This post will not attempt to avoid spoilers, and will be much more comprehensible if you've read the book or are familiar with its basics, but I also hope it'll be somewhat understandable if you haven't read the book at all; to aid with that I'll put summaries after all the names.

I first read Atlas Shrugged as a teenager, I think for an essay contest. I was already a libertarian from reading Free to Choose, and found Rand's moralism offputting and her characters strange. I was a 'technical' libertarian,[1] in that I was convinced that decentralization led to better decision-making and better results, and didn't see how the moral libertarians made a better case than the moral statists. And even when it came to morality, the people I saw at church were putting in significant effort to try to be better, and yet Rand's heroes didn't seem to have any sort of moral development; the good people were good, and the bad people were bad, and there wasn't any engagement with the question of how to become good. I think that was the main content of my essay, and unsurprisingly it didn't win anything.

But a friend recently mentioned that they had read it and were surprised about how much it was about rationality; I remembered some bits and said "yeah, that checks out," but when I reread it recently was surprised at just how much there was, and how topical much of it was to current events and decisions I'm facing.

A truly great book should be read in youth, again in maturity and once more in old age, as a fine building should be seen by morning light, at noon and by moonlight. ― Robertson Davies

For this post I expect to slip between "how I saw Atlas Shrugged as a youth" and "how I see it now", with the first mostly to explain by contrast.

Creators revisited

In youth, I thought Galt's Gulch (a hideout in the Rockies accessible only to the creators on strike) was ridiculous. You have people whose primary skills are being executives, and they become manual laborers, and they're better off? Why think a mining executive would be any good at digging copper himself, or an aircraft executive would be good at raising hogs?

I think I was confused instead of enlightened by having the category of "executive." James Taggart (the 'villain' railroad executive) would be denied entry to Galt's Gulch, and starve if he ended up there. The primary characteristic of the creators is that they operate off their inside view and own responsibility. Rearden (the 'hero' steel-maker) invents a new variety of metal, not by seeing it in a flash of insight, but by believing that it's possible enough to remain determined through ten years of obstacles and setbacks. Dagny Taggart (the 'hero' railroad executive) provides value by making decisions using her own judgment, by paying close attention to details, and turning towards instead of away from problems.

Some of the scientific and engineering inventions are fake, and I think in youth I overestimated how much the characters were supposed to be mutant superheroes instead of doing something that could be copied. Sure, you might not be able to sleep as little as Dagny, but you could try to actually succeed in your work, and work in a field where that's noticed and rewarded instead of punished.

It reminds me of simulcra levels; the heroes are the people who live in 'reality', and the villains are the people who live in 'society'.

The heroes look at the world to determine what is true; they say things they think are true so that other people will have a more accurate model of the world; they try to enter honest competitions, they try to win, are sportsmanlike when they lose, and think there is no honor or profit in dishonest competitions. When selling things, they assume buyers will make their own judgments on the facts; they would market sushi as cold, dead fish. The heroic scientists refuse to work for any institutions that accept government funding! [2]

The villains look at other people to determine what is true; they say things they think will enhance their position and reduce their rival's positions; they try to keep competitions illegible, trade influence, and seek to constrain others by guilt. Over and over again, when a non-striking hero interacts with one of the villains, Rand points out how the hero is, through a combination of something like the principle of charity and something like a willful blindness towards the evils of humanity, deliberately not understanding what the villain is saying or what motivates them, because if they did they would have to hate them. (Rand's villains are under no such compunction, and freely hate the heroes.)

Of course, not everyone is a 'hero' or 'villain'; one of the things I saw reading it now is how different people have different nuances and shades, and how many characters are 'good' but not 'heroes', or 'bad' but not 'villains'. While the heroes and villains often end up in deep conflict because of huge philosophical differences, the less extreme characters normally are depicted having small conflicts because of simple miscommunication and inability to overcome the typical mind fallacy or cultural clash (such as ask vs. guess, or combat vs. nurture); when Rearden and his mother can't have a real conversation, it's because both of them can't see the other, and only know how to politely interact with their mental model of the other person (which, of course, is not how the other person wants to be interacted with).

And so, when you say "a bunch of nerds and engineers build a frontier town with only nerds and engineers," I say "oh yeah, that totally checks out, and I can see the appeal." Having seen more of the power of having something to protect, and how quickly clever people can understand things they focus on, it also no longer strains credulity that an aircraft manufacturer could also figure out raising hogs, and having seen what true ownership looks like, it no longer surprises me that they would choose a 'downgrade.'[3]

The Conflict

In youth, I focused on the conflict between the creators and the looters, and watched how Rand's fictional America falls to communism and self-destructive morality. The creators deal with absolutes and objective facts; the looters deal with negotiations and subjective facts, and they can't overcome this methodological difference, or the underlying moral differences. Reading it now, the interesting conflict is between Dagny (the heroine who believes in humanity) and Galt (the hero who initiates the strike).

Both of them oppose the looters. Dagny views them resigned boredom, and resolves to work harder, believing that she can produce more blood than the leeches can drain. Galt decides to give them what they want, good and hard. But only one strategy can be employed at a time; if Dagny and other scabs keep civilization afloat despite the fundamental contradiction presented by the looters, then that contradiction can remain unaddressed. If Galt and the strikers yield control over the visible earth to the looters, then the world grinds to a halt with massive widespread misery, and the legacies of past creators are mostly destroyed. So the two of them have a shadow war over the creators, with Galt eventually winning.

This shadow war, of course, isn't a logistical affair, but a moral and philosophical one. When people are ready to give up on humanity, Galt visits them and puts into words the moral feelings that they haven't heard before from anyone else, and convinces them to give up collaboration with looters and go on strike. Valuing surprise and lived experience over persuasion, he doesn't take his message to the public until he's won.

The Judgments

One of the things that was most striking about the book this time around was the sense of "they should have known better." That is, not only is it good to think, and to turn to reality for truth, but people are responsible for figuring that out. Not necessarily from scratch--but in an uncertain and embattled information ecosystem, it matters whether or not they end up with that conclusion. Many of the side characters have a brush with truth, and turn towards it, and then die or suffer an ignoble end because they got some important fact wrong, and good intentions aren't good enough.

