Saturday, October 27, 2012

A Systematic Refutation of Objectivism


Eugen von Böhm-Bawerk, author of Karl Marx and the Close of His System, was, in his lifetime, met with responses from prominent Marxists such as Rudolf Hilferding and Louis B. Boudin. It has been nearly four decades since John Robbins wrote Answer to Ayn Rand, one of the earliest exhaustive critiques of Ayn Rand’s philosophy of Objectivism, yet despite the enduring popularity of Ayn Rand’s literature, no Objectivist publication has even acknowledged it or its updated version, Without a Prayer: Ayn Rand and the Close of Her System.[1]
Unfortunately, any reply to Robbins now could not be endorsed by Rand. Therefore, the canon comprising “the only authentic sources of information on Objectivism” is closed.[2] Still, one would think the conclusion that Objectivism is a flawed philosophy would elicit a reaction from its adherents. Perhaps Robbins’ criticisms are not thought to be parallel in quality to Böhm-Bawerk’s criticisms of Marxism.[3] If this were true, one would not expect Robbins to be so often cited by non-Objectivists.[4] Hopefully, the following will serve to clarify this mystery.

Objectivism Summarized

Philosophy is the science that studies the fundamental aspects of the nature of existence. The task of philosophy is to provide man with a comprehensive view of life. This view serves as a base, a frame of reference, for all his actions, mental or physical, psychological or existential. This view tells him the nature of the universe with which he has to deal (metaphysics); the means by which he is to deal with it, i.e., the means of acquiring knowledge (epistemology); the standards by which he is to choose his goals and values, in regard to his own life and character (ethics) – and in regard to society (politics); the means of concretizing this view is given to him by esthetics.[5]
What was Ayn Rand’s comprehensive view of life? “The essentials are: in metaphysics, the Law of Identity – in epistemology, the supremacy of reason – in ethics, rational egoism – in politics, individual rights (i.e. capitalism) – in esthetics, metaphysical values.[6] In dozens of books and hundreds of articles, Rand aimed to integrate these principles into a coherent worldview and model for action. A rational assessment of Objectivism must interact with Rand’s defense of it, chiefly consisting in surveying whether her specific understandings of the various branches of philosophy are internally consistent and, if they are not, whether slight or considerable modifications must be made. The conclusion to such an investigation will be as much an appraisal of Robbins’ exposition of Rand’s philosophy as it will be of Rand’s philosophy itself.

Prefatory Remarks

Matters are complicated by Rand’s tendency to ascribe uncommon meanings to words, link prejudicial language with alternatives to Objectivism, and bypass quoting or referencing a philosopher when leveling accusations against him.
For instance, Rand emphasized that “Man’s senses are his only direct cognitive contact with reality and, therefore, his only source of information,”[7] but because of her antipathy for identifying with groups, she rejected empiricism, groundlessly asserting that empiricists think “man obtains his knowledge from experience, which was held to mean: by direct perception of immediate facts, with no recourse to concepts…”[8]
To adduce one more example, Rand defined “sacrifice” as “the surrender of a greater value for a lesser one or a nonvalue.”[9] While Christianity does have a doctrine of sacrifice, it is not related to Rand’s altruistic sentiments. Lamentably, because she failed to distinguish her own understanding of sacrifice from that of Christianity, Rand blundered in referring to the Protestant ethic as “a popular make-shift, a bootleg set of rules for “practical” action – and, from the start, it was fighting a losing war against the official morality of the Judaic-Christian tradition: the morality of altruism, mysticism, and self-immolation to the welfare of others.”[10] As Robbins cleverly remarked, “Rand should have gone to more baseball games.”[11]
A major downside to Rand’s rhetoric is that it doubles the task of the critical reader. Not only must he consider the merits of Rand’s arguments, he must first ask whether they were even directed against accurate representations of others’ positions. To give Objectivism the just trial which Rand at times failed to give her opponents, it will be necessary to avoid her apologetic methodology by ensuring that the reader has means of verifying whether Rand is being given fair treatment. In this context, that means dealing with Rand on and with her own terms or, when appropriate, pointing out cases in which Rand’s terms were original.

Objectivist Epistemology and Metaphysics

An appropriate place to start an examination of Objectivism as such is in an examination of Objectivist metaphysics and epistemology, for these compose “the theoretical foundation of philosophy.”[12] Indeed, when one makes a knowledge claim, there is both a metaphysical and epistemological aspect to the assertion. The former pertains to [the nature of] what is said to be known whereas the latter pertains to how one knows his assertion is true. Epistemology cannot be completely divorced from metaphysics.
Rand’s rejection of “the claim to a non-sensory means of knowledge”[13] confirms her to have been a classical empiricist. Knowledge is described as having been “reached either by perceptual observation or by a process of reason based on perceptual observation) and omitting the particular fact(s) involved.”[14] The suggestion is that Rand’s metaphysic should have been, if consistent with her epistemology, a form of physicalism, for Rand’s claim that groups of sensations are preconditions for knowledge acquisition would be metaphysically groundless if that which can be known is not ultimately derived from sensations.
Though physicalism is what one might anticipate, Rand actually distinguished matter from volitional consciousness, equating to the latter to man’s soul or spirit.[15] This raises an interesting question: how is one able to sense his conscious, free will? Even if “the validity of the senses must be taken for granted,”[16] unless a volitional consciousness can be tasted, touched, heard, seen, or smelled – not merely unnecessarily inferred from the alleged effects thereof – self-knowledge would apparently be impossible. Then again, if Rand had accepted physicalism, she would have had to redefine volitional consciousness and knowledge since the physical qua physical is not mental.
Her philosophy of knowledge must likewise have affected her philosophy of language, which involves “a code of visual-auditory symbols that denote concepts.”[17] One ramification is that no observation of the physical world can warrant belief in the following precondition for knowledge: “propositions may be true.”[18] Moreover, if truth, knowledge, and language are creations of man, they must have been the creations of a particular man who Rand would have argued was born with a blank mind.[19] This would make communication impossible, as no two individuals could ever verify that the differences in their experiences and sensations are negligible to the meanings each attaches to some word[s]. Of course, as Rand’s was not even able to demonstrate how she could know herself, she certainly could not have known any other consciousnesses.
One of the primary epistemological debates Objectivism was supposed to solve is how concepts are formed. All concepts are universals or abstractions.[20] Interestingly, however, Rand denied the existence of abstractions.[21] How can abstractions be formed yet be said not to exist? “To exist is to possess identity,”[22] and as abstractions certainly possess identity, it is unclear what reason can be offered as to why Rand would have rejected the “existence” of abstractions apart from the fact her empirical epistemology could not account for them.
There is also quite a bit of irony in the idea Objectivists do not think abstractions exist. There can be no more fundamental or well-known Objectivist axiomatic concept than Rand’s mantra that “existence exists.” But as a concept, “existence” is an abstraction, and Rand said abstractions as such do not exist. So, after all, existence as such does not exist.
Regardless, it is not clear in what way the concept “existence” could even be formed, since “Cognitive abstractions are formed by the criterion of: what is essential? (epistemologically essential to distinguish one class of existents from all others).[23] Existence does not distinguish any class of existents from any other class of existents,[24] which is why Rand wrote, “Since axiomatic concepts are identifications of irreducible primaries, the only way to define one is by means of an ostensive definition—e.g., to define “existence,” one would have to sweep one’s arm around and say: “I mean this.””[25] But in her dichotomization of the primacy of existence from the primacy of consciousness, she gave several conceptual equivalents to it:
The primacy of existence (of reality) is the axiom that existence exists, i.e., that the universe exists independent of consciousness (of any consciousness), that things are what they are, that they possess a specific nature, an identity. The epistemological corollary is the axiom that consciousness is the faculty of perceiving that which exists – and that man gains knowledge of reality by looking outward. The rejection of these axioms represents a reversal: the primary of consciousness – the notion that the universe has no independent existence, that it is the product of a consciousness (either human or divine or both). The epistemological corollary is the notion that man gains knowledge of reality by looking inward (either at his own consciousness or at the revelation it receives from another, superior consciousness).[26]
In what is an otherwise able summary of contrasting positions, Rand defines existence as “reality” or “the universe.” Elsewhere, she equated the universe to nature: “To grasp the axiom that existence exists, means to grasp the fact that nature, i.e., the universe as a whole, cannot be created or annihilated, that it cannot come into or go out of existence.”[27] Finally, comparing this statement to the following gives credence to the idea existence is nothing other than matter: “Matter is indestructible, it changes its forms, but it cannot cease to exist.”[28]
The point is that the affirmation of the primacy of existence over against the primacy of consciousness is really the affirmation of the primacy of the physical or material realm over against the spiritual or mental realm. It is here that the root of these most basic problems with Objectivism is to be found. Rand was clearly aware of but unwilling to accept the alternative to the primacy of existence. There are many other particular inconsistencies in Rand’s epistemology and metaphysic which could be mentioned, but it would take a book like Without a Prayer to list them all and is unnecessary for the purposes of showing how systemic the errors of Objectivism are.

Objectivism and Ethics

When confronted with any secular philosophy, one of the more basic questions is whether or how it purports to account for morality. As Rand defined morality as “a code of values to guide man’s choices and actions,”[29] the next natural question may seem to be whether there are choices or actions men should or are obligated to make and, if so, why. But because Objectivism’s concept of “man” is loaded, it is more appropriate in this circumstance to first inquire as to Rand’s understanding of the nature of man.
Rand believed that man is a volitional consciousness; that is, a man is a man he is because he has chosen to be a man.[30] He was born with the potential to be human or subhuman. Free will is not only a precondition for responsibility[31] but also for becoming man. In a way, Rand was an existentialist: existence precedes essence. What may be said in reply to this?
Firstly, Robbins correctly notes that “Just as a tabula rasa consciousness is a contradiction in terms, so is a tabula rasa moral nature. A being of self-made soul is a contradiction, because nothing can cause itself.”[32] Secondly, even if it were possible for existence to precede essence, that would undermine Rand’s attempted solution to the is-ought dilemma,[33] viz. “The fact that a living entity is, determines what it ought to do.”[34] However, if existence precedes essence, there is no necessary reason to choose to be human, in which case Rand’s particular code of morality would not apply. In fact, Rand openly agreed that suicide can be a value[35] or right[36] and that “Reality confronts man with a great many “musts,” but all of them are conditional.””[37] This leads to the inevitable conclusion that Objectivist morality is subjective. As Rand said, “‘Value’ presupposes an answer to the question: of value to whom and for what?”[38] It is hard to overstate the implications of these meta-ethical points.
There are also a few difficulties inherent to Rand’s ethical theory, which is comprehended in John Galt’s oath: “I swear-by my life and my love of it-that I will never live for the sake of another man, nor ask another man to live for mine.”[39] While Rand defined good and evil in various ways,[40] the import of each is essentially the same: the “good” is that which enhances life in some sense, whereas the “evil” is that which negates it. Quite aside from the question of why it is irrational to pursue death as a goal, Rand did not explain how a man who does not know when or how he will die can see “his interests in terms of a lifetime and selects his goals accordingly.”[41] Nor did she convincingly elaborate on why it would be immoral to extend one’s own life by force.[42] And given Objectivist epistemology and metaphysics, the cause of a proper furtherance of life is unknowable. In short, the troubles of Objectivism are pervasive, not minor, correctable inconsistencies.

Objectivism and Politics

While politics in general and capitalism specifically are said to be based upon more fundamental branches of philosophy,[43] some of what Rand wrote can give a reader the impression that her motivation for speaking at length about these fundamental branches is ad hoc.[44] When it comes to actually examining whether capitalism is necessary on Objectivist premises, the answer is not so evident. It is at least clear that some men do not need society because they do not seek a quality of life gained by knowledge and trade,[45] and because she regarded such men as free, Rand accepted the Lockean principle that “The source of the government’s authority is “the consent of the governed.””[46]
What makes this interesting is that it is opposed to Rand’s insistence that government must hold “a legal monopoly on the use of physical force.[47] For if unanimity does not exist, then government, defined as “an institution that holds the exclusive power to enforce certain rules of social conduct in a given geographical area,”[48] is unjustified in imposing these rules on everyone who owns property in a given area. Instead, the principle of unanimous consent seems to make the relationship between a government and its constituents little – if at all – different from the relationship between an employee and an employer.[49] But a market analogy would open the door to the possibility of competing governments rather than a natural monopoly.
A government is justified in using physical force only in retaliation to the infringement of individual rights.[50] In an ideal society, what reason does a sovereign individual have to submit to a governmental authority? Anarchism as well as competing governments appears to be a live alternative to Rand’s conception of capitalism. Interestingly, Rand’s description of Galt’s Gulch was anarchistic,[51] and what arguments Rand elsewhere presented against anarchism were either pragmatic or straw men.[52]
Even if it turns out the capitalist system Rand proposed deserves attention, it too is rife with questions. For instance, it has already been pointed out that on Objectivism, man is not man by nature but by choice. This means his rights are not inalienable. One who chooses to act irrationally is no longer a man and thus no longer has the rights of a man. Far more horrific is the realization that “Rights do not pertain to a potential, only to an actual being”[53] means that the rights of a man do not apply to beings that have not yet developed the opportunity to choose to be men. This would include infants. Is infanticide a holdover from Aristotelian common sense?[54] Speaking of “actual beings,” what about the plants or animals which supposedly have knowledge, values, and codes of action?[55] Rand expressed no repugnance at the fact men kill the lives of these actual beings all the time. What of their rights? Rand provided no criterion for distinguishing who or what possesses what rights and why. A super-race may come along and squash men like the relative ants they would be; what could Rand have said about that?
It is true that Rand could have avoided several of these moral and political inconsistencies and begged questions by biting the secularist bullet and denying normative statements are meaningful.[56] In turn, ethical and political nihilism would have allowed her to remain consistent relative to the confines of her flawed epistemology and metaphysic. The point in addressing Rand’s moral and political inconsistencies, however, is not the same as the point in addressing Rand’s epistemic and metaphysical inconsistencies. The latter are sufficient to disarm whatever intellectual ground Objectivism lays claim, whereas the former are primarily meant to disarm the rhetoric which prevents people from noticing this.

Objectivism and Esthetics

Despite Rand’s protestations to the contrary,[57] Objectivism entails a pessimistic view of life. Rand believed that “Life can be kept in existence only by a constant process of self-sustaining action. The goal of that action, the ultimate value which, to be kept, must be gained through its every moment, is the organism’s life.”[58] But Rand is dead. Aristotle, her greatest influence, is dead. It is difficult to be optimistic when it appears impossible for even the most rational animal to keep his or her ultimate value. And, after all, the limitations of and external impediments to the matter which constitutes a man are not the only obstacles he must overcome in his never-ending quest to live. Rand repeatedly complained about the lack of intellectual integrity in every aspect of modern culture.[59]
Does the cynicism which follows from Objectivism imply that Objectivism is false? Not by itself. It does, however, have significance with respect to Objectivist esthetics:
Art is a selective re-creation of reality according to an artist’s metaphysical value-judgments. Man’s profound need of art lies in the fact that his cognitive faculty is conceptual, i.e. that he acquires knowledge by means of abstractions, and needs the power to bring his widest metaphysical abstractions into his immediate, perceptual awareness. Art fulfills this need: by means of a selective re-creation, it concretizes man’s fundamental view of himself and of existence. It tells man, in effect, which aspects of his experience are to be regarded as essential, significant, important. In this sense, art teaches man how to use his consciousness.[60]
A man has various metaphysical value-judgments which “represent his implicit view of reality,” and an important one is his answer to the question of “whether he can achieve his goals in life or not.”[61] Can a man, according to Objectivism, achieve his goals in life? Can a “constant process of self-sustaining action” be unfailingly maintained? If Rand really considered the validity of scientific induction to have been proved,[62] it seems she would have had to answer negatively. Against nature and evil, men are rather impotent.
Curiously, however, man’s glory as a rational animal and end unto himself is a central motif in Rand’s writings.[63] An individualistic culture naturally finds that to be attractive, which would explain why her novels have sold well. Howard Roark, John Galt, and Prometheus are a few of the fictitious abstractions that were supposed to accomplish the goal of Rand’s writings: “the projection of an ideal man.”[64]
Her less than ideal philosophy prevents them from that consideration. It would be superfluous to list all the ways in which Rand’s esthetic theory is uprooted by its dependence on her mistaken philosophical convictions, but it is ironic that her exaltation of man was predicated on a philosophy in which matter, not [volitional] consciousness, is unconditional, indestructible, and primary.[65] What is man’s distinction to that? Just as Rand’s choice to value life rather than non-existence was arbitrary, so too her choice of which values to regard as important and thus select for artistic recreation were arbitrary. [66]

Ideal Philosophy: The Alternative

These drawbacks of Objectivism convincingly vindicate Robbins’ conclusion that Objectivism is a contradictory philosophy. But a critique – even an internal one – presupposes a worldview of one’s own; that is, in order for Robbins to have known he undercut Objectivist principles, he must have been able to provide an alternative to them. This he attempted, both in the latter half of Without a Prayer and in numerous other books and articles, by presenting Scripturalism as his philosophy of choice. What, then, does Scripturalism propose? Robbins provided the following summary:
1. Epistemology: Propositional Revelation
2. Soteriology: Faith Alone 
3. Metaphysics: Theism
4. Ethics: Divine Law
5. Politics: Constitutional Republic[67] 
To know what these positions mean and whether they are true, it is first necessary to explain what knowledge and truth are. Rand’s notion of knowledge, for example, permitted error.[68] Robbins, on the other hand, accurately identified the nature of truth and knowledge:
Truth and error are opposites. Truth, by definition, neither contains error, nor is uncertain, nor is liable to error. Knowledge, by definition, is apprehension of what is true. One cannot be said to know what is false. One can have false information, but one cannot have false knowledge. “False knowledge is a contradiction in terms.” What is true cannot be in error. What is known cannot be false. Therefore, knowledge is infallible.[69]
However, it must once again be pointed out that showing Rand’s position to be self-defeating is not equivalent to a demonstration that his own position is accurate. Thus, a brief exposition as to how Robbins was able to know what knowledge and truth are is necessary.
Rand described an axiom as “a proposition that defeats its opponents by the fact that they have to accept it and use it in the process of any attempt to deny it.”[70] Among other “axioms,” Scripturalism teaches that one must implicitly assume the laws of logic, adequacy of language, and a self-authenticating and omniscient epistemic source in order to convey one’s rejection of them. “I deny the epistemic adequacy of logic and language,” for example, is an assertion which must presuppose the epistemic adequacy of both logic and language in order to be intelligible. Skepticism, therefore, is self-defeating.
The last axiom may seem a little less intuitive than the first two, but it follows just the same. One who is not omniscient must acquire his knowledge from some source. If the source from whom or which one ultimately learns is not omniscient, it begs the question: how does one know that the truth value of any given knowledge-claim is not predicated on the truth value of an unknown proposition? This is a problem, because the claim to know that not all propositions are related to one another itself presupposes omniscience.[71] Hence, an omniscient source of knowledge is necessary, and the nature of this source must be self-authenticating for those who are not omniscient to be able to know that the source is what it claims to be.
Nevertheless, one cannot validly infer from the collection of a few necessary preconditions for knowledge that one possesses a sufficient condition for knowledge.[72] Hence, Scripturalists appeal to a top-down epistemic approach, beginning with a presupposition which is the sufficient condition for knowledge and accounts for all subsidiary, necessary preconditions for knowledge: divine revelation. Men do not need to be omniscient to know truth, but men are only able to know that because Scripture is the sole, extant extent of God's self-authenticating, self-attesting, and rational revelation which communicates this. One who by grace is enlightened about the epistemic sufficiency of divine revelation is able to avoid the infinite regress of perpetual external validation of beliefs. From this source of knowledge, knowledge pertaining to every other branch of philosophy follows.
Metaphysically, Scripturalism does not necessarily promote a purely mental realm. Propositional truth, however, maintains a logical primacy over a “physical” realm insofar as the latter is a creation patterned after the former. The physical qua physical cannot be “known” by definition;[73] knowledge is propositional belief in which the possibility of error is precluded. In other words, this is a sort of opposite to the correspondence theory of truth; it is a correspondence theory of corporeality in which the physical provides a sensible representation of eternal truth.
            Ethically, God created man to be accountable to His law. That is simple justification for normative statements. Rand would not have denied that creator has the right to dispose of a creation as he sees fit, and though the chief end of man is to glorify God, this too is not contradictory to a type of rational self-interest.[74] Undoubtedly, a theocentric worldview will not be as persuasive to an immoral culture as declaring man to be the crown jewel of the universe. Perhaps more persuasive is the fact that Christianity, not secularism, can provide a principled reason for opposing suicide, infanticide, etc. Anyway, persuasiveness is superfluous to truth.
            Politically, the law can function to restrain sin only when penalties may be imposed on those who violate it. Governments are divinely ordained subordinate authorities designed to mete out punishment to criminals. As such, government is a function of sin; when there will be no more sin, there will be no need for such a hierarchy among men. There is no mythical Atlantis in this life, so citizens can and should use what opportunities arise to influence government towards a Christian worldview.[75] The extent to which governments – that is, men who claim governmental positions – abuse power determines under what circumstances civil disobedience is justified.
            Esthetically, “The purpose of art is expression,”[76] and the subject matter and skill in execution are the criteria according to which it is to be judged. So, if “God created man as essentially a rational being,” that “implies that man’s most valuable expressions are rational and intellectual.”[77] One’s epistemology, metaphysic, and ethic delimit the bounds of legitimate artistry. “For a Christian, art is subordinate to a higher purpose, and only insofar as it serves that purpose is it justified.”[78]
All of these philosophical ideas can be or have been developed. But is it enough? People cannot be forced to assent to the truth. Both Rand and Robbins believed that. Readers must judge for themselves whether Robbins’ analyses definitively cripple Objectivism, just as they must judge whether Robbins’ own philosophical system suffices as an alternative. Though those who closely follow Robbins’ arguments ought to find them sound, some may refuse to listen. But it is not the responsibility of the philosopher to change minds. If a productive Atlas should shrug off the materialistic looters of society,[79] how much more should a philosopher shrug off the intellectually indifferent?

