Guardians of Ayn Rand

Followup toEvery Cause Wants To Be A Cult, Guardians of the Truth

"For skeptics, the idea that reason can lead to a cult is absurd.  The characteristics of a cult are 180 degrees out of phase with reason.  But as I will demonstrate, not only can it happen, it has happened, and to a group that would have to be considered the unlikeliest cult in history.  It is a lesson in what happens when the truth becomes more important than the search for truth..."
                 —Michael Shermer, "The Unlikeliest Cult in History"

I think Michael Shermer is over-explaining Objectivism.  I'll get around to amplifying on that.

Ayn Rand's novels glorify technology, capitalism, individual defiance of the System, limited government, private property, selfishness. Her ultimate fictional hero, John Galt, was <SPOILER>a scientist who invented a new form of cheap renewable energy; but then refuses to give it to the world since the profits will only be stolen to prop up corrupt governments.</SPOILER>

And then—somehow—it all turned into a moral and philosophical "closed system" with Ayn Rand at the center.  The term "closed system" is not my own accusation; it's the term the Ayn Rand Institute uses to describe Objectivism.  Objectivism is defined by the works of Ayn Rand.  Now that Rand is dead, Objectivism is closed.  If you disagree with Rand's works in any respect, you cannot be an Objectivist.

Max Gluckman once said:  "A science is any discipline in which the fool of this generation can go beyond the point reached by the genius of the last generation."  Science moves forward by slaying its heroes, as Newton fell to Einstein.  Every young physicist dreams of being the new champion that future physicists will dream of dethroning.

Ayn Rand's philosophical idol was Aristotle.  Now maybe Aristotle was a hot young math talent 2350 years ago, but math has made noticeable progress since his day.  Bayesian probability theory is the quantitative logic of which Aristotle's qualitative logic is a special case; but there's no sign that Ayn Rand knew about Bayesian probability theory when she wrote her magnum opus, Atlas Shrugged.  Rand wrote about "rationality", yet failed to familiarize herself with the modern research in heuristics and biases.  How can anyone claim to be a master rationalist, yet know nothing of such elementary subjects?

"Wait a minute," objects the reader, "that's not quite fair!  Atlas Shrugged was published in 1957!  Practically nobody knew about Bayes back then."  Bah.  Next you'll tell me that Ayn Rand died in 1982, and had no chance to read Judgment Under Uncertainty: Heuristics and Biases, which was published that same year.

Science isn't fair.  That's sorta the point.  An aspiring rationalist in 2007 starts with a huge advantage over an aspiring rationalist in 1957.  It's how we know that progress has occurred.

To me the thought of voluntarily embracing a system explicitly tied to the beliefs of one human being, who's dead, falls somewhere between the silly and the suicidal.  A computer isn't five years old before it's obsolete.

The vibrance that Rand admired in science, in commerce, in every railroad that replaced a horse-and-buggy route, in every skyscraper built with new architecture—it all comes from the principle of surpassing the ancient masters. How can there be science, if the most knowledgeable scientist there will ever be, has already lived?  Who would raise the New York skyline that Rand admired so, if the tallest building that would ever exist, had already been built?

And yet Ayn Rand acknowledged no superior, in the past, or in the future yet to come.  Rand, who began in admiring reason and individuality, ended by ostracizing anyone who dared contradict her.  Shermer: "[Barbara] Branden recalled an evening when a friend of Rand's remarked that he enjoyed the music of Richard Strauss.  'When he left at the end of the evening, Ayn said, in a reaction becoming increasingly typical, 'Now I understand why he and I can never be real soulmates.  The distance in our sense of life is too great.'  Often she did not wait until a friend had left to make such remarks."

Ayn Rand changed over time, one suspects.

Rand grew up in Russia, and witnessed the Bolshevik revolution firsthand.  She was granted a visa to visit American relatives at the age of 21, and she never returned.  It's easy to hate authoritarianism when you're the victim.  It's easy to champion the freedom of the individual, when you are yourself the oppressed.

It takes a much stronger constitution to fear authority when you have the power.  When people are looking to you for answers, it's harder to say "What the hell do I know about music? I'm a writer, not a composer," or "It's hard to see how liking a piece of music can be untrue."

When you're the one crushing those who dare offend you, the exercise of power somehow seems much more justifiable than when you're the one being crushed.  All sorts of excellent justifications somehow leap to mind.

Michael Shermer goes into detail on how he thinks that Rand's philosophy ended up descending into cultishness.  In particular, Shermer says (it seems) that Objectivism failed because Rand thought that certainty was possible, while science is never certain.  I can't back Shermer on that one.  The atomic theory of chemistry is pretty damned certain.  But chemists haven't become a cult.

Actually, I think Shermer's falling prey to correspondence bias by supposing that there's any particular correlation between Rand's philosophy and the way her followers formed a cult.  Every cause wants to be a cult.

Ayn Rand fled the Soviet Union, wrote a book about individualism that a lot of people liked, got plenty of compliments, and formed a coterie of admirers. Her admirers found nicer and nicer things to say about her (happy death spiral), and she enjoyed it too much to tell them to shut up.  She found herself with the power to crush those of whom she disapproved, and she didn't resist the temptation of power.

Ayn Rand and Nathaniel Branden carried on a secret extramarital affair.  (With permission from both their spouses, which counts for a lot in my view.  If you want to turn that into a "problem", you have to specify that the spouses were unhappy—and then it's still not a matter for outsiders.)  When Branden was revealed to have "cheated" on Rand with yet another woman, Rand flew into a fury and excommunicated him.  Many Objectivists broke away when news of the affair became public.

Who stayed with Rand, rather than following Branden, or leaving Objectivism altogether?  Her strongest supporters.  Who departed?  The previous voices of moderation.  (Evaporative cooling of group beliefs.)  Ever after, Rand's grip over her remaining coterie was absolute, and no questioning was allowed.

The only extraordinary thing about the whole business, is how ordinary it was.

You might think that a belief system which praised "reason" and "rationality" and "individualism" would have gained some kind of special immunity, somehow...?

Well, it didn't.

It worked around as well as putting a sign saying "Cold" on a refrigerator that wasn't plugged in.

The active effort required to resist the slide into entropy wasn't there, and decay inevitably followed.

And if you call that the "unlikeliest cult in history", you're just calling reality nasty names.

Let that be a lesson to all of us:  Praising "rationality" counts for nothing.  Even saying "You must justify your beliefs through Reason, not by agreeing with the Great Leader" just runs a little automatic program that takes whatever the Great Leader says and generates a justification that your fellow followers will view as Reason-able.

So where is the true art of rationality to be found?  Studying up on the math of probability theory and decision theory.  Absorbing the cognitive sciences like evolutionary psychology, or heuristics and biases.  Reading history books...

"Study science, not just me!" is probably the most important piece of advice Ayn Rand should've given her followers and didn't.  There's no one human being who ever lived, whose shoulders were broad enough to bear all the weight of a true science with many contributors.

It's noteworthy, I think, that Ayn Rand's fictional heroes were architects and engineers; John Galt, her ultimate, was a physicist; and yet Ayn Rand herself wasn't a great scientist.  As far as I know, she wasn't particularly good at math.  She could not aspire to rival her own heroes.  Maybe that's why she began to lose track of Tsuyoku Naritai.

Now me, y'know, I admire Francis Bacon's audacity, but I retain my ability to bashfully confess, "If I could go back in time, and somehow make Francis Bacon understand the problem I'm currently working on, his eyeballs would pop out of their sockets like champagne corks and explode."

I admire Newton's accomplishments.  But my attitude toward a woman's right to vote, bars me from accepting Newton as a moral paragon. Just as my knowledge of Bayesian probability bars me from viewing Newton as the ultimate unbeatable source of mathematical knowledge. And my knowledge of Special Relativity, paltry and little-used though it may be, bars me from viewing Newton as the ultimate authority on physics.

Newton couldn't realistically have discovered any of the ideas I'm lording over him—but progress isn't fair!  That's the point!

Science has heroes, but no gods.  The great Names are not our superiors, or even our rivals, they are passed milestones on our road; and the most important milestone is the hero yet to come.

To be one more milestone in humanity's road is the best that can be said of anyone; but this seemed too lowly to please Ayn Rand.  And that is how she became a mere Ultimate Prophet.

 

Part of the Death Spirals and the Cult Attractor subsequence of How To Actually Change Your Mind

Next post: "Two Cult Koans"

Previous post: "Guardians of the Gene Pool"

Moderation Guidelines: Reign of Terror - I delete anything I judge to be annoying or counterproductiveexpand_more

Eliezer: "As far as I know, [Rand] wasn't particularly good at math."

