Friday, December 02, 2005

Smear Followup (part 1)

In the current December 2005 issue of Commentary Magazine, letters in response to Algis Valiunas's essay "Who needs Ayn Rand" from the September 2005 issue are published, as well as Valiunas's response to the letters. Unlike the original essay, the letters and Valiunas's response are available online (the letters begin on page 20 and the response follows, hat-tip HBL). As readers of this blog may remember, I wrote a long piece criticising the Valiunas essay back in September.

As already mentioned int the blog Passing Thoughts, Valiunas's response is "a truly embarassing rejoinder." It is however a good illustration how some Conservatives are simply unable to go beyond their preconceived views about Ayn Rand and their continuing stubborn refusal to take her ideas seriously.

First of all, Valiunas only concedes a single error -- "the publication date of Ayn Rand's first novel" even though numerous others have been pointed out to him in the letters preceding his response, including the fact that the Ayn Rand Institute (ARI) was established in 1985, after her death, a fact he continues to ignore in his confusion of the Nathaniel Branded Institute with ARI.

But let's look at Valiunas's various attempts to criticise Rand's views. He claims:
Socrates, that paragon of reason, famously declared that he knew what he did not know; this awareness of reason’s limitations distinguishes him from those pretending to knowledge they do not actually have. Rand is one of the pretenders: she believes—never proves—that human reason can answer every question, and that indeed her own philosophy does precisely that, once and for all.
It difficult to see what Valiunas is aiming at here. Ayn Rand argued:
Reason (the faculty which identifies and integrates the material provided by man's senses) is man's only means of perceiving reality, his only source of knowledge, his only guide to action, and his basic means of survival.
As far as I know she did not necessarily argue that human reason can answer every question (though that may ultimately be true). At any given time many questions may be unanswered. She did argue that if there is an answer, it would have be arrived at by means of reason, since that is the way man reaches answers. She also never claimed that her own philosophy answers every question. She explicitly acknowledged philosophical problems to which Objectivism as she defined it has no detailed answer (e.g., the problem of induction). She did have many crucial and original answers to questions in metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, politics and esthetics.

Ayn Rand did have reasons and proof for the answers she gave and they are elaborated in her writings, particularly her nonfiction books Virtue of Selfishness, Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal, and Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology as well as in the various other collections of her essays and lectures. It is true that she personally did not write a single volume tome on her ideas. However, during her lifetime she did endorse a lecture course as "the only authorized presentation of the entire theoretical structure of Objectivism." In addition, there has for some time now (since 1991) existed a book based on the authorized lecture course, written by the original presenter and foremost student and heir of Ayn Rand, Leonard Peikoff. If Mr. Valiunas had been truly interested in gaining an understanding of Ayn Rand's reasoning he could have consulted any of those sources but it seems that such research would get in the way of his berating Ayn Rand for her lack of proof for her ideas.

Let's continue to review Valiunas' claims:
In fact, Rand’s reasoning is founded on the very gobbledygook of imperious sentiment that she loathes as reason’s nemesis. She cannot demonstrate by reason the non-existence of God: rather, her pride tells her there cannot be a God, for to acknowledge that a perfect Being exists would be to admit her own inferiority, something her emotional constitution makes unthinkable. So she thought—more precisely, so she felt—at the age of fifteen, when she decided she was an atheist, and, as I noted in my article, she never really refined her basic thoughts or feelings on the matter.
To begin with, it seems an elementary error of logic to demand that Rand "demonstrate by reason the non-existence of God." The onus of proof is on him who asserts the positive. It can however, be shown that the Judeo-Christian God, when desribed in the traditional terms of infinite, omnipotent, omniscient, etc. violates all sorts of basic axioms of existence and logic that the concept simply makes no sense and therefore that cannot have an actual referent in reality. (and this was in fact done in Peikoff's authorized lectures on Objectivism). Of course, if the monotheist then chooses to redefine God, he may escape this reasoning but again, the onus of proof is on him to demonstrate the existence of God. Furthermore, to assert as a criticism that Ayn Rand "felt" that there is no God and "never really refined her thoughts or feelings" is a little disingenous. Ayn Rand refined and clarified numerous aspects of her thought, including her views on religion, as can clearly be seen if Valiunas bothered to study her intellectual development. Frankly, the issue of God is pretty basic. Valiunas, like all Conservatives, tries to pretend that having faith in God and not believing in God are equally faith-based position and thus the Conservatives's ever present assertion of "faith-in-reason" -- but the facts are otherwise. It is a rational conclusion that no evidence for God has ever been found and it is rational to conclude that an impossible of concept of God cannot exist in reality. On the other hand, it is a faith-based feeling that God exists. The two are not equivalent.
(to be continued)

No comments: