Atlas Shrugged/Bioshock: Dual Review Pt. 1

There’s been a lot of noise over perceived objectivist overtones in Bioshock.  Enough so that I can only hope no one will fault an analysis of the game with this assumption in mind.  The discussion in fact drew me to purchase and play the game.  However I must admit I had never read Ayn Rand before.  Not wanting to be unfair to either text, I decided to go to the source and picked up a copy of Rand’s Magnum Opus, Atlas Shrugged.  Roughly 1000 pages later, I am now ready to begin what may be the most detailed video game review ever conducted.

1.  Atlas Shrugged

To start off with the least important of considerations, there is a general aesthetic to the novel which can perhaps best be described as autistic.  This is not to say the prose is incompetent, or the novel lacks soul or emotion.  Rather, it is to say that there were points in the book where hundreds of thousands of people were starving to death, and the reader was expected to cry when a railroad structure collapsed (editors note: I did).  This personification of objects is pervasive throughout the novel.  In a general sense it works, because the objects in question are presented as extensions of the protagonists on both literary and philosophical levels.  Hence, an attack on Taggart Transcontinental literally becomes an attack on the soul of Dagny Taggart, and empathy does not feel out of place.

I don’t have much else to say about the stylistic attributes of Atlas, other than to reflect on the fact it seems very angry in many places. This does not concern me, however doubtlessly this is not the case with all readers.  It seems plausible that many of the people who dislike Rand are taking issue with her often aggressive style of writing, and not with any specific argument presented in the text.  This is not to say that Atlas Shrugged is free of issues, and indeed I will be discussing them as I encountered them.

1a. A=A: The weakness of Rand’s logic

It is perhaps expedient to simply note the afterword contained in my copy of the novel.  It contains this quote from Rand:

The only philosophical debt I can acknowledge is to Aristotle.  I most emphatically disagree with a great many parts of his philosophy-but his definition of the laws of logic and the means of human knowledge is so great an achievement that his errors are irrelevent by comparison.

In essence, Rand is here adopting an Aristotelian view of logic and epistemology.  It is safe to recognize Aristotle as the originator, in many senses, of modern logical thought.  However, logic has undergone a rather profound series of evolutions, especially as it pertains to epistemology.  An extremely cursory overview of this history can be found here.  The problem of Rand’s logic boils down to one essential difficulty: no position she espouses actually follows from the premise she gives.

The most infamous example of this is contained within Galt’s speech.  His infamous declaration that A=A, and that all the evils of the world stem from a failure to recognize this.  Well yes, A=A.  This is indesputable.  Hence it is trivial.  Hence, it implies nothing and cannot be the basis for any claim, yet alone an entire philosophy.  Such is the problem with a great deal of philosophy, a result of the fact analyticity was heralded as the most desirable property of any claim.  The reasoning for this is quite simple: if something could ever possibly follow from a statement like A=A, then it would never stand the risk of being wrong.

Unfortunately, this is not how the world works, this is not how logic works, and this is not how science works.  (Rand apparently thought it was, based on the segment of the novel where Dagny Taggart first meets with Dr. Robert Stadler.  The sentiment expressed in this section was practically Baconian.)  The overwhelming difficulties of any sort of inductivist method, be it a programme seeking to establish truth by analyticity or otherwise, have made falsificationism the principle method of the sciences.  For this, much is owed to Sir Karl Popper, whose Critical Rationalism I afford a great deal of respect.

To be clear, it cannot be said on the basis of the above that Rand is incorrect about any claim she makes, except those related to epistemology and logic.  She simply has no foundation in logic for the claims she makes, even though she purports to.  This is not actually a death blow to her, as no text can be said to possess a logical foundation beyond some potential refutation.  Indeed, some of her arguments hold up under critical examination.  However, not all of them.  Let us continue on to examine the rest.

1b. The weakness of Rand’s economics

By far the category in which she is strongest, Rand’s economics nonetheless suffer from a number of faults.  Again for expediency, I will quote Rand herself:

When I say “capitalism,” I mean a full, pure, uncontrolled, unregulated laissez-faire capitalism—with a separation of state and economics, in the same way and for the same reasons as the separation of state and church.”

