The Allure of the Fake Everything

One

Let us all nod our heads sagely . . . 

The Axiom of Existence: “Existence exists.”

The first axiom states that something other than one’s own consciousness exists. If it did not, according to Rand, consciousness itself would be an impossibility. Rand believes that this principle is self-evident (its truth is given in perceptual experience) and such that any attempt to refute it implicitly assumes it. This axiom entails metaphysical realism, the view that things are what they are independently of the mental states (beliefs, desires, etc.) of individual cognizers.


— exposition of Ayn Rand

Now . . . you tell me.  I think I’ve just been told that a tautology entails “metaphysical realism”.  In other words, if you’ve ever scratched your head wondering if maybe you haven’t lived your life in a dream, or in the Matrix, you can rest assured you have not, because, well, “existence exists” and whatnot.  This is heady stuff!   Ice cream headspike heady.

Moving on . . .

That which you call your soul or spirit is your consciousness, and that which you call ‘free will’ is your mind’s freedom to think or not, the only will you have, your only freedom. This is the choice that controls all the choices you make and determines your life and character. 

— Ayn Rand herself

I enjoy being told that my character is “determined” by my “only freedom” (drum roll please): the freedom to not think.  Self-improvement with a good mallet.  Well, it worked for Harrison Ford in “Regarding Henry”, though he needed a bullet. 

On the list of sentences I get a real kick out of, the first was pointed out by Barbara Grizzuti Harrison: the Frugal Gourmet reminding us that “Irish immigrants came to this country wishing to maintain their love for the potato.”  But, “Reason (the faculty which identifies and integrates the material provided by man’s senses) is man’s only means of perceiving reality, his only source of knowledge, his only guide to action, and his basic means of survival,” is a close second, for sheer moxie.  Objectivists do like their “reason”, dontcha know.

One would have thought that a person willing to trumpet her view as “Objectivism” would have the decency never, ever, to say that “reason” is the “only source of knowledge”.  The world can go take a hike, apparently — a hike in an objective park, I hope.  Love dem objective boids.

(Continued . . .)

Two

Whatever “reason” is supposed to mean to Objectivists, they also like to say “facts” and “evidence” a lot — as if everyone else were taking a bath in pure stupid.  Devoted expositor of Rand, “Dr. Leonard Peikoff” (the surest sign that you’re about to get bamboozled by a white guy is an insistent reference to a non-medical doctorate) writes:

Its [Objectivism’s] opponents are all the other major traditions, including Platonism, Christianity, and German idealism. Directly or indirectly, these traditions uphold the notion that consciousness is the creator of reality. The essence of this notion is the denial of the axiom that existence exists.

In the religious version, the deniers advocate a consciousness “above” nature, i.e., superior, and contradictory, to existence; in the social version, they melt nature into an indeterminate blur given transient semi-shape by human desire. The first school denies reality by upholding two of them. The second school dispenses with the concept of reality as such. The first rejects science, law, causality, identity, claiming that anything is possible to the omnipotent, miracle-working will of the Lord. The second states the religionists’ rejection in secular terms, claiming that anything is possible to the will of “the people.”

For those of you keeping score at home, neither Platonism nor German idealism say anything at all about “the will of [here come the scare quotes] ‘the people'”.  And none of the philosophical or religious views at the receiving end of the above grande mal, “dispenses with concept of reality as such”.  Plenty of Christians think God is bound by the rules of logic — and they may well have an account of how God isn’t if God isn’t.  Existence and the all the existing and the shizzle with the bizzle.  It’s all good.

Neither school can claim a basis in objective evidence. [Here we go!]  There is no way to reason from nature to its negation, or from facts to their subversion, or from any premise to the obliteration of argument as such, i.e., of its foundation: the axioms of existence and identity.

I read this and get the vague impression I’m supposed to shove something metal up my ass. 

Three

If what is wanted is feel-good gibberish and can-do spirit, an easy-to-read fake everything, one can go to the works of Edgar Casey, the psychic.

The spirit is life.

The mind is the builder.

The physical is the result.

Neat-o. 

But nobody reads Edgar Casey and then claims a heady, smoggy-skulled right to fuck the working class.

Four

New York Times — September 15, 2007, “Ayn Rand’s Literature of Capitalism” by By Harriet Rubin:

“I know from talking to a lot of Fortune 500 C.E.O.’s that ‘Atlas Shrugged’ has had a significant effect on their business decisions, even if they don’t agree with all of Ayn Rand’s ideas,” said John A. Allison, the chief executive of BB&T, one of the largest banks in the United States.

“It offers something other books don’t: the principles that apply to business and to life in general. I would call it complete,” he said.

Some people read “A = A” (Rand’s “Axiom of Identity”, dontcha know) and think they’ve learned something.  The read “A = A” and suddenly feel gloriously oppressed by the ignorant masses: the vast swathe of humanity who doesn’t know that “A = A”.  What are you supposed to do with boobs like this?  People who not only read Atlas Shrugged in high school and thought it was neat, but hang on to it like grim death for the rest of their lives.

