Jul 032008
 

As many readers know, Dr. Leonard Peikoff gave a special Q&A session for attendees of OCON 2008 on July 2, 2008. I’ve chosen to summarize a few selected questions, not necessarily in the order that they were asked. These are paraphrases from my notes and not verbatim quotes, so any errors or inadvertent inaccuracies are purely my own, not his. He took a mixture of nearly 40 written and spoken questions. The session lasted 90 minutes, with a 5 minute intermission halfway through.

He and the ARI established a few ground rules ahead of time. In particular, he stated that he wouldn’t comment on the 2008 Presidential election. He also gave an update on the status of his forthcoming book on the DIM hypothesis as well as his podcasting activities. Overall, he was in an cheerful benevolent mood, and there were many touches of humor that I can’t easily capture in this blog post. His mind was razor sharp, and it was good to see him at his best.

I don’t know if an audio recording of this session will be subsequently released as a CD from the Ayn Rand Bookstore or on his podcast. If I learn more, I’ll post an update.

My own comments will be in square brackets (“[]“).

=====

Book update: The book is going both “badly” and well. It is going “badly” in the sense that he has completed a preliminary draft of the entire book, but now has to do a lot of heavy editing of the earlier chapters.

It is going well in the sense that he is now fully convinced of the correctness of his DIM hypothesis, based on the research he has done. And he is enjoying the writing process and is happy with the quality of the work. The book should be completed by Christmas 2010 at the very latest.

Podcast update: He enjoys doing the podcast tremendously. He is pleased with the quality of the questions and believes that the questions submitted are of better quality than in the past. He is also happy with the improved audio quality. He hopes that his answers are spurring his listeners to pursue some of these ideas in greater depth by looking for more information in the rest of the Objectivist literature. Also, he finds the podcasting to be a nice break from his book writing.

The podcasts will now be available on iTunes, which any users can subscribe to for free!

[I think this is terrific news, since this will make it easier to transfer files back and forth from my iPod, rather than having to do the downloads through the Peikoff.com website.]

Q) What philosophical or cultural trend is the most dangerous?

A) Religion.

Q) Will the rise of environmentalism and the subsequent loss of freedoms bring us to a society like that portrayed in Anthem?

A) Yes and no. Environmentalism does pose a danger to our freedoms. But the society depicted in Anthem is a fictional one which projects the idea of collectivism in its purest form. In our case, he believes that a different bad outcome would be more likely — one in which we are ruled by a Pope rather than a “Council of Scholars”.

Q) Who are the “low hanging fruit” most likely to be receptive to Objectivist ideas, i.e., the best targets to reach?

A) In his experience, young people between ages 17-29. Before age 17, they are generally too young and not ready to digest these ideas. After age 30, they are more likely to stop thinking as they will have finished deciding their basic values. With respect to specific professions, he’s noticed that engineers, computer people, and doctors seem to be disproportionately represented in Objectivist circles.

Q) What are your favorite artworks in the following specific categories — novel, play, painting, sculpture, and song?

A) His favorites are:

Novel – Atlas Shrugged
Play – Cyrano de Bergerac
Painting – The Creation of Adam (Michelangelo)
Sculpture – The Dying Slave (Michelangelo)
Song – He doesn’t know which is his favorite, but it’s not “God Save the King” (the first song title that popped into his head when he heard the question).

Q) As a gay Objectivist, there seem to be a disproportionate number of other gays in the Objectivist community relative to the population at large. Is there an explanation for this?

A) “Is that a problem?” [Lots of laughter, and the questioner said, no that wasn't a problem at all for him.] Basically, it’s hard to know if there actually is over-representation or under-representation given the small numbers. Perhaps if there were 20 million Objectivists we could ask the question and attempt an answer. But the numbers are currently too small to attempt to answer this question or even to know if the premise is true.

Q) Is there a proper role for government in environmental issues where there are collective action questions — for instance, issue of pollution where no single source causes a provable harm, but the aggregate of millions of polluters is a source of harm?

A) If a single polluter can be shown to be the cause of a provable harm to another, then this should be addressed through the courts — i.e., the polluter can be sued for damages.

On the other hand, in the cases where an industrial society inherently generates in aggregate a level of pollution that may cause harm, but no single individual’s pollution is a provable source of harm, then there is no role for government intervention. A person can’t take the benefits of living in an industrial society (such as advanced medical technology that lets people to live to age 75 rather than dying at age 25), then also complain that the government should stop the Los Angeles smog that causes his eyes to water.

If you don’t want to live in LA, then the proper response is to move away, not ask the government to impose environmental regulations.

[Obviously this opens up a number of interesting secondary issues, but he did not pursue this further.]

Q) Is the word “Shrugged” in “Atlas Shrugged” a verb or an adjective?

A) It’s a verb. “I can’t imagine a sentence in which ‘shrugged’ would be used an adjective.”

Q) Is it legitimate for a person to make a career of theoretical science, without regard to practical application? Or must there be some attempt at application for this to be a legitimate activity?

A) As an individual scientist, this can be a totally legitimate activity. This can be part of a division of labor where someone pursues advances in theory without necessarily concerning himself with how it can be applied, whereas others use their minds to develop applications.

In a free society, someone concerned purely with theory might find it difficult to obtain funding, since most businesses would want to pay for research with some eventual practical applications. But if he had his own source of private funding or if that was how the division of labor was made, then this is fine.

From the perspective of man as such, it is not a legitimate endeavour to pursue pure theory without regard for any practical application that would benefit man’s life in some way. But from the perspective of the individual scientist, a division of labor into theoreticians vs. applied scientists can be entirely legitimate.

Q) What is your favorite episode of The Twilight Zone?

A) The episode “A Nice Place to Visit“, because of the deep philosophical content presented in an engaging way accessible to all viewers. He also likes the Twilight Zone series as a whole due to the good dialogue and characterizations, as well as brilliant plot twists.

[Larry Salzman notes that the full 30-minute episode can be found here on the CBS website. Thanks, Larry!]

Q) Do you have any advice on how to achieve cultural change for the better?

A) Nothing more than Ayn Rand has already said in her essay, “What Can One Do?”. Namely, to write, speak out and advocate good ideas in the appropriate contexts.

ARC Website

 Posted by on 3 July 2008 at 11:05 am  ARI, OCON
Jul 032008
 

At the “State of ARI,” Yaron Brook announced that the East Coast office of ARI will be opening in September 2008, known as the Ayn Rand Center For Individual Rights.

Besides having its own website with lots of excellent content (including OpEds, videos, listings of events), they have also received permission to post two of her classic essays on individual rights and government. This is a tremendous resource for those of us who wish to point interested people towards the Objectivist position on the proper role and scope of government.

The two essays are:

Highlights from OCON: Day 4

 Posted by on 2 July 2008 at 10:59 pm  ARI, OCON
Jul 022008
 

Here are highlights from the Ayn Rand Institute’s summer conference (a.k.a. OCON), Day Four:

Lin Zinser on “Health-Care Activism: Saving the Life Savers,” Class 3 of 3:

  • Lin discussed three broad topics today: coalitions, tactics, and politics and intellectual activism.

  • Many self-described advocates of free markets, politicians and advocates, are not genuine defenders of free markets at all. They are in favor of all kinds of regulations and entitlements. At best, they wish to reduce some regulations and limit some entitlements. By clearly advocating for fully free markets, FIRM has made clear what a free market in medicine really means.
  • Lin offered six points for effective intellectual activism at the end of the lecture:
    1. Do what you are comfortable with.
    2. Have clearly stated goals with measurable deadlines.
    3. Use moral arguments and communicate at the appropriate level.
    4. Get on a mailing list — create your own or join OActivists — for editing, moral support, and alerts.
    5. Develop credibility and expertise by studying the issues and stating your views in a well-reasoned manner.
    6. If you have a desire to change a group’s fundamental mission or platform, investigate the group and attend meetings. There may be a group where you could use moral philosophical arguments to formulate or change the policy for the entire group

Tara Smith on “The Menace of Pragmatism

  • Tara Smith delivered yet another fantastic lecture, particularly noteworthy for her passion on the subject.

  • Smith began with as clear a description of pragmatism as possible: the concept rather fuzzy by its very nature, by the design of its advocates. She identified four features of pragmatism as a common method of thought (as opposed to a system of philosophy):
    1. Range-of-the-moment thinking
    2. Refusal or inability to think in principle
    3. Resistance to identifying things by their fundamental nature
    4. All options are kept open in decision-making

  • Smith then sketched the pervasive influence of pragmatism in the culture. (That was compelling but depressing.)

  • Next, Smith discussed the appeal and error of pragmatism. Pragmatism is particularly dangerous, Smith argued, because it sells itself as reasonable, rational, and practical. Yet in fact, pragmatism rejects reality, it rejects rationality, and it rejects practicality. It does so by rejecting long-range, conceptual, principled thought, i.e. the basic means of human survival.
  • Finally, Smith offered some suggestions for combating pragmatism in others and in oneself. Here are her suggestions, in brief:
    1. Identity it. Call it when you see it, not just to yourself and others. Show that it’s not practical.
    2. Police the meaning of words. Don’t let yourself be spun by the labels of others that reinforce pragmatism. Don’t allow them to claim the mantle of being rational or practical. Don’t allow the term “reasonable” to be a fuzzy sort-of kind of non-rationality.
    3. Defend rational idealism. Stock up instances of idealism to show that they are practical. Also, don’t allow false idealism to go unchallenged.
    4. Don’t give up. Remind yourself of what’s at stake: to surrender to pragmatism is to surrender to the rule of irrationality.

  • To combat pragmatism in ourselves:
    1. Beware the pull of the present. The present can seem like the most important consideration. It takes deliberate effort to think long-range.
    2. Beware of the pull of the seemingly practical. Understand the practical necessity of rational principles. Adherence to principles is always the most practical, even if not always easy or convenient.
    3. Distinguish legitimate from illegitimate compromise. Be honest in your decision-making. Probe your own doubts. Listen for potential rationalization. Persevere in sorting through difficult cases. Go back to fundamentals, remind yourself of basic principles.
    4. Know thyself, and know thyself better. Identify your own vulnerabilities and blind-spots. Know what helps keep you on principle.
    5. Read and re-read Ayn Rand’s works.

  • My notes posted here only scratch the surface of this excellent lecture. I highly recommend buying it whenever it becomes available from the Ayn Rand Bookstore.

Pat Corvini: “Two, Three, Four, and All That: The Sequel,” Class 3 of 3:

  • Unfortunately, Pat Corvini was a bit rushed in her last lecture. So I’m clear on her view of generation of the irrational numbers, but I’m still a bit murky on the problems with the postulational method. (I can see the big picture, but not enough of the details. However, from what I do understand, the problems with attempting to generate irrational numbers via the postulational method seem hugely insurmountable.) I hope to review my notes with Paul sometime tomorrow.

Debi Ghate and Tom Bowden: “How to Be an Agent of Cultural Change

  • A nice presentation of some of the basic steps a person can take to contribute to positive cultural change. Most of it was familiar ground to me, but I did take good notes. I’ll be posting those to OActivists tomorrow.

Leonard Peikoff: “Q&A”:

  • I didn’t take many notes on this Q&A, so I don’t have much of substance to say about it. However, Dr. Peikoff was in fine form. He was as intellectually sharp as ever, plus in a delightfully friendly and benevolent mood. He was particularly generous in answering my question about privacy lies — or rather in explaining why he couldn’t answer my question because he really couldn’t say under what conditions lies to protect privacy might be legitimate because it depends too much on the particulars of the situation at hand.

  • Also, he reported that his book is going very well, that he’s written a full draft o the whole text, and that he expects to be finished by the end of 2010 at the very latest.

OBloggers:

  • The informal get-together for Objectivist bloggers (a.k.a. OBloggers) was all kinds of fun. I’ll have to arrange a similar event in advance next year rather than at the last minute.

Now it’s finally time for bed! I’m beat!

Highlights from OCON: Day 3

 Posted by on 1 July 2008 at 11:16 pm  ARI, OCON
Jul 012008
 

I don’t have much to report from the third day of the Ayn Rand Institute’s summer conference (a.k.a. OCON). The morning was free, so Paul and I only had two lectures to attend:

Pat Corvini: “Two, Three, Four, and All That: The Sequel,” Class 2 of 3:

  • I struggled a bit with the material today, particularly the postulational method of defining various kinds of numbers, but after some discussion with Paul, that’s all reasonably clear to me. However, I haven’t the foggiest idea how Pat’s objective approach to number will shed light on Cantor — although I’m sure that she has something very good up her sleeve.

Dina Schein Federman’s lecture “Ayn Rand as Intellectual Activist“:

  • This lecture was good — and even relevant to questions about activism today. But it wasn’t eye-popping like her 2006 lecture on Ayn Rand’s Home Atmosphere. In that lecture, the content was wholly new, based on Ayn Rand’s family’s letters to her, none of which were even translated until Dina began her work on them. That lecture was interesting in its own right, but I also enjoyed it as a total refutation Barbara Branden’s very negative portrayal of Ayn Rand’s relationship with her family.

Tomorrow is the final day of the first half of the conference. It’s going to be busy. We’ll start with the final lecture of Lin Zinser’s course, then Tara Smith’s lecture on pragmatism, then the final lecture of Pat Corvini’s course, then the ARI Open House including the Workshop on Cultural Change, then the Q&A with Leonard Peikoff, and finally an informal meeting of Objectivist Bloggers.

I’m tired just thinking about it!

The Next 3 OCONs

 Posted by on 30 June 2008 at 10:34 pm  ARI, OCON
Jun 302008
 

Yaron Brook announced the dates and locations for the next three OCON conferences:

2009: July 3-11, Boston, MA, Seaport Hotel
2010: July 2-10, Las Vegas, NV, Red Rock Resort
2011: July 1-9, Ft. Lauderdale, FL, Marriott Harbor Beach Resort

Jun 302008
 

Here are some more highlights from the second day of the Ayn Rand Institute’s summer conference (a.k.a. OCON).

Lin Zinser on “Health-Care Activism: Saving the Life Savers,” Class 2 of 3:

Today, Lin discussed some strategies for successful activism, connecting those lessons to her own experience with FIRM. (Some of her stories would be very surprising to most people — in a good way.)

Robert Mayhew on “Thales and the Birth of Philosophy in Ancient Greece”:

This lecture was a fascinating discussion of the birth of philosophy, particularly the radical departure from primitive supernaturalism that began with Thales in ancient Greece. Thales inaugurated the study of philosophy as an explicit discipline on the basis of observation and rational argument — as opposed to relying on traditional myths to explain natural phenomena. Mayhew clearly showed the radical differences between the methods of Thales and those of thinkers in other cultures at the time. Mayhew also traced the unique factors in ancient Greek culture that made possible (but not necessary) the development of explicit philosophy.

I particularly enjoyed the lessons for the prospects for Objectivism at the end of the lecture.

(The lecture was related to Dr. Mayhew’s essay criticizing Robert Tracinski’s analysis of the role of philosophy in history, posted to NoodleFood in January 2007.)

Pat Corvini: “Two, Three, Four, and All That: The Sequel,” Class 1 of 3:

This course examines three modern ideas in mathematics: (1) equivalent sets, (2) the postulational method, and (3) the continuum and actual infinities. Today, Pat explained the basics of Cantor’s arguments about comparisons of sets, with a few hints of the criticisms to come. (I remembered that somewhat fuzzily from my undergraduate course in philosophy of mathematics.) Tomorrow and the next day, she’ll lay out the standard the postulational method, and then discuss the Objectivist approach to these topics. (Very cool!)

This course is a sequel to her excellent course of last year: Two, Three, Four, and All That.

That’s all for today!

Highlights from OCON: Day 1 Addendum

 Posted by on 30 June 2008 at 7:12 am  ARI, OCON
Jun 302008
 

In my first report on OCON yesterday, I forgot to mention that OCON is huge again: over 400 people are attending. The sheer number of people I don’t know is rather overwhelming.

By way of context, last year, over 500 people attended for the 50th anniversary of celebration of Atlas Shrugged in Telluride. Before than, around 300 was average. So it seems that the conference has experienced more than just a transient increase in size over the past two years.

Highlights from OCON: Day 1

 Posted by on 29 June 2008 at 10:50 pm  ARI, OCON
Jun 292008
 

I’m attending the Ayn Rand Institute’s summer conference (a.k.a. OCON this week. So in lieu of regular blogging, I thought I’d try to post a few brief highlights each day.

Lin Zinser on “Health-Care Activism: Saving the Life Savers,” Class 1 of 3:

  • An excellent first class. Inspiring review of the accomplishments of Freedom and Individual Rights in Medicine (FIRM). Fascinating discussion of the rise, fall, and rise of state laws licensing doctors to practice medicine.

  • Kind of Activism: Intellectual activism means changing the ideas of honest, intellectually active people. Political activism means directing your legislators on how to vote. Political activism is not primary: the real change must be in the culture.

Yaron Brook on “Cultural Movements: Creating Change,” Lecture 1 of 3:

  • A fascinating overview of the successes and failures of the economic defense of free markets from the 1960s to the 1990s and the environmental movement from the 1970s to today. (I’m eager to hear the rest of these lectures! They’ll definitely be worth buying.)

… drumroll please …

Yaron Brook on “State of ARI”:

These are just a few highlights:

  • ARI has shipped 1.1 million books as part of the “Free Books for Teachers” program. So if the books have a lifespan of four to five years, then four to five million students are reading Ayn Rand’s novels in their English classes. By the end of the decade, over seven million kids will have read Ayn Rand.

  • BB&T has funded 38 programs in the southeast US for the study of capitalism and philosophy.
  • DC Office will be opened with four staff members just five blocks from the White House in August.
  • Yowza! An anonymous donor donated one million and one dollars just this afternoon. That’s ARI’s largest single donation ever — by a dollar. So ARI’s projected revenues for 2008 will be nine million dollars.

That’s all for now!

Further Reports on OCON:

Pat Corvini 2007 Course on Math Now Available

 Posted by on 12 May 2008 at 11:01 pm  ARI, Science
May 122008
 

In my 4/26/2008 blog post, “Are Mathematical Truths Discovered or Invented?“, I referred to Dr. Pat Corvini’s superb course at the 2007 OCON as an excellent example of applying the Objectivist epistemology to the concept of number. At the time, the course was not yet available for sale.

As an update – the course is now available for purchase from the Ayn Rand Bookstore. Here’s a slightly modified description of the course, per Dr. Corvini:

Two, Three, Four and All That

Number, though ubiquitous, is widely misunderstood. Drawing on Objectivist epistemology, this course sheds new light on the subject by sketching a reduction of the key ideas behind the modern number system and by showing their connection to cognition in general. Recognizing the objectivity of number provides a new framework for resolving historical and modern debates, and yields a heightened appreciation for the science of mathematics as a whole.

This course uses a detailed examination of the ideas behind counting, negative numbers, and area-measurement as concretes on which to illustrate wider conclusions about the nature of number. While not strictly a prerequisite, this material provides context for Dr. Corvini’s course on modern ideas of number and infinity (“The Sequel,” to be delivered at Objectivist Summer Conference 2008), and is highly recommended for those planning to attend.

According to the Ayn Rand Bookstore, the course is a 6-CD set, selling for $61.95. Total run time is 4 hrs., 29 min., including Q & A.

Yaron Brook on Health Care

 Posted by on 9 January 2008 at 8:08 am  ARI, Health Care
Jan 092008
 

Forbes.com has just published the following excellent opinion piece by Yaron Brook on health care:

The Right Vision Of Health Care
Yaron Brook 1.08.2008

With the primary season in full swing, the presidential candidates are fighting over what to do about the spiraling cost of health care–especially the cost of health insurance, which is becoming prohibitively expensive for millions of Americans.

The Democrats, not surprisingly, are proposing a massive increase in government control, with some even calling for the outright socialism of a single-payer system. Republicans are attacking this “solution.” But although they claim to oppose the expansion of government interference in medicine, Republicans don’t, in fact, have a good track record of fighting it.

Indeed, Republicans have been responsible for major expansions of government health care programs: As governor of Massachusetts, Mitt Romney oversaw the enactment of the nation’s first “universal coverage” plan, initially estimated at $1.5 billion per year but already overrunning cost projections. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who pledged not to raise any new taxes, has just pushed through his own “universal coverage” measure, projected to cost Californians more than $14 billion. And President Bush’s colossal prescription drug entitlement–expected to cost taxpayers more than $1.2 trillion over the next decade–was the largest expansion of government control over health care in 40 years.

Today, nearly half of all spending on health care in America is government spending. Why, despite their lip service to free markets, have Republicans actually helped fuel the growth of socialized medicine and erode what remains of free-market medicine in this country?

Consider the basic factor that has driven the expansion of government medicine in America.

Prior to the government’s entrance into the medical field, health care was regarded as a product to be traded voluntarily on a free market–no different from food, clothing, or any other important good or service. Medical providers competed to provide the best quality services at the lowest possible prices. Virtually all Americans could afford basic health care, while those few who could not were able to rely on abundant private charity.

Had this freedom been allowed to endure, Americans’ rising productivity would have allowed them to buy better and better health care, just as, today, we buy better and more varied food and clothing than people did a century ago. There would be no crisis of affordability, as there isn’t for food or clothing.

But by the time Medicare and Medicaid were enacted in 1965, this view of health care as an economic product–for which each individual must assume responsibility–had given way to a view of health care as a “right,” an unearned “entitlement,” to be provided at others’ expense.

This entitlement mentality fueled the rise of our current third-party-payer system, a blend of government programs, such as Medicare and Medicaid, together with government-controlled employer-based health insurance (itself spawned by perverse tax incentives during the wage and price controls of World War II).

Today, what we have is not a system grounded in American individualism, but a collectivist system that aims to relieve the individual of the “burden” of paying for his own health care by coercively imposing its costs on his neighbors. For every dollar’s worth of hospital care a patient consumes, that patient pays only about 3 cents out-of-pocket; the rest is paid by third-party coverage. And for the health care system as a whole, patients pay only about 14%.

The result of shifting the responsibility for health care costs away from the individuals who accrue them was an explosion in spending.

In a system in which someone else is footing the bill, consumers, encouraged to regard health care as a “right,” demand medical services without having to consider their real price. When, through the 1970s and 1980s, this artificially inflated consumer demand sent expenditures soaring out of control, the government cracked down by enacting further coercive measures: price controls on medical services, cuts to medical benefits, and a crushing burden of regulations on every aspect of the health care system.

As each new intervention further distorted the health care market, driving up costs and lowering quality, belligerent voices demanded still further interventions to preserve the “right” to health care. And Republican politicians–not daring to challenge the notion of such a “right”–have, like Romney, Schwarzenegger and Bush, outdone even the Democrats in expanding government health care.

The solution to this ongoing crisis is to recognize that the very idea of a “right” to health care is a perversion. There can be no such thing as a “right” to products or services created by the effort of others, and this most definitely includes medical products and services. Rights, as our founding fathers conceived them, are not claims to economic goods, but freedoms of action.

You are free to see a doctor and pay him for his services–no one may forcibly prevent you from doing so. But you do not have a “right” to force the doctor to treat you without charge or to force others to pay for your treatment. The rights of some cannot require the coercion and sacrifice of others.

So long as Republicans fail to challenge the concept of a “right” to health care, their appeals to “market-based” solutions are worse than empty words. They will continue to abet the Democrats’ expansion of government interference in medicine, right up to the dead end of a completely socialized system.

By contrast, the rejection of the entitlement mentality in favor of a proper conception of rights would provide the moral basis for real and lasting solutions to our health care problems–for breaking the regulatory chains stifling the medical industry; for lifting the government incentives that created our dysfunctional, employer-based insurance system; for inaugurating a gradual phase-out of all government health care programs, especially Medicare and Medicaid; and for restoring a true free market in medical care.

Such sweeping reforms would unleash the power of capitalism in the medical industry. They would provide the freedom for entrepreneurs motivated by profit to compete with each other to offer the best quality medical services at the lowest prices, driving innovation and bringing affordable medical care, once again, into the reach of all Americans.

Yaron Brook is managing director of BH Equity Research and executive director of the Ayn Rand Institute.

You can post comments in response to this op-ed on the Forbes web site. (So far, most of the comments are negative.)

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