Reality

Column by Jim Davies.

Exclusive to STR

Better late, it's said, than never. So while I should have taken the opportunity years ago, this month I got around to it and listened to the famous interview of Ayn Rand by Mike Wallace, made for TV in black and white in 1959. You too can see it, on YouTube here (use Ixquick to find Parts 2 and 3.)

It lasts 30 minutes, and it's a half hour very well spent. Generally I prefer to read transcripts (find one here), but if this should be your first encounter with the recording, do pick the video. It fairly crackles with the electricity of two powerful intellects in combat.

With a couple of exceptions, Mike Wallace gave her no quarter, and no interviewer of the last half century is known to have been more aggressive. Had I been sitting in Ayn Rand's chair, I'm quite sure I'd have melted, from the ferocity of his questions. But she did not; although this was her first TV appearance, the only sign of nervousness was a curious movement of the eyes. Otherwise she was relaxed and cool and gave every bit as good as she got, with crisp, emphatic and arresting replies.

Let's get the exceptions out of the way: Invited to explain her philosophy, Ayn replies, “First, my philosophy is based on the concept that reality exists as an objective absolute” and Mike Wallace does not challenge or question that; he might have. More on this below.

The second is that after showing that taxation is morally repugnant, Ayn Rand allows as how a minimal level of government is acceptable: “There is nothing wrong with the democratic process in politics. We arrive at it, the way we arrived by the American Constitution as it used to be. By the constitutional powers, as we had it, people elect officials, but the powers of those officials, the powers of government are strictly limited. They will have no right to initiate force, or compulsion against any citizen, except a criminal. Those who have initiated force will be punished by force, and that is the only proper function of government.” But Mike completely fails to ask the obvious question, which simply begged to be posed: “How, then, would it be financed?” Nor does he enumerate for her the other powers supposedly delegated to the Feds, which I reviewed here – including the power to “lay and collect taxes.”

Given that he was being hostile (in a polite way), that omission is amazing. I wonder why he missed it, and can suppose only that to him, government is so much a “given” that it just didn't occur to him that someone has to pay its expenses. Perhaps, like many on the Left, he really supposed that its costs are met by plucking fruit from the money trees that grow on the National Mall. Whatever; but he lost a huge opportunity to skewer his guest, for I have no idea how she could have answered him. She was really caught in what she so frequently exposed and castigated: a logical contradiction. Nobody is so foolish as to pay for government without force, and she had just correctly described force as morally evil, so she seems to me to have placed herself between a rock and a hard place. Yet Wallace let her escape.

Those are the exceptions, though. Elsewhere, Mike Wallace gave her a hard time and she answered him brilliantly, and I'll leave to the reader to enjoy them all and learn, with me, how better to respond to our statist adversaries. Here, I'd like to focus just on the very first issue raised: reality. Ayn Rand based her philosophy on “the concept that reality exists as an objective absolute” and that has been simplified that to the axiom “A is A.” A is not Non-A, its logical opposite; and A is what A really is, not what the spinners may say it is.

Believe it or not, I've seen it written – by an STReader, no less! – that “reality is open to question”! She told me that “there is a hypothesis that what we understand as 'existence' and 'reality' is in fact nothing but a vast computer simulation” and referred me to Huffpost Science (wait . . . isn't that an oxymoron?) by way of evidence. I replied that if she took positions like that, she could derive anything or nothing or everything she liked, and I'd have no way to dissuade her. There has to be a bootstrap of some kind, for any discourse to take place, a primitive premise, upon which all other reasoning is built. My own, formulated soon after I wrested myself free from the grip of religious superstition, is twofold: that “I exist, and can reliably observe and reason about my environment.”

Ayn Rand's stated “reality exists as an objective absolute” says much the same but more elegantly, and Descartes' cogito ergo sum (I think, therefore I am) puts it more succinctly. Too bad the converse (I am, therefore I think) doesn't necessarily hold.

The alternative, which takes many forms, is solipsistic; that is, that the world and other minds do not exist (so, Wiki.) The apparent assumption that “other” minds do not exist while one's own mind does exist, is breathtakingly arrogant--and the whole is fundamentally silly. This is the kind of nonsense into which one rapidly descends after denying reality. The fact that reality cannot be proven results from there being no more primitive premise to use in forming such a proof. It is an axiom; any attempt to refute it explicitly requires implicit acceptance.

In the interview, Mike Wallace did not challenge Rand's opening. Perhaps he was rationing his time, as interviewers must; perhaps he didn't grasp its huge significance. Perhaps he did, but quickly realized that to challenge it would leave him looking stupid. In any case, the result left Ayn Rand with a large advantage. Here are a few things (out of a vast number) that follow, from that premise that “A is A”:

 



Myth Reality

 

 
Self-sacrifice is the highest virtue Practiced consistently, self-sacrifice is the highest folly; it would denude the world of "good" people, leaving only the "bad" and helpless
Selfishness is mean Self-sufficiency is virtuous
God exists "God" has never even been defined
Government is necessary to limit evil Government is the primary source of evil
Laws are rules needed for a peaceful society Laws are the opinions of the governing elite
Criminals do evil Criminals violate government laws
Non-defensive killing is wrong, except in war Non-defensive killing is wrong
Guns kill people People kill people
Preparation for war preserves the peace Preparation for war produces war
Government is about public service Government is about governing
Government schools provide free education Government schools educate only rarely, and are always horribly expensive
Everyone has a right to free health care There is no such thing as free health care
Taxation is the price we pay for civilization Taxation, being theft, is barbarous
Police serve and protect the public Police serve and protect the government
Courts ensure that justice is done Courts help enforce the government's will
Justice is about punishing wrongdoing Justice is about repairing damaged rights
A uniform and a badge confer special powers A uniform and a badge consist of a costume and a piece of embossed metal or plastic
The people delegate special powers to government People can delegate to anyone only such powers they possess in the first place
Roads can be built only by government Roads can be built only by road builders
Limits can be set on governments Anyone who is limited does not govern

 

There are a few to be going on with; very likely you can think of many more. Perhaps this list suffices to show the importance of remaining firmly anchored in reality. Ayn Rand's summary “reality exists as an objective absolute” is expanded, on this Objectivist website, to:

"Reality, the external world, exists independent of man's consciousness, independent of any observer's knowledge, beliefs, feelings, desires or fears. This means that A is A, that facts are facts, that things are what they are—and that the task of man's consciousness is to perceive reality, not to create or invent it." Thus Objectivism rejects any belief in the supernatural—and any claim that individuals or groups create their own reality.

That is an elegant starting point for all rational thought, and it's vitally important to think only in rational, economic terms instead of political and/or superstitious ones. The alternative to rational thinking is intellectual vegetation. Thinking rationally leads rapidly to a correct understanding of what human beings are, what government is, how markets work and what ethics are good to follow in life; rational ethics, neither ones that are relativistic, like those prevailing today, nor “revealed” by a mythical engraver of stone tablets.

As shown above in relation to her tolerance for a “limited government,” Ayn Rand sometimes failed to follow her own principle, for government is never other than a fictitious entity; but the principle itself deserves nothing less than full endorsement.

 

6.66667
Your rating: None Average: 6.7 (3 votes)
Jim Davies's picture
Columns on STR: 243

Jim Davies is a retired businessman in New Hampshire who led the development of an on-line school of liberty in 2006, and who wrote A Vision of Liberty" , "Transition to Liberty" and, in 2010, "Denial of Liberty" and "To FREEDOM from Fascism, America!" He started The Zero Government Blog in the same year.
In 2012 Jim launched http://TinyURL.com/QuitGov , to help lead government workers to an honest life.
In 2013 he wrote his fifth book, a concise and rational introduction to the Christian religion called "Which Church (if any)?"