A relevant passage from Barbara Branden's biography of Rand:

"The subject [Rand] most enjoyed during her high school years, the one subject of which she never tired, was mathematics. 'My mathematics teacher was delighted with me. When I graduated, he said, "It will be a crime if you don't go into mathematics." I said only, "That's not enough of a career." I felt that it was too abstract, it had nothing to do with real life. I loved it, but I didn't intend to be an engineer or to go into any applied profession, and to study mathematics as such seemed too ivory tower, too purposeless---and I would say so today.' Mathematics, she thought, was a method. Like logic, it was an invaluable tool, but it was a means to an end, not an end in itself. She wanted an activity that, while drawing on her theoretical capacity, would unite theory and its practical application. That desire was an essential element in the continuing appeal that fiction held for her: fiction made possible the integration of wide abstract principles and their direct expression in and application to man's life." (Barbara Branden, The Passion of Ayn Rand, page 35 of my edition)

I would note that high school math isn't really "math". At least I don't think of it that way. Maybe that's because I'm a "rare case": really good at math (though not super good like some people here) - 36 on math ACT, AIME qualifier - and then not at all exceptionally good at college math. It could have been psychological factors: maybe if I studied linear algebra now I'd understand it just fine (in fact, I suspect I would). That's just the justification for my observation is all.

From the impression I get from my acquaintances who grew up in the USSR, high school math over there was considerably more advanced than what passes as 'math' in most of North America's school system, and included linear algebra and calculus. I don't know if this is still the case.

I don't know if it's still the case, either, but I can confirm from first-hand experience that it definitely used to be as you say.

Based on anecdotal reports from my friends in the mathematics community, the fall of the USSR has not been kind to mathematics education.

I attended 2 years of school in Ukraine before my family immigrated. This was in '96/97. I can attest that math was far more advanced there (at least back then. Though this is still post-ussr). Ex: We were learning about functions in grade 2 (didnt touch it until grade 8-9 here in Canada.) I remember my parents being somewhat unhappy when most of the math I did in third Year was two digit addition and subtraction.

Some have said this essay is a poor, ad hominem criticism of Objectivism. This isn't a criticism of Objectivism per se at all and isn't meant to be - it is intended to answer the question "how did a belief that ostensibly venerates reason and independent thought give rise to cult-like behaviour?" Thus discussion of the merits of Objectivism itself don't address the question, while an account of Rand's life sheds a lot of light.

Great essay!

But, how can a set of ideas be a closed system? It's ridiculous. If someone were to tell me that Objectivism is closed, I would say, Ha! I just reopened it. Ha! Try and stop me from calling myself an Objectivist if I feel like it! Oh, they can trademark it, I supposed, but if they do, I could rename my system as Reasonablism and explain it as an improved form of what-Ayn-Rand-was-talking-about.

A community of people can close itself off, but ideas are helpless to resist whatever buccaneering minds may prey upon them. This harkens to Buckminster Fuller's cry that "true wealth only increases", because true wealth is knowledge and knowledge is infinitely replicable and shareable.

But, how can a set of ideas be a closed system?

A set of people can be closed to updates on their ideas.

And of course, Eleizer has already quoted the scripture of the prophet Brian, who sayeth:

"Look. You've got it all wrong. You don't need to follow me. You don't need to follow anybody! You've got to think for yourselves. You're all individuals! You're all different! You've all got to work it out for yourselves! Don't let anyone tell you what to do!" (Life of Brian, scene 19)

But what if the source of much of your material in this essay on Ayn Rand's life is itself inaccurate and untrue? Another author--James Valliant--who wrote on Ayn Rand's life studied her private journals (that were unavailable to Barbara Branden and Nathaniel Brandon). According to him, the air of cultishness was initiated and encouraged by Nathaniel Brandon, who monitored all of Rand's guests, visitors, and letters, to ensure that they were not antagonistic to Rand.

A single anecdote should throw enough light on Rand's character to disprove this hypothesis. The libertarian economist Murray Rothbard was for a time part of Rand's circle of friends. But when Rand learned that Rothbard's wife was a Christian, she gave Rothbard six months to convert her to atheism, or else divorce her. Rothbard of course did neither, and was, accordingly, excommunicated soon thereafter.

Up the thread a piece, Vejay referred to a book called The Passion of Ayn Rand's Critics, by James Valliant.

