Don Watkins

A Second Recommendation of A First History!

 Posted by on 16 July 2006 at 6:24 pm  Uncategorized
Jul 162006
 

A few days ago, Diana recommended Scott Powell’s First History for Adults. I want to second her recommendation. I cannot say enough good things about this course and about its teacher.

Scott’s course has many virtues, but the greatest, in my estimation, is that it not only teaches us history, but how to understand history.

To take just one example, a mistake many Objectivists make is to try to jump from the concrete events of history to broadest philosophic causes of those events. But that is like trying to jump directly from the observation that apples fall to Newton’s laws–you can’t do it, and if you try to, all you’ll be left with are random concretes and floating abstractions. Scott’s course shows us the proper historical hierarchy in a way that is clarifying and captivating .

And that is the most thrilling aspect of Scott’s class to me: to see the Objectivist epistemology applied to history in a way that illuminates both.

No matter how rich (or poor) your knowledge of history, you will benefit from this course.

Update from Diana: Scott Powell tells me that Session 4 of the course begins Wednesday. It will run Wednesday and Thursday nights at 7:00 PM Pacific for the duration of the summer.

IJ on AR

 Posted by on 7 June 2006 at 9:15 pm  Uncategorized
Jun 072006
 

The Institute for Justice has a very nice article on Ayn Rand in the latest issue of Liberty & Law. I especially liked this:

If Rand is known for her villains, her heroes are even more vividly portrayed. And here too we encounter real life examples, this time in our clients. When Shamille Peters speaks of a longtime dream to run her own floral shop, she is reminiscent of Dagny Taggart standing on the railroad tracks as a child and vowing to one day run a railroad. When Lonzo Archie stood up to the power structure of the State of Mississippi and refused to give up his home for a Nissan plant, he evoked the image of Hank Rearden when he refused to give up Rearden Metal to those who demanded it for the public good. And when taxicab entrepreneur Leroy Jones said he wanted nothing from others, just a chance to “do it myself,” Howard Roark couldn’t have said it better.

Check out the whole thing!

DC Objectivist Salon Launches Website

 Posted by on 28 April 2006 at 11:26 pm  Uncategorized
Apr 282006
 

David Rehm would like to announce that the DC Objectivist Salon now has a website: http://www.dcobjectivistsalon.com. According to the site:

The DC Objectivist Salon is a group of individuals in the Washington, DC metro area dedicated to the serious study and practical application of Ayn Rand‘s philosophy of Objectivism. (Please note that our primary focus is intellectual, not political; we simply happen to live in the vicinity of Washington, DC.)

Activities of the DCOS include: holding a monthly discussion group (usually followed by a social dinner), supporting local campus clubs to promote awareness and discussion of Objectivism in the universities, maintaining a calendar of relevant DC-area (and significant, outside) events, and eventually hosting a wider range of social activities. For more information or to participate, send a message briefly introducing yourself and your interest in Objectivism to: contact@dcobjectivistsalon.com.

The DCOS is a proud supporter of (although neither sanctioned nor supported by) the Ayn Rand Institute.

I helped David start DCOS shortly before I left for California, and one of my (few) regrets is that I’m no longer able to participate in the club. Its members are friendly, active-minded, and committed to studying Objectivism. I urge everyone in the DC area to join them, although it should go without saying that my endorsement is personal and does not necessarily represent the views of ARI.

(I should also note that David and I were inspired to start the club after seeing the success of Front Range Objectivism in Colorado–so many thanks to them!)

USC Free Speech Event Video Available

 Posted by on 17 April 2006 at 2:28 pm  Uncategorized
Apr 172006
 

For those of you who could not attend the USC Free Speech event featuring Yaron Brook and Daniel Pipes, the video is now available for free on the Ayn Rand Institute registered user webpage. (Note: It will only be available online for a limited time.)

From The Front Lines

 Posted by on 11 March 2006 at 12:51 pm  Religion
Mar 112006
 

Well, I made it to California, and after settling into my new place, spending too much money on furnishings, and trying to get used to living in a place where all the clocks run three hours too slow, I decided to jump into the California Objectivist world head first.

I began by spending my morning at the VanDamme Academy, which of course is run by the delightful Lisa VanDamme. I sat in on the elementary school history lesson and the middle school grammar class. All I can say is that I was absolutely amazed by what Lisa and her staff have accomplished. Her students demonstrated more mastery of their subjects than most college students I’ve met, and just as important, they showed more enthusiasm for learning than any students I have EVER met. There is no question about it: my kids (once they exist) will attend the VanDamme Academy.

