Monday, February 19, 2018

Something comes from Something: Nothing comes from Nothing. Big Deal

The Grand Logical Hiatus.

A post on the de facto ID site Uncommon Descent (See here) alerted me to this blog post by atheist Sean Carroll. Just as atheist PZ Myers is a source of news about American Christian culture so UD is a source of news about the world of atheism. 

Carroll’s post concerns a matter which has been very much a theme of this blog: Viz that science, even if it should ever be in the position where its laws provide a complete description of the cosmos, will nevertheless always leave us with an irreducible kernel of “unexplained” information. “Explanation” in the physical science sense of the word takes the data complexes furnished by observation and merges them into sense making theoretical constructs. In physics these constructs invariably simplify the intricacies of these data complexes by showing how they could be the outcome of relatively succinct principles. In this context a theoretical narrative which “explains” a large data complex is effectively a way to “compress” that data into something smaller and simpler. Ultimately, however, all such constructs, although they may vary in their level of succinctness, obey the “law of compression”; that is they must contain a grand logical hiatus; a kernel of “brute fact” beyond which further “compression” is impossible; you can’t “explain” something from a starting point of nothing! Nothing generates nothing whereas something, though it be relatively little, can lead to a whole lot more.

A rider needs to be added at this point. The laws of physics, which can by and large be expressed as algorithms, are in contrast to statistics, a subject which deals with randomness. (I define randomness here). Random patterns are patterns which, by definition, don’t yield better than chance predictions when attempts are made to predict them using small space, short time algorithms. Such patterns can only be treated successfully with statistics. Unlike the data complexes which are the subject of the laws of physics random patterns do not simplify or “compress”.  The upshot is that the content of the physical sciences is usually an inextricable blend of two kinds of descriptive narrative: Laws and Statistics. This is what I refer to as “Law and Disorder” science.

These themes can be picked up in the following blog posts:



Below I publish the text of Carroll’s article and as usual interleave my own comments.

SEAN CARROLL ASKS:
Why Is There Something, Rather Than Nothing?
Posted on February 8, 2018 by Sean Carroll

A good question!

Or is it?

I’ve talked before about the issue of why the universe exists at all (1, 2), but now I’ve had the opportunity to do a relatively careful job with it, courtesy of Eleanor Knox and Alastair Wilson. They are editing an upcoming volume, the Routledge Companion to the Philosophy of Physics, and asked me to contribute a chapter on this topic. Final edits aren’t done yet, but I’ve decided to put the draft on the arxiv:

Why Is There Something, Rather Than Nothing?
Sean M. Carroll

It seems natural to ask why the universe exists at all. Modern physics suggests that the universe can exist all by itself as a self-contained system, without anything external to create or sustain it. But there might not be an absolute answer to why it exists. I argue that any attempt to account for the existence of something rather than nothing must ultimately bottom out in a set of brute facts; the universe simply is, without ultimate cause or explanation.


MY COMMENT:   As far as I’m concerned there is no disputing Carroll’s argument that “explanation” in the physical science sense of the word bottoms out with brute fact. And I’ve given the reason for that:  Viz: Once we get a handle on just what we mean by physical “explanation” in the Law and Disorder sense of the word then we can see that its “information compression” effect can’t carry on indefinitely; taking “explanation” as far as it will go finally results in an irreducible kernel of information from which all else is derived.

But I would query Carroll’s claim that Modern physics suggests that the universe can exist all by itself as a self-contained system, without anything external to create or sustain it. Any attempt to “prove”, after the manner of the physical sciences, that the universe can exist all by itself in a “self-contained, self-sustaining” way would, of course, require some Law and Disorder type explanation of this situation. This, as we have seen, always entails an ultimate kernel of irreducible “brute fact”, a kernel which can have no further “explanation”, least of all an explanation as to why this brute fact is somehow “self-contained and self-sustaining” whatever that means. The descriptive role that the explanations of physical science offer do not admit such metaphysical concepts as “self-containment and self-sustenance” – these ideas are simply Carroll asserting his belief that beyond the kernel of law and disorder science there is nothing to say other than that this kernel, in some strange way, has the god-like property of aseity. This is sheer metaphysical assertion on Carroll’s part. He is of course entitled to his (subjective) opinion about such matters, but he can’t claim that ideas like this have proofs in law and disorder science, a science which, as Carroll himself will agree, ultimately presents us with a brute fact kernel. Like Carroll we can if we are so inclined impute the metaphysical property of aseity to this law and disorder kernel…. or perhaps we should look elsewhere for aseity?

CARROLL WRITES: As you can see, my basic tack hasn’t changed: this kind of question might be the kind of thing that doesn’t have a sensible answer. In our everyday lives, it makes sense to ask “why” this or that event occurs, but such questions have answers only because they are embedded in a larger explanatory context. In particular, because the world of our everyday experience is an emergent approximation with an extremely strong arrow of time, such that we can safely associate “causes” with subsequent “effects.” The universe, considered as all of reality (i.e. let’s include the multiverse, if any), isn’t like that. The right question to ask isn’t “Why did this happen?”, but “Could this have happened in accordance with the laws of physics?” As far as the universe and our current knowledge of the laws of physics is concerned, the answer is a resounding “Yes.” The demand for something more — a reason why the universe exists at all — is a relic piece of metaphysical baggage we would be better off to discard.


MY COMMENT; Well, I think I can agree with most if not all of that; but only up until the last sentence – but I’ll speak of that in a little.

Once we understand just what “explanation” means in the physical science sense of the word then it becomes clear that we can hardly ask of it any more than what that explanation actually does; namely, to join the data dots of observation with a descriptive narrative which exploits the natural order in the cosmos so as to encapsulate nature’s patterns in succinct principles.

Like Carroll I understand “cause and effect” to be very much a construction or derived concept based on the arrow of time. It is not as fundamental as those timeless physical laws which Carroll speaks of; without an arrow of time "cause and effect" becomes a problematical concept. Hence, the question “why” often implicitly assumes this conception of time. But physics is less about the contingencies of time than it is about the timeless fundamental cosmic constraints expressed in law and disorder mathematics.