Vejay said:

Another author--James Valliant--who wrote on Ayn Rand's life studied her private journals (that were unavailable to Barbara Branden and Nathaniel Brandon [sic]). According to him, the air of cultishness was initiated and encouraged by Nathaniel Brandon, who monitored all of Rand's guests, visitors, and letters, to ensure that they were not antagonistic to Rand. Apparently, all this was done without Rand's knowledge until much later she found out, including Branden's continued deception of her.


In point of fact, Mr. Valliant's book is an unscholarly mess.

(1) Although his prime objective is to discredit The Passion of Ayn Rand by Barbara Branden, Mr. Valliant frequently misquotes her book or imposes preposterous interpretations on what she said in it. See, for instance, Neil Parille's meticulous dissection at< http://www.objectivistliving.com/forums/index.php?showtopic=4405&st=60>.

(2) Mr. Valliant insults his readers' intelligence by telling them that passages that he has just quoted from Ayn Rand's journals do not mean what anyone with a modicum of sense can see that they mean. For instance, he follows up passages in which Rand expresses extremely negative evaluations of Patrecia Scott (with whom Nathaniel Branden had been conducting a secret affair) with pious denials that Rand was ever or could ever have been jealous of Ms. Scott.

(3) If Ayn Rand ever complained about Nathaniel Branden demanding obedience and conformity from her disciples, Mr. Valliant fails to document it. It is possible to deny Rand's authoritarianism only by ignoring her published statements demanding ideological conformity, her comments during the question and answer periods of her public speeches doing likewise, and the testimony of other former associates, such as Alan and Joan Mitchell Blumenthal, who remained with Rand after Nathaniel and Barbara Branden were expelled from her circle, but eventually broke with her for their own reasons.

(4) It is clear from Mr. Valliant's own text that Ayn Rand showed some of the journal entries in question to Nathaniel and Barbara Branden at the time, though of course she did not give them copies to take with when they were expelled.

Apart from the previously unpublished journal entries by Ayn Rand herself (which may have been tampered with by Mr. Valliant, and in any event frequently do not show her in the best possible light), Mr. Valliant's book is of value only to those morbidly curious about the rationalizations that worshippers of Ayn Rand are willing to resort to.

Robert Campbell

The case against those who see Objectivism as a closed system has been mounted within the ranks of Objectivists. Indeed, the very terms “open” and “closed” systems were coined in a published exchange I had with Leonard Peikoff in 1990, and the battle has been raging for years between the orthodox and the independent wings of the Objectivist movement. Fortunately, there are now many of us in the latter wing. Readers following this thread may be interested in my account of the issues, The Contested Legacy of Ayn Rand: Truth and Toleration in the Objectivist Movement (http://www.atlassociety.org/David%20Kelley%20-%20Truth%20and%20Toleration.pdf). Chapter 5 in particular points out the many ways in which the “closed-system” model contradicts the Objectivist epistemology (pp. 73-85 in the PDF file).

David Kelley, founder & senior fellow, The Atlas Society

Ha! I searched for Kelley to see if anyone else had pointed out that not every Objectivist went the closed system route, and Kelley himself had beat me to it.

He also wrote The Art of Reasoning, and there is even a web site with interactive tutorials on the book: http://www.wwnorton.com/college/phil/logic3/

Nice essay but I think you'd benefit from studying the history of science a bit more. Thomas Kuhn's view of paradigms overturning one another is not supported; since Kepler and Galileo it has been almost wholly cumulative. You get can get Kepler's and Galileo's laws from Newton's and you can get Kepler's and Galileo's and Newton's from Einstein's; the surprises have largely been interpretive. Most of the limitations of Galileo's and Newton's and Einstein's laws were known within the framework of those systems. The sense in which the contemporaries of, say, Newton thought that the Newtonian system was "certain" was as a philosophical extension of his science: they thought the necessary extensions needed to address the problems would be broadly "Newtonian" in nature. Theirs was a failure of speculation and not science.

The "revolutions" have only been from systems of folk belief (sometimes sophisticated derivatives like Aristotelian thought) to modern science. Aristotle was not a mathematician of any sort or an experimentalist of any sort; that is, he was not in any way a scientist. His system was subject to sophisticated extension by the Alexandrian Greeks (notably Ptolemy used it to create a mathematical system for astronomy) and the Scholastics. For them, mathematics meant Euclidean geometry, and the Scholastics had only parts of it: they did not have the means to do quantitative analysis of any sophistication. No experiments were performed. There are many books published about Greek "science," Islamic "science," Medieval "science"; they're all talking about Aristotle's "physics" (the only relation with modern physics is the word), which contained no mathematics, no experiments and virtually no observations (although Aristotle extolled the virtues of observation in his methodology, he did not practice what he preached, and neither did his followers).

