It’s not surprising that many techies like Ayn Rand. There is a minimalist clarity to her ethical philosophy, a primal unity of method and structure, that may remind an Objectivist of the intellectual foundation of a great operating system.
I often disagree with my Objectivist friend John from Oklahoma City, but he and I share a common frame of reference because we’re both networking professionals: he runs his own firm, and I’m a software consultant. (I’m not an Objectivist, of course, but I am an anti-Objectivist, which means I spend a lot of time thinking about the same problems that Objectivists think about.)
I recently received an insightful email from another reader of my book Why Ayn Rand is Wrong (and Why It Matters), Tommaso Delfanti, a race car engineer from Italy. He contacted me to share his thoughts on the effectiveness of my arguments in this book. He also mentioned that he’d become interested in Ayn Rand’s philosophy after playing the game Bioshock, which portrays a dystopian world in which Randian heroes (both good and corrupt, including a quasi-Randian figure named Andrew Ryan) compete with various enemies for primacy in their violent world.
Tommaso does not generally agree with Rand’s philosophy of extreme individualism, he told me, but had been reading about her since getting into Bioshock and was looking for a comprehensive critique of her philosophical system. He bought my book to see if I had an effective rejoinder to Ayn Rand, and his conclusion after reading the book is that Rand and I are tied, “1-1”.
Given his interest in video games, Tommaso took a special interest in the third of three arguments I present in the book to support the idea that individual selfishness is not a basic psychological fact of life. All three of these arguments examine ways in which the “self” is commonly and accurately understood to be something other than an individual solitary person. I described simulation computer games like SimCity in which not only individuals but groupings of various types and sizes — families, businesses, neighborhoods, political parties — are represented in behavior models as intentional beings. To make a simulated society work, I argued, it is necessary to realize that ethical actors are not only individual selves. Group “selves” also act with intention, and so an ethical system like Ayn Rand’s that only considers individual-level ethics will never be a realistic model for human life.
I call this a functional argument, because I intend to show that no software simulation of society could accurately reproduce normal human behavior without attributing intentional attributes — selfish or self-oriented behavior patterns — to groups. If a software model based only on individual selfhood wouldn’t function correctly, that indicates that the model is flawed. I presented the example of the battle of Gettysburg in the American Civil War in 1863, when General Pickett’s divisions walked bravely towards certain disaster and, as a whole, showed no fear. But it’s impossible to imagine that many individual soldiers in Pickett’s division did not feel extreme fear, even as their column moved steadily and smoothly forward. This behavior can only be modeled as an example of a group mind, behaving according to rules that are not grounded in the sum total of the individual minds within the group. I think this is a compelling argument, but Tommaso has objections:
If I did not mistake your argument, in Chapter Three your inference is this:
The simulation (of a town with 1000 citizens or of the army of the Gettysburg) requires the definition of group-level attributes (that are not the result of the combined individual-level attributes) to work.
Let’s take as example the simulation of bending of a steel bar under load. I can do it with a simple model, that is, a differential equation, and get a correct result. But I can also do it with a finite element analysis, and get the same correct result. Of course the calculating cost of the FEA is much higher than the resolution of the DE, and until some years ago it was impossible to resolve the FEA. But this is not a proof (and was not a proof 50 years ago, when FEA was impossible) that the bending of the steel bar is caused by anything else the behavior of the single atoms of the metal.
The fact that a model is “inefficient” does not implies that it is “wrong”.
You can use some “group-level” attributes to make the simulation simpler to run and reduce the computing required, and get good results if the premises are good (if the “group-level” attributes describe well the behavior of the group), but this is one more level of abstraction and of simulation. But if you model properly the individual, and compute not just their “individual-level” attributes, but also the interaction between individuals, I think you will get the correct result.
Each soldier in Major General George Pickett’s division must have felt fear on July 3, 1863. But his division as a whole showed no fear. Why? Maybe because a good number of soldiers, as individuals, realized that they had no other choice than to fight, or liked more the idea of trying a desperate action rather than falling prisoners of the enemy, and the other soldiers, as individuals, decided that the best they could do was to follow their comrades, or that mutiny was worse than death; maybe Major General George Pickett, as a single individual, was such a charismatic and persuasive man that he was able to turn the selfish egos of each soldier in the same direction.
As you correctly stated, “We egoists and non-egoists may never be able to settle our dispute on purely logical or theoretical grounds”. At the moment, I am still searching for a better inference. But since some years I am trying to walk on the path of reason, and your book, as Ayn Rand and Luigi Giussani ones, show me that I am in very good company. Actually, I can not say that I have found a defined position. I find many good things, and some bad things, in both. I think there should be a “middle position”.
Even though Tommaso is objecting to my argument, I find his response validating, because it’s clear that he understands my own argument perfectly, and the hardest task of a philosophical writer is often not to compel others to agree with him but simply to be understood. So I am not discouraged to hear that this argument has left my Italian correspondent only halfway convinced, and I think his objection can easily provide it’s own answer.
Tommaso is correct that I can’t prove that the simpler and more elegant explanation for the behavior of virtual citizens in a simulated city or of soldiers in an advancing army is truer than a more complex or tortuous explanation. But who ever said that proof is necessary? As an engineer, Tommaso must know that the simpler and more elegant explanation is probably the better one, just as a differential equation will probably produce better results than finite element analysis.
In my philosophical debate with the Ayn Rand/Objectivist community, which has been going on nearly a year now, I am perfectly happy to rest on “probably”. Indeed, it’s the best victory I can hope for, because I’m sure that positive certainty doesn’t exist in ethical philosophy. What I object to most directly within the Ayn Rand worldview is the Objectivist’s smug presumption of certainty. If I can only prove my counter-explanation for human behavior to be possible and reasonable, then I have smashed the screen of Objectivist certainty.
When I look at the screens for the Bioshock video game, I’m reminded of my own world — our world, the world we share together. What are the rules and principles that enable us to live together? Whatever these rules and principles are, they appear to be broken. I’m not going to waste my time trying to prove my ethical formulations mathematically or logically (as Randians believe they have done). Instead I’m going to use my intuition and common sense and try to find the answers that fit the questions best. It’s what any skilled engineer would do.