Saturday, October 31, 2009

What's really wrong with Ayn Rand

Ayn Rand was the author of the novels The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged and the founder of the philosophy of Objectivism. Recently several humorous articles have made fun of adolescent enthusiasm for Rand, and pointed out the real dangers of retaining this enthusiasm into adulthood [see Alan Greenspan]. But critics often miss the fundamental flaw in Objectivism: the attempt to combine essentialism with atheism. Rand claimed her favorite philosophers were Aristotle and Saint Thomas Aquinas, both of whom placed God at the core of their essentialist philosophies. Rand also wanted to be an essentialist, to help her derive axiomatic proofs of her absolutist moral and economic theories. Essentialism (and the related ideas of universals and Platonic forms) was strongly criticized by more recent scientifically-minded philosophers such as Hume, Popper, and Quine. Rand has never gotten much respect in academic philosophy, and I am unable to find an academically respected philosopher who is both an atheist and an essentialist. I suspect the combination just doesn't work.

As implied in the linked articles, this combination of essentialism and atheism is probably also key to Rand's appeal to a very specific type of adolescent: one who has recently left their absolutist religious faith behind.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Dawkins on Essentialism

For the mind encased in Platonic blinkers, a rabbit is a rabbit is a rabbit. To suggest that rabbitkind constitutes a kind of shifting cloud of statistical averages, or that today's typical rabbit might be different from the typical rabbit of a million years ago or the typical rabbit of a million years hence, seems to violate an internal taboo. Indeed, psychologists studying the development of language tell us that children are natural essentialists. Maybe they have to be if they are to remain sane while their developing minds divide things into discrete categories each entitled to a unique noun. It is no wonder that Adam's first task, in the Genesis myth, was to give all the animals names.

And it is no wonder, in Mayr's view, that we humans had to wait for our Darwin until well into the nineteenth century. To dramatize how very anti-essentialist evolution is, consider the following. On the 'population-thinking' evolutionary view, every animal is linked to every other animal, say rabbit to leopard, by a chain of intermediates, each so similar to the next that every link could in principle mate with its neighbors in the chain and produce fertile offspring. You can't violate the essentialist taboo more comprehensively than that. And this is not some vague thought experiment confined to the imagination. On the evolutionary view, there really is a series of intermediate animals connecting a rabbit to a leopard, every one of whom lived and breathed, every one of whom would have been placed in exactly the same species as its immediate neighbors on either side in the long, sliding continuum. Indeed, every one of the series was the child of its neighbor on one side and the parent of its neighbor on the other...

Richard Dawkins, The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution, p. 23-24.