Atlas Blogged #27i: Existence, knowledge & identity
October 12, 2010
Part 27i of blogging my way through my first reading of Atlas Shrugged. You can find the first part here.
Chapter 27: ‘This is John Galt Speaking’
Welcome, one and all, to the Big Philosophical Revelation Chapter, in which Rand spends sixty pages outlining her philosophy via her ideal male, John Galt. Some may consider this a little self-indulgent for a work of fiction, especially as much of the book has included demonstrations of many of the arguments given below. Let there be no mistake: this will be a long post, to the point where I’ll probably have to break it up into several posts to avoid causing your eyes to bleed. I originally considered simply quoting vast chunks of text to avoid misinterpretation, but it’s probably far better that I provide a synopsis of Rand’s arguments as the chapter goes on, and deal with them each in turn.
The Macguffin that allows Rand to have this lengthy monologue from Galt is a speech from the anonymous President of the USA at this point in Atlas Shrugged, the painfully ordinary Mr Thompson. His speech is intended to reassure the masses as social order breaks down in the absence of the titans of industry. Galt seizes control of the airways with a ‘new type of radio waves’ and delivers his speech instead:
“For twelve years, you have been asking: Who is John Galt? This is John Galt speaking. I am the man who loves his life. I am the man who does not sacrifice his love or his values. I am the man who has deprived you of victims and thus has destroyed your world, and if you wish to know why you are perishing—you who dread knowledge—I am the man who will now tell you.”
I’m sure everyone’s very grateful, Mr Galt.
Rand first discusses the morality that has led the world to this point, a morality of duty and selflessness which requires sacrifice with no thought of return. She dubs this unjust, as the only moral exchange is one of value for like value. The credo of business, in her sense, is therefore opposed to that morality; and so businessmen have withdrawn their labours in order that the world may enjoy the fruits of this morality.
She argues that this morality was either sourced from a notion of mysticism or society that demanded this sacrifice; that one’s life belongs not to yourself but to God or your brothers.
She claims that your mind is your basic tool of survival; inasmuch as it permits one to identify a course of action that will permit one to survive. You need knowledge of food and how to get it before you can eat it. Thinking, to Rand, is an act of choice; you are a being of ‘volitional consciousness’ in this sense. You can choose not to think – to ‘escape from your nature’. This is distinguished from plants and animals inasmuch as plants cannot make choices about how to acquire sustenance and animals have ‘automatic knowledge’ which necessitates course of action; if that automatic knowledge is inadequate the animal dies.
This is an extremely odd model of consciousness. It is immediately intuitively implausible; it requires that the knowledge we get from, say, smelling good food is derived entirely from our rational assessment of the situation and not ‘automatic knowledge’ to use Rand’s term. It requires that the human mind is wholly distinct from animal minds; not merely has some additional functionality, but that it is different class of entities. It precludes the possibility of similar reasoning features to that of man being present in animals like chimps or dolphins. It also implies a very strong dualism: we know that parts of our brains are similar to those of animals, and have similar functions – but Rand seems to be arguing for a strong separation of the mind from the body in this sense, as they cannot be functionally identical. This is simply wrong. It will be interesting to see what aspects of Rand’s philosophy this informs.
Rand goes on to argue that nature does not force man to think to ensure his own survival, so man has the power to act as ‘his own destroyer’. She claims that the history of the world is the history of our flight from our own mind, as we flee the means of our survival, unlike every other form of life. We have rejected the true standard of our morality as required by our nature, and embraced a standard that calls for our destruction. This is our choice, as rational beings. If we do not hold our own life as the ‘motive and goal’ of our actions, we are acting on the motive and standard of death.
This rather ignores the entirety of evolutionary psychology, which claims that man’s nature directs itself towards the propagation of its genes, rather than his own life.
Rand then sets out an extremely constrained definition of happiness as something that can only proceed from a life lived ‘rationally’; in Rand’s philosophy this is something that only obtain if and when a man lives as if his life is his own end, and achievement of happiness his highest moral purpose. In other words, only a life lived according to Rand’s philosophy can be happy.
This is so trivally untrue it’s barely worth engaging with. It’s a perversion of Aristotle; the happiness he argued was the end of human life was not happiness in the contemporary understanding of the term, but rather eudemonia, the flourishing life. It’s worth pointing out that almost everything discussed so far comes directly from Aristotle; his division of the soul into the nutritive, the perceptive and the rational corresponds to Rand’s division of plants, animals and humans given above. Yes, Rand’s Objectivism rests upon Aristotle’s tripartite division of the soul. It’s not surprising that Rand’s libertarianism appeals to rich kids; Aristotle’s theory of distribution rewards aristocrats for being aristocrats too.
If you fail to choose Rand’s way of living, you are guilty of defaulting on existence and passing the deficit to another, who must sacrifice their good for your survival. Or, if you don’t work for yourself, you must find a way of compelling someone else to work for you.
Mind you, if you can’t work for yourself, you’re a bit screwed.
Rand goes on to detail three axioms which she claims lie at the root of her moral code: that existence exists, something exists that one perceives, and that one exists possessing consciousness, consciousness being the faculty that perceives existents.
At this point it becomes clear that Rand’s philosophical education begins and ends with Aristotle. Even a cursory glance at Descartes would give her a clearer formulation of what she’s driving at that than this clumsy expression.
She then directly references Aristotle by saying that the definition of existence is to be derived from the tautology A is A, that existence is identity and consciousness is identification. You are only conscious inasmuch as you are aware of something else, but more strongly than that, you are only conscious inasmuch as you can identify something in and of itself without the potential for contradiction as to its identity – in other words, you are only conscious if it is possible for you to be aware of something without being mistaken as to its identity. The corollary of this is that one cannot identify something without it fitting wholly within one’s sum of knowledge without contradiction; sense inferences are therefore a matter of deduction rather than induction.
While this is a fair summary of Aristotle’s theory of science, which is broadly about deducing from particular causes to give us knowledge of the world, it’s immediately obvious that it is far too strong a test for a non-omniscient consciousness. If you cannot identify something without the possibility of mistakes, according to Rand you’re not conscious. Since you can never hope to encounter every single iteration of a given object in the world, no-one is conscious, according to Rand. In addition, this definition stands against the scientific method, which uses induction to identify the falsity of hypotheses – not deduction.
Rand moves to shore up this model of consciousness by bringing in a moral element, one of reliance upon one’s own reason. Reason is the tool which allows us to identify objects in the world, and so one is required to rely on it in order to live, which is the goal of Rand’s philosophy.
This is just mad. ‘Have faith in the ability of your own mind to identify objects in the world, as if there’s dispute you can check it against the world’ clearly sounded worthy to Rand, but basing an epistemology on faith will screw you over time and again. By this principle, you should test your own judgement against the world without checking to see if anyone else had tried the same thing before. This explains why many libertarians are so anti-science; reliance on the work of others to generate knowledge is clearly anathema.
Rand clearly believed her own principle, as given immediately above: she never thought to check why everyone in the world wasn’t an Aristotelian, as though 2,500 years wasn’t enough to pick a few holes in his philosophy. It’s worth pointing out – just as minimum – that if the world had used the philosophy given above since ancient Greek times we’d still be in ancient Greek times, as modern science doesn’t use anything even remotely like that in its reasoning.
Part 27ii is here.