they have one foot (or toe) in the Objectivist world and the rest of themselves planted firmly in the conventional world. People like this do not mind being controversial so long as they are fashionable or “in”; i.e., so long as they can be popular in their subculture, or politically powerful or academically respectable; to attain which status, they will “tolerate” (or show “compassion” for) whatever they have to.

The real enemy of these men is not Ayn Rand; it is reality. But Ayn Rand is the messenger who brings them the hated message, which, somehow, they must escape or dilute (some of them, I think, never even get it). The message is that they must conform to reality 24 hours a day and all the way down.

Definitely a more apt example of the cultish nature of objectivism, though it has its merits; good fodder for discussion.

Footnotes:

1 "A trader does not ask to be paid for his failures, nor does he ask to be loved for his flaws. A trader does not squander his body as fodder or his soul as alms. Just as he does not give his work except in trade for material values, so he does not give the values of his spirit-his love, his friendship, his esteem-except in payment and in trade for human virtues, in payment for his own selfish pleasure, which he receives from men he can respect." - John Galt

2 “Your mind is your only judge of truth–and if others dissent from your verdict, reality is the court of final appeal.” — John Galt

3 “People think that a liar gains a victory over his victim. What I've learned is that a lie is an act of self-abdication, because one surrenders one's reality to the person to whom one lies, making that person one's master, condemning oneself from then on to faking the sort of reality that person's view requires to be faked.” — Hank Rearden

4 "By refusing to say 'It is' you are refusing to say 'I am'. By suspending your judgment, you are negating your person. When a man declares: 'Who am I to know?' he is declaring: 'Who am I to live?'" - John Galt <\font>

5 “You don't have to see through the eyes of others, hold onto yours, stand on your own judgment, you know that what is, is–say it aloud, like the holiest of prayers, and don't let anyone tell you otherwise.” — Dagny Taggart

6 Also, the main character of Atlas Shrugged was a physicist, invented a motor that harnessed the power of static electricity, and then went on to save the damn country. That's not encouragement to study science?

Comments (35)

Comment author: ryjm 10 April 2012 04:31:57AM 13 points [-]

I'm sincerely confused as to why this is getting downvoted so heavily (and it seems to have disappeared... is this a feature?). Is it just the nature of the topic? Honestly, it's not a well structured critique or whatever, but this is the discussion page, is it not? I'm not arguing some logically indefensible position, and I can't seem to find any errors in my logic (my logic consisting of my use of Rand's philosophy and not of the logical positioning of her ideas).

Is it not encouraging valid discussion? I don't see why not, as there are many things to talk about here. Perhaps a response to the idea of a closed system? I thought that was interesting. Maybe a defense of why it is okay to disregard facts in favor of convincing rhetoric? I honestly think I may be missing something in Eleizer's post, because it seems to me to hold a blatant disregard for evidence.

Did I need to make it more clear that I am not arguing for or against objectivism, only for a more charitable rhetorical representation of a cultural and philosophical character? Maybe someone can enlighten me on the atrocities committed by Rand.

Have these things been said before? Maybe someone can link me to the relevant discussion.

Is this "mind killing"? I would like to know which parts, and why.

Comment author: ciphergoth 10 April 2012 06:42:58AM 6 points [-]

Re-reading (skimming) "Guardians of Ayn Rand", the "closed system" point seems to me central and not addressed as such in your post.

Comment author: Alejandro1 10 April 2012 08:57:57PM 2 points [-]

Articles with a certain number of downvotes (4? 5?) disappear automatically from the list of posts, regardless of content. I wish this number of downvotes were set higher, say to 10 or 15. The only thing I want to go away fast are spam posts and truly horrendous articles; things that are overall disapproved by the community to the point of just 5-10 downvotes, like this article, can still spark interesting discussions I don't want to miss.

Comment author: Alicorn 10 April 2012 09:17:47PM *  6 points [-]

You can adjust your personal settings. I have mine set to never disappear things.

Comment author: buybuydandavis 11 April 2012 03:43:34AM 1 point [-]

Me too.

The defaults were set ridiculously low, and I dislike the thought that a handful of ideologically motivated people could effectively Memory Hole topics and opinions they disliked.

This is yet another opportunity for me to opine about the pitiful state of collaborative filtering on web site software. It was about a zillion times better 20 years ago with mailing list software and Usenet.

Comment author: MarkusRamikin 11 April 2012 03:49:09PM 2 points [-]

What did they have that worked better?

Comment author: buybuydandavis 11 April 2012 09:06:49PM 0 points [-]

Usenet killfiles allowed an elaborate scoring system.

The Extropian mailing list, which I'm sure has a few refugees here, was a mix of collaborative filtering and user scoring. I didn't use it extensively, but it was there.

Comment author: Alejandro1 10 April 2012 09:23:46PM 0 points [-]

Thank you! I didn't know that.

