Leitmotif

Reason as the Leading Motive

Posts Tagged ‘Ideas’

My Interview with The Telegraph

Posted by Jerry on October 24, 2007

The following are the questions posed by the reporter from The Telegraph (TT) and my e-mailed responses to them. I have slightly edited only my responses at some places for stylistic reasons; in the question about the response of young readers to Ayn Rand’s books, I have added a few additional points to expand upon my original thoughts.

TT: What drew you to Ayn Rand?

JJ: I was first introduced to Ayn Rand’s novel The Fountainhead by a friend of mine. While I thoroughly enjoyed reading the novel as a work of art, the philosophical ideas in it disturbed me greatly. They were radical and completely alien to everything I had been taught as moral. My response to this cognitive dissonance was to shut out Rand’s ideas from my mind and continue to live the way I was used to. A couple of years later, I happened to pick up a copy of Atlas Shrugged. My life was never the same after that. I could no longer just ignore the radical ideas in the book. This pushed me to investigate further, ask “why?” to every single premise and belief I currently held, dig deep to the roots and trace out the ideological contradictions in my belief; in essence, from that point on, I embarked on a critical evaluation and a massive upheaval of my belief systems. It was a challenging and confusing period of time, but I was open to the experience.

TT: There are successive generations of readers who discover Rand in their youth and then move away. What are the elements in Rand that you continue to revisit or discover over the years?

JJ: There are several reasons why young readers become zealots of Rand’s ideas and then move away as they grow into adulthood: Rand’s philosophy is tremendously complex and radical. Every principle in the system is internally related with every other, non-contradictorily. Therefore, there are two approaches to dealing with this philosophy: first, one honestly wrestles with the ideas of the philosophy and attempts to follow all its logically connected chain of thoughts to integrate them in one’s own mind, or second, one can take the shortcut approach and memorize the key fundamental principles, learn a few choice quotes from Ayn Rand and the novel’s heroes, and then claim to be an Objectivist.

Unfortunately, the young readers who have not yet achieved the intellectual capacity (due to their age or intellectual training) required for such massive integrations across philosophical levels tend to adopt the second–easier and shorthand–approach to express and feed their emotional excitement from having read the novels. The reason is that one can simply not read these emotionally stirring and philosophically challenging novels and remain passive or wait over years for intellectually maturity to set in: one is compelled to feed this immediate emotional experience by retaining key slogans or quotes from the books that express an emotional truth, then they seek out answers from wherever they can–even if it may be from Google searches or the Wikipedia.

Consequently, an intellectually pre-mature and overwhelmingly emotional introduction to the radical Objectivist premises of individualism, egoism, and self-interest often leads young people to hold an undigested, unintegrated, contortion of dogmatic beliefs–identical to religious beliefs held on faith, emotional need, repeated memorizations, and acceptance from authority. Eventually, such a person may literally “grow out” of their memorized philosophy and regard it as his foolish and juvenile indulgence in youth.

For me, Rand’s works continue to reveal whole new integrations, different perspectives, unique approaches, and various applications of a principle to reality. For example, my recent discovery was the integration of the Objectivist position on charity with the issue of cultural activism for change in society. While I won’t go into the details of this integration here, I will only say that the elegant nature of Objectivism’s non-contradictory system of principles can give amazing insights into any and all aspects of reality: since there is only one reality, it necessarily means that all of reality is a totality of interrelated facts and relationships. Therefore, it is simply an incredible experience to discover new relationships among seemingly unrelated existents in this one reality.

TT: Would you say Rand’s time has come in India?

JJ: I would say that Rand’s ideas have long been pervasive among Indians–both abroad and here in India. After the United States, India is cited as the nation with the most Ayn Rand fans. Further, Rand’s ideas have a particular relevance to the history of Indian politics and economics. One can actually argue that many from our parent’s and grandparent’s generation “Shrugged” in the intellectual sense in response to the repressive Socialist policies of Nehru and the License Raj. Free minds cannot function under oppressive regimes. That generation chose to withdraw their minds and the products of their minds from this society in search of free societies in the West; the government of India called it the “brain-drain”–Ayn Rand would have called it “Atlas Shrugged.”

Notice how with the opening of the Indian borders, the gradual acceptance of free markets, and the loosening of government regulations, not only is tremendous wealth flowing into this country but also the minds who create such wealth are choosing to return to make their fortunes here.

TT: In what way is Rand’s work, particularly Atlas Shrugged, relevant in India today?

JJ: [I think the answer to this question is the same as above.]

TT: What are the common misconceptions, if any, that you find people bear about Rand’s philosophy?

JJ: Rand’s philosophy is only about 25 to 30 years old. It is only now being studied seriously in the philosophy departments of 30 universities in the United States. As an intellectual movement, Objectivism–the philosophy of Ayn Rand–is only beginning; most movements take centuries to merge into the mainstream mindset. Until that happens, Objectivism is prime target for misrepresentations and outright distortions. Some examples of such are as follows: some people claim that Ayn Rand advocated that man is an island, that individualism means isolationism, that to be independent is to never ask the help of anyone else on principle.

Any substantial study into the actual ideas of Ayn Rand will reveal that such a notion of individualism and independence is contrary to Objectivism. Among other things, Objectivism champions laissez-faire capitalism. The crucial and practical tenet of capitalism is the division of labor society: that individual men engage in the mutual trade of products that they have gained an expertise in producing. A division of labor society–that is, a capitalist society–necessitates a society of individual men who need each other in the rational–non-sacrifical–sense of traders–traders who voluntarily exchange a value for another. In simplistic terms, this ensures a steady supply of products out in the market for exchange and a market of consumers eager to exchange their own products or values for that which they have not produced.

Therefore, it is contradictory to claim that Objectivism preaches isolationism or that independence means man is an island. Quite the opposite, it is only the rational man who can foster a benevolent society of individuals who engage in voluntary transactions that mutually benefit each other’s lives immensely! 

TT: What is your personal favourite AR writing?

JJ: We The Living–for its incredibly moving portrayal of a rational life struggling to exist in an oppressive and irrational society. It is also the closest to an autobiography of Ayn Rand–in terms of its ideas, themes, and values, not in terms of the concretes.

Posted in Ayn Rand, Books, Culture, Economics, General Work/Life, India, Mumbai, My Theories and Ideas, Objectivism, Philosophy, Political Issues, Religion, The Best of Leitmotif, Uncategorized | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 7 Comments »

Pulse of the Culture

Posted by Jerry on October 24, 2007

After reading this very interesting article by Sarah Baxter, I’m getting the impression that some key Objectivist positions are already seeping into the mainstream of intellectual and englightened dialog–on say multiculturalism, the moral bankruptcy of the left and Marxism, the rising reactionary threat of Christianity, the current threat of Islamofacism and the requirement of full war against it.

Read the entire article. It amazingly brings together various interconnected issues and persons into focus: Che Guevara, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Islamofacism, feminism, multiculturalism, antisemitism, the war in Iraq, Bush policies, atheism, Christopher Hitchens, and more!

A case in point is the treatment of Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the Somalia-born author of Infidel, who has received an astounding lack of support from liberals and the left. An article in Newsweek described her as a “bomb-thrower”, when it is Hirsi Ali who faces death threats from real bomb-throwers merely for speaking her mind and has had to rush back to the Netherlands because its government will no longer pay for her bodyguards while she is abroad.

Natasha Walter, reviewing her book in The Guardian, wrote blithely: “What sticks in the throats of many of her readers is not her feminism, but her antiIslamism” – as if the two could be separated. It was Hirsi Ali’s culture that led her to be genitally mutilated as a girl, and it was her Muslim former co-religionists who murdered her friend Theo van Gogh, the Dutch film-maker. Why should she remain quiet?

Posted in Culture, General Work/Life, Philosophy, Political Issues, Religion, Rights and Morality, The Best of Leitmotif, Uncategorized | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments »

Atlas Anniversary Pictures

Posted by Jerry on October 24, 2007

I’ve finally taken the time to upload the pictures from the Atlas Shrugged Anniversary event in Mumbai. Check ’em out!

