The nice thing about the Randroid Belt — that ring of debris comprising Web sites and their regular contributors revolving around the central sun of Ayn Rand in a decaying orbit — is that it's mainly empty space with little or no gravity holding anything (such as an argument) together.
Bad for them. Good for us. We take a running-jump, spread our arms, and soar into the vacuum of inter-Randroid space until we land on a smallish, rockyish, uglyish piece of Randroid Real Estate calling itself "SOLO", an acronym for Sense Of Life Objectivists.
We have been here before and know the terrain well.
A recent visitor to SOLO named Tom Burroughes left the following post (a response to a paper by Stephen Parrish from 2008 in the Journal of Ayn Rand Studies available as a free PDF download here), causing major out-gassings from the bowels of the Randroid interior:
"I have more thoughts on how Stephen Parrish, a US-based academic who holds religious views, has criticised Objectivism and its treatment of religion.
[The following] paragraph struck me that when you are debating with someone who believes in a God …that it is a waste of time beyond a certain point. I suddenly realised that Parrish, though no doubt clever, . . . "
LOL! Dear readers, I have been around the Randroid Belt long enough to know that when a self-styled Randroid asserts that someone on the intellectual opposition is "clever," it means nothing more than (1) the Randroid did not grasp his opponent's arguments, or (2) the Randroid did grasp his opponent's arguments and was completely stymied by them. Judging by the overall excellence of Mr. Parrish's arguments in the above downloadable PDF, and the general floundering by Mr. Burroughes in his response, I would say that the latter simply cannot answer the former.
It's as simple as that.
(As an example of another typical psychological reaction on the part of Objectivists when debating or discussion something with them, consider this: within recent memory, I posted to SOLO a 1-question quiz on some very basic music notation challenging one of the Randroid regulars there to prove his musical knowledge by answering the single question correctly. After failing to do so, he asserted that the question itself must have had a "trick", i.e., he was apparently suggesting that I had fooled him into answering a question incorrectly by posing a question the answer to which he simply didn't know.
I'll point out that this sort of thing is typical of Objectivists and other sundry Randroids; i.e., if they don't grasp something, or if they are mistaken in their grasp, or if they grasp something and it's quite apparent to them that it conflicts with Objectivism, they claim they have been tricked — that is, their opponent had a dishonest intent and committed intellectual fraud — which is a defense mechanism ideally suited to not doing what their own philosophy commands them to do, which is to check their premises. It never occurs to a Randroid that the process of checking one's own premises might lead to having to abandon some article of faith regarding Objectivism itself.)
Mr. Burroughes continues:
"[Parrish] is also making some bizarre points and surely reinforces my own jaundiced views of how some people frame arguments for religion:
"Also, physical reality can in fact sometimes be caused to exist in a certain manner by consciousness. For example, I consciously chose to be here typing on my computer rather than staying in bed, and this makes the physical world a somewhat different place than it otherwise would have been. The only way to deny this is to say that consciousness has no effect on physical reality, and is thus epiphenomenal. I don’t think this is what Objectivists really want to say; they agree that man’s mind can affect the physical environment. Of course the way that we cause things is quite different from God’s creating the universe; but again God is a quite different, and much greater, being than we are."
Huh? How is the world "a different place?" by Mr Parrish moving from his bedroom to his office other than that he has moved from A to B as a result of deciding to do so?
That's exactly what Parrish means by "different"; no more, no less. He didn't say "better"; he didn't say "worse." The world becomes different when the arrangement of elements changes to some other arrangement . . . I believe that's what the 2nd law of thermodynamics is all about: the world constantly changes as its elements move from arrangements of low probability (order, structure) to arrangements of high probability (disorder, undifferentiated uniformity).
Parrish is not trying to make a profound scientific point; just an obvious metaphysical one: one of the things consciousness can do in addition to merely observing reality is, by means of a property of consciousness called "will", it can move itself, and the physical entity that accompanies it, from Room A to Room B. That's a configurational change in the universe, if only a very small one.
The point surely is that we apprehend the world,
Parrish doesn't deny that one of the things consciousness can do is "apprehend".
and our minds forms conclusions,Parrish doesn't deny that one of the things consciousness can do is "form conclusions."
and we act to achieve a certain goal (go to the office, call a friend, launch an IPO, etc).
