My Intellectual History, Part I

1989-12-06

When I was nine years old, I stopped believing in God. I was brought up Catholic and certainly believed in God as I was growing up. It was when I started praying that things went awry, because after a while I became quite disturbed about the fact that I never received an answer. I started to pray for one thing: a sign from God that He existed. Now I knew that God was all-powerful, so it was in his power to answer me. And I knew that God was all-knowing, so it couldn't be that he did not know about my prayers. And I knew that God was all-good, so He must have cared to answer me. But he didn't. So I slowly and painfully came to the conclusion that God did not exist.

This was heady stuff for a nine-year-old, especially in a religious family (though my family was not heavily religious). I didn't have any wider context for my unbelief, but the fact that God did not exist was something I couldn't shake or evade. Thus it was that I was highly receptive to any worldview that would put my atheism in a more meaningful context. And I did not have to wait long for the opportunity....

For when I was thirteen years old, I read Ayn Rand's novel The Fountainhead, which turned my intellectual world upside down. Over the ensuing two or three years I read all of the rest of her fiction and all of her cultural and philosophical essays (often more than once). When I was fifteen I virtually stopped reading Ayn Rand's work; from age 15 to about 17 or 18 I read a great deal of economics (including almost all of the works of Ludwig von Mises, and some of the other Austrian school writers) and many works on science, plus a great deal of Romantic fiction, including all of the novels and plays of Victor Hugo, the plays of Ibsen and Rostand, etc. During these years I also continued to read some of Ayn Rand, and by the time my eighteenth birthday rolled around I had read Atlas Shrugged five times and The Fountainhead nine times. I also subscribed to some of the Objectivist publications (The Intellectual Activist, The Objectivist Forum, Access to Energy) and did a lot of ordering from the Palo Alto Book Service, but living as I did in the boondocks of Maine I never became involved in "official" Objectivism. However, this did not prevent me from being extremely dogmatic and closed-minded about what I considered to be the truth -- namely, Ayn Rand's philosophy of Objectivism.

I did not graduate from my public high school in Maine, for the simple reason that I refused to take a required course on "Consumer Skills" -- skills such as how to open a bank account, how to sign up for welfare, and so on (preferring instead to take fourth-year German and an honors course for seniors on Law and Economics). This seems to have been motivated by my extreme stubbornness and by my deep respect for education -- I saw no reason to waste my time on trivialities when I could be learning important things like languages and political economy. One consequence of this episode was that I was refused entrance to every college that I applied to. A second consequence was my enrolling for one year in the American Renaissance School, a very small private high school in Westchester, New York that was run by people who were inspired by the writings of Ayn Rand.

When I entered ARS, I was a dogmatic Objectivist; when I left I was not. I don't know how else to characterize my year at ARS, except to say that it was intense and productive and incredibly rewarding. I expected (I guess) lots of Objectivists who would reinforce my beliefs; but what I got was a group of teachers and students who actively sought after knowledge in a very open manner (which is not to say that they were not committed to their beliefs -- they were, and most still are). In my courses on Philosophy, Literature, Physics, and Mathematics, I learned to think and reason as I had never done so before, and to honestly attempt to understand the world, and the people and ideas in the world. As a consequence of this new approach that I had learned (new for me, anyway), I ceased to consider myself an Objectivist. I consider myself to be just a thinking human being who deeply desires to understand the world. I don't like to be identified by an ideological label (even though I must note that I still think that there are thoughts and ideas of immense value in what Ayn Rand has written, in every branch of philosophy).

That's phase two. When I entered Columbia University the following year I intended to major in philosophy and physics (the latter being inspired by a long-running interest and excellence in science and mathematics, and also by my research job at IBM's Watson Research Lab). By the third week of my first semester I decided not to pursue studies in physics -- I was just sick of doing inclined plane problems -- and I decided to devote myself to the study of philosophy. In my second semester I began to study ancient Greek, since I was quite interested in Aristotle (Ayn Rand' philosophy being just the latest development in the Aristotelian tradition). As I continued to take higher level courses in Greek I found myself becoming more and more immersed in the thought and literature and culture of the Greeks, and less and less interested in the philosophical happenings since then (I think much of modern philosophy rests on mistakes of one kind or another, especially the Cartesian, German, and Analytic traditions -- though here again there are ideas and theories of value).

In the late 1980s, my interests broadened once again. In the spring of 1988 I read two works by the Chinese-born American logician and philosopher Hao Wang, Beyond Analytic Philosophy: Doing Justice to What We Know, and Reflections on Kurt Gödel. In these two books, Prof. Wang investigates the tradition of 'analytic empricism' and finds it wanting; and he calls for a broader and deeper conception of philosophy's task, a way of philosophizing that he calls 'phenomenography'. One aspect of his books that I have found intriguing is his comparison of Western and Chinese philosophy; though he finds neither tradition ultimately satisfying (and I would have agree with him), he does note that Chinese philosophy has tended to be this-worldy and humanistic -- and both of these things are characteristics that have always attracted me to Greek philosophy, and indeed to Ayn Rand's philosophy. Because I have been intrigued about what Prof. Wang really just sketches, I did some research on Chinese philosophy and on the comparison of Greek and Chinese philosophy, which I found to be fairly rewarding. Also in that time I read widely in Nietzsche (who I think had a large influence on Rand, as on the entire twentieth century); in epistemology, especially in a "course" or discussion group that I had with David Kelley early in 1989; in the philosophy of biology; and in the history and philosophy of science generally (in fact my interest in the history of science was actually just a continuation of my older interest in science; and I came to the conclusion that although Aristotelian philosophy is substantially the truth in philosophy, modern progress in the sciences and in the political experience of liberal democracy makes a re-evaluation of certain aspects of Aristotelian thought necessary).

For my accounting of the years since 1989, visit Part II and Part III.


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