Also, Taylor–one of my blog readers–visited Guatemala, where the Universidad Francisco Marroquín (UFM) unveiled the new Atlas high-relief sculpture in conjunction with anniversary celebration events. Taylor has some lovely close-up pictures of the sculpture and of the book release of the 50th Anniversary Edition of Atlas Shrugged. Thanks, Taylor! 🙂

Read my post on this Latin American university’s celebrations here.

Posted in Ayn Rand, Books, Culture, General Work/Life, Mumbai, Objectivism, Philosophy, Philosophy of Art, The Best of Leitmotif, Uncategorized | Tagged: , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

Telegraph on Ayn Rand

Posted by Jerry on October 22, 2007

The Atlas celebrations in India is covered by The Telegraph. Since I organized the one in Mumbai, I am mentioned several times in the article.

The writer of the article e-mailed me to express her regret that her original piece was “severely truncated” for space issues. I can see that the intent of the article is very positive towards Ayn Rand. However, as with all such cases of articles on Ayn Rand’s philosophy written and edited by people who are not properly familiar with it, this article contains at least three major factual errors. It is highly unfortunate. I immediately e-mailed the writer and pointed out the inaccuracies, asking that she either revoke the article or rectify the errors quickly. I offered some suggestions on how those errors may be rectified. I’m not sure what will come out of it.

😦

P.S. For copyright issues, I was told not to post the article on my site. So visit the link to read it in full.

UPDATE: I was just informed that prominent Indian actor Shammi Kapoor’s quote in the article (about AS’s thesis that money is the root of all evil) is verbatim. This means either the entire book went right above the man’s head, he has an incredibly weak memory of what he read, or Kapoor was just very sloppy in talking with the reporter. In any case, all of this merely underscores the case that he shouldn’t even be mentioned in the article.

I encourage all of you to send Letters to the Editor (ttedit@abpmail.com) pointing out this error and raising more points to get a discussion going. I’ll be writing one myself. Feel free to post your LTE’s here in the comments.

UPDATE: My entire interview with the reporter, which was excluded from the article for space reasons, is posted here.

Posted in Ayn Rand, Books, Culture, General Work/Life, India, Mumbai, Objectivism, Philosophy, The Best of Leitmotif, Uncategorized | Tagged: , , , , , , , , | 12 Comments »

Lessons from Harry Potter

Posted by Jerry on October 21, 2007

Ari Armstrong writes a brief post on the success of Harry Potter books. He identifies the reason behind the book’s phenomenal success, and I agree.

The main reason that Rowling has had and will continue to have such profound cultural influence is that she is reaching millions of children when they are first exploring ideas and first thinking about moral choices. Harry and his best friends belong to the school house of Gryffindor, the house of the brave, and Rowling presents an inspiring image of moral courage.

But perhaps the best thing about Rowling’s books is that they have encouraged children to grapple with a complex story and difficult themes. The children who have graduated from those books will be prepared to read — and eager to find — other great and inspiring works of literature, such as Rand’s novels.

My own post on how ideas can be spread among little children offers the same suggestion: engage children at the sense-of-life level; offer them an emotional experience of the ideas you wish them to understand; present those ideas in the form of art–literary, dramatic, visual, and musical; over time, prod them to think critically, explore the reasons behind their emotional experiences, and encourage them to ask many “why” questions.

However, remember that all of these efforts require an adult mentor: therefore, the adult has to be convinced of these ideas–explicitly and in philosophical form–before they can choose to impart those ideas in emotional or dramatic form to the children in their care. Properly, children should never be converted to or cultivated into a philosophy; that works only with religion and doctrines. Children can be given an experience of possibilities, a moral lesson in dramatic form, a show of principle in practice, of how the world can be to a person who makes certain choices. Children can be taught how to think well and the consequences of thoughts, but should not be taught what to think. Only adults can be converted to a philosophy–insofar as the conversion is the result of intellectual persuasion and rational understanding.

Posted in Books, Culture, General Work/Life, Movies, My Theories and Ideas, Objectivism, Philosophy, Philosophy of Art, The Best of Leitmotif, Uncategorized | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Philosophy Today

Posted by Jerry on October 19, 2007

Learn how to write several paragraphs and yet not say a word:

From Philosophy Now

Why Should I be Good?

The term ‘good’ has many uses. We might say: “Kevin is a good footballer”; “This is a good pen”; “It’s a good thing my train arrived on time.” But in none of these cases does ‘good’ have any moral implications. Kevin’s being a good footballer does not in itself make Kevin a good person. Yet when I ask why I should be good, I take this to be equivalent to my asking why I should be a good person. This is a question that underlies moral action.

When I say that Phyllis is a good person, I do not mean that she performs some particular function well. Persons can perform various functions or roles, and can perform these better or worse, but it is not these capacities that we are interested in when we ask whether some person is good. If Phyllis is a good person, this is not because she functions well, but because she acts rightly.

So why should I act rightly? Acting rightly is a matter of doing the right thing. But why should I do the right thing? Some might respond that that’s a silly question, because doing the right thing is simply doing what it is right to do – and if something is the right thing to do, it is simply what one ought to do, and there is no more to be said.

I think there is some sense in this point. To ask why I should act rightly is to invite a tautological response: I should act rightly because that’s the right way to act. And, similarly, I should be good because it is good to be good. This shows that concepts such as ‘goodness’ and ‘rightness’ cannot readily be analysed into more basic constituents.

So I am confident that I should indeed be good, and that this means doing the right thing. But I now need to determine what the right thing to do is. And there, as Shakespeare says, is the rub.

Dr. Mikel Burley, University of Leeds.

Posted in Culture, Philosophy, Rights and Morality, Uncategorized | Tagged: , , , , , , | 3 Comments »

The Target of Ideological Outreach

Posted by Jerry on October 16, 2007

Someone at the Atlas Shrugged event I organized asked me why the Ayn Rand Institute (ARI) is not doing enough to educate children in the pre-school and high school levels on the ideas of Objectivism. He made the case that since children are at a particularly impressionable age, we must protect them from the influences of religious and irrational ideas imbibed by their parents and teachers. His argument was that if we protect the minds of young children early enough, they will have a better chance of being immune to irrational ideas later on in life, thus creating a fertile ground for the spread of Objectivist ideas.

He argued that by focusing on intellectuals and philosophers at the academic university level, ARI was already losing the opportunity of fostering young minds to grow with the ideas of reason. This, he argued, created the difficult situation of having to “unblock” the minds of later adults when they encounter Objectivist ideas, having to re-train them to think rationally, and perhaps not having much success in penetrating the minds of young adults who have been fed with irrationalism all their lives by their parents and teachers.

I disagreed with his analysis.

Objectivism is (1) a philosophy in general, and (2) a philosophy of reason in particular

As such, Objectivism makes crucial demands on a person to apply his critical thinking skills to process ideas and premises before reaching any conclusions. This statement implies two important requirements that a non-Objectivist must meet, failing which, it is best to leave the person alone and not bother engaging him in a discussion on the philosophy: one, he must be mentally and intellectually capable of considering new ideas; two, he must be honestly open to considering new ideas.

Therefore, it is more than a pursuit of frustration to try and convey the ideas of Objectivism to a mentally immature or intellectually incapable person: for example, little children, the retarded, the really old and infirm.

Objectivism is not a body of principles that must be religiously memorized and fed to little children, who should then be able to regurgitate the right principles in the exact order. Objectivism is a philosophy: it needs to be processed by an intellectually capable mind, a mind that has reached a sufficient level of maturity to make sense of philosophical premises. Objectivism is a philosophy of reason: it needs to be processed by a mind consciously dedicated to the task of rational and honest thinking, a mind that refuses to memorize a principle until it has rationally convinced itself of the principle’s truth.