After that, whilst still on my cloud, I drove up to UCLA for the free speech event sponsered by the UCLA Objectivist club and the Ayn Rand Institute. It was a round table discussion of the Danish cartoons depicting the “prophet” Mohammed. The round table featured Yaron Brook and three other individuals (Avi Davis and Kevin James, who supported the publishing of the cartoons, and Khaleel Mohammed who…can you guess???…opposed it). Ed Locke moderated.

There was a pretty good turnout (at least 100, maybe 200 people), the majority of whom I suspect were Objectivists (based on the applause). There were no disruptions, and thanks to the VERY heavy security presence, no Muslims blew themselves up, which was nice.

Yaron did a wonderful job, although I wish he had been able to develop some of the points he made as I think some of them could have come across wrong or unclear.

What was most interesting to me was trying to decipher the psycho-epistemologies of the other presenters.

Avi Davis sounded like most modern op-ed writers (which makes sense since he is one): no principles, a thorough empiricist, and therefore difficult to follow, and guilty of the evening’s worst statement when he suggested that ‘perhaps liberal democracies have progressed enough that it’s time to start placing limits on some of our freedoms.’ (That’s a paraphrase, but pretty accurate…he was advocating throwing Holocaust deniers in prison.)

Khaleel Mohammed was defending the Muslims. His basic argument was that the West is hypocritical in claiming the cartoons fall under free speech, because we allegedly only allow free speech when it offends Muslims, not Christians or Jews. He said some very awful things and some less awful things, and I would classify him as a rationalist (or, if you’ve listened to DIM, I’d say he was an M1 coming very very close to an M2).

Kevin James was your average conservative radio talk show host. Completely non-intellectual, and more interested in getting laughs than changing minds.

In sum, I had a great time at the event. The UCLA Objectivist club (L.O.G.I.C.) was handing out lots of Objectivist literature (including FREE copies of Atlas Shrugged), and I saw at least a few members of the media there, so I’m hopeful this helped Objectivism reach some people. Events like this are always a mixed — you can’t develop your own position as fully but you reach more people. My hope is that at least a few of them at least found the ideas interesting enough to read Atlas Shrugged. If even a few of them are convinced that Objectivism has something important to say, perhaps they will become ARI contributers…and thereby help pay my bills.

New Frontiers

 Posted by on 26 February 2006 at 7:20 am  Uncategorized
Feb 262006
 

I am very pleased to announce that I will soon be joining the staff of the Ayn Rand Institute as their Writer and Research Coordinator. I will be responsible for writing Impact, the newsletter distributed to ARI contributers, and helping fact check op-eds and other writings distributed through ARI.

I’m not sure I can effectively describe how excited I am by this opportunity. For the first time in my life, I will be making my living as a writer, which has always been my goal. And I will be doing so working at the place I’ve dreamed of working since I was fifteen and first became an Objectivist. The most I can say is that my benevolent universe premise has been confirmed in the most extraordinary way…this is life as it might be and ought to be.

This Thursday, I will be jumping in my car and leaving D.C., along with my best friend, David Rehm. We’re setting sail for Colorado, where I’ll be spending the weekend with Diana, enjoying the Objectivist law conference, after which I will be driving to Irvine. It reminds me of a book I started but never finished:

I leave a note. It’s the least I can do. It doesn’t say where I’m going. Just that I’m gone.

The cab driver is white – who knew white guys were even allowed to drive cabs? He shows up late. The sun is starting to rise by the time we leave, and I tell him to slam the gas so I will not miss my flight. Less than an hour later, I’m at BWI airport. It has to be a record.

“Twenty,” he says.

I open my backpack and throw him a fifty. “Keep the change.” He looks at the bag and eyes me suspiciously. “I didn’t steal it,” I say.

“Didn’t say you did.”

“Okay.”

“Just don’t think it’s a good idea to take a bag of cash to the airport.”

I shut the door without a word, check my suitcase, and hustle to my gate. I haven’t missed my flight – it’s been delayed. I buy a Coke, a copy of USA Today, and settle in beside a grumpy fat man who I’m sure has been sitting here for days.

“They won’t let you on the plane if you’re drunk,” he says, his breath reeking of rotten bourbon.

“Okay.”

“They got me once already. But this time I’m ready for them.” He smiles a dirty smile, looks around to make sure no one is watching, and pulls something out of his pocket. “I’ve got a mint.” He holds up a single Tic Tac.

“Good luck with that,” I say.

The flight is ready to board, which is good because another minute beside Mint Man and I’m going to be drunk. They call first class first. They always call first class first. I’m riding first class.

A skinny girl with a fake smile looks at my ticket and looks at me. I know what she’s thinking. I don’t look first class. Hell, I don’t look business class. Probably I look like cargo. “I don’t have a mint,” I say, thinking that might be the problem.

“Excuse me?” she says.

“Never mind.”

She waves me through and I sit down at the back of the first class section. When I was a kid, I always wanted the window seat. I’ve learned my lesson. My bladder is small and I always have to pee. There’s nothing worse than being stuck in a window seat when the stranger next to you is asleep and you really have to pee. I guess you could use the vomit bags, but I get stage fright, so now I make sure to always get an aisle seat.

The seat is comfortable. It better be, right? I try to recline, but even in first class you don’t recline so much as tilt slightly. So I tilt. It helps.

“Eight C. Eight C. Oh, eight C.” A woman who’s probably thirty smiles at me and I stand up so she can take the window seat. I hope she won’t have to pee. “This is my first time in first class,” she says.

She looks like a bird. Not an ugly bird. I mean, she’s pretty. But still, she has bird-like features. Tight skin and a pointy nose and half a mouth. Good hair though.

“I’m Phoebe,” she says. “It means ‘shining one.’”

“I’m Ethan Allen,” I say.

“Like the revolutionary?”

“Like the furnishing store, I think.”

She laughs. It’s a good laugh. Light and airy. Too many girls have these weird giggles that make me squirm. I dated one girl who thought she sounded stupid when she laughed so she always tried to stifle it. It never worked – it would come out as an annoying snort. It’s a good thing I’m not funny. We wouldn’t have made it more than a week. Then again, we only lasted two weeks.

“Is this your first time in first class?” she says.

“Uh huh.”

“I guess it would be. You look young.”

“I’m twenty-two,” I say, a bit incredulous.

“I’m sorry,” she says. “That probably sounded condescending. I didn’t mean it that way.”

“Right.”

I wish she would shut up. I don’t mind being social, I really don’t. But I’m preoccupied. Everything is about to change and I want to be there when it does. Too many times I’ve missed out on important moments in my life. I don’t want to miss this one. When the wheels leave the ground, that’s when my life ends. I don’t need bird girl taking that away from me.

#

“You should see this,” Phoebe says, looking out the window. “The water looks so peaceful.”

“I hate water,” I say.

“It’s beautiful. Everything is so tiny.”

“Not really,” I say. “It just looks that way because we’re up so high.” It’s an hour into the flight so it’s okay Phoebe wants to talk.

“How long are you staying?” Phoebe says.

I shrug.

Her brow furrows. “You don’t know when you’re coming back?”

“Nope.”

“That’s interesting,” she says. Really I don’t think she thinks it’s interesting. Probably she thinks it’s weird. But she’s nice, even though she’s bird girl. She doesn’t want to offend me by saying anything.

“Are you single?” I say, thinking Phoebe is cute so it’s worth asking.

“Divorced.”

“So you’re single.”

She thinks for a second. “Yeah, I guess I am.” She laughs. “That’s funny. It’s been a year since my divorce and I haven’t thought about it that way. I just keep thinking ‘I’m divorced. I’m divorced.’”

“Do you always think it twice?”

She looks at me funny. “I’m not sure how to take that. Should I laugh or be offended?”

“You can laugh.” She doesn’t laugh.

The flight is almost over. I can tell because the captain says so. He tells us to buckle up. Phoebe ignores him. She must be suicidal.

We land and Phoebe and I get off the plane without saying goodbye.

Now it starts. Here begins my new life. As my foot touches down fromt he ladder to the runway, I sense the possibility of a new world – after this, things will never be the same.

“Hello,” a smiling man says. “Welcome to Cancun.”

Anyway, I’m headed west, and I couldn’t be more excited. However, I do want to stress one thing. Although I will be working for ARI, I do not speak for them. When I blog here, I will be speaking only for myself: not for ARI, for Objectivism, nor even for Diana.

That said, congrats to me. :)

Axiomatic – Issue 4 is Available!

 Posted by on 5 January 2006 at 9:14 am  Uncategorized
Jan 052006
 

And now what you’ve all been waiting for: the fourth issue of Axiomatic is available for public consumption. Inside this month’s issue you will find:

“Don’t Steal This Article” by Greg Perkins. A scathing critique of the libertarian assault on intellectual property rights. As is proper for an Objectivist article, Mr. Perkins does not waste words answering every argument and example cited by his opponents — he identifies their basic error and eloquently blasts it to the land where bad ideas go to die.

“Ayn Rand vs. Hollywood’s Self-Censorship – Part 3 of 3″ by David P. Hayes. David Hayes completes his riveting account of Ayn Rand’s struggle with Hollywood self-censorship, discussing the opposition Rand faced in trying to safeguard the integrity of the film version of The Fountainhead, destined to be a controversial movie at a time when controversy could keep a film from being made or released.

