Once upon a time, I was the guy doing the opposite of what I’m doing now. Here’s a review that I wrote of an anti-Objectivist book in the late 90s, for the Institute for Objectivist Studies’ (Now the “Atlas Center”) newsletter. It’s pretty embarrassing how many falsehoods I wrote.
Has Objectivism Been Refuted?
by Bryan Register
[Originally published in the November 1997 issue of Navigator.]
Without a Prayer: Ayn Rand and the Close of Her System. By John W. Robbins. (Hobbs, New Mexico: The Trinity Foundation, 1997. 399 pp. $27.95.)
Battles for the hearts and minds of libertarians, which date from at least the 1971 birth of the Libertarian Party, are waged principally between those who argue for libertarianism with specific foundations in philosophy and those who claim that liberty is consistent with many or all philosophical positions. Among defenders of foundationalism, further disputes arise over which are the right foundations.
John W. Robbins, president of the Trinity Foundation and a one-time aide to U.S. Representative Ron Paul (R-Texas), enters the debate on the side of foundationalism-specifically Calvinist foundationalism. In this book, however, Robbins is principally concerned to eliminate the rival foundationalism of Objectivism by destroying all the major claims of that philosophy. Thus, even if Robbins’s own religious position attracts few admirers, Without a Prayer may draw an audience from the many who take an interest in Ayn Rand’s thought. For this reason, the work invites a close reading.
Robbins claims that he opposes Objectivism on the highest possible grounds: “My principal criticism of Rand… is her failure to be logical in her argumentation and precise in her definition.” (xv) Had Robbins held true to that principle, his book could have provided a welcome critique of Rand’s philosophy. Unfortunately, much of what Robbins says misses its target. Sometimes he errs by misconstruing the meaning of the position he discusses. At other times, he errs by poor reasoning.
Two major flaws of Without a Prayer are Robbins’s failure to attend to context when quoting authors and his failure to follow “the principle of charity,” which is the principle that one should give the most reasonable interpretation to a view one attacks.
A failure to attend to context is evident in this quotation from David Kelley’s The Evidence of the Senses. “Kelley praises Kant: ‘Kant recognized that awareness is always and necessarily conditioned by the means which produce it. A faculty of cognition must have an identity which affects the content of the conscious experiences it gives rise to… . Kant rejects the diaphanous model.’ So, of course, does Kelley.” (264) But Kelley’s passage reads: “Kant rejects the diaphanous model, but not the assumption, implicit in the model, that diaphanousness would be a necessary condition for knowledge of things as they are in themselves.” (Kelley, 39) The portion here emphasized was excised from Robbins’s quotation, and its excision is nearly equivalent to removing the word ‘not’ from a sentence.
Has Robbins failed to notice the significance of the excision? Apparently, for his critique of the Objectivist epistemology assumes (like Kant, but unlike Kelley) that if a means of awareness conditions how we are aware of the world then it must distort that awareness.
A failure to follow the principle of charity is often evident when Robbins quotes Ayn Rand. For instance, he writes that “Rand defined reason as ‘the faculty which identifies and integrates the material provided by man’s senses'”; that “Rand also told us that reason is ‘man’s only means of perceiving reality'”; and that “Rand also told us that… ‘Reason is the only objective means of communication and of understanding among men. …'” Robbins concludes that “This multiplicity of definitions of a fundamental term indicates serious problems in the philosophy.” (pp. 27-28) But this is a most uncharitable interpretation. It is possible to describe a cognitive faculty in numerous ways that may or may not involve its definition. It can be true that reason is the only means of perceiving reality, as well as the only objective means of communication and of understanding among men, without both being defining traits of “reason.”
Among Robbins’s other flaws as a scholar is his tendency to make throwaway gibes. For instance, after quoting a metaphorical description of perception from David Kelley’s The Evidence of the Senses, Robbins tells us that “In this passage, one can see how easily Communist materialism [sic] slides into the mysticism of new age occultism. Kelley is a radio receiver channeling omnipresent energy.” (37) But the forms of “omnipresent energy” Kelley refers to are “sound waves, electromagnetic fields, mechanical forces of every kind,” in short, the forms of energy that give rise to sensory awareness, not forces ordinarily expounded upon by New Age cultists. And Robbins himself does not, in fact, seem to regard Kelley’s as a New Age theory of perception, for he spends no more time on the matter. The line seems intended merely to poison the well.
There is also one supremely tactless element in Robbins’s work that must be mentioned: the book’s dust jacket. It sports a photograph of the tombstones of Ayn Rand and her husband Frank O’Connor. It should go without saying that the solemnity of an individual’s death is not to be used as a debating point; that whether or not Ayn Rand is dead is irrelevant to the truth of her ideas; that her mortality is not to be punned upon by surviving foes. But these basic canons of taste and civility, which an author must go out of his way to violate, are not evident to Robbins.
Theory of Knowledge
Robbins asserts that reason always relies on faith: “Reason can never cease to be the handmaid of faith: All thought must start somewhere, and that initial postulate is unproved, by definition… . The only question that remains is, Which faith-which axiom-shall reason serve?” (22) Since Objectivism is grounded on a set of axioms, which are by definition unprovable, Robbins concludes that Objectivism rests on an act of faith in those axioms. But this assumes that there are only two kinds of claims: those one proves and those which one takes on faith. In fact, as the Objectivist literature makes clear, there is a third type of claim: one which is valid because it formulates a fact that is directly perceived. Such are the most fundamental perceptual judgments and such are the axioms.
Fittingly, Robbins denies Objectivism’s empiricism, the claim that sense-perception is the only ultimate source of human knowledge. Specifically, he attacks the empiricist claim that one’s mind is tabula rasa at birth, a blank tablet. Robbins cites Rand’s statement of this view: “Speaking metaphorically, [a child] has a camera with an extremely sensitive, unexposed film (his conscious mind), and an extremely complex computer waiting to be programmed (his subconscious). Both are blank. He knows nothing of the external world.” (29) Robbins replies that the doctrine of tabula rasa is a contradiction: “How could Rand speak of the child’s conscious mind if that mind is ‘unexposed’ and the child ‘knows nothing of the external world’? … Rand’s words imply that he is conscious of nothing. But to be conscious of nothing, as Rand elsewhere argued, is not to be conscious… .” (30) Robbins has confused the faculty of consciousness with the act of consciousness. A child is born with a faculty (a potential) for the awareness of things, and he uses it to be aware of things. Even Rand’s metaphor leads away from a possible misinterpretation: one can certainly have a camera which is not currently taking a picture or a computer which is not currently programmed.
Given his confusion about the diaphanous model of consciousness, Robbins predictably moves to skepticism regarding the senses. He argues that “to present ‘sensory evidence or rational demonstration’ for the statement that the brain works correctly is impossible on empirical grounds: One would have to know ‘reality’ by means other than his brain and mind in order to compare ‘reality’ with the ‘percepts’ constructed by the brain.” (40-41) But his critique fails to hit its mark through a failure to understand the Objectivist model of perception.
The argument Robbins uses is one taught to all undergraduate students of philosophy and is undoubtedly effective against seventeenth- and eighteenth-century representationalists and their contemporary counterparts. But it does not have any application to Objectivism, which espouses a philosophy of direct realism. In the representationalist model of perception, the mind is directly aware only of mental representations of the external world. A representationalist, to validate his knowledge of the external world, would indeed have to examine the world apart from his mind’s representations of it and see whether those representations were accurate. But the Objectivist account of perception is that people are directly aware of the external world in perception; that there is no mental stand-in for reality. And since the Objectivist position is a corollary of the axioms of existence and consciousness, it cannot be questioned without self-contradiction.
Robbins, like virtually all theists, argues that the primacy of existence in Objectivism renders impossible any doctrine of free will: “Nature has determined that man shall not be determined. This position is logically impossible.” (140) Now, the problem of volitional consciousness is a classic philosophical problem and one that has not yet been answered (to the satisfaction of this reviewer). But there is no absurdity in the notion of nature’s determining that there shall be a process the outcome of which is not determined by nature. By analogy, government can determine that there will be a market in goods and services and yet not determine the outcome of the market process.
Moreover, there are several promising ideas regarding causality that bear on the question of free will. One is the Aristotelian, as opposed to Humean, notion of causality. For Hume and for most moderns, causality is a chain of events in which prior events cause later ones. For Aristotle and Objectivists, causality means that an entity acts according to its nature. If it is somehow in the nature of human consciousness to be free, then human nature causes free human acts.
Furthermore, philosopher John Searle has argued for the irreducibility of consciousness to the mechanisms studied by physics, and for a novel kind of bottom-up causality wherein lower-level features of the brain cause consciousness, which is realized in the higher-level organization of the brain. While no full, thorough, and satisfactory reconciliation of free will with causation has yet been provided, there is no reason to abandon hope for such a project.
Because Robbins thus sees Rand as a simple-minded materialist, he insists that “Rand’s distinction between the looters and the producers-a distinction which forms a major theme of Atlas Shrugged-between the men who seek power over other men and the men who seek not to rule others, but to conquer nature, breaks down precisely because in Rand’s philosophy man is wholly a product of nature.” (141) But this is a specious argument. To deal with non-volitional nature is to adapt one’s actions to non-volitional nature for one’s benefit; to deal with volitional nature (people) is to adapt one’s actions to volitional nature for one’s benefit. And one benefits most, in dealing with other people, by treating them benevolently, honestly, justly, and in a rights-respecting manner. Those who seek physical power over men are, as Rand often points out, trying to treat men as something they are not-brutes.
Robbins cites Rand’s belief that “the fact that living entities exist and function necessitates the existence of values and of an ultimate value, which for any given living entity is its own life.” But he then asserts, “Here is pure subjectivism, renamed Objectivism.” (148) Why? Because for Robbins, values must come in the form of commands, while (according to Objectivism) morality rests on free, human choice. It is this element of choice that Robbins regards as inherently subjective.
