Rebirth of Reason


667; or, How Objectivists Are Not Materialists
by Rodney Rawlings

Because of Objectivism’s emphasis on all-embracing objectivity, logic, reason, and causality, and its doctrine that all knowledge is rooted in the evidence of the senses, it has often been criticized as materialist—that is, as believing that the world consists fundamentally of physical reality only. The fact that much of Ayn Rand’s thought concerns life, consciousness, volition, and morality is viewed as a contradiction of this basic orientation. These critics hold that the only realm of reality amenable to rationality is that which consists of matter and energy, and that science is also so restricted.

An interesting version of this charge was made on the SOLO General Forum by Mr. William Tingley, also known as “Citizen Rat,” and the following discussion will concentrate on his views as expressed in the thread “The Number of the Beast” and elsewhere. Many of my remarks will also be relevant to the views of other thinkers who express this opinion of Objectivism, especially those who seek escape from the limitations of materialism by consciously and explicitly embracing faith and religion—as do many conservatives, for example.

Such thinkers point to Ayn Rand’s theory of rational self-interest as evidence of the cold aridity that her espousal of an exclusively rational and supposedly materialistic worldview entails. Her theory is held not to be a system of morality at all, excluding as it does the concern for one’s fellow man and such interpersonal virtues as kindness and charity that ought to form the core of any ethic. In Rand’s system, consideration for the interests of others would seem to stem from mere prudence—carefulness not to harm others in a way that will redound against one’s own interests—not from any noble principles.

Such a system of mutual prudence, it is held, does not form a solid basis for social harmony. As one becomes more successful in pursuit of one’s own interests, one needs others less because one becomes stronger and more self-sufficient. Therefore there is no incentive to treat others with dignity and justice any more; even murder is not out of the question, since there are conceivably situations in which this act would be to one’s benefit.

So reason is not a respectable guide in all areas. It is the role of faith, according to Citizen Rat, to “fill the gaps in knowledge essential to the good life.” Science can never provide us the knowledge of human nature that we need for a full and moral existence. Thus, for example, the standards of good and evil must be taken on faith because they cannot be established scientifically.

The absolute denial of God’s existence by Objectivism turns it into a materialist philosophy despite its own protestations, according to Citizen Rat. It is all right to be an atheist due to the lack of physical evidence for a deity, but to deny all possibility that there could be such a being is to advocate a purely materialistic view of the world, one that flies in the face of our experience of consciousness, life, and volition. And, in fact, such atheistic belief fulfills the function of a religion within Objectivism, grounded as it is in what can only be called a faith that the universe is mechanical, soulless, deterministic, and godless.

For those who decide to believe in God, the deity, besides being the creator of the world and a source of our free will, is a source of general hope in a world where utopias always fail due to our flawed human nature. According to Christian conservatives, of which Citizen Rat is one, free-market capitalism, resting as it does on the virtues of decency, justice, and freedom, is the best social system even though it is not ideal. Rather than making atheism central to its doctrine, Objectivism should ally itself with religionists and other advocates of laissez-faire in order to gain the freedom required to pursue its other goals.

The above, I hope, summarizes the opinions of Citizen Rat sufficiently accurately. There are contradictions in his views that make the process of summarization a bit difficult. In any case, I think my account is close enough for our purposes here.

Rather than engaging in a point-by-point refutation, I will simply present an alternative view of reality. Since Citizen Rat bases his own view on his interpretation of human experience, I will try to show how Objectivism builds up its own structure on the same foundation but comes to a radically different conclusion. That is why I have titled this article “How [rather than ‘Why’] Objectivists Are Not Materialists”: it is not so much that we have considered materialism and then rejected it, as that we have considered reality and never found ourselves in materialist territory. (The “667” is my one-upmanship on “666,” the biblical “number of the beast.”)

When I say “materialism,” I mean it in the sense ascribed to the term by Citizen Rat, one that would preclude the existence of life, consciousness, and volition. Philosophers have disagreed about many aspects of the materialist viewpoint, including exactly what constitutes matter and what properties it subsumes. One philosophical dictionary says “As most commonly understood in philosophy, the term denotes the doctrine that whatever exists is either matter, or entirely dependent on matter for its existence.” I should note here that, in my opinion, Objectivism leaves open the latter possibility on the basis of what would be a very different and expanded understanding of the nature of matter from the one we now possess. But at present this is only a very speculative hypothesis and irrelevant to this essay.

The discussion will concentrate on metaphysics and epistemology, which really underlie the other aspects. At the end I will briefly apply these wider principles to ethics and politics in a way that may help clarify them.
How Objectivism Builds Its Metaphysics Using Its Epistemology
According to Objectivism, the basis of all man’s knowledge is his five senses and the mental operations that he performs with this information. The senses are man’s first and, ultimately, only contact with reality.

How do we know? Ultimately, through introspection about memories and experiences of our mental life. What if someone else says he remembers differently? Well, he’s wrong, at least when talking about the earliest years of his awareness; and there is no use arguing on this point. In later years, of course, it is possible for a person to succumb to some form of subjectivity, so that he begins to perform mental operations without the ultimate tether of sensory experience. But the result of such a process has no claim to the title of “knowledge.” How is a growing human being to know this? Because at a later stage of this sensory-based intellectual development, when reasoning has become second nature, it is possible to figure out that by the nature of being, nothing is exempt from the principles we have been learning and applying all our lives; and we have discovered in the school of hard knocks how easy it is to go off the rails cognitively by any of a number of means that begin to tempt us later on. In other words, we are already familiar with many of the traps that cause us to fall into error.

When a baby first becomes primitively aware, it is confronted with a sensory chaos which it must learn to integrate into objects and their qualities; later, the child begins to note similarities and differences between things and to form concepts. Because the child has control over these mental operations, he or she is quite aware of them and how they operate, and is therefore able to form concepts denoting and involving states of consciousness. At one point the child steps back from all these facts and begins to grasp the concept of self. Another thing that he or she becomes aware of is the just-noted fact that all these mental processes are under his or her control. This, of course, is the basis of the concept of volition.

These ideas of the physical world, the mental world, and the self are all part of the child’s store of knowledge about reality. The Latin verb “to know” is scire, and in a fundamental sense the child has already been gaining scientific knowledge. He or she is guided by observation, and to some extent experiment, and implicitly uses the laws of logic to form a coherent, non-contradictory view of the world. Later, if the child decides to dedicate himself or herself to investigate some aspect of reality in a highly methodical and focused way, he or she will have become a scientist in the specific meaning of the term. But there is no real difference between his or her early processes in learning about reality and those processes followed by scientists.

Please note that the realm of science, both in its early form as used by the child and in its professional form as used by the scientist proper, includes the concepts of consciousness, self, and volition. These are all part of the world, they must all be reconciled with each other non-contradictorily, their interrelationships must all be understood by the child from the first. In no way is the enterprise of science restricted to the study of matter and energy, even though the entire structure of knowledge rests upon the foundation of the sensory perception of physical objects.

Despite the fact that human knowledge-gathering exists as a continuum from the infant’s act of opening its eyes, to the child’s grasp of self, to the chemist’s act of heating a test tube over a Bunsen burner, with no difference in principle from one end to the other, many thinkers still seem to have a desire to restrict the term “science” in such a way that it loses many of the qualities that should properly be associated with it. We have seen how some have wanted to confine it to the physical world. Similarly, others have tried to characterize science as exclusively concerned with things that can be measured and tested, thus fencing it in to only certain aspects of the physical world at that.

If science were restricted to the study of physical things, there would be no such disciplines as psychology, geometry, mathematics, biology, economics, history, etc. These all involve the systematic investigation of some non-material aspect of reality. The logical and causal relationships that science investigates interpenetrate each of these fields and many more, and connect them in myriad ways to each other and to the physical sciences. Reality is a single all-embracing unity and it is the task of science to understand it as completely and accurately as possible. Science is willing to accept information from any source whatever, and concerning any topic whatever.

The science of psychology is the clearest example of a field dominated by concepts of consciousness. And a large proportion of the information with which it deals derives from introspection—that is, from psychologists’ thinking scientifically about their own mental operations. (Granted, behaviorist psychology eschews the examination of awareness, but that is only one school of thought and far from a universally respected one.) In addition to consciousness, psychology of course deals in ideas about life, self, and volition.

Other sciences—biology, economics, history, etc.—represent a combination of these non-physical concepts with more tangible ones.

Here, we must mention the queen of the sciences, philosophy. Philosophy is the science that studies the widest aspects of reality. It embraces the total of existence and has things to say about the nature and interrelationships between the most basic aspects of existence and of consciousness. It is the science that makes sense of all the other branches of knowledge, all the other sciences and all the rest of man’s knowledge. Within philosophy, we have, among others, the science of ethics and the science of epistemology. These sciences are as far removed from physical reality, measurability, and testability as it is possible to get.

Just as there is no essential difference between the methods used by the child and those used by the scientist, so there is no essential difference between these and the methods of philosophical inquiry. Those methods are, in a word, reason—the application of logic to experience.

We have seen that there is no justification for assuming science is restricted to the study of matter. It should be noted here that matter is in many ways just as full of mysteries as consciousness. For example, it is not known exactly what an electron is or why it behaves as it does, and scientists do not understand how gravity exerts its force across space. Conversely, a great many things are understood about man’s process of awareness, the requirements of mental health, etc. There is no metaphysical or epistemological wall between the study of matter and the study of mind.

To say that everything in the universe is knowable is merely to say that they exist regardless of what we think or feel and that we can learn about these things by observation and reasoning. It does not imply that everything is reducible to matter and energy, and it does not imply that the actions of all entities are preordained. As long as something exists, it will be subject to the laws of identity, non-contradiction, and causality, and it will sooner or later have observable effects. All existence comes within the purview of reason.

How does this apply to life, consciousness, and volition? Well, they are all something in particular (identity), nothing that can be said about them conflicts with anything else about them or with our other knowledge (non-contradiction), and their actions or potentialities proceed from what they are (causality).

As regards man’s control over the operations of his mind, in other words volition, some people have a problem reconciling it with causality. They believe that every action, including man’s choices, must be a mere reaction to some prior event or set of events—or else it is causeless. They think of cause-and-effect as a relationship between events and events, as if everything in the universe were like a set of billiard balls whose movements are caused and determined by the impacts of other billiard balls. Thus, in their view nothing can happen without a previous event that gives rise to it.

But, in fact, the billiard ball example is only a very special expression of causation in nature. It is not even archetypical of matter and energy. For example, consider the force of gravity. A planet can attract a meteor, pulling it into its orbit, without having reacted to anything. Rather than reaction-reaction, one should characterize the movements and changes in physical nature as a network of interactions between entities, some of which act and some of which react. Thus, that which brings about change is ultimately some thing, not some previous change. And the type of action or effect it can engender is limited by the type of thing it is.

On this view, the universe is full of first causes or “uncaused causes.” As for the ultimate ground of the actions of any given entity, for example the reason why gravity happens, while we may analyze it partway down we must eventually reach a point where an entity’s action is to be regarded as simply the expression of what it is.

Now, there is no reason to regard the mechanistic interactions of physical matter as the only possible manifestation of causation in nature. The observable, final actions of a living organism originate within that organism; but it would be an unwarranted leap beyond the evidence to assume that they are merely the end result of the interactions of the physical materials involved. So the causative entity in the case of living things must be regarded as the creature itself. This is especially clear when we are talking about the higher animals, who obviously act according to their awareness of the world.

Speaking of awareness, it constitutes another reason why physical interactions cannot be seen as the only valid pattern of causation. For example, something causes us to be aware of the world, and the experience of consciousness is wholly outside the realm of physical interactions as man has conceptualized them thus far. And just as we have no reason to bring in the mechanistic idea from the realm of matter into the realm of consciousness, we have no reason to bring in the idea of determinism either.

As far as we know, non-human forms of awareness do not include the ability to control mental operations. So, at this point, it makes sense to look upon the actions of lower animals as “predetermined.” But in the case of man, both every person’s awareness of his own responsibility to think and the fact that anything else leads to logical contradictions forbid us, in the name of science, to apply the idea of determinism to the actions of human beings.

The non-deterministic nature of man, when combined with the “butterfly effect” theory that every small motion has far-reaching consequences across the universe, might even be grounds to conclude that determinism does not now exist anywhere at all! That is, no event anywhere at all is preordained, since man exists in the universe.

To sum up: If one holds, as Objectivism does, that all reasoning proceeds from the data provided by the senses (which would include the fact of our awareness of that data and of what our minds do with it) there is no justification for viewing consciousness, life, and volition as existing in some separate realm from that in which the concepts of objectivity, identity, causality, logic, etc. operate. With regard to the phenomenon of life, Objectivism has a worldview similar to that of Aristotelianism: it is not some mysterious supernatural phenomenon, like an annoying monkeywrench thrown into the machinery of our world, but simply another part of our world to be investigated.

Ethics and Politics
In our age, most people do not choose their moral principles by means of independent thought—and much less do they attempt to ground morality as such on reason. They accept whatever they are taught or whatever is in the cultural atmosphere around them; often this means some form of religious faith. The realm of ethics is held to be beyond rational justification.

This situation reflects a similar one in the field of philosophy. Though many have tried, philosophers have been unable to establish moral principles by appeals to reality and logic. The basic reason is that they could not find any link between “is” and “ought.” How do you reason from facts that are, to discover facts that should be? This failure has led many to conclude that the concept of the good—which is the basis of ethics—is outside the realm of reason entirely. Correspondingly, those who believe that the phenomena of consciousness and volition are not amenable to being understood through the principles of causation and logic find this view of ethics to be perfectly in line with their belief.

Ayn Rand’s solution to the is-ought problem is, very briefly, as follows: ethics seeks to discover man’s proper values; so let us then ask what values are, and what facts of reality give rise to the concept of value.

This inquiry leads us to discover that value is inseparable from the phenomenon of life, which is conditional upon action; consideration of the various life forms on earth makes us see how each of them goes about pursuing its peculiar values, which all relate to the ultimate value which is its life; for conscious beings, the basic means of survival is awareness; for man, the basic means of awareness, its most powerful expression, is his conceptual faculty or reason; but reason is not automatic, its operation depends upon an exercise of will; therefore, the primary moral act is to choose to think.

Now, the achievement of one’s self-interest, under this system, turns out to be the standard of virtue. The basis of this insight comes early in the reasoning chain: it is built into the very nature of the is-ought connection, by virtue of the fact that it consists in the phenomenon of life and the fact that life is conditional upon an individual organism’s action. But it is not enough to know one should be selfish. Simply indulging one’s desires and whims will not further one’s life; this requires that one direct one’s rational faculty to discovering what is in fact to one’s own interest and what actions are needed to sustain and preserve it.

Many, many steps have been omitted here, but the preceding is the barest essence of Rand’s ethical theory of rational self-interest.

To turn to politics, the first thing to realize is that it also deals with values, this time governing the organization of society, or large numbers of human beings dealing with one another. Therefore all the same preliminary logic applies, and we must accept all the conclusions thus far reached about human beings as individuals. We can only extend them to the problem of society. That is why, according to Objectivism, the object of a political system must be to allow individuals to be moral, in other words to pursue their self-interest. Consequently, politics must be based upon individual rights in all spheres of human life, and one of these is of course complete freedom of action—which can only be achieved by outlawing the use of force.

In the area of production and trade, this means capitalism; but economics is only a consequential value, not a primary one. You cannot expect, as many conservatives do, to liberate all production and trade without adopting and fighting for the philosophical, metaphysical, ethical principles that alone support and justify it. For example, one must relinquish any hope of winning the battle by appealing to that primitive form of philosophy known as religious faith.

Let me sum up what all this means with regard to the criticisms discussed at the start of this article.

One basic premise that these criticisms seem to rest on is that objectivity, logic, reason, and causality apply only to physical things, imply determinism and mechanism, and are contrary to all the phenomena of life, awareness, and choice. This view goes hand-in-hand with the premise that science is restricted to studying only that which can be measured and tested—basically matter and energy. Some religionists take this to the extreme of believing that there is a fundamental cleavage in the world, with the rational world of science in one half and the supernatural world of God in the other.

According to Objectivist epistemology, in which awareness begins with experience, this cleavage never develops: science begins right away, and it is confronted with both the world of objects and the world of awareness. The attempt to understand these phenomena and their relationships as they really exist is the impulse to objectivity, and drives the enterprise of reason, of which logic is an integral part. At a certain point we come to realize the nature of being as such, whether that which exists is a stone or a thought. We see that everything is a particular, and that its particularity is expressed by its actions and effects. This is the birth of the concept of causality, and we have not had to slice reality in two to arrive at it. Nor have we said to ourselves: “Wait a minute! How is it that I can control my thoughts and actions?”

The reasoning of science proceeds from the child’s stacking of blocks to the adult’s philosophical system-building. There is no change in the essential method—forming concepts from sensory information and integrating those concepts into higher and higher concepts. Provided the system-building has been rational all down the line, man arrives at a philosophy that can offer a firm foundation for his existing knowledge, guide him in seeking further knowledge, and give him principles for living.

The derivation of a system of morality on the basis of reason has been briefly described above. I have shown how Objectivism arrives at the principle of rational self-interest. The objection is raised by many that if one accepts this principle, acts that seem quite wrong according to common sense might be held to be moral. For example, what if it is to one’s benefit to kill another person if this might help us? It would seem that the more successful we are in life, and the less dependent on others, the more often it might be in our self-interest to run roughshod over our fellow man.

The basic answer to this objection is that if one derives the is-ought connection as I have described above, one sees one’s self-interest as depending on the consistent application of long-range principles based on the nature of man, the needs of his proper survival, the nature of society and the benefits it provides, and the recognition of individual rights both by society and by oneself. It does not further one’s life to ignore reality and to play it short-range. Also, a man who lives by the strict guidance of morality in this sense quickly begins to appreciate other men in themselves, abstractly and apart from his particular aims.

Why does Objectivism completely reject any notion of a deity? We have seen that Objectivist epistemology, which gives philosophical expression and extension to man’s earliest methods of apprehending existence, leaves nothing untouched. That is to say, it comprehends all aspects of our experience from matter to volition, and it grasps that objectivity, logic, reason, and causality apply to all of it. Since God is posited in explanation of the phenomena of consciousness and is largely defined as being beyond man’s rational understanding, it should be obvious why Objectivism is atheistic and can be nothing else. The denial of God’s existence is not central to the philosophy, but to leave open the possibility of such a supernatural being would be an egregious contradiction.

A glance at today’s headlines should tell us that the time is past for countenancing or making terms with such contradictions. Especially when it is clear that political ideas founded ultimately on the basis of the metaphysical is-ought connection would be a source, not only of harmony among men, but of awe-inspiring hope for a perfect society.
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