Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Objectivist Questions About Rights and Religion (Part I)

Every now and then, I get comments that contain some very thoughtful questions from a reader. These are questions that require a lot of thought and writing, and sometimes they even cause me to revise my own thinking. Such challenging questions are a pleasure to answer for several reasons. One is that I truly enjoy metacognition which is the process of thinking about my own thinking. Another is that I get the sense that I have found a kindred spirit, someone who really understands where my thinking is going, and does so even before I get there.

In the Buddhist tradition there is a saying: When the student is ready, the teacher appears.
This post is one of those metacognitive exercises based on two questions posed by C. August, an Objectivist. His blog is Titanic Deck Chairs and he also blogs at The Rule of Reason. I read it at least once a week, as it is usually part of the Objectivist Round-up. He began his first question with a compliment about my blog:

"I stop by your blog once in awhile, often when RationalJenn links to it, and am always struck by your eloquence, the depth of your thought and how you dig into ideas and explore them, and, inevitably for me, the contradictions between your ideas as espoused in this post, and what I presume to be your faith."

Now, a compliment from an Objectivist, especially about one's thinking, is never idle and never intended to flatter. I am therefore honored by the compliment. The last clause above then gets straight to the point and prefaces C. August's first question. However, before I attempt to answer it, I wish to clarify the position from which I answer.

I am not a philosopher. Although I have had some formal training in philosophy (six credit hours at the undergraduate level and three at the graduate level) and in logic (three credit hours), my primary approach to the world is as a scientist. This is a very important distinction because philosophers tend to build their arguments from axioms, from which they develop premises, and they make make inferences, but the result is a grand system of thought. A scientist on the other hand, tends to muck about in the physical universe, asking questions which are answered by way of the scientific method. Scientists develop hypotheses from observations of the actual workings of reality and then test those hypotheses and we require measurable results. Whereas a philosopher must probe the nature of reality, scientists begin with the assumption that reality is real. It is the philosophers of science that get down to the business of probing into how scientists think about their science. Most working scientists operate within the dominant paradigm of their disciplines, busy with the job of testing those ideas against the workings of the physical world. Science limits itself to probing questions about the physical world that can be answered by measurement and observation of its workings. In the world of modern philosophy, science is a red-headed step-child, divorced from its philosophical underpinning because most academic philosophers hold theories of knowledge that start with the idea that reality is not what it appears to be. Science cannot function with integrity within such a context.*

*IMHO as a scientist, this is the main problem with the pseudoscientific claims and extra-scientific claims being used for political purposes these days.

I make the above point to stress that although I may use philosophical terms in my response, I use them with the understanding of an interested layman and not as an academic philosopher. I am much more comfortable using the terminology of science and I use such terminology as a professional and academic in my fields. These caveats are further complicated by the fact that C. August's question delves into my adherence to the religion of Judaism, and although I am a well-educated Jew, and in a very important sense Judaism is my life's work, I am neither a professional Jew nor do I have a formal academic degree related to it.


". . . [Y]ou refer to the natural rights of man, upon which most of your arguments in the post lie. What, ultimately, do you think is the source of those rights?
To frame the question, assuming it's one of the two, do you subscribe to the Lockean notion of rights from god? Or Rand's idea of rights as derived from the metaphysical nature of man as a rational animal, and the requirements of a being who lives by the free reason of his own mind?"


Note: I attempted a response in the comments to my post Rules for Patriots? It was not very considered nor was it clear. This question really required more thought and careful writing.

C. August, in the clarification of your question your assumptions are spot on. My ideas about the Rights of Man as I describe them must come from either Locke or Rand. And, as you doubtless noted, I quoted Rand twice in the course of the post. With respect to my intellectual history, my thinking about such natural rights comes primarily from Locke, whom I studied in high school (I was classically educated) as part of American History. I studied his ideas with respect to natural rights in more depth in college as well, during classes in philosophy, anthropology, and history. So Locke is one of the giants upon whose shoulders I stand.

I first read Ayn Rand's fiction works in high school as well, not as part of any assignment, but because someone handed me Atlas Shrugged, and later I went out and purchased Anthem, The Fountainhead, and We the Living. I read them primarily for the story, and I most appreciated Atlas Shrugged. Although I enjoyed reading the others, it was this one that really got me thinking. I think Atlas was the first contemporary novel that I ever read that struck me as a novel about ideas rather than just as a story. Later I read Rand's Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal, but I never did read any of her other fiction. (In the past year I had to purchase new copies of both Atlas and Capitalism, as the old ones were old and well-used paperbacks).

