Note: I hope you do not read this as arrogant. I mean to totally refute Rand’s philosophy, and in doing so, I write with a voice of certainty. I am open to any critique, comment, or question. Though I ask that you read it all the way through before you do.
I am writing a refutation of the philosophy of Ayn Rand because it is dangerous, sad, and misguided. This philosophy of exclusive rational self-interest, quantifying all of existence in relation to its perceived value to you alone, has gained prominence in the modern western world, and among some who are close to me. My major disagreements with Randian philosophy are the idea that objective rational self-interest exists, and that if one is interested in living the most joyful life, exclusive self-interest is the method to do so. In this refutation, I will discuss the mystery of existence and the illusion of the reductionist philosophy to show why rational self-interest is impossible. I will then show why pursuing rational self-interest is dangerous and sad.
I begin with an axiom so obvious that it may be regarded as fact: Existence exists. There is something and not nothing. There are clouds, humans, trees, molecules, and atoms instead of nothing. Adventurers in the world of knowledge have established to the best of their reasoning and experimentation that the universe began about 15 billion years ago when a singularity exploded outward, expanding rapidly and filling the previous void with something. To uncover the what, who, how, when or why that existed before or beyond existence is a task worth pursuing aggressively, and I am glad that some of our best minds are probing that mystery, because this mystery is the ultimate question. As the Zohar, the main text of the Kabbalah, states, “All existence depends on a mystery.”
I cannot prove anything about the great mystery that underlies the ultimate question of existence, or even define it, and I usually dismiss anyone with any concrete revelatory knowledge of mystery. I can, however, attempt to show that mystery exists in our perceived world through a famous mathematical proof that points to mystery and to one of many examples from our lived world.
A central tenet of Cartesian philosophy is the idea of reductionism. Reductionism means that any problem can be solved by reducing the whole to its smaller parts. In other words, 4 X 4 can be solved as (2+2) X (2+2) = 16, as ((1+1) + (1+1)) X ((1+1) + (1+1)) = 16, as ((0.5+0.5+0.5+0.5) + (0.5+0.5+0.5+0.5)) X ((0.5+0.5+0.5+0.5) + (0.5+0.5+0.5+0.5)) = 16, etc. If reductionism were to be true, any and every problem could be solved by reducing it to its smallest parts. The dream of Cartesian reductionism is to reduce all of existence to its smallest parts at any one exact time and then, using the laws of physics, predict the future in its exact details. To compute so much knowledge would take a super computer. Alan Turing, the inventor of the Turing machine and father of the computer, invented a way to reduce larger bits of information into smaller bits of information that can be read and performed to recreate the larger information. While building a computing machine and showing that reductionism is relevant and useful to process problems, he also proved that not every problem can be solved. According to complex scientist Melanie Mitchell, Turing proved that, “Not every mathematical statement has a definite procedure that can decide its truth or falsity.” He proved that not every problem can be solved, so not every problem can be reduced to the sum of its parts and then solved. Sometimes, 4 does not equal 2+2. His proof was in response to the ‘Halting Problem,’ and is sketched out and explained here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Halting_problem#Sketch_of_proof. If not every problem can be reduced and solved, then mystery exists.
The existence of human societies is an example of the often non-reductionist and mysterious nature of reality. When a group of humans live together in an ordered and complex society, properties emerge that are greater than the sum of the individual humans added together. A deterrent effect, peace, complex industrial products, group think, culture, etc. emerge in a society. One could attempt to reduce and solve the group’s deterrent effect, how unlikely an enemy is to attack, by quantifying the deterrent effect of all the individuals and then adding that together. But then, one would miss the emergent deterrent effect of being seen as a whole large group by enemy groups. One is less deterred to attack a series of individuals than to attack the sum of those individuals, the group. This is represented in the common sense adage, “United we stand, divided we fall.” That gap between the mathematical sum of the individuals’ deterrent effect and the group’s actual deterrent effect is a mystery. That addition emerges from the interdependence of parts of existence. Other everyday examples of the mystery that flies in the face of reductionist philosophy are: The collection of interdependent neurons in the human brain producing thoughts, the interdependent parts of the human body creating artistic masterpieces, the interdependent parts of human societies creating cultures. Here is a cuter example of an emergent property invisible to a reductionist, six individual puppies drinking milk and forming a pinwheel: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vDa0z0gEvI4
This is all to show that value cannot always be quantified, and the ability to quantify existence to determine rational self-interest is a false illusion. Now, to show why it is dangerous.
There are some great minds that have an ability to both accept and explore mystery. As Albert Einstein, one of the greatest explorers into mystery said, “Never cease to stand like curious children before the great mystery into which we were born.” An acceptance of mystery, which is often wrongly confused with an ignorance or indifference to discovery, is foundational to acquiring meaningful knowledge, that is, knowledge that can be understood wisely. Without awe before great mystery, the world, one does not conceive of knowledge as anything but a commodity, a utility. This awe is impossible when one is exclusively preoccupied with objectifying the world and subjugating it to your needs. Without a recognition of great mystery, each learned bit of knowledge enlarges the ego’s ability to master the universe. The quote, “Knowledge is power,” embodies the way an unwise mind views knowledge as a self-serving commodity. This perception of knowledge as a commodity will often extend to nature, in language like ‘natural resources,’ and will eventually extend to the commoditization of self. This is present in the language we use surrounding education. To pursue an education is to ‘invest in yourself’ and make one ‘fit for the job market,’ as if you are an oil lamp to be filled or a mechanical person equal to the sum of its parts, instead of a candle to be sparked. In this utilitarian light, education is no longer a sacred act, serving that which is greater than oneself, because it is self-obsessed. At this point, when self has become a commodity and everything in relation to self is a commodity, the world exists exclusively as a toolbox on which you will impose your will. Ego is often convinced of its own rightness and is amazingly adept at rationalizing away doubt. Unchecked, ego imposes itself on the outside world and this leads to rampant destruction and sorrow. This leads to a continual violation of the covenant between humanity and our world, and will inevitably be our destruction. This is the danger of Randian philosophy.
