Letters to Young Will

2005-03-13

I've been enjoying the occasional series of letters that Will Wilkinson has been writing to his former self on what's wrong (and right) with the ideas of Ayn Rand. The first letter was on free will and determinism, the second letter on human sociality, and the third letter on ethics. If you never went through an Ayn Rand phase, the letters may not speak to you, but as a recovered Randian myself I find them fascinating (and I sure could have benefited from them when I was oh, about, 18 years old).

Will makes several key observations:

There are many important implications of these insights. One is that there is a lot of work to be done in fully understanding human nature. Hint: it's not all pretty (we humans are a crafty bunch!), and Randian claims such as "there are no conflicts of interest among rational men" are true only on an extraordinarily desiccated vision of what it means to be a rational human being. If old Aristotle were alive today you can be sure he'd be integrating the insights of anthropology and evolutionary psychology as fast as they were coming in. Those who would move forward with a philosophy for living on earth need to drop the ideology and get scientific in a humanistic way (Jacob Bronowski provided a good example of such an approach, I think, but science has come a long way since the 1960s, when Bronowski did most of his writing).

Another implication is that history matters. For a history major, Rand was often depressingly a-historical. The current context of human experience involves a great deal of hard-won knowledge that is embedded in institutions, laws, practices, organizations, technologies, habits of mind, and the like. Granted, also embedded in these phenomena are misconceptions, irrationalities, and outright falsehoods. Is the modern welfare-warfare state far from the ideal form of government? Are modern mega-corporations partially inimical to human flourishing? Well, yeah. Sorry, reality is messy and perfection is not an option. So we try to do the best with what we've got -- which is a lot. Modern gadgetry fulfills Clarke's third law of technology by bordering on magic, modern science has begun to reveal the secrets of biological nature, modern economics shows more and more the connection between prosperity and freedom, and so on.

The great challenge as I see it is to integrate all of the theoretical and practical knowledge that we as a species have been gaining, and gaining in a greatly accelerated fashion. Rand's followers exist in an ideological vacuum, even a kind of scientific deprivation experiment. They prattle on about metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, politics, and aesthetics as if philosophy were some lordly queen of the sciences who needs only to legislate and never to listen. All the while, the sciences and practical arts have made incredible progress over the last 500 years, especially over the last 100 years, and amazingly so even in the last generation. In many ways, the world is practically a different place than it was when Rand effectively stopped writing 30 years ago. There is much to learn about the nature of the world from physics, chemistry, and biology. There is much to learn about epistemology (e.g., the processes of conceptualization) from cognitive psychology and the practical methods of sciences such as biological taxonomy. Ethics needs to be informed by anthropology, evolutionary psychology, biology, sociology, history, and related sciences. Politics is not a standalone discipline in which one can opine once and for all regarding the nature of societal interaction and the necessity for government, but instead must be pursued (I think) in an almost experimental manner, informed by history, economics, law, psychology, and business. Even in the traditionally autonomous realm of art we have come to see that art does not exist for art's sake but for the sake of human beings and in particular human groups: the work of Ellen Dissanayake has revealed deep connections between art and biology, psychology, ethology, and technology (what are the tools of the arts but technological artifacts such as the painter's paints and brushes, the sculptor's hammers, the musician's instruments?).

In a series of books written from the middle 1980s to early 1990s, Hao Wang adumbrated a vision of philosophy as what he called "phenomenography" -- a discipline that would map out what we have learned about material reality as well as our human selves and our social interactions. Wang held that rather than endlessly arguing about how we know, it would be much more productive to gain a clear picture of what we know. He focused mainly on the sciences, but I would extend his insights also to technology in the broadest sense: the practical techniques, tools, institutions, organizational forms, and instruments by which humans have gained such incredible power over nature.

Of course, such an effort ceased to be the job of one person around the time of Leibniz or perhaps Kant. Today we'd use databases, wikis, semantic web technologies, and the like to connect the dots, abstract from particular scientific results, and map out the achievements of both human knowledge and practical pursuits. A huge undertaking, to be sure. But a lot more important than the petty argumentation and analysis that have passed for philosophy over the last hundred years.


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