Given all of this, then, my understanding of the Rights of Man (natural rights), is founded on the Enlightenment ideas of Locke. But Rand's thinking completes Locke and Jefferson and builds on them and clarifies the true nature of the human being's niche on earth as a being capable of rational thought. I consider this idea to be Rand's unique contribution to the concept of natural rights. (I may be wrong here, as I am not well versed in modern philosophy).

Further, I think Jefferson's use of the term Creator is really a metaphor to describe something that he had not fully delineated in his own mind. I think he understood that natural rights are inherent to the human being (thus the adjective 'natural') because of his nature as a thinking organism who must knowingly choose between good and evil, and that the fact that rights are inherent means that they cannot be removed by fiat or by vote. By ascribing the origin of the Rights of Man to the Creator, I think both Locke and Jefferson thought they were placing natural rights beyond the reach of kings and governments. Further, I strongly argue that both Locke and Jefferson, each in his own way, had a more sophisticated concept of the Christian deity than do most American Christians today. Such is the abyssimal state of American education.


Basically, I'm curious how you square -- assuming you do -- faith in god with a this-worldly view of the rational, egoistic life of man that is seemingly implicit in your arguments (much like it was in the Founders' arguments).


C. August, I believe that here your question rests on the assumption that my "faith" requires an intellectual belief (Is this an oxymoron?) system and that it is related to some "other-worldly" realm. In short, you begin with an understanding of religion and of the Eternal that is influenced almost exclusively by Christianity, a creedal, universalistic religion that requires intellectual assent and which has a very narrowly defined theology and which was spread throughout the West by force. Although certainly the Israelite religion did engage in conquest, Judaism never had that kind of power.

However, I suscribe to Judaism, which is really a world-view that originated as a set of tribal traditions handed down orally prior to being written. Whereas Christianity relies on doctrine and intellectual assent for membership, Judaism is primarily passed down from generation to generation as a set of memes. Whereas Christianity requires conversion, Judaism allows adoption.

In essence, the answer to your question is that Judaism requires no other world and thus need not be squared with the world we know; it was intended to situate Jews in the world they inhabit. Judaism is about living in this world as Jews, and Jews see themselves as both of this world and in it. When Jews have isolated themselves, it is for protection from those who have risen to destroy us.

Judaism is a set of traditions based on a rather sophisticated (for its time of origin) concept of law, which came from the Israelite religion but was transformed into Rabbinic Judaism two millenia ago. That transformation was in itself a remarkable achievement that was intended to preserve the values and ideas of a people going into permanent exile; an achievement that worked. But in that exile, something else occured as well, and Jews took part in the Great Conversation of the West (a classical metaphor), and Judaism proved to be durable, holding firmly to certain basic ideas, and yet evolving to become modern.

More to the point of your question, Judaism is not creedal and has no prescribed concept of the Deity. For the ancient Israelites, G-d was assumed to be, and attributes were assigned according to what Israel experienced as G-d*. Thus the G-d of Israel become associated with Law, with freedom, and by the time of the prophets, with individual responsibility. First and foremost in Judaism is the concept of the Covenant between G-d and Israel, in which Israel stands as eternal (it appears) witness to the lawfulness of Creation. The Covenant itself spells out a very particular set of behaviors and consequences that cannot reasonably be taken literally by a modern person. However, the overall point of the story is that actions have consequences and that G-d cannot mitigate them.

*Thus the famous (and usually badly translated) exchange between G-d and Moses in Shemot (Exodus). According to the story, Moses basically says: The people are never going to believe that the god of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob wants them to go free from slavery. They're gonna to want you to introduce yourself by name. (e.g. Who the heck are you? Joe Shmoe?) And the famous answer is: "Eyeh asher eyeh" which can roughly be translated as "I am what I shall be." I tend to think this answer, a play on the Hebrew verb hey-yud-hey (to be) means roughly: Wait and see what I do, then you'll know who I am. Other Jews may disagree. That's the fun of Midrash.

This is all a very long way to get around to your final point, which I translate to mean "How the heck can a rational, egoistic modern woman believe all that Mickey Mouse Crap?"
You said it more elegantly and politely than that, but that's how a Jew might very well put it to another Jew.