The questioner above was implicitly–and perhaps unknowingly–propounding the idea of psychological determinism: that a child’s mind and intellectual premises are formed irreversibly during his childhood and that the child is doomed to those premises for the rest of his life. Granted that there are cases of children who grow up to hold the exact premises in adulthood that they were taught when they were kids; however, such cases are not proofs of psychological determinism but indicators of human volition. The Objectivist movement is better off not having such docile adults who succumb without a fight to the mental blocks laid by their parents or teachers. Remember, Objectivism demands an active consciousness that is committed to understanding and demanding reasons for every premise; Objectivism would benefit not having those without such an active epistemological inclination or those who tend to claim the intellectual victimhood of their particular circumstances.

Young children should properly be engaged at the sense-of-life level, i.e., at the level of aspirations, imagination, emotions, art, movies, books, recreational activities, friends, family, etc.; not at the level of philosophical principles. Philosophical ideas can be much effectively transmitted to a child’s mind through emotionally appealing, artistic or recreational means. Of course, as a child progresses through school, he should be taught critical thinking skills explicitly in order to tackle philosophical ideas in a limited measure. However, a pre-mature introduction to philosophical premises–especially, those as radical as the Objectivist premises of individualism, egoism, and self-interest–without the requisite years of training in critical thinking will only lead to an undigested, unintegrated, contortion of dogmatic beliefs. Eventually, such a child may literally “grow out” of their memorized philosophy and regard it as his foolish and juvenile indulgence in youth.

In religious training, little children are commanded by their parents or “moral science” teachers to memorize a set of incantations: like Koranic verses, the Apostles Creed, the Act of Contrition, etc. Many children grow up learning these prayers without ever pausing to reflect on the philosophical meaning of the words being uttered. Objectivism cannot–and should not–be taught to a child in this manner. A child must be shown the principle of rationality in action, not lectured on the essential nature of man that makes rationality virtuous and important. However, teaching by action and example is the job of an adult who understands the meaning and value of such lessons–and therefore, an adult is the proper target of philosophical outreach.

In this respect, the Ayn Rand Institute is brilliantly following the right course of action: they freely distribute Ayn Rand’s Anthem, We The Living, and The Fountainhead to be taught in the pre-school and high school levels to introduce young children (in accordance with their general level of mental maturity in that grade) to a new emotional sense of life, not a set of explicitly philosophical principles. The target of full-fledged philosophical outreach is properly adults–the adults who are parents of these children, the adults who do the “imbibing” of ideas in their children, the adults who are teachers, professors, and mentors of these children, the adults who are capable of processing and disseminating ideas in a culture.

Objectivism seeks the rational and active mind who wrestles the hardest with an idea before accepting it; Objectivism does not seek to have a large following of docile minds who were nursed with its philosophy from infancy and never bothered to validate its truth for themselves. Each man has to discover the truth of the principles of reason for himself: this task can only be done by an adult who is both capable and willing to do it.

[Edited]

Posted in Ayn Rand, Culture, General Work/Life, India, My Theories and Ideas, Objectivism, Philosophy, The Best of Leitmotif, Uncategorized | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , | 32 Comments »

Philosopher Watch

Posted by Jerry on September 26, 2007

Philosophers in particular have long been happily secluded in the obscurity of their journals, books, and philosophy departments. Rarely have they had to engage with the popular culture and defend their ideas in public, and rarely do they even bother to do so. Even when philosophers publish books and papers, they are mostly just putting their views out there without being pressed into a dialog with their readers to respond to criticisms.

However, with the revolution that blogging is today, practically any person or opinion can be the target of intense scrutiny, analysis, and investigation, and on a medium that is open to a large number of people. Intellectuals, therefore, now have to be more careful of what they say and how they say it because not only can they suddenly be picked up by some obscure blogger out there, but their views can be traced, archived, summoned repeatedly, linked, and distributed.

With the ability to search for keywords and activate keyword alerts, practically every area of knowledge and content on the internet is at the disposal of anyone interested. So, for example, if you’re a philosopher like Colin McGinn, you have much to worry about what you publish on your blog and how/who you engage in a dialog with.

Recently, Colin McGinn presided over what may be the lengthiest comment thread on his blog, on a post about ethical egoism. He began the discussion by claiming to have swiftly “dispatched” with the egoistic moral theory; when several of his commentors highlighted the logical flaws of his arguments, he proceed to label them with ad hominem smears, insult their intelligence, dismiss their criticisms as irrelevant, delete their comments, and even send private e-mails to at least one commentor with immature insults.

Flibbert was that particular target of McGinn’s private cheapshots. In several and persistant e-mails to Flibbert, McGinn comes off looking like a teenage bully in a schoolyard. Now, remember that Colin McGinn is apparently a well-known philosopher in his academic circles. But on the blogosphere, the man is a cheap weasel. Here is a sample of the e-mail exchanges Flibbert had with Professor Colin McGinn, which Flibbert posted on his blog:

McGinn: “What a pompous fool you are.”

Flibbert: “More name-calling? Really? Seriously, professor, I’m not sure which is in worse shape: your manners, your logic, or your integrity.”

McGinn: “There are a lot of fools in the world. The internet has given them a voice they wouldn’t otherwise have. You are a particularly egregious example of the type. I am simply stating the facts.”

Flibbert: “The same could be said of intellectual cowards and their university posts particularly in the case of philosophy departments.

Has it occurred to you that you’re engaging a complete stranger — one you’ve deemed to be obnoxious junk and a pompous fool — with petty insults? You seem to do so without any sense of irony about it. Compounding the irony is the fact that you are again hiding your shameful behavior from others. If your conclusion is so factual, why didn’t you just post an additional comment to your blog calling me a pompous fool?

I’ve told you why I think you’re a shameful and dishonest, not to mention condescending and rude, but as usual you haven’t provided any citations or examples to support your conclusions. No, you’ve simply ejaculated your opinion into this medium and expected others to slaver over it. To use another’s phrase, it’s a bukkake of stupid with you.

You disgust me.”

Professor McGinn continued to delete comments and insult Flibbert in private e-mails. Flibbert, on his part, decided that McGinn’s behavior did not warrant any decent and restrained responses from him any longer (with which I agree); Flibbert responded to him likewise.

After more than 100 comments were written by various commentors, McGinn finally chooses to reveal that he had never even read anything about the kind of ethical egoism Ayn Rand had formulated and which his detractors were pointing out to him. He said that he had never intended to address the ethical egoism of Ayn Rand but was attacking the egoism of Thomas Hobbes and Glaucon in Plato’s Republic.

This admission gives a clear indication of McGinn’s intellectual dishonesty because any honest interlocutor would have explicitly defined the target of his criticism by stating early on who’s theories were under scrutiny. Notably, in contrast, he did indeed define his exact usage of “altruism”–which he was defending–very early on in the comments.

Early commentors politely suggested that he tackle the Objectivist theory of ethical egoism because it was the strongest case ever devised–because it was also true. Instead of coming in right at that moment and admitting that Objectivist egoism was not his proper target because he was not yet properly familiar with it, McGinn chose to insult his commentors as “cultists”, and presided over a comment thread that introduced a whole host of wildly bizarre hypotheticals and contorted theories to distort ethical egoism and paint Objectivists as intellectually inept cultists.

I think McGinn has learned a very stinging lesson from the blogosphere: if you choose to put your intellectual opinions on the internet–even on a blog, you better consider what you say and how you conduct yourself–intellectual dishonesty will particularly be called out and receive scathing attacks. There are potentially a large number of eyes reading every word on the blogs. This cautionary principle applies particularly to professional intellectuals and philosophers because they bear the greater responsibility of being careful with what they say: indeed, they are in the profession of shaping minds!

And with the Internet the way it is today, they can no more hide behind the dusty covers of philosophical tomes, closed academic circles of acolytes, and misty deparmental offices. On the blogosphere, professional authority has little traction.

Posted in General Work/Life, Philosophy, Rights and Morality, Uncategorized | Tagged: , , , , , , | 22 Comments »

Moral Evolution

Posted by Jerry on September 20, 2007

My previous post discussed how altruism has come to broadly represent even the most general sense of benevolence toward others. Also, given this understanding of a badly defined and broad conception of altruism, biologists have been recently finding evidence for some kind of biological root to an “altruistic instinct.”

