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Atlas Shrugged
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Author:  TFBW [ Wed Mar 17, 2010 6:36 pm ]
Post subject:  Atlas Shrugged

I've just finished reading Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand. It was given to me as a birthday gift by a friend who is a fan of Ayn Rand's fiction. I'm going to make some comments on it in this pause between the time I close it and the time I place it in some corner of my disorganised library to gather dust.

First, some general impressions about the work. Atlas Shrugged is a surreal story set in a highly stylised universe consisting of three basic kinds of people. The first kind is the faceless and largely nameless nobodies who provide a backdrop for the others. The second kind is the detached but brilliant industrialist. These people also look healthy and have nice names -- sometimes exotic ones. The third kind is the smarmy, lecherous, conniving, deceitful, unthinking anti-person who fills basically every other role of note, but particularly that of the politician. These people exist seemingly for the sole purpose of making life hell for the brilliant industrialists. They are generally ugly and/or lifeless and often have silly names. Also, every country on earth except the USA has somehow become a "people's state" of some sort, but these merely form a distant background against events which take place in the USA.

If your suspension of disbelief can accommodate this particular distortion of reality, you will be rewarded with a fairly gripping yarn which manages to be quite tense and engaging, despite its predictable elements. Ayn Rand certainly knows how to write. Unfortunately the story falls apart at the end. It reaches something of an anti-climactic climax in part three, chapter seven, the bulk of which is a ponderous monologue delivered by John Galt, the story's messiah figure (although he remains a mysterious background character until part three). Up until that point, I had been eager to continue with the story, but after several pages of Galt's monologue, which was nothing terribly revealing in light of the events which led up to it, I found myself wondering, "how much longer does he rant like this?" To my dismay, the answer was that his tedious rant covers the space of sixty pages in the book. I was sorely tempted to skip the last two thirds or so and proceed to the next chapter, but I endured. I will say more on Galt's rant below, but the remainder of the book went more or less downhill. It had its moments, but Galt's insuperable will left little room for anything of actual interest to happen, and I found myself caring little whether he lived or died.

The closing chapters tie up the few loose ends, and the beautiful Men of the Mind with nice names live happily ever after in the paradise on earth constructed by their own hands, from which all the sub-human sheep and cattle are forever exiled in outer darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth. Amen.

Now back to John Galt.

The problem with writing the part of a super-intelligent genius of science and philosophy is that the writer behind the persona is rarely (if ever) up to the task. It's easy to overlook the occasional bit of technological bluster such an author must insert into a plot as a substitute for actual understanding of the subject, but the philosophical flaws are more glaring and more troublesome. Atlas Shrugged isn't a book about how to make free, unlimited energy, even though that concept acts as a plot device, but it is intended to be a recipe for a perfect society, and it does propose a theory of morality in earnest. If it were sheer fantasy -- mere escapism -- then I might call upon it from time to time as an example of flawed reasoning, but the author does not intend the underlying philosophy to be dismissed as fanciful: she says of this work that she means it, and the fact that John Galt achieves his utopia is further testament to the fact that she also believes in it. As such, I will address some of the flaws in Galt's monologue directly, as though they are intended as serious philosophy.

Galt's assertion is essentially that which Immanuel Kant reluctantly rejected: that we can know reality for what it truly is by means of reason and observation alone. Galt starts with the vacuous tautology that "A is A", and presumes to derive the essentials of morality from that and other axioms of logic. If you think I'm kidding, read it for yourself: it's that ambitious. Galt sweeps aside Descartes and Kant with the greatness of his philosophical comprehension. Ayn Rand is either the most insightful philosopher ever, or suffering impressive delusions of grandeur.

For all Galt's greatness, however, he falls afoul of John Stuart Mill's recipe for lack of understanding: "he who knows only his own side of the case, knows little of that." The structure of Atlas Shrugged is that of a straw-man argument: the heroes of the story face a vile, ugly, contemptible enemy of no redeeming qualities whatsoever. Galt's morality is presented as the antithesis of that held by the ugly straw men, and he demonstrates this by showing how their supposedly good intentions entail evil outcomes, while his morals stand in contrast. There's something to be said for his analysis of good intentions producing evil outcomes, but his argument runs aground when it comes in contact with actual foes instead of the straw men furnished by Rand. This doesn't happen often: Rand is relatively careful to be non-specific about things, but there are exceptions.

The simplest example of this clash is when Galt mentions the Garden of Eden, which I will quote here.

John Galt wrote:
What is the nature of the guilt that your teachers call his Original Sin? What are the evils man acquired when he fell from a state they consider perfection? Their myth declares that he ate the fruit of the tree of knowledge--he acquired a mind and became a rational being. It was the knowledge of good and evil--he became a moral being. He was sentenced to earn his bread by his labor--he became a productive being. He was sentenced to experience desire--he acquired the capacity of sexual enjoyment. The evils for which they damn him are reason, morality, creativeness, joy--all the cardinal values of his existence. It is not his vices that their myth of man's fall is designed to explain and condemn, it is not his errors they hold as his guilt, but the essence of his nature as man. Whatever he was--that robot in the Garden of Eden, who existed without mind, without values, without labor, without love--he was not a man.

This is a gross misrepresentation of the Eden story, as a casual analysis will show. A question we might ask is that of whose distortion it is. Is Galt misrepresenting the case, or is this a genuine re-telling of doctrine he has heard from alleged proponents of the scriptures? It might be more charitable to assume the latter, but that would imply that he has accepted these teachings as being representative of scripture without ever checking the source. For a man who demands (as a moral imperative) that we each check the facts ourselves with our own senses and our own capacity for reason, this is a serious slip-up. We could also point out that the Bible is the world's most published book, and usually within easy reach in the USA. Simply reading the first couple of pages would have been enough to set him straight on this point.

Overlooking the culpable negligence, let us do what he ought to have done and consult the source. Did man acquire knowledge upon eating the fruit? He acquired certain specific knowledge, to be sure, but was he, prior to this, totally ignorant of everything, lacking a mind and a capacity for reason? Impossible: the serpent had to persuade Eve to take the fruit by craft and deception [Genesis 3:1-5]. One can not possibly persuade a mindless brute except by physical coercion. Man was created in God's image [Genesis 1:27] with an innate capacity for language, thought and reason.

Similarly, he didn't become a moral being by acquiring the knowledge of good and evil: he was a moral being from the outset by his capacity to choose to do right or wrong. Even by Galt's own axioms of morality the choice was clear: God said that eating the fruit would result in death [Genesis 2:17], and morality, for John Galt, is to use one's volitional consciousness to choose life. In these circumstances, disobedience to God was identical to death: to disobey was to choose death. Man did not become a moral being by eating the fruit and choosing death: he merely proved that he had been capable of immorality all along by choosing to be immoral at that moment.

Man's sin did not result in his labour: it merely made his labour a painful burden. Man was created to work: to subdue the earth [Genesis 1:28], starting with the Garden of Eden itself [Genesis 2:15]. It was not work, but hard toil and death that were the consequences of eating the fruit [Genesis 3:17-19]. John Galt, of all people, should appreciate this: he who would take away the technology of the world to inflict hard toil and death on those who had taken his blessings for granted.

Lastly, man did not become a sexual being by eating the fruit: they were created male and female and given immediate instructions to reproduce [Genesis 1:27-28]. The "sentenced to experience desire" of which Galt speaks can only refer to Genesis 3:17, where Eve is told, "your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you." This has nothing to do with acquiring the capacity of sexual enjoyment: not only does the text not suggest it, but it is targeted specifically at the woman. There's nothing in the text to suggest that man was ever incapable of sexual enjoyment, let alone that he acquired this capacity upon sinning. The "desire" was not a matter of pleasure, but rather the desire to be submissive to the husband, as suggested by the second half of the judgement, "and he will rule over you". Galt would view such a desire as a corrupt one, and given that it was accompanied by a promise of increased pain and other bad consequences, I see no reason to think of the desire as intrinsically good.

So Galt has completely misrepresented the nature of the Fall and its consequences. Man did not disobey an arbitrary command and become "cursed" with intelligence, morality, productivity and pleasure: rather man was created with those things and was instructed not to use his volition in the manner which lead to death. The biblical account of things has far more in common with the morality that Galt advocates than the ugly straw man to which he likens it.

That's not to say that Galt's morality is Christianity in disguise: far from it. Galt despises sacrifice; Christianity is founded on sacrifice. Galt believes in the inherent goodness of man; the Bible teaches of the depravity of man. Galt's creed is to swear by his own life and his love of it that he will never live for another man, or ask another man to live for him; Christ tells us that whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for Christ's sake will find it [Matthew 10:39]. These differences are not a problem to Galt: his problem is the fact that he has represented his case as the antithesis of mysticism, which he identifies with Christianity (among other things), but the Bible isn't anywhere near as "mystical" as he imagines it to be. Analysis of the actual text shows it to be quite the opposite of his evaluation in this case.

One further point bears mentioning in this regard. Galt speaks (albeit erroneously) of the consequences of Original Sin, but not of the sin itself. This is ironic, because the sin in question involved violating at least two of Galt's moral imperatives. The first, we have already mentioned in passing: the imperative of choosing life over death. God commanded Adam not to eat of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil because it would result in death [Genesis 2:17]. The fruit of the tree of life was not forbidden [Genesis 2:9]. Even for Galt, Adam's act of eating this fruit was morally reprehensible, not because he disobeyed God, but because he knowingly engaged in an act which he knew led to death.

The other moral imperative Adam violated (from Galt's perspective) was a matter of property rights. The garden was God's, not Adam's. Adam was an employee of sorts, put to work tending the garden, and entitled to all its fruits except that one in exchange. Adam stole the one thing it was possible for him to steal (by merit of it being the only thing which was withheld). Adam took that which was not rightly his to take. Adam was, in Galt's parlance, a looter.

As you can see, a tremendous amount of misunderstanding is packed into Galt's remarks about Original Sin. He may have constructed an argument against some form of religion, but not against the one with which I am familiar, even though that was clearly what he intended to refute. He knows only his own side of the case, and little of that.

But his ignorance of the views he opposes is not the full story. He opposes mysticism and advocates logic, but his use of logic entails a kind of mysticism all of its own. Galt decries the "mystics of spirit" who say that God is good, and the "mystics of muscle" who say that Society is good; he himself is a mystic of reason -- and yes, that is an oxymoron -- who claims that the self, the ego, one's own mind, consciousness, and capacity for reason is good. The justification for calling him a mystic of reason is his misapplication of logic: the fact that he appeals to the unquestionable certainty of his so-called "reason" in exactly the same way that the "mystics of spirit" cite God as their foundation, and the "mystics of muscle" cite the Public Good as theirs. Reason differs from these other foundations in that we can, in principle, show that he is mistaken using means which ought to be acceptable to him. In principle such proof is possible: in practice I believe that his mysticism prevails over his reason, and he repeats the vacuous tautology "A is A" in the manner of a mantra, not in the manner of a logical axiom which needs to be stated only once, if at all.

There are numerous examples of logical fallacies in his monologue: one might set it as a task for undergraduate students in critical thinking to find three formal or informal logical fallacies in his monologue, and to explain the errors. (For the sake of diversity, the error of non sequitur should be illustrated no more than once.) I do not intend to set this task for myself at the moment, so I will give only one example, but one which I think gives a good sense of the oxymoron "mystic of reason".

My example is this: Galt says, "let the head-hunter who does not accept the validity of logic, try to prove it without using logic." He says this in the context of an earlier statement which defines "axiom" as "a proposition which defeats its opponents by the fact that they have to accept it and use it in the process of any attempt to deny it." The suggestion is that logic would be necessary in any attempt to disprove logic, and thus logic is "axiomatic" in the sense that it can not be denied. Galt's use of language here is sloppy: logic is not a proposition; a proposition is a construct of logic. One might point out that he has already run off the rails so far as logic is concerned, and no further refutation is necessary, but let us be charitable. Let us assume he means that logic is somehow conceptually essential by merit of the fact that one would need to resort to logic in any attempt to show that it was not essential -- thus proving it to be essential.

Is logic "axiomatic" in this loose sense of being conceptually essential? Clearly any argument against logic which employed logic would, in fact, be self-defeating, but is it necessary to employ logic? It is essential only if one insists a priori that proof be given in terms of logic. The demand that proof be given in terms of logic may become part of a semantic game, in which logic is the only thing capable of satisfying the term "proof". If such a semantic game is being played, then we best bring it into the open by rephrasing the challenge, "demonstrate using logic that logic is not essential." This makes it clear that logic has become an a priori requirement.

But is logic necessary in and of itself, or is this requirement merely being imposed from the outside by those who consider it necessary to do so? I grant without argument that the mystic of reason considers it necessary for a proof to be a logical proof, since the creed of the mystic of reason involves the supremacy of logic. I can, however, offer proofs from outside the realm of logic: "I feel that it is false", "God told me it is false", "the people have voted that it is false", and the classic Samuel Johnson proof of "I refute it thus" accompanied by a solid kick.

Of course, none of these "proofs" satisfy the conditions of proof as required by the mystics of reason, precisely because they are not proofs in the sense of logic. Does this say something about the necessity of logic, or does it say something about the mentality of the mystics of reason? Is what we see here axiomatic necessity of the kind suggested by Galt, or personal intransigence on his part? The head-hunter can offer any number of "proofs" of the invalidity of logic: he could even invent a complex formal system in which to demonstrate the proof, but the mystic of reason would reject the proof on the sole basis that it failed to employ logic.

The barrier is not one of philosophical necessity: the problem is solved the moment that Galt relaxes his standards of proof sufficiently. In short, Galt has mistaken his own stubbornness for philosophical necessity. Logical proofs are not a logical necessity: they are simply demanded by the mystics of reason in the same way that one might accept payment only in certain forms of currency. The mystic of reason can not show that he is right to demand logical proofs: his entire basis of reasoning starts with logic as a foundation. He has an a priori commitment to logic as his currency.

But why should the head-hunter who doubts logic be required to furnish proof of any sort, let alone proof in terms of logic, to disprove the validity of logic? What is validity in any case except a concept within logic? A logical argument is valid if it conforms to the rules of logic. Is it even meaningful to talk about the validity of logic as a whole? Just as logic is not a proposition (and therefore not an axiom), logic is not an argument either (and therefore not "valid" or "invalid"). Even if we accept that logic must be demonstrated in terms of logic, it is a category error to even attempt to define logic itself as valid or invalid. Validity is an attribute of arguments, determined by logic, not a property of logic itself.

But perhaps we are getting sidetracked by sloppy language again. What if we think of logic not in terms of validity (which would be a category error), but in terms of completeness and consistency? Here we run into two problems: the adoption of "completeness" and "consistency" as values (which must somehow be shown to be non-arbitrary, or at least agreed upon as valuable by mutual consent), and Gödel's famous incompleteness theorem, which satisfies all practitioners of logic and mathematics that their formal systems can not demonstrate their own completeness and consistency. The head-hunter wins this argument.

Galt's challenge is hollow rhetoric. It is a rigged game in which certain axioms are implicitly taken as adequate by the demand that a logical proof be given, but the proof must somehow demonstrate the inadequacy of those same axioms. To the extent that proofs in relation to the whole of logic are possible, however, we know that any system of logic can not be both complete and consistent. The mystics of reason are mystics precisely because logic lacks the power to demand its own universal application, yet they make the demand, loudly and often, that it be so applied. Reason demonstrates itself to have limits; the mystics of reason demand that it be applied universally and without question.