It is immediately informative to note that laissez-faire capitalism is not fully unregulated capitalism.  This distinction goes to Anarcho-Capitalism, a political and economic system of which I am a proponent.  Rand holds that the state is expected to provide services such as police, courts, and military defense against foreign aggressors.  The character she chooses to express this sentiment in Atlas is Ragnar Danneskjöld, a pirate.  Her reasoning for this is somewhat nebulous, and also very much out of character.  Like many writers, she holds defensive services as necessary to the maintanence of private welfare and property (and indeed, for good reason).  In much the same vein as these writers however, she makes no effort to consider how the market could provide defensive services, relegating them to the domain of the state.  Hence she succeeds in stopping the reach of her otherwise “radical” capitalism for no adequately explored reason.

This is out of character quite purely because of what else Rand was willing to deregulate.  Goods like land, food, and water are also all necessary to private welfare and the continued existence of trade.  This was noted by Rothbard in his seminal work, Power and Market.  The necessity of any good or service for the welfare of the human race is not an argument for statist control of the market in question.  This is, quite simply, because statist economics do a worse job across the board.  Hence Rand, in favoring Minarchism or Laissez Faire capitalism, sins against many of her own ideas.

The other principle complaint I have against Rand’s economics is in her notion of establishing an objective source of value.  The position she adopts in this regard is absurd, both in itself and because it is rendered wholly irrelevent by other aspects of her economics.  A huge opponent of the Labor Theory of Value, the argument she gives against it (contained within one portion of John Galt’s speech) is in fact a much more specific, much more arbitrary version of the very theory she is attempting to discredit.  She proposes that the thing which gives value to a property is in fact, thought; that man’s rational-creative mind is the source for the objective value of an object.

It should not be difficult for anyone paying attention to discover that the same flaws in the Labor Theory of Value exist in the theory Rand expounds.

1c.  The weakness of Rand’s behaviorism

Karl Popper, in his perpetual elucidation on the nature of truth and meaning, presents three important theses, which may be formulated as follows:

We should constantly be aware of the distinction between problems connected with our personal contributions to the production of scientific knowledge on the one hand, and problems connected with the structure of the various products, such as scientific theories or scientific arguments, on the other.
We should realize that the study of products is vastly more important than the study of the production, even for an understanding of the production and its methods.
We can learn more about the heuristics and methodology and even about the psychology of research by studying theories, and the arguments offered for or against them, than by any direct behaviouristic or psychological or sociological approach.  In general, we may learn a great deal about behaviour and psychology from the study of products.

He also leaves these words:

The appeal of the subjective approach is largely due to the fact that it is causal.  For I admit that the objective structures for which I claim prioirity are caused by human behavior.  Being causal, the subjective approach may seem to be more scientific than the objective approach which, as it were, starts from effects rather than causes.

Though I admit that the objective structures are products of behavior, I hold that the argument is mistaken.  In all sciences, the ordinary approach is from the effects to the causes.  The effect raises the problem – the problem to be explained, the explicandum – and the scientist tries to solve it by constructing an explanatory hypothesis.”

This may be a difficult leap for some readers, but Rand is guilty of being unscientific by means of excessive focus on the nature of causes.  In the book, scenarios are routinely presented in which the protagonist, faced with the actions of the antagonist, desperately seeks to evaluate the antagonist’s meaning or nature as a human being.  That the antagonist has produced an undesirable effect is not treated as the most significant aspect of their relationship with the protagonist.  Instead, Rand seems committed to the idea that bad effects must have bad causes, and proceeds with an inductive leap that is as thoroughly ridiculous as it is unnecessary.

Indeed, at one point in Galt’s speech, he condemns humanity for their failure to appreciate the necessity of an understanding of the causes of phenomenon.  The properties of a cause do not give an effect its properties.  Sorry Galt, wrong again.

