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You knew I would bite at this, didn't you?


There is a mistake you make with axiomatic concepts (it is a very common mistake, even among Objectivists). People normally fault axiomatic concepts for not being more than they are. They imagine axiomatic concepts exist as metaphysics, but they don't. They exist to set the grounds for the interface between the mind and reality – essentially epistemology. They are concepts, don’t forget. Since Objectivism is based on reason, axiomatic concepts serve as a starting point for validating reason.

You probably already know the standard for accepting them. You cannot posit an opposite, because you use the aspect of reality identified in order to even discuss it. You have to exist in order to imagine nonexistence (which is not a state, but a lack of state). As I said, reason is implicit in this identification, so contradictions are not allowed. This goes for all axiomatic concepts.

When you load the supernatural on "existence exists," you are correct that it could be included at that stage. However, the moment identity (including causality), consciousness and reason (which is based on the senses in Objectivist epistemology) enter the picture, the supernatural is eliminated. Note Rand's posture was not that the supernatural doesn't exist as a primary. She claimed that it doesn't exist because there is no sensory evidence for it.

I have a theory that there is a great deal about existence we do not process through our 5 senses (and even more senses if you include forces like gravity). I don't see need to posit a second existence. I merely entertain the possibility of an extension of the one we have.

This business about death is a bitch, though. What a weird way to exist, especially since we are aware of it. But that’s the hand that was dealt. It’s the only game in town. You play there or you don’t play. (If one day God should ever make an appearance, I think I will take up a few issues with him.)

Ayn Rand wrote a work about epistemology called Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology. It was basically conceived and researched through induction (she sat and observed her own thoughts and thought about them). This makes it extremely incomplete. Probably the weakest point is that there is no Objectivist theory for memory. If you wish to see two extraordinary posts giving an outline about what needs to be addede, look here. (Read the post linked and the following one by Robert Campbell.)

This is a very long topic to do right – much too long for one post.

Just as a curiosity, do you know what Ayn Rand’s favorite painting was? It might shock you. Look here.

On the Nyquist book, I am presently reading it. I discussed it (and a few others critical of Rand) a bit in an article (and discussion thread – and, incidentally, I included your report on Hickman), “The Ayn Rand Love/Hate Myth—Part 4—Rand's True Value.” You might be interested to know that one of the first books criticizing Objectivism was by Albert Ellis in 1969. It is now available for free online (in a revised version to include libertarianism and capitalism), Are">">Are Capitalism, Objectivism, & Libertarianism Religions?. (Here is the link since "typepad" kicks in automatically and invalidates it:

As a final note, probably the most illuminating thing anyone has said on the conversion experience in Objectivism on OL was made by Paul Mawdsley here.">">here. It was enough to knock Barbara Branden’s socks off (mine too).


Objectivism comprises many sins, but one of the worst is that lost in the worship of their own morally and intellectually superior selves, True Believers deny themselves the ability to feel any kind of gratitude or thanks. The grandiosity that Objectivists cultivate they use to cover up their envy, and the envious are grateful for nothing. It's a limited life, and one I'm grateful I avoided.

Surfing the Web, I found the same basic criticism of Rand's axiomatic concepts, made by a professional philosopher. For those who are interested, it's here:

Michael wrote,
>They [axiomatic concepts] exist to set the grounds for the interface between the mind and reality – essentially epistemology.

I would argue that when the axioms in question are merely vague tautologies, they are useless in establishing the grounds for much of anything. They serve mainly as a means of rationalizing - as for instance when Rand tries to prove some point by reciting "A is A."

>Note Rand's posture was not that the supernatural doesn't exist as a primary. She claimed that it doesn't exist because there is no sensory evidence for it.

Unfortunately, in this area as in many others, Rand jumped to a sweeping conclusion without doing her homework. Had she investigated the issue empirically, she would have discovered that there is a great deal of evidence for the supernatural. But she rarely bothered with fact-finding.

Greg Nyquist makes this point repeatedly - that Rand made sweeping assertions that are contradicted by the facts. For example, she claimed that human beings are born "tabula rasa," when in fact there is a great deal of evidence that some characteristics and tendencies are inherited.

Or take her article "The Objectivist Ethics," in which she claims that every living creature's primary purpose is to further its own life. Any biologist could have told her that, in many cases, a living creature's primary purpose is sexual reproduction, to which its personal survival is only a means to an end (i.e., an instrumental value). Many salmon die swimming upstream to their spawning grounds, but they swim anyway. The male preying mantis and the male black widow spider both die immediately after copulating (in both cases they are killed by the female) - but they still copulate. At least for lower species, reproduction is often the principal or ultimate value.

