Friday, May 29, 2009

Thesis: Ayn Rand, Post-Modern Heroine part I

I recently received a copy of The Gonzaga Historian, Gonzaga's (hopefully) biannual history journal. Included in it is my senior thesis in history, titled "Ayn Rand: Post-Modern Heroine" subtitled "Rescuing modernity from itself." I reread it over the past couple of days, and found that I still like it, for the most part. I'll cut-and-paste it over the next couple of days, and then comment on what I wrote. Comments from the peanut gallery are more than welcome!

Part I, Introduction

Ayn Rand is one of the most polarizing figures in the 20th century, in any discipline. Many hated her for a particular aspect of her or her philosophy; her unwavering belief in Capitalism, her atheism, her individualism, her feminism (or lack thereof), or her uncompromising and combative personality. Ayn Rand, who was strongly and fundamentally a moral absolutist, was painted by Whittaker Chambers in a National Review article as a moral relativist: “From almost any page of Atlas Shrugged, a voice can be heard, from painful necessity, commanding: ‘To a gas chamber — go!’”[1] He also denounced her for her strict materialism; but her condemnation of materialism was loud and clear in Atlas Shrugged. While Whittaker Chambers was a Quaker and had legitimate reasons to dislike the book, he clearly had not read it. Accusations such as these plague Rand and prevent her acceptance into academic canon; the literary establishment considers her a philosopher, and the philosophy establishment considers her a novelist. While Rand cared little about academia’s evasion of her, her work merits inclusion within today’s discourse.

Ayn Rand was born Alyssa Rosenbaum in St. Petersburg, Czarist Russia, in 1905. Her parents were relatively successful small business-entrepreneurs, who lost everything when the Soviets took over. Even before this event, Rand was fiercely individualist and anti-collectivist. She escaped to the United States in 1926 and never returned to the USSR. Though her philosophy is unique, she did not formulate it in a vacuum; she is part of a greater reclamation of premodern ethical and philosophical foundations, and while she admires the material gains which society has made, she loathes modern philosophers. A truly complete analysis of her work requires that the context of her philosophy be examined, her relation to the modern, the postmodern, and the critics of both. The modernism-postmodernism divide shows that a philosophical critique like Ayn Rand’s was inevitable and necessary.

[1] Whittaker Chambers, “Big Sister is Watching You,” National Review, December 28, 1957.


Whittaker Chambers's article is linked here. Just to note again, there are a lot of things not to like about Ayn Rand's philosophy, and a lot of things not to like about Atlas Shrugged, but in the article Chambers sounds like he heard about the book second-hand and didn't bother to read it himself. He is correct in that Atlas Shrugged reads like a "War between the Children of Light and the Children of Darkness" but that's really the point of the book, and of her entire view on how fiction should read. She's a Romantic - she wants to create the best of all possible people who embody all of her virtues. The characters do struggle with real life issues, it's not like her protagonists are all supermen (of course, their struggles generally come from their interaction with the antagonists, or from them not embracing completely what Rand views as virtue). But not a small amount of fiction is based on a good vs an evil, so it's silly to criticize her for that. He also criticizes her for being 'eugenic,' since all of her characters are good-looking. Not only that, he later goes on to call her both Nieztchien and Marxist.

So if all you knew of Rand was Chambers's book review of Atlas Shrugged, you would get the impression that she was a Materialist, Nihilist Statist. Which is about as far from the truth as you can get.

I'm not sure how much I like this as an introduction; it does start off introducing Rand, which is good, but I'm not sure that this was the right point to include Chambers's dissent, before expounding her philosophy more. On the other hand, it kind of transitions into my next section, which is all about defining the Modern and Postmodern.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Thoughts from the last post

First off, I'm still not convinced that the Ontological argument for God's existence has any value. If we're claiming that God is the perfect entity in all respects, we must presuppose that there exists an objective perfection. The way most people argue for objective values is through God, therefore we would have to define perfection as determined by God, who determines perfection. Basically:
"Perfection is that which is Godly"
"God is that which is Perfect"
In a vacuum, I don't have any problem with either of those claims; I just have a problem with using them to prove the existence of God. Otherwise, what we determine as perfect is subjective, and the claim that existence is a necessary component of perfection isn't necessarily true.

Another thought on the Teleological argument, which I think Vlach mentions - it assumes that the world is so complex that it must have been created and designed. God, in creating the universe, must also be complex. By the same argument, then, God must also be created. and whatever created God must have been created, etc.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

4 Arguments for God's Existence


1: Cosmological Argument
 "The cosmological argument for God’s existence goes like this: The world could not exist on its own so there must have been a first cause that brought it into being. This first cause is God. Or put another way, the universe could not just exist on its own—someone or something must have made it. This cause of the universe is God."