Benquo's comment shows what Eddie Willers (Dagny's assistant) gets wrong--basically, he's loyal to "the train company" instead of "thinking" or "engineering" or "productive work", and is unable to do anything about the collapse of the world besides "work harder," and it's not enough. Cherryl Brooks meets James Taggart and takes at face value the public relations claim that he was behind the John Galt line (which was actually Dagny's idea and sole effort, done after he washed his hands of it), and doesn't try to understand her environment in the right way to discover she's being tricked until too late. Robert Stadler (the genius physicist, and one of Galt's two teachers) wants to think about the abstractions underneath physical reality instead of society, and so accepts whatever deal is offered him by society, and finds himself backed into a corner, his scientific discoveries used for ends horrific to him, a powerless figurehead who will say in public whatever he is asked to say. The Wet Nurse goes to college to study metallurgy and ends up working as the bureaucrat monitoring Rearden's mills; he eventually discovers that he wants a real job at the mills, but the controlling regime he works for would need to approve his transfer, and would view his desire to transfer with suspicion.

Most interesting to me is the relationship the sides have to persuasion. The looters spend much of their time coordinating, but it's backroom deals with information as currency and empty platitudes and guilt trips in public. They don't think the public can think, and so their attempts to figure out what to do and their attempts to convince the public are entirely disjoint affairs.[4] The strikers think that one of the fundamental obligations people have is figuring out the state of the world, and only nudge people into actions, instead of trying to reveal new parts of the world to them. (They're like the man handing out blank leaflets.) The scabs view participation in human society as a cost of doing business, view doing business as the primary goal in life, and don't have anything to offer other scabs besides continuing to do business together. Rather than someone coming to Rearden and saying "hey, humanity isn't worth it, why don't you just leave?" they wait until humanity has mistreated Rearden enough for him to already believe it, and only needs it pointed out to him for him to realize that he already believes it.

Consider the connection to their basic way of looking at the world: for the looter, social reality is the dominant reality, and so they spend a lot of time attempting to shift the views of those around them. For the striker, physical reality is their dominant reality, and so they let facts 'speak for themselves'.

You Can Lead A Horse To Water, But

The parables from the book struck me, both the first time around and the second. Here's my favorite:

"I know who is John Galt," said the tramp. "It's a secret, but I know it."

"Who?" she asked without interest.

"An explorer," said the tramp. "The greatest explorer that ever lived. The man who found the fountain of youth. John Galt spent years looking for it. He crossed oceans, and he crossed deserts, and he went down into forgotten mines, miles under the earth. But he found it on the top of a mountain. It took him ten years to climb that mountain. It broke every bone in his body, it tore the skin off his hands, it made him lose him home, his name, his love. But he climbed it. He found the fountain of youth, which he wanted to bring down to men. Only he never came back."

"Why didn't he?" she asked.

"Because he found that it couldn't be brought down."

My reading of this is that truth is findable, but you have to go to it, and you cannot bring it to you. If you seek to find out what chemical composition will lead to a better variety of steel, you will find it; if you seek to prove that your starting guess is right, you will often be disappointed. And even this method of finding truth is an example of this; if you seek out methodology with genuine curiosity, you will find a good one, and if you trust to what you started out with, you succeed only by luck.

This seems like a recurring theme, somehow; the sense that you can't think for another person, and it's wrong to try. The best our explorer can do is shout down "this is how I climbed up the mountain", but others need to climb up themselves. You can't read your way into original thinking, or trust your way into a confident conclusion.

Incidentally, I didn't read the introduction by Leonard Peikoff either read-through, because in the second paragraph he says Rand wouldn't have wanted an introduction to her work, instead of letting it stand on its own merits. But after my most recent read-through, I idly read the introduction, and came across something shocking. He quotes a diary entry by Rand:

I seem to be both a theoretical philosopher and a fiction writer. But it is the last that interests me most; the first is only the means to the last; the absolutely necessary means, but only the means; the fiction story is the end. Without an understanding and statement of the right philosophical principle, I cannot create the right story; but the discovery of the principle interests me only as the discovery of the proper knowledge to be used for my life purpose; and my life purpose is the creation of the kind of world (people and events) that I like--that is, that represents human perfection.

Philosophical knowledge is necessary in order to define human perfection. But I do not care to stop at the definition, I want to use it, to apply it--in my work (in my personal life, too--but the core, center and purpose of my personal life, of my whole life, is my work).

This is why, I think, the idea of writing a philosophical non-fiction book bored me. In such a book, the purpose would actually be to teach others, to present my idea to them. In a book of fiction the purpose is to create, for myself, the kind of world I want and to live in it while I am creating it; for as a secondary consequence, to let others enjoy this world if, and to the extent that they can.

It shocks me that a book I have been given for free four times, presumably in the hopes of cultivating a like-minded soul, was written because Rand wanted to make it for herself, rather than to have an impact on the world, or to teach others. [It reminds me of Mandatory Secret Identities, or the art having a purpose besides itself.]

The Relevance

When I was younger, I had a sense that while some topics might be off limits, civilization was built on and supported reasoned debate. Then I had the sense that more and more topics were becoming off limits and that the principles underlying debate were being attacked directly, as well as the difference between value of topics being much larger than I had naively expected, as existential risk makes most other considerations irrelevant. Yes, you might not be able to speak the truth about A or B or C, but the small gains made by society being right about any of those pale in comparison to the gains made by society being right about X, and so to the extent one needs a good reputation for society to heed their thoughts about X, one should be silent on A, B, and C. But this isn't just a local thing; the sound of silence is spreading more broadly as more people decide it's not worth it to speak up.

First they came for the epistemology. We don't know what happened after that. --Michael Vassar

Historically speaking, this isn't really a surprise, and is more of a 'return to normalcy,' with the accompanying observation that most of history has been quite bad to live in on important metrics.

That is, the standard way things have gone is that there's some ruling hegemony, and they have a vested interest in controlling the belief system of those that they rule; the principles of classical liberalism, like freedom of thought and religion, rather than having natural allies in all other belief systems, have natural enemies in those systems, as whenever a belief thinks it can win, it doesn't see any value in protecting its competition. Well-kept gardens die by pacifism, and the universalist liberal order failed to maintain moral supremacy.

