Monday, December 24, 2012

Morgan Reynolds

Atheism vs agnosticism


  1. I'm amazed that Dr Morgan Reynolds has survived so well the maleficent influences of The Chicago School and Ayn Rand. His keen mind seems never to have stopped developing, so I'm always glad to hear what he's saying. Myself I'm an atheist who was never attracted to Ayn Rand because she was such a bad writer and because her understanding of Aristotle was woefully unsophisticated. Rand's "virtue of selfishness" as a basis for ethics is logically contradictory since the very purpose of an ethics is to curb naked instincts. Here's a "contradiction in nature", Morgan, which you say is an impossibility: Rand's "ethics" is based on a logical contradiction, yet her "ethics" has been accepted, and still is, by millions who base their lives on reason - a contradiction in HUMAN nature, to be sure. But I believe, as did a REAL Aristotelian scholar, G W F Hegel, that there are contradictions in PHYSICAL nature, as well. Just as contradictions in human dialogue lead to higher levels of understanding, contradictions in the dialectics of nature lead to higher levels of structure; as examples, the contradiction between the nurturing of a nascent tree as a seed under the ground and its full blossoming in open air, or the contradiction between the free flow of subsurface magma and the binding weight of previously cooled surface magma that together produce a volcanic eruption. One contradiction in social nature that I think you'll appreciate, if you haven't already, Morgan: that between the tautology on which The Law of Supply and Demand is based and its marvelous ability to give us useful economic information.

    Turning to the topic at hand, there seems to be this HUGE contradiction in religion that I'm tasked to understand. If Joseph Atwill has it right (and I'm convinced he does, see ), the Flavian Caesars created Jesus as a fictional character to form the basis for a pacifying state religion. Yet, another Christianity having Jesus as its central figure arose by the end of the first millennia and blossomed over the next beside the murderous official one, typically serving as its antagonist. How could the same Jesus serve in such different capacities?

  2. "Rand's 'virtue of selfishness' as a basis for ethics is logically contradictory since the very purpose of an ethics is to curb naked instincts." - atlantabill

    I'm not sure where the contradiction in Rand's ethics occurs. Rand defended a rationalist (or cognitivist) ethics. This is to say that her system of rights and wrongs is only detectable by reasoning minds, not by brute instincts. Consider this excerpt from Rand's first essay in The Virtue of Selfishness entitled "The Objectivist Ethics":

    "The virtue of Rationality means the recognition and acceptance of reason as one's only source of knowledge, one's only judge of values and one's only guide to action. It means one's total commitment to a state of full, conscious awareness, to the maintenance of a full mental focus in all issues, in all choices, in all of one's waking hours....It means a commitment to the principle that all of one's convictions, values, goals, desires and actions must be based on, derived from, chosen and validated by a process of thought--as precise and scrupulous a process of thought, directed by as ruthlessly strict an application of logic, as one's fullest capacity permits" (28).

    I think this excerpt makes it unambiguous that Rand champions reason over instinct. She later adds, "Neither life nor happiness can be achieved by the pursuit of irrational whims" (31).

    This is not to say that I consider Rand's ethical system to be sound; I actually think she's guilty of the naturalistic fallacy--turning an "is" into an "ought"--but this only compromises the foundation of her ethics, not its content.

    The content of her ethics has strong intuitive and rational appeal: Specifically, her system treats each human being as an end in him or herself (something she ironically has in common with Kant despite her derision of his philosophy). Phrased in the negative, she holds that men are NOT slaves--neither to supernatural beings nor to other men. Worked out to its logical extremes, this means that a man can live his life FOR himself--his life is an end in itself. Hence, the "virtue of selfishness"--the living of one's life for his or herself.

    It is here that I find most people misinterpret Rand's ethics. Many mistake the living of one's life for oneself--selfishness--to entail that one's life is the ONLY end in the universe. They think that living FOR oneself means that no one else's life has any value. Thus, many mistakenly think that Rand permits theft, murder, fraud, etc.; the piece that these folks miss is that EVERY human has the same right of selfishness--their lives are ends in themselves as well. This is consistent with her assertion that men are NOT slaves or sacrificial animals. To rob, murder, or cheat another human would be to treat that person as a being lacking autonomy and property rights--i.e. to treat that person as a slave. Thus, Rand's system does not permit a sort of unrestricted,unrelenting pursuit of one's own interests--a selfishness run amok.

    So even though Rand's ethics deserves some criticism at the level of ontology, I do not think the charge of logical contradiction is appropriate.

  3. I once heard a live broadcast of Rand speaking at Fordham University in New York. At the end of her speech she took questions. The first was this: "Ms Rand, unlike others who have asked for large honorariums, you have always been a friend of the Forum and waived any fee. Is this not an example of altruism and a refutation of your entire philosophy?" The audience laughed for a full three minutes. Ayn Rand's reply was that a person's reward need not be monetary nor immediate. I considered her answer to have been a fudge that obscured the distinction between selfishness and altruism.

    As decent and courteous as Ayn Rand may have been toward her associates, her monstrous equation of altruism with "evil" has done incalculable harm to human civilization. It's a formulation one would expect from a fascist; which was what Ayn Rand was, a fascist atheist. The outright logical contradiction still stands, regardless of what her personal character might have been: selfishness is the unbridled surrender to instinct, and as such cannot serve as the basis for an ethics - save the "ethics" of the jungle, which is what governs her beloved capitalism. The sole reason she called her philosophy "Objectivism" was her fascist hatred of the Materialist School (from which it is ham-handedly plagiarized), owing to the school's fruition through the monumental work of Marx and Engels.

  4. My read of Rand's ethics produces no conflict between her version of selfishness and generosity. The active ingredient of her moral system is that every exchange of property be done voluntarily. So long as one freely chooses to bestow a piece of his or her property to another free of charge, Rand's system would permit it. It just so happens that, for the majority of exchanges, all participants are seeking some kind of monetary recompense. Human nature is such, though, that some--in fact many--kinds of values are intangible or even spiritual in nature. This means that a person could find satisfaction in different kinds of outwardly charitable acts. The willful pursuit of such acts, then, is utterly compatible with Rand's idea of rational self-interest.

    It is worth emphasizing that Rand was chiefly opposed to the violation of human autonomy by the use of force. She cried out for the resolution of conflicts by way of discussion rather than guns. She despised rulers, dictators, and despots precisely because they enslaved human beings through the use of force. Her aim was a thorough human liberation--not by a God or a King, but by a mutual acceptance of all men of the principles of reason.

    I think this is the part of her work that has inspired so many. There's a ring of truth in the proposition that men are free and that threatening and/or killing one another is a barbaric form of life. If there is such a thing as progress for humankind, the sensible amongst us almost universally envision a world free of bloodshed--a world where men settle their differences with their words according to an authentic set of principles of justice.

    It's fair enough to criticize elements of Rand's work for particular shortcomings, but that is a far cry from dismissing her work so readily and derisively as is common in the academic and intellectual community. It's no small task to develop an entire system of philosophy, then represent that system in a series of novels and articles. The amount of vigor, commitment, and passion that one must conjure for such tasks is what all of us, I suspect, strive for in our own lives. Rand was a person who cared profoundly for the welfare of humankind, and dedicated an entire lifetime to understanding it and seeking ways to improve it. Even though she likely got some things wrong, she can't be faulted for trying. Sorting out how to live a human life on this planet is no means an easy task.

  5. The title seems odd to me, what about deism?

  6. Jim, this was an excellent discussion in my view.

    With respect to Hume, recall that he argues against induction on the grounds that we cannot presuppose a uniformity in nature. In other words, what we refer to as the laws of nature cannot be proven in the strictest sense. We have only constant conjunction, which falls short of absolute certainty and proof. It is indeed odd then, and in fact a contradiction in Hume's thinking, that as you pointed out, he objects to the possibility of miracles. For what is a miracle, other than nature not acting uniformly?

    Morgan raised a very good point when he noted the contradiction between an all-knowing and all-powerful God IF you place God outside of space and time. Spinoza in fact points this out and builds his system with this in mind. For if God is outside of time, then all of creation, the past, the present and the future from our point of view is eternally present to God. Therefore by definition he could not create anyting anew if He was placed outside of time. He would indeed be powerless, in other words, non-existent, and we would of course not be free. The resolution of this difficulty is to place God back in time, and this is what western philosophy did after Spinoza, in particular with Hegel, who understood the need for God to be an evolving entity IN time.

    It is interesting that many of the new age "thinkers" once again place God outside of time, not realizing that this problem was recognized and surpassed by western philosophical thought about 4oo years ago!

    The problem of evil proves that God cannot be all-everything. Again, this was fully realized with Hegel about 200 years ago. And as you noted in the show, the God of the old testament is different from the God of the new. Even the Bible agrees that God is an evolving entity, and this is shown throughout both testaments.

    Your supposition that science has the answers and is the most reasonable method of attaining to truth presupposes that material substance exists. Something that Hegel, Plato and many others would deny. If reality is ideal then science has practical value only. And the laws of nature that science would suggest are only patterns of the presentation of ideas.

    The question of infinite regress or creation/big bang is easily resovable if we reject that suggestion that Morgan was so adamant about that something cannot come from nothing. or, ex nihilo nihil fit. But this is silly. For where could something possibly come from other than nothing?

    Also, the theory of evolution with both you and Morgan accept in some sense, is not compatible with the possibility of an infinite regress. For if evolution was true and existence has always been here, then the full evolutionary process would have realized itself an infinite amount of time ago. Therefore there is either no evolution or no infinite regress. Clearly there is evolution, whether it be by design or by random mutation, therefore there is no infinite regress, and existence had a beginning out of nothing.

    Please do more philosophical shows!