Comment author: Manfred 10 April 2012 04:51:54AM 5 points [-]

But she rationally ostracized people who disagreed with her because she herself has said that she completely and fully embodies her philosophy

Well there's your problem.. If one wants to actually do anything with philosophy, one does not want to lug around the complete specs of Ayn Rand's brain, even if one has them. And, applying the copernican principle, there's no particular reason why the right way to think about the world (to the extent that that means something) should be expressed as the complete specs of Ayn Rand's brain. Instead, good philosophy should be fairly concise (compared to the information contained in a single human brain, at least), and shouldn't be specific to a certain race or culture, or even to humans, necessarily.

Comment author: ryjm 10 April 2012 05:02:31AM 0 points [-]

Agreed. I was lugging around her specs only to justify her actions, not to justify her philosophy.

Comment author: Manfred 10 April 2012 06:46:08AM 1 point [-]

How are you using "justify" here? Do you mean "show to be morally permissible?" In that case sure, free country, etc.

Do you mean "show to be good role model behavior?" Not so much.

Do you mean "show to be in strict accordance with objectivism, which is a source of justification?" This is quite possibly Rand's own intent with the whole "what I say is objectivism" route, but if objectivism is to have any hope of meeting mild standards for good philosophy, said route cannot work.

From this side of the author/audience divide, what I feel like you are doing when justifying is repeating things that others said that made you feel okay about the thing being justified. But we, your audience, are not you, and so repeating things that worked for you probably won't work for us. You have to break things down and then build them up again to try and find the truth about a specific question.

Comment author: ryjm 11 April 2012 02:27:12AM *  1 point [-]

By "justify" I meant "show that her actions were not a contradiction of her philosophy", which is what I think you said in your third question.

However, I was not trying to provide a justification for objectivism, and I was not attempting to use the tenets of objectivism in any clever sort of way.

I also was not trying to give strong justifications of her actions, only to show that if one were to give her main ideas a charitable reading, one would find a significant amount of evidence showing that her portrayal in Guardians of Ayn Rand was not consistent with the facts. Each time I "defended" her actions, I gave a quote that showed her characters acting in a similar way or giving credence to a similar action. Again, this was not a defense of her philosophy.

What I wrote was not about the structure of objectivism or lack thereof, not about objectivism being a closed system, and not about Rand's motives in her construction of objectivism. I specifically stated that I am not an expert on objectivism, and I would not try to defend it a community of rationalists.

My only motive behind this post was to highlight factual inaccuracies and (in my opinion) deceitful rhetoric in the original essay. It would have liked to have put in a comment, but it seemed much too long; so I formatted it a little and posted it here. Next time I'll have to treat these posts like a formal analysis and not like a casual writeup.

Comment author: Manfred 11 April 2012 11:36:20AM -2 points [-]

A casual writeup is fine if I know what you're writing up :P

Comment author: Vaniver 11 April 2012 04:59:43AM 4 points [-]

This is a defense of Ayn Rand the woman and a response to her portrayal in the essay The Guardians of Ayn Rand.

I think you have misread the essay if you think a defense of Rand is a response to the essay.

Rand deserves a place in the history of philosophers for being willing to argue for individualism, capitalism, and science, but not for the creation of Objectivism. Openness and advancement are the hallmarks of important philosophical traditions.

She thought the creation of Objectivism was a big deal, and, well, she can be forgiven for not understanding how history would see her. Isaac Newton, for example, thought his theological work was far more significant than his physics hobby, and even wrote more about alchemy than about physics.

One of the points EY was making is that, when you talk to a scientist about Newton's rabid hatred of Catholics, they shrug and say that's not related to the physics- and being a genius is no guarantee your opinions are right. If you talk to an Objectivist about Rand's flaws- well, suddenly those are relevant to the philosophy.

Let's take an example where Peikoff tinkered with Rand: homosexuality. Rand thought it was disgusting, and involved "psychological flaws" or "unfortunate premises." After her death, both Peikoff and Branden disagreed with Rand about homosexuality- Branden going so far as to call her "absolutely and totally ignorant" about it. And, today, something like a fifth of Objectivists are gay. (The materialism and family resentment that comes so clearly in her novels resonate with a lot of gays, and I suspect the strong male heroes also play a role.)

And sexuality seems much more like philosophy than it is like chemistry. You can find the SDN that differentiates straight men from gay men but that doesn't tell you how you should treat them- that's something you should be able to figure out by observing humanity.

Comment author: ryjm 11 April 2012 06:39:09PM *  0 points [-]

I don't think I missed the point of the essay. I clearly state at the end of the post that the ideas presented were incredibly interesting. I even posted an essay about Peikoff's defense of the closed system of objectivism, which I thought was more representative of the cultish nature of the group. I was responding to what I saw as a misrepresentation of Ayn Rand that I thought was unnecessary with respect to the goals of the essay.