My personal response to this has mostly been to withdraw; if society doesn't want me to speak my unfettered thoughts, then I shall fetter myself; I'm cooperative enough for that, at least. If various traits that make me a good thinker make me unfit for public service, then I will do other things instead. If various policies that are downstream of careful thinking are highly unpopular, then I will not put my trust or effort into politics. There's a lot of Galt in this, where society gets what it rewards, and it's up to society to learn to reward the right things.

Success lies in being secretive, and defeat lies in revealing things— an enlightened lord will have none of this attitude. Success lies in being outspoken, and defeat lies in hiding things— a benighted lord will have none of this attitude. Thus, if the lord of men is secretive, then dishonest words will come, and straight talk will be turned back. Petty men will draw near, and gentlemen will be put at a distance. If the lord of men is outspoken, then straight talk will come, and dishonest words will be turned back. Gentlemen will draw near, and petty men will be put at a distance. --Xunzi, "Undoing Fixation"

There's a trope in Confucian thinking, which is that in times of trouble, where there are no good people to serve, the best people--to the Confucians, the most morally upright--will retreat into obscurity, and wait for better times.[5] This seems to both be a purity thing and a self-preservation thing; an honest man cannot serve a dishonest regime without losing his honesty, and while a wicked minister might trouble a local merchant for taxes or bribes, they would plot to kill another minister in their way. It is unhealthy to be an honest man in a dishonest organization, and so the thing for the honest men to do is become simple scholars or craftsmen or merchants.

And yet, the Dagny in my heart is not so willing to give up. Without people who look at a wicked world and say "I will stand up for goodness," how could the world have any goodness in it?

I must come to the topic of "selling" new ideas. You must master three things to do this:

  1. Giving formal presentations.
  2. Producing written reports, and
  3. Mastering the art of informal presentations as they happen to occur.

All three are essential--you must learn to sell your ideas, not by propaganda, but by force of clear presentation. I am sorry to have to point this out; many scientists and others think good ideas will win out automatically and need not be carefully presented. They are wrong; many a good idea has had to be rediscovered because it was not well presented the first time, years before! New ideas are automatically resisted by the establishment, and to some extent justly. --Richard Hamming, "The Art of Doing Science and Engineering -- Learning to Learn"

And most of all, I find myself wondering what the missing third way is. Presumably one can serve two masters, and exist in both physical and social reality, and Bayesians can win against barbarians; what does it look like to actually defend the Enlightenment and liberal virtues against encroaching illiberalism? That is, could there be a successful open campaign in the daylight that was in favor of reason and nerds? (And the real deal, instead of "I fucking love science" sloganeering and Hollywood nerds?)

And if not, then what? Will free thought simply fade into obscurity? Will someone make one (or several?) modern Gulchs, where an open society of the mind can exist by being a closed society of the body?[6] Will there just be whispers in the dark, where free thinkers find each other outside of the spotlight?

  1. I hadn't yet read Hayek, who I think is the best representative of this branch and gave me a much firmer intellectual foundation, particularly with The Constitution of Liberty. ↩︎

  2. The National Science Foundation had only been founded 7 years before the book was published, and so Rand hadn't had much chance to see what general government-funded science looked like. But as far as I can tell, scientific culture is way worse today than it was a hundred years ago, and the funding model might actually be a significant factor? ↩︎

  3. I can't find the quote at the moment, but once I came across a game company CEO talking about what it's like to be CEO, and the example he chose is noticing that the trash was full and taking it out himself. Someone who thinks of CEO in terms of 'status' will be too 'big' to take out the trash, but the true way to be CEO is to be always figuring out what needs to be done and then ensuring it gets done. ↩︎

  4. Francisco d'Anconia, one of the strikers who is using his inherited wealth and company to help speed up the wreckage of the world, enjoys tweaking the looters after they invest in him on the basis of his reputation and then the enterprise (deliberately) fails, because it was based on the platitudes instead of proper reasoning. "I thought you would approve of it. ... I thought you would consider the San Sebastian Mines as the practical realization of an ideal of the highest moral order. ... I thought you would recognize it as an honest effort to practice what the whole world is preaching." ↩︎

  5. 'How gentlemanly Ch'u Po-yu is! When the Way prevails in the state he takes office, but when the Way falls into disuse in the state he allows himself to be furled and put away safely.' The Analects. Tho note the difference between the translations; the Lau one (1979) matches my understanding, but the Legge one (1893) is a very different thing! ↩︎

  6. Xunzi's students were given prominent positions in the state of Qin, a land on the western frontier of China, and from that base conquered the rest. Early Muslims were exiled to Medina, where they developed fully, and then were able to conquer their original home of Mecca, and then beyond. The final lines of Atlas Shrugged involve John Galt looking out from the Gulch and saying "The road is cleared. We are going back to the world." ↩︎

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37 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 4:01 AM

Filtering mechanisms are bad because nerds want to be nice because they remember people not being nice to them. I know this has been retread many times both in broader society and here on LW, but given the state of pedagogy there is much territory that must be reconquered every generation (and even every cohort within a generation, with turnover of around 5-10 years). To have a sustained open conversation someone has to be ruthless about kicking out people who want to turn things to other considerations, including being right about the fact that the open conversation is not value-free and highly contextual. Yes, inquiry is highly contextual, good inquiry even generates whole new contexts that are wildly unequal in access. The early crypto enthusiasts who did it for fun did get the chance to get rich. If the search for truth included no artifacts of power waiting to be discovered out in the wild wastes we would likely have far less interest it.

Or, to put it blithely, 'tolerance' has a scope/abstraction level problem. This problem has manifestations both external and internal.

Oh, and alternately as well: filtering mechanisms are also hard because the very idea of 'filtering' can port in basically the whole of the problem space.

Hi - this was a very interesting post to read. I'm an Objectivist and former LW-lurker and rationalist-adjacent, so it's interesting to see how Atlas Shrugged reads to someone from the LW-sphere who is sympathetic to some of the core ideas, but not all of them.

My background (for the curious): I binge-read the sequences a few years ago, along with many other writers in the rationalist diaspora (along with other contrarian thinkers, such as Nassim Taleb, David Chapman, and so on), but was eventually sold on Objectivism after reading Ayn Rand's book on epistemology (linked below).

At one point I wanted to work on a comparison or integration of LW-style ideas with Objectivism. I think that project would be too big, but there's almost certainly much untapped value available to anyone who wants to investigate the connections between the two epistemic communities. For now, I'll just link to some of the central writings by Ayn Rand and other Objectivists, allowing people to form their own judgements and giving curious minds a few "rabbit holes" to explore.

Basically -- the element of Objectivist philosophy that is by far and away the most useful is the epistemology. The material on politics, though important, can be something of a distraction, as Objectivists are just as prone to being mind-killed as others, and the usual focus on politics whenever Ayn Rand is discussed usually creates lots of drama and distracts from her more fundamental philosophical ideas.

Objectivist epistemology is basically a modified version of Aristotelian philosophy, one that doesn't rely on any kind of quasi-Platonist metaphysics. In simpler terms: it holds that concepts are cognitive tools for grasping reality successfully, and that discovering truth is essentially a process of observing reality, forming valid concepts and then integrating one's concepts correctly. Grasping the epistemology is really the basis for understanding the rest of Objectivism, and will help you understand on a deeper level the philosophical issues mentioned in your post.

Anyway, my recommended reading list:


Aside from Atlas Shrugged and the Fountainhead, Ayn Rand also wrote a novella called Anthem, a dystopian sci-fi text in the vein of 1984 and Brave New World. It's available online and a quick read:

She also wrote a semi-biographical novel, We: the Living, but I haven't read it and can't vouch for the quality.


The vast majority of Ayn Rand's non-fiction writing is in the form of essays. Most of these have been published in various essay collections, but not all of the essays in these collections relate directly to her core ideas. Below are some of her core philosophical essays:

Core essays

The Objectivist Ethics (meta-ethics)

What is Capitalism? (politics/economics)

Philosophy: Who Needs It (general philosophy)

Who is the Final Authority in Ethics? (explains the concept of "objectivity")

Non-fiction books

If you want a more comprehensive understanding of Objectivism, a good "mid-level" introduction is the essay collection "Philosophy: Who Needs It".

The best advanced introduction is the book "Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology", which (unsurprisingly) discusses the fundamentals of epistemology. Chapter 1 is available here:

Book here:

Then there's "Objectivism: the Philosophy of Ayn Rand", which is the book that explains all the branches of the philosophy in detail.

All of these are available on Amazon.

Other resources

The Ayn Rand Lexicon has an index of core concepts:

The Objective Standard has a good "layman's introduction", along with a bunch of other good articles:

Books by other writers

There's been a bunch of books written by other writers that build on Ayn Rand's ideas. I'll just list some key ones (all available on Amazon).

Viable Values by Tara Smith: more academic survey of Objectivist meta-ethics

How We Know by Harry Binswanger: more comprehensive book on epistemology

Ominous Parallels and The DIM Hypothesis by Leonard Peikoff: philosophical analyses of cultural change

The Logical Leap by David Harriman: theory of induction based on proper concept-formation

Some more technical writings on philosophy are available here (including Greg Salmieri's attempt to integrate Objectivism with more traditional Aristotelian philosophy):

And I think that covers all the bases. Oh, one final one: Robert Transinski's book on Atlas Shrugged has some unique perspectives on the book, so should be relevant to OP:

By the way, I'm a big fan of the Lesswrong model -- there are a bunch of Objectivist online groups and forums, but nothing of stellar quality, and I find the Lesswrong platform and community tends to encourage good epistemic norms. If anyone's interested in some kind of cultural cross-pollination between the two groups, let me know, because I think it would have a lot of value.

Thanks for the links!

Basically -- the element of Objectivist philosophy that is by far and away the most useful is the epistemology.

I find this interesting, since I think epistemology is one of the most well-developed parts of the "LW view." If Objectivism has something to add, we should definitely incorporate it; if Objectivism has a major challenge for it, we should definitely address it.

I have memories of reading IToE, or at least leafing through it, in my college days when I hung out with a bunch of Objectivists, but I think this was before the I read The Sequences, and so I don't think I ever made an explicit comparison between them. I do remember being less impressed with it than I was with Epistemology and the Psychology of Human Judgment, which I definitely had read then.

Reading the linked first chapter of IToE, and bouncing around the Epistemology section of the Ayn Rand Lexicon, I haven't yet found something that stood out as "beyond" LW but did find a few things that seemed to me to be "behind" LW. As an example of something that didn't seem 'beyond' LW, Rand's Razor seems like a useful habit for dispensing with perverse concepts like grue and bleen, but Follow the Improbability feels like the better version of it. Like, how is 'necessity' measured? How is the multiplication of concepts measured? The LW-style Bayesianism has quantitative answers, there, but my sense is the Objectivist writers mostly don't.

As for things that seem behind LW, the section on Chance is more of a rejection of the field than a study of it, and the section on certainty reminded me of this Slate Star Codex article, which I think lays out why Aristotelianism is a really unsatisfactory base to build off of, instead of a Bayesian base.

I'm curious what you think about that, or where I should be looking further.

These are good questions.

As an example of something that didn't seem 'beyond' LW, Rand's Razor seems like a useful habit for dispensing with perverse concepts like grue and bleen, but Follow the Improbability feels like the better version of it. Like, how is 'necessity' measured?

Ayn Rand wrote a ton of material on concept-formation: some of it is in ITOE, and some of it is scattered amongst essays on other topics. For example, her essay "The Art of Smearing" opens by examining the use of the flawed concept "extremism" by certain political groups to attack their opponents, and then opens out into a discussion of the formation of "anti-concepts" in general, and their effects on cognition. She has several essays of a similar nature.

The downside of such an approach is that there isn't one unified resource you can point people to that explains Objectivist epistemology in detail.

