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Guardians of Ayn Rand

54 Post author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 18 December 2007 06:24AM

Followup toEvery Cause Wants To Be A Cult, Guardians of the Truth

"For skeptics, the idea that reason can lead to a cult is absurd.  The characteristics of a cult are 180 degrees out of phase with reason.  But as I will demonstrate, not only can it happen, it has happened, and to a group that would have to be considered the unlikeliest cult in history.  It is a lesson in what happens when the truth becomes more important than the search for truth..."
                 —Michael Shermer, "The Unlikeliest Cult in History"

I think Michael Shermer is over-explaining Objectivism.  I'll get around to amplifying on that.

Ayn Rand's novels glorify technology, capitalism, individual defiance of the System, limited government, private property, selfishness. Her ultimate fictional hero, John Galt, was <SPOILER>a scientist who invented a new form of cheap renewable energy; but then refuses to give it to the world since the profits will only be stolen to prop up corrupt governments.</SPOILER>

And then—somehow—it all turned into a moral and philosophical "closed system" with Ayn Rand at the center.  The term "closed system" is not my own accusation; it's the term the Ayn Rand Institute uses to describe Objectivism.  Objectivism is defined by the works of Ayn Rand.  Now that Rand is dead, Objectivism is closed.  If you disagree with Rand's works in any respect, you cannot be an Objectivist.

Max Gluckman once said:  "A science is any discipline in which the fool of this generation can go beyond the point reached by the genius of the last generation."  Science moves forward by slaying its heroes, as Newton fell to Einstein.  Every young physicist dreams of being the new champion that future physicists will dream of dethroning.

Ayn Rand's philosophical idol was Aristotle.  Now maybe Aristotle was a hot young math talent 2350 years ago, but math has made noticeable progress since his day.  Bayesian probability theory is the quantitative logic of which Aristotle's qualitative logic is a special case; but there's no sign that Ayn Rand knew about Bayesian probability theory when she wrote her magnum opus, Atlas Shrugged.  Rand wrote about "rationality", yet failed to familiarize herself with the modern research in heuristics and biases.  How can anyone claim to be a master rationalist, yet know nothing of such elementary subjects?

"Wait a minute," objects the reader, "that's not quite fair!  Atlas Shrugged was published in 1957!  Practically nobody knew about Bayes back then."  Bah.  Next you'll tell me that Ayn Rand died in 1982, and had no chance to read Judgment Under Uncertainty: Heuristics and Biases, which was published that same year.

Science isn't fair.  That's sorta the point.  An aspiring rationalist in 2007 starts with a huge advantage over an aspiring rationalist in 1957.  It's how we know that progress has occurred.

To me the thought of voluntarily embracing a system explicitly tied to the beliefs of one human being, who's dead, falls somewhere between the silly and the suicidal.  A computer isn't five years old before it's obsolete.

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.  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."

Ayn Rand changed over time, one suspects.

Rand grew up in Russia, and witnessed the Bolshevik revolution firsthand.  She was granted a visa to visit American relatives at the age of 21, and she never returned.  It's easy to hate authoritarianism when you're the victim.  It's easy to champion the freedom of the individual, when you are yourself the oppressed.

It takes a much stronger constitution to fear authority when you have the power.  When people are looking to you for answers, it's harder to say "What the hell do I know about music? I'm a writer, not a composer," or "It's hard to see how liking a piece of music can be untrue."

When you're the one crushing those who dare offend you, the exercise of power somehow seems much more justifiable than when you're the one being crushed.  All sorts of excellent justifications somehow leap to mind.

Michael Shermer goes into detail on how he thinks that Rand's philosophy ended up descending into cultishness.  In particular, Shermer says (it seems) that Objectivism failed because Rand thought that certainty was possible, while science is never certain.  I can't back Shermer on that one.  The atomic theory of chemistry is pretty damned certain.  But chemists haven't become a cult.

Actually, I think Shermer's falling prey to correspondence bias by supposing that there's any particular correlation between Rand's philosophy and the way her followers formed a cult.  Every cause wants to be a cult.

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.

Ayn Rand and Nathaniel Branden carried on a secret extramarital affair.  (With permission from both their spouses, which counts for a lot in my view.  If you want to turn that into a "problem", you have to specify that the spouses were unhappy—and then it's still not a matter for outsiders.)  When Branden was revealed to have "cheated" on Rand with yet another woman, Rand flew into a fury and excommunicated him.  Many Objectivists broke away when news of the affair became public.

Who stayed with Rand, rather than following Branden, or leaving Objectivism altogether?  Her strongest supporters.  Who departed?  The previous voices of moderation.  (Evaporative cooling of group beliefs.)  Ever after, Rand's grip over her remaining coterie was absolute, and no questioning was allowed.

The only extraordinary thing about the whole business, is how ordinary it was.

You might think that a belief system which praised "reason" and "rationality" and "individualism" would have gained some kind of special immunity, somehow...?

Well, it didn't.

It worked around as well as putting a sign saying "Cold" on a refrigerator that wasn't plugged in.

The active effort required to resist the slide into entropy wasn't there, and decay inevitably followed.

And if you call that the "unlikeliest cult in history", you're just calling reality nasty names.

Let that be a lesson to all of us:  Praising "rationality" counts for nothing.  Even saying "You must justify your beliefs through Reason, not by agreeing with the Great Leader" just runs a little automatic program that takes whatever the Great Leader says and generates a justification that your fellow followers will view as Reason-able.

So where is the true art of rationality to be found?  Studying up on the math of probability theory and decision theory.  Absorbing the cognitive sciences like evolutionary psychology, or heuristics and biases.  Reading history books...

"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.

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.

Now me, y'know, I admire Francis Bacon's audacity, but I retain my ability to bashfully confess, "If I could go back in time, and somehow make Francis Bacon understand the problem I'm currently working on, his eyeballs would pop out of their sockets like champagne corks and explode."

I admire Newton's accomplishments.  But my attitude toward a woman's right to vote, bars me from accepting Newton as a moral paragon. Just as my knowledge of Bayesian probability bars me from viewing Newton as the ultimate unbeatable source of mathematical knowledge. And my knowledge of Special Relativity, paltry and little-used though it may be, bars me from viewing Newton as the ultimate authority on physics.

Newton couldn't realistically have discovered any of the ideas I'm lording over him—but progress isn't fair!  That's the point!

Science has heroes, but no gods.  The great Names are not our superiors, or even our rivals, they are passed milestones on our road; and the most important milestone is the hero yet to come.

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.

 

Part of the Death Spirals and the Cult Attractor subsequence of How To Actually Change Your Mind

Next post: "Two Cult Koans"

Previous post: "Guardians of the Gene Pool"

Comments (95)

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Comment author: Z._M._Davis 18 December 2007 07:11:33AM 19 points [-]

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)

Comment author: adamisom 21 May 2012 05:05:51AM 6 points [-]

I would note that high school math isn't really "math". At least I don't think of it that way. Maybe that's because I'm a "rare case": really good at math (though not super good like some people here) - 36 on math ACT, AIME qualifier - and then not at all exceptionally good at college math. It could have been psychological factors: maybe if I studied linear algebra now I'd understand it just fine (in fact, I suspect I would). That's just the justification for my observation is all.

Comment author: jbay 23 April 2013 03:38:24AM 6 points [-]

From the impression I get from my acquaintances who grew up in the USSR, high school math over there was considerably more advanced than what passes as 'math' in most of North America's school system, and included linear algebra and calculus. I don't know if this is still the case.

Comment author: paper-machine 23 April 2013 04:12:50AM 3 points [-]

Based on anecdotal reports from my friends in the mathematics community, the fall of the USSR has not been kind to mathematics education.

Comment author: Bugmaster 23 April 2013 04:43:34AM 4 points [-]

I don't know if it's still the case, either, but I can confirm from first-hand experience that it definitely used to be as you say.

Comment author: TGGP4 18 December 2007 07:16:57AM 3 points [-]

And that's why people should follow Saint Max instead.

No fixed ideas! No fixed ideas! No fixed ideas!

Comment author: neil2 18 December 2007 08:11:48AM 0 points [-]

i really enjoyed this essay. Thank-you!!

Comment author: James_Bach 18 December 2007 08:57:22AM 18 points [-]

Great essay!

But, how can a set of ideas be a closed system? It's ridiculous. If someone were to tell me that Objectivism is closed, I would say, Ha! I just reopened it. Ha! Try and stop me from calling myself an Objectivist if I feel like it! Oh, they can trademark it, I supposed, but if they do, I could rename my system as Reasonablism and explain it as an improved form of what-Ayn-Rand-was-talking-about.

A community of people can close itself off, but ideas are helpless to resist whatever buccaneering minds may prey upon them. This harkens to Buckminster Fuller's cry that "true wealth only increases", because true wealth is knowledge and knowledge is infinitely replicable and shareable.

Comment author: Vejay 18 December 2007 10:30:00AM 11 points [-]

But what if the source of much of your material in this essay on Ayn Rand's life is itself inaccurate and untrue? Another author--James Valliant--who wrote on Ayn Rand's life studied her private journals (that were unavailable to Barbara Branden and Nathaniel Brandon). According to him, the air of cultishness was initiated and encouraged by Nathaniel Brandon, who monitored all of Rand's guests, visitors, and letters, to ensure that they were not antagonistic to Rand. Apparently, all this was done without Rand's knowledge until much later she found out, including Branden's continued deception of her.

Comment author: Paul_Crowley 18 December 2007 11:26:51AM 13 points [-]

And of course, Eleizer has already quoted the scripture of the prophet Brian, who sayeth:

"Look. You've got it all wrong. You don't need to follow me. You don't need to follow anybody! You've got to think for yourselves. You're all individuals! You're all different! You've all got to work it out for yourselves! Don't let anyone tell you what to do!" (Life of Brian, scene 19)

Comment author: Ben_Jones 18 December 2007 12:01:09PM 7 points [-]

She's not the Messiah. She's a very naughty girl.

Great essay.

'...Marx wrote a letter to the French workers' leader [...], accusing them of "revolutionary phrase-mongering" and of denying the value of reformist struggles; "if that is Marxism" — paraphrasing what Marx wrote — "then I am not a Marxist".'

From Wiki. It must take a lot of balls to say 'you have strayed from my original Idea, I want none of this', and risk marginalisation. Much easier to just be the idol.

Comment author: Richard_Lowe 18 December 2007 01:02:59PM 4 points [-]

Regarding Shermer on science being uncertain: I listen to a lot of skeptics, and I *think* he's merely saying that science cannot be literally 100% absolute in its certainty. Sure, a theory can explain all the existing evidence (known cases) and make accurate predictions its scope about unexamined cases. But empirical test of it can only ever approach 100% certainty and can never really achieve it.

Thats just my take on it.

Comment author: pnrjulius 05 June 2012 04:23:40PM 2 points [-]

Yes, I think Shermer is making a similar point to "1 is not a probability".

