Objectivism and Thomas Jefferson
2. Safety in Error
Entirely consistent with the idea of reason as an absolute is the idea that an error arrived at by your own efforts is better than truth accepted on the authority of another. If reason occupies a supreme position, then it becomes more important than the actual results obtained.
"An error made on your own is safer than the ten truths accepted on faith, because the first leaves you the means to correct it, but the second destroys your capacity to distinguish truth from error." -- Ayn Rand ("Atlas Shrugged")
Here, Rand is trying to make the point that we must actively use our rational mind and not merely acquiesce in the ideas of others. Even if you are wrong, at least your mind is actively engaged, provided you arrived at that wrong position with your own intellect. And if the mind is actively engaged, there is hope that it will continue being engaged and able to eradicate the error. On the other hand, he who merely accepts what others pour into his mind lacks the inner resources to detect falsehood and to break through error. A servile society breeds such passive minds. But a free society requires free, rational and active minds--citizens who can think and act for themselves and with discernment.
The only problem with this line of reasoning is it fails to recognize the true dynamics of human thinking. It is true that Rand specifies, "an error made on your own," and that she is not actually trying to justify error itself. But we must ask, when is an error not "made on your own"? Even if you accept the erroneous dogmas of a philosopher in whom you believe, is it not still your error? Did not your reason, however faulty and by whatever process and based on whatever faulty premises, tell you to adopt the error? Even the obsequious sycophant chooses through a rational process to be as he is, probably because it works for him.
The problem here, as in so much of Rand's teaching, is that these faults, these inadequacies of mind and character, are defined out of existence. These pronouncements apply only to "real" reasoning. Thus, instead of dealing with human attributes, we are dealing, again, with an idealized floating abstraction. Moreover, one miscalculation in reasoning does not destroy "your capacity to distinguish truth from error." This all-or-none kind of thinking is more at home with abstractions, not with reality. It is also typical of the closed, doctrinaire mind of the "true believer."
Jefferson, on the other hand, deals with human attributes as they exist in nature. He considers people as subject to faults and failings, and includes things as they are, not as we might wish them to be. Hence, he places truth above knowledge and reason, and sees no virtue in error:
"Ignorance is preferable to error, and he is less remote from the truth who believes nothing than he who believes what is wrong." --Thomas Jefferson: Notes on Virginia, 1782.
To Jefferson, results are more important than procedure; truth and reality, than the assertion of ego.
"It is always better to have no ideas than false ones; to believe nothing than to believe what is wrong." --Thomas Jefferson to Rev. James Madison, 1788.
But to Rand, the most essential thing is the assertion of the self: the fact that the mind is acting in accordance with what it considers a rational process: truth is less important than identity.
Notice in the Rand summary quoted above concerning reason as an absolute, there is no mention of Truth. To Jefferson, it is both reason and truth that are the guides, not reason alone, and certainly not reason that is not specifically in service to truth.
"I was bold in the pursuit of knowledge, never fearing to follow truth and reason to whatever results they led, and bearding every authority which stood in their way." --Thomas Jefferson To Thomas Cooper, 1814.
It is unimaginable that Jefferson would have written "never fearing to follow reason to whatever results it led..." Without truth as the primary object, reason is liable to lead almost anywhere.
"In all cases, follow truth as the only safe guide and eschew error which bewilders us in one false consequence after another in endless succession." --Thomas Jefferson to John Adams, 1819.
There is nothing good that can be said for error. And just because one arrives at it through one's own reason does not sanctify it. Nor does it in and of itself leave the person in error with any means to correct it, because a person is dislodged from error by information coming from outside the understanding that produced the error in the first place. Anyone who is in error needs to get outside his own thought processes, which are the cause of the error.
In this abstract, theoretical approach to thinking, what Rand is saying is, in effect, A person whose mind functions on its own, even if it sometimes results in error, is far superior to a mind that accepts all truth on faith. On a theoretical basis, one feels inclined to agree with that. The only problem with it is, no one's mind works in such a fashion, certainly not in all the workings of their mind. Moreover, there are some truths which one must accept on faith if one is incapable of thinking for oneself on the subject. As Jefferson wrote:
"I never submitted the whole system of my opinions to the creed of any party of men whatever, in religion, in philosophy, in politics, or in anything else, where I was capable of thinking for myself. Such an addiction is the last degradation of a free and moral agent. If I could not go to heaven but with a party, I would not go there at all." --Thomas Jefferson to Francis Hopkinson, 1789.
But this was limited to "where I was capable of thinking for myself." We must, at least tentatively, accept some things in fields where we lack the expertise to think for ourselves.
And is it really any easier to uproot an error held firmly than something accepted on faith? When one accepts an error, hasn't he in effect put faith in that error? Holding that an error on one's own is more acceptable than the truth taken on faith becomes more important than all else only when individual autonomy is an ideal above every other. And that, apparently, was Rand's aim. This kind of contrived self-esteem may have a great appeal to some persons in need of that kind of assurance, but is it really a path to discovery and maturity? Doesn't placing self-direction above truth-seeking only lead to self-deception, especially when, as Feynman suggests, that possibility is an ever-present danger? The possibility of self-deception is a primary consideration in every mind that investigates science and seeks to know truth. Is a person accepting truth on faith really any worse off than the person accepting his own arrived-at error? At least the person accepting the truth on faith need not identify with it as his own and may, for that reason, have a better chance of rejecting it in favor of truth. Surely, Jefferson would admonish us to "follow truth as the only safe guide," neither being content with error or blind faith.
