Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Did Ayn Rand reject science?

Many people often accuse Ayn Rand of denying science, or at least being an opponent of many basic scientific principles. But is this true? Well, let's look at the evidence. Ayn Rand did seem to have very big objections to quantum physics, as the entire field does call into question Aristotle's famous Law of Identity (A = A), which states that "the same attribute cannot at the same time belong and not belong to the same subject in the same respect." Ayn Rand was very fond of this principle, and those familiar with her writings know that it forms one of the central pillars of her ideology. Unfortunately for Ayn Rand, Aristotle's axiom — like the equations of Issac Newton — was only correct within the physical scale of normal, everyday human experience. It utterly failed to accurately describe the physics and behavior of things that are very, very small (atoms and quarks), and also things that are very, very large (planets, solar systems, and galaxies).

When people accuse Ayn Rand of denying science, what they mean is that she clung desperately to classical Newtonian mechanics, completely rejecting quantum mechanics. Now of course Newtonian mechanics is obviously a legitimate field of science, which is why Objectivsts are technically correct in their claim that Ayn Rand did not reject science. However, to continually hold on to the old theories and the old equations, even when they can no longer accurately describe the observed phenomena of the atomic universe, well, that's not the path to scientific progress. In fact, it's the exact opposite of progress. It's the path to intellectual damnation. It's closing the door on new knowledge.

Back in April of 2008, Bloomberg Businessweek published an online article by Matthew Keenan titled, "CEOs Pushing Ayn Rand Studies Use Money to Overcome Resistance," which touched on this problem briefly:
"Rand believed American universities had been taken over in the 20th century by thinkers who rejected her notion that many of life's questions have one right answer," said Judith Wilt, an English professor at Boston College.

"Universities as places for discourse and argument and a kind of searching tend to be more interested in what Rand would call vagueness,'' said Wilt, 66, who is teaching a seminar on Rand and contemporaries such as John Steinbeck and Arthur Miller. "Universities tend to be interested not in closing the argument, but in keeping it open.''
In the world of business, quickly reaching a definitive conclusion is often necessary, as business leaders frequently have to take action and make firm decisions which will push their companies forward and turn a profit. Even if the decision is not the best, in today's fast-paced technological world, no CEO can afford to sit around endlessly pontificating over all the philosophical implications and ramifications of their every move. They have to act.

Now there's absolutely nothing wrong with taking definitive action even when we might not have complete information. In fact, we must do this if we want to actually get anything done in life. The problem with Ayn Rand's ideology, however, is that she tries to apply this concept not just to business, but to philosophy and science in general. This approach is problematic because it assumes that there is always an absolute and clear-cut solution to every single problem in the entire universe. Unfortunately for Ayn Rand, that simply isn't the case. The more scientists actually discover about the universe, the more we start to realize just how much we don't know, and there are very sharp disagreements about many issues, even among the most elite scientists in the world. For example, since the 1970s, there has been an ongoing debate surrounding Stephen Hawking's new black hole theory regarding whether or not black holes cause matter and information to be lost. To this day, the issue has yet to be resolved.

The advancement of human knowledge requires that we not reach definite conclusions — that we keep debates open indefinitely. In the interrelated realms of philosophy and science, any attempt to establish absolute certainties can only result in dogma, which shuts the door to new knowledge. After all, we only ever pursue new knowledge if we believe we do not yet have a definitive answer. Once we believe we have found the answer, we stop seeking. Thus, continual advancement demands that we continually recognize our own ignorance. A cup which is already full cannot be filled again. This is especially apparent in the field of quantum physics, which suggests that the universe is full of contradictions and innumerable gray areas.

There's an excellent book by Howard Bloom that deals with (among other things) quantum physics, philosophy, and the history and evolution of mathematics among various cultures. The book is titled, "The God Problem: How a Godless Cosmos Creates." And yes, Howard Bloom does specifically mention Ayn Rand in his book, and directly addresses some of her key theories. Because of that, I believe Bloom's book should be read by everyone who calls themselves an Objectivist or a follower of Ayn Rand's philosophy. One of the reasons I say that is because Bloom devotes an entire section to the debate between the competing schools of Aristotle and Heraclitus, pointing out that Ayn Rand simply sided with the school of Aristotle, which was opposed to the school of Heraclitus. Therefore, if we can prove that Heraclitus actually had a legitimate argument, and that Aristotle's own ideas were not the whole truth, then Ayn Rand is at least partially wrong by default, because she sided with Aristotle, and Aristotle was himself partially wrong (or at least not entirely correct).

