Mike Shapiro shares “highlights” from the Summer Seminar of The Not-Really Objectivist Center, including this news tidbit: “Duncan Scott interviewed Nathaniel Branden, who admitted some belief in ESP and the supernatural, much to the raised-eyebrow dismay of the audience.”
Nathaniel Branden’s explicit embrace of such hokey mysticism should hardly come as a surprise to those familiar with his work: he’s been dropping not-so-subtle hints for years. Let’s consider a few examples.
In his 1984 article “The Benefits and Hazards of the Philosophy of Ayn Rand,” Branden criticized Ayn Rand for dismissing claims to psychic powers:
Like many other people, [Ayn Rand] was enormously opposed to any consideration of the possible validity of telepathy, ESP, or other psi phenomenon. The evidence that was accumulating to suggest that there was something here at least worthy of serious scientific study did not interest her; she did not feel any obligation to look into the subject; she was convinced it was all a fraud. It did not fit her model of reality. When an astronaut attempted during a flight to the moon to conduct a telepathic experiment, she commented on the effort with scorn–even the attempt to explore the subject was contemptible in her opinion. Now I have no wish to argue, in this context, for or against the reality of nonordinary forms of awareness or any other related phenomenon. That is not my point. My point is the extent to which she had a closed mind on the subject, with no interest in discovering for herself why so many distinguished scientists had become convinced that such matters are eminently worthy of study.
In some sense, Ayn Rand surely did dismiss such psychic claims on the grounds that they failed to “fit her model of reality.” She understood that arbitrary flights of fancy should not be granted the dignity of “possible.” She grasped the difference between genuine science and pseudo-science. She identified the primacy of existence as a fundamental principle of metaphysics. She rejected the alternative — the primacy of consciousness — in all its forms.
Of course, Branden intends his “model of reality” comment to be taken in a wholly different way. He’s obviously reproaching Rand for stubbornly refusing to consider the facts due to ideological blindness. But is that fair? As a general rule, we have clear and ample evidence that Ayn Rand accepted or rejected ideas on the basis of her commitment to rational understanding of the facts, not blind ideology. Without that commitment, Objectivism would be a radically different philosophy, to say the least. Yet Branden offers us no reason to think otherwise in the case of psychic claims.
Consider, for example, the laughable absurdity of Branden’s astronaut-cum-psychic example. Did NASA scientists have any rational reason to think that failed tests of psychic power on earth would yield different results in space? Is the theory that the earth somehow suppresses telepathic waves? Do the planets and stars exert a more powerful force upon a person’s life if he is closer to them? Branden does not bother to explain the logic of such an experiment, even though it is hardly apparent. Nor does he offer any hint as to the “accumulating” evidence about psychic phenomena. Nor does he name any of the “many distinguished scientists … convinced that such matters are eminently worthy of study” (!). Such vague claims are impossible to pin down, let alone refute. They are wholly arbitrary, to be dismissed without consideration — not cited as evidence that Ayn Rand was blinded by her own ideology. (Of course, it’s quite fitting that Nathaniel Branden indulges in the arbitrary in the course of criticizing Ayn Rand for refusing to do so!)
(As a side note: Given Branden’s loaded description of Ayn Rand’s “closed mind” and so forth, it’s worth noting that Robert Efron reviewed a book entitled ESP: A Scientific Evaluation by C.E.M. Hansel in the March 1967 issue of The Objectivist.)
Branden’s criticisms of Ayn Rand on this matter are clearly baseless, if not absurd. Of course, he does not here directly advocate mysticism by championing the transcendent reality of the supernatural. (He is far too subtle for that!) Indeed, he even cautions that he has “no wish to argue, in this context, for or against the reality of nonordinary forms of awareness or any other related phenomenon.” That agnosticism is certainly consistent with Branden’s reluctance to name any particulars to support his assertion that psychic claims warrant scientific study.
Nonetheless, Branden’s declared agnosticism is telling, in a slightly subtle way. When a man as knowledgeable of the Objectivist view of the absolutism of reason and reality is willing to wallow in the arbitrary for the sake of considering the possibility of the paranormal, it’s pretty darn clear that he’s well on his way to outright advocacy. He’s just testing the waters, perhaps in his own mind, but more likely in the minds of his readers. So it’s not surprising that he’s now progressed to that more advanced stage of outright advocacy. I expect that he will become even bolder in his claims with time, provided that he’s not reincarnated as a bat before then. (My apologies to bats, of course!)
A more recent example of Nathaniel Branden’s arbitrary agnosticism about the supernatural is also worth mentioning. In a Navigator article on death and dying, he is quoted as saying the following about an afterlife: “What happens? Well, I really don’t know, do I? But I’m inclined to believe it’s pure non-existence.”
Again, does Branden have any evidence to believe that death is not “pure non-existence”? Of course not. Evidence is beside the point! He’s just “inclined”!
Notably, this indulgence in the arbitrary has clear and significant ethical implications: If the alternative to life is not just the non-existence of death, then the choice to live could not be the fundamental choice that gives rise to all values. The Objectivist ethics would be dead in the water, killed by groundless skepticism. (Then again, it were true that “we are all of us organisms trying to survive,” as Branden claims in the “Benefits and Hazards” article, then the Objectivist ethics would be just as dead from the determinism of psychological egoism. Really, wasn’t The Big Lesson learned by Dagny in Atlas Shrugged precisely that not all people pursue life?!?)