Comment author: Pablo_Stafforini 18 December 2007 02:16:14PM 13 points [-]

But what if the source of much of your material in this essay on Ayn Rand's life is itself inaccurate and untrue? Another author--James Valliant--who wrote on Ayn Rand's life studied her private journals (that were unavailable to Barbara Branden and Nathaniel Brandon). According to him, the air of cultishness was initiated and encouraged by Nathaniel Brandon, who monitored all of Rand's guests, visitors, and letters, to ensure that they were not antagonistic to Rand.

A single anecdote should throw enough light on Rand's character to disprove this hypothesis. The libertarian economist Murray Rothbard was for a time part of Rand's circle of friends. But when Rand learned that Rothbard's wife was a Christian, she gave Rothbard six months to convert her to atheism, or else divorce her. Rothbard of course did neither, and was, accordingly, excommunicated soon thereafter.

Comment author: Caledonian2 18 December 2007 02:16:26PM -1 points [-]

The atomic theory of chemistry is pretty damned certain.

There is a world of difference between "pretty damned" and "completely".

The problem is not being willing to assign confidence values so close to one that our brains can no longer tell the difference. The problem is doing so improperly.

I love the repeated metaphor of milestones, roads, and journeys. Ah, progress! The bliss that comes from the belief that the destination is known and inevitable!

Comment author: Rasmus 18 December 2007 02:43:31PM 2 points [-]

That is one great blog post.

On a lighter note, this sordid affair did give us the excellent term "randroid".

Comment author: Stephan_Johnson 18 December 2007 04:54:46PM 3 points [-]

Interesting stuff about Rand, but about Aristotle, just to keep the history honest, although he was perfectly capable of making important contributions to the math of the day (plane geometry; not the logic that he, with characteristic immodesty, informs us he actually invented!)--think of his response to Zeno's paradox--Aristotle didn't view math (again, qua geometry) as being fundamental to the deepest understanding of the universe. That view was well known to him through Plato and the Pythagoreans, but Aristotle explicitly rejected it in favor of a science of nature where mathematical abstractions, though interesting as intellectual exercises, revealed nothing deep about the inner workings of the universe. If you're looking for a principled objection to the informationalism that underlies transhumanism, Aristotle's your guy.

Comment author: Brandon_Reinhart 18 December 2007 05:09:00PM 3 points [-]

Great post. You nailed my main issues with objectivism. I think the material is still worth reading. Rand considered herself a philosopher and seemed to feel there was a lot to be gained from telling her people to read more philosophy and broaden their horizons, but when it came to scientific works she never expresses much awareness of the "state of the art" of her time. In fact, her epistemology makes assumptions about the operation of the brain (in behavioralism and learning) that I'm not sure could be made correctly with the state of neuroscience and related disciplines at the time.

Comment deleted 05 August 2013 01:04:01PM *  [-]
Comment author: Peterdjones 05 August 2013 02:05:57PM *  2 points [-]

Rand herself didn't understand emergence (she casting a biologist as the embodiment of scientific corruption, because there is too much complexity in his area of study for any one human brain to be familiar with), and also didn't understand much about cybernetics, etc.

That's hardly the start of it. She opposed relativity and QM, and fence-sat on Evolution.

ETA:

I don't think "1957" is mcuh of an excuse either, particularly about evolution. For another thing, she never wavered till her death in the 80s. It makes no sense to focus on Bayes, unless your are a Bayes cultist. Rand was unaware that a realistic, raitonal science-orientated form of philosophy had arisen since she was spoon-fed Hegelianism in the early 20th century, and remained unwillingly to connect with it even after John Hospers painfully explained it to her. That's the acid test of whether you are interested in promoting ideas or yourself.

Comment author: billswift 18 December 2007 05:13:57PM 1 point [-]

I think a better way of looking at established science is that it is completely certain, barring further information, and being willing/able to consider further, possibly contradictory information.

I don't really think confidence values are useful in the absence of knowledge of how complete your current knowledge of a domain actually is.

Comment author: Mike_Kenny 18 December 2007 05:50:47PM 4 points [-]

I do wonder if Rand was a sort of an evangelist in a sense for a more reasoned-out philosophy than what existed and maybe she thought something like, "Okay, this is good enough for now--now I'm going to go out and spread the word of this particular philosophy." Certainty does have a certain rhetorical use, and if it persuades people away form a less reasonable approach, maybe it's worthwhile. If we all sat around waiting for perfect knowledge before we started talking about our ideas, we'd never speak.

Not to say I necessarily endorse Rand's approach--my impression is she was too rigid, but at the same time, did she do a service for advancing better ideas than the average to the general public? I think a decent case could be made for her on that count.

Comment author: Peterdjones 21 January 2013 04:27:06PM -1 points [-]

I don't think so because analytical philosophy was well established in the fifties, and the idealsim she railed against was out of fashion.

Comment author: Mason 18 December 2007 05:53:44PM 0 points [-]

Where is the spoiler warning for those of us in the midst of this epic novel. I'd say more but I stopped reading at John Galt is...

Comment author: Chris 18 December 2007 06:31:42PM -3 points [-]

EY, thanks for the link in this post to your Global Risks paper. It addresses in passing something that had puzzled me : how would an AI acquire hands ? On Ayn Rand : the concept of purity seems to me central in cult formation, more so than that of absoluteness. See, for instance, the deviations of the Self Realisation Foundation in handling Yogananda's legacy. Or, for that matter, General Jack D Ripper in Dr Strangelove. So, let your knowledge and wisdom increase, but let them not be pure. Amen.

Comment author: James_Milton 18 December 2007 07:22:56PM 1 point [-]

People focus on the messenger more than on the message. Jesus preached individual freedom for which he was executed by the Authorities of the time. Now, dare I say, the majority of people who praise Jesus willingly empower the authority of their time to limit individual freedom, while at the same time preaching it.