I won't go into full detail about the debate between Aristotle and Heraclitus, but to sum it up, Aristotle believed that everything in the universe was solid, knowable, exact, and clearly defined. Heraclitus, by contrast, believed that all things were in a state of fluid motion and perpetual change, and is known for coining the famous philosophical axiom that "You can't step in the same river twice." This debate is encapsulated in the song "Just Around the River Bend" from the animated Disney film Pocahontas.

Though it should be noted that although Ayn Rand considered herself an advocate of Aristotle, she appears to have at least somewhat misunderstood Aristotle's position, as A is A was only part of Aristotle's argument, and he never said that A could not also equal B, or some other variable. Quite the contrary, Aristotle went beyond A is A, and said that if A is B, and B is C, then A must also be C. For example:

Socrates is Socrates. Socrates is a man. All men are mortal. Therefore, Socrates is mortal.
(A = A, A = B, B = C, A = C; or A = A = B = C = A)

This is a process known as deductive reasoning, one of the three main types of reasoning (the other two being inductive and abductive), which together form one of the major keystones of all scientific, philosophical, and mathematical thought. Without them, virtually all logical thinking would be impossible. There have been times where I've tried to engage in debate with Objectivists, only to have them vehemently insist that A cannot ever equal B, because A is A, and A cannot ever equal anything except A. Objectivists repeat this slogan like a dogmatic mantra, praising themselves for their own moral and logical consistency, blissfully unaware that they are simply revealing their own ignorance about the actual nature of genuine logical reasoning.

In addition to simply reiterating a mangled version of the ideas advocated by Aristotle (while failing to give any acknowledgement whatsoever to the competing theories of Heraclitus), Ayn Rand also opposed government funding of scientific research, believing that if such research were supported with government funds, it would progress at a slower rate than if it were privately funded. This view is reiterated by her followers, as evidenced in the following quote by Malini Kochhar from The Atlas Society:
"The problem of government-funded research is not only moral; it also affects the long-term prosperity of society, which is based on the advancement of science. The nature of science is such that government financing tends to crowd out the investment made by private industry. Clearly, if people pay higher taxes, they would be less willing to spend additional money on private research investment or donations to research foundations. The danger is that as science becomes dependent on government, the rate of scientific development will slow. And unless we reverse this trend, we will retard the progress of our civilization, both morally and materially."
— Malini Kochhar, "Government Funding Vs. The Progress Of Science," The Atlas Society
Not only does Kochhar's reasoning above (which was derived from the ideas of Ayn Rand) not make any logical sense, it doesn't even have any evidence to support it. It's nothing but pure dogma. In truth, all historical evidence points to the exact opposite of what Kochhar claims: that the biggest scientific advancements and technological breakthroughs have almost always come out of either government-owned or government-funded laboratories and research projects. In October 2011, CNN published an article listing just a few examples:
  1. The Accelerometer — Measures changes in speed. Originally developed by the U.S. military to help guide weapons, accelerometers are now used in all kinds of motion sensing technology, including the Nintendo Wii.
  2. The Microchip — One of the basic building blocks of modern technology. With the advent of supersonic weapons following World War II, the U.S. military was seeking a tiny device that could quickly do the complicated mathematical equations necessary for precise missile targeting. Several companies, including Fairchild Semiconductor and Texas Instruments, were working on just such a device. With funding from the Pentagon, the microchip's rate of development increased dramatically.
  3. Global Positioning System (GPS) — Also used for improving weapons targeting systems, GPS satellites were launched by the U.S. military years before GPS technology became available to the general public in the 1990s.
  4. The Internet — During the height of the Cold War, the U.S. military became enamored with the idea of creating a decentralized communications system that did not rely on a central interchange, as a centralized hub could potentially be vulnerable to attack. In 1969, with money from the Department of Defense, the first node of this network was installed on the campus of UCLA. The ARPANET, as it was called, was a precursor to the modern internet.
  5. Fire-Resistant Clothing — Spurred by the Apollo I launch pad fire in 1967, NASA (and its big, tax-funded budget) soon embarked on finding better protection for its employees. The result was a material called Polybenzimidazole fiber, or PBI. Lightweight and resistant to extreme heat, the material, or one that was derived from it, is now in use by fire departments worldwide.
  6. The Aerodynamic Semi-Truck — In the early 1970s, President Nixon asked all federal agencies to help find solutions to the nation's energy crisis. Daniel Lockney, a NASA engineer, with the president's blessing, took his entire aerodynamics team to Edwards Air Force base in the California desert to develop a better design for semi-trucks, so that they could travel faster. They then gave the results to the trucking industry. NASA has developed so many products with civilian uses that Lockney's actual title is Technology Transfer Program Executive.
  7. The Bar Code — First introduced in the 1970s, the technology behind bar codes advanced quickly when the government-backed National Science Foundation (NSF) helped fund research into improving the devices that scanned bar codes.
In 2010, for its 60th anniversary, the National Science Foundation highlighted 60 programs it helped fund. The list included everything from clean water research to an early Google prototype created by Google co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin.

CNN: 7 great government-backed inventions
And let's not forget that in 1957, the Soviet Union, under the leadership of Nikita Khrushchev, became the first nation to launch a satellite (Sputnik 1) into orbit. If there was any truth to Ayn Rand's belief that Communist/Socialist systems slowed scientific progress, the Soviet Union should have been the last nation to successfully launch a satellite into orbit, not the first. Whether or not the Soviet Union was actually following the principles of Communism is an issue which has recently come under debate, but the fact cannot be denied that government funding and government research are things which advance scientific knowledge, not inhibit it. One may try to argue that although the Soviet Union was the first nation to launch a satellite into orbit, the United States was the first nation to put a man on the moon. While this is true, it must be remembered that although the U.S. is a capitalist nation, NASA is a government institution, and is funded with money from taxes. The space programs of all nations, whether Capitalist or Communist, have always been products of government funding, rather than the free market. Therefore, Ayn Rand's theory that government funding is always inferior to private free market funding breaks down as a conceptual model because it fails to predict actual outcomes, and thus cannot be considered scientifically valid.

Yet in spite of all the evidence to the contrary, Ayn Rand continued to vehemently insist that government funding of scientific research was a bad idea. For example, consider the following excerpt from her (in)famous epic novel, Atlas Shrugged:
"I’ll tell you, if you wish. It’s the truth that you want, isn’t it? Dr. Ferris cannot help it, if the morons who vote the funds for this Institute insist on what they call results. They are incapable of conceiving of such a thing as abstract science. They can judge it only in terms of the latest gadget it has produced for them. [...] People have been criticizing the Institute, because, they say, we have not produced enough. The public has been demanding economy. In times like these, when their fat little comforts are threatened, you may be sure that science is the first thing man will sacrifice. There are practically no private research foundations any longer. [...]
If you consider that for thirteen years this Institute has had a department of metallurgical research, which has cost over twenty million dollars and has produced nothing but a new silver polish and a new anti-corrosive preparation which, I believe, is not so good as the old ones – you can imagine what the public reaction will be if some private individual comes out with a product that revolutionizes the entire science of metallurgy and proves to be sensationally successful!"
— Dr. Robert Stadler, "Atlas Shrugged," part I, chapter VII, p.180
Now compare that excerpt against the statements of Neil DeGrasse Tyson, who is an actual scientist:
"Also in that decade [the 1920s], quantum mechanics, quantum physics, was discovered. That is the science of the small. The science of electrons, protons, neutrons, particles, nuclei. At the time you'd say, 'This is just physicists burning tax money. Cuz' who cares about the atom? I got my horse to feed. I got kids. I got...' you know, you got issues in society. Yet it's quantum mechanics that is the entire foundation of our technological revolution. There would be no computers, there would be no... there would be none of what you take for granted, your iPod, your iPhone, cell phones, the space program, without our understanding of the laws of physics as they operate on that atomic, molecular, and nuclear level. And so the chemist has no understanding of the periodic table of elements without quantum mechanics. To them it's just a list of elements. Quantum mechanics tells you why this column is there, and that's there, why this mates with that, and why that makes a molecule with that. That's quantum mechanics, and it's unheralded. You ask me if there's any discovery that has changed how we live, it is quantum mechanics. And I make... I make this point, because I'm ready to... [stomps foot]. Today you hear people say 'Why are we spending money up there when we've got problems on Earth?' And people don't connect the time delay between the frontier of scientific research and how that's gonna transform your life later down the line. All they want is a quarterly report that shows a product that comes out of it. That is so short sighted, that that's the beginning of the end of your culture."
— Neil DeGrasse Tyson, interview with Stephen Colbert at Montclair Kimberley Academy, Jan. 29, 2010 [Watch interview on YouTube]
Given all the historical evidence, as well statements from actual scientists, I think it's safe to say that Ayn Rand's ideology is indeed hostile to science and scientific advancement. Though unlike certain sects of Christian fundamentalism, Objectivism's hostility towards science was purely unintentional. In fact, Ayn Rand tried to advocate and endorse science. But at the same time, she also condemned the type of non-linear, abstract thinking that is necessary to conceive of new ideas, and thus advance scientific thinking, as well as irrationally opposing all government funding, which is one of the key components in scientific and technological advancement. So while Ayn Rand may not have intentionally opposed science, her lack of understanding about science (during her university studies, she majored in history and minored in philosophy) caused her to create an ideology under which scientific advancement would be dramatically reduced, if not rendered totally impossible.