My answer: I have never felt obligated to take it all literally. I interpret the tradition, just as our teachers and our teachers' teachers did before me. I intrepret the tradition to derive the purpose and meaning of my Jewish identity within the context of the Jewish community, right here in Albuquerque, NM. And I interpret the mythos of Hebrew scripture from what I know about human beings, and what I know about the world, all within the normative understanding of Judaism as it has evolved to this point. None of what I do with the tradition, and my more personal and private understandings of G-d, are at odds with my scientific understanding of the world, nor do they require me to divorce myself from rational thought and discourse.

Ultimately, in my understanding, G-d is a metaphor for the fullness of life, for wholeness, and for human freedom and dignity. G-d is not some alien entity that resides outside the universe, but rather, is some part of who we are as human beings. G-d is that part of us that strives continually to reach beyond our present selves, that longing to reach a potential that is not yet. (I am what I will be). Or perhaps, to paraphrase Nachman of Bratislava, G-d is those "better angels of our nature" that whisper to us continually, "Grow! Grow!"

Well, C. August, I am going to stop here. I will respond to your second question, the one in your second comment, the one that asks "what is good", later. It's time to eat and the dogs want my company on a happy exploration of the meadow.


Brianna said...

I have officially decided: I like this blog :-)

First, I would like to comment on this statement:

"Whereas a philosopher must probe the nature of reality, scientists begin with the assumption that reality is real."

While I agree that most philosophies do not start off with this axiom, Objectivism is an exception, not the rule. Remember that one of the axioms of Objectivist philosophy is that reality is real, that A is A and that something cannot be itself and its opposite at the same time. I too am technically trained (aerospace) and I have often found the Objectivist approach to be very scientific because while it does work from induction (start with axioms/principles and go from there), it also works from deduction (looking at the world and deducing principles from the evidence). In fact, I believe that a part of Rand's work was deduction: she observed that Soviet Russia did not work, that capitalist America did, and she set out to understand why. Certainly other parts of her philosophy came from her sense of life, her independence and other inner convictions. But I think the reason she was able to arrive at her unique portrayal of self-interest as moral was because she, unlike other people, observed that the society which had been explicitly based on the pursuit of happiness (i.e. selfishness) was also the greatest, richest, freest nation in the world, and that this had to be explained by something other than "America must have cheated."

As for the question you discuss here about reconciling belief in God with Objectivism, I have to admit that depending on how you view God, there doesn't necessarily have to be a clash. Objectivism takes reality as a given; however reality got here, it is real and it behaves a certain way and we have to start from there. It does not deal with God because if there is a God that created the universe, then he exists outside this universe. He is outside reality, and thus irrelevant to philosophy. I believe another issue is that if a God exists who is able to alter reality by whim, it would make the act of philosophy meaningless because if reality is not an absolute which follows a given set of rules, then how can philosophy cope with something that could be changed by something's whim?

I don't think you can believe in a God which performs miracles and actively intervenes in the universe to circumvent the laws of reality and be an Objectivist at the same time. But when it comes to how the Universe got here in the first place, Objectivism explicitly does not deal with that. If your belief is in a God such as the Deist version, which basically started the Universe and then let go, I do not view that as irreconcilable with Objectivism.

Elisheva Hannah Levin said...

Hi, Brianna.

Thanks! I appreciate the care you have taken to read what I actually say. That is one of the virtues of Objectivism that I like most.

As someone who has spent some time looking into the neuropsychology of high intelligence, I have spent some time looking at the inductive and deductive learning skills--and I was interested to read what you had to say about them. Science is deductive, philosophy inductive--and what boring people we become if we use one to the exclusion of the other. I find reality to be a fascinating enough place to keep my attention for life!

With respect to the concept of G-d and the origins of the Universe. I don't know how the universe got here because--as you know--physical laws break down in what we know of the very early Universe. So I am agnostic on that question. But since I do not posit a god that somehow works outside of the Universe and its laws, I am pretty sure that there is no puppetmaster who can alter the laws of the Universe at whim. If this were so, we'd have no science, no engineering and it would not be worthwhile to do anything, since there would be no lawfulness to the workings of the Universe. So I think I agree with Objectivism on this point, though many Objectivists do not welcome me to their club because I treasure my Jewish identity.

Back to Rand's vision of America: Yes! The United States was founded upon the ideas of human happiness and human industry that leads to it! And that is the origin of our "can-do" attitude and our desire to do well. If this be cheating, then by G-d, we should make the most of it!"