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Our discussion on Ayn Rand and Objectivism has — unsurprisingly — turned to questions of reason, rationality, and empiricism. As a number of members have pointed out, Rand’s claim that her philosophy is distinguished by its reliance on rationality is both self-flattery and self-deception: all philosophies rely on unproven and unprovable assumptions, particularly those regarding morality, the good life, etc. In this sense, Objectivism is no exception.
However, Objectivism is distinguished in its affinity for rationality. You can see this not only in its declarations on the matter and in its atheism, but in the way it makes its arguments. It’s premised on the idea that Truth is totally knowable and understandable to anyone who applies their mind, and it argues that its conclusions are objectively and demonstrably correct. Bear in mind further that Objectivism purports to be a whole philosophy of life — something classical liberalism, for instance, never claims for itself — and that one of Rand’s favorite aphorisms is that contradictions do not exist.
Now, I like empiricism. I think the scientific method in the broadest sense — i.e., attempting to understand the world through hypothesis, experiment, and analysis — has been one of the most fruitful discoveries of humanity. As best I can, I try to base my ideas off empirical analysis, or to at least be open to revising them based on it.
I’ll also be the first to say that I admire the can-do, let’s figure-it-out spirit in it: the more people think things are comprehensible and discoverable, the more likely they will be to at least try to comprehend and discover them. But, as our Christian friends would remind us, this attitude is hardly unique to the Objectivists, although they may have run as far with it as one conceivably can.
That said, it’s possible to overvalue reason and I’d count Objectivists as one of the worst offenders of that rule. To begin with, there are at least some subjects that — while not exactly outside the purview of reason — yield little information through empirical analysis. Though questions such as whether or not one loves one’s spouse, or whether Jesus of Nazareth was the Incarnation of God, can be investigated through these means, those investigations aren’t likely to be particularly fruitful. We can debate where the specific boundaries should be, but it’s perfectly okay to say that reason doesn’t have much to say about at least some important subjects.
Second, we should remember that reasoning isn’t actually the hardest part of applying reason. Following a syllogism is — with effort and training — well within the means of small children and (arguably) smart animals. Figuring out what questions to ask, judging which premises to assume, gathering useful information, and analyzing it dispassionately, however, are extremely difficult to do, even for the smartest, best-trained, and most diligent of us. This, as Hayek argues in both The Road to Serfdom and The Fatal Conceit, is the central fallacy of progressivism: that a handful of experts can be better informed and more capable of reaching the right conclusions than millions of people interacting and trading freely. As he puts it in one of my favorite passages:
One’s initial surprise at finding that intelligent people are socialists [or Objectivists — Tom] diminishes when one realizes that, of course, intelligent people will tend to overvalue intelligence, and to suppose that we must owe all the advantages and opportunities that our civilization offers to deliberate design [or deduction] rather than to following traditional rules, and likewise to suppose that we can, by exercising our reason, eliminate any remaining undesired features by still more intelligent reflection…
Relatedly, reason is not always the best tool available in all circumstances, and it’s a mistake to assume that, simply because something cannot be rationally discussed or fully understood by reason, that it doesn’t exist or has no value. Nor, moreover, does it necessarily follow that an idea is better simply because it can be rationally defended: a lot of wrong ideas can be defended rationally and with honesty, while a number of good ones cannot, at least not yet.
Capitalism worked before Adam Smith described it, just as boiling water worked to sanitize water before we understood germ theory, just as prohibitions against incest worked before we understood genetics. That we understand them better through reason — and can apply that understanding elsewhere because of it — doesn’t mean we should fool ourselves about its origins. Reason is one of the most powerful and wonderful tools we have, and it has taken us places that tradition alone never could.
But tradition took us quite far on its own, and continues to support us in the things we either cannot know, or do not currently understand. It’d be irrational to throw that knowledge away simply because we can’t fully figure out how to apply our reason to it.