Robbins continues that line of argument as follows: The Objectivist morality is based on an individual’s life as his ultimate value and on his nature as his standard of value. But one’s life is a value only if one chooses to make it such. Robbins complains that, “Why one should choose to live is the unanswered and, on Rand’s ethical theory, the unanswerable question.” (148) This is correct. There is no reason provided within the Objectivist ethics for an individual to choose to live. Indeed, Rand claimed that “My morality, the morality of reason, rests on a single axiom: that existence exists, and a single choice: to live.” If her ethics rests on the choice to live, then it can hardly mandate that choice. Robbins’s claim, then, does not qualify as an argument. He is simply drawing a correct implication from Rand’s ethics and decrying that implication. He provides no reason for believing that the implication is false.
Robbins concludes his critique of the ethics with an attack on the notion of the life of ‘man qua man’ as the standard of ethical value. Like many of Rand’s interpreters, Robbins asks how she can get from “existence versus non-existence,” “life versus death,” to the ‘life of man qua man’ or a state of full flourishing, happiness, or eudaimonia. Existence for a human, these critics imply, should mean something like the bare minimum of food, clothing, and shelter required to survive into the next moment. Flourishing, however, means something like the successful pursuit of a vast array of physical, mental, and spiritual goods in the context of a life-long plan of values. Robbins wonders how Rand moves from her ethical grounding of the first value, existence, to her glorification of the second, happiness: “Rand provided no steps. It was one small step for Rand, but one giant leap for logic.” (173)
Robbins’s sarcasm aside, there is a good reason why there are no steps: there is only one position. Rand begins with man’s existence, which means his existence as a human being, including all of his attributes, conscious as well as physical; and she begins with the pursuit of this existence over the span of a lifetime. A man who seeks to survive by the skin of his teeth into the next moment is highly unlikely to survive for a normal life span, especially in the event of crises. One is more likely to succeed in sustaining one’s existence over a period of time if one attempts to create or trade for a vast array of values, such as material wealth, art, recreation, general education, self-esteem, friendship, romantic love, and all the other values that would make one flourish. Flourishing just is success in sustaining one’s existence.
In the realm of political philosophy, Robbins does not accept Ayn Rand’s argument for rights, which he believes is completely stated by Rand as follows: “If man is to live on earth, it is right for him to use his mind, it is right to act on his own free judgment, it is right to work for his values and to keep the product of his work. If life on earth is his purpose, he has a right to live as a rational being…” (183-184) These sentences, he maintains, contain an equivocation on the word ‘right,’ for it is used as an evaluative adjective three times and as a noun once with no discussion of the transition between the concepts.
One would never know, from reading Robbins, that Rand wrote more than these two rhetorical sentences on the basis of rights and set forth an argument more sophisticated than Robbins allows. Her supplementary material makes clear that, in the paragraph quoted, she does not equivocate on the word “right,” for using a word in two different senses is not an equivocation unless one rests an argument on the switch. Rand does not. Her claim is that some principle is needed to determine the allowable relationships between individuals if those individuals are to be able to seek their values. That principle is the principle of individual rights; its justification is that rights protect the pursuit by individuals of their values (right action).
Apparently still focused on those two sentences concerning rights, to the exclusion of explanatory material, Robbins goes on to ask: “If the proper function of government is ‘to secure these rights,’ does it not follow that it is the proper function of government to see that every man uses his mind, his judgment, forces [sic] him to keep the product of his work, that is, to do those things that Objectivism says are right?” (185) But in the Objectivist ethics, an action counts as morally right only if it is intentionally self-authored. Government cannot force people to do “those things that Objectivism says are right,” because what Objectivism says is right is to think and act for oneself. And that is why one needs rights.
Since Robbins believes that Objectivism asserts individuals have rights only in virtue of their rationality, “Logically … Objectivists must approve of the liquidation of imbeciles, morons, idiots, the retarded, the mediocre who don’t think … until the small group known as Objectivists is all that is left alive.” (209-210) Robbins also claims that there exist Objectivist discussions on whether or not Christians are to be slaughtered in some atheistic jihad: “[Christians’] continued existence under an Objectivist government has already been the subject of debate in Objectivist circles…” (210) Of course, he provides no citation for this outrageous allegation. Certainly, none of the periodicals published by Ayn Rand and her followers have ever included such a debate. Perhaps Robbins is referring to some bull-session by a few individuals who mistakenly believe themselves to subscribe to Objectivism, but that provides no grounds for ascribing the position to “Objectivism.”
In fact and in logic, Objectivism advocates a rights-respecting approach to all persons and notes that individuals have rights in virtue of their potential rationality, not in virtue of what actual use they may make of it. Other, more marginal cases (those of children and the retarded, for instance) have not yet come under Objectivist analysis; this is a gap in the Objectivist political perspective. But Robbins has no ground for deciding what the conclusion of these deliberations will be.
In sum, though Robbins says that he seeks to argue cogently and fairly with Ayn Rand on logical grounds, all he succeeds in doing is making himself look silly. Even the least knowledgeable student of Objectivism can tell that his hysterical condemnations are a warped presentation of the philosophy and that his argumentation is simply sophomoric.