We can argue that science proves that nothing is certain, but red and white blood cells keep you alive, and that's unlikely to change. We can't live at our current state of output if we didn't take this for granted. Thus, certainties exist at various degrees, and we know that some things work.

In the same spirit, all individuals must assess for themselves how certain are the definitions of the words they use and why, if they are to remain individuals. Freedom cannot mean slavery at the same time, or a little less freedom from the initial meaning of the word. Without these certainties of language, we cannot communicate at level. It would render science impossible. Rand had her issues, and I think The Fountainhead is her best work. Her cult of personality does not do justice to the message.

Comment author: Ross_Parker 18 December 2007 07:41:22PM 3 points [-]

I read Atlas this summer. It was hard going, but rewarding in the end. It made every other work of fiction I have read since seem easy. Ayn Rand's ideas are wonderfully different. They refreshed my thinking. However, I carried a 'cult warning' consciously in my head while reading and remembered it every time I had the urge to give up everything I owned and head to Colorado. In short, concerns about the cult of Ayn Rand put me off taking her as seriously as I might have otherwise done. (I'm not saying I would have gone to the gulch had I not had this proviso.)

Comment author: RobinHanson 18 December 2007 08:05:04PM 6 points [-]

I fear the word "cult" obscures many difficult issues. I'm no fan of Rand-fandom, but I think it is important to identify as clearly as possible just what signs people within such a group could use to see they have a problem. For example, "ostracizing anyone who dared contradict her" would seemingly apply to a great many, perhaps the majority, of ordinary human organizations.

Comment author: Barkley_Rosser 18 December 2007 08:07:36PM 2 points [-]

Ah, but A is still A, no matter what any of you may say... :-).

Comment author: TGGP4 18 December 2007 08:13:19PM 0 points [-]

James Bach, the gates of ijtihad are forever closed with the death of her Randness!

"If any man shall add unto these things, God shall add unto him the plagues that are written in this book and if any man shall take away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God shall take away his part out of the book of life, and out of the holy city, and from the things which are written in this book."

Comment author: Chris 18 December 2007 08:47:58PM 1 point [-]

Robin : "For example, "ostracizing anyone who dared contradict her" would seemingly apply to a great many, perhaps the majority, of ordinary human organizations." : Yes, but there is a difference between ostracizing = damning to the nethermost pits of hell with no hope of salvation and ostracizing = delaying your next pay increase by a couple of months. i.e., the cult-dom-ness is contingent on the existential nature of the ostracization.

Comment author: Michael_G.R. 18 December 2007 08:54:47PM 1 point [-]

I really enjoyed reading this. Thank you Eliezer.

Comment author: brent 18 December 2007 10:43:20PM -1 points [-]

Great post.

Sure, let's say we accept that Ayn Rand turned out to be a mega-bitch mad control freak in later life?

Does that mean that 'A is A' is somehow wrong?

Can anyone say 'ad hominem fallacy'?

Comment author: gwern 11 November 2009 06:34:14PM 5 points [-]

No one is saying A is not A because Rand was a control freak. What we're saying is that a lot of the superstructure of her philosophy supposedly founded on 'A is A' is rubbish and the most obvious example is her personal life; it's a reductio. 'Rand presumably was the person with the best understanding of Randianism, and these absurd actions & statements reflect her understanding; QED, Randianism is absurd.'

Comment author: pnrjulius 05 June 2012 04:25:11PM 6 points [-]

As an acquaintance of mine put it, "No, I'm sorry, Objectivism is not a theorem of the predicate calculus."

Comment author: Adirian 19 December 2007 01:19:37AM 2 points [-]

Ayn Rand was wrong in many regards - and her epistemology came after the definition for her philosophy, and should certainly be discounted as rationalization and little more - but any half-rational Objectivist will recognize that the philosophy should be regarded objectively, and her quite subjective views of personal values should be taken with a grain of salt.

Incidentally, if you're interested in her as a character, you may want to read We The Living (Which she herself described as a philosophical autobiography) - there are several hints scattered throughout it that she always had a love affair with power, that it was not merely something that she developed later in her life.

Comment author: buybuydandavis 18 November 2012 12:22:53PM 1 point [-]

but any half-rational Objectivist will recognize that the philosophy should be regarded objectively, and her quite subjective views of personal values should be taken with a grain of salt.

But values are Objective, per Objectivists.

Incidentally, if you're interested in her as a character, you may want to read We The Living

IMO, also her best novel. Her sense of life, without an Objectivist justification for it.

Comment author: Nathan_Myers 19 December 2007 02:24:13AM -1 points [-]

Such eloquence on such a trivial subject!

Ayn Rand and her coterie didn't devolve into a cult. They started out that way. Her writing is pure fetishism, from beginning to end. That it happens to fetishize technical topics and people interested in technical topics should make those of us inclined the same way particularly suspicious.

Libertarians should be viewed with the same suspicion, for the same reasons.

Comment author: poke 19 December 2007 02:35:18AM 11 points [-]

Nice essay but I think you'd benefit from studying the history of science a bit more. Thomas Kuhn's view of paradigms overturning one another is not supported; since Kepler and Galileo it has been almost wholly cumulative. You get can get Kepler's and Galileo's laws from Newton's and you can get Kepler's and Galileo's and Newton's from Einstein's; the surprises have largely been interpretive. Most of the limitations of Galileo's and Newton's and Einstein's laws were known within the framework of those systems. The sense in which the contemporaries of, say, Newton thought that the Newtonian system was "certain" was as a philosophical extension of his science: they thought the necessary extensions needed to address the problems would be broadly "Newtonian" in nature. Theirs was a failure of speculation and not science.

