Blast from the Past

 Posted by on 23 August 2005 at 10:47 am  Uncategorized
Aug 232005
 

Paul and I first met in St. Louis on this day eleven years ago — August 23rd, 1994. Earlier that spring, he wrote me a fairly long e-mail about my post to alt.philosophy.objectivism on “intellectual activism.” At the time, he was finishing up his MRI fellowship in Los Angeles, while I was a freshman at WashU. He moved to St. Louis a few months later for a job as an attending physician at WashU’s teaching hospital. When I returned to WashU in the late summer for the start of my sophomore year, we met for dinner. (Back then, he had uber-dorky glasses, but a cool new BMW.)

Paul was my only Objectivism-interested friend in all my years in St. Louis. Although he agreed with much of the philosophy, he wasn’t an Objectivist. I remember many, many arguments about his representationalism and compatibilism. We had a fairly regular weekly ritual in which I’d cook us dinner on Thursday night, then he’d take me out for a fancy meal over the weekend.

After those three years in St. Louis, we both moved to California at about the same time. He took a job in San Diego, while I moved to Los Angeles. (That’s when he introduced me to his good friends Cliff and Alexa Brett.) Given the two-hour proximity, we still saw each other fairly regularly.

During all these years, we were just buddies. Given the thirteen-year age gap, neither of us even thought about dating. While I was still in college, my mother would sometimes ask me “Why don’t you date Paul?” I’d tell her that she was crazy, since he was so old!

In November of 1998, after much soul-searching and with much trepidation, I decided to ask Paul if he wanted to date. I did so during what was just supposed to be an ordinary visit between friends, for all he knew. He was quite stunned, even speechless for a time. (Paul is often quiet, but never speechless!) He almost said no — I swear. (He’d seen too many of my other relationships not go so well!)

As you’ve probably guessed, he did agree to give it a try. Three months later, I moved to San Diego. We became engaged a few days later, then married three months and three days after that. So after more than four years of friendship, it took us just six months to be married!

To celebrate this small anniversary, I’ve posted my original a.p.o post on intellectual activism and Paul’s e-mail reply to me below. It was our first contact, so to speak. For reasons that will become obvious as you read, I cannot possibly endorse all that I wrote those many years ago. (My disagreements concern more than the mentions of David Kelley and Nathaniel Branden, but those are the most significant.) Similarly, please don’t presume that Paul agrees with all that he wrote back then — although I am struck by the continuity of his intellectual interests.

Here’s my a.p.o post:

Newsgroups: alt.philosophy.objectivism
From: dmbricke@artsci.wustl.edu (Diana Mertz Brickell)
Date: 23 Apr 1994 19:16:23 GMT
Subject: Intellectual Activism (long)

This is an article that I wrote up for Vixie's Objectivism list that I
figured I would post here as well. A thanks goes to Eric Barnhill for
straightening out lots of convoluted sentences. Comments are more than
welcome.

--------------------------------
In order to 'survive' in the realm of ideas, every philosophy needs
proponents, individuals actively advocating its principles and persuading
others of its validity. Without any advocates, a school of thought will
have no effect whatsoever. Without converts, the philosophy will shortly
disappear, probably never to be recovered.

In this regard, Objectivism is no different from any other philosophy, but
Objectivists have two distinct advantages over the proponents of all other
philosophies. First and foremost, Objectivism is true. This advantage is
unprecedented; no other philosophy can compete with Objectivism on this
level. Second, Objectivism precludes any sacrifice by its supporters for
'the cause'; rather individual self-interest determines the level of
intellectual activism. An Objectivist will be philosophically active to
the extent of his understanding of the import of philosophy to his life
and of his available mental and physical resources. The excitement and
passion that inevitably flows from this awareness cannot be matched by
anyone who dully advocates an idea out of duty. But advocating unpopular
ideas in a hostile culture is hardly easy; the resulting psychological
drain stemming can be overwhelming to bear alone. This is one reason why
it is crucial that Objectivists have the emotional support of friends, for
friendship can easily counteract the oft-encountered rancor.

***

Yet the recognition of the value of actively advocating Objectivism does
not tell us how to best pursue this value. We must be reasonably sure
that our actions will be efficacious before we debate. We can neither
lose sight of the fact that most people have given up on our intellectual
leaders and even on ideas themselves, nor can we ignore the widespread
misconceptions about Ayn Rand's philosophy. In short, we must be sure
that our methods are sound and also appropriate to our audience's context
of knowledge.

First, Objectivists must stress the crucial role that philosophy plays in
the life of every individual. The fact that there are answers to be
found, answers of life and death importance, must be (at least) implicit
in every philosophical discussion. Understanding the power of philosophy
in the lives of individuals is necessary *before* an individual can
understand the relevance of Objectivism to his life. The question that
Eric Barnhill raised about how to convince other admirers of Rand to get
"firmly grounded in philosophy" is troublesome, and only means to this end
seems to be offering lots of inductive evidence. Much of this issue is
covered in Rand's essay "Philosophy: Who Needs It," so I do not think it
is necessary to speak of it further.

Considering the advocation Objectivism proper, there are two issues to be
stressed: understanding and integrating the principles of Objectivism and
arguing effectively. Without having a good grasp of both Objectivism and
convincing methods of argumentation, it would be nearly impossible to
convince anyone of Objectivism's veracity.

Rand's writings are the primary source of information about Objectivism,
but secondary sources (like _Objectivity_) also provide enormous benefit,
as does interaction with other Objectivists. Discussion between those who
fundamentally agree provides a non-threatening atmosphere and a common
context. When arguing with an adversary, an error or lack of evidence is
a loss; with allies it is an opportunity for growth. Those who have
communicated with other Objectivists can speak to its aid in understanding
Objectivism and its personal benefits as well.

The gentle art of persuasion is a skill that many Objectivists desperately
need to learn. All too often Objectivists quickly morally condemn those
who disagree with them or even substitute moral condemnation for rational
argument. David Kelley, Nathaniel Branden, and many others have gone
great lengths to reverse this disturbing trend by advocating a more
benevolent attitude towards those with whom we disagree. Care must always
be taken to remain clearly focussed on the issues being discussed rather
than the personalities involved and to express one's passionate certainty
benevolently. One must also be prepared to concede error or ignorance in
debate. Clinging onto disproven ideas out of false pride immediately
destroys the audience's trust in one's rationality and often in one's
ideas as well.

Identifying the context of the debate, particularly the environment, is
also crucial. Different methods are required for different settings, but
the cardinal rule is to avoid provoking hostility or defensiveness. Tim
Starr wrote recently:

"Another question to consider is what one's goal is
with dissenters: to refute them, or to persuade them.
In my experience, refutation of those who disagree
with me has never done me much immediate good...
Refutation comes more easily to me, but whenever
I can stick to persuasion it pays off in spades."

I heartily agree. But because no one can live in a ideological vacuum,
simply revealing someone's errors is not enough; they must be presented
with a viable alternative. People also need time to not only re-evaluate
their old beliefs but also evaluate new ideas. To demand that anyone
instantly accept a new set of idea as true is not taking into account the
nature of human consciousness.

So how can Objectivists learn how to consistently apply good debating
techniques? Debating with other Objectivists (perhaps having one play
the devil's advocate), jumping headfirst into a UseNet group and learning
by trial and error, utilizing the emailing lists, or even just watching
what techniques are effective in convincing others. People like Jimbo
Wales, John Enright, and Will Wilkinson (to name a few) have had a
profound effect on alt.philosophy.objectivism, the result of which has
been a huge increase in the membership of MDOP.

***

One of the primary goals of Objectivism as a loose intellectual movement
has always been promoting the study of Objectivism in colleges and
universities. The reasons are quite simple. Universities are
environments where ideas are deemed important and intellectual
investigation is encouraged, at least superficially. Students are at the
age when the make decisive choices about the role that ideas will play in
their life, and about the specific ideas that will guide their actions.
Moreover, most people read and are inspired by _The Fountainhead_ and
_Atlas Shrugged_ in high school or college, before having lost the
"idealism of youth."

In promoting an intellectual movement on college campuses, two of the most
apparent means of fostering the growth of Objectivism are through campus
clubs and the internet. (I think that there are more ideas to be had
here, so I welcome alternate suggestions).

Campus clubs can be great resources for college students. A good club
would be loosely organized, promote conceptual understanding of
Objectivism, encourage friendly debate, and help form friendships. But
the fact that campus clubs have not been very successful, even declining
in membership in recent years, is a signal that these important elements
are either non-existent or underemphasized. Especially in college, where
the pressure to conform is great and the desire for like-minded friends is
extremely important, a loose, friendly gathering of Objectivists and
admirers of Rand (even if they disagree on some issues) seems to be the
best way to conduct an Objectivist group. With such mutual benevolence
established, dealing with others on campus hostile to Rand's ideas would
not be so difficult.

But there is another resource available to college students: the internet.
It is available to virtually every college student and provides great
opportunities for Objectivists to communicate regardless of location
(which can be crucial for people who do not have other Objectivists in
their vicinity). But because finding other Objectivists on the net who
share one's intellectual and personal interests can be difficult, Will
Wilkinson, Eric Barnhill, Jimbo Wales, and I have been working on a
project to facilitate the establishment of more personal ties between
Objectivists, particularly those in college. We are establishing a means
by which Objectivists with shared intellectual or personal interests can
find each other easily, thus encouraging the three keys to making
Objectivism a real intellectual movement again: integration, debate, and
friendship. This project has the capacity to grow in accordance with the
demand, but for the moment, it will start as an index of Objectivists in
school (high school, undergraduate, graduate). You will be hearing more
about this project from Will soon.