And also be sure not to miss my tribute to Leonard Peikoff in this month’s “From the Editor…” feature.

Also, please note that additional sample articles are now available on our subscription page, including Part 1 of Travis Norsen’s three part article on Einstein’s contribution to Quantum Theory, as well as my interview with Diana.

Finally, let me remind you that we are always looking for new authors. If you are interested in writing for Axiomatic, please email me at egoist(at)gmail(dot)com. You can either propose your own idea for an article or work with us to develop one.

"I’m a God Warrior!"

 Posted by on 31 December 2005 at 7:19 am  Religion
Dec 312005
 

Fundamentalists scare the hell out of me, but this is just crazy. This clip shows a woman returning home from the show “Trading Spouses,” where she had played mom for another family. It turns out that family was not quite as Christian as she.

What’s Up, God?

 Posted by on 28 December 2005 at 12:19 pm  Religion
Dec 282005
 

I was not raised in a particularly religious home, and while my parents weren’t thrilled when, at the age of fourteen, I became an atheist, there wasn’t any significant pressure put upon me to recant.

But as proof that everyone needs a philosophy, my parents reached a point where — despite all the worldly success anyone could hope to achieve — they felt that something was missing from their lives. Seeking answers, they turned to religion. And then, feeling they had answers, decided I needed those answers too.

Recently, my parents read a book called I Don’t Have Enough Faith to Be an Atheist, by Norman L. Geisler and Frank Turek. It was a supposedly rational defense of Christianity, and my parents pushed me to read it. Personally, I have no interest in religion. Atheism has been a non-issue for me for years, but I finally agreed to read it on the premise that I would now be able to end any attempt to convert me by saying, “I’ve heard what you have to say, and I disagree.”

I just finished the book, and let me say: I was convinced. I must humbly renounce my former views and state publicly that I have discovered and accepted in my heart and mind the Truth that Jesus was born of God and died for our sins.

Oh, wait, never mind. What I actually discovered is how vicious religion actually is.

The basic thesis of the book is this: both Christians and atheists have faith, but atheism requires more faith than Christianity. Thus the title. What is gruesome is the method by which the authors try to justify that thesis.

Let me start by saying that this book has some virtues. It does pay lip service to reason, logic, and science and never explicitly assaults any of these. (In the end, that is what makes this book so much more evil than other defenses of religion I’ve read). It also has a heavy Aristotelian streak, and does a good job of rebutting skeptics and subjectivists. It is also the most sophisticated defense of Christianity I have read, avoiding the more obvious errors atheists usually encounter when discussing religion. In fact, I would go so far as to say that a non-Objectivist would probably have trouble answering many of their points.

That said, this book does not, in my view, represent a series of honest errors made in an attempt to defend religion, but an outright assault on man’s mind.

Its method is simple: assert that reason cannot lead man to certainty and that every idea demands faith; then claim that the only alternative to skepticism and subjectivism is religion; and finally, employ twisted science, pseudo-science, logical fallacies, and outright lies to establish Christianity as a more rational hypothesis.

The starting premise of the book is that reason cannot lead man to certainty. Why not? Because induction, the authors claim, leads man only to probable truths. What’s so fascinating is that in their efforts to condemn skepticism, the authors grant every one of the skeptic’s premises. Whereas the skeptic would say, “It is a leap of faith to say that man is mortal,” the Christian retorts, “That’s right, but it’s such a small leap! Sure, you can’t know for sure that all men are mortal, but you can know they probably are. It takes more faith to conclude that some men are not mortal than to conclude all of them are.” This means that man is obligated to accept conclusions that cannot be justified by reason. It means that reason demands the acceptance of ideas that cannot be proved by rational means. It means that reason demands irrationality.

Keep in mind that if no amount of evidence is sufficient to establish certainty, then there is no basis for judging probability. If you don’t know where your destination is, you can’t know how far you are from it. It also means that you have no means of determining what counts as evidence for or against a conclusion. Is the fact that all men have died evidence that man by his nature must die? Unless we know what proof would consist of, we have no way to answer that question.

This is illustrated by the next chapter of the book, where the authors break out the cosmological argument to prove God’s existence. Their arguments runs thusly:

P1: Everything that had a beginning had a cause.
P2: The universe had a beginning.
C: Therefore the universe had a cause.

Now, I am not a scientist, and I suspect that much of the science they use to defend P2 isn’t even accepted by today’s mixed up scientists. Moreover, that premise is not a scientific question, but a philosophical one. Or, more precisely, it can be ruled out philosophically: existence cannot come from non-existence. The big bang, if it occurred, represents the universe changing its form or organization, not coming into existence from nothing.

