Materialism Versus Objectivism

 Posted by on 15 March 2004 at 8:35 am  Uncategorized
Mar 152004

Every once in a while, I hear that Objectivism endorses materialism in metaphysics. For example, I recently ran across this 2003 comment by Greg Swann:

Like Ayn Rand, I am a materialist, and like Ayn Rand, this creates a real problem for me with respect to will, volition, free moral agency. Rand got around it by waving her hand and raving about axioms. Most thoughtful Objectivists get around it by saying “compatibilism”, which to me looks like hand-waving wrapped in a fig leaf.

If Objectivism had a materialist metaphysics, the philosophy would be unable to explain not only “will, volition, free moral agency,” but also consciousness itself. Yet there is a small problem with this criticism of Objectivism, namely that Objectivism does not have a materialist metaphysics in any way, shape, or form! Not only has no deeply Objectivist philosopher ever endorsed materialism, but it is explicitly denied in a number of core texts. For example:

  • In her 1963 review of Herman Randall’s book Aristotle, Ayn Rand spoke positively of Aristotle’s view of the mind in writing:

    And consciousness is a natural attribute of certain living entities, their natural power, their specific mode of action–not an unaccountable element in a mechanistic universe, to be explained away somehow in terms of inanimate matter, nor a mystic miracle incompatible with physical reality, to be attributed to some occult source in another dimension.

  • In 1968, Robert Efron published a strong critique of reductionism in biology, particularly as related to consciousness, in The Objectivist.
  • In his lecture course on the history of philosophy from the 1970s, Leonard Peikoff argued that materialism is an excellent theory of physics, but a horrible metaphysics. After all, physics is concerned only with matter, whereas philosophy must also account for consciousness. (Peikoff said much more, but I haven’t yet transcribed this bit, as I only recently found it the Q&A of Lecture 2. In any case, Peikoff is quite clear that Objectivism rejects materialism.)

    These are just a few examples, all during Ayn Rand’s lifetime and under her guidance. A more detailed discussion of these issues (although outdated in some ways) is found in my paper Mind in Objectivism. Objectivism wholly rejects materialism in metaphysics — and for good reason. Compatibilism thus is not a thoughtful response to some conflict in the Objectivist metaphysics, but evidence that a person either does not grasp or does not agree with that metaphysics.

    In my experience, the basic error of “Objectivist compatibilists” lies in their view of causation. They hold (implicitly or explicitly) an event-based view of causality, such that any given event is necessarily caused by antecedent events. On that view, genuine freedom of the will is impossible and contrary to causation. In contrast, Objectivism (with Aristotle) holds that causation consists of entities acting according to their natures. Part of human nature is our capacity to be aware of and regulate our own conscious processes. So human freedom of the will is just a type of causation, not in conflict with it. (It’s not even an unusual type of causation, as all biological systems are self-regulating.)

    Of course, all sorts of interesting scientific questions about the underpinnings of human volition remain to be answered. Yet science will never find any answers unless it recognizes the event-based model of causation for what it is: wrong.

    • Draaksteker

      Please take some lessons in biology and read some Darwin. Your brain is made up of stuff. Stuff that produces your consciousness just like genes produce/code for the stuff that makes up your brain. Everybody knows that after a stroke you can become a totally different person, not by ´volition´, but entirely involuntary. YOU ARE your brain, there is no distinction. Your ability to make choices depends entirely upon your TOTALLY MATERIAL brain structures. Compatibilism is the only sane option because there is no third option besides Materialism and Mysticism when it comes to the question of free will, the objectivist attempt is simply a mystic leap of faith introduced to be able build a preconceived philosophy of freedom.

      In my experience the basic error of Objectivists lies in their view of ‘freedom’ (try giving a definition to it, you’ll see). Somehow they still cling to a mystic concept of it, they want the human mind to be free of the cackles of reality, just like the religionists do. Give it up!, your consciousness is part of reality. Freedom means no more and no less than the absence of force in human relations, it does not mean that everybody is capable of everything and that therefore any failure is a matter of justice. Justice only pertains to human relations, not to the relationship the human body has to reality.  

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