Let’s Take Objectivism Back from Ayn Rand

Hi David,

You have highlighted some of the failures of objectivism, and not others.

Objectivism is based on a large set of assumptions, one of which is the notion of causality and the applicability of logic.

When one starts from a causal set of assumptions, and applies the scientific method of testing assumptions through experiment, one is led via Planck’s experiments into the nature of black body radiation and Hiesenberg’s investigations into the limits of measurement, to Quantum Mechanics, which seem to indicate that the illusion of causality that we experience to a very high degree in our experiential world is the result of stochastic (random) processes working within certain probability distributions, on time and space scales that are so much smaller than human perceptions, that when summed over vast numbers of their time and space units to give something perceivable to our senses and ability to perceive time, give a close approximation to hard causality.

Thus, starting from an assumption of causality, and following where question and experiment lead, we end up with a world that is a mix of the random and the regulated (within certain probability distributions) that gives the impression of causality to many occurrences at our particular scale of existence.

Rand assumes causality and logic, and ignores anything that violates those assumptions.

That isn’t actually an application of the scientific method, it is, as you say, a set of beliefs.

Science is founded in both a willingness to question and a willingness to experiment, and to look very closely at what those experimental results seem most likely to indicate.

Science is not a realm of hard causality or hard knowledge.

At its best, science is a realm of eternal questioning, and of useful heuristics that have not yet been disproven by experimental outcomes.

This rather puts a different perspective on the notion of “facts”.
Rather than a “fact” being anything hard, they are things that have a certain level of consistency and repeatability in a certain set of contexts.

There is a vast difference in between domains that are defined by hard binary values, and domains that are defined by probabilities and uncertainties with sets of boundary conditions that are contextually dependent, and have different permeabilities to different classes of phenomena.

So I agree, that Rand fails to see the three basic sets of classes of information processes that define “Happiness” in the first instance:
That contribution to the experience of happiness that is the result of genetic evolution over deep time that has given the form it has to our bodies and brains, at many simultaneous and recursive levels. In this sense, yes, there are aspects of our abilities and tendencies with respect to happiness that seem clearly to be deeply determined by the circumstances that our ancestors survived.

Then there follows that contribution to happiness that comes from the many layers of culture that we each absorb during our growth process. Those aspects include all aspects of sensations (dance, music, sports, any form of physical discipline) as well as the sets of stories and distinctions and abstractions provided by others present and past that form part of our culture. These can involve many levels of abstraction and logic, from the “Structions” of Jaynes to the logics of Russell, Goedel or Wolfram.

Then there is what we as conscious rational (to the degree that we are rational, as distinct from habitual) entities choose to do with out time. The degrees to which we take apart and examine the distinctions and assumption in every level of every construct we have available to the mental models that seem to be all we each actually have as experiential reality.

So yes – complex systems.

Layers upon layers upon layers of complex systems.

That seems to be what it is to be human.

And no human can give their attention to all layers simultaneously.

And we can each make some fundamental choices, then make our best guesses at how best to bring those choices into being.

It seems to me that Rand pays lip service to holding life an liberty as her highest values.

If she actually had a universal value of life and liberty, then she would see clearly that laissez-faire capitalism actually has an incentive structure that tends to deny the essentials of survival and liberty to a large set of individuals.

In terms of capitalism, it is certainly true that in contexts where most things are genuinely scarce, then a strong case can be made that capitalism does provide a strong information context to send cooperative signals through the concept of profit – and only in systems where information is freely shared. As soon as one put significant impediments on the free sharing of information (such as IP laws) then the system breaks.

Once we develop the tools to automate and decentralise production (ie can remove scarcity), then there is a strong case in both logic and morality, that the self interest of all individuals who wish to live a long time is most powerfully served by delivering the essentials of survival and freedom to all (and capitalism as a system actually works against the interests of the majority for life and liberty, and becomes a power tool for a minority). And clearly, no system of values based only in exchange value can achieve such an outcome. Exchange values must value any universal abundance at zero, and thus cannot be incentivised (internally) to deliver universal abundance of anything.

This is the fundamental flaw in capitalism. It gets us part way there, then prevents us taking the final step to universal life and liberty.

Certainly, value life and liberty.
Those are great things to hold as one’s highest value set.
I certainly do.
And also be aware of the degree to which the circumstances of one’s liberty are enhanced by the many levels of cooperation that exist in making a human what a human is.

Liberty is not a licence for selfishness, it is a responsibility for cooperation (within the higher value of a universal respect for life).

There is no shadow of reasonable doubt that cooperation is our most powerful tool.
And Axlerod proved beyond any shadow of doubt that raw cooperation is vulnerable to cheats (of which Rand is one example of the more abstract variations on a cheating theme), and requires secondary strategies that remove the incentives to cheat (and in an infinitely dimensional strategy space there will be ever recursive levels of such incentives, and thus there is eternal truth in the notion that “the price of liberty is eternal vigilance”).

[followed by]

Hi David,

I wrote a critique of the second edition of An Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology over 20 years ago. I updated it a little and published it on one of my websites 16 years ago.

I debated it within objectivist circles at the time (early 1990s).

My understanding has progressed a little in the last 20 years.

I am now very clear that Rand made several errors common to philosophers, in assuming that reality obeyed some set of rules that make sense to them.
Heisenberg has show beyond any shadow of reasonable doubt, that is not the case.

Your statement that there is no knowledge without logic is simply false, and one cannot get there with logic alone, one requires experience.

It seems that most people are under the illusion that they are experiencing reality.

The science is now clear beyond any shadow of reasonable doubt that what we experience is not reality itself, but a software model of reality assembled by our subconscious brains.
It seems very likely that there is a reality, and that it is often something like what we each experience, and that is a very different sort of starting point from where Rand started.

It seems that reason and logic are great tools for modelling, and sometimes useful predictors of reality.

It seems that reality contains many different classes of complexity, some of which obey predictable rules, and some of which do not.

The work of guys like Turing on the many variations of the “halting problem” are worth pursuing (I’ve been programming computers and interested in algorithms for over 40 years).

Wolfram’s work on generalised paradigm spaces is worth looking at.

And no one can teach another person an abstraction.
We can provide sets of evidence and clues that increase the probability of another mind making an abstraction, and each mind must make that leap for itself, no one else can do it. There are many people with PhDs who cannot do second order abstractions, and rarely do first order ones.
It is very difficult to be confident that another person has actually made a second order abstraction.
It is close to impossible to gain confidence that another individual is using a third order abstraction (an abstraction of abstractions of abstractions).

I have gone to 12th order abstractions. Communication is impossible from that space – it is intensely personal. I rarely go past 3rd order these days, it is just too difficult to communicate things of interest.
And there is plenty of interest at every level, even the level of concretes, world without abstraction. It seems that while physical reality may be vast but finite, it seems that all abstract levels are potentially infinite, and that there may be an infinite set of such levels. It gets messy. Lots of quicksand like places that once entered have no way out, except reset (that halting problem again).

David Snowden has developed the Cynefin Framework for the management of complexity, which is highly simplified, and has a lot of utility. It might have been enough to shake Rand out of her hubris, and I suspect not. I suspect that she was too emotionally committed to logic to ever seriously question its applicability.

Good and bad are such gross simplification of the reality of action that the terms are very close to meaningless to me. Children need to make such simple categories, we all must start from such simplicity. Adults need to get used to infinite realms of complexity and uncertainty. Getting there, one starts to understand why the Taoists thought as they did.

Self interest, on the longest possible time-frame, becomes indistinguishable from community interest. The trick is in extending the time-frames, and being able to delay gratification on long time-scales (tens, hundreds, or thousands of years). One needs to be very confident of living a very long time to make such judgements, and have a very low discount rate on future benefits.
[followed by]


Hi David

I have no idea how you came to those conclusions. And come to them you obviously did.

There is nothing wrong with my knowledge of formal logic. I just don’t make the mistake of thinking that the universe necessarily operates on logical principles. Formal logic delivers great modelling tools, the best we have, and that is all they are. All they actually deliver is our best guess at reality.

My argument re the experience of being human has nothing to do with the Homunculus argument, and everything to do with the structure of the systems that create the experience of being human that we experience. I did study neurophysiology at University, and have kept up an interest in a wide variety of disciplines, while I have run a software company for the last 29 years. I am reasonably active in AI circles, though my company does not specialise in AI software.

It became clear to me back in 1974 that it was logically possible to extend lifespans indefinitely. I didn’t know exactly how to do it, and I could prove beyond any shadow of reasonable doubt that it was possible. At that time I outlined 4 stages required. 3 of those have been achieved. Google’s Calico is now putting serious effort into the final phase.

Just because something isn’t yet existent, does not mean that it wont be.

Very little of the software I have created existed prior to me creating it. And long before I created it I knew what it would do, and planned accordingly.

Most of my thinking for the last 41 years has been on the classes of strategies and systems necessary to allow potentially very long lived individuals to actually live a very long time. As Ray Kurzweil is so fond of saying, the trick with any invention is to time it to meet the reasonably foreseeable trends one is observing. I happen to trust myself on time scales that few others do, Ray is one of the few.

I should not have expected others to get it – yet. Too many diverse disciplines involved.

Close but no cigar.

Another time perhaps. Perhaps you may care to reread what I wrote having been so disambiguated, and perhaps not. Your call.

About Ted Howard NZ

Seems like I might be a cancer survivor. Thinking about the systemic incentives within the world we find ourselves in, and how we might adjust them to provide an environment that supports everyone (no exceptions) - see www.tedhowardnz.com/money
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