Why didn't Rand know this? Because she had not done the reading. Her philosophy is a system of rationalistic deductions from vague axioms to sweeping conclusions. It's an interesting assemblage of ideas, but it bears little connection to empirical facts.

I agree that Paul Mawdsley's comments on "the conversion experience" were very eloquent and insightful.

Regarding Rand's favorite painting - it doesn't surprise me very much. There is a theme of martyrdom running through Rand's novels - probably one reason Objectivists like "A Man for All Seasons" so much.

>If one day God should ever make an appearance, I think I will take up a few issues with him.

You never know. He may want to take up some issues with you ... But I wouldn't worry. I doubt that God is anywhere near as judgmental as some Objectivists I've known. :-)


"They [axiomatic concepts] serve mainly as a means of rationalizing..."

I will agree that many people in the Objectivist world use axiomatic concepts as a means of rationalizing, especially to cover lack of knowledge or unwillingness to look at it, but these concepts still have their purpose. As I said, their purpose is much more restricted than reputed (unfortunately from gross misuse and Rand's rhetoric at times).

I fully agree with you about Rand often not looking at evidence while making over-generalizations. This needs to be fixed. Still, what Rand got right, she got right.

My present path is to build on the parts she got right and push away the bad parts. This leads me to the view that on controversial issues, often she was not wrong so much as incomplete. (I agree that her affirmations of being complete are wrong, though, and some weird things like women not being suitable to be president of the country.)

For an example of this incompleteness idea, look at the tabula rasa concept. If this description is used merely for the conceptual faculty and reason (and even volition), it works. If you look at the list of things Nyquist mentioned, however, it doesn't.

So innate items need to be added to the tabula rasa concept, which is valid for specific faculties.

Refining and limiting some of these broad sweeping statements to align with evidence (reality) are my present goals in Objectivism.

As I said, I am not very popular with the orthodoxy (and especially some cultists). They don't like people messing with Rand's ideas, which they hold as sacred.


Michael Prescott:"When I first became acquainted with the Objectivism, the philosophy of Ayn Rand, I was very impressed with the idea that one could derive an entire, logically consistent worldview from a few simple axiomatic premises."

But Rand did not think one could derive a worldview from axioms. Whether you believe that she was correct or incorrect, she was an empiricist who argued that studying reality was the means to knowledge. About axioms, she wrote: "Since axiomatic concepts refer to facts of reality and are not a matter of 'faith' or of man's arbitrary choice, there is a way to determine whether a given concept is axiomatic or not: one ascertains it by observing that an axiomatic concept cannot be escaped; that it is implicit in all knowledge, that it has to be accepted and used even in the process of any attempt to escape it."

Further, you wrote: "What Objectivists do. . . is to implicitly define 'existence' as meaning only the physical reality that we inhabit. The fact that this is not the only possible definition eludes them because their atheistic-materialistic assumptions are so deeply rooted as to be taken for granted."

But this is not Rand's definition of existence. She was not a materialist. She wrote: "Existence exists -- and the act of grasping that statement involves two corollary exioms: that something exists which one perceives and that one exists possessing consciousness, consciousness being the faculty of perceiving that which exists."

You wrote: "I'm afraid there's no shortcut to figuring out the meaning of life, no simple formula by which one can deduce a whole range of empirically valid truths from a logical starting point." So far, I am in total agreement with you, and, more to the point, so is Rand. But you add: "We have to begin, not with abstract principles, but with observations and experience -- not with so-called axioms, but with hard, cold facts. That's just the way it is." That's not quite the way it is. To speak of hard, cold facts and of observationa and experience is to acknowledge one's acceptance of the axioms of reality and consciousness.

By the way, I believe that I was the first Objectivist (I now refer to myself as a neo-Objectivist) to write a ringing endorsement of Eric Hoffer's "The True Believer" and to point out its relevance to many of Rand's followers -- including, at one time, to me.

Barbara Branden

I'm flattered that Barbara Branden, one of the key figures in Objectivism in the 1960s and the first (and best) biographer of Ayn Rand, would take the time to drop by my little Web site. Thank you for showing an interest in this discussion - and many more thanks for The Passion of Ayn Rand, which offered a much-needed and long overdue perspective on its subject, and did so with grace and balance.