What Kepler and Galileo brought to the table was a taste for precision in measurement and the willingness to move straight from measurement to mathematical manipulation without taking an unnecessary detour through Aristotelian philosophy (or any philosophy). (Note that Copernicus was still operating in the Aristotelian tradition; he simply moved us out to one of the rotating spheres from our place in the center. Many people overlook Kepler's achievement because they don't realize there was then no concept of an orbit; the circular motion was due to astronomical objects being implanted in spinning spheres. Moving to elliptical motions was probably a bigger conceptual leap than moving away from geocentricism.) Given that their contemporaries were measuring nothing (except astronomers), and rarely creating mathematic models at all, this was a huge leap. But the leap was from a (sophisticated) system of folk belief to science. Similar leaps were taken in chemistry and biology much later and these too were from systems of folk belief (albeit less sophisticated) to science. None of them were instigated by the works of Francis Bacon.

Having read The Fountainhead, Atlas Shrugged and Peikoff's OPAR, I've had enough time and material to reflect on Objectivism.

While Rand's contribution to rationalism was mostly admirable, Eliezer's analysis seems very fair. What's interesting, too, is that some of its contents overlaps with the article "The Benefits and Hazards of the Philosophy of Ayn Rand", written by Nathaniel Branden 25 years ago, which can be found in his website.

I recommend the reading.

As Branden (reasonably) states, some of Rand's major flaws were:

  • Confusing reason with “the reasonable”
  • Encouraging repression of emotions
  • Encouraging moralizing
  • Conflating sacrifice and benevolence
  • Overemphasizing the role of philosophical premises
  • Encouraging dogmatism

But what if the source of much of your material in this essay on Ayn Rand's life is itself inaccurate and untrue? Another author--James Valliant--who wrote on Ayn Rand's life studied her private journals (that were unavailable to Barbara Branden and Nathaniel Brandon). According to him, the air of cultishness was initiated and encouraged by Nathaniel Brandon, who monitored all of Rand's guests, visitors, and letters, to ensure that they were not antagonistic to Rand. Apparently, all this was done without Rand's knowledge until much later she found out, including Branden's continued deception of her.

Do the words "atomic theory" have a single unambiguous meaning in the context you reply to? Or do you know somehow (telepathy?) the precise referent the writer refers to by the words?

Come on, Mellway. Search for a charitable interpretation of the writer's words. Do not stop your search till you have found an interpretation of the words that makes the sentence non-foolish and non-false.

I'm responding to you, rather than to Mellway, because you responded to him and got strongly upvoted for it when his post was downvoted. Granted that I'm responding nearly seven years after the fact, so you probably won't see this, but others might.

For your first sentence, you are arguing definitions. The words do not have a single unambiguous meaning in that context, and some of those meanings are incorrect, and therefore the statement by EY is, quite arguably, incorrect. It is not hard to be more of a chemist than I, yet I postulate that for the first three examples of an "atomic theory of chemistry" you define, I can either point out a known counterexample or a point where the error bars are too large to begin to call the result "pretty damn certain". As an example, the claim that "bonds form between atoms, producing molecules, which have consistent chemical effects" runs into issues such as the orientations of the atoms (protein folding being a common real-world example of how differently-configured molecules of exactly the same atoms bound to the same other atoms can produce completely different chemical effects). Even seemingly-obvious statements, combined with the immediately-obvious caveats, can be incorrect: "all matter (which is more massive than an atom, because atoms aren't actually atomic) is composed of atoms" completely fails to account for neutron stars. I thus claim that the expected definition of the term in such a context as this one cannot be a correct one. Do you have a non-trivial definition of "the atomic theory of chemistry" which is "pretty damn certain"? Normally I'd have said EY would be among the first to point out how much we don't know and still have to learn even where we think we know the answer.

Do not stop your search till you have found an interpretation of the words that makes the sentence non-foolish and non-false.

