What Rationality Means in Ayn Rand’s Philosophy of Objectivism

Ayn Rand, novelist and philosopher of Objectivism, a philosophy for living on Earth.

Ayn Rand

Ayn Rand’s idea of rationality is one of the most misunderstood concepts in her Objectivist philosophy. It seems that almost everyone just assumes they know exactly what rationality means. Then, upon learning that Rand advocates consistent rationality, tend to judge Rand’s philosophy by their preconceived notion of rationality, without realizing their understanding is deeply flawed.

Here I’ll explain what rationality means in Ayn Rand’s philosophy. I’ll quote Rand for a brief, positive explanation of her concept of rationality. Then, because misconceptions are so prevalent, my further explanation will largely take the form of a series of myths about rationality, with genuine rationality explained in contrast to the myths.

In her essay, “The Objectivist Ethics,” Ayn Rand describes rationality:

Rationality is man’s basic virtue, the source of all his other virtues. …

The virtue of Rationality means the recognition and acceptance of reason as one’s only source of knowledge, one’s only judge of values and one’s only guide to action. It means one’s total commitment to a state of full, conscious awareness, to the maintenance of a full mental focus in all issues, in all choices, in all of one’s waking hours. It means a commitment to the fullest perception of reality within one’s power and to the constant, active expansion of one’s perception, i.e., of one’s knowledge. It means a commitment to the reality of one’s own existence, i.e., to the principle that all of one’s goals, values and actions take place in reality and, therefore, that one must never place any value or consideration whatsoever above one’s perception of reality.  It means a commitment to the principle that all of one’s convictions, values, goals, desires and actions must be based on, derived from, chosen and validated by a process of thought—as precise and scrupulous a process of thought, directed by as ruthlessly strict an application of logic, as one’s fullest capacity permits.

So rationality consists of two components: a mental component and a physical component. It involves both thought and action. The thinking portion can be described as the rigorous application of objectivity in one’s own life. So when I discuss the myths about rationality, you should understand that what I say about the mental aspect of it applies to Ayn Rand’s concept of objectivity, as well. (Objectivity is frequently mischaracterized, along with rationality.)

Now to the myths:

Myth: Rationality means not making errors about facts.

Truth: Rationality means judging facts to the best of your ability on the basis of observation, rather than going by faith or feelings. Doing this is not a guarantee that you won’t make mistakes. Rational thought can still result in major errors about what the facts are.

The evidence may seem to point to one conclusion, because of limitations in what evidence you have access to. But there may be other evidence you’re not aware of that would lead you to a different conclusion. So long as you’re continually thinking and following the evidence to the best of your ability, you are acting rationally in regard to the facts.

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Philosophy of Perception: Naïve Realism vs. Representationalism vs. Direct Transformative Process Realism

Painting of a beautiful woman in a garden - Shows the richness of perceptionWithin epistemology, which is the branch of philosophy that studies human knowledge, one of the most fundamental topics is the nature of perception. Philosophers from the Ancient Greeks to the present have offered various theories of what perception is and how it occurs. Because it is a topic so fundamental to human knowledge, specialized natural science can’t answer the basics about it. Science relies on perceptual observations of reality. Thus science itself relies on the idea that perception allows us to be aware of an external reality. If perception does not give us awareness of external reality, then scientific study of the external world is not possible: We would always, at best, be inspecting the contents of our own minds.

Thus, it is the job of philosophy to answer the most basic question: Does perception give us an awareness of reality, and if so, at the most basic level, how?

In this essay, I’ll explain three different theories of perception. To the question of whether perception gives us an awareness of reality, all three of them attempt to answer, “Yes.” Where they disagree is on the “how,” or the basic nature of perception. The three basic theories are naïve realism, representative realism, and Direct Transformative Process Realism (DTPR.) (“Representative realism” here is a synonym for representationalism. Note that these theories are all variants of “realism” in perception. Theories that answer “No” to the question of whether we can observe mind-independent reality would be variants of “idealism.”)