[1] A few short articles have been written in rejoinder, but none are by Objectivists; cf. Roy A. Childs Jr., “Answer to Ayn Rand, by John W. Robbins,” The Libertarian Review (November, 1976); David Gordon, “Crank vs. Crank,” The Mises Review (Winter, 1997). Disagreements notwithstanding, the former remarked that Answer to Ayn Rand is “the best critique of Objectivism which has yet seen print in book form,” and the latter, if less effusive in praise, grants that Robbins constructs “a devastating analysis of Rand’s position on abstraction and knowledge.”
[2] cf. Ayn Rand, The Objectivist (June, 1968). If neither Rand nor those whose writings she supported have provided a coherent philosophical system, it may be suspected that present philosophers who affiliate with Objectivism can do little better. For corroboration, see Appendices A, B, and C in John Robbins’ Without a Prayer: Ayn Rand and the Close of Her System (2006) for his reviews of treatises by modern Objectivists.
[3] In his capacity as an Austrian economist, Böhm-Bawerk might be surpassed in importance only by his student, Ludwig von Mises, who, incidentally, was a friend of Ayn Rand. Rand herself owned that she was not an economist; cf. Ayn Rand, The Voice of Reason (1990), pg. 4. For Robbins’ view of secular economic theories in general and Mises’ in particular, read “The Failure of Secular Economics,” The Trinity Review (February-March 2000) and “The Promise of Christian Economics,” The Trinity Review (August-September 2000).
[4] Of the recent book-length evaluations of Objectivism, two authors in particular acknowledge their indebtedness to Robbins: Scott Ryan, Objectivism and the Corruption of Rationality (2003), pg. xii; Michael B. Yang, Reconsidering Ayn Rand (2000), pg. 155. Others who recognize Robbins’ proficiency in highlighting discrepancies in Rand’s philosophy include Mimi Gladstein, The New Ayn Rand Companion, Revised and Expanded Edition (1999), pg. 101; Chris Matthew Sciabarra, Ayn Rand: The Russian Radical (1995), pgs. 278-279; Clarence Carson, Swimming Against the Tide (1998), pg. 122.
[5] Ayn Rand, Return of the Primitive (1999), pg. 45.
[6] Ayn Rand, Philosophy: Who Needs It (1982), pg. 22; cf. The Voice of Reason, pg. 4.
[7] Ayn Rand, Philosophy: Who Needs It, pg. 90.
[8] Ayn Rand, For the New Intellectual (1963), pg. 27. The Encyclopedia Britannica correctly states that empiricism entails “the view that all concepts originate in experience, that all concepts are about or applicable to things that can be experienced, or that all rationally acceptable beliefs or propositions are justifiable or knowable only through experience,” none of which are tenets Rand would have disputed.
[9] Ayn Rand, The Virtue of Selfishness (1964), pg. 50.
[10] Ayn Rand, Why Businessmen Need Philosophy (2011), pg. 305.
[11] John Robbins, Without a Prayer, pg. 179. Sacrifice bunts or sacrifice fly-outs are not cases in which greater values are exchanged for lesser ones. So too Christ’s death [and resurrection] for the life His people was not a forfeiture of value.
[12] Ayn Rand, Philosophy: Who Needs It, pg. 3.
[13] Ibid., pg. 63; cf. “Man cannot survive except by gaining knowledge, and reason is his only means to gain it. Reason is the faculty that perceives, identifies and integrates the material provided by his senses” (Atlas Shrugged (1957), pg. 942) where perception refers to “a group of sensations” (The Virtue of Selfishness, pg. 20).
[14] Ayn Rand, Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology: Expanded Second Edition (1990), pg. 35.
[15] Ayn Rand, The Romantic Manifesto (1971), pg. 29; Atlas Shrugged, pgs. 943, 945. Although she never provided a solution, Rand did seem quite aware of the difficulty in explaining how man as a consciousness who possesses free will could have evolved from inanimate, determinate matter; cf. Philosophy: Who Needs It, pg. 45.
[16] Ayn Rand, Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, pg. 3. Just what it means for sensations to be “valid” isn’t specified. Rand said: “No one can perceive literally and indiscriminately every accidental, inconsequential detail of every apple he happens to see; everyone perceives and remembers only some aspects, which are not necessarily essential ones; most people carry in mind a vaguely approximate image of an apple’s appearance.” (The Romantic Manifesto, pg. 48). Presumably, the axiom of the validity of sensations was meant to excuse Rand from showing how she knew that those details of an “apple” which are not perceived are inconsequential.
[17] Ayn Rand, Return of the Primitive, pg. 195. Rand often wrote about “conceptual knowledge,” so the following statements by Rand will hopefully save the reader some trouble in having to explain to Objectivists that knowledge is always propositional: “Every concept stands for a number of propositions.” (Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, pg. 48); “Words without definitions are not language but inarticulate sounds.” (Ibid., pg. 11).
[18] According to Rand, “Truth is the recognition of reality” (Atlas Shrugged, pg. 943). One recognizes reality when he assents to a proposition which corresponds to it; cf. Philosophy: Who Needs It, pg. 14. But on the assumption of empiricism, to what physical event could “propositions may be true” correspond? If truth as recognition of reality and reality itself do not overlap at any point, the correspondence theory of truth is question-begging.
[19] cf. Ayn Rand, Return of the Primitive, pg. 54. Rand explained the Lockean theory of tabula rasa by using the following metaphor to describe a newborn: “…he 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.” Other statements by Rand herself show the faultiness of this theory: “A consciousness conscious of nothing but itself is a contradiction in terms: before it could identify itself as consciousness, it had to be conscious of something.” Atlas Shrugged, pg. 942.
[20] cf. Ayn Rand, Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, pg. 1.
[21] “Remember that abstractions as such do not exist: they are merely man’s epistemological method of perceiving that which exists – and that which exists is concrete.” (The Romantic Manifesto, pg. 23). Under what conditions could an abstract proposition be true, given that truth is recognition of reality and abstractions do not exist in reality?
[22] Ayn Rand, Atlas Shrugged, pg. 960; cf. Ibid., pg. 942.
[23] Ayn Rand, Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, pg. 41. Ostensive definition, which is the attempt to communicate by pointing at something physical, simply repeats the error of assuming that two individuals could share sensations, identified above in the discussion of the Objectivist philosophy of language.
[24] This process would have been arbitrary anyway if one is, like Rand was, an ontological nominalist whose consciousness creates abstractions ex nihilo.
[25] Ayn Rand, The Romantic Manifesto, pg. 36.
[26] Ayn Rand, Philosophy: Who Needs It, pg. 24. Obviously, there is no way that she could have known whether the “universe” can have existence or identity independent of a consciousness.
[27] Ibid., pg. 25. 
[28] Ayn Rand, The Virtue of Selfishness, pg. 16.
[29] Ibid., pg. 13.
[30] “No, you do not have to live as a man; it is an act of moral choice. But you cannot live as anything else-and the alternative is that state of living death which you now see within you and around you, the state of a thing unfit for existence, no longer human and less than animal, a thing that knows nothing but pain and drags itself through its span of years in the agony of unthinking self-destruction” (Atlas Shrugged, pg. 941). Why, given a secular worldview, are false beliefs necessarily maladaptive? Blankout.
[31] cf. Ayn Rand, Philosophy: Who Needs It, pg. 154.
[32] John Robbins, Without a Prayer, pg. 176.
[33] The “is-ought dilemma” refers to the question of how a normative statement can follow from a descriptive statement.
[34] Ayn Rand, The Virtue of Selfishness, pg. 17.
[35] “Death is the standard of your values, death is your chosen goal” (Atlas Shrugged, pg. 1025). “It is not mere death that the morality of sacrifice holds out to you as an ideal, but death by slow torture. Do not remind me that it pertains only to this life on earth. I am concerned with no other. Neither are you” (pg. 954). The reader should keep these sorts of statements in mind when he reads Rand describe the Argument from Intimidation as an “appeal to the moral self-doubt and its reliance on the fear, guilt, or ignorance of the victim” (The Virtue of Selfishness, pg. 163). Intriguingly, John Galt contemplated suicide. He said that if Dagny Taggart were to be threatened, he would kill himself because there would have been “no values for me to seek after that” (Atlas Shrugged, pg. 1013). But Dagny switched lovers regularly, each of whom matched her values. Why would Galt choose suicide over the possibility of finding another woman with the same values? Was this really Rand’s ideal and rational man?
[36] “It is only as retaliation that force may be used and only against the men who starts its use. No, I don’t share his evil or sink to his concept of morality. I merely grant him his choice, destruction, the only destruction he had the right to choose: his own.” (Atlas Shrugged, pg. 1024).
[37] Ayn Rand, Philosophy: Who Needs It, pg. 99.
[38] Ayn Rand, Atlas Shrugged, pg. 939. “Value” is that which one acts to gain and/or keep” (The Virtue of Selfishness, pg. 15).
[39] Ayn Rand, Atlas Shrugged, pg. 993. Rand was consistent with this principle in stating that “The small minority of adults who are unable rather than unwilling to work have to rely on voluntary charity” (Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal (1986), pg. 19). She was not consistent when she writes that adults have a “moral obligation toward a child” (The Romantic Manifesto, pg. 149). Why are there obligations toward children who have not made the choice to be human when there are no obligations toward adults who are invalid and have chosen to be human?
[40] “An organism’s life is its standard of value: that which furthers its life is the good, that which threatens it is the evil” (The Virtue of Selfishness, pg. 17). “All that which proceeds from man’s independent ego is good. All that which proceeds from man’s dependence on men is evil” (The Fountainhead (1994), pg. 681). “All that which is proper to the life of a rational being is the good; all that which destroys it is the evil” (Atlas Shrugged, pg. 940).