Rand, at least in the novel, wants to explain the world entirely in terms of the character of the people that inhabit it.  If an action is evil, then it follows in her mind that the person who committed it is evil.  It may be the case she is being hyperbolic, and this aspect of her novel is not intended to be taken fully as allegory.  However, it still betrays a crucial misunderstanding; that human nature must be understood in order to understand human society.  Causes concern us because their effects concern us.  If a human being was pure evil, but in the darkest manifestations of their soul were driven by subhuman urges to go from house to house giving out flowers and candy as an expression of this evil, then we should have no cause for concern.

Rand is not unique in this misunderstanding, common to probably 90% of all authors.  My personal unfavorite behavioralist conception of society has to come from the psychoanalysts, who combine an overemphasis on causes with the fools errand of analyticity.  Consider Erich Fromm, for instance.  Completely intent on finding some perverse, unified underlying cause for necrophilia, homosexuality, war, and aggression.  Whether or not this list seems arbitrary to you, it’s worth noting that it could be and the methods and arguments would not change.  I will never understand people who hold that the morality of an action rests on the pathology behind it.  The question is whether the action itself is moral.

I will also never understand people who think that you can establish a claim, whether of pathology or economics, on the basis of a triviality like A=A.  This will not prevent me from evaluating a claim, but it is very annoying.

In conclusion, I disagree with a large number of arguments Ayn Rand makes through this novel.  I enjoyed it very much as a book, much more so than virtually any other single novel, film, or video game I have ever experienced.  However, I do not feel that I learned anything from it, outside of what specific positions Ayn Rand holds.  I am now equipped to review Bioshock with an informed understanding of the source text.  You may look forward to that part of the review soon, perhaps within the next few days.

~ by Kilroy del Dancefighter Estallion the First on May 6, 2009.

18 Responses to “Atlas Shrugged/Bioshock: Dual Review Pt. 1”

  1. I’ve decided to respond to this post because you linked to it in the xkcd forums. Let me preface my statements by saying that I consider myself to be an Objectivist. That said, the explanation for A is A being the founding principle in Objectivism is related to way in which an Objectivist arrives at an understanding of the truth, or rather “what is.” It essentially is stating that to make any claim about anything, one must have a point of reference, and claims that all things are a sub-set of the physical universe, therefore all things can and must be defined in reference to the universe (reality.) That is to say, Objectivism assumes a causal universe devoid of the supernatural.

  2. Are you sure you aren’t confusing Rand with Spinoza? I admit I haven’t conducted as thorough a review of her as possible, but I’m not sure your clarification makes it any easier for me to sympathize with her epistemological views.

  3. I’m not confusing them. Rand was different from Spinoza, in that Spinoza believed in subjective morality. She believed that concepts like ‘morality’ and “free will” had meaning outside of requiring supernatural origins.

  4. That’s all well and good, but regardless of whether or not monism is theistic I don’t think it actually resolves the issue. It may functional perfectly well as an ontology, but it doesn’t seem to reveal in itself any foolproof criteria on which knowledge can be purely and consistently founded.

  5. Rand stated that deductive logic was the foundation of knowledge. While inductive reason (by means of things like experimentation) are useful for showing when one is incorrect and must revaluate their logic, Rand believed that causality must be understood to firmly grasp anything, and that over reliance on inductive means would too often lead to statistical correlation being mistaken for fact. Though, this is of course an oversimplification.

    I recall a time when I heard Richard Dawkins claim that evolution, though certainly the origin of humanity, could tell us nothing about ethics or morality. I was shocked to hear this of course, and disagree entirely. If one discounts that as being false, and that accepting evolution as scientifically proven does indeed have implications regarding one’s morality, then it should be clear that reality does influence morality. Rand simply believed that the only justifiable reason rational individuals disagree about morality is because we don’t know everything yet, but that certainly if we did, then morality in its entirety would be self-evident as a result of reality.

  6. It better be an oversimplification, otherwise it appears to ignore the possibility of deductive logic refuting deductive logic. I don’t believe that an objective source of morality is necessary to arrive at the sort of morality Rand expounds. It can be arrived at just as easily as a consequence of intersubjective preference when taken in tandem with certain objective facts (we live in a world where redistribution does not create wealth, for example). The existentialist in me also sees it hard to imbue morality with an objective character, since to be moral is to value and values arise only within the human being.

  7. It is precisely the ignoring of causes and refusing to understand human behavior in economics that leads to the misconceptions arising from Keynesianism. If we merely allow the actions of the ‘evil-intentioned’ man handing out flowers and candy to go unexamined, it is likely that his actions will not consistently cohere with our standards of acceptable behavior, but rather when his motivations are properly understood it may be easier to predict when this divergence from our comfortableness will occur and under what circumstances given which situations. If we don’t recognize that consumer and spending behavior changes when regulations are put in place, or that the same levels of income may not be reported as tax rates change, the we have failed to understand economics and the underlying mechanisms of the market and population, and thus will fail in devising effective strategies to reach our goals, whatever they may be. This is why it is important to understand and judge not only the end actions of people, but the beginning and motivating causes, this is why she does that in her writing, it is not trivial nor irrelevant.

  8. What you describe are external, testable propositions and not motivations. We don’t need to know why consumer spending changes, only that it consistently does so in the face of certain economic facts. There are two key ways to understand human behavior. The first is to simply observe it as it manifests in the world. This observation can be tied to a hypothesis such as “if you punch somebody, they will punch you back”. Then there is the idea of motivations or meaning. Examples of this would be “If you punch somebody, it is because your mother didn’t love you and you are a repressed homosexual”. This is extremely problematic. First of all, such propositions are effectively unfalsifiable, at least currently. You can establish a relationship between one empirical detail (mother not loving you) and another (punching), but you can’t segue through consciousness in any meaningful way as you go between the two.

  9. I think the primary area from which our disagreement stems is that you view inductive experimentation as innately superior to deductive reasoning. Now induction has it’s place, but I hold that it is only valid for testing hypothesis and is entirely impotent their formation.

  10. That isn’t the primary disagreement. Experimentation is not even an inherently inductive process. In fact if done correctly, it is used to refute existing extrapolations; ie, if somebody says “Bigger objects fall faster than smaller ones”, which is an Aristotelian induction from certain key premises, showing that any one object disobeys this rule is sufficient to break this extrapolation. These results do not need to yield any new inductive arguments in itself, and indeed this is largely impossible and hence not how hypothesis are constructed (and also why all possible knowledge wasn’t immediately worked out by some clever scientist, like perhaps Francis Bacon).

    Hypotheses don’t need to be formed by any particular method. You can literally pull one out of your ass and as long as it has a proper logical syntax (if___then___), is substantive and is falsifiable then it’s perfectly functional as a hypothesis.

  11. This is such a different discussion from what I’m used to having. It’s like you’re accepting several aspects of Objectivism, while rejecting its epistemology, which is the basis for the entire philosophy.

  12. That’s exactly it. It being considered the basis for the philosophy is the larger half of why I’m not an objectivist. Most of the ideas in objectivism are correct; the effectiveness of capitalism in wealth creation, the non zero-sum nature of social and economic interaction, the existence of an objective world and the utility of reason. However these are not correct by mathematical necessity, but rather as synthetic truth applicable to the world in which we live. It is logically possible that in some conceivable world (we will just call it bizzarro world) taking money from people somehow increases wealth. Hence capitalism isn’t -necessarily- the most effective system, it simply -is- the most effective system. So we arrive at the truth of various propositions in the structure of objectivism not by A Priori logic, but by the combination of logic and critical examination.

    Now perhaps there is an ontological argument to be made for monism, in which case you might be correct in stating that all things -in themselves- take on only a purely analytic relationship in reference to a unitary whole. However this cannot truly solve the epistemological issue, wherein all apprehensions can only ever take on the form of synthetic apprehensions, or at least analyticity in consciousness is always subject to an extreme sort of skepticism. We are not born knowing the world. There are a lot of very specific implications to this which I have managed to somehow largely avoid learning, but I actually haven’t found epistemology profoundly necessary. This is because no inherent foundation is needed to justify the use of logic or reason. It wasn’t until I started to read Karl Popper that I really began to understand this.

