Debunking the Objectivist support for free will.


Above: Dilbert becomes an Objectivist, is refuted by Dogbert.

All Objectivists thinkers believe in free will, as far as I know. Some believe in compatibilism, some in pure free will, but none of them accept determinism as applied to the human mind.

Reasons for this have been pretty scarce. Perhaps the best argument was proposed by Nathaniel Branden in The Objectivist Newsletter (May 1963):

The determinist concept of mind maintains that whether a man thinks of not, whether he takes cognizance of the facts of reality or not, whether he holds facts above feelings or feelings above facts – all are determined by forces outside his control; in any given moment or situation, his method of mental functioning is the inevitable product of an endless chain of antecedent factors; *he* has no choice in the matter.

That which a man does, declare the advocates of determinism, he *had* to do – that which he believes, he *had* to believe – if he focuses his mind, he *had* to – if he is guided solely by reason, he *had* to be – if he is ruled instead by feeling or whim, he *had* to be – he *couldn’t* help it.

But if this were true, no *knowledge* would be possible to man. No theory could claim greater plausibility than any other – including the theory of psychological determinism.

Those who expound determinism must either assert that they arrived at their theory by mystical revelation, and thus exclude themselves from the realm of reason – or they must assert that *they* are an exception to the theory they propound, and thus exclude their theory from the realm of truth…

But then how did the advocates of determinism acquire their knowledge? What is its validation? Determinists are conspicuously silent on this point.

If the advocates of determinism insist that their choice to think and their acceptance of reason is conditional, dependent on factors outside their control–which means: that they are not free to test their beliefs against the facts of reality–then they cannot claim to know that their theory is true; they can only report that they feel helpless to believe otherwise. Nor can they claim that their theory is highly probable; they can only acknowledge the inner compulsion that forbids them to doubt that it is highly probable.

Some advocates of determinism, evidently sensing this epistemological dilemma, have sought to escape it by asserting that, although they are determined to believe what they believe, the factor determining them is logic. But by what means do they know this? Their beliefs are no more subject to their control than those of a lunatic. They and the lunatic are equally the pawn of deterministic forces.

Unlike most Objectivists’ evaluation of an opposing ideology, Branden’s description of the corollaries of determinism is actually correct on all points (then again, Branden was always the smarter one). Unfortunately, the actual argument makes no sense. How does determinism imply that no theory can claim greater plausibility? Why does determinism means you can either arrive at any position by mystical revelation or by denying determinism?

I have quoted Branden extensively so you realize that this is his entire argument, that I haven’t hidden some propositions made elsewhere. He just repeats the same argument over and over. You can read the article yourself, but you won’t find anything more. The argument, such as it is, can be summarized thus:

1. Determinists believe their choices, including epistemic choices, are outside of their control.
2. Ergo, determinists cannot know that their beliefs are true.
3. Ergo, determinists cannot know their belief in determinism is true.

But this is a misrepresentation. Determinists are not saying that man is incapable of figuring out whether any belief is true; it is not the case that “they are not free to test their beliefs against the facts of reality.” Branden asks, how do determinists justify their knowledge? The same way everyone else does: with the senses, experiences, motivations, learning and brain that everyone else has. The fact that conscious reasoning happens after unconscious decision-making does not nullify its existence or make it any less valid.

Branden is only stumped by this question because he believes in a worldview where free will is a prerequisite for rationality. If you don’t buy into this a priori relation, then there’s no particular reason to link rationality to either free will or determinism. If such a link exists, I am not aware of it.

Branden’s final point is ludicrous. Neuronormativity aside, whether determinism is true or not, the obvious difference between myself and a “lunatic” surely must lie in the fact that I am not a “lunatic.” I am able to explain the reasoning behind my beliefs in a way that other people could understand (not agree with, but at least understand), while a “lunatic” may not be able to do the same. I am also able to describe the conditions in my personality and the personal experiences that led me to believe something, while a “lunatic” may not be able to do so.

This is what Branden cannot, or will not, understand, because of his a priori belief that free will is axiomatic and that rationality cannot take place without it. The evidence for that belief is non-existent.