Who is John Galt? He is a mystic of reason.

Author:  IM2L844 [ Sat Aug 25, 2012 5:24 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: Atlas Shrugged

The more I stir this around, the muddier the water becomes. Initially, I had all sorts of analogues to low-level formatting, Turing Machines, shell accounts and such to try and make a point, but it turns out that was all really unsatisfactory for what I was trying to convey. So here's the basics:

I think there is a level of logic below what we normally think of as systematic logic (formal or informal) when we hear the word. A more fundamental logic that without it it would be impossible to form any thing resembling a coherent thought at all. This level of logic is absolutely essential. It's more instinctual, but that's not quite the right word either, because it is a step above that. It's more akin to that level of logic you described Adam an Eve as having prior to acquiring the knowledge of good and evil, but I can't think of a logical way to differentiate it. Without it, though, concepts like "I feel that it is false", "God told me it is false" or "the people have voted that it is false" would have no bearing and be absolutely vacuous. In fact, concepts couldn't even exist at all.

Surely philosophers have thought about this, but I haven't seen it specifically addressed by anyone. That leads me to believe that I am somehow overlooking something exceedingly simple and blatantly obvious.

Author:  IM2L844 [ Mon Aug 27, 2012 2:07 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: Atlas Shrugged

I was watching my 2 year old granddaughter and our pets (2 dogs and a cat) playing with each other last night and while my granddaughter clearly had the intellectual advantage, they all demonstrated, to one degree or another, the sort of very basic logic I was trying to describe. I'm just not sure where the line gets drawn between that and the sort of logic that Galt mistakenly touts as the only thing necessary to derive a complete and internally consistent set of values.

Upon re-reading your post, I think I better understand what you were saying. Logic is inherently difficult if not impossible to pigeonhole which is more or less what Galt was claiming to have done and what I was more or less ineptly asking you to do.

Philosophy makes me dizzy, but I suppose it it were cut and dry, people wouldn't have been mulling over the same subjects for a couple of thousand years. Eh?

Author:  TFBW [ Mon Aug 27, 2012 7:06 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: Atlas Shrugged

John Galt's problem is that he thinks that logic allows us to know things as they really are -- to be certain of facts about the world, and thus compel us to one singly rational course of action. The harsh reality is that logic is not capable of proving that it is both complete (capable of proving all truths) and consistent -- both of which would seem to be necessary as a foundation for using logic in the manner that Galt suggests, if we are to treat it with the unassailable certainty that he does.

Logic and mathematics are uniquely placed in that they actually posses the means to prove that they are incapable of certain proofs. Computer science has a similar issue of "non-computability", with the classic example being the "halting problem". Armed with the logical certainty that every possible coherent system of logic contains undecidable problems, it's a leap of faith to assert that logic can still answer all the important questions -- and leaps of faith are supposed to be anathema to John Galt.

Galt's problem is that he's ignorant, but he thinks that he's irrefutably correct. Your virtue is that you're ignorant and you know it. As a consequence, you've become aware of a problem that John Galt wouldn't even know how to notice.

The problem in question doesn't have a name of which I'm aware, but it's closely related to the problem of consciousness. Let's call it "the problem of intuition". Rather than discuss it here, however, I'll create a new topic in the philosophy section, since it's not particularly related to Atlas Shrugged. It might take me a while to write it up, but I'll post again here if it's going to take more than a few days.

Author:  IM2L844 [ Tue Aug 28, 2012 5:13 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: Atlas Shrugged

TFBW wrote:
Your virtue is that you're ignorant and you know it.
I'll have to add that to my resume.

Author:  TFBW [ Wed Aug 29, 2012 11:59 am ]
Post subject:  Re: Atlas Shrugged

Be sure to spin it the right way.

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