***

Finally I want to convey a few of my personal sentiments about the meaning
of making Objectivism a true intellectual movement again. I was in the
library Saturday, looking through all the old issues of _The Objectivist
Newsletter_, _The Objectivist_, and _The Ayn Rand Letter_. In the early
issues a sense of excitement and efficacy pervaded the writings; implicit
in every article was the idea that the philosophy would conquer the world.
But, when the conflict exploded with the Brandens, the whole tone changed.
Articles were often reactive instead of pro-active; the sense of efficacy
disappeared. For example, the "intellectual ammunition" department, a
section dedicated to giving people the means to fight for the philosophy,
was replaced around this time by the "horror file" department, a pathetic
tribute to the fact that the culture was *not* changing. Rand's articles
concerning the closing of the _Ayn Rand Letter_ were the most
disheartening of all. It was, in essence, a proclamation of her
ineffectiveness, of her inability to change the culture that was
destroying all that she valued.

I want to see the type of optimism and efficacy that I saw in the pages of
_TON_ again. For above all else, it is a belief in the potency of ideas
and the capability of Objectivists to change the world that needs to be
recaptured. We cannot lose ourselves to condemnations of the "swamp of
irrationalism" into which our culture is sinking (according to ARI). We
have to remain firm in the belief that ideas matter, that Objectivism
matters, and that Objectivists, properly armed with knowledge, debating
skills, and the emotional support of friends, *will* change the world.

diana mertz brickell.
------------------------------------------------------------------------------
"Capitalism demands the very best diana mertz brickell
of every man - his rationality - dmbri...@artsci.wustl.edu
and rewards him accordingly." Washington University
-Ayn Rand St-Louis, Missouri
------------------------------------------------------------------------------

And here’s Paul’s reply:

From: Paul Hsieh x3940 Imaging (HSIEH@CSMC.EDU) 
To: dmbricke@artsci.wustl.edu
Date: Apr 25 1994 - 12:59pm

Dear Ms. Diana Brickell,

I read with great interest your recent post on
alt.philosophy.objectivism on the topic of intellectual
activism. I've been an admirer of Ayn Rand's works for many
years, but I have had a difficult time finding other people
with whom to discuss her ideas. The friends of mine who have
read her works have either not taken much interest in the
philosophical implications, or have (IMHO) incompletely
understood some of her ideas, making discussion difficult. The
limited exposure I had several years ago in college to people
from Objectivist groups was not particularly pleasant. I found
many of the other Ayn Rand fans to be rigid and dogmatic.
Often when I asked what I thought were good-faith questions
exploring some of the edges of Objectivism, many of them
would become defensive and hostile, substituting insults for
reasoned discourse. Also I noticed that a significant minority
did not seem *happy* -- i.e, they didn't exude a sense of life
indicating that they enjoyed their mental and physical
capabilities and were eager to apply them in their daily life.
The contrast between them and the various protagonists of
Rand's novels was quite striking.

For this reason, I found your vision of an electronic
Objectivist community appealing. I only recently discovered
the alt.philosophy.objectivism newsgroup, so I don't have any
familiarity with participants, recent threads, FAQ's, subjects-
to-avoid-lest-they-start-a-flame-war, etc. However, I hope
that this (as well as whatever index project you mentioned)
can provide a good forum for a collegial interchange of ideas.
I, for one, know that there are many issues and implications
within Objectivism that I would like to clarify within my own
mind, and I would be greatly interested in hearing what
others think. I also agree with you that persuasion is a more
effective tactic than refutation. I recall the Robert Nozick in
his book _Philosophical Explanations_ also deliberately
avoided using what he called "coercive philosophy", centered
around argumentation, forceful refutations, etc, in favor of
an "explanatory approach", where logic and reasoning were
used to construct hypotheses as to how things could be (e.g.,
how was free will possible?). His approach was geared
towards gaining *understanding*, and I think that this
approach can bear fruit of a different sort than the more
tradition coercive approch. (Don't get me wrong -- I love a
good, heated philosophical argument as much as the next
person, trying to attack weak spots in the other personUs
positions, as well as bolstering one's own views with
supporting evidence and deductions. But I've found that
unless all the participants agree on the ground rules ahead of
time, and make a strong conscious effort to stick to logical
arguments only, these discussions can quickly degenerate
into ad hominem attacks and/or can stray wildly off topic.)
More importantly, I also think that the explanatory approach
has greater potential to persuade people who have erroneous
understandings of Objectivist ideas.

Basically, I would like to find and contribute to a forum
where Objectivist ideas could be discussed in a non-
threatening environment, to the mutual betterment of all
concerned. There are a number of topics that I would find
particularly interesting:

1) How can and should Objectivism be applied to various
public policy questions (e.g., health care reform, abortion,
gun control, etc)? In addition to final goals, what are optimal
intermediate tactics?