Leonard Peikoff used a similar argument in Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand:

When the determinist claims that man is determined, this applies to all of man’s ideas also, including his own advocacy of determinism. Given the factors operating on him, he believes, he had to become a determinist, just as his opponents had no alternative but to oppose him. How then can he know that his viewpoint is true? Are the factors that shape his brain infallible? Does he automatically follow reason and logic? Clearly not; if he did, error would be impossible to him…

If a determinist tried to assess his viewpoint as knowledge, he would have to say, in effect: “I am in control of my mind. I do have the power to decide to focus on reality. I do not merely submit spinelessly to whatever distortions happen to be decreed by some chain of forces stretching back to infinity. I am free, free to be objective, free to conclude — that I am not free.”

This is similar to Branden’s rhetoric, and that part is refuted in the same way; but Peikoff also introduces new errors that were not present in Branden’s argument, which makes it worse. The most obvious error is his bizarre belief that the causal antecedents of a determinist’s brain must be infallible. First of all, I have no idea what it would mean for a “factor that shapes one’s brain” to be infallible; factors cannot be fallible or infallible, only epistemic agents can.

If Peikoff means that the determinist’s brain itself must be infallible and “automatically follow reason and logic,” then the answer must be: why? Why should one be infallible in order to conclude that one specific belief is true? Determinism or not, we all make mistakes, and our ability to ferret out error still exists. As one commentator argued:

A deterministic system doesn’t have to be infallible, it’s sufficient that it in general draws more correct conclusions than false ones. The biological evolution has produced a human brain that is certainly not infallible, but that nevertheless is not a random device that cannot distinguish good evidence from bad evidence. Brains that are not efficient have been weeded out. This is further strengthened by a cultural evolution, where conclusions, results, information can be registered and transmitted to other people and to next generations. If a scientist somewhere draws an incorrect conclusion, this will be sooner or later corrected by others and the thinking machines are flexible enough to accept better explanations, explanations that make things work, creating an increasingly powerful technology, which makes it a self-reinforcing system.

Furthermore, Peikoff’s imagined monologue of a determinist is imbecilic. A determinist would never say things like “I am in control of my mind,” and only in an Objectivist’s wet dream would this ever happen (in fact, it is rather similar to the Christian fantasy stories about what atheists say). So what might a determinist actually say? Perhaps something more like this: “I can be confident about my conclusions because I value understanding reality and I thinks I can provide sufficient evidence to justify my positions, including my position that determinism is valid.”

There is no self-contradiction here because none of the terms involve “choice”: values are derived from our personality and how it interacts with existing ideologies and social roles, evidence is the result of our understanding of reality, justification is a process of formulating evidence and articulating it into cogent arguments.

In essence, these arguments reduce themselves to “you believe that you’re determined, but that includes your belief in determinism, so you’re contradicting yourself! Nyah nyah nyah!” The trouble is that they cannot point out where the contradiction lies. They merely assume the contradiction must exist because Ayn Rand said that free will was axiomatic.

Here is the last argument, again from Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand:

How, then, do we know that man has volition? It is a self-evident fact, available to any act of introspection.

You the reader can perceive every potentiality I have been discussing simply by observing your own consciousness. The extent of your knowledge or intelligence is not relevant here, because the issue is whether you use whatever knowledge and intelligence you do possess. At this moment, for example, you can decide to read attentively and struggle to understand, judge, apply the material — or you can let your attention wander and the words wash over you, half-getting some points, then coming to for a few sentences, then lapsing again into partial focus. If something you read makes you feel fearful or uneasy, you can decide to follow the point anyway and consider it on its merits — or you can brush it aside by an act of evasion, while mumbling some rationalization to still any pangs of guilt. At each moment, you are deciding to think or not to think. The fact that you regularly make these kinds of choices is directly accessible to you, as it is to any volitional consciousness.

Peikoff is confusing choices with their results. I either read attentively or skim, confront points or brush them aside, think or don’t think, but none of this is the result of a conscious decision. Introspection cannot tell you anything about that, unless you’re using a circular argument: I feel that I have free will, therefore I have free will. The determinist’s answer is that our brain makes us feel like we have free will for evolutionary reasons, but this feeling is disproven by every scientific study made on decision-making in the brain. To assume that the way things appear to us personally must be true regardless of all other evidence is extremely naive.