I agree that Rand often said "that studying reality was the means to knowledge." I just don't think she practiced this good advice. In practice, she rationalized. Most of her philosophy is rationalization from abstract principles, not inference from empirical observation. Greg Nyquist's book is the best presentation of this critique.

"She was not a materialist." Here I must disagree. I know that Rand often said she was not a materialist, but this is only because she defined materialism very narrowly, as the view that either consciousness does not exist or that it does exist but lacks efficacy. Very few thinkers have held either of these positions. Most materialists hold that consciousness does exist and is (at least somewhat) efficacious, but that it is an epiphenomenon of matter - a product of the nervous system. Rand certainly held this view. The alternative is some form of soul-body dualism, which she emphatically rejected.

"To speak of hard, cold facts and of observation and experience is to acknowledge one's acceptance of the axioms of reality and consciousness." Well, sure. I don't say those axioms are false. I just think they are too vague to be very useful. Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas, Hume, Kant, and almost every other philosoher accepted the axioms of reality and consciousness. But they all came to different conclusions, and they all thought they had arrived at those conclusions rationally. How is this possible?

It's possible because terms like reality, consciousness, and even reason actually mean very little. Almost everybody is for "reason." If I were to say, "I stand for reason," it might sound like a bold pronouncement, but actually I would not be saying much of anything at all. It's like saying, "I'm for virtue." Great - but so are fanatical jihadists. They just have a different idea of virtue.

Intellectuals tend to think that elevated terms like reason, virtue, reality, and consciousness are much more meaningful than mundane terms like knife, fork, and spoon. IMO, this gets things backward. Knife, fork, and spoon are highly meaningful terms because we all know what they mean and can communicate effectively by using them. Virtue, reason, etc., by contrast, are largely empty terms that can mean almost anything to anyone.

Be that as it may, I appreciate your comments - and again, many thanks for your outstanding contribution to Ayn Rand studies. It is truly outrageous that you have had to suffer abusive attacks at the hands of overzealous Objectivist acolytes, simply for telling the truth as you knew it.

Thank you, Michael, for your kind words about my biography of Rand. They are much appreciated.

I haven't read any of your books -- Michael Kelly only recently told me about them -- but I intend to. Is there one you'd recommend I begin with?

We appear to disagree about the meaning of "materialism." In the history of philosophy, it generally has been taken to mean that matter and its motions are all that constitute the universe and all its phenomena -- that only the physical, as opposed to the spiritual or the intellectual, has reality. This was certainly not Rand's view. Atlas Shrugged is above all else a celebration of the power and efficacy of the human mind and spirit. And surely no materialist would accept her convictiion that we have volition -- which matter does not have. If I understand you correctly, your basic objection to her concept of mind and matter is that it does not embrace the supernatural, that is, a dimensiion which is not open to perception by the senses nor understanding by the mind. Am I correct?


By the way, you said that "Almost everybody is for 'reason.'" You must have lived a very sheltered life! Or else you haven't had the exceedingly mixed blessing of studying in some of the philosophy departments of our universities.


I have one issue I would like to clarify with your terminology. It involves Nyquist and induction. Nyquist stated very clearly at the beginning of his book that he does not believe induction exists. That was a jaw-dropper to me and I almost did not continue reading the book because of that. Nyquist's thing is Popper taken straight with no chaser.

When you say, "Most of her philosophy is rationalization from abstract principles, not inference from empirical observation," I think the term "rationalization" as you use it means deduction from induced principles. Induction, however, stems from "empirical observation." I admit that Rand's range of observation was not on a scientific level. Also, once she got on a roll, she could be quite stubborn.

Objectivists use "rationalization" to mean something more akin to a cover-up - a way of twisting logic in order to hide a lie. As I don't think that is what you meant, I want to point that out just in case any hardcore Objectivist reads this and does what is called in the jargon a "kneejerk."

I am flabbergasted to see Barbara here too. She's a sweetheart. She knows I like you. But I think your flattering opinion of her cousin* has permanently endeared you to her, at least on some level.


* You wrote the following about her cousin:

I interacted for a while with a top Objectivist while working on a movie project (never completed). The gentleman shall remain nameless, though his last name rhymes with "squeak-off." I found him to be more irrational and downright bizarre than any of the movie producers or other Hollywood types that I dealt with. And when you can out-weird Hollywood people, you are grabbing for the brass ring of weird.