But having said all that I think I would want to re write Carroll’s last sentence as follows:

The demand for something more — a reason why the universe exists at all — I regard as a relic piece of metaphysical baggage I believe we are be better off to discard.

That is, Carroll is really speaking for himself here and not necessarily for the rest of us; hence my additions “I believe” and “I regard”.  As we have already seen Carroll has his own metaphysical baggage about the aseity of law and disorder science but seems to have fooled himself into thinking of it as rigorous physics: He believes that somehow physics’ kernel is self-contained and self-sustaining. It is clear, however, that the mathematics of physics has no self-affirming and self-referencing qualities which amount to aseity. Instead physics must end in a clear logical hiatus of brute fact as Carroll well knows.

Some people like Carroll might consider that our intellectual engagement with the cosmos is complete once law and disorder science has arrived at a comprehensive theory of explanation and thereafter people like Carroll will feel satisfied that this is all we can know. That’s fine by me, different strokes for different folks, but this in itself is a metaphysical response which presupposes the inquiry into meaning must stop there. I can’t stop Carroll stopping at that point or complain about his lack of a metaphysical urge to try to take matters further; that’s just the way he is. But by the same token there is nothing to stop people following up their metaphysical suspicions and trying to press on a bit further. After all, if Carroll continues to carry his own obviously metaphysical baggage about regarding physical self-containment and self-sustenance (although he might disguise it as physics) there’s no reason why we shouldn’t follow his good example, but in a different sort of way; although of course he and other atheists are under no obligation to follow us into those white spaces beyond the edge of the map; in fact they may even believe that it is not meaningful to even talk about those “white spaces”.
.

CARROLL WRITES: This perspective gets pushback from two different sides. On the one hand we have theists, who believe that they can answer why the universe exists, and the answer is God. As we all know, this raises the question of why God exists; but aha, say the theists, that’s different, because God necessarily exists, unlike the universe which could plausibly have not. The problem with that is that nothing exists necessarily, so the move is pretty obviously a cheat. I didn’t have a lot of room in the paper to discuss this in detail (in what after all was meant as a contribution to a volume on the philosophy of physics, not the philosophy of religion), but the basic idea is there. Whether or not you want to invoke God, you will be left with certain features of reality that have to be explained by “and that’s just the way it is.” (Theism could possibly offer a better account of the nature of reality than naturalism — that’s a different question — but it doesn’t let you wiggle out of positing some brute facts about what exists.)

MY COMMENT: I have a lot of sympathy here with Carroll. It certainly does feel, humanly speaking, that as he says “Whether or not you want to invoke God, you will be left with certain features of reality that have to be explained by “and that’s just the way it is.” And that seems to be true of theology as much as anything else; humanly one seems to be stuck with always having start by postulating contingent givens or brute facts. This, as we have seen, is very clear with Law and Disorder science and Carroll, if I am reading him right, would agree. At first it does seem as if theists have the same problem; they have to start with a given, albeit a very complex and difficult to understand given, namely God himself. But as Carroll points out: As we all know, this raises the question of why God exists; but aha, say the theists, that’s different, because God necessarily exists, unlike the universe which could plausibly have not. Well, as we have seen it is clear that the simple starting objects of law and disorder science don’t appear to have this property of aseity – that is, a necessary existence; they are just too simple to have such a convoluted property. But this is not quite so clear with theism because the postulated infinite complexity of God could hide something well outside human understanding and perhaps therefore infinite complexity could in some way have a necessary existence. This was an idea I first introduced in a blog post here and I quote the relevant parts of this post as follows*:

These are difficult issues, but for a theist their resolution is likely to be bound up with the concept of Divine Aseity.I favour the view that mathematics betrays the a-priori and primary place of mind; chiefly God’s mind. The alternative view is that gritty material elementals are the primary a-priori ontology and constitute the foundation of the cosmos and mathematics. But elementalism has no chance of satisfying the requirement of self-explanation as the following consideration suggests: what is the most elementary elemental we can imagine? It would be an entity that could be described with a single bit of information. But a single bit of information has no degree of freedom and no chance that it could contain computations complex enough to be construed as self-explanation. A single bit of information would simply have to be accepted as a brute fact. Aseity is therefore not to be found in an elemental ontology; elementals are just too simple.

In the search for Aseity elementalisation leads to an ontological dead end because elementals have a lower limit complexity of one bit, a limit beyond which there is no further room for logical maneuvering that could resemble anything close to self explanation. In contrast complexity has no upper limit and hence if Aseity is to be found at all, it must reside at the high end of logical complexity, perhaps at infinite measures of complexity with some kind of reflexive self affirming properties, such as we find in your “there is one true fact” example.

What I’m saying here is that an infinitely complex object could incorporate, in a way not accessible to the human mind, some kind of capital Aseity. In contrast we can see all round the gritty elementals of law and disorder science and nothing like aseity is apparent. Their very simplicity excludes aseity and these elementals can only ever be contingent brute facts with no logical necessity.  Recall also that God, if he is meaningfully a person, must embody the first person perspective of conscious cognition. As I have always had an attraction toward logical positivism, a philosophy which only sees reality in what the first person experiences and theorises about, it seems not unreasonable to me that some kind of divine and irreducible first person perspective should be at the root of all reality. However I admit that all this is rather abstruse and vague and therefore if atheists feel more comfortable with ending the inquiry into the nature of reality at the givens of law and disorder physics I have no basis for complaint.

CARROLL WRITES: The other side are those scientists who think that modern physics explains why the universe exists. It doesn’t! One purported answer — “because Nothing is unstable” — was never even supposed to explain why the universe exists; it was suggested by Frank Wilczek as a way of explaining why there is more matter than antimatter. But any such line of reasoning has to start by assuming a certain set of laws of physics in the first place. Why is there even a universe that obeys those laws? This, I argue, is not a question to which science is ever going to provide a snappy and convincing answer. The right response is “that’s just the way things are.” It’s up to us as a species to cultivate the intellectual maturity to accept that some questions don’t have the kinds of answers that are designed to make us feel satisfied.