[41] Ayn Rand, The Virtue of Selfishness, pg. 59.
[42] What she did say is that “To force a man to drop his own mind and to accept your will as a substitute, with a gun in place of a syllogism, with terror in place of proof, and death as the final argument-is to attempt to exist in defiance of reality. Reality demands of man that he act for his own rational interest; your gun demands of him that he act against it” (Atlas Shrugged, pg. 949). However, it is unclear how demanding another to act against his rational interest implies that the one making the demand is himself defying reality.
[43] “Politics is based on three other philosophical disciplines: metaphysics, epistemology, and ethics – on a theory of man’s nature and man’s relationship to existence.” (Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal, pg. vii.). “The moral justification of capitalism is man’s right to exist for his own sake, neither sacrificing himself to others nor sacrificing others to himself; it is the recognition that man – every man – is an end in himself, not a means to the ends of others, not a sacrificial animal serving anyone’s need.” (Philosophy: Who Needs It, pg. 67).
[44] cf. footnote 66. “If you want to save capitalism, there is only one type of argument that you should adopt, the only one that has ever won in any moral issue: the argument from self-esteem. (Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal, pg. 279). Is totalitarianism necessarily opposed to self-esteem and rational egoism? The production, management, and maintenance of slave-labor is a sort of skill which could, given secularism, be in one’s self-interest.
[45] Ayn Rand, The Virtue of Selfishness, pg. 35.
[46] Ibid., pg. 129.
[47] Ayn Rand, Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal, pg. 43.
[48] Ayn Rand, The Virtue of Selfishness, pg. 125. Is this geographical range non-arbitrarily determined? How do governments interact? It is strange that Rand would not have considered these questions, yet no answer can be found to them in her books.
[49] Some of what Rand asserted can be interpreted this way as well: “In order fully to translate into practice the American concept of the government as a servant of the citizens, one has to regard the government as a paid servant” (The Virtue of Selfishness, 138). “In a fully free society, taxation – or, to be exact, the payment for government services – would be voluntary. Since the proper services of a government – the police, the armed forces, the law courts – are demonstrably needed by individual citizens and affect their interests directly, the citizens would (and should) be willing to pay for such services, as they pay for insurance.” (Ibid., pg. 135).
[50] “It is only as retaliation that force may be used and only against the man who starts its use” (Atlas Shrugged, pg. 950). In fact, “the protection of individual rights is the only proper purpose of government” (The Virtue of Selfishness, pg. 128). “Individual rights are the means of subordinating society to moral law.” (Ibid., pg. 108)  Rand’s dependence on Lockean political philosophy seemingly extended to the idea physical force encompasses any type crime which costs a man his life force; cf. Ibid., pg. 106.
[51] Miss, Taggart, we have no laws in this valley, no rules, no formal organization of any kind (Atlas Shrugged, pg. 664). “We are not a state here, not a society of any kind – we’re just a voluntary association of men held together by nothing but every man’s self-interest” (Ibid., pg. 695).
[52] In one place, she describes anarchism as “a naïve floating abstraction: for all the reasons discussed above a society without an organized government would be at the mercy of the first criminal who came alone and who would precipitate it into the chaos of gang warfare” (The Virtue of Selfishness, pg. 131). But pragmatic arguments can cut both ways. Just as there has never existed “A system of pure, unregulated laissez-faire” (Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal, pg. 45), so too there has never existed an ideal, anarchistic Atlantis. If capitalism can get credit for success in America when a mixed economy was actually in place, why not anarchism? One other time Rand mentioned anarchism, she novelized it to unilaterally oppose private property, which is not the case for some individualist anarchists: “The chaos of the airways was an example, not of free enterprise, but of anarchy. It was caused, not by private property rights, but by their absence.” (Ibid., pg. 135).
[53] Ayn Rand, The Voice of Reason, pg. 58.
[54] “That which today is called “common sense” is the remnant of an Aristotelian influence” (For the New Intellectual, pg. 39).
[55] cf. Ayn Rand, Atlas Shrugged, pg. 939.
[56] Clearly, if she had done this, Objectivism would not be Objectivism. Furthermore, it would have rendered pointless and purposeless any actions she took. If “one should assent to truth” is false, anything goes.
[57] cf. Ayn Rand, The Virtue of Selfishness, pgs. 56, 134; The Voice of Reason, pg. 39; Philosophy: Who Needs It, pg. 159; Atlas Shrugged, pg. 950. Of course, men can act rationally. But it is not the norm, as Rand herself seemed to admit; cf. footnote 60.
[58] Ayn Rand, The Virtue of Selfishness, pg. 17.
[59] cf. Ayn Rand, The Voice of Reason, pgs. 114, 138, 150, 160, 182, 247; Philosophy: Who Needs It, pgs. 118, 156; The Romantic Manifesto, pgs. 97, 102-103, 128; Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal, pgs. 24, 238.
[60] Ayn Rand, The Romantic Manifesto, pg. 45.
[61] Ibid., pg. 28.
[62] Ayn Rand, For the New Intellectual (1963), pg. 26. It is noteworthy that in none of her published works did she actually attempt to prove the validity of [scientific] induction. This not only evidences an obvious epistemological predicament but also poses an esthetic difficulty, for Rand said the interpretation of an artist’s work “resembles a process of induction” (The Romantic Manifesto, pg. 35). If inductive reasoning is fallacious, then art qua art cannot necessarily communicate an artist’s metaphysical value-judgments. But this would mean, contrary to Rand, that art cannot be an “indispensable medium for the communication of a moral ideal” (Ibid., pg. 21).
[63] cf. Ayn Rand, Anthem (1964), pg. 105; We the Living (1959), pgs. 40-41; The Fountainhead, pg. xi; Atlas Shrugged, pg. 947; The Romantic Manifesto, pg. 172.
[64] Ayn Rand, The Romantic Manifesto, pg. 162.
[65] cf. Ayn Rand, Atlas Shrugged, pg. 939; Philosophy: Who Needs It, pg. 24.
[66] “Artists may inconsistently be humanists, but a humanistic, atheistic, purposeless universe provides no basis for art” (Gordon Clark, A Christian Philosophy of Education, pg. 51).
[67] John Robbins, Without a Prayer, pg. 336. For all of her mischaracterizations of others, even Rand realized that “extremism” is a smear word designed to avoid engagement; cf. Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal, pg. 191ff. Let no one dismiss Scripturalism on such weak grounds.
[68] “Errors of knowledge are no breaches in morality; no proper moral code can demand infallibility or omniscience.” (The Virtue of Selfishness, pg. 88). “It is the epistemological obligation of every individual to know what
his mental file contains in regard to any concept he uses, to keep it integrated with his other mental files, and to seek further information when he needs to check, correct or expand his knowledge” (Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, pg. 67). Was Rand claiming that only an omniscient individual could have inerrant beliefs? Was that claim inerrant? And if knowledge can be erroneous, can certainty be possible? These would be strange qualifications for someone who wrote that “in epistemology, the cult of uncertainty is a revolt against reason” (The Virtue of Selfishness, pg. 90).
[69] John Robbins, Without a Prayer, pgs. 255-256.
[70] Rand, Atlas Shrugged, pg. 965.
[71] cf. Gordon Clark, A Christian View of Men and Things (2005), pg. 22. Since Rand admitted she was not omniscient yet rejected the idea of divine revelation as mystical, she was guilty of the so-called “stolen-concept” fallacy; cf. Rand, Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, pg. 9.
[72] Even if sensations were a means to knowledge, Robbins pointed out that Rand made this mistake: “Empiricism does not follow from the absurdity of skepticism. Both Rand and Branden begged the question” Without a Prayer: Ayn Rand and the Close of Her System, pg. 33.
[73] This does not mean Scriptualists act on “the belief that reality is an illusion” (Ayn Rand, Philosophy: Who Needs It, pg. 16). Opinions about what proposition[s] the physical – Rand’s “reality” – is meant to image are well within the bounds of Scripturalist philosophy: “Must not all people act on the assumption that their beliefs are true?” (Gordon Clark, Karl Barth’s Theological Method (1997), pg. 146). If nothing else, the physical world serves a pragmatic purpose in causing opinions according to which men can to put into practice ethical beliefs.
[74] “The Bible appeals directly to fear and self-interest; it teaches that absolute destruction awaits him who rejects Christ; and it also teaches that although the Christian may have temporary tribulation, he ultimately loses nothing but gains everything in accepting Christ.” (Gordon Clark, Without a Prayer, pg. 307).
[75] Rand’s representation of the implications of the doctrine of total depravity on political theory is astonishingly pejorative: “The cynical, man-hating advocates of this theory sneer at all ideals, scoff at all human aspirations and deride all attempts to improve men’s existence” (Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal, pg. 222).
[76] Gordon Clark, “Christian Aesthetics,” The Trinity Review (May, June 1989).
[77] Ibid. “A work of art is an integrated whole; it is not a disjointed aggregation of unrelated things; and knowledge and appreciation depend on an understanding of the plan according to which it was formed.” (Gordon Clark, A Christian View of Men and Things, pg. 19).
[78] Gordon Clark, “Christian Aesthetics,” The Trinity Review (May, June 1989).
[79] cf. Ayn Rand, Atlas Shrugged, pg. 429.


