Guardians of Ayn Rand

“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.