Mr. Greenspan met Rand when he was 25 and working as an economic forecaster. She was already renowned as the author of “The Fountainhead,” a novel about an architect true to his principles. Mr. Greenspan had married a member of Rand’s inner circle, known as the Collective, that met every Saturday night in her New York apartment. Rand did not pay much attention to Mr. Greenspan until he began praising drafts of “Atlas,” which she read aloud to her disciples, according to Jeff Britting, the archivist of Ayn Rand’s papers. He was attracted, Mr. Britting said, to “her moral defense of capitalism.”

Five

When you’re writing serious philosophy, as a general rule, it is a good idea to write sentences that meet, at a minimum, three conditions.  Your sentences had better:

(1) Be meaningful — have some sort of clear unambiguous sense to them.

(2) Not be obviously false.

(3) Express ideas with which someone, somewhere in the world, might conceivably disagree.

A sentence with violates (1) is nonsense.  A sentence which violates (2) is wrong.  A sentence which violates (3) is trivial. 

“Existence exists” manages a three-bagger, I think.  It’s, to put it mildly, ambiguous; it’s utterly trivial (who is supposed to disagree with “existence exists” on some interpretation or other?); and since Randites think it leads straight like a bonk on the head to metaphysical realism (a substantive technical claim in serious philosophy), it’s false.

There are various kinds of writing that are sometimes called “philosophy”, but which at various points stupendously violate one, two, or all three of the above strictures.  These kinds of writing we generally call “fuzzy headed mysticism”; “soothing nonsense”; “obscurantist triumphalism”; “motivational speaking”; “bullshit”.


Which would then be a five-bagger for Objectivism, if I’m counting correctly.

Six

I understand the allure of the fake everything.  It can be innocuous fun, as when we read a fantasy novel with a coherent and all-encompassing world-system that describes everything at once — everything, that is, in a fantasy world.  It’s engaging.  Such fake everythings are attractive because they are graspable, they are coherent, they make sense, and they do it in less than a lifetime.  But one ought to be very careful about one’s everythings in real life.

Philosophy means “love of wisdom”.  It does not mean, “Go thyself and molest an axiom.”  People who have no idea what wisdom is tend to get the two confused.  I don’t mind that they do.  I mind that they are so smarmy about it.  And I especially mind that they think because they’ve read “Existence exists” they can thereby lower taxes on the super-rich.

Cigar-lounge play is fine.  I don’t begrudge the right-wing rich their yachts.  I do begrudge them their isolation, their freedom from correction of small-mindedness and simple error.  And I feel disgust at their feeling that a novel they read in high school is all there is to philosphy, or wisdom, or, dare I say, reason.

26 comments

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  1. endlessly, because while my core consciousness is on, my autobiographical consciousness has left the building.

    • nocatz on September 24, 2007 at 2:55 am

    History prof. in college who refered to Ayn as the ‘sophomore jinx’, most people get over it, sorta like ‘mono’.

    • srkp23 on September 24, 2007 at 2:58 am

    I agree that the “foundational” tautology A=A is nothing but the upsurge of fantasy, the root of what you call “the allure of the fake everything.” Great phrase, btw.

    I am left to ask if you think there is a true everything or just a spectrum that gets more and more true.

  2. prove or disprove objectivism?

    • d3n4l1 on September 24, 2007 at 3:41 am

    “I do begrudge them their isolation”  Everyone is isolated.

    I’ll tell you about my philosophy.  Treat me like shit, and you will have war.  Don’t listen to me, and you will never have real peace.  All that other crap is just in your head, and no more interesting than, well, taking a crap.  It just is.

    You don’t have free will if you can’t stop your mind – Buddha

    Harrison Ford is a Buddhist.

    What is knowledge?  What should we try to know?  What is wisdom?

    • Caneel on September 24, 2007 at 4:07 am

    Objectivism … coming ’round again? I went through all these Ayn Rand and Nathaniel and Barbara Branden books decades ago.

    Anyway, for a wrapup on all the criticism, here’s a Web site:

    [http://www.noblesoul…]

    and Nathaniel Branden on the benefits and hazards of Rand’s philosophy:

    [http://www.nathaniel…]

    Oh, and the psychic is Cayce, not Casey. (Please forgive. Once an editor, always an editor.)

    Most of all, I am fond of this paragraph by LithiumCola:

    Philosophy means “love of wisdom”.  It does not mean, “Go thyself and molest an axiom.”  People who have no idea what wisdom is tend to get the two confused.  I don’t mind that they do.  I mind that they are so smarmy about it.  And I especially mind that they think because they’ve read “Existence exists” they can thereby lower taxes on the super-rich.

    Well, it’s taken me decades to get here, but I’m starting to have an inkling of what wisdom is. Just an inkling, mind you. It ain’t easy.

    Thanks for the diary.

    • oculus on September 24, 2007 at 5:16 am

    review of Alan Greenspan’s memoir:

    His macro view wouldn’t come until the 1950s, when his first wife introduced him to Ayn Rand’s New York salon. Rand – whom he calls “quite plain to look at” but “a stabilizing force in my life” – pushed him to think beyond mathematics and helped turn him into a libertarian.

