Sunday, July 27, 2008

Ayn Rand: Think Tank, Saint, or Villain?


For many years I've been wondering about the attraction that Ayn Rand's works has for many readers of serious books. Never agreeing with her philosophy of Objectivism, I simply thought that her attraction was an imponderable, just as when we shrug at the attraction of some cults.

So, the question lingered: what could a Russian immigrant-born in St. Petersburg, Russia, on February 2, 1905-escaping a communist and totalitarian state, teach us Americans?

After reading some of her philosophical novels and books on Objectivism, I found her doctrines cold, distant from us common folks, seeing in them -as I read in earnest-a streak of cruelty that I couldn't quite pinpoint.

The Fountainhead's hero architect Howard Roark epitomizes what every American woman loathes: an individualist dunce with a tendency to oppress, dominate, and to always have it his way. In Atlas Shrugged, the hero John Galt morphs our system from a benign American capitalism into a Darwinian doctrine of survival of the fittest; and of course elimination of the unfit.

In Ayn Rand's universe, God forbid, one should have a child with Down syndrome. But since she was an atheist, this would never happen to her.

Again, what's her legacy?

To answer that, we must do a little history of philosophy.

John Locke made a convincing case that the mind knows something not because it contains innate ideas, but because the senses feed the objects of knowledge. Then along came Bishop Berkeley asserting that nothing exists except ideas.

So, which one is the truthful bases of knowledge? Empiricism or Idealism?

David Hume's skepticism complicated matters by denying everyone's theories. He held that there's no intellectual way in which one can prove that reality exists. What assurance do we have that sun will come up tomorrow? This challenge didn't go unnoticed, for the philosopher Emmanuel Kant took up the challenge.

Kant built an intellectual argument based on two inventions which he labeled a priori-time and space. These two categories he argued are inherent in human beings and with them and the categories of understanding we can get close to real things.

Kant's legacy was that he condemned us to never experience reality face to face. We can only think it and filter it through our minds. The Thing-in-itself was never to be known. Ayn Rand totally disagreed and campained to curve it:

"Ever since Kant divorced reason from reality, his intellectual descendants have been diligently widening the breach."
With nerve and gumption she tells us that objective reality exists because we know most of it. If we want to use numbers we could say, we are 99.99999 per cent sure that a solid universe exists.

How? Marvelously simple! That infinitesimal number that causes doubt is so puny that we can ignore it and let's move on. By appealing to common sense and without dry philosophical arguments, Ayn Rand broke the brick walls that Hume and Kant had erected .

I see the merit in Ayn Rand's assertion. Newton and Leibniz used the same approach when they invented the calculus. The theories of limits, approximations, and continuity tell us that we don't have to know an exact point in time and space; that a close approximation is sufficient.

When I see the Grace building on 42nd Street I always look up and try to locate the exact point where the arc and the straight line meet; where one ends and the other begins. The reality is that this point doesn't exist. But Newton and Leibniz--like Atlas--shrugged it off--who cares if it doesn't exist? Let's move on and compute instantaneous rates of change, orbits, differentials, integrals, and so on.

In my estimation this is Ayn Rand's contribution: the objective world is there for us to know. I love this and accept it. Except that this world is there for us to know only by the grace of God, and not by our minds alone. And I cannot help picturing Adam and Eve when as they were being cast off the Garden of Eden--the whole world stood in front of them!

Yes, slowly we are unravelling God's universe, but this is a blessing that Ayn would never have understood since her world was a godless world.

Nor would she ever understand internet social communities. That's why I am puzzled as to the existence of AR clubs and groups. Isn't it an oxymoron to even say "AR club?" The champion of individualistic might shouldn't be maligned by forming groups.

In a representative democracy she advocated a sort of anarchy: "The man who lets a leader prescribe his course is a wreck being towed to the scrap heap."

Being a persuasive writer, many of her arguments stand on dubious premises:

"Every major horror of history was committed in the name of an altruistic motive. Has any act of selfishness ever equaled the carnage perpetrated by disciples of altruism?"
Whether religious, economic, or political, horrors are committed by selfish motives. Yet she went on to build her philosophical edifice called Objectivism.

Though she didn't leave us much love and sentiment to speak of, she left this idea: if you wish to live in this planet, accept that it exists, be practical, don't go to church and sing Amazing Grace, and above all be prepared to die alone, for groupies are not allowed.

In 1982 she died alone in her apartment in NYC, childless, husbandless, friendless and godless right to the bitter end--an unanointed villain.

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