But what’s most relevant here is what Geisler and Turek do with the scientific evidence. They assert that science cannot now explain what happened at the time of the big bang or before, and conclude that the only reasonable explanation is that it was created by something outside of existence. In other words, they do not identify what would be conclusive evidence that God exists and thereby determine what would count as evidence of this conclusion. Rather, they posit that there is something science cannot explain and say that this is evidence for God. Evidence? By what standard?

In fact, as Leonard Peikoff pointed out in OPAR, “Inference from the natural can only lead to more of the natural, i.e., to limited, finite entities acting and interacting in accordance with their identities.” The key to every argument for the existence of God is the claim, “We don’t know X… and therefore God exists.” This is worse than a logical fallacy; it is the antithesis of logic. It makes ignorance the basis for certainty — the only basis for certainty.

Yet Geisler and Turek repeat this pattern again and again. Their second argument for God is the design argument. In that chapter, they engage in a full-out assault on evolution, raising the “Intelligent Design” claim that certain features of life are “irreducibly complex” and could not have arisen through natural causes. Apart from the fact that this point has been answered time and again by scientists (proving to my satisfaction that the authors are completely dishonest) the basic logical point still stands. From the fact that we cannot explain something, we cannot conclude anything. Only on the premise that all conclusions require a leap of faith can someone make such a demand.

And that is the whole point. That is why Geisler and Turek are so desperate to claim that every conclusion requires some amount of faith. If rational certainty is impossible, there is no way to determine what counts as evidence, and if there is no standard for what counts as evidence, then everything counts as evidence — including ignorance.

The third argument offered for God’s existence is the moral argument, in which they simply assert that without God there is no objective basis for morality. I trust I need not spend time refuting that, although I will point out that I think one of the best arguments against Jesus’ divinity was that the morality he preached is evil: faith, original sin, mercy over justice, love divorced from values, self-denial, self-abnegation, self-sacrifice… Aristotle was a more careful moral thinker than God Himself.

The rest of the book is spent defending the accuracy of the Bible. Reading page after page of trivia, it’s sometimes easy to lose sight of what the authors are actually trying to prove: that even though we know people can err or lie, and that documents can be inaccurate (especially historical ones), and despite the fact that religion contradicts everything we do know, it is irrational to doubt the Biblical story and rational to believe that the Son of God came to the earth, performed miracles, and after telling people that murderers need not burn in hell but an honest atheist will, was crucified and awoke from the dead. Can I get a “Chutzpah”?

To be sure, I have only touched on the errors and absurdities (and viciousness) of this book. But the book does have one accidental virtue: it highlights how badly Ayn Rand is needed in today’s philosophical climate. It was Ayn Rand who saw that the alternative to materialism isn’t idealism. that the alternative to skepticism is not intrinsicism, and that the alternative to moral subjectivism is not religious authoritarianism.

Not enough faith to be an atheist? That’s true. I don’t have any faith at all.

Happy Christmas and Merry New Year

 Posted by on 26 December 2005 at 9:05 am  Uncategorized
Dec 262005
 

I am bad at retrospectives. My memory is notoriously poor, and besides, I’ve never much enjoyed reading them let alone writing them. But as this year closes, I do want to say a few thank you’s to everyone who has made 2005 such an amazing year for me.

First, foremost, and above all, thank you to Diana: for allowing me to post here, and for being so supportive of me and my work. It’s so much easier to blog when there’s no pressure to post every day. And it’s so much more enjoyable to blog when I know that every post will be met with a slew of comments from NoodleFood’s wonderful readers (in particular RT, who wins my coveted “Best Commentor” award).

Thank you to everyone who has helped make Axiomatic the modest success it has been: my readers, writers, and editors. A very special thanks to MB — without his editorial guidance, the quality of the magazine wouldn’t have come close to what it has been — and David Arceneaux, whose services as Axiomatic’s webmaster can never be fully repayed (unless a bunch more of you subscribe and shower me with money.)

Thank you to James Valliant, whose book The Passion of Ayn Rand’s Critics has changed so many minds, and has put Rand’s detractors on the defensive…which is where they deserve to be.

Thank you to Yaron Brook and the staff at the Ayn Rand Institute — you guys are doing amazing things. I only wish I could afford to donate more.

Finally, thank you to my best friend David Rehm…for everything.

Oh, and there’s one more person left to thank, but for that, you’ll have to wait for the January issue of Axiomatic, due out, well…in January.

Happy Holidays,
Don

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