Rewriting Ayn Rand

AtlasDo you have a novel that you have read time and time again? A story that – despite there being so many stories in the world to discover – you keep coming back to? Which one is it for you? What’s your dark, literary secret?

For me, it’s Ayn Rand’s half-a-million word magnum opus Atlas Shrugged.

I’m re-reading it now, for the… actually, I have no idea how many times I’ve worked my way through those 1,184 pages, but it’s got to be my fifth outing at least. This time, and the last time I read it, I’ve used my Kindle, which at least keeps the weight of the book down.

I read Atlas Shrugged every 2-3 years. And in many ways, it’s a terrible novel.

Lacking in creativity, realism (but Rand herself acknowledged that it was a romantic novel where realism wasn’t the goal), pace, brevity and rounded characters, it’s almost an exercise in how not to write a novel. But still, something about it makes me keep coming back.

That something is its didactic message. It’s an honest novel. It speaks the truth about how the world works, and how morality, and reason matter.

The fact that Rand bashes us over the head with the same 2/3 lessons and scenarios time and time again, is simply because that very honest, truthful and moral dilemma is at the heart of many of the worlds problems. And generally, art doesn’t discuss it. That’s why we need to bashed over our heads time and time again.

Rand was heartbroken when it wasn’t a well-received novel. One critic compared the message of the book to the Nazi concentration camps. When of course, Rand’s philosophy of Objectivism is a promotion of quite the opposite.

Because this novel speaks a raw truth to me, I find myself coming back to it, over and over. It’s like in a world where the benefits of reason are ignored, where the reality of human nature is discarded or distorted, I turn to this book as a top-up of morality.

So despite it being the one novel I can read over and over, I can’t help feel the language of Objectivism as well as the style of the book are what’s kept it from full-blown mainstream attention.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s been a phenomenally successful book, that’s had more reprints than you and I have had proverbial hot dinners. But the ultimate moral message – despite it chiming with the way rational beings live their lives – has not shined through.

I think I might know why.

Firstly, as I mentioned before, Atlas Shrugged is long. Way long. Half-a-million words is more than five times longer than the average book. That, on a practical level, puts people off. The inflexible use of language and the equally inflexible repetition may also do the message a disservice.

The fundamental idea – that some mysterious man is taking away the great producers of the world – is a fun mystery, that could – and should – play out like a pacy thriller. But there’s no pace here. Add to that the way that Rand lays down the same (in my opinion valid) argument over and over, on page after page doesn’t help either. But it’s the language employed that really makes it hard.

And that’s the problem with Objectivism generally. If you wish to take words that are used by people a certain way, and use them in another, then you’re simply not communicating effectively. Even if your use of the words are more accurate. Simply stating that it’s moral and good to be selfish, does not help persuade people to your line of thinking, if they associate selfishness with immoral behaviour. But it’s not necessarily an argument between one person saying “A is good” and another saying “A is bad”. It’s actually that they both agree “A is good”, but what the first calls “A”, the other calls “B”.

I know that’s a very difficult paragraph to read. But Objectivism is a philosophy, and nailing down a philosophy in a succinct way is – as Rand has demonstrated over countless pages – difficult to read sometimes.

Let’s take that example of “selfishness”. To most people, they’d describe the act of breaking into a car and stealing it as “selfish”. So when Rand describes the Virtue of Selfishness, to them, they think she’s practically saying it’s a virtue to steal a car, or do one of a million things they’d consider selfish.

But Rand isn’t saying that. She’s saying that being selfish is to be motivated by – and living for – your rational self interest. Yes, strictly speaking, this could be defined as “selfish”, but most people wouldn’t consider it to be so. And that’s the problem, her inflexible language – and the language of so many who consider themselves to be Objectivists – stops them from having a normal conversation.

Let me be clear. I consider myself an Objectivist. I happen to think that Rand herself wasn’t the best example of an Objectivist in the world (but maybe that’s for another blog post), but more importantly, I think that it’s worth using better language to describe that philosophy, language that communicates with clarity what Objectivists believe. To do so would – in my opinion – make the message both more acceptable and understandable to many more people. For example, the occasional moral musings of entertainer Penn Jillette, or any given Objectivist discussion by Wikipedia’s Jimmy Wales, do more – in my opinion – to promote the philosophy of Objectivism than Ayn Rand’s entire life work. They are more productive than she is in this regard, which is quite ironic.

We need more Objectivist thinking in the world. It’d be a better world for it. I just sometimes wish it’d been explained better in the first place, and not recited by self-described Objectivists today, who seem to be keen to do an Ayn Rand impression (and defend her personal life and every quote, etc) than actually persuade more people to embrace the ideas.

If only Thomas “The Pursuit of Happiness” Jefferson was still around, I think he’d translate the philosophy of Objectivism in a far greater way than Rand was able to.

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The Machines Won’t Destroy Us

Terminator HeadThere's been a hell of a lot of doomsday movies and books over the years, chronicling mankind's fall at the hands of the machines we've created.

While I find these stories to take on the position of the Luddite, I often find them entertaining. But it's always worth pondering their message: Will the machines one day rise against us?

Advances in neuroscience are coming on in leaps and bounds. We're entering a new dawn of artificial intelligence, combined with astonishing improvements in microtechnology. These will lead to better and smarter machines, and maybe, eventually machines that are smarter than us.

It's why a number of scientists, innovators and thinkers (not least of all Stephen Hawking and Elon Musk) have expressed concerns about where this is all headed.

