And Now for Something Completely Different

Doug’s initial essay raised a number of questions. For the most part, we’ve been focusing on just one subset of them: those having to do with Rand’s attempt to argue from biological teleology to Aristotelian egoism to individual rights and the harmony of interests. In my initial post I did try to address one of Doug’s questions about Rand’s conception of capitalism, but no one really took the bait. (Well, no one here. Bryan Caplan replied elsewhere; see my response in the talkback.)

But Doug raised still other issues that none of us has addressed — including the question of whether Rand’s complete rejection of religion is defensible. As our discussion winds down, I thought it might be worth asking whether we want to say anything about those further issues, and in particular religion.

Let me approach the issue of religion from a somewhat odd angle.

Rand says somewhere in her letters or journals that she would not object so much to a conception of God that made him just one more thing among others in the universe; that would leave him open to rational investigation, and in particular would avoid the need to see God as the creator of the universe (which in her view would incoherently make existence dependent on consciousness). It is particularly the notion of a transcendent God that she objects to.

For many believers, of course, Rand will seem to have gotten things simply reversed. A God who was just one more being among others would hardly seem worthy of worship; his distance from a clay idol would be too small, and to worship him would be degrading and unseemly. Without transcendence, we have no God worth talking about.

I share the reaction that any God worthy of the name would need to be more than just one another denizen of the universe. But I also agree with Rand that nothing should be beyond rational investigation, as well as that the notion of consciousness creating existence is incoherent. So does that leave any room for a transcendent object of worship?

Maybe. There is a long tradition of identifying God not with a subjective personality but with something more like an ontological-moral principle, or even the logical structure of the universe itself. We find this idea in Plato’s Form of the Good, in the Stoics’ identification of God with Reason or the Scholastics’ identification of God with Being, and perhaps even in God’s Biblical self-identification as “I AM WHO AM.” Thinking of God as the logical structure of the universe rather than as one more chunk of reality within that structure would yield the transcendence the believer desires, but it wouldn’t place God beyond rational inquiry (what could be more open to reason than Reason itself?), nor would it make God a personal creator. The notion of worshiping a principle may also seem less offensive to human dignity than that of worshiping a person. (Of course, insofar as the logical structure of the universe is something atheists can believe in too, the line between theism and atheism would thereby be blurred.)

But is there room for such a conception of God in Rand’s ontology? Probably not. For a Platonist, the realm of logic is a feature of reality itself, external to the human mind, and so is a potential candidate for Godhood; but for Rand, logic is a tool of the human mind with which to grasp reality, and the constructs of logic, such as universals, have a merely epistemological status rather than a metaphysical one. Hence worshiping logic would simply be worshiping the contents of one’s own mind — an unpromising (though not unprecedented) basis for theism.

My own (Wittgenstein-influenced) view, however, is that logic is neither a tool we bring to reality à la Rand nor an extramental feature to which our minds must bow à la Plato; it’s much more pervasive than that. It’s not located in our mind, or in the Forms, or in physical objects, or in our mind’s relation to physical objects; it’s not located, period. It’s the background presupposition of all thought and all reality; and there’s nothing we can (without resorting to metaphor) say about it over and above what we can say with and through it. Hence it is, in a certain sense, indescribable, even though it is the most intelligible thing there is. If this sounds like mysticism, it’s the mysticism of reason rather than the mysticism of unreason. (I talk about these issues more in “Theism and Atheism Reconciled,” “The Unspeakable Logos,” “Satanic Epistemology?,” and “The Very Idea.”)

In saying these things about logic, and identifying God with logic so conceived, do we rescue the concept of God, and indeed raise it to the highest transcendence conceivable? Or do we instead etherealize God into nothingness?

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • In this month’s lead essay, St. Johns University philosopher Douglas B. Rasmussen notes that Ayn Rand is all the rage. But why not Hayek or other free-market thinkers? Why Rand? Rasmussen submits that it comes down to “her ability to note with dramatic force the immorality and hypocrisy of our current political age; her commitment to individual rights; her holding liberty and capitalism inviolate; her rejection of ‘moral cannibalism’ in any form; her advocacy of moral individualism; her recognition of a moral order grounded in human nature; and her realization that reality is not only intelligible but open to possibilities for human achievement far more wondrous than ever realized.” But is the philosophy underpinning this envigorating picture coherent? Rasmussen offers for discussion a series of tough questions, ranging from Rand’s account of individual rights to her views of religion.

Response Essays

  • In his reply to Rasmussen’s lead essay, Auburn University philosopher Roderick Long sets out to sort the wheat from the chaff in Ayn Rand’s moral and political thought. Long maintains that “Rand sets out to found a classical liberal conception of politics … upon a classical Greek conception of human nature and the human good,” and he goes on to defend the plausibility of this project. In particular, Long stands up for Rand’s reliance on a naturalistic teleology to ground her neo-Aristotlean ethic theory, pointing to contemporary philosophical work that supports Rand’s view. Long is less happy with Rand’s political thought and criticizes her ideas of the “pyramid of ability” and of big business as a “persecuted minority.” Long credits Rand for her trenchant analysis of corporatism, but argues that she was mistaken to deny that corporatism and capitalism go hand in hand. According to Long, Rand’s ideal of voluntary interaction not only implies a radical departure from historical capitalism, but also a more thoroughly anti-statist social order.

  • University of Colorado philosopher Michael Huemer takes up Douglas Rasmussen’s question of why there is such intense interest in Ayn Rand and answers that Rand, unlike Mises or Bastiat, “was not only a philosopher, but a compelling novelist.” However gripping her novels, Huemer is not impressed with Rand’s moral philosophy. “The theory of ‘The Objectivist Ethics’,” Huemer writes, “is simultaneously the most distinctive and the least plausible, worst defended of all of Rand’s major ideas.” Huemer argues that there is a glaring conflict between Rand’s ethical egoism and her case for individual rights: “I cannot hold my own well-being as the only end in itself, and simultaneously say that I recognize other persons as ends in themselves too.” Huemer recommends discarding Rand’s egoism and setting her ban of the initiation of force and fraud on a more plausible foundation.

  • University of Oklahoma philosopher Neera K. Badhwar attributes the ongoing currency of Ayn Rand’s ideas to the persisting appeal of her novels. “In Rand’s fiction,” Badhwar writes, “we witness the tragedy of Prometheus bound and the triumph of Prometheus unbound. No purely theoretical work can show this.” When it comes to Rand’s theoretical work, Badhwar’s assessment is mixed. She notes that Rand’s ethical theory presents both long-term biological survival and survival “as a rational, and thus, viruous being” as the standard of moral action. However, Badhwar argues, “there is no coherent way to show that to survive long-term is to survive qua man is to achieve eudaimonia.” Rand depicts virtue in her fiction “as a shield against misery even in the worst of misfortunes,” and vice “as causing psychological turmoil.” But, Badhwar observes, virtue doesn’t always pay and vice doesn’t always exact a terrible price. Badhwar also disputes Rand’s belief in the unity of the virtues and the possibility of moral perfection and argues that “virtues such as kindness, charity, and forgiveness are much more important in human life than Rand grants.” Last, Badhwar takes up Rand’s idea that “the creator should not pander to debased or immoral desires,” and suggests a more moderate version of this view.