Drake Shelton said...

Thank you for this. I am dealing with an objectivist right now.

Ydemoc said...

Hi Ryan,

In your introduction, you wrote: "Still, one would think the conclusion that Objectivism is a flawed philosophy would elicit a reaction from its adherents."

Or, one might think not, since Objectivists are under no obligation to go around answering every single objection to their philosophy. However, in this instance, Mr. Robbins has been answered. For example, from Dawson Bethrick's blog, "Incinerating Presuppositionalism," you'll find the following entry:

John Robbins and the Foreclosure of His Critique of Objectivism

Also see:

By Chris Matthew Sciabarra

By the way, come on over to Dawson's blog and comment some time, if you're up for it.


Ryan said...


I remember coming across that blog while I was doing research. Dawson had a few posts in which he mentioned Robbins, but nothing that struck me as relevant to the points I wanted to highlight in my own review of Robbins, Rand, and Robbins commenting on Rand. I had already written a post on Rand and causation (link), and the section on a tabula rasa anthropology didn't touch on the solipsistic nature of the theory.

I hadn't read the Sciabarra article, but it seems less like an analysis of of Robbins' arguments and more like a commentary on the evolution of Objectivist epistemology in the context of critical response. Which is fine, just not what I was looking for when writing this piece.

Thanks for your invitation.

Ydemoc said...