First, altruism is a conceptual principle, and as such, it is impossible for any concepts to have physical-genetic roots in the human body. The most sensible way of me to comprehend any possible genetic roots to the “altruistic instinct” is to consider it as a genetic tendency or rudimentary impulse–certainly not as a genetic predisposition like having the genes for black hair is.

Second, whatever genetic basis of “altruism-type” impulses that may have been discovered (I’m not conceding that they have been, yet), may be the evolutionary vestiges of the survival instinct in pre-modern man. Hunter-gatherers and nomadic men quite possibly evolved with instinctual motivations to live, hunt, and congregate in groups or tribes; early savages (uncivilized men) were faced with innumerable threats from other savage nomads, tribesmen, animals, and the natural elements. It makes sense that grouping (or roaming and living in herds) was a survival strategy for the early man, and over time, this grouping tendency became internalized as an evolutionary impulse for survival.

However, civilization is the process of setting men free from men; it is a progression from a nomadic life lived in the open spaces of a jungle to settlement in private and discrete spaces for individuals. The climb to privacy and the realization of individualism is the progression toward civilization.

Notice that the less civilized a section of society, the more public are their activities and general existence; economic wealth plays a peripheral role perhaps in how civilized a culture is–a rich man can also be highly uncivilized and mutatis mutandis for the poor man.

In this light, the impulse to be in groups or herds is an obsolete concern today. To borrow Ayn Rand’s insight, today we don’t protect ourselves from savages or tribes by ganging up into groups; we draft the Bill of Rights. Man’s nature today has evolved into being a conceptual and rational one. Reason is our most competent tool for survival–not groups, herds, claws, sticks, or clubs. The supremacy of reason and its efficacy in human life has been firmly established by the advancements following the Enlightenment and the industrial revolution.

Therefore, recourse to rudimentary, biological impulses of groupism or other-centrism should be properly evaluated by our faculty of reason to assess its validity and relevance in our present nature and conditions of living. Moreover, remember that what some biologists and altruists are eager to subsume under altruism need not necessarily be altruistic in the proper sense. Therefore, if biologists find that we have genetic impulses to gang up into groups or mobs, we must use our reason to evaluate the relevance and the moral status of these impulses before we choose to act on them.

Since we know that altruism cannot be practiced consistently, we must note that if the principles of reason are consistently applied to the problem of survival, egoism will be the only logical, rational, and moral outcome.

[Related post: Morality in the Jungle; Altruism and Egoism]

Posted in Culture, General Work/Life, My Theories and Ideas, On Collectivism, Philosophy, Rights and Morality, The Best of Leitmotif, Uncategorized | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments »

Altruism and Egoism

Posted by Jerry on September 20, 2007

Colin McGinn, the philosopher who claimed to have refuted egoism in a few brief remarks, holds a very willy-nilly concept of altruism, but is adamant that egoism can only be defined as the “maximization of one’s own interest.” According to McGinn, an altruist can properly behave in self-interested actions occassionally; but an egoist–on principle–can never act against his own interests, which includes not dirtying your clothes to jump in to save a drowning baby.

Clearly, McGinn and altruists like him wish to claim sole proprietorship over concepts of kindness, benevolence, and charity.

Let’s be very clear about what we mean by altruism:

The word “altruism” (French, altruisme, from autrui: “other people”, derived from Latin alter: “other”) was coined by Auguste Comte, the French founder of positivism, in order to describe the ethical doctrine he supported. He believed that individuals had a moral obligation to renounce self-interest and live for others. Comte says, in his Catechisme Positiviste, that “[the] social point of view cannot tolerate the notion of rights, for such notion rests on individualism. We are born under a load of obligations of every kind, to our predecessors, to our successors, to our contemporaries. After our birth these obligations increase or accumulate, for it is some time before we can return any service…. This [“to live for others”], the definitive formula of human morality, gives a direct sanction exclusively to our instincts of benevolence, the common source of happiness and duty. [Man must serve] Humanity, whose we are entirely.” [1]

The Catholic Encyclopedia says that for Comte’s altruism, “The first principle of morality…is the regulative supremacy of social sympathy over the self-regarding instincts.” [2] Author Gabriel Moran, (professor in the department of Humanities and the Social Sciences, New York University) says “The law and duty of life in altruism [for Comte] was summed up in the phrase: Live for others.” [3]

More recent reformulations of the word altruism have served up a watered down principle of a general lovey-durvy, fluffy-feely sense of kindness and benevolence toward others to make the principle seem more palatable to most people’s sensibilities. Note how it is better to have a phantasmic notion of altruism than to even permit the possibility of egoism (self-interest) as a plausible moral principle for people to live by.

It stands to reason that no one can adhere to the principle of altruism strictly and consistently in their lives: it is a contradiction at the most fundamental level. To live is to act in self-preservation; to live is to engage in self-sustaining action. One cannot live by selfless action, unless one wishes to die. The proper and consistent act for an altruist would be to give up his life in an ultimate sacrifice for others (like Jesus did; now, the conundrum that the recipient of the sacrifice has to himself be sacrificed to someone else’s interests and so on with every individual on earth is another thorny matter of its own). 

At best, altruism can only be practised inconsistently, whimsically, and often out of guilt.

Since altruism–as a moral principle–cannot be practised consistently, philosophers like McGinn have injected doses of self-interested pursuits and common sense motivations into the principle of altruism. By doing this, altruists have appropriated the notions of kindness, charity, and benevolence, while vociferously denying that these notions are fully and logically compatible with the ethic of egoism.

Egoism is the principle of purusing one’s own rational self-interest with your life as your standard of value. Properly speaking, “life as a standard of value” is a redundant elaboration of the principle of rational self-interest. Only life can provide a context for the existence of a self and for the pursuit of interests; only human life can provide the standard of rational behavior and meaning to rationality. Nevertheless, the redundancy is necessary because altruists are committed to caricaturing egoism as everything that it is not: hedonism, subjectivism, self-destruction, malice, etc.

Egoism–that is, the principle of rational self-interest–is the only principle that can be practised consistently by every individual without leaving behind a trail of mutilated, self-sacrificed corpses. Only egoism makes it possible to have a society of individuals where acts of benevolence, kindness, and charity are performed without contradiction, without conflicts of interest, and without any sacrifice.

[Related posts: Morality in the Jungle; The Right to Life; Moral Evolution]

Posted in Ayn Rand, Culture, General Work/Life, My Theories and Ideas, Objectivism, Philosophy, Rights and Morality, The Best of Leitmotif, Uncategorized | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , | 11 Comments »

Why Choose to Live?

Posted by Jerry on August 8, 2007

In the ensuing discussion on Ayn Rand on a liberal blog that I linked to in my previous post, a commentor–apparently sympathetic to Objectivism–made the following remark:

There is nothing that I’ve read in Objectivist literature that suggests that the philosophy dictates that one ought to *want* to live; the philosophy begins after that fact has been decided by the individual. The choice to live is prior to any philosophy (could one “love wisdom”, but not want to live?). But in particular, Objectivism is explicitly a philosophy for living life.

I think this issue needs to be clarified: is Objectivism fundamentally based on an arbitrary injunction to live? Is there no normative injunction to choose life and not choose death? Is the choice to live, arbitrary? If Objectivism is fundamentally based on a choice that is simply arbitary, then doesn’t that bring the entire edifice of Objectivist ethical theory crumbling to the ground?

To my knowledge, this criticism of Objectivism was first raised by the philosopher Robert Nozick in his book Socratic Puzzles. In Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand, Dr. Leonard Peikoff discusses this matter very briefly, concluding that the choice to live is indeed a premoral choice, in that moral evaluation can only function within the domain and context provided by life as the standard.