Objectivist epistemology is hard to summarize -- it includes some useful cognitive heuristics (like "Rand's razor" and the idea of checking for "package-deal" concepts or other invalid concepts), but the whole package includes a lot more than those heuristics. It's also integrated down to philosophical fundamentals -- including, most notably, an attempt at carving a third position to the Platonism vs. nominalism debate over universals in traditional philosophy. However, that is quite hard to summarize in a comment. The best resources I can point to are either ITOE (which is admittedly dated), or Harry Binswanger's book How We Know.

But just for the purposes of illustration, the Objectivist answer to the grue/bleen issue would be that blue and green are the more basic concepts because they are directly derived from perceptual experience. (Following Aristotle, Objectivism holds that perception is the ultimate base of all knowledge.) The idea that "a green object may turn blue for some unknown reason at some future date" is an arbitrary claim with no evidential basis. If a given green object did change colour, one should determine the cause of the colour change prior to defining a new concept to categorize the object under. (And, realistically, given present scientific knowledge, there isn't much reason to believe that any given object will begin changing colour for no known reason.)

Likewise, the Objectivist answer to the blegg/rube issue ( would be that there is too much overlap between the two concepts (as presented), and that therefore the two concepts are not valid. This is not to say that there is no distinction between the objects, but, absent any knowledge of why certain properties tend to appear together, the individual objects being categorized would be better described as simply "palladium-containing, blue, egg-shaped object" or whatever.

One does not form concepts simply by clustering together objects with similar properties, but also by identifying causal connections between the properties. In the case of bleggs and rubes, if one could show that the fact an object contained palladium tended to cause it to be blue and egg-shaped, then you would have a basis for forming an objective concept of "blegg".

Compare with examples in biology, where there is no confusion over whether, say, a duck-billed platypus is a bird or a mammal.

The platypus shares similar properties with other mammals because of a similar underlying cause (it has similar DNA, due to shared ancestry) but has some differences with other mammals, because it is further away on the biological "family tree" -- but its most recent common ancestor with the other mammals is far more recent than with the birds or reptiles, so it should objectively be categorized as a mammal. On the other hand, Objectivism also agrees with LW in holding that there is no answer to the question of whether a certain object is really a blegg, or whether a certain animal is really a mammal. All concepts are simply human-created categorization schemes, evaluated by the extent to which they track genuine distinctions in reality (a genuine distinction, such as that between mammals and birds, usually being supported by the identification of an underlying cause that gives rise to the distinction, such as differences in DNA).

As you can see, this is only scratching the surface of a very complex topic, so I'll leave the above as simply an indication of the Objectivist approach. Otherwise, yes, you are correct that there's a decent amount of material in the modern-day "rationality corpus" that isn't integrated into Objectivism.

(Edit: I just read the linked SSC article that discusses Aristotelian epistemology. His description doesn't really apply to Objectivism, which says that knowledge is reached via induction (from observations), not deduction -- though many Objectivists, like Scott's campus Objectivist friends, unknowingly practice the wrong methodology (e.g., misuse of logic and overuse of deductive reasoning). Likewise, though Objectivism holds that (contextual) certainty is possible, it also makes clear that claims can also be classed as "possible" or "probable", with probability increasing as evidence is accumulated. Finally, because knowledge is integrated, if one of your beliefs is proved wrong, one should seek out other related beliefs that may now be disproved.)

It would be interesting to work on an integration of Objectivism with more modern approaches, though I personally have other projects to work on which are more of a priority for me personally. However, I've pondered the idea of setting up an online community that would be a kind of gathering place for such work.

As for the other comment's question on practical uses of Objectivist epistemology, off the top of my head I can think of: The Logical Leap by David Harriman (an attempt at solving the problem of induction), the startup Mystery Science (elementary science education based on an Objectivist approach), Jean Moroney's website/consultancy Thinking Directions (similar type of material to CFAR) and Boom Supersonic by Blake Scholl (supersonic jet startup, Blake said he developed the original idea by applying some of Jean Moroney's thinking techniques).

Ayn Rand wrote a ton of material on concept-formation: some of it is in ITOE, and some of it is scattered amongst essays on other topics. For example, her essay "The Art of Smearing" opens by examining the use of the flawed concept "extremism" by certain political groups to attack their opponents, and then opens out into a discussion of the formation of "anti-concepts" in general, and their effects on cognition. She has several essays of a similar nature.

My prediction, having read a few of these, is that I will agree with them more than I disagree with them; when she points to someone making an error, at least 90% of the time they'll actually be making an error. I think the phrase 'anti-pattern' is more common on LW than 'anti-concept', but they seem overall the same and to have similar usages. (37 Ways That Words Can Be Wrong feels like the good similar example from LW.)

That said, there's a somewhat complicated point here that was hammered home for me by thinking about causal reasoning. Specifically, humans are pretty good at intuitive causal reasoning, and so philosophers discussing the differences between causal decision theory and evidential decision theory found it easy to compute 'what CDT would say' for a particular situation, by checking what their intuitive causal sense of the situation was.

But some situations are very complicated; see figure 1 of this paper, for example. In order to do causal reasoning in an environment like that, it helps if it's 'math so simple a computer could do it,' which involves really getting to the heart of the thing and finding the simple core.

From what I can tell, the Objectivists are going after the right sort of thing (the point of concepts is to help with reasoning to achieve practical ends in the real world, i.e. rationalists should win and beliefs should pay rent in anticipated experience), and so I'm unlikely to actually uncover any fundamental disagreements in goals. [Even on the probabilistic front, you could go from Peikoff's "knowledge is contextual" to a set-theoretic definition of probability and end up Bayesian-ish.]

But it feels to me like... it should be easy to summarize, in some way? Or, like, the 'LW view' has a lot of "things it's against" (the whole focus on heuristics and biases seems important here), and "things it's for" ('beliefs should pay rent' feels like potentially a decent summary here), and it feels like it has a clear view of both of them. I feel like the Objectivist epistemology is less clear about the "things it's for", potentially obscured by being motivated mostly by the "things it's against." Like, I think LW gets a lot of its value by trying to get down to the level of "we could program a computer to do it," in a way that requires peering inside some cognitive modules and algorithms that Rand could assume her audience had.

Compare with examples in biology, where there is no confusion over whether, say, a duck-billed platypus is a bird or a mammal.

Tho I do think the history of taxonomy in biology includes many examples of confused concepts and uncertain boundaries. Even the question of "what things are alive?" runs into perverse corner cases.

Rand’s Razor seems like a useful habit for dispensing with perverse concepts like grue and bleen,

Blue and Green may well be the simple choices given our perceptual system...but that's given our perceptual system, not a fact about ultimate reality.

Basically—the element of Objectivist philosophy that is by far and away the most useful is the epistemology

Are there concrete examples of the usefulness of the epistemology?

Michael Huemer wrote an article called Why I am Not An Objectivist many years ago. The first part is quite interesting to me, in that I read it now as claiming that Objectivists reject the map-territory distinction, which seems like quite the impediment to developing the art of rationality / thinking about 'mapmaking' as a cognitive discipline.

[edit] To elaborate how this connects, the Objectivist looks like someone who is so attached to the superiority of simulacra level 1 over 3 that they install allergies against all sorts of relativism or subjectivism, in ways that make them unable to keep moving up the level of abstraction and consider the relative merits of different ways of thinking about reality. (Anna Salamon talks sometimes about people who jump straight from Kegan level 2 to Kegan level 4, without passing through 3, as one of the nerd archetypes.)

It also makes them uninterested in looking for the 'synthesis'; why should good merge with evil?

We don't need to rely on Huemer's gloss; the distaste for map-territory distinctions and reasoning under uncertainty being too subjective can also be seen in the source material. Consider this line from Atlas Shrugged:

"Dagny", he said, looking at the city as it moved past their taxi window, "think of the first man who thought of making a steel girder. He did not say, 'It seems to me', and he did not take orders from those who say, 'In my opinion.'"

(Psychologically, Rand is totally in the right in that people very often do use such language to evade responsibility for thinking, but reversed stupidity is not intelligence.)

Barbara Branden's biography The Passion of Ayn Rand also describes this amusing moment from the writing of a planned miniseries adaptation of Atlas Shrugged:

Only once during their association did Ayn's wrath descend on Stirling Silliphant. He had added the word "perhaps" to a statement made by Dagny—and Ayn angrily shouted: "You've destroyed Dagny's character on this page! You've made her qualify her thinking! She always knows what she's doing—she doesn't use words like 'perhaps' or 'maybe.'" The offending word was removed.

I'm a big fan of Rand, and I liked her Objectivism work too, but exposure to a lot more philosophy, LW, and college-level math ruined a lot of her non-fiction work for me.

I once dated a 'card-carrying' Objectivist and it was, sadly, too much of a 'religion' for them and their fellows. They were very upset that I mentioned reading about Rand's alleged abuse of diet pills or of her 'reluctantly' accepting the fact of evolution via natural selection.

But, subject to the law of equal and opposite advice, I still think her 'message' or 'vision' is important for a lot of people. She is the prime example, to me, of a 'Kegan level 4' (fiction) author.

She's just not a philosopher.

Don't get me wrong, I agree with a ton of her observations. As much as I agree with a ton of Buddhism. It is just not Philosophy.

Let's get our ontology correct. She used philosophical tools to approach philosophical problems, and wrote essays on the results in philosophical terminology. That makes her a philosopher. If her results were incorrect, at worst she's an incorrect philosopher like so many others throughout history who moved philosophy into "less wrong" territory.

The same is true of Buddhism, and Christianity too: in addition to being religions, they're philosophies, making ontological and ethical statements and explaining how those were reached. And atheism, while a philosophical viewpoint, also has had religious social structures built around it, such as taboos against self-coding as religious.

Exploring the philosophical "realm" and "mining" new seams of gold ore (or fools' gold) is what makes one a philosopher, whether one comes in with a pickaxe and mule like the '49'ers or a bulldozer and dynamite like the industrial strip-miners.

I would have expected this post to mention Rand's excellent intuitive grasp of extortion-resistant decision theories!

There was a different look in Mr. Thompson's eyes when he drew back, as if cornered, yet looked straight at Galt and said slowly, "Without me, you couldn't get out of this room, right now."

Galt smiled. "True."

"You wouldn't be able to produce anything. You could be left here to starve."


"Well, don't you see?" The loudness of homey joviality came back into Mr. Thompson's voice as if the hint given and received were now to be safely evaded by means of humor. "What I've got to offer you is your life."

"It's not yours to offer, Mr. Thompson," said Galt softly.

Something about his voice made Mr. Thompson jerk to glance at him, then jerk faster to look away: Galt's smile seemed almost gentle.

"Now," said Galt, "do you see what I mean when I said that a zero can't hold a mortgage over life? It's I who'd have to grant you that kind of mortgage—and I don't. The removal of a threat is not a payment, the negation of a negative is not a reward, the withdrawal of your armed hoodlums is not an incentive, the offer not to murder me is not a value."

Thanks for the post. Your description of your re-reading of the book is priceless because you are noticing things that many, many people miss on their first reading. A few years ago, Greg Salmieri did an online reading group for Atlas on the occasion of its 60th anniversary. We encouraged people to see a lot of the psychological conflict that you describe--and more. If you're interested, the recordings are here:

The lessons are not only about leaving the entire civilization, but they also apply on a smaller scale: leaving your friends, your family, your partner, your job. If some people (or faceless organizations) abuse you, it can make more sense to quit and try your luck elsewhere, rather than persevering and believing that "if I only keep showing them how loyal and hard-working I am, one day they will certainly change their mind and recognize my value". Quoting Madonna, there's no greater power than the power of good-bye.

(Of course, the law of equal and opposite advice applies: no relationships are perfect, so if you always quit whenever things are less than perfect, you may end up alone and jobless. Different people need different advice.)

Everything in moderation, including charity. You should not become suicide-level charitable. At some moment it is reasonable to admit that the other person is probaby just hurting you on purpose.

And most of all, I find myself wondering what the missing third way is. Presumably one can serve two masters, and exist in both physical and social reality, and Bayesians can win against barbarians; what does it look like to actually defend the Enlightenment and liberal virtues against encroaching illiberalism? That is, could there be a successful open campaign in the daylight that was in favor of reason and nerds?