It's not a new worry. Every time new technology supplants old, we wonder what the tragic human cost will be. In the short term, we often see people lose jobs and so on. But factoring out what economists call “creative destruction”, basically we do okay in the long run. Things get better, and innovation leads us to a better place.

As machines get smarter, I can't see them wanting to wipe us out. Many of the top neuroscientists in this field seem to lean to the same conclusion. While we'll make strives in creating machines that share many of our emotional traits, most of the innovation that we have seen and will see in the future, will be in the neuro cortex area, dealing with logic, reasoning, and knowledge.

Machines will be able to pass on lots of knowledge, and store more information than you or I could ever possibly hope to. But that's not the same as “feeling” or anger, hate or any other traits. Machines will learn from past experience, and then (just as slowly as us in many ways) discover new ideas, and work out how effective they are.

Even if they have ideas about destroying us, and replicating themselves without needing us, the logical part of the neuro cortex programming will almost certainly always lead them to one reasonable conclusion: “Humans made us. They innovated and brought us to be. If the goal is to grow and advance, they are our best hope for precisely that kind of innovation and advancement.”

With this in mind, I don't think we have much to worry about from the technology we're creating.

Skynet's not going to be coming for us any time soon.

 

The Libertarian Age?

I came across this article by John Stosel today, defining now as the Libertarian era. He says that today’s young(er) people self-identify more as libertarian than any other group. And their numbers are growing:

I’m not optimistic about most people recognizing liberty’s benefits. Old politicians—and old voters collecting Social Security—may never change their minds. But libertarianism is growing fastest among the young, and groups like Students for Liberty give me hope. These young people certainly know more about liberty than I did at their age.

And he quotes the articulate and always-engaging Matt Welch of Reason Magazine:

“Poll after poll show you that Americans are much more fiscally conservative than their elected representatives,” says Welch. “A majority of Americans thinks that we should balance the budget. Seventy-five percent think that we should not raise the debt ceiling … Growing majorities—especially young people—are more socially tolerant. They think that we should legalize marijuana … they’re in favor of gay marriage.”

Younger people – which I suppose you can define as those of us who can claim to be ‘Generation Y’ – are enjoying much more decentralised, hyphenated lives: the like of which our parents and their parents have never known. It makes sense that young people are linking their way of life with their life philosophy, and maybe – just maybe – their brand of politics moving forward.

The Secret to World Peace

Summed up better by libertarian magicians Penn & Teller than almost anyone else:

Yup. That.

“Perfect” is the Enemy of the Good

A fascinating and – for my money at least – a highly accurate discussion between Paul Bloom from Yale and Barry Schwartz, the author of “The Paradox of Choice“. Schwartz argues that always seeking “the best” can lead to unhappiness.

I think there’s quite a bit of truth in that.

If you want to see more, the whole video is here. And you can subscribe to The Mind Report here.

“Converting” to Atheism

A fascinating look at nonbelief from Susan Jacoby.

[U]nless you’re raised atheist, people become atheists just as I did, by thinking about the same things Augustine thought about. Certainly one of the first things I thought about as a maturing child was “Why is there polio? Why are there diseases?” If there is a good God why are there these things? The answer of the religious person is “God has a plan we don’t understand.” That wasn’t enough for me. There are people who don’t know anything about science. One of the reasons I recommend Richard Dawkins’s book, The God Delusion, is that basically he explains the relationship between science and atheism. But I don’t think people are really persuaded into atheism by books or by debates or anything like that. I think people become atheists because they think about the world around them. They start to search out books because they ask questions. In general, people don’t become atheists at a late age, in their 50s. All of the atheists I know became atheists fairly early on. They became atheists in their adolescence or in their 20s because these are the ages at which you’re maturing, your brain is maturing, and you’re beginning to ask questions. If religion doesn’t do it for you, if, in fact, religion, as it does for me, contradicts any rational idea of how to live, then you become an atheist, or whatever you want to call it – an agnostic, a freethinker.

I’m currently working on a book on a history of religious conversion. One conversion narrative is always like Saul on the road to Damascus. A voice appears out of the sky, you fall off your horse, you hit yourself on the head, and when you wake up you know Jesus is the lord. That’s the classic sudden conversion narrative. It doesn’t happen that way with atheism. People don’t wake up one morning and say “Oh God! I’m an atheist.” You don’t fall off a horse and wake up and say “Oh! There’s no God. Ah. Now I know.” No. It’s more a slow questioning, if you were brought up religious, of whether those things make any sense.

I became an atheist in the same way that I became a libertarian. I was young in both instances, and I didn’t know the word/label for either position, and I didn’t much care.

The people I love and have loved most in my life are theists of some sort or another. I don’t, as the late great Christopher Hitchens often did, regard people of another theological opinion as my enemy. One day – quite possibly in my lifetime – I think we’ll get to a time and place where faith (or the lack thereof) becomes a totally private thing, outside the realm of public scrutiny, remaining only the thing of intellectual debate, proselytism, and personal reflection.

Then all of us, religious or not, will be much happier. And maybe love each other just that little bit more.

Andy Jones TV Season 5 Episode 4

Milton Friedman is not considered a “pure” libertarian by many. Lots of people complain when I reference him, but I think he is one of the best libertarian “gateway drugs” out there – and has done more practical things to advance pro-freedom principles than anyone else. You just need to place him in the right context: