Thursday, January 8, 2015

Ayn Rand's Objectivism vs. Noam Chomsky's Anarchism

There is a debate in Objectivist and Libertarian circles as to whether or not Ayn Rand's philosophy of Objectivism leads logically to Anarchism. In the book "On Anarchism," self-proclaimed anarchist Noam Chomsky takes a stab at Ayn Rand's theories, pointing out how her ideas are essentially just a distorted version of classical European Libertarianism, but twisted around to make them right-wing (Libertarianism was originally an anarchistic, left-wing ideology, and still is in Europe).

Most of the Objectivists and American Libertarians that I've encountered don't particularly like Noam Chomsky. When I ask them why, the response I typically get is something along the line of, He's a liberal, all liberals are Socialists, and Socialism is evil. Objectivists, like most Conservatives and right-wing thinkers, have a very simplified definition of Socialism.

I once spoke with Kaila Halling, co-author of "Pendulum of Justice," and she gave me a slightly deeper answer. She told me she believes Noam Chomsky's ideas are detestable for two primary reasons: first, because he thinks that language shapes the world rather than describing the world, and second, because he's an Anarchist. Both of these are ideological positions which Objectivism completely rejects at least, Objectivists claim to reject Anarchism. But as I will demonstrate, this is actually not the case. Regardless of how much Ayn Rand claimed to have detested Anarchist philosophy, her own philosophy nevertheless logically leads straight to Anarchy, because it is built almost entirely on the Non-Aggression Principle. But I'll address that point in a minute. First, let's deal with the argument about language.

The epistemological debate as to whether language shapes the world or describes the world originated in the 19th century with the German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, whose philosophical ideas touched, at least briefly, on virtually every subject known to man. In one of his most prominent works, "The Phenomenology of Spirit" (sometimes alternatively translated as "The Phenomenology of Mind"), published in 1807 in Bamberg, Germany, Hegel argued that how we think as individuals is largely determined by the thoughts of other people through the language we speak, the traditions and mores of our society, and the cultural and religious institutions of which we are a part. In other words, Hegel believed that language, among other things, controls our understanding of the world, and therefore determines how we perceive and interact with reality, thus subtlety guiding the way in which human society develops. In short, language shapes the world, at least according to Hegel. This argument, however, has not gone without criticism. In fact, the two most prominent philosophers who disagreed with Hegel on this point were Ayn Rand and Karl Marx.

Marx argued that Hegel had it exactly backwards (or upside down). That is, Marx claimed that our language does not shape the world, but rather that our language and mode of thinking are determined by the material and social conditions of the society in which we happen to live. According to Marx, as human society develops and progresses, our language will develop and progress along with it, guided by material and technological advancement.

Ayn Rand, by contrast, made the rather simplistic argument that language describes the world as it actually is an intellectually shallow position, and one which inhibits the advancement of knowledge because it rules out the possibility that established language could be describing things incorrectly or incompletely. This is just one example (among many) of how Ayn Rand's philosophy was not actually designed to advance human knowledge, but rather merely to provide a justification for the status quo.

Personally, I believe there is validity in the arguments of both Marx and Hegel. Ayn Rand's argument, however, is childish. Language attempts to describe the world as it actually is, certainly, but only the ignorant and intellectually dense would try to argue that language is always successful in this endeavor.

Yes, language describes the world, but it also shapes the way we think, and therefore shapes the way we interpret the world. Our interpretations of the events around us will always be filtered through the lens of our ideology, whatever that may be. This isn't necessarily a bad thing. In fact, I would say it's unavoidable. We simply cannot help but judge things against the background of our own experience and knowledge. There is no such thing as a truly non-partisan position. Everyone is partisan. The only question is to whom. Once we recognize our own internal cognitive biases, we can begin to change out our ideological lenses and see how the world appears to us when we view things from a different perspective. None of the lenses are perfect, and they all create some level of distortion, but they are the only means by which we can view anything. Therefore, if we want to obtain the highest degree of accuracy possible, we must have multiple lenses in our toolkit, and be willing to change them out with each other to obtain multiple perspectives. Insisting on using just one lens only blinds us to the bigger picture.
"Our brain is mapping the world. Often that map is distorted, but it's a map with constant immediate sensory input."
— E. O. Wilson
"A few years ago the city council of Monza, Italy, barred pet owners from keeping goldfish in curved goldfish bowls. The measure’s sponsor explained the measure in part by saying that it is cruel to keep a fish in a bowl with curved sides because, gazing out, the fish would have a distorted view of reality. But how do we know we have the true, undistorted picture of reality? Might not we ourselves also be inside some big goldfish bowl and have our vision distorted by an enormous lens? The goldfish’s picture of reality is different from ours, but can we be sure it is less real?"
— Stephen Hawking & Leonard Mlodinow, "The Grand Design," p.?
"In the history of science we have discovered a sequence of better and better theories or models, from Plato to the classical theory of Newton to modern quantum theories. It is natural to ask: Will this sequence eventually reach an end point, an ultimate theory of the universe, that will include all forces and predict every observation we can make, or will we continue forever finding better theories, but never one that cannot be improved upon? We do not yet have a definitive answer to this question..."
— Stephen Hawking & Leonard Mlodinow, "The Grand Design," p.8
Do we perceive real things, or just our representations of them?

TIME: Stephen Hawking Asks, What Is Reality?

Ayn Rand may have rejected Anarchism on an emotional level, but her ideology is nevertheless built on the same logical foundation as Anarchism: the idea that it is possible for men and women to unite, without coercion, under a binding legal order for peaceful cooperation. They both reject coercive social organizations, and repudiate coercion as a social technique. Ayn Rand said some very nasty things about Anarchism, but she never specified how her ideal utopia (Galt's Gulch) was any different from the ideal utopia of an Anarchist society. In fact, her descriptions of Galt's Gulch which she provides in her magnum opus Atlas Shrugged cannot be called anything else except the descriptions of an Anarchist society. Ayn Rand may have vehemently repudiated Anarchism, but her own ideology points in the same direction. And ultimately it is direction, not intention, that determines destination.

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