Yeah, fighting back is not described as an option in Atlas Shrugged, except for the short prison-break sequence. Some protagonists learned to exploit the system. Some made a half-assed attempt to hire a guy to fight for them; didn't work as expected.

If the lesson is that sometimes you face an unbeatable (at least in short term) enemy, and then you need to rationally admit it, okay. But I suspect that the protagonists were actually incapable of opposing the enemy, even if the situation was less dire. They were fact-oriented, the enemy was people-oriented; when the society turned against them (which they had no way to fight against), all they could do was run; and they were quite lucky that the enemy didn't actually try to stop them. (Rand's villains didn't make some obvious moves the real-world villains would have made, such as protecting the borders, and taking family members of strategically important people hostage.) They relied on social infrastructure they were incapable of maintaining; they were too specialized -- good for them as individuals, but bad for them as a group. And they were quite lucky to have a nearby place to go, magically defended.

Instead, I would like to see some, uhm, equivalent of Israel, in the sense of: a place where people who once only had the options like "run" or "get hurt" now have an army that can defend them against other armies. Not necessarily as a geographical location, but kinda like: if you want do defend yourself, don't do a half-assed job; if your enemies have an army, you need an army, too. If you start an open campaign for Enlightenment... well, it's quite predictable who will attack you first and what weapons they will use. Do you have a weapon that can fire in the opposite direction? Or even a plan how to build it? Or even people who would support you at building the weapon, instead of trying to appease the enemy, perhaps by sacrificing you? So perhaps the upstream move is to create a network of trustworthy pro-Enlightenment people who are willing to defend each other; and progress from there. (Maybe there already is such group; they probably wouldn't advertise their existence until their weapons are ready.) Having a literal country would solve the free-rider problem: if you live here, you have to pay taxes and contribute to the mutual defense. Without it, we need to find another solution.

What about a membership system? Like a union or guild? People pay their dues and agree to support the collective actions, and the union uses the funds to hire people to investigate cases and plan strategy etc. Like with insurance, someone too likely to cause trouble might not be allowed in. (This way we prevent the group from quickly being dominated by real witches.)

Yeah, I suspect it would have to be roughly in that direction. Both free-riders and witches are a problem.

Just to make sure we refer to the same thing by "witches": people who are pro-Enlightenment, but they also (1) are pro-something-else, and they actually mostly get attacked for the other thing, or (2) have a disagreeable personality that gets them into disproportionate amounts of conflicts, so again they kinda get attacked more for their personality than for their beliefs. I mean, both of these are a problem.

This is a potential meta-problem, where the free-rider would excuse their restraint by arguing that the person under attack is a witch. But if there is a formal membership, this kind of accusation would have to be made in advance.

On the other hand, formal membership also has its problems. People will hesitate to join for all kinds of reasons. The enemies could use the member list as a convenient target list -- if you have enough firepower, you can take out the entire organization in one go.

So, maybe you could have a group that only includes the people who care most strongly about the issue. They would also defend non-members, which has a free-rider problem, but they could also ask for voluntary financial support from the non-members (which would allow some of them to contribute to the cause without exposing themselves), and perhaps would be partially rewarded by high status in the community.

Shortly, a pro-Enlightenment "think tank" that would plan strategy, write press releases, etc. If the members are employed by the think tank, they cannot be fired by a Twitter mob. (Now they just need a rich sponsor, or a large donor base.) They could also coordinate volunteers: people who are willing to help a specific cause but do not want to make this a full-time job. Perhaps you could have 3-5 employees and dozens of volunteers. They couldn't prevent someone from getting fired, but could make sure this does not happen without the displeasure of the other side being heard, and ideally without some cost for the perpetrators. (Like, imagine that every time someone gets fired by a Twitter mob, someone from the Twitter mob, and someone who caved to the mob, would face a lawsuit and have their name mentioned in the media.)

Self-review: I still like this post a lot; I went through and changed some punctuation typos, but besides that I think it's pretty good.

There are a few things I thought this post did.

First, be an example of 'rereading great books', tho it feels a little controversial to call Atlas Shrugged a great book. The main thing I mean by that is that it captures some real shard of reality, in a way that looks different as your perspective changes and so is worth returning to, rather than some other feature related to aesthetics or skill or morality/politics.

Second, point at an ongoing struggle and yearn for a synthesis of two contradictory responses to it. This is where I most hoped to see followup, and don't think I saw (or made) much.

Third, maybe make Rand more accessible to people turned off by various features of her work (or the reaction to it).

As most of the post is about 1) my reaction to 2) a fictional work, I'm not sure there's much that can be tested. Most of the comments were from people who were already Objectivists, either drawn to LW by this post or lurkers who popped up to comment; I'd be curious to see how much of what I saw in the book other people would see, if they read through it now.

Promoted to curated: I have only skimmed Atlas Shrugged (which is something I probably want to fix at some point), but even without having read it I still got a lot of value out of this post. In general I have a hypothesis that something in the space of "understanding and iterating on what broader attitudes I am using to interface with the world" is one of the key bottlenecks for many people in both their development for epistemic and instrumental rationality, and this post felt like it helped me make some progress on that. I also liked the commentary and advice on how to read and learn from both non-fiction and fiction books.

I re-read Atlas Shrugged once or twice a year. One of my first posts on LW was this (and you even commented on it!):


Not necessarily proud of it, but it's interesting to re-read it after fully reconciling the book with my own internal principles. I can see how much I struggled with the fact that I really resonated with the idea of hero-worship, while also feeling so fragile in my own judgments, simultaneously. It really is a wonderful book, and I no longer feel the need to defend anything about it - I just get a little sad when it gets brushed off (the lord of the rings comparison joke really gets me), as an honest reading will always reveal something fundamental, even in criticism.

Rereading this almost 3 years later, what stood out the most was the quote : 

First they came for the epistemology. We don't know what happened after that. --Michael Vassar

Recent trends suggest that this is a very real possibility, of several mostly correct but-not-really-true epistemologies, widely accepted by different factions of intellectual elites, undermining each other. With the resulting effects interpenetrating with the desperate geopolitical struggle for the future of human civilization. 

Such that there are no remaining popular epistemologies left that can't be easily ridiculed via a well written essay.

Wow. How old are you? I have very similar thoughts to yours. I've observed the phenomena that true free thinkers tend to come to the same/similar conclusions. Which is odd, because a free thinker is use to being in chronic disagreement with others, because others don't often think. When I wholeheartedly agree with someone, I tend to be in shock, in disbelief, because it's such a rare occurnace.

Anyway, thanks for the post.

Well... in the real world, the creators are more of a mix of the heroes and villains in Atlas Shrugged. For instance, in the United States, the creators are heavily into lobbying and playing the same games the villains of Atlas Shrugged are playing.

In essence, the characterisation of the book is not realistic.

The philosophy might be different.

I agree. I was making a similar point. The artificial worlds Rand created had lots of sharp boundaries.

Thanks for posting this. I recently reread the Fountainhead, which I similarly enjoyed and got more out of than did my teenage self - it was like a narrative, emotional portrayal of the ideals in Marc Andreessen's It's Time to Build essay.

I interpreted your section on The Conflict as the choice between voice and exit.

Very thoughtful and insightful post, thanks. I'm a big fan of Atlas Shrugged and have read it a few times, although the latest was many years ago. I agree with a lot of what you say here, especially about metaphysics and epistemology being fundamental.

However, I see the notion of the strike as a fantasy idea. Rand herself actually called it a “fantastic premise”. It was meant to dramatize the role of scientists, inventors and industrialists as heroes that society depends on. And it was conceived in the 1940s, when labor strikes were prominent in the news. Basically, instead of a labor strike, Rand asked, what if the thinkers went on strike?

In reality, the strike would never work, because the actual leaders of industrial society aren't all implicit Objectivists, and can't be convinced even in one of John Galt's three-hour conversations. And worse, if it did work, I think it would be an utter disaster—society would collapse, and it would not be easy for the strikers to come back and pick up the pieces.

But none of that matters to me, because the novel isn't meant as a practical plan for revolution, any more than Batman is meant as a realistic model for fighting crime. The value of the book, to me, is the depiction of scientific/industrial achievement as a romantic, noble quest, and (as you note) the relationship of that to a certain way of facing reality and truth.

In reality, the strike would never work, because the actual leaders of industrial society aren't all implicit Objectivists, and can't be convinced even in one of John Galt's three-hour conversations.

This doesn't seem like an obstacle to me; in the story, there are plenty of 'leaders of industrial society' who stick around until the bitter end.

And worse, if it did work, I think it would be an utter disaster—society would collapse, and it would not be easy for the strikers to come back and pick up the pieces.

I do think Rand is pretty clear about this also, although I think she still undersells it. One of the basic arguments from Adam Smith is that specialization of labor is a huge productivity booster, and the size of the market determines how much specialization it could support. If you reduced the 'market size' of the Earth from roughly one billion participants to roughly one million participants, you should expect things to get way worse, and even more so if the market size shrinks to roughly one thousand participants. (Given the number of people who are mentioned working for the various named strikers, I think this is a better estimate for the number of the people in Galt's Gulch than ten or a hundred, but she might have had a hundred in mind.) You can sort of get around this with imported capital, but then it's a long and lonely road back up.

Time has also been very unkind to this; you're not going to have a semiconductor industry with a thousand people, and I'm not sure about a million, either.

". . .Rand's heroes didn't seem to have any sort of moral development; the good people were good, and the bad people were bad, and there wasn't any engagement with the question of how to become good."

Exactly. Rand's stories read like a Western. Of course I'd like to be as heroic as John Gault or Howard Roark, but in addition to my own shortcomings, the world I inhabit is messier than theirs. It contains a complex variety of people and issues, not just a simple division between looters and creators. Withdrawing from an unworthy world may provide smug satisfaction, while appealing to one's ego, but as you concluded, we must engage with the world in order for it to be changed.

(just a thought. Factor in the relatively small, yet "evolutionarily" interesting effect of the covid on the public education system, mainly the discontinuity between people who will get the boost of learning and people who won't. I don't know how it is in the States, but where I live, changes seem to accelerate and nobody pretends to know where it stops. I don't even mean money.)

“Because he found that it couldn’t be brought down.”

My reading of this is that truth is findable, but you have to go to it, and you cannot bring it to you.

So much for science!

Science is, poetically speaking, about changing your inner state to reflect the outer state; the same thing as "going to the truth" instead of "bringing the truth to you."

Prosaically speaking, you can teach science in classrooms.

I hesitate to write this comment, because I feel like it should be predictable, but I guess I will anyway.

It sounds like you're maybe making the point that science, as a human endeavor, involves people sharing facts with each other about the natural world. That is sideways from the frame of the parable, which is about the scientific method from an epistemological perspective, so I think you're missing the point.

The truth, like the fountain of youth, is where it is, and can't be moved. If you starting off thinking "gravity on Earth's surface accelerates weights downwards by 8 m/s/s", what doing science will do is point you towards instead thinking "gravity on Earth's surface accelerates weights downwards by 9.8 m/s/s". When you're 'there,' or believing true things, you get lots of benefits in terms of accurate predictions; as soon as you leave the mountain (i.e. swapping out 9.8 with some other number), you can't take the ability to create accurate predictions with you--using the wrong inputs gives you the wrong outputs.

That said, there's a perhaps deeper philosophical disagreement here. I think that "learning" is much more real than "teaching". [Teachers construct learning environments for students, but as the saying goes, you can lead a horse to water, but you can't make him drink.]

And further, most "science" classrooms are really classrooms for teaching consensus facts about the natural world, not doing "science." The facts of the periodic table are quite different from the methodology by which the periodic table was discovered. Someone who merely memorizes known facts, and doesn't touch the apparatus by which facts comes to be known, is not partaking of the fountain of youth.

The mountain can be metaphorical. It doesn't have to be impossibly distant or impossibly tall. You don't have to be Newton and re-derive calculus from scratch to learn to appreciate what he actually did, what it means, and why it matters. You still have to look at the water.  This, it turns out, is a difficult skill to convey. So is stepping away from the equations and learning to feel the forces in your bones. But without that, it's questionable whether the thing being learned is "science" in the sense of ability-to-understand-reality.

[+][comment deleted]3y1