MY COMMENT: Once again I largely agree with Carroll here. I’ve heard naïve interpretations of quantum mechanic’s potential to bring matter out of empty space (!= "nothing") as if it has solved the problem of why there is something rather than nothing. I have even heard talk along that lines that empty space defines what we ordinarily understand as “nothing” and therefore because quantum mechanics shows that something can come out of an empty space it effectively redefines nothing as something .... a condition which can generate something and hey presto you can get something from nothing!. But Carroll can see through this argument, which was originally simply about the quantum properties of space and not about the something vs nothing debate. As Carroll points out: But any such line of reasoning has to start by assuming a certain set of laws of physics in the first place. Why is there even a universe that obeys those laws? This, I argue, is not a question to which science is ever going to provide a snappy and convincing answer. The right response is “that’s just the way things are.”  In effect science hasn’t redefined the concept “nothing” in such a way that it shows how “something” can come from “nothing”….  rather science has redefined “something” as the laws of physics, laws which have a presupposed transcendent existence! So essentially we are back to the idea of necessarily getting something from something. Big deal.

I probably would depart from Carrol in his last two sentences. Here he clearly expresses a valued judgment on his part. He sees the calm acceptance of the brute facts of physics, with no further questions asked, as a sign of intellectual maturity. Well that’s up him. If he wants to leave the matter there that’s fine by me. In my opinion, however, real maturity is shown if realises that not everyone is going consider the matter closed and done & dusted at that point! Opinions will vary and some people, to quote Carroll, will not necessarily come up with the kinds of answers that are designed to make us feel satisfied.



Footnote
* In the quoted post I was replying to James Knight in a response to a question about mathematics. He seems have picked this idea up in the following blog post of his:


..where he says:

Unlike our interpretations of God and mathematics, physics just doesn't seem to amount to a complexity powerful enough to contain an ultimate explanation. When we think of complexity, we think of a lower level complexity and an upper level complexity. The lowest level complexity would be something containing just a single bit of information. But once we start to think of an upper level complexity, we find that there really is no limit to how complex complexity can get. To me, such a realisation necessitates either one of the following:

A} Mathematics is the reason that existence 'is'.

B} God is the reason that existence 'is'.

He then goes on to consider the relationship of God and Mathematics

Thursday, February 01, 2018

The Universe is not necessarily epistemically friendly/tractable

"Why don't we like it when the universe  makes us smarter?" asks James Knight.
 Perhaps because it's not always going to make us smarter, especially if part
of that universe includes our much loved social group.


The notes at the end of this post (that is, below the asterisks) were my first response to this post on James Knight's blog. These notes of mine actually first appeared on James' Facebook discussion group in response to his blog post.  Here's the first part of James' post:

The widespread human aversion to correction is one of the most peculiar of all peculiarities. People don't like being shown to be wrong - so much so that they'd rather intransigently yoke themselves to a comfortable falsehood than open themselves up to a refreshing new fact or an illuminating experience of improved reasoning. There are multiple causes of this, with some degree of overlap - the usual offenders are:

1) Lazy-thinking - the path of least resistance is, by definition, the easiest method of approach. It takes time and effort to acquire knowledge and develop your reasoning skills, and relatively few people bother to do this with any aplomb.

2) Status and ego - some people find it hard to admit they're wrong, so would rather stubbornly close themselves off from revising their erroneous opinions.

3) Tribal identity - many views and beliefs are bound up in the identity of a particular group or allegiance, particularly religious and political views, which overwhelmingly bias individuals against changes of mind.


4) Emotional biases and confirmation biases - reasoning ability can be impaired by emotions, and conformation bias occurs as we look to justify our views by seeking out information that supports what we already believe.

There are others too, but those are the main four, and between them they have quite a stultifying effect on human beings' ability to be correct about things. The only cure for this sort of thing is to wake yourself up to how painstakingly, ludicrously irrational this is - I mean, why *wouldn't* you want to be correct about as much as you can be? And related to that, why *wouldn't* you want to be shown an improved way of thinking about a situation or learn a new fact?


He then goes on to give us some tips on how we might go about making some course corrections. In this post I'm less interested in how to make corrections than the question of why this noetic inertia exists in the first place. My first reaction is that there might well be a rationale behind the apparent bullishness people have toward their intellectual position.

Epistemology is far from an exact science, especially when it comes to the epistemics involved in the creation of those all-embracing narratives which claim to be some kind of coherent theory of everything. The jump from the millimeter by millimeter snail's pace progress in the formalised investigations of basic spring extending and test tube precipitating science to the vision of a comprehensive world view synthesis requires a risky leap into the unknown; I know, I'm in that line of business myself.  One would think, however, that a certain amount of epistemic humility in regard to these grand world view narratives would be in order, but no, these narratives, if anything, are often held with the utmost certainty and it is these narratives which are frequently the rallying point for those who are on an authoritarian mission to convert all and sundry to their views.

Epistemology, as I've already said, is not an exact science which allows an array of accepted data points to be linked into a coherent whole with meticulous and faultless logic.  "Heuristics" is the word that comes to mind here. Human beings are complex adaptive systems which use heuristics to the solve the problems of knowing. Consequently, the by product of the search for truth is likely to come with a lot of blind alleys and error. It's like solving a maze problem, a maze which may entail many blind alleys being searched for the price of an eventual positive result. But if there is to be a chance of a solution at all there has to be an initial motivation to search in spite of the over-head implicit in the trial and error process.

Because humans and the world they inhabit are both highly complex it is difficult to ascertain with any certainty whether what seems to be an illogical epistemic strategy may have some hidden statistical pay off. There is, in fact, a self referencing issue with James' point above: As we consider the whys and wherefores of human epistemic intransigence we are in effect turning the tools of epistemology in on themselves. That is epistemology has itself become the subject of an epistemic endeavor as we seek to discover just how and why our epistemic works, or, as is often the case, doesn't work. Without prejudging the question it may be that the kind of epistemic arrogance we so often see has some kind of statistical pay off and is not entirely maladaptive. Perhaps, this epistemic arrogance is adaptive in some circumstances but not in others; consider, for example, gambling where an entrenched belief that the chances are somehow skewed in your favour is maladaptive from a financial point of view. (although perhaps you just get a kick out of the game play!)