Suppose Eleizer decided to collect all of his writings and found his own philosophy called Yudkowism of which he was the final arbiter. You can object to him doing that, and that's a pretty damn valid objection considering the nature of his writing. But suppose he didn't care what you thought, and did it anyway. He writes up plenty more ideas, gives some lectures, influences people, vigorously tries to further intellectual progress, and dies. Towards the end of his life, people notice him doing some weird things that don't seem to fit with his ideas. Someone thinks "Hey, this isn't' cool! I thought he was an advocate of rationality, but he doesn't seem to be accepting of other people's reasonable ideas!'. Then this person writes an essay using him as an example of what to avoid when trying to further humanity, "raise the sanity waterline", and encourage progress in philosophy and science. In this essay, the person uses Eliezer's personal life to reveal the extent of his spiral into destruction.

Now, you and I both think very highly of the ideas presented in Yudkowism, though we might object to the name, to the closed system, or to its structure. We have read his writings, and they have influenced us in a positive way and helped us become more rational people. We don't see him as a Great Leader, and we don't want him presented as such, but we can't deny that his actions have precipitated this label. And so we read this essay, and we feel like we learned more about rationality, about group identification, about the need for openness and the awareness of our place in the progress of humanity.

But then we notice that the essay is unnecessarily dismissive of Eliezer. We realize that this may or may not have any influence on the relevance of his philosophy (as, of course, if the ideas are good enough they should be able to stand up to any criticism of its spokesman), but we are a little taken aback by the flawed portrayal of his character.

This was the point of my post. I don't think it's necessary to attack a person's character for the sake of rhetoric, especially when the highlighted aspects of that person's character are exaggerated. You might think the same, but disagree that the rhetoric was all that harmful, and that's fine. I thought it was harmful.

I think the rest of your comment pertains to the actual evidence of Rand's strangehold over her followers. The bit about homosexuality is especially revealing without resorting to harmful rhetoric. Again, I liked the final conclusion and thesis of the essay, but I disliked the way it was reached.

Comment author: Vaniver 11 April 2012 07:19:44PM 2 points [-]

I don't think it's necessary to attack a person's character for the sake of rhetoric, especially when the highlighted aspects of that person's character are exaggerated.

What attacks on Rand's character did EY make?

I went back and reread Shermer's article, that EY links, and EY's post, and when comparing the two of them EY's post is a defense of Rand. "This could have happened to anybody; it might even happen to us! Let's try to learn from their example so that it doesn't." Shermer goes into the details of the nasty breakup between Rand and Branden- EY takes at face value that the spouses were okay with it, and labels it a private matter.

What am I missing, here? Quotes from EY's post will help.

Comment author: ryjm 11 April 2012 08:37:47PM *  1 point [-]

The vibrance that Rand admired in science, in commerce, in every railroad that replaced a horse-and-buggy route, in every skyscraper built with new architecture—it all comes from the principle of surpassing the ancient masters. How can there be science, if the most knowledgeable scientist there will ever be, has already lived? Who would raise the New York skyline that Rand admired so, if the tallest building that would ever exist, had already been built? And yet Ayn Rand acknowledged no superior, in the past, or in the future yet to come.

This seems to state that Rand was incapable of accepting that someone could be better than her, which I think was an exaggeration of her bloated ego. I understand the point, but the following passage from Branden's book did not seem to justify this statement enough. Here is some more context on that quote (take it with a grain of salt, as I found it on objectivist site, though it seems to be well cited) :

No, she did not. Tales that Rand ended relationships with people over disagreements in musical tastes seem to stem primarily from Barbara Branden's book The Passion of Ayn Rand, in which Branden gives a brief account of several arguments between Rand and her longtime friends Joan Mitchell Blumenthal and Allan Blumenthal, over differences of taste in music and painting. According to the information in Branden's book, these arguments were part of a generally worsening relationship between Rand and the Blumenthals over several years in the 1970s, which culminated in the Blumenthals initiating a break with Rand (not vice versa) in 1978. Even if one believes that Rand ran a cult from which she excommunicated people, it is hard to see how these disagreements could be interpreted as instances of excommunication, since the Blumenthals remained friends with Rand for several years while these arguments were happening, and they were the ones who initiated the break.[] Other accounts of how Rand dealt with artistic differences also fail to support the "excommunication" interpretation. Alan Greenspan is reported to have disagreed openly with Rand's opinions on music, and even convinced her to moderate her negative opinion of Mozart.[] At least one person who remained Rand's friend until her death was an admitted lover of Beethoven's music: Leonard Peikoff, who was Rand's closest friend for over a decade and the heir to her estate.[*]

Another quote:

It's noteworthy, I think, that Ayn Rand's fictional heroes were architects and engineers; John Galt, her ultimate, was a physicist; and yet Ayn Rand herself wasn't a great scientist. As far as I know, she wasn't particularly good at math. She could not aspire to rival her own heroes. Maybe that's why she began to lose track of Tsuyoku Naritai.

I think I showed why this statement was untrue, and I don't think anyone can argue how arrogant it sounds (though that is a personal gripe I have with it).