The "revolutions" have only been from systems of folk belief (sometimes sophisticated derivatives like Aristotelian thought) to modern science. Aristotle was not a mathematician of any sort or an experimentalist of any sort; that is, he was not in any way a scientist. His system was subject to sophisticated extension by the Alexandrian Greeks (notably Ptolemy used it to create a mathematical system for astronomy) and the Scholastics. For them, mathematics meant Euclidean geometry, and the Scholastics had only parts of it: they did not have the means to do quantitative analysis of any sophistication. No experiments were performed. There are many books published about Greek "science," Islamic "science," Medieval "science"; they're all talking about Aristotle's "physics" (the only relation with modern physics is the word), which contained no mathematics, no experiments and virtually no observations (although Aristotle extolled the virtues of observation in his methodology, he did not practice what he preached, and neither did his followers).

What Kepler and Galileo brought to the table was a taste for precision in measurement and the willingness to move straight from measurement to mathematical manipulation without taking an unnecessary detour through Aristotelian philosophy (or any philosophy). (Note that Copernicus was still operating in the Aristotelian tradition; he simply moved us out to one of the rotating spheres from our place in the center. Many people overlook Kepler's achievement because they don't realize there was then no concept of an orbit; the circular motion was due to astronomical objects being implanted in spinning spheres. Moving to elliptical motions was probably a bigger conceptual leap than moving away from geocentricism.) Given that their contemporaries were measuring nothing (except astronomers), and rarely creating mathematic models at all, this was a huge leap. But the leap was from a (sophisticated) system of folk belief to science. Similar leaps were taken in chemistry and biology much later and these too were from systems of folk belief (albeit less sophisticated) to science. None of them were instigated by the works of Francis Bacon.

Comment author: Roland2 19 December 2007 05:08:27AM 6 points [-]

Studying up on the math of probability theory and decision theory.

Eliezer or anyone else, which books on these subjects are good for beginners?

Comment author: Ian_C. 19 December 2007 06:53:44AM 1 point [-]

I think people have a built-in instinct towards self-preservation. What sometimes happens though, is people love something so much, such as a novel, that it becomes an inseparable part of who they are. And that's when cultish behavior starts, because an attack on that idea becomes an attack on them personally. To find fault with that idea is to find fault with them.

Now one thing (not the only thing) that made Objectivism different from other philosophies was that the founder presented it, not as a dry collection of premises and conclusions in an academic journal, but rather by writing a novel about it, about how some perfect exponents of this philosophy (Howard Roark, etc) would live their lives. So if there is a disproportionate number of cult like behavior in followers of this philosophy, maybe it is something to do with the presentation as a novel and not the ideas themselves or even the founder.

Comment author: Dan_Burfoot 19 December 2007 07:50:25AM 3 points [-]

If you want to object to Objectivism (hah) you should do so by discussing the ideas themselves, perhaps by citing passages that highlight basic ideas of the theory. Details of Rand's personal life are irrelevant. Hug the query.

There is an interesting kernel of an idea here: how can one establish a self-renewing philosophy? How can an intellectual leader construct a set of principles which specifically allow for their own revision? Of course, this is very similar to the question of how one can construct a Friendly AI, and the question of how one can construct a Friendly government.

Comment author: Paul_Crowley 19 December 2007 12:47:09PM 19 points [-]

Some have said this essay is a poor, ad hominem criticism of Objectivism. This isn't a criticism of Objectivism per se at all and isn't meant to be - it is intended to answer the question "how did a belief that ostensibly venerates reason and independent thought give rise to cult-like behaviour?" Thus discussion of the merits of Objectivism itself don't address the question, while an account of Rand's life sheds a lot of light.

Comment author: Caledonian2 19 December 2007 02:52:01PM 5 points [-]

Studying Rand's life is unlikely to be particularly useful. Studying the historical development of Objectivism as a group phenomenon is probably the most fruitful strategy.

I have noticed that people's beliefs about the nature of positive traits, either in general or specifically, has a great deal of influence on their behavior. When virtues are something that you are, rather than the result of how you act, people often stop bothering to act in the difficult and expensive ways necessary to maintain that virtue.

When virtues are internalized, and made part of our identity, psychologically we no longer perceive a need to invest effort and resources into being virtuous. People who believe that they are smart don't spend as much time and energy avoiding stupid decisions and actions. Instead, they act on their impulses and inclinations; after all, they're smart, so their decisions will be smart, too. People who believe that they are moral and ethical do not struggle to find right standards and follow them. Instead, they act on their impulses and inclinations; after all, they're moral and ethical, so their decisions will be moral and ethical. Why assign resources to verifying what has already been accepted as true?

Meta-knowledge of virtue is often lethal to the virtue.

(And now this is being flagged as spam... let's try it again)

Comment author: Peter_de_Blanc 19 December 2007 03:13:53PM 1 point [-]

Roland:

You might try _Probability Theory: The Logic of Science_ by ET Jaynes, and _Causality: Models, Reasoning, and Inference_ by Judea Pearl.

Comment author: David_Kelley 19 December 2007 11:46:40PM 10 points [-]

The case against those who see Objectivism as a closed system has been mounted within the ranks of Objectivists. Indeed, the very terms “open” and “closed” systems were coined in a published exchange I had with Leonard Peikoff in 1990, and the battle has been raging for years between the orthodox and the independent wings of the Objectivist movement. Fortunately, there are now many of us in the latter wing. Readers following this thread may be interested in my account of the issues, The Contested Legacy of Ayn Rand: Truth and Toleration in the Objectivist Movement (http://www.atlassociety.org/David%20Kelley%20-%20Truth%20and%20Toleration.pdf). Chapter 5 in particular points out the many ways in which the “closed-system” model contradicts the Objectivist epistemology (pp. 73-85 in the PDF file).