Parrish doesn't deny that we can act to achieve a certain goal. Burroughes denies, however, that we can act by means of our conscious will without having the desire or need to "achieve" any goal. We might simply be pacing our home aimlessly to kill time while we wait for a family member to undergo surgery. And while Burroughes might object that by claiming that, ergo, our goal is to kill time, the point is, no goal was set to "go to the office" or "go to the living room"; we simply walked, and our immediate goal was more likely "don't bump into a wall or a door", and we simply found ourselves in the living room at one moment and the office the next. The point here is that, even aimless following of one's conscious will leads to the arrangement of elements being different at one time from another.
A simple point that is apparently lost on Burroughes entirely.
And of course this changes physical reality in that sense. That is true, but also uncontroversial and as Parrish acknowledges, no-one would contest that.
But Parrish's point is that even such an uncontroversial and uncontested act flies in the face of the officially held view by Objectivism on consciousness, which is that (1) it observes only, and (2) it is therefore incapable of effecting change in physical reality.
All the while, we hope to meet our goals by treating reality as it is, not as we would want it to be. That is the vital point. For instance, if I decide to float a company on the stock exchange and ignore the prevailing state of the market or the rules governing it, disaster follows.
Burroughes appears to be speaking of entrepreneurship here. Entrepreneurs need very little information, if any, about the "prevailing state of the market", because everything an entrepreneur does (or more precisely in Misesian terms: everything the entrepreneurial function does) is geared toward the FUTURE STATE OF AFFAIRS, OR FUTURE STATE OF THE MARKET, NOT THE "PREVAILING STATE" OR THE PAST STATE. The "prevailing" state of the market is the result of past value scales and exchanges. There's no profit — no potential entrepreneurial profit — in exploiting that because there's nothing to exploit.
Entrepreneurs have certain expectations regarding the future that others just don't see, or don't feel, or don't channel. However one wishes to put it. If it were only a matter of reading the "prevailing" state of the market, there would be lots and lots of highly successful entrepreneurs, since we're all privy to more or less the same amount and the same quality of information. That successful entrepreneurship requires a kind of clairvoyance regarding an expected future state of the market shows why there are so few really successful entrepreneurs; why the failure rate is so high for entrepreneurs; why the rewards are so great for the successful ones; and why it's a kind of talent, and cannot really be taught (despite many university courses claiming to do so).
If Mr. Five-by-Five, Porky Perigo — a sort of Jabba-the-Hut of Objectivism — left my blog up on SOLO, Burroughes will see a link to an old lecture by economist Israel Kirzner on entrepreneurship that he gave at FEE (Foundation for Economic Education) sometime in the 1980s. It's worth watching.
Burroughes stumbles on:
Of course, as he acknowledges, Rand and others glory in how people change the world by re-arranging the stuff of nature to suit their purposes, by constructing buildings or machines, farming the Earth, writing computer software, sequencing the human genome, or whatever. But in order to do this successfully to meet human aims, people must observe the old adage that "nature, to be mastered, must also be obeyed". If a blacksmith, say, wants to create a metal part by the use of fire, then he has to understand that fire is going to burn his hand off unless he takes precautions regardless of whether might subjectively prefer that it does not. That is what Rand means when she says "existence exits". If we ignore the real world because it does not fit our desires, our desires will lead us eventually to existential disaster. That is what Rand and others mean when they assert the primacy of existence. She is not denying that humans can effect change in the world when they use their minds.
It is one thing to say that we can use our minds to help us change the stuff of nature in a certain way, but it would be quite another to suggest that we can do so by changing, say, the physical laws that govern the world.
According to Mr Parrish, gods are able to do this (indeed, this is a definition of a miracle, like Christ being able to walk on water or convert water into wine).
According to Mr. Parrish, there is no logical necessity to the laws of physics because to think them different from what they are entails no logical contradiction. He's right. That immediately suggests the question of why, then, the laws of physics happen to be what they are when there's no restriction on them being something else.