Hi Ryan,

Thanks for your reply. Dawson Bethrick has posted a very short reply to your above entry, over on his blog, Incinerating Presuppositionalism. You can find them in the comments located here:

Also, in his brief reply, Dawson also supplied a couple links that you may be interested in:

Has Objectivism Been Refuted?
by Brian Register

John Calvin vs. Ayn Rand Or, The Theological Theatrics of John Robbins,
by Jim Peron


johzek said...

Your statement that "Rand was clearly aware of but unwilling to accept the alternative to the primacy of existence" indicates that at the level of the Objectivist axioms your understanding of them is lacking.

The axioms of Objectivism are perceptually self evident facts. The fact that existence exists, and consciousness exists, and existence is identity, and are present in every perception we make leads to the conclusion, as Rand noted, that any attempt to deny these axiomatic facts would have to make use of them in the denial.

The primacy of existence follows directly from these axioms. To be conscious is to be conscious of objects, that is, to be conscious of existence, therefore existence precedes consciousness. Having identified the proper orientation of existence to consciousness how can you be at all surprised that Rand recognizes the primacy of consciousness to be invalid. In addition, how can you characterize this as an inconsistency of Objectivism when in fact the acceptance of two contradictory metaphysical ideas would be what is inconsistent.

It must be noted that no assumptions or presuppositions need be made at this perceptual level of our consciousness. Our senses, being automatic biological functions, provide us with an awareness of the objects of existence which we need only identify. Unlike Objectivism where no assumptions are necessary in regard to the axioms, you at least admit that Scripturalism requires assumptions to even get started. But then you mistakenly refer to these assumptions as axioms because you seem to think that the quote you provide from Rand describes all that an axiom need be, preferring to forget the self evident part.

An entire paragraph devoted to justifying an omniscient epistemic source as an axiom makes a mockery of the concept of axiom.

photosynthesis said...

You won't have much look if you go by this misguided attempt at refuting objectivism by misunderstanding it ... or by misrepresenting it. Whichever it was.

Ryan said...


"The axioms of Objectivism are perceptually self evident facts. The fact that existence exists, and consciousness exists, and existence is identity, and are present in every perception we make leads to the conclusion, as Rand noted, that any attempt to deny these axiomatic facts would have to make use of them in the denial."

Defined in a certain way, I have no problem with the idea that these statements are necessary truths and so in a significant sense implicit in any knowledge claim we make.

That wasn't the point of what I said in that quote. The point was that the "primacy of existence" over against a "primacy of consciousness" presupposes an ability - given my citations regarding what Rand seemed to define "existence" as (the physical realm) - to know that anything can exist apart from consciousness. But how could Rand be conscious of that? How could she be conscious... of what preceded her own consciousness?

"To be conscious is to be conscious of objects, that is, to be conscious of existence, therefore existence precedes consciousness."

What about self-knowledge? It's not as though anything else would need to exist for God to know Himself and then create that which "exists" (i.e. for Rand, the physical realm). Again, I am only operating on my understanding of Rand's terms.

Photosynthesis seems to think I don't know Rand well enough to present her views. Maybe I don't, but I own most of her books and read everything I could (except We the Living, which was too dry for me). I don't see that I misstated anything from the quote in footnote 25, so if he has something else in mind I'll need him to tell me what it is.

"It must be noted that no assumptions or presuppositions need be made at this perceptual level of our consciousness. Our senses, being automatic biological functions, provide us with an awareness of the objects of existence which we need only identify."

Objectivists believe existents exist apart from our own consciousnesses, yes? How is a rejection of solipsism not an assumption? How is the idea that our senses "automatically" provide us with existents as opposed to hallucinations/dreams/etc. not an assumption?

Ryan said...


Thanks for the links. Objectivism isn't really a topic of interest to me - I only studied it because I wanted to enter a few essay contests - and I'm not very interested in defending Robbins per se. He made some goods points, I think, but I consider my critique to stand on its own, so replies to Robbins don't necessarily impact this essay. If you have something you think applies, you can feel free to specify it, though.

As for Dawson's remarks:

"The concept ‘arbitrary’ essentially denotes a position or view accepted without the support of evidence. It’s hard to see how one can suppose that a living organism with conceptual ability would have no alternative but to make the choice to live arbitrarily. If Rand enjoyed living and was aware of this fact, that would be more than sufficient evidence to ground her choice to live rather than to die."

What evidence does Dawson have or did Rand have that enjoying life and self-awareness of this fact is sufficient to ground a choice to live rather than die? Why should one do what one enjoys?

"Does Ryan not eat food, drink fluids, work for an income, maintain a shelter, etc.? Our nature as biological organisms is the metaphysical basis of what we identify as values and how we determine their importance."

This sounds like Rand's "The fact that a living entity is, determines what it ought to do." You can refer to the original essay for my reply.

"Elsewhere, in a footnote (#24), he asserts that Rand was “an ontological nominalist whose consciousness creates abstractions ex nihilo” What support is given for this? Rand did not hold that abstractions were mind-independent entities to begin with, but rather the *form* in which the mind integrates and retains knowledge."

If I'm not mistaken - and you or Dawson may feel free to correct me - Rand held no two physical entities are exactly alike. Is that not true?

"Metaphysically, knowing is a type of *activity* - which ultimately means that abstraction is a type of action, not an entity as such."

Depending on how you define entity, ok.

"The entity involved is man and anything or things he perceives, identifies and integrates. Also, since abstractions are formed by means of a conceptual process (cf. concept-formation), there would be no “ex nihilo” to speak of: concepts are formed on the basis of perceptual input. What part of “the material provided by the senses” does Ryan not get?"

The part where I pick and choose what characteristics of two "entities" seem similar enough for me to refer to them by the same concept (allegedly) even though there is no ontological overlap between those two "entities." In short, the basic problem of nominalism: what legitimately grounds our use of universals?

Ydemoc said...


Thanks for your reply. Dawson has responded here:

His comments start at timestamp SEPTEMBER 25, 2014 5:28 AM; or I can copy and paste them here if it would be more convenient.


John Thomas said...

Nice post about Ayn Rand Objectivism as Objectivism being Ayn Rand's philosophy of reason, egoism, capitalism. Read more -