When one is exclusively self-absorbed, either attempting to quantify oneself or the materials around oneself in relation to its potential value to be gained, then the possibility of self-transcendence is impossible. This is the sadness of Randian philosophy. The goal and meaning of life is to continuously pursue and achieve joy. The ultimate joy of life is found when the self transcends itself. One of the greatest mysteries of the mystery is what happens when one acts according to the knowledge that existence exists. When one is able to perceive the world not in relation to one’s ego, but from the perspective of the totality of everything. This is described as God-centeredness vs. ego-centeredness, as making the shift from head to heart, or as shifting from the self to the other. Ultimate joy comes from blurring the boundaries of self into the totality of existence. This sensation is referred to by Buddhists as being, “One with everything,” and it results from, “The annihilation of self.” It is referred to by the Hasidim as, “The cancelation of self (beetool nefesh).” I’ve heard Christians call it, “Feeling God’s love.” There are many names for this moment in every religious tradition. According to William James, these moments are always transient (fleeting and impossible to predict or expect), the one experiencing is passive (it happens to you, not the other way around), noetic (there is intellectual content), and it is ineffable (that intellectual content is indescribable.) It is rationally unprovable, yet it is the greatest goal of human existence. It does not involve the skies opening up and revealing a heavenly choir of harp-playing angels. This moment often happens standing in one’s driveway and looking at a tree, serving food at a soup kitchen, marching for human dignity, or during the height of sexual climax. It is the emergent property of experiencing the sum of all of existence, the interdependence of all. It is a connection with the mystery. It is a paradox of human existence: To be fully human means transcending yourself.
This idea is often labeled as mysticism and quickly dismissed as shtus, garbage. This is a tragedy, and this is a reason why religion has lost its relevance and nihilism and exclusively selfish philosophies have been given space to rise. The mystical pursuit is continually relevant. It is what makes life worth living. Rabbi Lawrence Kushner said, “A mystic is anyone who has the gnawing suspicion that the apparent discord, brokenness, contradictions, and discontinuities that assault us every day might conceal a hidden unity.” To segregate one’s self-interests from the whole is against the very foundation of monotheism and denies the chance of ever transcending the self. To help others without first attempting to calculate their value to you is to further the task of transcending your self. To only serve and help others because of one’s expectations of reciprocal value will forever allow the ego to prevent itself from yielding to all of existence. The starting point of helping cannot be the desires of ego, but must be the needs of the other if a human is able to transcend itself and be potentially receptive to the mystical moment. Rand rejects this idea, and this is the sadness of the Randian philosophy.
The promise of modern western culture and Randian philosophy is that exclusive focus on the self will yield joy. Everything is related to my interests, to my material security, to my existence. Jewish tradition overwhelmingly, and to my knowledge, unanimously, disagrees with this. The theme of prophetic rebuke is to care for others and not just self. “What does God require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8). The theme of prophetic hope is the transcendent joy that will happen when we consider and care for others. “Seek good, not evil, that you may live. Then God Almighty will be with you” (Amos 6:14). The prophetic voice speaks for the whole on behalf of the part, never for the part on behalf of the part. Viewing one’s actions from a higher vantage point, from the perspective of others, with the whole community in mind, should complement one’s individual assessment of value in relation to one’s perceived needs. If one has no space to consider the other except as a tool for self gratification, then one surely has no space for the mystical moment.
Connection with the ineffable, experiencing the mystery, is impossible when one is exclusively self-absorbed. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote, “The greatest beauty grows at the greatest distance from the ego.” Paradoxically, the most selfish way you can live is selflessly. To focus exclusively on self and to commoditize everything in relation to self is both impossible to do and unwise to attempt. Ayn Rand’s philosophy of objectivism will lead to a life of sorrow and destruction in which it is impossible to feel the greatest joy. A life lived exclusively according to rational self-interest is less than human. As Heschel wrote, “One who is exclusively concerned with his self is a beast.”
This refutation of Ayn Rand may be interpreted as an attack on all self-interest. This is not true. Without rational self-interest, as best as we can humbly determine, we would be dead. We would not build a house, get a job, stay healthy, or even eat. The problem is with exclusive self-interest through the perception of everything in relation to self. This philosophy is destructive, isolating, and spiritually void. If we lived in a world of total selflessness, I would be arguing for people to look out for their self-interest. But this is not the world as it is. A Chassidic Rabbi used to give every person two cards on their wedding day, one for each pocket. The first said, “You are the center of the universe.” The second said, “You are but dust in the wind.”