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Can I assume you're familiar with the "hospital tree" anecdote?

Yes, the infamous "hospital tree!"

For those not in the know, when the elderly Ayn Rand was hospitalized and on heavy medication, she thought she saw a tree outside the window. Actually there was no tree; she was looking at an IV dispenser, which, in her confused state, she misinterpreted as tree branches. When some visitors gently informed her of this fact, she railed against them and accused them of trying to sabotage her confidence in her sense perceptions, or some such thing. For years afterward she would periodically return to the incident, bitterly describing this injustice done to her and haranguing her friends for their betrayal. Eventually her friends, who had remained steadfast through all sorts of abuse, could take no more and joined the long line of people who'd severed relations with the tempestuous author.

But sure, Ayn Rand could take criticism - if it was "rational."

Excellent point!

Michael writes:

"Earlier, Lewis develops the argument that basic moral values cannot be rationally defended but must be accepted as given, as part of the fabric of human nature.... Rand was vehemently opposed to this view, believing that it smacked of faith, which was, as she understood it, the archenemy of reason."

The amusing thing is that Objectivism effectively makes the same assumption! It attempts to come up with rational justifications for moral values, but Objectivists ultimately must simply *accept* that these have an objective grounding. What other options are there under hard-core naturalism?

Very true.

Many people have pointed out that Rand's meta-ethical argument (presented in "The Objectivist Ethics," in her book The Virtue of Selfishness) contains numerous logical fallacies. Essentially she smuggles her pre-existing values (honesty, productiveness, rationality, etc.) into the argument by equivocating on the term "life."

She could hardly do otherwise, since if "life," in the sense of biological survival, is the standard of value, then anything goes, might makes right, and the survival of the fittest is the only ethical position. Rand, not wanting to take this stand, simply asserts that human life entails all the virtues that she prefers. She can't prove it; it is unprovable; she would have to derive an "ought" from an "is," which no one can do.

Incidentally, her whole biological argument rests on a falsehood, namely the claim that living creatures are motivated primarily by the instinct of survival. This is untrue, as any biologist could have told her. Living things are motivated by an instinct for procreation. Yes, they must survive long enough to reproduce; but they will take extreme risks to procreate and (in some cases) to defend their young. For some creatures, procreation equals death; the male black widow spider is devoured by his mate immediately after copulation; but he still copulates, because he is instinctively impelled to do so.

Thus, for the individual animal, survival is only an instrumental value, not the ultimate value (which is reproduction). Rand's entire argument founders on this simple point.

If she really wanted to derive her ethics from animal behavior, she would have had to conclude that bearing children is the ultimate purpose of life. By this standard she and her fictional heroes (all childless) were total failures!

More accurately: successful replicators (e.g., gene complexes) behave in ways conducive to successful replication. One major way in which this can happen is reproduction of the organism itself, but this is not the only way. To take an obvious example, social insects, most members do not themselves reproduce, but work and sacrifice themselves for the sake of what are likely to be their genetic siblings or close cousins. When it comes to humans, one must also realize that we are vehicles for memetic as well as genetic replicators. Just as we are "made" to court death in order to spread our genes, we are "made" to court death in order to spread our ideologies.

If you're looking for a few days of intellectual outrage tinged with humor, do something I did a few years back: first read some Richard Dawkins, and soon thereafter read Harry Binswanger's bizarrely point-missing "The Biological Basis of Teleological Concepts".

I agree that your formulation is more accurate. Most animal behavior clearly does work this way, although I'm not sure if gene replication is the one and only explanation for all the varieties of behavior that occur.

When it comes to human behavior, I'm much less convinced. The whole sociobiology/evolutionary psychology approach, which argues that all we are and all we do can be traced to genetics, strikes me as oversimplified. A lot of it has the flavor of a Rudyard Kipling "Just So Story." Almost anything can be explained by this method, even contradictory things.

For instance, why are some males promiscuous? Because they are programmed to disseminate their genetic material as widely as possible. But then, why are some males monogamous? Because they are programmed to rear their offspring in order to maximize their offspring's survival chances.

So genetics "explains" both promiscuity and monogamy. But if it can explain mutually exclusive things, then does it really explain anything?

(There is also the consideration that if genetics determines behavior, then we have no free will. And if genetics determines what we consider right or wrong, then ethics is no more than rules of expediency to maximize the community's survival chances. I am skeptical of both these conclusions.)

"So genetics 'explains' both promiscuity and monogamy. But if it can explain mutually exclusive things, then does it really explain anything?"

(1) Why would you find problematic the belief that different strategies have developed for achieving a single goal? Hollow bones and dense bones are mutually exclusive too, but we think evolution explains both.

(2) Memetic-genetic interaction probably has a lot to do with monogamy. Put simply: belief systems will tend to replicate better if they include the desire for strong family identification, tradition, and passing down of wisdom. Such memetic selection should also (to a very large degree) drive the evolution of highly symbiotic genes. This is currently a major hypothesis concerning the extent of our capacities for long-term cultural transmission (language, music, literature, etc), and the speed with which they have apparently developed in our ancestors.

Not that this has much to do with the original Crazy Ayn thread, but hey...

To be honest, I'm not convinced that evolution (at least in the sense of Darwinism) provides a comprehensive explanation even of physical structures, let alone of psychological, social, and cultural features. I wrote a little about this on my old blog, at:

My objections to evolutionary psychology are that it can be used to "explain" anything and everything; that it leads logically to a denial of free will; and that it reduces ethics to survival-based expediency. Like any reductionist approach, it has a dehumanizing effect - as evidenced by Robert Wright's book The Moral Animal, which ends up claiming that human beings are essentially "robots" controlled by their genes.

The attempt to reduce humans to the status of automatons is logically self-defeating. If our thoughts are merely the result of genetic programming, then our thinking cannot be assumed to bear any connection to reality. But in that case, we can't know anything ... including the fact that we are genetically programmed!

Or to put it another way, if our thinking is the product of genes and memes, then the theory of evolutionary psychology itself is the product of genes and memes - and no more likely to be true than any other arbitrary construct.

Michael write: "if our thinking is the product of genes and memes, then the theory of evolutionary psychology itself is the product of genes and memes - and no more likely to be true than any other arbitrary construct."

But the very facts of evolution show that it is not an "arbitrary construct." It circumscribes the reality within which human will is expressed.

For instance, consider the fact that most women bear children, and of those caring for their very young children, it will almost never (ever) be a man. Why does this difference exists? Merely an "expression of free will" - women are ethical and men are not - hardly suffices. Rather, hormones, neuro-anatomy, genetics, and the typical experience of pregnancy and birthing - along with social conditioning, all are absent from men's experience. Thus, women are induced to become care-givers, not men.

Needless to say, Rand didn't have these expereiences. Had she done so, she would have been forced to confront her own historical subjective experieneces as a child of her parents. Parenting forces one into involuntary consciousness of what was done to oneself by one's parents. Of course, none of this means that Rand would have learned from it. Reading the Marginalia, one rather suspects not.

But Michael's dismissiveness of nature does not encourage us to consider these realities, just as Rand did not. But we ought to learn more.

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