Comments

Alex R. Knight III's picture

Nicely done, Jim, as usual!  Just as a point of curios, while I will agree with the Objectivist disbelief in the "supernatural," I wonder what their reaction is to the "paranormal"?  The distinction being that the former is pure fantasy -- there can never exist anything which entirely defies any and all laws of scientific nature -- while the latter describes phenomena which does not.

Jim Davies's picture

Alex, I hadn't thought to list tales of ghosties, ghoulies and things that go bump in the night very high in any extension of the above table of common myths of which our neighbors need urgently to be disabused.
 
On the other hand, the subject of the paranormal is interesting as an exercise and illustration. Dictionary.com defines it as “the claimed occurrence of an event or perception without scientific explanation” and if that's correct, I'd say the paranormal is not real. If it cannot be observed, measured, replicated, theorized about and re-tested, it ain't part of reality.
 
On the other hand, the rational enquirer will not rush to judgement. He will try to move the claimed event into a condition where it can be measured, etc. The story of science is one of mysteries that have been solved, in such a way. If and when that can be done, the “para-” prefix may be dropped and we'll have a new component of the real world. If you're right in saying that it doesn't entirely defy natural law, you may be the one to move it.
 
 

Alex R. Knight III's picture

Jim:  The point you raise was precisely the distinction I was trying to make -- unfortunately at the time I typed that, I had to rush away from my desk quickly...on wholly non-paranormal business.  :-)  But I am in no such rush now, and I suppose I was mostly pointing out an aside about word choice.  "Supernatural" is an impossibility by virtue of the very term itself.  Whereas "paranormal" connotes that which is outside the realm of routine experience entirely, but which may still possess a rational scientific explanation, even if it is one far beyond the reach of currently known or even hypothesized phenomena.  Of course, in my view, it could be none other -- even if the science involved does not directly appertain in any way to that which applies in our universe. 
 
Increasingly, reputable and valid scientific study of the paranormal is becoming acceptable practice.  I think that's a good thing.
 
P.S. -- Here's something I penned for STR a few years back that fits this discussion nicely.  :-)
 
http://strike-the-root.com/71/knight/knight7.html
 
 

Jim Davies's picture

That's a very good story you wrote, Alex, I'm sorry to have missed (or forgotten) it first time around.
 
It would be amazing if intelligent life did not exist in other part(s) of the universe, so if this planet gets a visit now and again I see nothing in it to challenge our understanding of reality or a rational process of examining the evidence. The difficulty may be in pinning it down for examination, replicating the observations etc. All compounded by the way governments try to keep evidence under wraps.
 
 

mhstahl's picture

"If it cannot be observed, measured, replicated, theorized about and re-tested, it ain't part of reality."

 
Jim,
 
This is a facinating topic, I'm glad you wrote the piece. I have a few a few issues to raise in the interest of keeping some activity going over the holiday break.
 
That is a curious definition of "reality", and one that appears to be in contradiction to your A=A postulation. If reality is "really real" as you claim, then it does not require observation to be "real". The tree that falls makes a sound, observer or no. Or it doesn't. You can't have that both ways: which is it? 
 
Indeed, according to that observational based definition the very bones of matter and the universe "ain't part of reality." Gravity itself cannot be observed-only its effects, weight and acceleration, can be, it cannot be replicated, and while it's certainly theorized about, its existence is still an utter mystery. In fact, it really has not even been truly defined. Yet without it, nothing "exists" at all.
 
This is why I cited Dr. Savage some time ago (I am a "he" by the way, and have the functioning plumbing to prove such..:) perhaps someone else did as well...but I'm certain I did at some point) that you so scorned in the above article. I used the Huffpost piece because it featured a video interview of a renowned physicist making a point about the scientific uncertainty of "reality." And he, in turn, is only making a point about the bizzare aspect of advanced physics. I thought the actual man speaking would be more useful than listing a string of academic papers...
 
By the way, what he is talking about is NOT solipsism...he's discussing the basic functions of physics. He is not making a philosophical point, but rather a mathematic one.
 
In any event, is not the basis of your (and Rand's) philosophy "human nature" rather than "reality?"
 
Anyway, I hope everyone has a chance to enjoy family and friends over the holiday.
 
Mike

Jim Davies's picture

Hello Mike, and thanks for your good wishes; I reciprocate. Some of my thoughts about the holiday are expressed in a recent Blog here, and I made you female so as to keep you anonymous, should you so wish. I didn't really think you were Michaela :-)
 
I'll stick with that definition of reality. Please note, it's in the passive voice: "If it cannot be observed..." You're quite right, there are many things that are real but which are not visible, including that famous tree in the forest; but that tree can be seen to fall. It's just that nobody was around when it did.
 
Gravity, likewise, can be perfectly well "measured, theorized about, tested..." To a more limited exent, so far, so can other real but invisible things like emotions. They too are real. So is human nature.

Jim Davies's picture

Over lunch, Mike, I thought of an entity which is not a good fit for my definiiton of reality; so I offer it to you here in a spirit of sportsmanship.

It's the square root of -1.

In mathematics, there is no number which, when multiplied by itself, can produce a negative result. Therefore, the root of -1 is imaginary, often designated "i" - even though it's useful in many equations (I forget which, it's been a while) and can be reasoned about and tested.

So is it real, or not?  On the knife-edge, obviously, analagous to the once-vital question of how many angels can dance on a pin-head.

That will engage a certain type of mind for a long while, but meanwhile I suggest we focus on the large array of important fables such as those tabulated in my article, which Boobus Americanus falsely imagines to be real.

Thunderbolt's picture

Always great to review the fundamentals of rational thought.

Samarami's picture

Having finished all 3 parts of the Mike Wallace interview I got caught up in watching a 1979 Phil Donahue interview -- not long prior to Ayn Rand's death. It was an hour more or less, and of course I ended up whiling away much of the day with that and other "surfs" resulting therefrom. I've been television-free for nigh onto 40 years now, so I hadn't seen them. Take that back, I think I saw parts of the Mike Wallace interview on the compooter once.

For some reason I liked Donahue's dialogue better. For one thing he opened it up at the end to questions from the audience, and I gained much more respect for both Rand and Donahue after watching how they handled the exchanges with the members of the audience and with each other.

On another clip with Donahue, at 5.00 a young lady got up to challenge her. At first I was moved to "feel sorry" for the poor gal. Because Rand interrupted (I thought quite rudely) and shut the girl down without listening to her question. After analysis I gained much respect for Rand. She simply refused up front to deal with intellectual blackmail. You'll have to watch to see my point.

Would that I develop that level of assertiveness in my dotage.

I agree with you, Jim: Ms Rand was definitely mini-statist. But so were many of our "mentors" from her period, before anarchy became a factor other than a bad name. And I also agree totally with your final equation: "Anyone who is limited does not govern". Nobody will ever use decent stewardship of others' produce ("money") if or when it is extracted by force under threat of violence.

"Limited government" is a pipe dream.

Sam

Glock27's picture

Late to the game, but Sam. Thanks for your closing remark. I guess I would have said "Limited government is and opiate pipe dream".

Entito Sovrano's picture

Beyond the content of the interview in itself, what I find most interesting about it (and worthy of sociological inquiry) is that an interview such as this would not be broadcast on television in the Anglosphere today...

Our culture has become so degraded, so lowered to a form which 'entertains' the lowest common denominator that such a discussion between two people about abstract values for half an hour would be unthinkable for broadcast by studio executives.

Jim Davies's picture

Good thought, Entito, which I had missed. It's certainly true that nothing in recent memory compares to this interview, treating as it does some fundamental questions of philosophy.
 
Whether that's because the current American audience could not relate to it, or because studio execs are systematically excluding such radical ideas from what they permit to be broadcast, is a different question.
 
I fear it might be the former, but will persist in supposing it to be the latter. My slender rationale is that PBS (though no, not NBC) does put on some quite stimulating "think" programs occasionally, such as "Intelligence Squared." They don't get to the root of the matter, but they do dance around it.