If you assume a first cause, then the concept of God or a creator isn't very farfetched. My worldview is one that Vlach (the author of the article) mentions that can contradict this: that matter is eternal. If we assume an expanding universe, then we can hypothesize an origin - the Big Bang, for instance. I also believe that the universe is expanding continuously slower, due to the forces of gravity. Eventually, this will result in the expanding coming to a stop - and eventually the universe will contract, and eventually all matter will be pulled into a single point - from which, due to all the energy of all matter coming together at the same point, could result in another 'big bang.' 

In a nutshell, this is why I, personally, reject the cosmological argument - because the universe need not originate from anywhere or anything, if it is eternal.

2: Teleological argument
"The teleological argument is also known as “the argument from design” (The Greek word “telos” means “purpose” or “design.”). The argument goes like this: The universe evidences great complexity or design; thus, it must have been designed by a great Designer or God.

The argument from design can be likened to a watch. A watch is obviously made by a watchmaker. The world, which is much more complex than a watch, must also have been designed by a great Designer or Divine Watchmaker (God).

In sum, the teleological argument asserts that the universe evidences too much complexity to be the product of random chance. We know that the celestial bodies move with perfect accuracy in their orbits. Our bodies, too, are incredibly complex. According to the teleological argument, there’s just no way all this complexity could “just happen.” God must have created it all."

I just simply don't believe that the universe is so complex that it must have been created.

3: Ontological Argument

"The third argument for God’s existence is the ontological argument. This argument is unlike the cosmological and teleological arguments in that it does not argue from evidence in the natural world. Thus, it is not a “cause and effect” argument.

The ontological argument can be stated in this way: “God is the greatest being imaginable. One of the aspects of perfection or greatness is existence. Thus, God exists.” Or put another way—“The fact that God can be conceived means that he must exist.”

This argument for God’s existence was developed by the twelfth century theologian and philosopher, Anselm. It is based on Anselm’s declaration that God is “that which nothing greater can be conceived.”"

This is the weakest argument of the four, by far, because it just begs the question: If something can be conceived, it must not necessarily exist. If you imagine perfection, and one of the aspects of perfection is existence, the leap between imagining perfection and stating that perfection exists is very unreasonable.

4: Moral Law Argument

"Another argument for the existence of God is the moral law argument. It goes like this: Without God morality would be impossible. There must be a Lawgiver (God) who originates and stands by moral law. A universal moral law cannot exist accidentally. There must be a basis behind it—God.

According to this view, every person is born with an inherent understanding of right and wrong. Everyone, for instance, understands that killing an innocent person is wrong. Everyone understands that helping a drowning person is right. Where did this internal understanding of right and wrong come from? According to adherents of the moral law argument, this understanding comes from God. He put it into the hearts of every person."

Vlach goes on to mention that there are two reactions to this - relatavism, or that objective good/evil does not exist, and that if God is all good, then why would there be evil in the world?

Of course, then, there is Rand's argument, that there does exist an objective good/evil inherent in human nature, but it is not from any external means. She claims that good is that which enables humans to flourish, and it is not relative from culture to culture or person to person. As Drew mentioned to me once, it seems that there must have been a "fall" at some point, for if everyone, acting in their own rational self interest was creating the best possible society, why would anyone act against this?

Still, to me, this argument seems to carry the most water, but the argument "Objective good/evil therefore God" hasn't won me over yet.

Vlach ends, most helpfully, with:

"It should be noted that most Christian theologians and philosophers believe that God never intended for his existence to be something that could be proven with 100% certainty. They point out that faith is an important component in understanding God and his existence."


Sunday, May 3, 2009

Some Quizzes


Belief O-Matic

1. Secular Humanism (100%)
2. Unitarian Universalism (95%)
3. Liberal Quakers (80%)
4. Nontheist (77%)
5. Theravada Buddhism (74%)
6. Mainline to Liberal Christian Protestants (70%)
7. Neo-Pagan (70%)
8. Reform Judaism (57%)
9. New Age (52%)
10. Orthodox Quaker (44%)
11. Mahayana Buddhism (44%)
12. Scientology (44%)
13. Taoism (44%)
14. Sikhism (40%)
15. New Thought (40%)
16. Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (Mormons) (38%)
17. Christian Science (Church of Christ, Scientist) (35%)
18. Seventh Day Adventist (33%)
19. Baha'i Faith (32%)
20. Hinduism (32%)
21. Mainline to Conservative Christian/Protestant (32%)
22. Jainism (30%)
23. Islam (29%)
24. Orthodox Judaism (29%)
25. Jehovah's Witness (25%)
26. Eastern Orthodox (23%)
27. Roman Catholic (23%)

And of course, The Political Compass. I've been taking it since high school. I've moved from about 0, -2 to 8, -5.5.

Actually, from my livejournal:
11 July 2003
Your political compass
Economic Left/Right: 4.25
Authoritarian/Libertarian: -2.67

19 April 2003
Economic Left/Right: -2.38
Authoritarian/Libertarian: -3.13

Apparently sometime between April-July 2003 I took a hard right.