2) Broader, more theoretical questions about reversing
socialistic trends in a mixed economy -- are there times when
it is necessary to impose (presumably temporary) greater
government controls to correct distortions caused by prior
government controls? An analogy that occurs to me is with
the field of medicine: Normally it is considered immoral and
illegal to plunge a knife into someone's body. However,
during extraordinary circumstances (say, an otherwise
healthy person has been in a motor vehicle accident and has
damaged internal organs), then the appropriate course of
action might be *surgery*, i.e, deliberate and skillful
violation of the integrity of the patient's physical body in
order to correct an abnormal condition. Surgery is not always
appropriate. For certain conditions, the most appropriate
therapy is conservative therapy -- leave the patient alone and
let his or her healing responses deal with the problem. In
that case, any surgery would rightfully be considered medical
malpractice. However, in other situations, the injury is too
great for the body's normal self-correcting mechanisms to
cope with alone, and external assistance is necessary. In
those cases, if a physician did *not* perform surgery, it would
be malpractice. Even so, not all surgeries are appropriate --
some can do more harm than good. And sometimes, even after
appropriate surgery, external medical assistance might be
necessary on a permanent basis (i.e, a patient who has
damaged both kidneys may need lifelong dialysis, if no
transplant becomes available).

Are there any legitimate applications of this analogy to the
socio-economic circumstances of this country? Is it simply
enough to deregulate the economy and let the various self-
correcting mechanisms bring about the desired change? Or
are there situations where an ideal Objectivist government
might need to legitimately maintain temporary (or even
permanent) controls on certain portions the economy in
response to prior government-caused economic trauma? And
if so, how does one decide when and what sort of controls are
best for each situation? Even if additional government
interventions are *never* theoretically necessary, are there
any important universal principles to follow when
deregulating an economy -- are some strategies more
effective than others?

(I recently posed some of these questions to the
alt.philosophy.objectivism newsgroup in the context of a new
South African government. However, these questions can
clearly also be applied to deregulation in the countries of the
former Soviet Union, or even applied to issues in the USA,
such as affirmative action).

3) What are some of the Objectivist positions on various
classical philosophy problems like the free-will problem, the
mind-body problem, and the physical basis of consciousness
(including the old chesnut as to whether it is possible to have
conscious robots/artificial minds)? What would be the moral
implications of creating artificial minds? (I realize that this
is a frequently discussed topic in many science-fiction stories,
including the TV series StarTrek:The Next Generation, where
some scientists wanted to dismantle Data, the sentient artificial
life form. What are the Objectivist opinions?)

4) What are some of the Objectivist positions on the
theoretical metaphysical questions raised by modern physics
(i.e, quantum mechanics, the uncertainty principle, Bell's
inequality, etc.)

5) Similarly, are there any implications of Godel's
theorems that have relevance to Objectivism, which is based
on pure application of logic? Are certain statements going to
be true, yet unprovable within the Objectivist system? It is
my understanding that within mathematics, each Godel
statement (true yet unprovable statement) can be used as a
branch point for generating alternative schemes of logic. If
a proposition P is one of those Godel statements, then one can
take the old system of logic and add P as a new axiom to
generate an extended system of logic. Or one could instead
take [not-P] and add it to the old system to generate a new but
different extended system. In either case, both systems will
contain no internal contradictions! (Of course, you cannot
include both P and [not-P] in the same system!) In
mathematical set theory, there are some interesting
propositions such as the Continuum Hypothesis which have
the property that either it or its negation can be included as
axioms, and either way the set theory will still remain self-
consistent. (Another example is the Axiom of Choice). Is
there any counterpart within Objectivism? If so, what are the
implications?

When I've read Leonard Peikoff's writings, he only briefly
discussed some of these issues in (4) and (5), and his discussion did not
reflect a very good understanding of them. (I assume that he
is not a mathematician or a physicist by training.) Are there
Objectivists out there with stronger mathematics/science
backgrounds that have said anything about this?

Finally, I noticed that you had an e-mail address at the
Washington University of St. Louis. I will be moving to St.
Louis in July 1994 to join the faculty at the Wash U Medical
School (in diagnostic radiology). What is the Objectivist
community like at Wash U? Is there a campus organization (or
a St. Louis organization)?

Thank you very much for your time. Any observations or
comments you have would be greatly appreciated. Until June
20, 1994, I will have an e-mail address at:

hsieh@csmc.edu

Starting sometime in July 1994, my address will change to:

hsieh@mirlink.wustl.edu

(But I don't know exactly when my new address will become
active.)

Thank you again.

Sincerely,

Paul S. Hsieh, MD

In retrospect, I find the formality of the letter quite charming!

   
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