Absolutely not. That way lies a path toward one of the very things this (in most ways excellent) article warns against:

runs a little automatic program that takes whatever the Great Leader says and generates a justification that your fellow followers will view as Reason-able.

It is not our job to take everything said by EY or anybody else and consider it from all possible meanings and contexts until we hit upon one that can be justified. It is occasionally useful to do so, such as considering whether a quote taken out of context might actually not mean what the quoter meant to indicate, but it is neither practical nor desirable in common discourse or when reading the author's words in their full context.

The most charitable explanation I can come up with Yudkowsky's words is that "Yudkowsky is not a chemist, and seven years ago needed a statement that sounded both scientific and hard to dispute, came up with something like \"atoms are the basic unit of chemistry\" (which is, indeed, a useful approximation in most contexts), and worded it to sound both more scientific and more emphatic." If the Great Leader meant something more precise, he should have stated it. If he meant "... once you take into account all the other things that influence chemistry as well" then that makes his statement false on the face of it, because we keep coming with new examples of those other things.

Downvoted for telling us to run that little automatic program.

Just an aside, Rothbard and his coterie made fun of the Rand's cultishness (cf 'Mozart was a Red'), then promptly developed his own (big 'a') Austrian cult after splitting with Cato. Which goes to show recognizing the warning signs in others is no protection.

Is it just me or do others too notice that the quality of comments and dialog here is much higher than on most blogs?

It turns out that all the people who think otherwise have already left... :) But I agree with you! All hail Cultmaster Eliezer!

I know it's in jest, but honestly... let's be especially careful about that. Right now everyone can see you're joking; but human organizations degenerate into cults with astounding regularity. It's a good idea to keep in mind at least one thing you can think of that any given authority figure has gotten wrong.

So find at least one thing, preferably something important, but better something trivial than nothing at all, that Eliezer has said, which you believe to be false. I could tell you mine, but then you'd just be taking me on authority.

I fear the word "cult" obscures many difficult issues. I'm no fan of Rand-fandom, but I think it is important to identify as clearly as possible just what signs people within such a group could use to see they have a problem. For example, "ostracizing anyone who dared contradict her" would seemingly apply to a great many, perhaps the majority, of ordinary human organizations.

She's not the Messiah. She's a very naughty girl.

Great essay.

'...Marx wrote a letter to the French workers' leader [...], accusing them of "revolutionary phrase-mongering" and of denying the value of reformist struggles; "if that is Marxism" — paraphrasing what Marx wrote — "then I am not a Marxist".'

From Wiki. It must take a lot of balls to say 'you have strayed from my original Idea, I want none of this', and risk marginalisation. Much easier to just be the idol.

I suppose you could say that the important truth of atomic chemistry has not been substantively refuted: that there really are objects such as carbon "atoms," nitrogen "atoms," etc. the individual and relational qualities of which determine the natures of the substances they constitute.

In other words, there is no real alternate hypothesis to the above explanation of substances' tendency to combine in small whole-number ratios, only refinements of that hypothesis, or things thought to be physically prior.

I put a lot of weight on Lavoisier's definition of these atoms. As I recall, he wrote something to the effect that whether or not these particles he was talking about are true atoms (in the original greek sense), they were indivisible to Lavoisier. Subsequently, the term "atom" has simply meant those kinds of bodies. If you assume that "atom" must always and only mean particles which are absolutely indivisible, then of course you will disagree, but I do not think the term was used exclusively that way, even among the 18th century chemists who worked out the theory's basics.

But that fails to take into account the many ways we have learned of since then where matter does not "have a tendency to combine in small whole-number ratios". Neutron stars are massive quantities of substance, form naturally, and are composed of things with approximately the mass of a hydrogen atom, but almost none of its other properties. An alpha particle (He-4 nucleus) is similarly reminiscent of a helium atom, but exhibits significantly different properties; a beta particle (free electron) bears no resemblance in mass or behavior to any atom. Despite this, both are naturally occurring "substances" (here "substance" is defined as "quantity of matter").

Heck, even atoms do not exhibit the same properties; a large collection of atoms which have higher-energy electron orbits than their base state will emit photons while they tend back toward that base state, but a large collection of naturally-occurring Hydrogen will include some Deuterium (which is stable and has most of the properties of hydrogen except its mass) and some Tritium which still chemically resembles Hydrogen (despite being about three times its mass) until at some point it spontaneously transmutes into Helium-3 and gains an entirely new set of chemical properties. Modern chemists consider the typical behavior of atoms a useful approximation in many contexts, but that doesn't make it "pretty damn certain".

