Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Why Do People Still Not Get It?

I received the following question that someone sent to my YouTube channel: bakukenshin, and I thought it fit in nicely with the topics on this blog.

"What do you think of people who have read Ayn Rands books but refuse to believe in or accept the philosophy of Objectivism? Are they simply refusing the ability of the mind or are they afraid of the idea of being responsible for their own decisions? Or does it just go against too much of what they have been "taught"?"

My response was as follows:

I think there are several reasons why people could read her books and not accept the entire philosophy of Objectivism.

1. Most people read a book and they pick and choose what they like about it and what they don't like. Most of the time this coincides with values that they have already decided upon. So a lot of people take Objectivism piecemeal, which results in a lot of what you can see in the Republican party. That is a lot of people who try to push for capitalism and free markets (at least when they're campaigning) but at the same time pushing to restrict civil liberties (such as with the anti-abortion movement, domestic surveillance, etc.).

2. To accept Objectivism, people need to accept three basic premises. Reality is. Existence exists. Consciousness is conscious. Unfortunately most of the gatekeepers to modern philosophy (professors, novelists, poets, scientists, etc.) have been indoctrinated in and come to believe the opposite of at least one of these. Since these are axioms, unless they realize that there is no way to disprove these premises without using them, then they cannot be expected to accept them. In order for someone to change their mind on axiomatic propositions they need to start from the standpoint that reason is the final arbiter of their viewpoints, that they cannot resist what their senses and the rules of logic tell them simply based on their feelings or a priori assertions. But, if they accept that already, then they are already half way to Objectivism anyway.

3. The philosophy of Objectivism isn't self-evident. The reaction of many new objectivists when they've decided to accept it, is to assume that because they read Ayn Rand's works and it makes sense to them, that it must therefore automatically make sense to everybody. Unfortunately, this would be a mistaken assumption. Everybody starts from a different starting point. Some people have devoted a lot of time thinking seriously about fundamental philosophical questions. Some people have not. Even among seriously committed thinkers, it took a long historical tradition starting with Aristotle leading up through the founding of America and it took Ayn Rand's genius building on all that to bring the various threads of history into sharp enough focus to formulate Objectivism. Some people just make some honest mistakes along the chain of abstraction.

4. Some people know better and are consciously malevolent enough to deny it anyway. But be very careful before jumping to conclusions about who you place in this category. Sometimes I think Objectivists need to understand their own philosophy better before they start leaping to judgments about others.

I think it's a little like teaching someone a skill at which you are highly proficient, but the person you're teaching isn't. Like your native language for instance. You don't even think about it. But try teaching it to someone who only knows Chinese. You quickly find out that you have to know things about the structure of your language at a much more detailed level than you'd ever have dreamed of having to worry about before. More importantly, the process of clarifying your thoughts, so as to better present them to others, teaches you things about your own mode of thought and helps you understand your beliefs better than before.

If you seriously teach any subject for a significant period of time, you will understand that subject in a fundamentally different way than if you had just accepted that you knew it and left it at that. I think this is true of math, English, art, and especially philosophy. If you want to truly understand why people don't get it, and understand better just what it is that makes sense to you, then try to think about how you would explain it to someone, calmly and clearly. Try to talk to people about it. Try to teach it. Through this process of discussion, through refining your arguments, through thinking about the points people raise in opposition, you will come to understand the philosophy that much better. And you will have a much clearer image of what it represents, and which people are the ones who should truly be morally condemned. But remember, in these discussions, if you find yourself losing your temper, resorting to insults or irrational tactics or agencies, then you've already lost. You need to accept that when it happens (as it inevitably will), go back and rethink it through.

Objectivism is ultimately understanding yourself. You have to start there. And it can be the hardest place to start. Especially when you're wanting to rush out and change the world. But it is central. After all, that's where everything in Ayn Rand's philosophy begins.

I hope this helps somewhat. I know it didn't exactly address the question as you stated it, but I, too, am struggling with the line between people who are mistaken and people who are consciously evading truth. So, until I reach a conclusion on that, I like to recommend caution before leaping into judgments on people. It can be tempting, and it can be difficult to see the distinction. (This by the way is the very issue that led to the split between Kelley and Peikoff and why the "The Atlas Society" and "The Ayn Rand Institute" aren't on speaking terms.) The above is my best attempt to deal with it myself. Read as much as you can on the philosophy, both the good and the bad. Don't get sidetracked on following any one person's interpretation. Remember the most important perspective is your own. Try to form it in as balanced and rational a way as possible.

--I think the only thing I can add to this right now is in this prior blog post here. I am still very interested in the opinions of other practicing objectivists. If anybody has an opinion on this matter please feel free to post your comments.

Best premises,
American Anti-theist


ergo said...

Well, there's no irreversible, deterministic mechanism that will drive all readers of Rand's books to accept her philosophy wholly.

People have free will. And beyond that, there are several factors that can influence a person's response to Rand's books--such as the reader's intellectual capabilities, language skills, personality disposition (e.g., some are simply not inclined to the realm of ideas, some are doers more than thinkers, some like fiction for the thrill of it, not for its philosophical content, etc.), age, mood, cultural upbringing, etc.

So, it's not a simple choice between evasion and honest mistake. Those are just two among a myriad of choices.

Moreover, there may also be some who read her works and agree with Rand on an implicit, sense of life level, but never raise it up to a explicitly conceptualized statement of belief. The reason for this maybe that they just connect with the philosophy subconsciously or emotionally, but realize that they are largely already living lives like that, and don't find the urge or drive or the personal inclination to explore the ideas in a technical fashion.

All the best!
Jerry Johnson
India - Mumbai

American Anti-theist said...

Thanks for that. It makes a lot of sense. A similar issue I've thought of is that even in the supposedly perfect world, that people who share the same basic values, won't necessarily all like each other or agree on everything. I can think that someone would make a good boss, or employee, a senator or president, but I might not necessarily consider them friends or even want them as friends. But I could feel good about them existing in the same world, as a reaffirmation of my own beliefs and grateful for the sense of security provided by the presence of comrades in arms, so to speak.