The Fog of Online Debate

 Posted by on 2 April 2007 at 6:00 am  Uncategorized
Apr 022007

Diana pointed us to a posting on where someone wanted to have a thoughtful discussion of The Fountainhead and Rand’s philosophy. It is now the second-largest discussion that newcritics has ever hosted, and the overall quality and tone of the participants on all sides has been very impressive (with a notable counteraxample, see below).

These kinds of discussions are inherently messy and I don’t participate in them willy-nilly, posting reflexively in a way that just adds to the Fog (even though I might have something perfectly correct to say). In forums like newcritics that have a peanut gallery of non-Objectivists, I look for ways to give tastes of the essential methodology and central ideas of the philosophy. And horrible misconceptions are rampant with people routinely attributing wrongheaded, nasty, arbitrary positions to Objectivism, calling it a goofy cult and so on — so I look for ways to help a reasonable person see how those assessments are out to lunch. It’s a bonus if I can say something that might even inspire someone to go check out the ideas for themselves (or at least to be less susceptible to absorbing the usual mindless namecalling though osmosis). Also, I work to respect the purpose of the forum/thread, the normal-person context of knowledge, the intelligent-person level of interest and reading endurance, etc.

All that played out as my simply watching others do their thing for some time, until I saw a way to maybe clear some fog and achieve those other aims at post 75 (I’m fixing my typos in these quotes):

Jerry writes in 69, “yet there is something about her ideology I don’t trust, and it probably has to do with her metaphysics… I don’t believe in the purely rationale, because I think life is much too large for man to roll up into a ball of thought and toss around”

Yet it is a fact that to whatever degree we do understand life, it is via our rational faculty.

Objectivism is entirely shaped by respect for these types of fundamental facts. At its most essential, it is about recognizing that there is a world, and that for us to stay in it requires knowledge of it and of the effects of our actions. So Objectivism’s central focus on rationality is ultimately due to respect for the fact that reason is how we know the world, how we make our choices, and ultimately how we live or die. As to those choices, they likewise shouldn’t be arbitrary because the conditions of human life will not bend to whim or dogma (recall Bacon’s famous dictum, “nature, to be commanded, must be obeyed”). Our striving to live requires certain courses of action and forbids others because of the facts of reality. We certainly aren’t omniscient, but maximizing the clarity and depth of our understanding of these things is in our interest, no?

So as you consider the principles in the Objectivist ethics and politics, please look for the fundamental facts that give rise to them — that is where Objectivists will ultimately take the discussion if there is confusion or disagreement.

I was content to watch again until Jerry, who started out sounding very reasonable, showed his true colors in a long and ugly posting (81). It was a nasty enough rant that I was drawn to focus on discrediting his central charges (88) — not because I think he is interested in a reasonable discussion, but to give reasonable people in the peanut gallery more evidence that his opinions are reckless crap:

I was deeply impressed with the quality of discourse here, until Jerry wrote in 81: “… we get Randians incanting the utterances of their prophetess. Theirs is rationalism of cant.
They collectively intone that capitalism is good and everything else is evil because the prophet says so, not because it is objectively so.
They collectively intone that selfishness is good and that sacrifice is evil because the prophet says so, not because it is objectively so.
Resistance is futile to the great hive of Randian worker bees because the prophet says so.”

And you allege these cognitive sins based on your understanding of the Objectivist system and the facts which give it form and function? No, you’ve not shown even a glimmer of such understanding. Perhaps it is based on a guess, a hunch, a feeling — nothing more than some frustrated intellectual stamp of the foot?

It is certainly not based in clear thinking: you have cited only a perceived uniformity of Objectivist opinion (would that it were so!). Well, that’s not good enough — mathematicians are awfully uniform in their assessments of differential equations, doctors are awfully uniform in their adherence to the germ theory of disease, physicists are awfully uniform in their adherence to the atomic theory of matter, and on and on. These are not cults, and the uniformity comes from their having grappled with the same facts, usually guided by a bright light who showed them a clean path.

“With all due respect I’m not interested in joining their cult, because I would rather think for myself than have Ms. Rand think for me, dead as she is like some succubus attached to the imaginations of her followers to keep them from thinking for themselves.”