The height of this naivete comes at the very end, where he says that “[a]t each moment, you are deciding to think or not to think.” Obviously I am doing no such thing, at least not consciously. Otherwise I’d be spending every moment of my consciousness making constant “decisions” to think or not to think, which would be trivial since I’d have no time to actually, you know, do anything. The fact that Peikoff thinks this is a good argument is laughable, and demonstrates that he is either psychotic, does not understand what “deciding” means, or actually means a deterministic unconscious “deciding” and doesn’t really believe in free will.

Objectivism is a perfect example of why the free will/determinism issue is so important. Because Objectivists are completely blind to mental biases and instinctual behavior, they completely misunderstand human nature and condemn themselves to failure. The Objectivist movement has turned on itself many times. Ayn Rand herself repudiated most of her closest associated over the years, because she believed all preferences and beliefs were the result of volition, and therefore anyone who disagreed with her on any issue was simply not good enough. In trying to create a rational ideology, she created a cult, because she ignored inborn desires to belong and to conform.

Even more importantly, being blind to mental biases and instinctual behavior makes it completely impossible to understand human beings. Objectivists basically believe that humans are self-generating demigods and that teaching people sociopathic principles can strengthen society. This is a recipe for tyranny and violence on a global scale, and capitalism, which Objectivists defend slavishly, has demonstrated this fact from the get-go.

In her newsletter The Ayn Rand Letter, Rand herself disagreed:

Dictatorship and determinism are reciprocally reinforcing corollaries: if one seeks to enslave men, one has to destroy their reliance on the validity of their own judgments and choices—if one believes that reason and volition are impotent, one has to accept the rule of force.

This is the perfect conclusion because it condenses Branden and Peikoff’s errors into one succinct statement. Rand assumes that believing in determinism entails believing that reason is impotent and that we cannot rely on our judgments. She cannot argue the point because she has no evidence for this. She just knows it must be true. The only difference between Ayn Rand and the advocates of free will at present time is that the latter are getting rather more melodramatic, because they see the end coming and it frightens them. I hope they keep getting frightened.

16 thoughts on “Debunking the Objectivist support for free will.

  1. Thoreauly Nuts August 1, 2013 at 09:33 Reply

    Their entire argument against determinism is just one giant false dichotomy fallacy. You’re either a supernatural being (funny how that is their axiom) or a mindless automaton. It’s rather silly.

    Anyway, I consider the abandonment of free will as the final stage of atheism; when one has finally stripped themselves of the worst parts of the religious indoctrination that permeates (primarily) western cultures and is able to finally see clearly. It’s sad that so many atheists are able to strip away the God, but struggle so miserably to let go of the religion…

    • chickpositive August 2, 2013 at 04:39 Reply

      I love your comment. I too have increasingly come to see free will as the last god. It is the ace card. People can agree that we all have different chances due to our unchosen genetics and formative environments but when that begins to get too uncomfortable, they can always turn to free will to make everything ‘okay’ again.

      Honestly, I get no pleasure from either concept. I don’t know that it really matters in the end if you stabbed me because you couldn’t help it or because you chose to. Either way I’ve still been stabbed and have to live with the consequences.

  2. nadaalleen August 18, 2013 at 11:25 Reply

    “The determinist’s answer is that our brain makes us feel like we have free will for evolutionary reasons, but this feeling is disproven by every scientific study made on decision-making in the brain.”
    but only because the scientist interpret their data (which by itself does neither prove nor disprove free will) this way. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2942748/#S4title

  3. cyanidecupcake April 27, 2014 at 21:32 Reply

    You are incredibly articulate, and I’m thankful you have this blog. There are some things I want to comment on: re – Branden’s view that free will is a prerequisite for rationality: I wonder what he’d think about the obsolete and ludicrous gender norms/roles in society, “rational” sociopaths, or when people do stupid things? Randian Objectivism: “If something you read makes you feel fearful or uneasy, you can decide to follow the point anyway and consider it on its merits — or you can brush it aside by an act of evasion, while mumbling some rationalization to still any pangs of guilt.” I agree this is not a result of conscious decision – mainly because of social conditioning we will react automatically and unconsciously according to our prejudices; male hurt feelings over the truth of the sex industry’s harms comes to mind. More importantly, this means according to Rand that anyone who disagrees with her is simply “choosing” to not accept her philosophy and they couldn’t possibly have any merit to do so; that’s a rationalization in itself. I have to admit I too hate Objectivist philosophy; I’m glad to see that more people are arguing against it, specifically that it is sociopathic.