    • snud on September 24, 2007 at 5:25 am

    I thought I’d pop on over to The Ayn Rand Institute, where (at least for me) I couldn’t even drag my mouse over the text to copy any of it and clicking on almost any link takes me to a page where I can buy one of her books.

    They certainly have capitalism down pat at the Ayn Rand Institute.

    Ahh, the irony.

    Apparently the ARI is almost up there with Scientology (AR = LRH? 🙂 in terms of its devotees.

    A cursory look at Wikipedia (where I can copy text!) sez:

    The Ayn Rand Institute has spent more than $5M on educational programs advancing Objectivism, including scholarships and clubs. These clubs often obtain educational materials and speakers from the ARI.

    $5 million bucks to throw around ain’t bad. Is this all done, alledgedly, altruistically? Just wonderin’.

    I barely remember my college Philosophy class (except I enjoyed it – that was a long time ago) but I don’t recall Ms. Raynd “existing” in our text book.

    Back to Wiki under the heading “Philosphical Criticism” of AR:

    A notable exception to the general lack of attention paid to Rand in philosophy is the essay “On the Randian Argument” by Harvard University philosopher Robert Nozick, which appears in his collection, Socratic Puzzles. Nozick is sympathetic to Rand’s political conclusions, but he does not think her arguments justify them. In particular, his essay criticizes her foundational argument in ethics, which claims that one’s own life is, for each individual, the only ultimate value because it makes all other values possible. Nozick says that to make this argument sound Rand still needs to explain why someone could not rationally prefer dying and having no values. Thus, he argues, her attempt to defend the morality of selfishness is essentially an instance of begging the question and her solution to David Hume’s famous is-ought problem is unsatisfactory.

    What the hell is Hume’s “is-ought” problem?

    (BTW, David Hume absolutely was in my college philosophy book… I do recall that!)

    I’ll let Wiki say it ’cause it’s way past my bedtime:

    “the is-ought problem was raised by David Hume (Scottish philosopher and historian, 1711-1776), who noted that many writers make claims about what ought to be on the basis of statements about what is. But there seems to be a big difference between descriptive statements (about what is) and prescriptive statements (about what ought to be).” (This here’s the link to that)

    Anyhoo… Sounds suspiciously to me like Ayn might be full of shit about a few things.

    Here’s one of them, IMHO: She thought very highly of – and largely agreed with – an economist named Ludwig von Mises. Von Mises is very respected by Libertarians.

    Here’s why: See if this quote about von Mises doesn’t sound like something you might’ve heard, oh… a Bushie say:

    (von Mises believes) that socialism must fail economically because of the economic calculation problem – the impossibility of a socialist government being able to make the economic calculations required to organize a complex economy. Mises projected that without a market economy there would be no functional price system, which he held essential for achieving rational allocation of capital goods to their most productive uses. Socialism would fail as demand cannot be known without prices, according to Von Mises. Mises’ criticism of socialist paths of economic development is well-known.

    Notice he didn’t say “government”. He said a “socialist government. I guess all the other kinds are able to figure this out.

    Anyhoo… I just wanted to add a confusing spin to LC’s totally excellent and most awesome diary about Ms. Raynd because you can still hear echoes of her beliefs on AM talk radio today.

  3. Well, this is a false dichotomy, and a false argument. Needless to say, I am not a follower of the Randian prediposition/predestination, either… the reason that whe can say something exists beyond us is simple– we create it intersubjectively. If it were not for the intersubjective agreement of ‘reality,’ then there would be only existence, isolated, atomic existence…but no awareness of it.

    Rand and her ilk have always bothered me because they look so much at the individual. Well, without a social body as a counterpoint, there is no individual. Free will is not actually free– we create the conditions for those lofty ideas– ‘freedom’ and ‘character.’ These are much more learned behaviors or concepts than we might think.

    Love to say more, but it’s late.

    Excellent essay, LithiumCola, I’ll try to stop by and post some more, or possibly a follow-on!

    • pico on September 24, 2007 at 7:30 am

    is the Simpson’s episode where Maggie gets sent to the Ayn Rand School for Tots, and has to launch a Great Escape-style operation to recover their pacifiers.

    Great diary, btw.  Eco starts off his Semiotics with a similar defense of reality, but he goes the more linguistic route: Is is, because it is.  Somehow Eco doesn’t get from there to class repression and general assholery like Rand.

  4. was this

    “Individual rights are not subject to a public vote; a majority has no right to vote away the rights of a minority

  5. can claim that Platonists, or Christians for that matter, do not believe in objective reality is beyond me.  They just don’t believe it is the ultimate reality.

  6. my FDR loving mother found me reading Atlas Shrugged. She told me to stop reading it, it’s Nazis bullshit. My Republican dad found me reading The Myth of Sisyphus, and proclaimed it Commie nonsense. Of the two I still have my Camus and say screw Ayn Rand. Give me Santyana, or Ortega e Gasset anytime. 

    • koNko on September 27, 2007 at 12:18 pm

    Ayn Rand drank too much black tea, and should have been beaten severly as a child.

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