He was, I have to say, truly unpleasant and obnoxious in every way. Looking back, I can't imagine anyone in his position treating another person the way he did. But I'm glad I had the experience, because it started me questioning the truth of Objectivism. I thought, "If this guy is a top Objectivist, what the hell does that say about the philosophy?"


You've learned how to use HTML formatting! Kudos!

Actually, I do mean "rationalizing" in its negative sense. Sorry. Rand started with the view of human nature that she wanted to hold, and then rationalized a philosophy to justify it. This is Nyquist's point. Or to put it a different way, she started with certain psychological issues she needed to address, and rationalized a philosophy that would address them - a philosophy that would turn her vices (such as being judgmental, selfish, and antisocial) into virtues.

Regarding induction, I certainly think it exists. But the rules of induction are not as clear as they are for deduction. How many observations do you need to make in order to draw a valid generalization? If you observe 50 swans and they are all white, are you justified in saying all swans are white? Probably not; it's too small a sample. How about 500 swans? 5000? Five million? At what point can you say, "I have enough data to draw a valid generalization"? No one knows, which is why people argue about inductive inferences.

This does not mean that induction is impossible. It does mean that absolute certainty in induction is impossible. New data may always turn up to invalidate a past generalization. We can only speak of degrees of probability in induction. Some probabilities approach 100%, but it is an asymptotic curve; they will never reach 100%, even if they do get very close.


Thank you for your kind response. I agree with MSK that you are a "sweetheart." In fact, I think you are far too forgiving to Ayn Rand, a woman who did her best to wreck your life - but fortunately did not succeed.

I think my best book overall is probably Next Victim. The one you would probably like least is In Dark Places, which has a rather gritty feel that, I suspect, would not appeal to you. (It is also filled to the brim with foul language - not my usual style, but I was trying to capture the way street criminals really talk.)

Regarding materialism, I am hardly in a position to argue with someone who has lectured on Objectivism and written a fine book on Ayn Rand, among other things. I take materialism to mean (usually) that the mind is an epiphenomenon of matter. I know that some "extreme" materialists of the BF Skinner sort deny the existence of mind altogether, but I don't think the term has to be limited to this view. However, I may be mistaken.

Here's a rather long quote from John W. Robbins' Without A Prayer, which touches on this subject:

"Rand never tired of chanting 'existence exists,' as if the statement were profound philosophy. Constant repetition of a phrase intended to be understood as a profound philosophical discovery is no substitute for a serious philosophical effort to declare what exists, how we may know that it exists, and what it is. Unfortunately, Rand moved very little beyond chanting her materialist mantra. Any critique, therefore, will have difficulty in criticizing her idea of 'objective reality,' for the nature of this reality was not clearly discussed by Rand, although she hinted at it. One can say only that the impression one receives from reading Rand is that 'objective reality' or 'existence' is matter in the ancient Democritean or nineteenth century sense of the term: hard, impenetrable atoms against which a mystic or an altruist is bound to beat his brains out. Yet it is precisely this notion of reality that twentieth-century scientists have found it necessary to abandon, in favor of a quite different view.... [I]f Rand did not have a nineteenth century conception of matter in mind when she spoke of 'objective reality,' it is completely unclear what she did have in mind. If she had nothing particular in mind, then she had nothing in mind, and 'existence' is shown to be simply a meaningless word whose sole function is to exclude theism without a hearing." (pp. 90-91)

Regarding the supernatural, I don't quite agree that it cannot be validated by sensory evidence. While the physical senses cannot perceive the supernatural directly, they can perceive phenomena that are inexplicable without an inference to the supernatural (or paranormal). (Like any inductive inference, it is probablistic and and may be erroneous.) I think such phenomena are "open to understanding by the mind," though we do not, as yet, have a complete understanding of them. Nor do we have a complete understanding of gravity, evolution, how aspirin or anesthesia works, and many other things - but presumably a full understanding of these things is attainable someday.

>you said that "Almost everybody is for 'reason.'" You must have lived a very sheltered life!