Epistemology, as with other complex subjects, cannot be tied up into a closed ended bundle of general catch all principles. We therefore have to take the "complex adaptive system " approach in our study of epistemics; Complex adaptive systems don't work just with catch-all principles, but also respond to the feedback they are getting from the instance in hand and adapt to that feedback on a case by case basis; this is necessary when the catch-all principles involved are either not understood or simply don't exist

Naturally enough as a Christian I have at times on this blog talked about the role of faith/trust in one's epistemology; that is, if the universe has some predisposed propensity toward rational integrity and we believe it and exploit it then a measure of success in our epistemic endeavors is assured. Epistemic success is not something that would happen in an erratic or completely random universe or if some will was out to mislead us and systematically skew the data samples toward error.  It is, however, clear that faith and trust are not sufficient in themselves to cut the epistemic knot: Witness  the many Christian sects who display huge faith and trust in their world view and yet get it badly wrong; from end of world prophets to anti-science young earthists we see groups of people who are utterly confident of their rightness thereby inflating the language of Christian devotion and guidance until it is of very little value indeed  (See here and here).

Anyway, below are the notes I compiled for the Facebook discussion group. Since their first publishing  I have added some enhancements. In these notes I briefly try to get a handle on the irregularities and erratics of human epistemic behavior. Epistemic intransigence may, statistically speaking, have some kind of pay-off. That reference to statistics is important, because it means that the pay-off comes some of the time, but not all of the time!


***


Some quick notes here. A systems and information approach to this question of noetic inertia is the first thing I think of:

Holding out against cognitive updates may have a hidden rationality, just as there is often rational resistance to the next super-duper version of Windows!

The acquisition of information by human beings is slow and time consuming and the rate of “dot joining” of that information into a cognitive synthesis is probably even slower. This represents a high investment in time and processing power which makes chopping and changing prohibitively “expensive” in terms of processing resources. E.g. if I had learnt to use the Ptolemaic universe all my life and still get useful results out of it then I am not likely to change to the Copernican Solar System in a hurry.

Each person has their own unique epistemic history. This history may not be linear, meaning that A+B is not equal to B+A where the “plus” signs are used to represent some cognitive synthesizing activity on the arrival of the information first in the order A & B and then in the order B & A. Proprietary histories may also be caused by two observers having datasets that only partially overlap. In fact it may be impossible to achieve complete overlap because first person experiences may not be shareable.

Resistance to changing an already costly cognitive synthesis reminds me of the scientific resistance to observational anomalies that don’t quite fit a well-established theory. Until the anomalies build up to an intolerable degree the old theory may survive under the hypothesis that the anomalies are due to some unexplained aberration that has so far not been thought of. After all, the universe is open ended as far as we are concerned and may throw up the unexpected. Unwillingness to change a cognitive synthesis on the basis of a few contrary “facts” may be recognition that data can sometimes be misleading.

Many experiences are not repeatable. For example someone may ardently believe in ghosts or UFOs based on some vivid experience that I don’t share and which I can’t get to the bottom of; hence it may never be possible to agree because the experience can’t be reproduced and shared.

The above cognitive factors may explain why there are deeper reasons for the resistances you list as 1 and 4 in your post: As Pascal said “The heart has reasons that the reason cannot know.”

Points 2 & 3, the tribal/social factors, are interesting and again may have their rationality in terms of group protection/benefits: Given the cognitive expense in a) taking on-board information and b) processing that information to arrive at a cognitive synthesis this tribal factor might be an attempt to outsource these expensive processing activities to others in a trusted group: This very much depends on relationship bonding and trust between group members. Hence, the epistemic method here is that one gets to know and trust the group members rather than directly process the data about the subject in question! i.e. one is delegating the research processing to another trusted group member. Forming a trust bound is part and parcel of an instinctual socially based epistemic! This one is very frustrating when you face, say, a fundie and find that he doesn’t accept your views no matter how hard you reason – he simply doesn’t believe you have the right to instruct him! In any case why trust a stranger with strange ideas? One has to have a particularly low self esteem to go down that route without resistance!

If we can see a modicum of rationality behind even what sometimes appear to be the most outrageous and irrational beliefs it might help us to get a little less uptight about disagreement. I say that as researcher of fundamentalism: If I got too uptight about some of the wackaloons who have popped up in my field of view I think the men in white would have come and locked me up long ago!

Monday, January 22, 2018

Ayn Rand: Paradox, Paradox, Paradox, Irony, Irony, Irony.

Self centredness gets a blank cheque from Ayn Rand. 

And the values and happiness of others? That's supposed to
come out in  the libertarian wash! (or mangle!)

A necessary condition, perhaps, but
not a sufficient condition
One of my sons recently read Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged. He then circulated an email describing his reactions to the book. The notes below are my response to his email. Up to that point I had vaguely associated Rand's name with the extreme libertarian right and knew little else about her. But after just a little study it becomes clear how well her world view fits in with the current Trumptarian and right-wing shift we are seeing in the West. The libertarian right rail against the spectre of socialist government control just as Marxists rail against the self same government, claiming it to be a ruling clique who govern in the interests of the bourgeoisie and act as protector of their property rights. Both parties make loud claims to being the champion of freedom bent on ending oppressive government control. Both parties hold suspicions that the governments of the free market democracies are manipulative Machiavellian institutions with ulterior motives which favour either socialist control of the market (according to the libertarians) or preserving the power of the propertied classes (according to Marxists).  Both parties are fertile ground for collective paranoia and conspiracy theorism. Both parties feed off the disaffection resulting of the downsides of free-market democracy.  These downsides attract the authoritarian solutions of idealists like running sores attract flies. For the implicit logic of both Marxism and anarchic libertarianism, if allowed to run their full course, eventually leads to the insular dictatorships needed to implement and enforce an unadulterated form of their artificial & toy-town visions of how a society should operate; they will not come about except via the application of coercion.

 Read this to mean: "If you are in favour of one-person one-vote
you are voting for government and therefore you are a 
 crypto-communist! 
Don't vote; make way for the power law plutocrats!"
I used to think of myself as a fan of free market capitalism. But now the concept of the free market has been blighted by its association with the alt-right, an unholy blend of Trumpkins, quasi-anarchists, Christian fundamentalists, conspiracy theorists and quasi-fascists all of whom have reason to be disaffected with the Western free market democracies and seek to bring about radical change. Disaffection may lead to revolution which in turn leads to instability and unrest; fertile ground for the accession of a dictatorship.  