Another commentor responded to the abovementioned quote as follows:

I believe this pre-moral chioce [sic] is quite wrong for two other reasons:

1) What does the choice to live really mean? Is it the chioce to live as long as possible? Is it the choice not to commit immediate suicide? Is it the choice to carry on as usual? This choice is simply far too vague to yield such a specific set of conclusions as the tenets of Objectivism. It’s like saying that if you want a car, then you have commited yourself to a Toyota.

2) Men have reasons to pursue their existence, that is, there are ends in themselfs that makes life worth living. Thus, the choice to live can be conditioned by the particular reasons people have for pursuing their existence. If morality is dependent on the chioce to live it is also dependant on the reasons people have for making this choice. Thus those reasons (be it becoming a dictator or what have you) are outside any moral or rational evaluation. What is left is pure subjectivism, with as many moralities as reasons for living.

I felt that since even people sympathetic to Objectivism can be confused about this most fundamental and crucial of issues, it is important to examine and explore the fundamental basis of Objectivist morality. What follows is entirely my own understanding of Objectivism, not an exact account of Ayn Rand, although I believe it best captures her intent.

In response to FO:

It is a contradiction to first state that man can make choices in life that make life worth living, and then give an example of such a choice as “becoming a dictator or what have you.” The contradiction is in the fact that choices that make life worth living have to also be consonant with the requirements of life, i.e., life-sustaining or life-supporting.

The agent of action here is an individual, conscious, living being faced with choosing an option that will make his continued survival worth it. Choosing an objectively life-negating option (or at the widest, an option that is not consonant with life-sustenance) undercuts his primary motive of deriving a value from that choice which is supposed to make his continued survival of some worth.

In other words, choosing an objectively life-negating act existentially and factually undercuts (or acts against) his desire to continue living–whether he is aware of this effect of his choice or not.

The requirements of continued survival imposes certain necessary and objective decisions upon the individual; of course, the whole point of ethical theories is to guide the individual towards making choices that are consonant with life-sustaining requirements, thus allowing him to pursue his desire to continue living and acquire values that make living worth it for him.

FO, I argue that the choice to live is actually not pre-moral in the sense that it occurs at some point along a chronological chain of choices. It is a metaphysically given fact that we are living beings–we live from the moment we are born, and this is not a matter of our choice. This is a metaphysically given fact. The ethical choice to continue living and pursue life is a choice that is implicit in the ethical nature and sum of all and every other choices we make in our lives as we go on about our daily lives. This implicit choice to live (or not) is internal to (and made in) every other choice we make in life.

It is this implicit ethical nature of the sum of our choices that need to be brought to the realm of explicit moral evaluation, which can then be scrutinized in accordance to moral theories and standards of evaluation. Rand pointed this out by stating that life qua man’s life is a *standard* of evaluating the moral status of our choices and values.

This does not mean that the choice to live is amoral or is made at some actual moment in our lives–although one can give it explicit, verbal form–but that the choice to live (or not) is implicitly made at every juncture of our daily activities–in our pursuit of values–and is implicit in the ethical nature of those activities; moreover, by making our individual daily choices, we are thereby–inescapably–either upholding the choice to live or the choice to die in the kind of values we choose to pursue. Thus, in a sense, our daily activities, pursuits, goals, values, and choices are various forms of realizing the same implicit choice to live or the choice to die; often, we are even explicitly aware of this fact.

Therefore, if the choice to live or die is indeed a choice that has a moral status, then what is the answer to the question “Why ought we to choose to live?” Or, “Why should we choose to live?” Observe that the question is seeking an answer that needs to lie somewhere outside of the system of life; in other words, the answer should be external to the conceptually hierarchical system of morality and values. Just as existence cannot be evaluated by reference to a standard outside or beyond existence, life cannot be evaluated by reference to a standard outside or beyond itself. Life itself gives meaning to evaluation by providing both a context and a standard.

The logical error being committed, therefore, by raising the question is that of the stolen concept: concepts such as morality, values, and choices are logically dependent upon–and internally related to–the concept of life. One cannot derive morality and values outside of the domain of life. Chairs and tables neither can have morals nor a need for them.

It is only because we have life that the need for a system of morality and values arises. We must realize that the choice to live is internal and inextricable to the morality of the rest of our choices and values, which means it lends meaning to the rest of our choices and values.

Just as it would be a logical fallacy to steal the concept of “cause” out of its logical hierarchy by asking “What caused existence?,” it is a fallacy to steal the concept of “ought” (a normative concept of morality) by asking “Why ought we to choose life?”

[Edit: Some significant edits to enhance the clarity of ideas, and included a reference to Dr. Peikoff’s discussion of this matter in OPAR]

Posted in Ayn Rand, General Work/Life, My Theories and Ideas, Objectivism, Philosophy, Rights and Morality, The Best of Leitmotif, Uncategorized | Tagged: , , , , , , | 37 Comments »

The Right to Life

Posted by Jerry on July 5, 2007

A commentor asked me if I had written anything on the Objectivist standpoint on the right to life. Since Ayn Rand’s own works have exhaustively and explicitly covered the topic of man’s rights (in other places besides The Virtue of Selfishness), I had not written anything that directly touched upon the topic.

Nevertheless, in order to present a very distilled introduction to the Objectivist theory of rights, and to serve as a quick reference to general readers and passers-by, I wrote up the following. Of course, I cannot write anything like this without borrowing heavily from Rand’s own essays:

In Ayn Rand’s words, “life is a process of self-generated and self-sustaining action.” Rand pointed out that stillness and stagnation are antithetical to life. Thus, the only fundamental alternative facing living organisms is the alternative of existence (life) or non-existence (death). To live, one must act.

The need to act, which is a requirement of life, gives rise to the question of how to act in order to continue living and what actions to take. Such knowledge of action is automatic to other animals in a sufficient degree, i.e., they automatically engage in survival or progenitive behavior only to the extent necessary and not more; that is, animals only act to survive and procreate, not flourish.

However, human beings do not have an automatic knowledge of the course of actions to ensure their own survival. Man needs to consciously identify, learn, know, and determine how to act, what actions to take, and to what extent. Thus, man faces a need for guidance in helping him learn and identify the proper courses of action to ensure his survival, i.e., man needs a moral or ethical theory that is consonant with the requirements of living life that is proper to him as a human being. 

Since morality requires the existence of alternatives and the ability to choose, the actions open to and possible to man are actions open to moral scrutiny, because they are acts that are chosen in the face of alternatives against the backdrop of survival. Thus, even if a man were to live alone on a deserted island with no other human beings around him, he cannot escape the need for a moral code, i.e., a system of moral principles that will give him the proper knowledge to ensure his survival qua human being.

Now, the concept of rights arise in a social context–when men live amongst each other. “Rights” are moral concepts that guarantee man’s freedom of action in a social context. Now, remember also that life is self-sustaining and self-generated action. Also note Rand defines rights as moral principles pertaining only to actions in a social setting. This is because in order to live (i.e., to act), man must be guaranteed the freedom to act (which can be denied him by others in a social setting), i.e., he must be guaranteed the freedom to live–this guarantee is his right to life. If he is denied the freedom to act, he is denied the right to life; as a corollary, if one man denies another man’s freedom to act, he has denied the other man’s right to life. In other words, rights define and sanction man’s freedom of actions. The right to life is the source of all other rights, and his right to property makes all his rights practiceable in the real world.

This is the Objectivist standpoint on rights in general–and the right to life in particular.

Posted in Ayn Rand, Objectivism, Philosophy, Political Issues, Rights and Morality, The Best of Leitmotif, Uncategorized | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments »

Self-Identity

Posted by Jerry on February 21, 2007

I have always denounced holding any sense of identity that is merely accidental and not consciously chosen. For this reason, I reject automatic allegiance to nations, cities, ethnic groups, races, families, tribes, or any other accidental aspects of one’s existence.

Patriotism, jingoism, nationalism, ethnocentrism, casteism, and racism are particular identity-characteristics that I revile. If you are patriotic merely because you were accidentally born within a certain geographic location, I pity your mind; and if you are willing to fight and die for this accidental geographic location of your birth, I will have no words to express to you the tragedy of your decision.