"Study science, not just me!" is probably the most important piece of advice Ayn Rand should've given her followers and didn't. There's no one human being who ever lived, whose shoulders were broad enough to bear all the weight of a true science with many contributors.

She did tell her followers to study science.

To be one more milestone in humanity's road is the best that can be said of anyone; but this seemed too lowly to please Ayn Rand. And that is how she became a mere Ultimate Prophet.

She seemed very pleased with her achievements, and I couldn't find any evidence that said she refused to accept other ideas when faced with substantial proof (though this a difficult topic, since many of her ideas were based on her axioms of morality and so I'm sure she refused to accept many ideas that contradicted her axioms and thus invalidating many of the things I've said. But I still think the portrayal was a bit harsh). I recall that she was invited to speak at the Ford Hall Forum where she knew there would be many, many people challenging her ideas. I know she was very rigid in her beliefs, but it seems hard for me to accept that "being one more milestone in humanity's road" was not enough for Rand. But I may be giving her too much credit in this regard.

Ayn Rand fled the Soviet Union, wrote a book about individualism that a lot of people liked, got plenty of compliments, and formed a coterie of admirers. Her admirers found nicer and nicer things to say about her (happy death spiral), and she enjoyed it too much to tell them to shut up. She found herself with the power to crush those of whom she disapproved, and she didn't resist the temptation of power.

This is related to my previous criticisms. It just seems to harsh to me. I wanted more factual evidence for this, not just the quote about musical differences which turned out to be more ambiguous than it was portrayed.

Perhaps I'm being too picky. Calling Rand an "Ultimate Prophet" seemed so incongruous with her actions and her philosophy. She was incredibly forthright and in your face with her ideas, and I can see why it was interpreted as evangelism. But objectively speaking, it seemed to harsh for my tastes. Saying she "crushed those of whom she disapproved" is just... I don't know.

I see your position and I accept that you have every right to criticize my thoughts. This is a very ambiguous topic, and I think I can see why people seem to be angry with my choice of presenting this. I don't think her portrayal was very fair, is all. Yes, compared with other criticisms out there, this looks like praise. I just hold these Sequence posts to a higher standard. If I found this in a popular article about Ayn Rand, or a newspaper article, or a Reddit post... I would note it's high quality. I've just been so used to every side of an argument being represented incredibly clearly and without ambiguity (ironic, given my post) that I felt a need to post this. It was kind of like eating a bunch of skittles and getting an M&M; not so bad, just a little jarring.

Comment author: Vaniver 11 April 2012 09:12:45PM 0 points [-]

This seems to state that Rand was incapable of accepting that someone could be better than her, which I think was an exaggeration of her bloated ego.

Sure. But is the interpretation of EY significantly different if instead of AR the woman that's AR the myth? I know a number of Objectivists who really do believe that AR was the most important person in history. It's very different from reading the Analects, in which Confucius, mourning a gifted pupil, tells another pupil that the dead pupil was five times as clever as Confucius was. Regardless of whether or not Rand had the properly calibrated humility of science, she definitely failed to inculcate it in her friends and students.

I think I showed why this statement was untrue, and I don't think anyone can argue how arrogant it sounds (though that is a personal gripe I have with it).

Sure. "Particularly good at math" may mean very different things to you and EY. Math was Rand's favorite subject, but if EY means "Math Olympiad winner" by "particularly good" then those are different standards. Compare to Asimov, who was a professor of biochemistry.

I don't think her portrayal was very fair, is all. Yes, compared with other criticisms out there, this looks like praise.

Compare these statements. Are there criticisms out there that you think are fair?

I think Rand is an important person, and I suspect I've read more Rand and know more Objectivists than EY. But I don't think EY is obligated to invest very much before criticizing Rand, especially because his primary criticisms are of the Objectivist movement, and only indirectly criticisms of Rand. We know that Objectivism is not the rationalist movement it could be. (Many of the Objectivists I've introduced to LW have taken an instant liking to it, seeing all the places where LW-style rationality connects to or supersedes Objectivist thought.) Because the Objectivist movement revolves around Ayn Rand, it's probable that she had a big part to play in the creation of their culture. Maybe Branden was the main pusher of hero-worship- but Rand had an affair with him, rather than warning against hero-worship and cultivating dissent.

But taking a step back, it's hard to see why Rand's treatment in EY's post is significant. Is it because you think people on LW ought to have a higher opinion of Rand than they currently do? Because you think the story would be more effective at showing how to not become a cult if it included more nuance or references to Rand's life? Some other reason?

Comment author: ryjm 12 April 2012 02:03:38AM *  0 points [-]

Sure. But is the interpretation of EY significantly different if instead of AR the woman that's AR the myth? I know a number of Objectivists who really do believe that AR was the most important person in history. It's very different from reading the Analects, in which Confucius, mourning a gifted pupil, tells another pupil that the dead pupil was five times as clever as Confucius was. Regardless of whether or not Rand had the properly calibrated humility of science, she definitely failed to inculcate it in her friends and students.

