by Mark Wallace
In the rising prominence of Ayn Rand in today’s news and popular rhetoric has come a new wave of denouncers claiming to have singled out flaws in the logic of her philosophy. Most fall victim to the same fallacies as philosophy professors and commentators purporting to have done the same in classrooms and ivory tower publications since Ayn Rand set forth her philosophy in Atlas Shrugged in 1957.
A philosophical system, such as Objectivism, is a highly complex phenomenon. It terms of complexity, it might be loosely compared to Microsoft Windows, with its tens of millions of lines of code. And, as with Windows, all it takes to ruin everything is one wrong bit (misunderstanding).
With computer software, one wrong bit can ruin a gigabyte-sized program, causing it to fail or (worse) generate incorrect output. Malware writers rely on this, as their initial attacks generally target a single return address (32 or 64 bits). That’s all it takes to begin to undo completely the documented purpose and behavior of an enormous program.
In philosophy, a single misunderstood premise can enable the person with the misunderstanding to generate hundreds of lines – or even hundreds of pages – of carefully-reasoned argument, all of it ultimately wrong (because it’s built on that false premise). And because of the subtleties of natural language and the abstract nature of the subject matter, it may not be easy to play “philosophical detective” (Ayn Rand’s phrase) and locate the exact origin of the error.
My next observation goes to method. If I were studying, for example, Newtonian Mechanics as applied to observable Earthly phenomena (i.e., not sub-atomic and not at near-light velocity), and I performed an experiment that failed to confirm one of his Laws of Motion, I don’t think that the very next thing I would do is issue a press release to the effect that I had “rebutted Newton” as these authors claim so valiantly to have rebutted Rand. Given the overall intellectual context, including the status of Newtonian Mechanics in human thought and history, I would be more inclined to be cautious about my results, to think perhaps I hadn’t done my experiment carefully enough.
Notice, this has nothing to do with the position that one ought to accept Newtonian Mechanics “because Newton said so and he was the greatest scientist who ever lived” (the Argument from Authority).
For me, the same is true of Ayn Rand and Objectivism. I’m not a professional philosopher, so I don’t spend my life studying her work. But, if I ever read something of hers that I initially thought was wrong, I would be inclined (given my overall evaluation of and respect for her work) to think that perhaps I hadn’t understood the matter carefully enough. If I tried and didn’t “get it,” my response would be to try harder (and, if possible, ask for help).
Notice, this has nothing to do with the position that one ought to accept Objectivism (in its entirety) “because Ayn Rand said so and she was one of the greatest thinkers in history.” Anyone who knows anything about Ayn Rand knows that she would be the last person to ask for that kind of acceptance.
And just because Objectivism is an integrated philosophical system, doesn’t mean that you are forbidden to isolate one aspect of it and question that aspect. That is entirely permissible. It is theoretically possible that Objectivism is internally inconsistent and that one part (or more) of it is wrong, while the rest is correct. But before I announced such a finding, I would want to be extremely careful that I hadn’t made a mistake, myself. As her work grows to prominence ever more by the week, the legions of tract writers flailing desperately to dispute her theories would do well to observe such prudence and, as Rand was wont to say, “check their premises.”