In essence, the matter of assuming accidental identities is a matter of accepting unchosen values; indeed, the concept of an unchosen value is itself a contradiction because if it has not been chosen by the individual himself, then by what and whose standard can it be legitimately regarded as a value? Thus, it is utterly meaningless to claim love and allegiance for nation or family simply by virtue of the fact that you were born into them, without regard to their philosophic virtue and character. It undermines those objects of your choice that are indeed of value to you.**

Those who heckle you on the streets and condemn you for your lack of allegiance to a nation are demanding that you shut off your mind, ignore the volitional faculty of your consciousness, and embrace whatever they offer as your own value. And the moral code that powers their ammunition is the moral code of altruism. Their moral code condemns you for holding your own life and selfish interest as the standard of your values and offers in exchange the value of a nation full of undifferentiated billions, whom you are supposed to love merely because of the accidental matter that “we are all Indians, therefore, brothers and comrades!”

The same hecklers are also thrusting their morality of altruism and self-sacrifice down your throats when they condemn you for choosing a self-made family of friends in exchange for the one you were accidentally born into. They argue for some mystical, supernatural view of blood relations that is supposed to usurp every rational choice you make with regard to the people you associate with. And the only argument they offer you in self-righteous justification is that “you owe it to them; they are your family!”

The mindless, jingoistic zealots who have instituted the habit of singing the Indian national anthem before the screening of every movie in theaters–and making it underhandedly compulsory through coercion by the mob–are banking on people to be as mindless as they are; they hope that through some mystical means of osmosis or through the repeated chants of the anthem, the audience will gradually turn into zealous patriots.

As Rand said, where there is no reason, there is force. These Indian jingoists know that they are incapable of erecting a rationally persuasive argument for their moral code (altruism), their political philosophy (socialism), their social philosophy (collectivism), their personal philosophy (irrationalism and mysticism), and their Indian nation that is formed from and embodies all of these constituent philosophies (the democratuc rule of the mob). Hence, since they cannot appeal to man’s reason, they resort to force to demand that you value their moral code and their nation. And a docile mind that decides to march to the frontier of his nation in defense of this philosophy purely because he felt compelled to it by his fellow compatriots is as immoral as the philosophy he defends: since he has already surrendered his mind to the mob and has replaced their slogans for his syllogisms, he may has well complete the sacrifice with his own life and body.

Objects regarded as values accepted from others or by virtue of existential accidents are no values at all, regardless of whether or not they turn out to be good for you. You cannot substitute the autonomy of your own rational mind in choosing values with the randomness and arbitrary nature of accidents or with the mind of someone else—you are not living their lives with their minds and there is no such thing as a collective consciousness.

The values you hold invariably leads you to gravitate toward others who hold similar values. The crucial matter here is ascertaining whether your values are ones that you chose willingly or are ones that you accepted unquestioningly from others–are these values the result of rational decisions or due to nothing more than accidental facts? The only way to answer this question for yourself is by using your own mind.

**Note: For the same reasons, I reject the notion and the widespread practice of citizenship based on location of birth; I argue that citizenship must be chosen freely by an adult–or by a child’s parents for the child–[regardless of where the individual or the family is located at that time] and should be granted by the society on ideological grounds.

And in corollary, I argue that citizenship can revoked by a society or surrendered by the individual on ideological grounds. If I had to draw an analogy, I would refer to the Catholic rite of Confirmation, wherein a young adult–typically, of 18 years of age–consciously and of his own free will chooses to be a Catholic, accepts Catholicism as his religion, and chooses to belong to the Universal Catholic Church, regardless of where he is located in the world. However, as a child, this decision to be Catholic, is made by the child’s parent until he is of age.

Posted in Culture, General Work/Life, India, Mumbai, My Theories and Ideas, On Collectivism, Personal, Philosophy, Political Issues, The Best of Leitmotif, Uncategorized | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments »

Why is Ayn Rand Respected More in India?

Posted by Jerry on September 16, 2006

Ayn Rand is rather well-known in India, though of course not as widely known as she is in the US; however, it can be argued that Rand is certainly viewed more respectfully and with admiration here in India than in the US.

The reasons for that are probably not quite straightforward: it’s not just because Rand’s reputation in India has escaped the lies, mischaracterizations, and attacks of the intellectual and academic elite in the US.

I think most people in India who like reading books, who are intellectuals (whether “elite” or not), who value ideas, etc. have read Ayn Rand. Rand’s works can be described as part of the canon for any serious Indian intellectual; I think I read an article in an Indian newspaper website someday that said something like reading Ayn Rand is the mark of an intellectual thinking person.

However, just because so many have read Rand does not imply that they all have come to admire her. In fact, I mentioned in my earlier post regarding the Ayn Rand at 100 book launch that though many of my colleagues had read The Fountainhead, some of them hated the book–and Ayn Rand–with a passion. Some others found her ideas very unrealistic, impossible, idealistic, and therefore, worthless.

Now, having said that, I would still claim that Rand enjoys much greater respect and admiration here in India today. In my opinion, the main reason for this is that the Indian people who read her actually understand the truth of her arguments, for the most part. Because Indians live in the collectivist, pseudo-statist, tradition-bound, mystic society that India is, the readers grasp the validity of Rand’s ferocious criticisms of these states and agree with her description of life under these conditions.

For example, Indians see the reality around them–of a massive bureaucratic government, socialist and collectivist policies, the influence of mysticism and religion in politics and in every aspect of life, the burden of tradition and familial obligations, the parasitic oppression of “needy” and the lazy on the hard-working average man–and they see how well Rand describes these very scenarios and reveals the root causes of them.

I think the Indians who read Rand identify with her because they feel she is exactly right; because they see what she denounces occurring in their own lives and in their societies. Moreover, Rand’s uniquely powerful, persuasive, bold, and lucid style of writing is perfect for the tastes of the Indian audience who are not into obfuscations, meandering musings, and equivocality. As a culture in general, Indians are rather direct in their communication (verbal and nonverbal), almost to the point of being tactless and crude. Thus, Rand’s admirable style of revealing things as they are, never faking reality, and calling a spade a spade, seems superbly customized for the Indian readership.

The American culture, on the other hand, does not have any of these contexts from which to understand the power of Ayn Rand. Americans have never encountered quite the conditions described in We The Living or that which is the reality in India. Americans have never really had to stand in long lines of ration to obtain food and groceries, face the corruption and stagnation of huge government bureaucracies, deal with corruption as a daily part of living, or have to deal with the politics of a collectivist mob. Americans do not face oppressive familial obligations arising from a collectivist and tradition-bound mentality; neither have they had the kind of mysticism rampant in this part of the world.

In short, Americans haven’t really experienced the full intensity of the consequences of bad ideas–the bad ideas that Rand exposed and harshly denounced. Therefore, to the Americans, Rand comes off as being “shrill” and “extreme”; to an Indian, perhaps, Rand comes off as being relevant, true, and like a “voice in the desert,” the voice of a brilliant mind.

Moreover, Americans are not “direct” people; as a culture, it seems that Americans like facades, appearances, euphemisms, pleasantries, vacuous conversations, avoiding uncomfortable remarks, and being polite. Thus, Rand’s blunt and bold style understandably comes off as being foreign and confrontational, and therefore, unlikeable.

These, in my opinion, are the reasons why Rand is accepted with considerable respect here than she is in the US. Moreover, in India, there is a dearth of intellectuals–much less intellectuals who write brilliant and successful books. Thus, Rand is respected right from the get-go as an intellectual who has published world famous books.

However, I must add this one final observation I have made: Indians also love ape-ing the West, especially America, in many aspects. And by “ape-ing”, I not only mean imitating, I also use it to refer to the Indian’s level of thinking as being at the functioning level of the Apes. Thus, I have noticed that some of the modern “elite” intellectuals in India who have read Rand–and have probably investigated some more about Rand via the internet or other sources–may have come to percieve the famine of interest in Rand-scholarship and lack of respect for her ideas in America. Some of them may have also read misleading reviews or heard of the straw-man criticisms against Rand (like, she was too “black & white,” or too “utopian,” or “teenagers read Rand, then one grows out of it), and they blankly repeat these criticisms and consider themselves “over” Rand, as in, “oh, I’m over her already.”