LOL. What I meant is that reason is such a vague term it can be appropriated by anybody. Since the book is handy, I'll quote Robbins again:

"But 'reason' is simply a cue word that has been used by all varieties of philosophers since the world began.... The word 'reason' is a great empty vessel into which any and all meanings may be and have been poured... Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, Hobbes, Hume, Kant, Hegel, and Ayn Rand have all been champions of reason. There is no word more meaningless nor more eagerly used by philosophers.... Once philosophers define the word, however, the irreconcilable disagreements begin.... Rand also claimed reason is the indispensable means of reconciling disagreement. The solution is itself the problem, because reasonable men differ on what reason is, just as Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, Hobbes, Kant, Hume, Hegel, and Ayn Rand did." (pp. 12-14)

I would venture to say that Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein would defend their actions as reasonable, according to their understanding of "reason." There are very few people who say, "I am irrational, my ideas cannot be justified by logic or facts, there is no reasonable foundation for anything I say or do, and I'm just fine with that." A few militant irrationalists do take this position, but they are rare, I think, and often just posturing for shock value.

Anyhow, thank you very much for offering your perspective and your kind words. This sort of debate can go on forever, but we are probably just talking past each other (having started with different sets of assumptions), so I won't press it further.

Michael, you said, "This sort of debate can go on forever, but we are probably just talking past each other (having started with different sets of assumptions), so I won't press it further."

We are on the same wave length about this, at least. I was thinking that the problem with this discussion is precisely that, in order to get anywhere significant, we would have to begin on a much deeper level, and probably in person. So I, too, won't press it further, except to say that I found Robbins to be one of the least accurate interpreters of Rand. He's constantly criticizing a strawman of his own creation, not Rand.

I'll read Next Victim, and I hope I may drop back here from time to time.


You're welcome here anytime! Thanks again for your comments.

Sorry to add another comment to this already overlong comments section, but ...

I don't want my quotations from Robbins to imply that I agree with everything Robbins says. I am in complete disagreement with his "Scripturalist" philosophy, which rests on the "axiom" that the Bible is the revealed word of God. He says that this axiom precedes sense data - in fact, he does not think the senses provide any knowledge whatsoever - which of course raises the question, "Then how do you know that you are reading the Bible? Don't you need your senses to read a book?" He attempts to answer this objection on pp.341-2, characterizing it as "naive," but I fail to understand his argument.

Nevertheless, I think in his role as critic he is generally good. Leafing through the book, I found a brief passage on Rand and materialism that perhaps addresses the point more clearly than I was able to. It is on p. 236, in Robbins' discussion of Leonard Peikoff's Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand:

"[Peikoff] distorts the views of the materialists on page 33. He writes: 'Materialists - men such as Democritus, Hobbes, Marx, Skinner - champion nature but deny the reality or efficacy of consciousness. Consciousness, in this view, is either a myth or a useless byproduct of the brain or other motions.' Now Skinner may have thought consciousness is a myth (John Dewey, whom Peikoff does not mention, explicitly says that it is), but Marx did not. Peikoff presents this caricature of the materialists (not all materialists are behaviorists like Dewey and Skinner) in an attempt to distinguish Objectivism from materialism. Now Objectivism may not be behaviorism, but it is materialism."

Rand certainly viewed Marxists as materialists, yet Marxists do believe in consciousness; they simply think that consciousness is conditioned by one's material environment. They believe this because they think that consciousness is an epiphenomenon of matter. But Rand also believed that consciousness was an epiphenomenon of matter. Therefore, I conclude that Rand (her demurrals not withstanding) was a materialist in the broad sense of the term.

I stress this point because I think Rand had a habit of defining terms "her way" and then assuming she had solved some tricky philosophical problem by so doing. In this case she thought she had transcended the idealist-materialist dichotomy, but she really had just defined materialism incorrectly. Had she defined it according to normal usage, she would have had to classify herself as a materialist - which she was very averse to doing.

In the quoted sentence above, Peikoff has created a straw-man version of materialism, which views consciousness as "either a myth or a useless byproduct of the brain." The tendentious word here is "useless." It would be correct to say that materialists regard consciousness as either a myth or a byproduct (epiphenomenon) of the brain - and by this standard, Objectivists are materialists, since they take the latter position. They do not regard consciousness as "useless," but neither did Marx, Hobbes, or most other materialists. Marx et al may have seen consciousness as somewhat less efficacious than Rand did, somewhat more limited by environmental conditioning or genetics or what-have-you, but for the most part they would not call it "useless."

So, IMO, the Objectivist critique of materialism is merely an attack on a straw man and an attempt to disguise the fact that Rand, far from "transcending" this category, fits quite neatly into it.


You reminded me of an answer Nathaniel Branden gave to the following question (I don't remember where, but I seem to recall that it was in recent years):

Q. What is consciousness made out of?

A. Consciousness.



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