I can’t resist mentioning that Nathaniel Branden’s indulgence in the arbitrary on this matter is spectacularly outdone by his former wife, Barbara Branden, who is quoted in the same article as saying:
I would love to believe in reincarnation, so I could come back and live again and again and again, as long as it was as a human being like myself. But since there are so many contradictions in the idea of reincarnation, I suppose I’ll have to do without it. And I would love to believe in an afterlife, so that I would once again be with the people I love who have died. But apparently I’ll have to do without that, too. Yet, since energy is not destroyed, perhaps one’s soul is not utterly destroyed; perhaps it continues to exist in some form; it is so wondrous a possession that it seems wasteful of reality to allow the soul to cease to exist. But that would be of no use to me unless the form in which it continues to exist remains myself. So perhaps the best answer is, ‘Who knows?’
I love that “wasteful of reality” bit. I couldn’t make that up in a million years.
Consistent with his Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde personality, Nathaniel Branden has on occasion clearly denied any indulgence in mysticism over the years. Consider this exchange from a 1996 Full Context interview:
Q: Then the rumors are false that Nathaniel Branden has been flirting with mysticism?
Branden: Yes, they’re false. Also the rumors that I have become a convert to God, altruism, and flying saucers.
Q: Why do you suppose such rumors started?
Branden: Perhaps because of what I’ve just said about Ayn not knowing much about mysticism. Or perhaps because in my lectures and writings I talk about the importance of kindness and benevolence in human relationships. Or perhaps because, in light of how much Branden hurt Ayn Rand, why wouldn’t he believe in flying saucers?
Oh, what fearless honesty! Of course, if Nathaniel Branden were actually fearlessly honest, I’m sure that he would attempt to win James Randi’s Million Dollar Paranormal Challenge. Sure, it might be hard to “show, under proper observing conditions, evidence of any paranormal, supernatural, or occult power or event.” But if he has reason to believe in ESP and the supernatural, then that seems like easier way to make some money than to write yet another rehashed book on self-esteem. Then again, maybe Self-Esteem for Dogs will be a big hit!
Sarcasm aside, I’m sure that Nathaniel Branden’s explicit rejection of the most fundamental principles of the Objectivist metaphysics and epistemology will not endanger his position as a prominent speaker at future TOC Summer Seminars. After all, his cheaply disingenuous attacks upon Objectivism in the “Benefits and Hazards” article didn’t prevent David from inviting him in years past. Yes, David Kelley’s standards really are that low, particularly for a big draw like Nathaniel Branden. (In 2003, I was told by a TOC staffer that Nathaniel Branden’s absence substantially lowered the turnout. If I recall correctly, they actually lost money on the seminar that year, about $30,000.)
I hope that perhaps a few TOC supporters are disturbed by the thought that such monetary concerns would trump basic moral principles of association, such that David Kelley would sell out Objectivism for a few extra donor dollars. Although dismay is certainly in order, surprise is not. After all, Kelley boldly announced his policy of “weigh[ing] the costs of association against the possible gains” in each case way back in “A Question of Sanction.”
The fruit of that harvest of pragmatism was rotten all along. Now it’s just starting to stink.
Date: Tue, 17 Aug 1993 12:08:05 EST
Reply-To: Moderated Discussion of Objectivist Philosophy
Sender: Moderated Discussion of Objectivist Philosophy
From: Nathaniel Branden <73117.607@CompuServe.COM>
… For Objectivists, no one is ever misguided or simply mistaken. Opponents are always “irrational” or even “mystics.” Objectivists tend to use “mystic” like communists in the thirties use “fascist”–to brand anyone who disagrees with them. Rand herself set the pattern for this, unfortunately.
If, for example, one even suggests that there is some pretty impressive evidence accumulating for the reality of non-ordinary forms of perception (forms that do not fit contemporary paradigms), count on many Objectivists to howl “Mystic!” or “Irrationalist!” or “Whim- worshiper!”–all the old Objectivist cliches when dealing with “enemies.”
Folks, if we want to be genuine advocates of reason, we’ve got to rethink this practice. I wish I had understood this 30 or 40 years ago. I promise you, fifty years from now what is called a “reasonable” view of the universe is going to look very different from the view we call “reasonable” today. This is not–let me emphasize this–an invalidation of reason; not at all; it is reason that will lead the way to the new and improved world view. But it would be foolish vanity to imagine that we will see and understand this right from the beginning. No, some of us will brand the bringers of the new world view as “mystics.” And the truth is, mysticism will have nothing to do with it.
As sure as I’m writing this, someone on this list will write something like “I never expected Nathaniel Branden to embrace all this New Age craziness!” Why? Because that is the way too many “students of Objectivism” will process my above remarks…which, in reality, have nothing to do with “New Age craziness.” (I am NOT a New Ager.)
Or they will say, “I never expected Branden to come out for extra-sensory perception.” Read this article again. I never said that, either. …
So just what exactly are these grand and revolutionary “non-ordinary forms of perception” were supposed to be, if not “extra-sensory perception”? Branden never tells us, of course. Yet now we know that they were one and the same all along. What spineless dishonesty!
Update 2: Having just read through the replies to that message, I think that my recollections of MDOP may be rosier than deserved. Most responders objected solely to Nathaniel Branden’s claim that someone was sure to accuse him of “New Age craziness” and the like. (After all, we’re the nice guys here on MDOP!) Only one person (Eyal Mozes) attempted to pin down Nathaniel Branden by asking him what these “non-ordinary forms of perception” were, if not “extra-sensory perception.” It was rather pathetic.