So, yes. I have noticed some Indian “elite” readers use the same criticisms against Rand that I have read on the Internet and in the US. I believe the “fashion” of being “over Ayn Rand” might be catching on in India also. But let’s hope that that does not happen.

Posted in Ayn Rand, General Work/Life, India, Objectivism, Personal, The Best of Leitmotif | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , | 33 Comments »

Epistemic Urges

Posted by Jerry on August 11, 2006

Jason recently mused about the whole concept of “souls”–what is it, where is it, and do we humans really have it. It’s an interesting post, well worth a proper read. I say this because his post got me thinking about souls too! 🙂

In his ruminations on the matter of souls, Jason cites one of my earlier posts, Consciousness: Its limited and limitless qualities. He says:

Ergo once mentioned that the idea of afterlife only exists because, being as we cannot comprehend not existing, we therefore imagine a life for afterward, because we cannot fathom not thinking, not feeling, not existing. We cannot fathom not existing, and therefore, we must continue to exist even when all we know and all we see disappears or goes away…

And I believe this is in fact true. As I said in my earlier post, our conscious minds are epistemically boundless, limitless, unrestricted in imagination. Our imaginations are completely free. As evidence, witness the creative, productive, and cultural history of human civilization–the myriad of unique, different, artistic and commercial creations by individual men–the millions of differents poems, books, movies, photographs, ideas, theories, applications, etc. This proves irrefutably that man’s imagination is limitless.

Epistemically, we can think, conjure, imagine almost anything; we can fabricate any unique kind of creature, superhero, fantasy realm, dreamland, creative design, musical composition, etc. The limitation to our consciousness lies in the metaphysical realm: our consciousness cannot survive beyond our physical death because a physical death is also the end of that which makes our consciousness possible, a functioning brain. Thus, in a metaphysical sense, our consciousness is grounded and limited (since it cannot overcome physical death), but in an epistemic sense, it is free and unbounded (it can imagine itself to “exist” in places where the physical brain does not exist, e.g., an imagined heaven).

Now, in addition to the fact that our imaginations are unbounded, there is another epistemic rule: our consciousness–while it can imagine anything–must have something to think about, something to imagine. In other words, a consciousness conscious of nothing is a contradiction of terms. The fact that we are conscious implies that our minds have some content that we are aware of.

[Edit: Ted Keer correctly pointed out to me that while we can imagine anything or any fantasy, there are some logical limitations to its abilities. These limitations are mostly of the abstract, logical kind. For example, it is impossible to imagine a squared-circle. We have no such figure, no such concept, and no such referent in reality. I refered to this limitation much earlier–much before Ted pointed this out to me–in a post titled “Musings on Metaphysics.” These qualifications notwithstanding, the fact of our immense abilities to imagine practically anything remains. The thrust of this post is that consciousness always imagines something since to be conscious is to always have some content of awareness; however, it cannot imagine *nothing* or the state of nothingness–which is what death is, nothing.]

Being conscious of “nothingness” is an invalid statement, as no such thing is possible. “Nothingness” by definition would include the non-existence of consciousness. In fact, one must remain silent about the concept of “nothingness” because nothing can be said about nothingness, except in relation to something else.

The only sensible manner of speaking about nothingness is in its relation to something. One can only speak of nothing as being bounded or charted by something. Thus, it is purely for methodological purposes that we use the concept of “nothingness.” Nothing such as nothingness exists as such.

Therefore, human consciousness–as it cannot fathom the notion of nothingness–is impelled (or has strong epistemic urges) to imagine some sort of continued existence after death, because death and non-existence, i.e., nothingness, is simply unfathomable and impossible for the human consciousness to imagine; the nature of our minds is such that we are unlimited in what we can think of so long as we think of something and that we think of ourselves as thinking beings.

We are unable to come to a point where nothingness envelops our consciousness such that we can imagine what death and non-existence must really be like. This is why people are pre-occupied with contemplating death: the state of death is an enigma to them, a puzzling condition that they simply cannot get their heads around. They forget that the very act of contemplating what death must be like is succumbing to their epistemic urge of attributing a *content* to the state of non-existence, to imagine *something* about nothingness, to push their epistemically unlimited consciousness into the metaphysically impermissible domain of death.

Since we are incapable of experiencing, or even imagining, what death and non-existence must be like, we tend to explore (using our unlimited imaginitive capabilities) “after-death” scenarious of our continued existence. And while we are engaged in such flights of imaginative fancies, we might as well fabricate elaborate scenarios that fulfill our deep, emotional desires, such as “unending happiness and bliss” in heaven, joy, honey, wine, virgins in heaven; our desire of justice and reward is likewise fulfilled by imagining that evil and rich people are banished off to hell where they suffer forever, and poor, meek, and good people who “suffer” on earth are abundantly rewarded in heaven. This is the act of confusing our epistemic nature with our metaphysical nature.

Related Posts: Epistemic Urges-II

Posted in Atheism, General Work/Life, My Theories and Ideas, Philosophy, Religion, The Best of Leitmotif, Uncategorized | Tagged: , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

First Principles of Atheism

Posted by Jerry on June 30, 2006

D. Eastbrook offered me a link to Anton Thorn’s site on Atheism. I haven’t had the time to peruse Anton’s site entirely, but based on what I have read so far, I believe Anton’s case for atheism is based on a weak definition of the concept “atheism”.

In his Atheological Credo, Anton defines his atheism as “absence of god-belief.” His essay is pretty much his answer to the question, “Why I have no god-belief.”

I believe this definition is weak and could possibly reveal holes in the arguments that he bases on that definition.

Atheism, as I define it, is not merely an absence of god-belief, but an assertive credo stating that there is no god to believe in! In other words, atheism belongs to the genus of ideology, the subset of metaphysics, and its differentia is the answer in the negative. Therefore, atheism is a resounding “No!” to the metaphysical question “Does god exist?”

Thus, if someone posed the question to me, “Why do I have no god-belief,” my response would be simply to say that I have no such belief because there is no such entity to have a belief in.

Atheism is the recognition that there is/are no god(s). It is not merely a belief that there is no god, but a recognition of that fact, and therefore, a metaphysical truth. A belief could be mistaken, or proven wrong at some future point. A recognition of fact is a recognition of reality as is. One can choose to not believe in something, i.e., have an absence of belief in something arising out of ignorance or error in thought; that however, does not necessitate the absence of the entity or experience that you reject belief in.

Further, note that most of Anton’s arguments in support of his “absence of god-belief” appeal to principles of logic, reason, rationality, axioms of reality, and other Objectivist principles. While he is right in doing so, and his arguments are valid and even impressive, they have little potency or relevance in the face of religionists who fundamentally accept faith over reason, contradictory premises, illogical arguments, and irrational beliefs.

It is futile to engage in logical persuasion with such people because they will simply say: okay, yes. All that makes human sense. All that is logical. But everything does not have to be logical. God is above and beyond our logic and worldly principles. God cannot be bound by principles of logic. Faith is illogical. Your arguments are good, but simply human arguments. Your absence of belief is actually agnosticism, not atheism, because given your statement that you do not believe in a god, you do not therefore claim that a God in fact does not exist.

It is my view that the starting first premise for an atheist to successfully engage a religious believer into considering arguments for atheism is by drawing strict boundaries of discussion. Force the discussion to be situated on rational and logical grounds because nothing is outside the province of reason–not even God:

1) State that whatever concept one has of God, that concept most likely includes their contention that this God is a supremely intelligent Being; They will concede this “intelligent” premise because they would not want to admit that they may be worshipping a stupid, ignorant, dumb, or unintelligent god. Nor would they want to concede that this Universe is not intelligently designed. So, assume God is a supremely intelligent Being.