To a genuine thinker, an open mind--a mind willing to consider all possibilities--even the possibility that you may be wrong--is the first requirement. But Rand does not think so.
"What objectivity and the study of philosophy requires is not an 'open mind,' but an active mind--a mind able and eagerly willing to examine ideas, but to examine them criticially." -- Ayn Rand, "Philosophical Detection," Philosophy: Who Needs It.
We should look at the hidden meanings here: NOT an open mind, but a mind that will examine ideas critically. Not a mind open to all possibilities, but a mind that will critically examine the ideas already within its grasp. This in itself is a huge limitation on the mind and the scope of its investigations. It is as much as saying that we should not expose ourselves to the universe of real possibilities, to that which contradicts the dogma we already embrace, but rather confine our attention to a critical examination of that dogma. This is totally adverse to the spirit of science and learning, and more akin to the closed mind of the dogmatist. Indeed, it is a prescription for precisely what it purports to oppose: a fixed mind, not open to genuinely new ideas.
And by what criteria shall those closely-held ideas be examined? By what system shall they be analyzed? Here is exposed the pitfall. We suspect that this closed attitude is the prelude to the belief that an examination conducted according to the theories of Ayn Rand is the path to the discovery of truth. But what we in fact have is a mind captured by theories, a mind turned in upon itself. Such a mind indeed can discover fallacies and detect an improper line of reasoning when presented with one. But it is not likely to discover knowledge outside what it already possesses, because it has deluded itself into thinking it has arrived at truth by the processes of pure thought divorced from the very avenues by which truth is discovered: the whole realm of existence and possibility. It is a prescription for followers, not for genuine thinkers. How can a mind be active in any constructive sense if it is not open? To examine ideas critically without an open mind is to short circuit the critical process itself.
Thus, the "supremacy of reason" is the final trap which fools a person into thinking he can and should give absolute trust to his reason. When we realize that reason can be used in support of any idea and any form of philosophy, we cast aside an absolute faith in reason itself and look with an open mind at contradictory evidence. For it is the open-minded examination of contradictory evidence, not the supremacy of reason, that is the path to discovery.
Creating categories that exclude unwanted information is not thinking but manipulation. Re-defining terms is a technique of propaganda, not of critical thought. We have seen this done in our time with the term "liberal." What was once a term of approbation is now one of condemnation. Redefining terms is a way of confusing an issue, and it is also a way of removing distinctions and thereby making two concepts, one acceptable and the other reprehensible, melded together under one large umbrella. Rand's most notorious use of this technique was with the concepts of selfishness and self-interest (see Part 3 of this series). By playing such word games, however, an argument is transferred from reason to propaganda, from the pursuit of truth to the attempt to decieve. It is not a technique for clear thinking, but one for muddying the issues and using reason and logic for biased purposes. It creates an intellectual House of Mirrors and leaves the devotee ever able to say, "But you don't understand the concept we are talking about."
A person interested in rational thinking is very careful about the terms they used. Rational argument is not about word games, but about clearly understood and analyzed concepts. Language is not for playing mental tricks or concealing hidden meaning, but for communicating. Whenever the mind systematizers play games with words, we can be sure they are trying to fool someone--and it usually includes themselves.
The Objectivist philosophy began in fiction, and thus from the first contained an element of the unreal. Unreal situations and outcomes, caricatures of people, exaggerations, imaginary hypotheticals, etc., were at the base of this "philosophy." Whereas other philosophers try to understand the very essence of life, Objectivism begins with products of the imagination (novels) as its building blocks and projects an idealized state. That it should reach unsound conclusions should not come as a surprise. Fiction writers have control over all inputs and outcomes in the stories they create. They can paint in black and white and make events turn out anyway they please. There is little other than the limits of gullibility that prevents them from creating a utopian world that owes little to the way people actually live.
"Reality, the external world, exists independent of man's consciousness, independent of any observer's knowledge, beliefs, feelings, desires or fears. This means that A is A, that facts are facts, that things are what they are--and that the task of man's consciousness is to perceive reality, not to create or invent it." --Ayn Rand
Of course reality exists independently of man's consciousness! Man's consciousness is merely a perceiving mechanism. But the problem for each individual is not in that simplistic fact, but in actually cutting through the biases and prejudices every individual is subject to and in accurately perceiving that reality. It is the latter operation, not the simplistic statement of the obvious, that is the difficult task of philosophy. The perception of reality is not a simple-minded matter of choice. The difficulty involved in not creating or inventing a false reality of the mind requires supreme effort, not the simple realizing that "reality exists" and opting not to "create or invent it." Those who create and invent it are not themselves aware that they are doing so--something the naive seem always to overlook. The proper attitude of mind in the face of reality is not one of arrogance, but of humility: a willingness to bow before reality and to cast aside one's own faulty, distorted, biased perception of it and to seek always for the truth that reality presents, but that we all to often refuse to see.
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