Isn't that a subtle point that would require multiple readings to fully understand? I mean if someone were to read the essay while going through the sequences, they would understand that Rand did not do enough to resist the slide into entropy, but they would also think that Rand actively encouraged the slide itself. Only after thinking about it heavily would they consider that it was Ayn Rand the myth, the one that objectivists defend in the absence of reason, that was being spoken of, and not the person who had some ideas and wrote them down. For example, I read this essay while in the middle of Atlas Shrugged, and because of her portrayal I kept expecting some completely ridiculous or offensive idea to come up, and I even considered putting it down when it was getting good, since I thought I might be buying into some evil ideas on accident. While that was definitely my fault, it not hard to imagine it happening to anyone else. It might even be enough to convince them that Rand is not even worth reading, which I think would be a mistake.

Sure. "Particularly good at math" may mean very different things to you and EY. Math was Rand's favorite subject, but if EY means "Math Olympiad winner" by "particularly good" then those are different standards. Compare to Asimov, who was a professor of biochemistry.

Yes, but the statement that follows it says that "She could not aspire to rival her heroes". But her heroes were characterized by the existence of ability and their desire to use it, not the existence of specific abilities. Suppose John Galt, instead of being a physicist, was a novelist whose ideas were so powerful that should he allow the government to take his books, they would control the world. Well that's almost exactly what he was! And I don't think you could argue that she did not have the capacity to rival that ability, being a particularly good writer.

Even if being an engineer was necessary for her to rival her heroes, I think her math teacher saying "It would be a crime if you didn't go into mathematics" is enough evidence of the fact that she at least had the capacity to rival them.

Compare these statements. Are there criticisms out there that you think are fair?

I thought the criticism in your parent comment and your subsequent remarks of her influence on her followers were fair, and they cover all the bases that need to be covered without being overly dismissive. I don't see why you couldn't turn it into an interesting essay without losing the neutral but critical tone.

But taking a step back, it's hard to see why Rand's treatment in EY's post is significant. Is it because you think people on LW ought to have a higher opinion of Rand than they currently do? Because you think the story would be more effective at showing how to not become a cult if it included more nuance or references to Rand's life? Some other reason?

I think I addressed this in my example above. If the sequences are to be read by those who have little experience with rationality, I think it would turn them off to a good writer with interesting ideas. If instead it was more supportive of the fundamentals of Rand's philosophy but sharply criticizing the fact that she did not attempt to stop the slide into entropy, it would prime readers to take her writing with a grain of salt without dismissing her as irrelevant.

I don't think LW ought to have a higher opinion of Rand, but I also don't think they should be convinced to have a low opinion of her.

Comment author: RobertLumley 10 April 2012 03:03:31AM 1 point [-]

The part about Rand's professed superiority just seems like a blatant falsehood. All of her writings are based (it says so on the back of the books) on the existence of heroes in humanity.

Existence of heroes in her works doesn't disprove the thesis that Rand thought she was the epitome of rationality. If, in fact, they were at all different from Rand, it would be evidence for this, but the fact that they are so staggeringly one dimensional and are, in fact, exactly as she tried to be, doesn't really help your argument. If this weren't the case, objectivism wouldn't have become a closed system upon her death. This was (as I'm sure you know. Edit: You apparently talk about this later in your essay. Whoops.) the cause of a great schism in the objecitivst movement, with Nathaniel Brandon on one side and Leonard Peikoff on the other. You can bicker and argue about which the "true objectivsts" are, if you want, but Rand herself never really had any measure of humility. (And the fact that she backed the side now advocating a closed system says something.)

And she did tell her followers (and even people who weren't her followers) to study science. She even gave a speech at MIT in the 60's entitled "To Young Scientists" (You can find the transcript somewhere, though you may have to pay for it). She also wrote an eyewitness account of the Apollo 11 launch that vehemently shows her appreciation and awe of the products of science. If that isn't an encouragement to study science, I don't know what is.

She quite vehemently signaled agreement with the scientific tribe, I agree. But that's not the same as actually supporting it. (Well, it supports it in some way, but I think you get my point.) <Politics> Given how she felt about the environment (and based on the positions taken by most Objectivist themed organizations (ARI, ARC, etc.)) she probably wouldn't have much respect for anthropomorphic global warming as a theory. I don't know much about the science of it myself, so my opinion isn't worth much, but I believe the predominant opinion on LW is closer to AGW denial is akin to evolution denial. </politics>

This analysis is not fair. There is nothing fair about representing a figure in an incredibly poor light in order to emphasize a point about cults.

I don't think this is done. The bad things about Rand are emphasized, yes, but that is because that is what we can learn from.