2) If God is supremely intelligent, then God knows that a circle with 4 corners cannot be drawn. It is impossible for such a figure to be drawn, and God is well aware of that because He is intelligent. This means, God must certainly know (like we humans do) that there are basic logical principles that cannot be violated, in this case, it is the logical principle of identity. Similarly, other logical principles that are derived from identity and non-contradiction are also (and must be) applicable to God.

3) Given that we now accept that God also subscribes to some basic principles of logic — like A is A (a circle is a circle and cannot be a square with 4 corners at the same time), we can introduce further arguments that are strictly rational. For example, we can argue that since God is also immortal and eternal, God can never kill himself or cause himself to cease to exist; God cannot do that because he cannot violate the law of identity, i.e. A is A. It’s His nature to be immortal.

4) Thus, we slowly begin introducing further logical arguments once we have firmly laid the foundation that a supremely intelligent God must also concede to basic principles of logic. Once that has been settled, one can begin, as Anton does, shooting all the logical, philosophical ammunition you have. [See my posts in “Atheism“]

Note that my method requires the we set clear boundaries of discussion with religionists to accept the validity of logic as the most basic premise in analyzing God-concepts. Thus, in a way, I am introducing to them the fact that all beliefs are subject to logical and rational scrutiny–even beliefs accepted on faith. By dragging them into the field of logic and reason, and away from the murky, nebulous territory of faith, I get them to see the veracity and validity of my arguments. If beyond that, they still disagree, one must simply ignore them, because a mind not open to rational persuasion is not a mind worth engaging with: such a person may be evading reason, is fearful of the consequences of being persuaded, or may simply be intellectually inequipped to handle the complexity of rational thought.

Now, I can forsee that someone might interject my argument by saying, what if one holds a Spinozist conception of God, i.e. pantheistic, identical with nature? Or what if one concedes that this “super power, higher Being” does not have to be Intelligent? If such argument is put forth, then its not too difficult to point out the uselessness of even introducing such a concept of God that is not already taken care of by our current understanding of the Nature, evolution, existence, and its processes. A “god” identical with “nature” is nature itself–why bother introducing such a bromide as “God?”–and based on what premise, reason, or belief? If it is merely an assertion of faith, then anything goes. I can assert that Superman exists, and construct an entire religious paradigm around Him as deity.

UPDATED:

The more I read Anton’s site on atheism, the more I believe that his arguments are weak in some fundamental ways. First, for example, take his argument that the claim “God exists” is a contradiction and thererefore, is self-refuting. His argument basically takes us on a tour of the Objectivist axiom of existence (and its corollary, consciousness) in order to reach his conclusion. He says:

To claim that god exists, you must both assume the truth of the primacy of existence and deny it at the same time.

What he means is that, to make the claim that “God exists” and that existence exists because of God created it, is to arrive at a contradiction. Objectivism states that consciousness is only meaningful if something exists in the first place (primacy of existence). In other words, consciousness cannot exist without something independently existing also. Consciousness is awareness; and if there isn’t anything to be aware of, then one cannot be “aware.” So, how does this apply to God? Anton claims that stating that God exists is making a claim for the primacy of existence (i.e., existence exists), but making the claim that God brought “existence into existence” makes a claim to the primacy of consciousness.

In other words, Anton claims that by proposing God’s existence, the theist is claiming that God is essentially conscious (i.e., aware) without needing anything existing to be conscious of! This, according to Anton, brings us to a contradiction, and therefore the claim that God exists is self-refuting. [For a different approach to arriving at this contradiction, see “We Exist. Therefore, God does not.“]

I find his argument to be logically sound, but fundamentally weak in its ability to persuade a theist to accept it. Why? Because, Anton’s argument of contradiction necessarily depends upon separating existence and consciousness as two distinct premises (or the only two exhaustive metaphysical primacies); and that is a centuries-old debated premise.

In fact, Hegelian Absolutism and Spinozistic Pantheism fundamentally rests on the view that existence and consciousness are not distinct and opposing primacies, but actually one and the same–each implying the other. Further, some Idealistic Rationalists also claim that the Absolute Consciousness contains within itself the awareness of itself and of “existence.” In other words, existence (like us, animals, rocks, buildings, etc.) are nothing more that the imaginations or thoughts of an Absolute Consciousness (whether it’s an entity or some kind of “collective consciousness” is debated among themselves) that thinks existence into existence!

Moreover, the premise that consciousness cannot precede existence has also been challenged by many theistic and atheistic philosophies. Existentialism (of both the secular and the religious kind) asserts the primacy of the consciousness. God, as understood by some theists, is an integrated, infinite entity that is essentially and fundamentally existent and aware of its existence at the same time. Contradictions, according to these theists and others, do not always lead to invalidation but possibly to a synthesis of opposites, or a transcendence of apparent opposites (Hegelian dialecticism). 

Now, why do I state these as objections to Anton’s arguments even when I know that they are absurd? Because, those are the kinds of arguments a theist could legitimately pose as a challenge to his argument and feel vindicated.

In fact, even in Objectivism, one must be careful in explicating the axioms. Rand said that the axiom of existence “implies two corollary axioms: that something exists which one perceives, and that one exists possessing consciousness” (Atlas Shrugged). In other words, Rand does not state that existence and consciousness are opposites and that one must choose one over the other, but that each implies the other. That if there is consciousness, there necessarily must be existence. Or, to state it in another way, when I make the claim that Existence exists, I am at the same time also making the claim that I possess consciousness.

Thus, a theist could in typical Hegelian fashion claim that God is the metaphyical primary that entails the primacies of existence and consciousness in Himself: He is infinitely existent and is omnisciently conscious of existence.

The question Anton should be asking himself is this: why should a religionist accept Objectivist axioms in this discussion on the existence of God? Because Objectivism is the true and rational philosophy? Yes. But as Anton readily admits, theists are fundamentally irrational! Their whole belief system is based on faith, which is whim! So, why would one hold the hopes that the rational axioms of Objectivism will have any ability in convincing these fundamentally irrational believers?

I myself discovered atheism before I discovered Objectivism and its rational principles. I still hold that my approach of “seducing” the irrationals into the territory of rational, logical sense by using their own concept of God as a “supremely Intelligent Being,” and then proceeding to analyze what “intelligent” i.e. logical and rational would mean when applied to God, is the most potent way of persuading and convincing them of the truth of atheism.

Posted in Atheism, My Theories and Ideas, Objectivism, Philosophy, Religion, The Best of Leitmotif, Uncategorized | Tagged: , , , , , , , | 8 Comments »

Understanding Human Existence

Posted by Jerry on June 17, 2005

Merely having life and therefore existing should not be a cause for much awe and wonder. Though it definitely is a valuable thing – to have life, there is something immensely more valuable than living: Being radiantly aware of your life.

What is having life? Animals have it. Even plants have life. Animals and plants live. We are a kind of animal. And as such, we can exist as mere animals, living our life away, simply waiting for life to pass because that is what animals do. Or we can live life like humans ought to. As Ayn Rand said: “Living life is not the same thing as avoiding death.”

Just the mere act of breathing and living is not worthy of much praise. Dogs do that, and the trees do that. The scientific definition of death is not just the stopping of the heart, but also the ceasing of the brain waves. Technically, a human being could survive with just a beating heart and no brain activity. In fact, I would go so far as to say that there are millions on this earth who are doing just that: living as creatures that breath and have beating hearts.

The difference worthy of all awe, wonder, and praise is the witness of that human being who not only demonstrates a clear evidence of life, but also a celebration of that awareness of his life — manifested in his actions, movements, reflections, pursuits, and achievements. The awareness of life by the faculty of self-consciousness is only possible to humans, not to any other creature on this earth, and therefore it differentiates a self-aware and thinking human from any other creature (human or animal).

It is only proper for humans to think. To use his faculty of thinking and intelligence to realize his experience of living. Anything less is not good enough.

Posted in General Work/Life, My Theories and Ideas, Personal, Philosophy, Uncategorized | Tagged: , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments »

 
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