Merry Christmas, Happy Natalis Invicti, Happy Saturnalia!

“The charming aspect of Christmas is the fact that it expresses good will in a cheerful, happy, benevolent, non-sacrificial way. One says: “Merry Christmas”—not “Weep and Repent.” And the good will is expressed in a material, earthly form—by giving presents to one’s friends, or by sending them cards in token of remembrance….”

Ayn Rand

Human Emotions are the Products of Beliefs and Subconscious Value Judgments

The Virtue of SelfishnessIn The Virtue of Selfishness, Ayn Rand wrote,

Just as the pleasure-pain mechanism of man’s body is an automatic indicator of his body’s welfare or injury, a barometer of its basic alternative, life or death—so the emotional mechanism of man’s consciousness is geared to perform the same function, as a barometer that registers the same alternative by means of two basic emotions: joy or suffering. Emotions are the automatic results of man’s value judgments integrated by his subconscious; emotions are estimates of that which furthers man’s values or threatens them, that which is for him or against him—lightning calculators giving him the sum of his profit or loss.

But while the standard of value operating the physical pleasure-pain mechanism of man’s body is automatic and innate, determined by the nature of his body—the standard of value operating his emotional mechanism, is not. Since man has no automatic knowledge, he can have no automatic values; since he has no innate ideas, he can have no innate value judgments.

Man is born with an emotional mechanism, just as he is born with a cognitive mechanism; but, at birth, both are “tabula rasa.” [“blank slate”] It is man’s cognitive faculty, his mind, that determines the content of both. Man’s emotional mechanism is like an electronic computer, which his mind has to program—and the programming consists of the values his mind chooses.

But since the work of man’s mind is not automatic, his values, like all his premises, are the product either of his thinking or of his evasions: man chooses his values by a conscious process of thought—or accepts them by default, by subconscious associations, on faith, on someone’s authority, by some form of social osmosis or blind imitation. Emotions are produced by man’s premises, held consciously or subconsciously, explicitly or implicitly.

Man has no choice about his capacity to feel that something is good for him or evil, but what he will consider good or evil, what will give him joy or pain, what he will love or hate, desire or fear, depends on his standard of value. If he chooses irrational values, he switches his emotional mechanism from the role of his guardian to the role of his destroyer. The irrational is the impossible; it is that which contradicts the facts of reality; facts cannot be altered by a wish, but they can destroy the wisher.

Here Miss Rand is referring to the specifically human form of emotion. But let’s start with the most basic form in which emotions manifest: in non-human animals.

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A Facebook Debate on the Right to Abortion

The following exchange is taken from the comments on a post on the Objectivism for Intellectuals Facebook page. Rather than using the name of my interlocutor here, I will refer to her as “Her.” Irrelevant portions of the debate have been omitted.

Her:  So, being against abortion is irrational? I had no idea murder was a faith-only immorality.

Me:  It’s not murder if an embryo or fetus doesn’t have rights as an actual, independent human being. The religious “basis” for considering embryos to have rights is that they have already received a “soul.” This “soul” is a mystical construct with no basis in reality. There is no rational basis for a soul that can be separated from a developed and functioning brain. The mother is an actual, independent human with rights. The embryo is not.  Continue reading

The Bible (New Testament) as Evidence

It should not take a professional historian to know that the Gospels are inadequate as evidence for their miraculous/bizarre claims, just as it should not take a legal scholar to observe that the claim of a trial witness, that the defendant resurrected a corpse, needs corroboration by physical evidence.

When we weigh evidence for a claim, the physical evidence that is closest to our first-hand experience should be given the greatest weight. Physical evidence further removed from our experience (say, a photograph in an old book, or a digital photo that could have been altered) should be given a somewhat lesser weight. The testimony–without immediate physical evidence–of a well known and trusted friend should initially be given moderately high weight. The testimony–without immediate physical evidence–of a stranger should be given a low weight. The testimony–without immediate physical evidence–of a known liar should be given no weight. Claims that produce no further evidence when reasonably investigated should be dismissed as baseless. (A large amount of mutually consistent evidence that is far removed from one’s first-hand experience can still be properly convincing.) Continue reading