=====================


I haven’t studied Rand closely, so for the present purposes it will have to suffice to selectively quote from Rand’s Wiki pages and hope this will give us at least an approximation of her outlook. In the following quote the emphases are mine. According to Wiki, for Rand.....

……the proper moral purpose of one's life is the pursuit of one's own happiness (rational self-interest), that the only social system consistent with this morality is one that displays full respect for individual rights embodied in laissez-faire capitalism,….

Academic philosophers have mostly ignored or rejected Rand's philosophy. Nonetheless, Objectivism has been a significant influence among libertarians and American conservatives. The Objectivist movement, which Rand founded, attempts to spread her ideas to the public and in academic settings.

In ethics, Rand argued for rational and ethical egoism (rational self-interest), as the guiding moral
Wrong on all counts it would seem!
No (wo)man is an island.
principle
. She said the individual should "exist for his own sake, neither sacrificing himself to others nor sacrificing others to himself". She referred to egoism as "the virtue of selfishness" in her book of that title, in which she presented her solution to the is-ought problem by describing a meta-ethical theory that based morality in the needs of "man's survival qua man". She condemned ethical altruism as incompatible with the requirements of human life and happiness, and held that the initiation of force was evil and irrational, writing in Atlas Shrugged that "Force and mind are opposites."

Rand's political philosophy emphasized individual rights (including property rights), and she considered laissez-faire capitalism the only moral social system because in her view it was the only system based on the protection of those rights.

She opposed statism, which she understood to include theocracy, absolute monarchy, Nazism, fascism, communism, democratic socialism, and dictatorship. Rand believed that natural rights should be enforced by a constitutionally limited government. Although her political views are often classified as conservative or libertarian, she preferred the term "radical for capitalism". She worked with conservatives on political projects, but disagreed with them over issues such as religion and ethics. She denounced libertarianism, which she associated with anarchism. She rejected anarchism as a naïve theory based in subjectivism that could only lead to collectivism in practice.

…..she also found early inspiration in Friedrich Nietzsche, and scholars have found indications of his influence in early notes from Rand's journals, in passages from the first edition of We the Living (which Rand later revised), and in her overall writing style. However, by the time she wrote The Fountainhead, Rand had turned against Nietzsche's ideas, and the extent of his influence on her even during her early years is disputed.

I don’t agree with Rand’s take on epistemology or her concept of rationalism (these are explained elsewhere on Wiki) but that isn’t what I want to critique here. In this commentary I shall focus on her rational and ethical egoism.

Going on what little I know of Atlas Shrugged, then while it’s not conspiracy theorism per see I suspect that it may help contribute to the paranoiac and suspicious moods which are pre-conditions for conspiracy theorism. Here’s a quote from the Wiki page on Atlas Shrugged:

Rand's heroes continually oppose "parasites", "looters", and "moochers" who demand the benefits of the heroes' labor. Edward Younkins describes Atlas Shrugged as "an apocalyptic vision of the last stages of conflict between two classes of humanity—the looters and the non-looters. The looters are proponents of high taxation, big labor, government ownership, government spending, government planning, regulation, and redistribution". [Well, surprise me! – TVR]

"Looters" are Rand's depiction of bureaucrats and government officials, who confiscate others' earnings by the implicit threat of force ("at the point of a gun"). Some officials execute government policy, such as those who confiscate one state's seed grain to feed the starving citizens of another; others exploit those policies, such as the railroad regulator who illegally sells the railroad's supplies for his own profit. Both use force to take property from the people who produced or earned it.

"Moochers" are Rand's depiction of those unable to produce value themselves, who demand others' earnings on behalf of the needy, but resent the talented upon whom they depend, and appeal to "moral right" while enabling the "lawful" seizure by governments.

Consumer choices are not  the only decisions about a
society which can be made.
Perhaps the book was very original in its day but today it’s a cliché to the point of being passé. Here we see all the things right wing partisans hate: taxation, central planning, big government, wealth redistributors, welfare dependents and even, it seems, those who are unfortunate enough to find themselves in circumstances which prevent them from being productive etc. Atlas Shrugged portrays government as the champion of the lazy, the talent-less and the parasites. Government, therefore, is a kind of conspiracy to defraud the hard working clever wealth producing heroes of the rewards of their own ingenuity, drive and labour. It’s no surprise that the conspiracy theorist Glenn Beck is an admirer of Atlas Shrugged. Conspiracy theorism is a pathological world view - see here.  But all this hides paradox and irony as we shall see.


***

So with those initial comments in mind I can now turn to Philip’s email. I’ve quoted it below and have interleaved my comments:

As all of you have expressed an interest in hearing about my experience with Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand, or are 'read' individuals, or have already expressed an opinion on the novel, I thought I might as well email the group as a BCC. 

This allows me to be somewhat impersonal and not accidently point anything directly at anyone. In fact I would like to make this clear before I move on, this is an introspection, not a persuasion piece. I am just making statements, rather than asking questions.

I have gained some practical philosophy from this book, this is not a tear-down of Rand's work, and I do not dismiss this book as being truly toxic as I once thought. The caveat being though, you do need to handle it with care. It is easy to fall into it's snares which play upon human weaknesses. Going into this book with a working idea of philosophy protects the reader. Pretty much.


MY COMMENT: Well, for me this is going to be a tear down of Rand’s ideas, if not her book. More
The fertile ground for conspiracy theorism ... and
Christian fundamentalism. 
or less restating what I’ve already said: In Rand’s book the baddies of the piece are the scoundrels, leaches and parasites (and perhaps even the weak who have little choice but to be carried along on the backs of others), all of whom are supported and encouraged by Rand's' depiction of the government as parasite in chief. These are, according to Rand, to blame for the run down social malaise. If I am right in my assessment of the book then I’m not too surprised by the interest and admiration that the right wing conspiracy theorists have for this book. After all, what is grand conspiracy theorism but the belief that a well organised covert intelligentsia are in positions of control and are living at the expense of the rest of us i.e. as parasites? The popularity of Atlas Shrugged with the American right wing probably results of it comfortably resonating with their paranoid fantasies about a governmental “swamp” hiding the most evil of parasitic bureaucrats, bureaucrats who churn out “fake news” to deceive us about their intentions or even their very existence.