Here's just one example:
Carbon is formed from the nuclear reactions inside of stars — carbon-based life IS composed of "star-stuff" — but to get from helium to carbon requires many unstable steps, so it's unlikely that the same sort of synthesis that formed, e.g., helium out of hydrogen would just keep on going until an element like carbon appeared. Astrophysicist Sir Fred Hoyle realized that the only way, realistically, for carbon to form inside a star would be if 3 helium nuclei simultaneously fused together. That, however, would be an extremely unlikely collision, yet we know that stars, in fact, do produce carbon. If Hoyle was right about the triple fusion, how could such an unlikely event happen inside of stars routinely? Building on work by earlier scientists, Hoyle discovered that the natural vibration rate of atoms — nuclear resonance, similar to the acoustic resonance of vibrating string instruments — greatly lowers the improbability of this occurrence.
Basically, the process is like this:
Two helium nuclei undergo fusion. This occurs because of a "sympathetic vibration" or nuclear resonance between the two helium nuclei.
The element that is formed from 2 helium nuclei is called "beryllium", which is an element that also exists here on Earth, but with an important difference: terrestrial beryllium has an extra neutron that makes it stable. Stellar beryllium does not have this additional neutron and is so highly unstable that it self-destructs in 0.000000000000001 (one-quadrillionth) of a second. In order for carbon to form, a 3rd helium nucleus would have to fuse with beryllium within that 1-quadrillionth of a second.
The way this occurs is by means of a second resonance, this time between the unstable beryllium and a 3rd helium atom. The resonance between unstable beryllium and free helium is of just the right frequency to allow the 3rd helium atom to fuse with the beryllium, forming carbon . . . the basis of life.
A few years later, it was discovered that another important element for life was also created by means of an unlikely resonance among nuclei: oxygen.
Sir Fred Hoyle had always considered himself an atheist and a materialist. Nevertheless, he was so impressed by this discovery of two different harmonic resonances among 3 atoms that just happen to allow the creation of an essential element of life (i.e., carbon) that he wrote the following:
If you wanted to produce carbon and oxygen in roughly equal quantities by stellar nucleosynthesis, these are the two levels you would have to fix, and your fixing would have to be just about where these levels are actually found to be… A commonsense interpretation of the facts suggests that a super intellect has monkeyed with physics, as well as chemistry and biology, and that there are no blind forces worth speaking about in nature. The numbers one calculates from the facts seem to me so overwhelming as to put this conclusion almost beyond question.I do not believe that any scientist who examined the evidence would fail to draw the inference that the laws of nuclear physics have been deliberately designed with regard to the consequences they produce inside the stars.
One of those consequences, by the way, is life.
The cause of nuclear resonance, by the way, is something called the "Strong Force," the fundamental forces holding protons and neutrons together, and one of the 4 fundamental forces in the universe.
If the Strong Force were just a bit stronger, or just a bit weaker, the necessary resonance between helium-helium and beryllium-helium would not exist and therefore neither would carbon. If carbon didn't exist, life would not exist.
Randroids remain stolidly phlegmatic on hearing things like this, and their usual response is to yawn and say "So? Existence exists. And if it didn't, we wouldn't be here to ask questions about it."
The mystery of physical constants being what they are — yet not by any any sort of necessity — might be illustrated this way:
A violin has 4 strings, tuned in perfect 5ths to E, A, D, G. The wooden pegs used for stretching, or tuning, the strings, do not have "stops", "catches," or ratchets on them; the pegs stay in their holes simply by friction, so they can be turned any amount, more taut or less taut. The traditional tuning for playing western classical music — E, A, D, G — is a highly improbable arrangement of the tuning pegs. If you came across a violin in some uninhabited woods, and after carbon-dating it, concluded that it was many, many hundreds of years old, if the strings were, astonishingly, tuned to perfect 5ths of E, A, D, G, would you really conclude that such tuning "Is what it is" and was simply the product of chance? True, a tuning of E, A, D, G, is mathematically as unlikely as any other tuning; but no other tuning allows the same ease of playing everything from Bach to Prokofiev, so wouldn't the intervals of perfect fifths not only be improbable mathematically speaking, but surprising, given that they allow so many other things to occur? And wouldn't such surprise entail a prima facie argument against the idea that such perfectly tuned intervals were products of chance, or the inherent physical properties of strings and wood?
I think so. And what is true of the surprise we would experience at finding such a tuning on a violin is the same sort of surprise we would — and should — experience at finding a similar kind of tuning among helium and beryllium nuclei.