Using her very public affair and the cultish nature of her followers would have been sufficient, but attacking her actions without mention of the underlying philosophy guiding them was unnecessary and, at many points (more evidence in the comments of the essay), factually incorrect. The tone of the essay was also incredibly arrogant, portraying Rand as some delusional crackpot and downplaying her accomplishments:

A large portion of the sequences come across as incredibly arrogant. I'll grant you that. that happens when you're trying to convince people you're on a mission to save the world and that you actually can. But I don't think it's necessary to explain her philosophy, first because it's highly mindkilling, and second because most people on this website (or rather, that website, when it was written) are already familiar with it.

I mean, come on! For someone who consistently encourages a charitable reading of his writing, this usage of Rand as an example of irrationality and poor judgement is disheartening. At the very least, some semblance of respect for her accomplishments would not be out of place.

I disagree. I don't think LW does this. We're (or at least I am) happy to admit that Rand was correct about a number of things. She made more progress than most philosophers, but that bar is set so unbearably low as to not really be worth mentioning. It's more that she is a better example of what not to become. It's not that she did nothing good. There have even been some decently upvoted Ayn Rand quotes in the threads.

Also, the main character of Atlas Shrugged was a physicist, invented a motor that harnessed the power of static electricity, and then went on to save the damn country. That's not encouragement to study science?

No, the main character of Atlas Shrugged was a physicist, who invented a motor that harnessed the power of static electricity, and then went on to flip the entire country the bird. Regardless of whether or not you sympathize with him, is Galt's position so utterly important that it justifies the mass starvation and destitution of the entire country? In my opinion, Galt had a good point to make. But that doesn't justify letting the entire world burn around you just to make your point.

Comment author: see 10 April 2012 04:08:34AM 13 points [-]

Regardless of whether or not you sympathize with him, is Galt's position so utterly important that it justifies the mass starvation and destitution of the entire country? In my opinion, Galt had a good point to make. But that doesn't justify letting the entire world burn around you just to make your point.

For something as often painfully didactic as Atlas Shrugged is, it's absolutely amazing how people can manage to not get its point.

The point of the book is that the country (and the world) is doomed to mass starvation and destitution by its philosophy as enacted in its policies, no matter how hard people worked to save it. By analogy, a hard-drinking alcoholic is going to be destroyed by his alcoholism, no matter how desperately his wife and friends try to help him.

When the leaders of the country ask the captured John Galt how to fix things, he tells them how: they have to end their policies. They instead demand different answers, just like an alcoholic who refuses to listen to the advice to stop drinking. But, according to Ayn Rand, no different answers exist. They are demanding the impossible, and John Galt refuses to comfort them with lies.

Dagny Taggart and Hank Rearden, on the other hand, spend the book enabling the people in power. Oh, sure, they tell the leadership that the policies will cause disaster; but with every drop of sweat they expend they save the leaders from realizing the consequences of their actions. Just as with the wife who enables an alcoholic husband, Dagny thinks she is helping, but what she's really doing is masking the consequences of the problem, allowing the problem to become bigger and worse. And that is why, for example, Hank is the "guiltiest man in this room"; he is what makes it possible for the country to believe its course isn't doomed.

The country, like an addict, won't change until it has hit bottom. Delaying it from hitting bottom isn't helping; it just means more will be destroyed on the way down. On the other hand, if the best brains are withdrawn, not only will it hit the bottom and admit it needs help sooner, but the best brains will not have been destroyed in the process, and thus be in a better position to put the country on its feet.

Now, you can of course take issue with the world Ayn Rand created, and its applicability to the real world. But given the world Ayn Rand created, if John Galt were concerned only with the greatest welfare for the greatest number, if his effort was entirely to maximize collective utility, his actions would differ in no respect from what he did.

Comment author: Viliam_Bur 11 April 2012 09:33:39AM 2 points [-]

First, thanks for the great comment!

given the world Ayn Rand created, if John Galt were concerned only with the greatest welfare for the greatest number, if his effort was entirely to maximize collective utility, his actions would differ in no respect from what he did.

That's true, but it's a privilege of being a fiction author -- you can create a world where your personal philosophy happens to maximize what your readers care about. This does not mean the same thing happens in the real world too. The lesson can be useful if the same situation happens in the real world, but we should take care to consider whether that is really the case.

Comment author: see 11 April 2012 10:25:10AM 4 points [-]

That's true, but it's a privilege of being a fiction author

Oh, certainly. But if it doesn't conform with reality, that's a defect of the author; no blame should attach to the character. I grant it's a somewhat odd point, to defend the honor of a fictional character, but . . .

. . . I think it flicked me in particular because I find a persistent pattern of people critiquing Atlas Shrugged in particular for things that aren't actually in the book. Most often people say that it claims all businessmen are good (James Taggart is a businessman and a major villain), or that being smart and virtue are the same thing (Dr. Robert Stadler is a genius and a villain), or whatnot.

Picking apart Rand's work is one thing; I've done it myself fairly often. But I like to see it done right.

Comment author: ryjm 10 April 2012 03:52:05AM 2 points [-]

I don't think this is done. The bad things about Rand are emphasized, yes, but that is because that is what we can learn from.