Philosophers sometimes use “naïve realism” as a synonym for “direct realism,” and there are many different theories that could be called “direct realist.” But here I will take “naïve realism” to be one specific sort of direct realist theory: the sort of approach to perception exemplified by the Ancient Greek philosopher, Aristotle. Representationalism too has quite a few variants, but they all share a common thread. I will focus largely on the version of representationalism associated with the English philosopher, John Locke. Direct Transformative Process Realism (DTPR) is my term for the theory of perception put forward by Ayn Rand and Objectivist intellectuals after her. It’s a form of direct realism that is very different from Aristotle’s approach. I’ll explain this term in more detail when I explain this theory later in this essay.

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Faith vs. Trust and Science vs. Religion

"Then a Miracle Occurs" cartoon - "I think you should be more explicit here in step two." Science vs ReligionWhat is faith, and how does it relate to trust? Are the two terms different? Does one need to have faith to engage in science or benefit from it? What is trust and what is its role in reasoning? These are the questions I will discuss and answer here.

First, we’ll consider the meaning of “faith.” The most prominent use of the term “faith” is in regard to religion, so let’s look at what it means in that sphere and apply that understanding more generally.

For Christians, the model of faith is presented in the Bible. In Matthew 18, Jesus says, “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever takes the lowly position of this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.” (Mt. 18:3-4, NIV) And again, in Mark 10, Jesus says: “Let the children come to me; do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of God. Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.” (Mark 10:14-15, ESV)

The reason that Jesus holds children up as models to emulate is that they tend to be “intellectually humble” (i.e. naive) and will often accept religious teachings simply, without challenging the adults by asking too many difficult questions. Ask virtually any religious 6-year-old why he believes in God, and you won’t get anything resembling rational, philosophical arguments. He accepts God because that is what his parents and minister have told him. This is faith, and this is Jesus’s ideal model.

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Why the Philosophy of Objectivism is Still Relevant and Needed in the Age of Modern Science

Barred spiral galaxy in space. Represents science and philosophy.Many people distrust abstract philosophical ideas and ideals. There are a couple of related reasons for this: 1) They hold that abstract ideas “oversimplify” reality, ensuring that they always fail to properly capture it, and 2) They think that abstract ideas outside of the natural sciences are generally faith-based dogma, or “armchair” speculation. (In either case, this means they think the ideas are put forward without sufficient supporting evidence.)

In regard to Number 1, I’d like to point out that all human concepts “simplify reality” in a sense: they all ignore differences between particular objects to focus on features common to a class of objects. For example, the concept “chair” refers to every particular chair you have ever encountered or will encounter. This means that it omits the countless differences between any two particular chairs. (Even if two chairs look identical at a macroscopic level, they almost certainly have countless differences at a microscopic level.) All other concepts function in a similar way: they ignore certain differences between things, for the sake of classifying them and integrating them into a single mental unit, represented by one word (“chair,” “dog,” etc.)

Yet the similarities that proper concepts such as “chair” capture are real and important, and it is not an oversimplification to say that all things called “chairs” (without qualification or modification) are made to allow someone to sit on them. Virtually no one accuses ideas about chairs of “oversimplifying reality”: Someone who speaks of chairs typically understands that he can always give more information about a particular chair by providing a description.

Classifying and simplifying reality by means of concepts is the human way of dealing with reality in thought, and it is very powerful, when done properly. Human beings have used the simplifying concepts of the natural sciences to cure diseases, increase food production per farmhand manyfold, extend the average human lifespan by over thirty years, build skyscrapers, and land on the moon. Furthermore, there is no reason to believe that simplifying concepts stop working at any level of abstraction (breadth of generalization) or at any level of complexity. The simple principles of Einstein’s relativity are highly abstract: they apply to all physical phenomena in the known universe, (when the scale under consideration is not too small) and to all the immense complexity of gravitational interactions between visible objects and light rays in galaxies. Continue reading

Why Definitions Must Be Justified by Evidence

An amazing Earth with rising sun and water. Philosophy tells us what we can know by reasoning about the origin of water.Are definitions a matter of arbitrary social convention?

Well let’s find out if it makes sense to say that they are. Let’s imagine that Adam’s culture defines “space pixie” as “one of the living creatures that has wings, and whose species is solely responsible for bringing water to Earth.”

If definitions are arbitrary matters of social convention, then Adam can reason like this:

  • Premise 1: If there is water on Earth, it was brought by space pixies.
  • Premise 2: There is water on Earth.
  • Conclusion 1: Therefore, (only) space pixies brought water to Earth.
  • Premise 3: All things that bring water must exist at the time it is brought.
  • Conclusion 2: Therefore, space pixies must have existed.

