Paths To Knowledge (dot Science)

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Ayn Rand, Objectivism and Modern Physics – some thoughts

Posted by pwl on March 30, 2009

From my perspective.

I find Ayn Rand’s writing and films quite boring and dry although parts can be fascinating.

What is clear however is the notion of objective reality as distinct from ourselves. While this isn’t an idea original to Rand it’s the key notion in her objectivism that forms the foundation for the rest which can be taken or cast aside.

The three core axioms of Existence, Consciousness and Identity are irreducible. And again these ideas are not original to Rand.

Yet the combination of these ideas and others is unique to Rand and that is her value to humanity.

While I certainly don’t even fully grasp her philosophy the core of it is fully compatible with science.

Yes, even the weirdness of quantum science or other leading and supported physics theories of today.

The issue of certainty that Rand communicates seems rooted in these core notions which can be tested against reality.

Yes, the ideas of Rand can be tested against objective reality. For if they can’t they’d be no better than any other philosophy that is disconnected from objective reality.

Any philosophy that attempts to look to objective reality for insight must be testable like any other scientific theory.

How do you test existence? consciousness? identity?

Certainly these axioms are testable.

How do you test Rand’s political notions? Her notions of Capitalism? her notions of self interest?

Those are a bit harder to test.

There are many notions in science that are just ways of looking at things. It’s often a mistake to think that they are real. The notion of the many worlds is one of those. Not all thought experiments are meant to suggest that that is the way the universe, existence and objective reality actually are. If they are to be taken as assertions of a hypothesis of reality then they must be testable, they must be falsifiable, otherwise they are begin to slide into the invisible friend category.

As a scientist I find foundational Rand’s notions highly compatible with the view of objective reality we’ve gained from our well known and high tested theories of science that show us glimpses of the nature of Nature.

Gravity Sucks is one way to encapsulate the notions of Newton in two words. F=ma and other equations say it much more precisely. Einstein radically altered the perspective so that “gravity sucks” is basically wrong since it’s really “gravity looks like it sucks when it’s really that space is warped making it look like gravity sucks”. Yet, Gravity Sucks still works for most humans most of the time. Precision is needed for engineers and they resort to Newton for almost all of their work with only a few resorting to Einstein’s more precise view point and equations.

The same is the case with Philosophy. Rand hit it on the head in so many areas. Others, not so much.

“It is a mistake to not think for yourself. Yet it’s also a mistake to not comprehend the thinking of others. It is a mistake to blindly accept the ideas, beliefs, delusions of others unless it isn’ for survival. Yet it’s also a mistake to not comprehend the ideas, beliefs and delusions of others without critical analysis.” – pwl

There in lies a balance in thinking. How does one know what one knows?

In most philosophies the nuggets of insight are based in logic divorced from any connection of being tested against objective reality.

At least Ayn Rand made the attempt to create a philosophy grounded in a testable objective reality.

Above the core testable axioms and first few layers of objectivism there are many layers of notions whose validity are proportional to their connection with objective reality.

The foundations of objectivism are sound science and philosophy of science.

Much of the philosophical discourse is designed to bring your comprehension to the philosophy, at least in that regard Rand made a courageous attempt at accessibility of a dry subject. Others have failed, just read the classics, talk about boring beyond belief.

Rand’s Objectivism slices through and undermines the foundations of so many philosophies that it’s not funny. That’s one reason that she is despised by the Invisible Friend Crowd.

What interests me more than any result of slicing and dicing of ideas, beliefs, axioms, delusions, theories, evidence, etc… are the tools of said slicing and dicing. The tools of reasoning from a cold perspective of logic connected and tested with objective reality every step of the way.

Yet, one needs to also address the very real experience of human beings being human beings. The ineffable that which is each of us.

The inquiry holds more interest to me than the destination. Is that true for Rand? Maybe for her the destination was more important in which case the level of certainly which she built her entire lifetime would have significant significance.

Just a few mostly untested thoughts.

4 Responses to “Ayn Rand, Objectivism and Modern Physics – some thoughts”

  1. Cecil R. Williams said

    Your article does seem to indicate that you have read Ayn Rand – and even grasped some of it. Almost all of those critics I have read outside of the Objectivist community have not. Thank you.

    On a re-read you might grasp that ‘Atlas Shrugged’ may be read on three distinct levels. They are, a page turner modern novel, a literary work, or a philosophy text. Rush Limbaugh is an example of a modern ‘reader’ who currently promotes her book. Thousands of high school/college literature teachers pass our this book to be read as literature is an example of the second level.

    The thrid level reader, however, is not only a reader, but he or she studies it and thinks through her tome. When writing this book Ms Rand enjoyed the company of many follwers who proofed her drafts, paying particular attention word meanings(to use the precise word), sentence structures, idea presentation and sequences.

    My hypothesis is that in the science community an ‘individualist’ tends to relate immediately to her while a ‘tribalist’ tends to reject her immediately – regardless of the content of her philosophy of Objectivism. Those wavering back and fourth between the two extremes will tend to ‘go with the flow – so as to not to have to think about it.’ Note: I often hear lazy academics chatter, ‘there are no answers…’

    Hats off to you for having read her before commenting.

    Cecil R. Williams

  2. pwl said

    I appreciate your excellent comment Cecil. Very clear.

    Yes, I am definitely an individualist.

    Many who are tribalists are belief stricken by the “rules expressed in the tribe’s beliefs” and can’t entertain notions that violate those “group boundary beliefs”.

    Oh about 15 years ago I was wearing a suit downtown for a business meeting and some friends of mine skated by on their skate boards and didn’t even see me even though they were looking at me and had to avoid me. I turned and caught up with them at the street light and called out their names. They turned and saw me but didn’t recognize me as me as I was wearing a suit which is different from the casual cloths I usually wear. Once they did recognize me I was welcome into their tribe but before that they had not that friendly faces… then came the backlash from all the other suits walking on the street who were looking at me with disdain that I’d talk with these riffraff skaters! So I was violating the tribal rules of both tribes just because of what I was wearing.

    It was an enlightening experience that I saw in part because of a course I took which taught me to see that type of distinction by playing a game called “The DOT Game” where you group together into groups of people with your color of dot on their forehead. Of course the referees of the game control which color of dot is on your forehead and you don’t know which it is when the game starts or restarts. There is no talking and no mirrors, also no touching. Those are all faults and the game is reset with dots moving from forehead to forehead while eyes are closed. Also one person is blindfolded completely so that they can’t see anything. It’s a game of cooperation and totally awesome. It needs about 100 people to play although I’ve lead it with less, about 60.

    The key learning that I took away from the game was an ability to distinguish between these “tribal or group boundaries” driven by “rules created by tribal/group beliefs”. This distinction lets one move more effectively between groups and adapt as needed.

    Thanks for reminding me about it with your distinction of tribalists and individualists.

    It’s interesting that Rush would be promoting the book considering that Rand was such an avowed atheist.

    All the best,


  3. pwl said

    In an email GJE wrote: Quote of the Day seen on Slashdot [dot org]:

    “There are two novels that can change a bookish fourteen-year old’s life: The Lord of the Rings and Atlas Shrugged. One is a childish fantasy that often engenders a lifelong obsession with its unbelievable heroes, leading to an emotionally stunted, socially crippled adulthood, unable to deal with the real world. The other, of course, involves orcs.”

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