Ayn Rand is mystical with her Platonic use of “reason”

Reading Goddess of the Market, it is calling back to my mind a previous reading of The Virtue of Selfishness: I find Objectivism very mystical.

Reason, to the Objectivist, is an ideal of Platonic dimensions. Objectivists are likely to regard this as an insult, given how they view Plato as the founder of “collectivism”.

A major problem that Objectivists is that reason is exceptionally difficult to define. In practice, when people talk about reason, they mean, “That which I prefer.”  The preferred Objectivist slant is to render that A = A – reason is what reason is.  While that might have flown in Aristotle’s time, nowadays?  That’s just a plain old tautology that disguises the fact you don’t know what you’re saying.

When discussing actual epistemologies, specificity is the norm. So when Karl Popper talks about the defining features of the scientific method, he doesn’t talk about “reason”, but his arguments for using falsifability as a significant criteria for scientific reasoning.  It is specific both in it’s criteria as well as what elements of reason it addresses.  Rand doesn’t do that.  Reason is what it is.

Indeed, cognitive scientists are consistently unable to come up with a theory of intelligence that satisfies even a large fraction of the field.  It’s a rough row to hoe.  Is intelligence the ability to make sentences?  Do mathematics?  How about music, social intelligence?  Is it universal or specific to us as a species, or a culture, or some combination?  Who knows!  It is an open question, so saying that you base your premises on “reason” is disingenuous without further discussion.

“Reason”, as used by the Objectivists, does not exist. It is merely asserted to exist as a tautological statement, and used as a basic principle that everything else builds upon.

To me, this is merely renaming “God”. Rather than everything arising from a divine intelligence, Rand says that everything arises from her idealized view of reason. But the evidence for their existence is the same as people’s existence for God: none.

When reading Goddess of the Market and the section where Burns says that Nathaniel Branden did Rand no good turn by refusing to acknowledge modern psychology (specifically the nature of emotion in human beings as irrational), I realized that despite all this talk of reason that Rand never had any interest in science. I recall having this same thought when reading The Virtue of Selfishness, too. Rand speaks a great deal about the natural world but in ways divorced from any scientific theories then current (most of which are still around today, of course).  For a person who loves “reason”, she has little interest in science, which is easily the most materially productive epistemology known today.  To ignore science is telling.

Vis-a-vis “reason”, I realized that Rand likely did not even think about the significance of evolution. Looking around, it is likely my intuition is correct. In Nathan Branden’s essay, “The Benefits and Hazards of the Philosophy of Ayn Rand”, Branden says that Rand viewed evolution as an unproven hypothesis and that evolution made her uncomfortable.

And in Rand’s Philosophy: Who Needs It?, she wrote, “I am not a student of the theory of evolution and, therefore, I am neither its supporter nor its opponent. But a certain hypothesis has haunted me for years; I want to stress that it is only hypothesis. There is an enormous breach of continuity between nature and man’s consciousness, in its distinctive characteristic: his conceptual faculty. It is as if, after aeons of physiological development, the evolutionary process altered its course, and the higher stages of development focused primarily on the consciousness of living species, not their bodies.”

The idea that intelligence is somehow non-physical is the hallmark of Platonic dualism. Down here, there are our messy physical bodies – but through “reason” (which, at this point, might as well be called “the soul”) we reach some higher, non-physical realm.

Taking reason as a Platonic ideal, a substitution for the mystical soul, I see why evolution would make Rand uneasy. There is no reason in evolution. If we’re haphazardly evolved, that means our reason might make as little sense as our biology. (Seriously, why do we eat and breath from the same hole? Why so we eliminate waste and have sex with the same body parts?) I, of course, merely acknowledge this as fact – our reason resides primarily in our brains, which has about the same efficiency as our other parts arising from the vagaries of its evolution. Reason, as humans understand it, arises from our human brains that include a lot of evolutionary chaos, without modern purpose, and often with no purpose at all. Mind you, I’m a big fan of reason, but let’s be real, here – it’s impossible to pin down what, exactly, reason is, and how it should be applied to a given situation, and many very clever people nevertheless are completely at odds about a great number of really important things. I think this normal, given the randomness of our evolution.

But if you have a mystical faith in reason, then “reason” being at the whims of evolutionary chance elicits horror. Reason is human perfection, or at least human perfectibility in Objectivism. It is how we get from the man to the ubermensch. (I avoid “superman” for a number of linguistic reasons, from comic books to fascism.) If human reason is mired in the organic mess of chemistry behind our eyes, human reason is flawed by those mystical standards.

Or, in more Randian terms, she rejects instincts and drives, which is nigh impossible if one believes in evolution.

(Of course, one could then ask who is judging the worth of human reason in the first place? No one. Human reason isn’t a sign of a flaw, just as human biology isn’t a “flaw”, because there is no judge, no architect, no cosmic plan. It’s just the way things are, same as everything else in the world. I find these thoughts comforting.)

Therefore, I find Objectivism inherently mystical, with a definition of reason independent of all definition substituting for divine will. I think this is one of those cases where an atheist does that trick I’ve seen them do quite a lot: they discard “God”, but not the ideas of religious people. Like when atheists attack Muslims with the same language as Christian fundamentalists. In this case, Rand is attacking the idea of “God” while continuing to rely on an infinite, ineffable, and transcendent definition of “reason” that is indistinguishable from divine intelligence.

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