Most people commenting did not seem like they were very familiar with the philosophy, and I think the presentation of 1. the ideas behind the philosophy and 2. the founder of the philosophy were incredibly misleading. If someone (like me) were relatively new the site were to read this, they would have an incredibly biased view of her philosophy. I don't see how justifying that point by saying people already know her philosophy gives any credence to the way it was portrayed. The bad things about Rand are emphasized with no regard for factual evidence. We can still learn from her errors without resorting to what felt to me like a curt dismissal of an otherwise intelligent and influential character. If we are willing to discard evidence in favor of more elegant rhetoric, I want no part of it.

No, the main character of Atlas Shrugged was a physicist, who invented a motor that harnessed the power of static electricity, and then went on to flip the entire country the bird. Regardless of whether or not you sympathize with him, is Galt's position so utterly important that it justifies the mass starvation and destitution of the entire country? In my opinion, Galt had a good point to make. But that doesn't justify letting the entire world burn around you just to make your point.

The world as it was portrayed in the book would not have survived long if Galt hadn't done anything. I don't think we can compare it with the real world - America was the last pillar of support, and if it collapsed without Galt having convinced people to "save their minds" then there would have been another long "Dark Ages" period. And people don't actually act the way they do in her books. I would compare it to the decisions made in the Foundation series. But that wasn't really my point anyway - in the book, it was clear that Galt was saving the country in the way Rand thought it should be saved, meaning that she believed that a scientist had that power, and thus advocating something akin to "Study Science!" regardless of the morality of Galt's decision.

I disagree. I don't think LW does this. We're (or at least I am) happy to admit that Rand was correct about a number of things. She made more progress than most philosophers, but that bar is set so unbearably low as to not really be worth mentioning. It's more that she is a better example of what not to become. It's not that she did nothing good. There have even been some decently upvoted Ayn Rand quotes in the threads.

I didn't say LW did this. It was only in this specific essay. I would find it hard to believe that LW disagreed with everything she said. My only problem was with the presentation, and that it would lead to wrong interpretations, or at least interpretations based on falsities.

She quite vehemently signaled agreement with the scientific tribe, I agree. But that's not the same as actually supporting it. (Well, it supports it in some way, but I think you get my point.) <Politics> Given how she felt about the environment (and based on the positions taken by most Objectivist themed organizations (ARI, ARC, etc.)) she probably wouldn't have much respect for anthropomorphic global warming as a theory. I don't know much about the science of it myself, so my opinion isn't worth much, but I believe the predominant opinion on LW is closer to AGW denial is akin to evolution denial. </politics>

Again, I only have problems with the way her positions were portrayed. She was most definitely portrayed as failing to tell her followers to "study science" when in fact she did exactly that. Whether her support of the scientific community was any good is an entirely different discussion which I will probably agree with you on.

I think I failed to make it clear that I do think she is a good example of what not to strive for. I just think that the rhetoric involved in convincing me of that point was deceitful.

Comment author: moridinamael 10 April 2012 03:23:54AM 2 points [-]

Indeed, I was mindkilled by the original post so hard that I just had to delete a lengthy diatribe.

Anyway, I always felt that the Sequence entry in question was an unusually restrained criticism, compared with most Internet discussion of Rand. Most of what's out there takes the tone of either an impassioned and dogmatic defense of Objectivism or a bitter, vitriolic, sarcastic assault of it. Eliezer just makes a point about how it's generally a losing strategy to claim that you have the Final Answer to Reality.

Comment author: ryjm 10 April 2012 04:03:41AM 3 points [-]

Could you explain to me this whole "mind killing" business? I'm not talking politics here, I'm talking rhetoric. All I did was take Rand's actions as mentioned in the original essay and gave a justification by Rand's philosophy. This wasn't used to justify her philosophy, only to show that her actions were consistent with it. I agree with Eliezer's final points, but I don't agree with the way they were represented, and that's all I sought to show here.

I don't see how the nature of the criticism is changed by the fact that worse criticism exists. If the facts are incorrect, they are incorrect and that's it.

Comment author: RobertLumley 10 April 2012 04:43:40AM *  1 point [-]

The only factual inaccuracy (and you've spent more time looking at this post than I care to, evidently, so maybe I've missed something) I see is the math bit. And that's even a stretch. I'd say it's a reasonable interpretation that Rand didn't meet the "particularly good" standard. I've certainly never seen any of evidence that it is beside the third hand account (Professor > Rand > Barbra) presented in the post. And even if she was unusually talented, she didn't really use any significant math in her philosophy or writing, which probably lead to the decay of the talent.

But basically, anything that divides humans into tribes is "mind killing". It doesn't have to be politics - any polarizing issue will do. Religion is the other prototypical example. But even inane things like Mac vs. PC can be mindkilling to an extent - anything that's polarizing. And Rand was one of the most polarizing figures of the 20th century.