Studying up on the math of probability theory and decision theory.

Eliezer or anyone else, which books on these subjects are good for beginners?

Studying Rand's life is unlikely to be particularly useful. Studying the historical development of Objectivism as a group phenomenon is probably the most fruitful strategy.

I have noticed that people's beliefs about the nature of positive traits, either in general or specifically, has a great deal of influence on their behavior. When virtues are something that you are, rather than the result of how you act, people often stop bothering to act in the difficult and expensive ways necessary to maintain that virtue.

When virtues are internalized, and made part of our identity, psychologically we no longer perceive a need to invest effort and resources into being virtuous. People who believe that they are smart don't spend as much time and energy avoiding stupid decisions and actions. Instead, they act on their impulses and inclinations; after all, they're smart, so their decisions will be smart, too. People who believe that they are moral and ethical do not struggle to find right standards and follow them. Instead, they act on their impulses and inclinations; after all, they're moral and ethical, so their decisions will be moral and ethical. Why assign resources to verifying what has already been accepted as true?

Meta-knowledge of virtue is often lethal to the virtue.

(And now this is being flagged as spam... let's try it again)

Is it just me or do others too notice that the quality of comments and dialog here is much higher than on most blogs?

The proportion of constructive, intelligent comments on Less Wrong is about 90%. On Facebook it's maybe 30%. On Youtube it's about 5%.

Clearly we are doing something right!

Having a self-selecting social group that strongly encourages both posting defensible claims and admitting when you are wrong will do wonders for a community. It requires a strong social consensus that these are desirable characteristics, of course - a sufficiently large group of trolls upvoting their own trolling and downvoting everybody else could pose a threat to the system - but that's where having the group be self-selected is a good thing.

On the other hand, I find myself forced to ask: have you any citations or evidence to support those numbers? :-D

From hanging out at Mises it seems like Walter Block, Stephan Kinsella and Roderick Long are perfectly okay with criticizing Rothbard. I haven't read much from Hoppe so I don't know how he stacks up, but he definitely smacks of right-deviationism. I've heard Agorists claim that they're the only true Rothbardians though.

I read Atlas this summer. It was hard going, but rewarding in the end. It made every other work of fiction I have read since seem easy. Ayn Rand's ideas are wonderfully different. They refreshed my thinking. However, I carried a 'cult warning' consciously in my head while reading and remembered it every time I had the urge to give up everything I owned and head to Colorado. In short, concerns about the cult of Ayn Rand put me off taking her as seriously as I might have otherwise done. (I'm not saying I would have gone to the gulch had I not had this proviso.)

I do wonder if Rand was a sort of an evangelist in a sense for a more reasoned-out philosophy than what existed and maybe she thought something like, "Okay, this is good enough for now--now I'm going to go out and spread the word of this particular philosophy." Certainty does have a certain rhetorical use, and if it persuades people away form a less reasonable approach, maybe it's worthwhile. If we all sat around waiting for perfect knowledge before we started talking about our ideas, we'd never speak.

Not to say I necessarily endorse Rand's approach--my impression is she was too rigid, but at the same time, did she do a service for advancing better ideas than the average to the general public? I think a decent case could be made for her on that count.

I strongly agree with your statement. In fact, Rand regularly stated, when asked, that she wasn't "the last philosopher," but "the first of their return." This statement seems to lend support to your theory. She also stated much work was to be done developing the philosophy of objectivism, and gave the example that a complete framework of law was needed, etc.

She stated, of the people who published her novels, that their existence was "proof that men (protagonists) like the ones I've depicted in my novels exist." So, she didn't see herself as infallible from a detached "objective" intellectual sense, just in the sense that she appreciated adulation, and surrounded herself with a lot of second-rate suck-ups who worshiped the ground she walked on. She viewed others as equals, so long as she viewed them as compatible with her worldview.

I don't think so because analytical philosophy was well established in the fifties, and the idealsim she railed against was out of fashion.

Regarding Shermer on science being uncertain: I listen to a lot of skeptics, and I think he's merely saying that science cannot be literally 100% absolute in its certainty. Sure, a theory can explain all the existing evidence (known cases) and make accurate predictions its scope about unexamined cases. But empirical test of it can only ever approach 100% certainty and can never really achieve it.

Thats just my take on it.