David Kelley, founder & senior fellow, The Atlas Society

Comment author: buybuydandavis 27 November 2011 06:21:35AM 3 points [-]

Ha! I searched for Kelley to see if anyone else had pointed out that not every Objectivist went the closed system route, and Kelley himself had beat me to it.

He also wrote The Art of Reasoning, and there is even a web site with interactive tutorials on the book: http://www.wwnorton.com/college/phil/logic3/

Comment author: Jamie_Mellway 20 December 2007 09:27:21PM 0 points [-]

The atomic theory of chemistry is pretty damned certain.

Is it fair to point out that they have split the atom? I won't even bother mentioning QM.

Comment author: Barkley__Rosser 20 December 2007 10:44:17PM 2 points [-]

David Kelley,

Maybe you were the first to use the terms "open and closed systems" within Objectivist discourse and publications, but to claim that you "coined" them is utter nonsense. They have been in widespread usage within systems theory and related fields for well over a half century in works by such people as von Bertalanffy and Vernadsky, some of this actually going back as far as the 1920s, if not earlier. Please...

Comment author: pnrjulius 05 June 2012 04:27:24PM 0 points [-]

Also, they originally came from thermodynamics...

Comment author: cerebus2 21 December 2007 03:20:58AM 9 points [-]

Just an aside, Rothbard and his coterie made fun of the Rand's cultishness (cf 'Mozart was a Red'), then promptly developed his own (big 'a') Austrian cult after splitting with Cato. Which goes to show recognizing the warning signs in others is no protection.

Comment author: Jamie_Mellway 21 December 2007 04:09:31AM -1 points [-]

The atomic theory of chemistry is pretty damned certain.

I know I already made a comment about this, but I'm just so baffled by this statement that I am hoping for some clarification. I mean, I'm pretty sure that this entry was not written before 1897, so it is fair to hold you to know that they discovered the electron. I mean you can't really believe atomic theory of chemistry, let alone think it is pretty damned certain. The theory has held in the 19th century before they discovered electrons, protons, quantum mechanics, E=mc2, quarks, and all that.

Or are you saying that the current theories of particle physics, quantum mechanics, and general relativity in their present form with respect to chemistry are certain? I don't know a physicist that will go that far. People in the field realize that science does not bring certainty.

It always confuses me when people say things like that science is certain and then give as an example a theory that has been discredited over a hundred years ago.

What did you mean by that statement? I'm certainly baffled.

Comment author: Richard_Hollerith2 21 December 2007 04:44:34AM 10 points [-]

Do the words "atomic theory" have a single unambiguous meaning in the context you reply to? Or do you know somehow (telepathy?) the precise referent the writer refers to by the words?

Come on, Mellway. Search for a charitable interpretation of the writer's words. Do not stop your search till you have found an interpretation of the words that makes the sentence non-foolish and non-false.

Comment author: Jamie_Mellway 21 December 2007 05:09:27AM -3 points [-]

So, Hollerith, the author means something completely different than the theory that matter is composed of discrete units called atoms? Oh, that makes more sense. The other atomic theory of chemistry is pretty damned certain. I thought the author meant what everyone else means by it. I apologize for making such a silly psychic leap.

Comment author: TGGP4 21 December 2007 06:28:12AM 3 points [-]

From hanging out at Mises it seems like Walter Block, Stephan Kinsella and Roderick Long are perfectly okay with criticizing Rothbard. I haven't read much from Hoppe so I don't know how he stacks up, but he definitely smacks of right-deviationism. I've heard Agorists claim that they're the only true Rothbardians though.

Comment author: Benquo 21 December 2007 07:30:14AM 5 points [-]

I suppose you could say that the important truth of atomic chemistry has not been substantively refuted: that there really are objects such as carbon "atoms," nitrogen "atoms," etc. the individual and relational qualities of which determine the natures of the substances they constitute.

In other words, there is no real alternate hypothesis to the above explanation of substances' tendency to combine in small whole-number ratios, only refinements of that hypothesis, or things thought to be physically prior.

I put a lot of weight on Lavoisier's definition of these atoms. As I recall, he wrote something to the effect that whether or not these particles he was talking about are true atoms (in the original greek sense), they were indivisible to Lavoisier. Subsequently, the term "atom" has simply meant those kinds of bodies. If you assume that "atom" must always and only mean particles which are absolutely indivisible, then of course you will disagree, but I do not think the term was used exclusively that way, even among the 18th century chemists who worked out the theory's basics.

Comment author: Richard_Hollerith2 21 December 2007 09:39:56AM 4 points [-]

Is it just me or do others too notice that the quality of comments and dialog here is much higher than on most blogs?

Comment author: RomanDavis 30 May 2010 01:34:59AM 4 points [-]

It isn't just you.

Comment author: pnrjulius 05 June 2012 04:28:44PM 2 points [-]

The proportion of constructive, intelligent comments on Less Wrong is about 90%. On Facebook it's maybe 30%. On Youtube it's about 5%.

Clearly we are doing something right!

Comment author: Robert_Campbell 21 December 2007 09:09:25PM 11 points [-]

Up the thread a piece, Vejay referred to a book called The Passion of Ayn Rand's Critics, by James Valliant.

Vejay said:

Another author--James Valliant--who wrote on Ayn Rand's life studied her private journals (that were unavailable to Barbara Branden and Nathaniel Brandon [sic]). According to him, the air of cultishness was initiated and encouraged by Nathaniel Brandon, who monitored all of Rand's guests, visitors, and letters, to ensure that they were not antagonistic to Rand. Apparently, all this was done without Rand's knowledge until much later she found out, including Branden's continued deception of her.

*****

In point of fact, Mr. Valliant's book is an unscholarly mess.

(1) Although his prime objective is to discredit The Passion of Ayn Rand by Barbara Branden, Mr. Valliant frequently misquotes her book or imposes preposterous interpretations on what she said in it. See, for instance, Neil Parille's meticulous dissection at< http://www.objectivistliving.com/forums/index.php?showtopic=4405&st=60>.

(2) Mr. Valliant insults his readers' intelligence by telling them that passages that he has just quoted from Ayn Rand's journals do not mean what anyone with a modicum of sense can see that they mean. For instance, he follows up passages in which Rand expresses extremely negative evaluations of Patrecia Scott (with whom Nathaniel Branden had been conducting a secret affair) with pious denials that Rand was ever or could ever have been jealous of Ms. Scott.

(3) If Ayn Rand ever complained about Nathaniel Branden demanding obedience and conformity from her disciples, Mr. Valliant fails to document it. It is possible to deny Rand's authoritarianism only by ignoring her published statements demanding ideological conformity, her comments during the question and answer periods of her public speeches doing likewise, and the testimony of other former associates, such as Alan and Joan Mitchell Blumenthal, who remained with Rand after Nathaniel and Barbara Branden were expelled from her circle, but eventually broke with her for their own reasons.

(4) It is clear from Mr. Valliant's own text that Ayn Rand showed some of the journal entries in question to Nathaniel and Barbara Branden at the time, though of course she did not give them copies to take with when they were expelled.

Apart from the previously unpublished journal entries by Ayn Rand herself (which may have been tampered with by Mr. Valliant, and in any event frequently do not show her in the best possible light), Mr. Valliant's book is of value only to those morbidly curious about the rationalizations that worshippers of Ayn Rand are willing to resort to.

Robert Campbell

Comment author: Noumenon 23 December 2007 09:43:33AM 7 points [-]

Is it just me or do others too notice that the quality of comments and dialog here is much higher than on most blogs?

It turns out that all the people who think otherwise have already left... :) But I agree with you! All hail Cultmaster Eliezer!

Comment author: pnrjulius 05 June 2012 04:30:52PM 4 points [-]

I know it's in jest, but honestly... let's be especially careful about that. Right now everyone can see you're joking; but human organizations degenerate into cults with astounding regularity. It's a good idea to keep in mind at least one thing you can think of that any given authority figure has gotten wrong.

So find at least one thing, preferably something important, but better something trivial than nothing at all, that Eliezer has said, which you believe to be false. I could tell you mine, but then you'd just be taking me on authority.

Comment author: cerebus2 23 December 2007 07:21:00PM 2 points [-]

Passing thought. In another world, Lewis Little is the Lysenko of the Objectivist Party.

Comment author: Caledonian2 24 December 2007 02:21:00PM 3 points [-]

It turns out that all the people who think otherwise have already left

Not quite all.

Comment author: R._Rawlings 24 January 2008 11:40:00PM -3 points [-]

With regard to mathematics, it was only with the intellectual help of Ayn Rand's epistemology that I independently discovered hypercomplex numbers. See the linked press release for more information.

Comment author: wendy 15 March 2008 02:54:00AM 1 point [-]

The formal invalidation of the idea that certainty is impossible is that such a statement is a self-contradiction.

I recommend that you read Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology more than once. Struggle to understand each major idea in there, and then try to invalidate them, especially the axioms. Be honest in your arguments, and fight each idea to the bitter end. Eventually, you will start to realize, just as I did, that Rand was a lot smarter than I gave her credit for and knew what she was talking about, and that I wasn't as good and sophisticated as I thought I was. But I did not take my philosophical shortcomings personally; I learned from them. I am a lot smarter and sharper now because of that mental investment. I would recommend ITOE to everyone.

Comment author: ScentOfViolets 23 March 2009 11:15:00PM 2 points [-]

I thought this was all very standard stuff; as I was taught going on half a century ago, the atomic theory of matter simply says you cannot indefinitely divide a sample of something like nitrogen in half. That is, there is a smallest discrete unit of nitrogen that retains all it's chemical properties as opposed to the notion that nitrogen is like an infinitely divisble continuous fluid.

How is it being taught these days?

Comment author: ABranco 13 October 2009 12:38:44AM *  10 points [-]

Having read The Fountainhead, Atlas Shrugged and Peikoff's OPAR, I've had enough time and material to reflect on Objectivism.

While Rand's contribution to rationalism was mostly admirable, Eliezer's analysis seems very fair. What's interesting, too, is that some of its contents overlaps with the article "The Benefits and Hazards of the Philosophy of Ayn Rand", written by Nathaniel Branden 25 years ago, which can be found in his website.

I recommend the reading.

As Branden (reasonably) states, some of Rand's major flaws were:

  • Confusing reason with “the reasonable”
  • Encouraging repression of emotions
  • Encouraging moralizing
  • Conflating sacrifice and benevolence
  • Overemphasizing the role of philosophical premises
  • Encouraging dogmatism
Comment author: Alicorn 11 November 2009 06:40:35PM 2 points [-]
Comment author: buybuydandavis 27 November 2011 06:42:54AM 5 points [-]

It's hip with a lot of people to be snarky about Rand, but I've never seen anyone who does it also demonstrate they have the slightest clue what she had to say. I have my own disagreements with Rand, but I've appreciated her more and more as time as gone on. She's more LessWrong than most.

Comment author: paper-machine 27 November 2011 07:17:17AM 1 point [-]

In the interest of being contrarian, I admit having a fondness for her Romantic Manifesto. I didn't really understand how aesthetics could be a worthwhile philosophical practice until she linked it to -- oh, what was the term? -- a person's sense of life.

Comment author: Larks 10 April 2012 05:29:39AM 3 points [-]

It's hard to imagine that anyone who'd read Atlas Shrugged could accuse her of thinking that

rich people are rich because they are smarter and worked harder than everyone else, whereas poor people are poor because they are dumb and/or lazy and fucked it up themselves

Comment author: Jayson_Virissimo 10 April 2012 10:21:30AM *  6 points [-]

Exactly, these critiques fascinate me for this reason: Objectivist epistemology, metaphysics, and ethics are deeply flawed and yet people still create straw-men that are easily recognized as such by even casual dabblers in Objectivism like myself (your's being a good example). What causes people to do that?

Comment author: buybuydandavis 11 April 2012 01:35:36AM 6 points [-]

I think EY gave the answer in Chapter 83. Harry, the consumate rationalist, was lying to himself and lashing out at Dumbledore because one of his sacred values was questioned, and he couldn't allow that.

Are we to suppose that it's only Evangelicals for whom it is a crime to doubt the existence of their God? Rand challenges a number of Gods, and the faithful off all varieties can hardly be expected to listen to the lies of the Devil, can they? To even consider her arguments for a moment is to question the sacred, which mustn't be done. To do so is to travel halfway down the road to heresy.

Comment author: paper-machine 11 April 2012 02:50:43AM 2 points [-]

I had to double-take because that appeared at first to be exactly the message I took away from Atlas Shrugged. Then I realized that, as far as I can tell, the message is more like:

Only the intelligent and hard-working deserve to be rich and have happy lives.

Comment author: pnrjulius 05 June 2012 04:39:53PM 0 points [-]

So it's not that they do, it's that they should.

Yet even if that is so, why are there so many Objectivists swooning over hedge fund managers? Clearly at least some of them think that everyone who is rich automatically is a wonderful person, or they wouldn't behave this way.

Comment author: pnrjulius 05 June 2012 04:38:12PM -2 points [-]

There's one part I didn't like, which is where he called Rand "ugly" and explained her theory of relationships on that. She's not even all that unattractive, and the reasons her theory of relationships is wrong run much deeper than she herself not being pretty. (They basically would undermine most of the point of having relationships at all.)

Other than that, it's an excellent little dialogue which characterizes quite well what's wrong with typical Objectivists.

Comment author: timtyler 08 June 2011 12:38:50PM *  2 points [-]

It seems possible that some with far-out ideas turn to rationalism as a natural part of their defense of them - since if your beliefs are rational, then that makes them OK.

In such cases, the far-out ideas would come first, and the interest in rational thinking would follow along afterwards.

The interest in rational thought should normally be fairly theraputic. However, much depends on how deep it goes. Objectivism may not score too highly there.

Comment author: Peterdjones 08 June 2011 01:48:23PM *  1 point [-]

The interest in rational thought should normally be fairly theraputic.

Only if combined with an interest in listening to criticism of your own ideas and to ideas other than your own. Otherwise it is rationalisation.

Comment author: Arandur 31 July 2011 06:25:53PM 0 points [-]

Ha! It is a horrible crime that I read this, and see in it a criticism of any faith who believes that the Bible is the end-all, be-all of God's word to this or any earth?

Comment author: MixedNuts 16 October 2012 08:35:34AM 0 points [-]

Doesn't actually seem to be one. Of course an eternal all-knowing entity can beat all future scientists. At most it would cast doubt on Paul's sexist rants; the New Testament says "Paul thinks women should shut up", not "The LORD says women should shut up".

Comment author: MTGandP 06 September 2012 10:23:18PM 4 points [-]

Why do Objectivists so frequently believe that anthropogenic global warming is not real? (It appears to be the consensus opinion on the Objectivism forum.) This belief doesn't seem to have anything to do with Objectivism, and Ayn Rand certainly never mentioned global warming.

Comment author: Dolores1984 06 September 2012 10:35:58PM 13 points [-]

It probably gets pattern matched to 'state-ist hysteria being used to crush industry.'

Comment author: TheOtherDave 07 September 2012 12:50:59AM 1 point [-]

Are there other large-enough-scale-to-justify-collectivist-action phenomena they are more accepting of?

Comment author: Peterdjones 21 January 2013 04:45:21PM 6 points [-]

Nations. Wars. The US.

If you want to check out something tragic, check out Rands justification for the White Man taking the US from the red:

"[The Native Americans] didn't have any rights to the land and there was no reason for anyone to grant them rights which they had not conceived and were not using.... What was it they were fighting for, if they opposed white men on this continent? For their wish to continue a primitive existence, their "right" to keep part of the earth untouched, unused and not even as property, just keep everybody out so that you will live practically like an animal, or maybe a few caves above it. Any white person who brought the element of civilization had the right to take over this continent." * Source: "Q and A session following her Address To The Graduating Class Of The United States Military Academy at West Point, New York, March 6, 1974"

Comment author: PrawnOfFate 22 April 2013 12:55:05PM 1 point [-]

Maths isn't very relevant to Rand's philosophy. What's more relevant about her Aristoteleanism is her attitude to modern science; she was fairly ignorant. and fairly sceptical, of evolution, QM, and relativity.

Comment author: Peterdjones 05 August 2013 02:32:06PM -1 points [-]

ith permission from both their spouses, which counts for a lot in my view. If you want to turn that into a "problem", you have to specify that the spouses were unhappy—and then it's still not a matter for outsiders.

I dare say many a guru or cult leader has similar "permission". It often isn't taken to ecuse their actions, because people recognise that such permission can be browbeaten ot of people by someone who seems to them to be an authority figure.