This argument is deductively valid: If the premises are true, then the conclusions must also be true.

Furthermore, this argument is sound (has true premises and is valid–irrefutably correct) given the stated definition of “space pixie.” If definitions are arbitrary cultural inventions, then Premise 1 is “analytic”–that is, it is true purely by definition: One need only examine the definition of “space pixie” to find that Premise 1 is true. Premise 2 is an empirical truth, obvious to anyone who observes Earth and holds the common definition of “water.” Premise 3 simply states an indubitable fact: that things that act in reality must also exist.

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A Critique of Kant on the Noumenal World / Phenomenal World Distinction (“Thing-in-Itself” vs “Appearance”)

Portrait of Immanuel Kant. The German philosopher and writer of the Critique of Pure Reason, whose philosophy is under discussion.

Immanuel Kant

Another reddit user with an interest in Ayn Rand and Objectivism, /u/Abstract_Atheist, posted a “Quick and Easy Refutation of the Noumenal Realm” on reddit. (The “noumenal realm” is commonly described to be Immanuel Kant’s term for the universe “as it is in itself,” apart from human perception. According to Kant, the human apparatus of perception renders the “things-in-themselves” as “appearances,” or roughly synonymously, as “phenomena.”)

Abstract_Atheist’s supposed refutation was to say that, for example, the noumenal realm is either yellow or non-yellow. If it is yellow, then one of our concepts applies to it, (“yellow.”) If it is not yellow, then one of our concepts still applies to it, (“non-yellow.”) In either case, a human concept applies to it, thus (supposedly) negating the noumenal realm’s defining status as outside human cognition.

I, however, do not consider this a good refutation for a reason I outline below. In this, I loosely agree with a comment made by another user (/u/drunkentune.)

My own refutation of Kant’s distinction between “appearance” and “thing-in-itself,” along with my defense of it against /u/wokeupabug, is the subject of my comments below. (I am Sword_of_Apollo):

Sword_of_Apollo:

/u/drunkentune has a point. Non-axiomatic concepts are contextual and can’t generally be said to divide all of existence between themselves and their antitheses. I make this point in my discussion of fairness and justice.

I think the real quick and easy refutation of the “noumenal realm” is a statement of the axioms:

1. Existence exists.

2. An existent is itself.

3. Consciousness perceives existence.

This last axiom directly eliminates any distinction between a “noumenal” and “phenomenal” realm. I discussed this with /u/ReallyNicole in a thread, here.

Also, as a side-note, have you listened to or read Understanding Objectivism and/or Objectivism Through Induction?

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Ontology and The Problem of Universals: An Objectivist Comments

shiny_red_applesAyn Rand is sometimes accused of misunderstanding the “Problem of Universals,” that philosophers such as Plato, Aristotle, Boethius and William of Ockham have dealt with for millennia.

The Problem of Universals consists of the question: To what do people refer when we use terms that can be applied to different particular things? For example the term “man” is applied not just to one entity, but to many entities that are each called a “man.” Another example is “spherical.” Many different things can be said to be “spherical.” An answer to the Problem of Universals will explain how this use of single terms for multiple different objects works.

In Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, (ITOE) Rand claims to have solved the ancient Problem of Universals. She describes in detail the process by which man forms generally applicable concepts from his perceptions of particulars in reality. Critics sometimes charge that Rand is giving us an epistemological theory when a solution to the Problem of Universals calls for an ontological theory. (Ontology, properly conceived, is the branch of metaphysics that deals with the most fundamental classification of existents; it is the study of “what there is,” metaphysically.)

But considering the Problem of Universals purely ontological, and thus considering Rand’s theory of concept formation irrelevant to it, improperly privileges variants of “Realism” (about universals) by treating the rejection of such abstract objects as sufficient to define a single theory (variously referred to as “Nominalism” or “Anti-Realism.”) The rejection of universals in external reality does not specify a positive theory of what universals are and how they are related to external reality. Much more explanation is required to do this, as evidenced by the various subcategories of Nominalism/Anti-Realism. In ITOE, Ayn Rand presents an alternative theory on the level of the variants of Anti-Realism in the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. (i.e. Predicate Nominalism, Resemblance Nominalism, Trope Nominalism and Conceptualism.)

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