  13. Well, I won’t say that I agree, but I’ll take a look at the Popper work you recommended me before delving further.

  14. I, too, consider myself an Objectivist. I am not a philosopher, though. Andrew, what you have said about induction seems at odds with what I’ve heard discussed. Specifically, I hesitate to say there’s any preference between induction v. deduction. I’ve heard her position was that induction is the source of knowledge, when induction is taken to mean direct observation of reality. Since no contradictions exist in reality, your knowledge is good (though it may be later revised, qualified, etc). Deduction is then used to derive further consequences of the rules we’ve observed.

    As for motivations and causal connections, I have to agree with that other guy. Yes, we are really only concerned about the effects — but without knowing the causes, it is difficult to know whether the effects will continue, especially as circumstances change. Knowing causal connections helps to understand the effects before they happen.

    Now, to A is A. The important part of this axiom is not the form “A is A”, but what she states after it. “To exist” is “to be something”, an entity of a specific nature (and only that nature). It includes non-contradiction. Her point in establishing this, is really to get at that anything which exists, is something in particular. This is used to establish that actions have consequences, or if you will, causes have effects. Again, knowing these causal connections will help us to decide what actions we should take to give us the effects we want. In your example, there may be a different world where communism works: the objectivist epistemology would say of that claim, “maybe it’s possible (though I doubt it!). however, such a difference would be caused by specific factors that distinguish that world from our own.”

    I hope that makes it all sound less dubious! Honestly, the more I’ve thought about Objectivism, the more I’ve got the impression that it doesn’t say anything shocking or weird. You know, it’s supposed to just be about our own, plain old vanilla universe.

    • It’s not so much that causes are examined, but that the nature of causes are examined. Once you start trying to analyze what a cause is qua cause, you move beyond any discussion of antecedent and consequent and towards an analysis of being. At best this is an investigation outside the realm of materialist inquiry, and at worst it’s a simple linguistic trick.

      If A = B, then ( A = A ) = ( B = B ) , ( B = B ) = ( B = A ), etc. So what do we really gain from that? Nothing, except verbosity because we now have more labels for exactly the same number of things. We don’t learn anything new from the proof, as everything in the one is contained in the other and vice-versa.

      Induction can’t be arrived at as direct observation of reality. That isn’t what induction is. Induction is a form of reason and not strictly equivalent to observation, which is a manner of attaining propositions to reason about. However observation can contain elements of induction, just as it can elements of deduction. In fact it likely -must-, but that is a debate I think outside my scope at present.

      To arrive at identity is also not to arrive at causality. This argument was considered in multiple different capacities in the time of the ancient Greeks, who by dividing things like time and space into self-identical discrete units actually concluded that things like motion and change were impossible. These are not sophistical arguments. While they don’t hold up, they do demonstrate that the issue is not as simple as you suggest.

      “maybe it’s possible (though I doubt it!). however, such a difference would be caused by specific factors that distinguish that world from our own.”

      Well yes, everything here is correct with the exception of your doubt. The very thing you’ve stated is, in fact, why logical conclusions must be apprehended as synthetic truths. At least for purposes of such a debate (and almost any other). Effectively, you don’t arrive at conclusions by necessity. Logic is not foundational. I would challenge you, by the way, to demonstrate that any individual proposition of communism is logically impossible. Do so in formal symbolic logic (modal). That is what your doubt obligates you to do.

      Objectivism -is- about our own universe, but it attempts to justify its claims by appealing to a logical system which is untenable, and frankly quite monistic.

  15. The articles on this website are the best from any I’ve seen in this field.

  16. Kilroy,
    you state ” The properties of a cause do not give an effect its properties. ”

    Ever concrete example I ca think of seems to suggest otherwise.
    Kick a ball it the counter spin is equal an opposite, that is derived from the effect (the kick). Observe light and shadow play on the branch of a tree, not spontaneous at all but directly connected to the effect of the prevailing conditions, so also with Chemistry, computer science, mathematics and as far as I can see everything else with the possible exception of conversations with the psychotic, and even there it could be argued that a psychotic response still mostly exists upon the foundation of an encounter with a psychotic.

    I don’t mind that you support some alternate view, I just wonder how you rationalize it.

    Could you please explain.

  17. P.S. Please forgive the typos in the previous post, I am having problems with my keyboard. Thanks.

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