  4. cyanidecupcake April 27, 2014 at 21:36 Reply

    The more I think about it, the more “free will” is supportive of choice politics (I mean specifically the libfem one advocating the sex industry) and the pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps philosophy of wishful thinking. Ironically, sex industry advocates claim they support self-determination as well – but this hangs onto the concept of self-ownership in connection with physical/sexual autonomy.

    • Francois Tremblay April 27, 2014 at 22:23 Reply

      Yes, exactly. I think you perfectly understand. Atomistic individualism on the small scale is connected to voluntaryism on the bigger scale. I don’t know if you read my entry on the triad of the “little gods” (self-ownership, relativism, free will), but I think that’s definitely the first step in that line of reasoning.
      https://francoistremblay.wordpress.com/2013/07/12/the-unholy-triad-of-the-little-god/
      Of course, without free will the delusion of choice disappears. So choice politics advocates must deny determinism. But of course they know that if you deny the existence of choice they can just laugh at you and don’t really have to make an argument.

  5. cyanidecupcake April 27, 2014 at 22:32 Reply

    I am getting to it slowly but surely, haha :) You could say I fell in love with all the debunking of the concept of self-ownership and that was the start. Yay, reading!

    • Francois Tremblay April 27, 2014 at 22:34 Reply

      On the debunkings of self-ownership, have you also seen this?
      http://sqworl.com/1b9dhv

      • cyanidecupcake April 27, 2014 at 22:43 Reply

        Most of the content there, no. Thanks! I can’t believe even Mises questioned self-ownership, wow.

        • Francois Tremblay April 27, 2014 at 22:49 Reply

          Actually, that link no longer works, unfortunately, but that was from a guy called brainpolice. He’s a market anarchist I used to know. (I kinda lost contact with most of my market anarchist buddies once I turned libsoc)

  6. ChemicalsMadeMeWriteThis January 1, 2015 at 16:15 Reply

    So there is no right and wrong, no morality, no one can be held accountable for anything. If a man breaks into your house, steals your stuff, murders your children and rapes your wife… he did nothing wrong. “The chemicals made him do it”. Why do we bother prosecuting people? Having a trial? Sending them to jail? The next time you’re upset about something, you should probably take a good hard look at it – I means, after all, what is there to be upset about? What is ‘being upset’ anyway? Why did you even bother writing this at all? The chemicals made you write it, the chemicals made some people agree, the chemicals made some other people disagree. Pointless existence.

    • Francois Tremblay January 1, 2015 at 16:19 Reply

      Thanks for the nice collection of straw men. I’m guessing that was the intent of your comment, since that’s all it is. If you had actually read my blog before, you’d know that your very first sentence, “there is no right and wrong,” is not something I believe at all, in fact a view that I find repulsive.

  7. Tom Burroughes September 11, 2015 at 05:08 Reply

    There is a lot wrong with this posting but let me briefly address the idea that the notion of volition is in conflict with the idea of casuality. I am astonished that you fell into the mistake of assuming that a person who accepts that there is causality must therefore deny free will. For instance, it seems that the observable existence of agency among not just humans, but certain animals, suggests that volition exists. Consider the arguments of the author of this book: http://ukcatalogue.oup.com/product/9780199552054.do#

    Also, the authors of this paper argue that if you believe that there is such a thing called consciousness, then it does not make sense to accept that if you deny volition, as the two are intertwined. http://cogprints.org/4482/

    I also agree with the person who stated that without the acceptance of some form of volition, of the idea of actions “being up to us”, that notions of praise/blame become very difficult. Sam Harris, I note, has more or less accepted this (he is a determinist). So it is not a “straw man” at all: the denial of voliton/free will (or whatever term you want to use) has consequences.

    • Francois Tremblay September 11, 2015 at 14:21 Reply

      Wait. What “observable existence of agency”? What are you talking about?

  8. craigrb January 27, 2016 at 06:51 Reply

    Hello, thanks for your post. I am of the position determinism and free will are compatible. I couldn’t get the link to the Branden article to work. Any chance on a new one?

    • Francois Tremblay January 27, 2016 at 17:46 Reply

      Sorry, I have no other sources for it. You’ll have to find an archive of The Objectivist Newsletter or something.

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