Overall I would not encourage anyone to read this novel upon the merits of its 'fame' or 'infamy'. The book is far too long, and uses its length to lull the reader into a vulnerable state - one in which it attempts to then sow seeds of hatred towards people you might see as being inept or inferior. Underneath the barrage of speeches, there is a rather basic story about success and wanting a sense of achievement and purpose.

MY COMMENT:  ".....one in which it attempts to then sow seeds of hatred towards people you might see as being inept or inferior". That’s just a little worrying.  What does one do with the inept, the inferior and ….the weak? That’s got a slightly musty smell about it which reminds me of prototypical social Darwinism, Nazism even. In Nazism’s interpretation of Nietzsche the Nazi leaders considered themselves as the ubermenschen, the superior class which do all the clever work and consider races like the Jews, Slavs and Blacks as all but subhuman. The latter were the untermenschen.

The abstract of 'wanting to achieve' is what keeps the plot going. It’s nice to read about trains, and cars, and machinery in a revered light for once rather than a negative one (pollution for example). I like engines and at a very base level, in the reptilian part of my brain, I like thinking about resources being used up. This book has a lot of that, the plot is about as advanced as scratching an itch. Rand tries to tap into that sense of subduing nature, not stewarding it. Flattening, concreting, commanding nature - rather than embracing it and being at one with it. It feels very Western, and Rand goes as far as to label anyone without this mechanical mind as a savage. We're talking full-on racist 'savage' use of the word here. 

MY COMMENT: Interesting: Are we seeing here the stereotypical masculine ubermenschen who are apt to subdue and exploit mother Gaia and her retinue of savages? I’m reminded of the polarised fault line we see in our society between the right wing who believe resources are for the taking and the left wing eco-warriors who oppose them.  Avatar was typical! It is very unlikely that the market, which tends to respond to signals from local conditions, is capable of addressing long view issues like climate change without the "eyes" of a "central processor" called government. (See here for more about the nature of the free market)

Atlas Shrugged comes across as a novel written by an adult with a child's brain, it has a rudimentary and narrow understanding of how the world works - this simple world is how she attempts to shoehorn her ideas into a 'believable' setting. To boil it down, only about three locations exist on Rand's map of the US in her mind and when forced to mention things outside of this scope the prose become quite vague. If this happens, then, all of a sudden, a character is quickly brought in and talks for 19 pages, leaving the reader to forget -where- they are on the map of the US. Locations are used as stages for the talking heads.

MY COMMENT: Rudimentary and narrow: Would you say that Atlas Shrugged is a world of heroes vs. villains? That is ubermenschen vs untermenschen? That's hardly a realistic vision of compromised human nature which is fifty shades of grey!

She kills people in her book in a way that a child plays with toys that die in a game of make believe. The toys of her narrative are stood up again and played with again, to aid a point. When I realised this is what she was doing, this child-like approach, the little straw dolls of her story are not something you can emotionally invest in because they are so basic. They have certain endearing characteristics to them, but its certainly the, 'aww she's trying so hard' feeling more than anything else.

I've taken away from this book a few ideas that certainly made me question myself. Rand points the finger of blame upon 'looters of the mind' and 'parasites' - which are basically people who take something from someone else without paying for it. The basic idea is that if you left the world to people like this, everything would collapse because they are 'unproductive' and just take from other people rather than make anything. The result being things just get stolen and no one is inventing anything, gathering resources or producing new things - just pure entropy.

No comment needed
MY COMMENT: Many on the American right would very likely identify Rand’s looters and parasites with the establishment “swamp” that Donald Trump wants to drain, perhaps also with the welfare seekers.  Finding a group on which one can pin the blame for one’s problems is classic Trumpism …. and classic Hitlerism.

Interesting you should mention entropy. As I have already proposed Rand’s ideas are part of a spectrum of ideas which shade through libertarianism into conspiracy theorism. She appears to be painting the parasites as a disordered and inchoate bunch…. and yet … and yet that would be far from the view of the Glen Becks of this world who have developed the idea that the parasites are part of well organised covert conspiracies that major in deception of the masses. And here’s the irony and paradox in Beck’s views and many other North American conspiracy theorists, right wingers and Christian fundamentalists: Well organised undercover conspirators would need to be clever enough and hardworking enough to have the potential to be the very opposite of lazy underachieving slouches. In fact they would have to have the very temperamental qualities which make up the self-serving ubermenschen and alpha males which Rand would praise as movers and shakers!

Compensation and payment is what sticks in my mind about this book, it’s a common thread throughout. This made me think about myself. 

At times I know that I have taken things from people and certainly not compensated them for it, emotionally and perhaps physically. Rand points out that this leaves a debt - and this is where I diverge from her ideas, as they then skew into pure fantasy. However, I am aware of how I have taken advantage of others in the past, and should be more mindful of asking for things. 

A practical example is with my daughter, I ask, and ask and ask her to do things of a morning when I need to get out of the house. I am only thinking of myself. She reacts by saying no. That is quite fair as I am trying to withdraw from her bank with no credit and no deposit. At no point during the morning had I ever 'paid' her in the coin she holds value in at this point in time - cuddles, love, attention, puzzles and horseplay. 

I changed this approach and instantly noticed a difference, thanks to what Rand pointed out. I pay Emily what she deserves, I always make our transactions fair and the result is a relationship where we both benefit and both respect each other. I'm sure this will change over time, but she seems to have a deep sense of fairness, so a balanced equation, a fair transaction, does not seem to cause an upset. I hasten to add, I can ONLY speak of her, not of all children. I have no data regarding all children - I have one data point. This is not advice to follow.

As for my friends and co-workers, I am trying to be more mindful of what I ask them to do for me. I am attempting to 'pay' without being asked, and only 'withdraw' when I have made a 'deposit'. In the field of my job, this has resulted in a lot less stress. I am more proactive, and this lead me into another point Atlas Shrugged has helped with.

MY COMMENT:  Here we have the core of the Rand paradox.

Potential contradiction alert!
A social system which displays full respect for individual rights cannot, with stability, be based on a self-serving rational egoism because social systems inevitably contain implicit potential conflicts of interest; “moral” rules are needed for resolving the deadlocks which result of competing claims on resources. Rand demands that the ubermensch neither sacrifice themselves to others nor conversely sacrifice others to themselves. This generates a paradox when facing competing interests. For when faced with an conflict of interest do the Rand players......

a) Attempt to take us much for themselves as possible (i.e. sacrifice others for themselves)?
b) Give way to others? (i.e. sacrifice themselves to others)
c) Come to some kind of sharing arrangement.  (i.e. mutual sacrifice; reciprocity)

Randians can’t choose c) because this entails sacrifice on the part of all players! But then a) & b) also entail sacrifice on the part of one party or another. Hence because Rand’s moral criterion blocks sacrifice, her self-serving class of ubermenschen would naturally lead to deadlocks resulting of competing claims on resources. Society would either lock up like a badly programmed computer or, more likely, descend into hatred, violence and barbarism.

Rand portrays the looters as parasitic. But let’s recall that successful and clever spiv parasitism is a viable survival niche for the appropriately gifted. And who are more suitably gifted for such a role than the assertive group of unbermenschen with their rational egoism which allows them to serve self with untroubled conscience? They have the ability to exploit the population by underhand means, thereby effectively undermining the individual rights of those they exploit. This, I suggest, is the most likely solution to the Randian deadlock; it’s the path of least resistance for the rational egoist.

Production is a key point of the book, and a phrase that is drilled into the reader as being VERY bad is 'Its not my fault, it was out of my control, it can't be helped'. Rand identifies these people as the parasites, as the feeble minded, dumb and incapable.

Has she ever heard or reciprocity? 
MY COMMENT: As I have already said, good parasites are clever, hardworking, if immoral operators; they have found a successful niche of exploitation that may bring them riches. They are hardly dumb. If they can successfully shift the blame for parasitic culpability from themselves to some kind of scapegoat (Remind you of anyone?) that is a pretty smart "ethical" move from the point of view of self-centred rational egoism. If anything, from the perspective of the successful parasitic rational egoist, the exploited untermenschen are the suckers. Rand and her alt-right admirers may not see it but clever parasitism is the implicit logic of Randism, a logic which ultimately favours those who are quite capable of putting themselves first when it comes to conflicts of interest with other feeling beings and doing it with a clear conscience. If the ubermensch can exploit their fellow humans and successfully cover it up, that makes them pretty smooth (albeit immoral) operators. However, the way Rand and the alt-right spin things it makes it look as though those who thrust themselves forward regardless of their fellow beings are the heroes!

Rand's objective was to make the reader agree with her, but what I take from the above mentality is to ask myself, 'Before I say I can't help, what can I do to help; what about emotional support?' and 'Can I get control of this and do good?' plus 'Have I helped enough, in every way I can?'. I reject Rand's view of the parasite and see everyone as differently minded, differently capable and on equal ground - hierarchies are good for organisation, but unhealthy for a person to judge others by. Socrates refuted that 'justice is the advantage of the stronger' and I agree with Socrates, it is an injustice to judge others by their strengths. To me, people are all differently strong.

MY COMMENT: The irony of Randism is its hidden logic whereby Randian self-serving parasites can perceive themselves as hardworking heroes and leaders. These are the very people Rand would praise as ubermenschen.  Rand should have factored in the egocentric fantasies to which the human mind so easily falls prey. When this happens the world is viewed through a filter of egotistical  and paranoid fantasies. E.g. Glenn Beck, Alex Jones, Barry Smith..

So armed with these questions I make sure that I don't fire off an email, or say something which defers blame, or be unproductive. Its even made me think twice about unproductive questions. These would be questions which do not help the other person move their idea or knowledge along. The sort of question that you ask because you actually don't want to think about the topic right now, but want to appear as if you are moving the conversation along. I feel that could be disingenuous, so if I do such a thing, and not think, Rand would agree that not thinking is a [paraphrased *ahem*] very bad idea. I need to think about what I ask more often, rather than just react.

MY COMMENT: Once again note the irony: Rand was herself, albeit implicitly, apportioning blame by pointing to a class of untermenschen as the cause of societal ills. In this connection it’s worth noting that people like Beck (and Trump) are first class blame game players.

The book used to be called 'The Strike' because of its topic being the 'great minds' of the world going on strike and refusing to be drained by the people who do not think. I have realised that I am also on strike.

I refuse to let the world dictate to me that my life is ranked, and use the world's measure of my success by my job title and how much I earn. That is in direct opposition to Rand's ideas on free enterprise, because I live to serve others, and I am on strike from what the world is telling me: I need respect and I need status. Categorically, no, I do not acknowledge that as a personal value. As I said before, my purpose in life is different, not better, not less than anyone else's. I won't say any more about this as it is a very lengthy topic, but I'm sure you get the idea. The concept of the 'strike' of the mind has been useful to define my own purpose.

The Sociopathic philosophy of Ayn Rand
MY COMMENT:  Rational egoism doesn’t require one to place much emphasis on taking into account the interests/rights of others; the interests of others, I think, are supposed to follow as a matter of course if the Randian players are being truly rational egoists. For Rand the ideally moral person is the go-getter where the individual rights of others are thought to take care of themselves if one is truly rational. Well, of course we know that this simply doesn’t work because in any real situation there is a potential for clashes of interest; situations where a self-based rationality doesn’t throw up clear answers. Thus, in any practical morality the interests of others has to be proactively pursued with the possibility that a sacrificial altruistic morality may have to be adopted in some circumstances. Moreover, human beings are aware of one another as centres of conscious cognition and any half decent person is unlikely to be indifferent to the needs, desires, motivations, hurts and feelings of others;  to expect humans to pursue their interests regardless of conflicts of interest just isn’t realistic. Although selfish acts abound in society there are also many acts of sacrificial “love” shown between humans; the very thing that Randian libertarianism despises.

Those who regard themselves as an innately superior class and hold an inflated opinion of their entitlement are well suited to be some of worst exploiters of them all. If these “ubermenschen” identify themselves with the Atlas Shrugged wealth producers and therefore deserving their wealth, it may not be a bad thing if they went on strike and got themselves out of the system!