Comment author: Zack_M_Davis 10 April 2012 06:51:52AM 4 points [-]

fourth hand account (Professor > Rand > Barbra > Z. M. Davis)

(Unless you have significant reason to doubt my ability to transcribe a passage from a book verbatim, then I think this should only be "third-hand".)

Comment author: RobertLumley 10 April 2012 11:26:47AM 1 point [-]

I originally had it that way and changed it, since I thought it was technically incorrect and that bothered me. But I think you're right, the statement is less distracting when you are ignored, and you don't significantly lose information. I will edit it and change it.

Comment author: ryjm 10 April 2012 04:59:36AM 3 points [-]

Ah, I see. The mind killing bit makes sense, but wouldn't you want to combat it by confronting it head on and refusing to succumb to the polarization? I don't find it to be particularly hard to do, and I'm fairly certain I haven't been mind killed. But I very much respect this position, and I accept the consequences of publishing material that enables these tendencies.

The factual inaccuracies were primarily in the presentation of her actions as being discordant with her philosophy. I have attempted to show her actions were not so incongruous. Also, the presentation of her character was inaccurate, portraying her as some sort of pseudo philosopher who had no idea what she was talking about. Just because she idolizes Aristotle is not evidence of her ineptitude as a thinker. Just because she has a bloated ego (though this is also a big part of her philosophy) does not mean she is incapable of recognizing her superiors. She may have thought she was the epitome of a rational person, but this certainly did not prevent her from recognizing ability when she saw it. She is portrayed in the original essay as being unable to recognize the nature of science and its progression, when there is much evidence that she was very aware of how science progresses and why.

Comment author: RobertLumley 10 April 2012 05:19:01AM *  4 points [-]

Ah, I see. The mind killing bit makes sense, but wouldn't you want to combat it by confronting it head on and refusing to succumb to the polarization?

In short, no. Because this site isn't about Rand, or politics, or religion, or whatever. It's a site about rationality, and discussion thereof is tremendously hindered by mindkilling topics.

If you want to make a point about science, or rationality, then my advice is to not choose a domain from contemporary politics if you can possibly avoid it. If your point is inherently about politics, then talk about Louis XVI during the French Revolution. Politics is an important domain to which we should individually apply our rationality—but it's a terrible domain in which to learn rationality, or discuss rationality, unless all the discussants are already rational.

Comment author: Viliam_Bur 11 April 2012 09:53:40AM 0 points [-]

The mind killing bit makes sense, but wouldn't you want to combat it by confronting it head on and refusing to succumb to the polarization? I don't find it to be particularly hard to do, and I'm fairly certain I haven't been mind killed.

Discussing mindkilling is difficult. I also wish there was a way to discuss politically heated topic safely (even at the cost that I would be forbidded to participate, just allowed to read a discussion on topic of my interest written by people I consider rational), but seems to me that experiments don't give us much hope. Even on LW when the discussion starts to approach something political, I feel it becomes worse that usual, though still rather good compared with the rest of Internet.

It is difficult to argue why and how exactly this happens, because saying "a person being mindkilled usually does not feel like being mindkilled" seems like a fully general counterargument. But in my experience, someone saying they are able to discuss topic X without being mindkilled means almost nothing. I believe some people are able to discuss some sensitive topics without getting mindkilled, but I also believe there are much more people who think they are able to discuss the same topic without getting mindkilled and they are completely wrong. Trying to invite to discussion only people self-diagnosed as resistant for mindkilling does not work.

If such discussion ever becomes possible, it will need to have very strict rules set in advance, much higher than an ordinary LW discussion.

Comment author: MarkusRamikin 10 April 2012 08:48:44PM *  1 point [-]

Upvoted you, but,

happy to admit that Rand was correct about a number of things. She made more progress than most philosophers

Do you think you (or for that matter any other LW regular) could expand on this? provide a quick summary or list? Genuinely curious, since from the usual tone whenever Rand comes up on LW I don't get the impression anyone sees anything of value in her writings.

that doesn't justify letting the entire world burn around you just to make your point.

Hm... It's not like he set the world on fire. He just withdrew his services. EDIT: Or what See said, I really need to first read threads I respond to. slap self

Comment author: see 11 April 2012 03:26:08AM 1 point [-]

Hm... It's not like he set the world on fire. He just withdrew his services

Well, depending on your view of the Trolley Problem and the like, you might consider them equivalent. But . .

Or what See said

And in that I didn't even scratch the surface. For example, another thing people seem to forget is Project Xylophone. When a great scientific mind (Dr. Robert Stadler) chose freely to serve and support the government in Atlas Shrugged, the government used his discoveries to make a weapon that was useful only to kill its own citizens. That is the government Galt is supposed to work with to save the country? What weapon would they make of his motor?

Comment author: MarkusRamikin 13 April 2012 10:32:31AM 0 points [-]

Well, depending on your view of the Trolley Problem and the like, you might consider them equivalent.

How is that? The difference seems to me obvious and enormous.