With all due respect, I’d rather you stay away. I want to engage people who are interested in really understanding the facts, first hand. Until you show at least a glimmer of [interest in] the factual basis Objectivists claim for their philosophy, all you are doing is rather rudely demonstrating that you’re happy to let something other than reality and reason guide your assessments.

From the start and across many posts, Jerry (by far the most active participant) had been referring to patterns in biology and human dependence on sub-organisms and so on while arguing against individualism and capitalism and calling Objectivists names. But then he quoted at length (in 106) from some biological scientist who was humbled at the array of life he found within himself and was inspired toward “communitarian” attitudes like Jerry’s. Since the peanut gallery might have a hard time reconciling Objectivists claiming to be all factual and rational while seemingly ignoring all these facts, I focused (in 107) on explaining what is behind that:

Just as the right tool can make a job easy and the wrong tool can make it hard, the concepts one brings to bear can make all the difference.

Yes, it is a fact that we are composed of the same materials as the rocks, trees, and rabbits. And it is a fact that we are dependent on and composed of other tiny organisms, and that other species share those same dependencies with us. And it is a fact that we, like everything, exist in an amazing causal web, interacting with the world, the other suborganisms, other animals, other collections of animals, and on and on. It’s true: depending on our focus, we can view man as a part of an entity, as an entity, as composed of entities. And as Jerry makes clear, it is easy to see all this and conclude that we need to get over ourselves.

Yet it is a fact that none of that sort of thing invalidates the Objectivist identification of man standing alone in nature as the sole entity possessing individual rights — that individual men, not parts or aspects of men, not collections of men, and not animals other than men, are the unit of account in moral action and political rights.

Recalling that in #75 I said Objectivism is entirely shaped by respect for fundamental facts, the question you should have is: what the heck fundamental fact would compel Objectivists to so boldly sweep away these sorts of impressive and humbling facts about composition and connection and interrelations as seemingly irrelevant to their notions in moral and political theory?

The fundamental fact that singles individual men out of this vast spectrum of entities and interactions is that we (currently) stand alone as the rational animal — the conceptual animal — the animal with volition — the animal that can and must think if it is to live. This is the fundamental fact that puts the spotlight on individual men in the epistemological, moral, and political spheres. In fact, these spheres exist only *because* of that fundamental fact: individual men need guidance in the (volitional/conceptual) act of thinking because errors are possible; they need guidance in the (volitional/conceptual) choices of how to act because their lives depend on it and they could choose poorly; they need guidance in the (volitional/conceptual) project of creating social conditions that allow thinking and acting. Mitochondria, cells, and spleens need no such guidance, no such freedom to think and act — and *collections* of men need no such guidance either, because thinking is not a group sport.

Finally, Jerry posted another extremely long note (110) that talked about all sorts of ideas around energy and “lung fields” and “heart fields” and entrainment, and basically lots of gooey new-age-sounding notions sprinkled with scientific terms. And a little later he posted another nasty exit-note (118) where he talked about his role as “villain” in this drama and how Objectivists are more interested in their various subjective notions than in the truth, are committed to all the usual distortions of selfishness like destroying the planet and harming others, how they are closed-minded jerks and on and on. And he specifically warned others genuinely interested in talking with Objectivists to expect an unrelenting steamrolling of all give and no take.

So I commented (in 119) with the same eye toward discrediting his rant and trying to show the peanut gallery something useful:


That others do not find your vision of life and the universe and proper philosophizing compelling does not necessarily mean that they are zealots intent on maintaining their faith — it could just as easily be that they have stayed open to facts, and reasonably dismissed you as an uncareful thinker who has been a victim of perhaps a few too many rap-sessions involving a bong.

If Objectivists don’t take you seriously when you indeed have something important to share, then you have a handy court of final appeal to settle the dispute: reality. All you need to do is point to the facts.

Argument by assertion and groovy, arbitrary speculation simply won’t cut it among people of reason — that’s more suited for people of faith.

And the discussion goes on, hopefully with a little less fog.

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