The degenerates that Rand labels as such often spout the Straw Man 'I'm trying my best' and as a reader you're meant to be disgusted by their lack of abilities, as if it is their choice to 'not think' and 'not produce'. However, this poor attempt at making an abstract villain, to me it comes across as paper dolls DOING their best, not TRYING their best. Support and raising standards as a whole is what makes the world a better place, philanthropy is progress, not putting up a pay wall. Rand goes about proving the inverse of her philosophy to me by her own attempt to misrepresent the opposition.

Rand is not evil, her childhood was horrible, and she fought back the demons of her past with objectivity. The book is a rational response that got out of hand because it plays on the human weakness of wanting recognition. Those after her have picked it up and run a mile, forgetting that this concept works in a playpen, but not in a world as complex and as layered as our own.

As this email has run on, I shall draw this introspection to a close. If I have raised any questions, I will happily act as a forum for replies - keeping submissions anonymous. 

To conclude, Atlas Shrugged is a book I gave my time to and was rewarded by looking at how dark a shadow it casts; yet ultimately understanding more about the light in the world.

Phil

MY COMMENT: Yes, Rand has created the abstract baddie, a straw man which can then be readily identified with certain classes of “looser”, thereby offering a smug feel good factor for those who see themselves as part of the hero class. This draws attention away from what I have suggested is obvious; namely, that Rand’s “clever” hard working rational egoists are the very material which are readily suited to the role of super-parasites. Their self-centred ethic which sears conscience (as it did with the Nietzsche inspired Nazis) and their sense of entitlement makes them ideal exploiters. Deception and exploitation is one “solution” to the Randian resource deadlock. Nazism may not be explicit in Randism, but it is clearly on a similar evolutionary branch.

As you say our societal world is many layered, a system where politics, sociology and economics form a complex coupled triad, so complex and coupled that they are an organic whole. Market transactions are just one part of this complex system. Libertarian analysis is less a description of society than a prescription which aspires to seeing economic transactions as dominating the social process. In fact libertarians may see the transactional choices of the market as a form of democracy; a decisional process everyone can get involved in. Actually, I would accept that as true as far as it goes, but it is far from a sufficient form of democracy; it is just part of what ought to be a much bigger stage on which democracy needs be applied……

Market transactional decisions are made with only local conditions in mind, not global conditions. Those many decisions made on the basis of solving local problems have unforeseen consequences at the higher level, consequences which may include chaos, instability and a power law distribution of wealth favouring the emergence of a plutocratic autocratic elite (e.g. Donald Trump) and reactionary Marxist defectors and agitators. Like chess players the market players are consciously and democratically choosing the moves at the level of the point of sale but they don’t chose the total game; that will be a ramifying product which they will not consciously chose.

It is ironic that both libertarians and Marxists see government as the pantomime villain, the supporter, enabler even, of a parasitic class; the myths are too similar to be a coincidence. 

In the libertarian perspective government is seen, on the one hand, as controlling, regulating, taxing and generally ripping off the heroic entrepreneurial wealth creators and on the other hand protecting the government-supporting-socialist-slouches who are parasitic upon the heroes of the libertarian narrative. The irony is, as I have said, that such a clever parasitic government is unlikely to consist of the lazy losers but much more likely the rational egotistical ubermenschen with high capability, a class who have the potential to exploit with impunity. It’s no surprise that many in government are taken from the very high achieving entrepreneurial class, the class that Rand would admire.

Marxists see our current governmental system and the trappings of state as the means of protecting the wealth grabbing owning class and their property interests against the broad mass of heroic workers who are the real wealth generators. The entrepreneurial owning class are cast in the mould of exploiters and parasites. A Marxist state is regarded by classical Marxism as a temporary arrangement needed to uphold the dictatorship of the proletariat until the socialist revolution is complete; that revolution is considered complete when a classless society is achieved obviating the need for a state whose role, according to Marx, is to protect the interests of one class against another. 


***


Both Marxists and Libertarians think of themselves as ultimately wanting to minimise government if not do away with it altogether. So, on the one hand we have the Marxists who see government as the outcome of a class ridden system which seeks to protect the property rights of the owners of the means of production; the exploiters of the working class. On the other hand we have the libertarians who see government as the stamping ground of crypto-socialists who they think of as effectively exploiting the entrepreneurial class and draining  them with taxes and regulations.

And yet it is likely that the logic of both hard socialism and hard libertarianism drives them toward an enlargement of government, an enlargement needed to enforce and impose their pedigree vision on society. Like all pedigree breeds their respective visions for society are entirely artificial, unnatural  and pathological and can only be brought about by careful (and oppressive) dictatorial management.  As for the rank file I doubt they would notice much difference between the two kinds of dictatorship.

Rand, with her almost sociopathic version of the capitalism, has effectively handed hard socialism a strong argument against the free market.  As Paul Ryan has said in 2009

"What's unique about what's happening today in government, in the world, in America, is that it's as if we're living in an Ayn Rand novel right now. I think Ayn Rand did the best job of anybody to build a moral case of capitalism, and that morality of capitalism is under assault."

Is that what Republicans call a "moral case" for capitalism? No wonder capitalism is under assault! Thank you very much Ryan for playing into the hands of the Marxist revolutionary mythology. And imagine it, his office is churning out a lot of little Randians! You, idiot Ryan, you must need your brains testing! 

However, to be fair there has been, according to Wiki, some backtracking:


In April 2012, after receiving criticism from Georgetown University faculty members on his budget plan, Ryan rejected Rand's philosophy as an atheistic one, saying it "reduces human interactions down to mere contracts". He also called the reports of his adherence to Rand's views an "urban legend" and stated that he was deeply influenced by his Roman Catholic faith and by Thomas Aquinas. Yaron Brook, executive director of the Ayn Rand Institute, maintains that Ryan is not a Rand disciple, and that some of his proposals do not follow Rand's philosophy of limited government; Brook refers to Ryan as a "fiscal moderate"


But would you buy a used car from this man?


Rand, Republicanism and Christianity
The following images were found on the web and only serve to underline the paradoxes and ironies of the Ayn Rand & Republico-Evangelical axis. 


Note on Alex Jones:
My other son tipped me off about this: