I’m a big fan of Ayn Rand and her philosophy of Objectivism. Even though there are many elements of her philosophy which are naive, or oversimplified, or just plain ignorant, the foundation of her thought is good: we live in exactly one shared world which has a definitive nature, and the good is defined by things which promote the life of human individuals.
It’s hard to overestimate the importance of this move, this Randian answer to the age old question of how to get from “is” to “ought” – how to go from what we know about the world to be true to deciding what we should do. In Rand’s world, ethical judgments are judgments made by humans about human actions – so the ethical good must be things that promote human life.
This may seem like a trivial philosophical point, but there are many theoretically possible definitions of ethics, from the logically absurd “all actions taken on Tuesday are good” to the logically indefensible “things are good because some authority said so.” Rand’s formulation of ethics echoes Jesus’s claim that goodness is not found in the foods you eat, but in the actions you do.
But sometimes it seems like the world’s a very depressing place. Jesus taught that everyone is capable of evil. Rand herself thought nothing is given to humans automatically: they must choose their values, and that the average human, because they never think about values, is pretty much a mess of contradictory assumptions which leaves them doing good only through luck.
But, I realized Rand’s wrong about that – because her assumptions are wrong, that nothing is given to humans automatically. She’s a philosopher, not a scientist, and she wasn’t aware of the great strides that have been made in the understanding of how we think – because some of those strides were made in technical fields near the very end of her life.
Rant rails against philosophies like Kant’s, who proposes, among many other things, that humans perceive reality unavoidably distorted by filters built into the human conceptual and perceptual apparatus. Rand admitted that human perception and cognition had a nature, but she believed, humans could perceive reality more objectively. Well, in a sense, they’re both wrong.
Modern studies of bias in machine learning show that it’s impossible – mathematically impossible – to learn any abstract concept without some kind of bias. In brief, if you want to predict something you’ve never seen before, you have to take some stance towards the data you’ve seen already – a bias – but there is no logical way to pick a correct bias. Any one you pick may be wrong.
So, like Kant suggested, our human conceptual processes impose unavoidable biases on the kind of concepts we learn, and unlike Rand wanted, those biases may prove distorting. However, we are capable of virtual levels of processing, which means that even if our base reasoning is flawed, we can build a more formal one, like mathematics, that avoids those problems.
But, I realized, there’s an even stronger reason to believe that things aren’t as bad as Kant or Rand feared, a reason founded in Rand’s ideas of ethics. Even human communities that lack a formalized philosophy are nonetheless capable of building and maintaining systems that last for generations – which means the human default bias leads to concepts that are Randian goods.
In a way, this isn’t surprising. From an evolutionary perspective, if any creature inherited a set of bad biases, it would learn bad concepts, and be unable to reproduce. From a cognitive science perspective, the human mind is constantly attempting to understand the world and to cache the results as automatic responses – what Rand would call building a philosophy.
So, if we are descendants of creatures that survived, we must have a basic bias for learning that promotes our life, and if we live by being rational creatures constantly attempting to understand the world who persist in communities that have lasted for generations, we must have a basic bias towards a philosophy which is just good enough to prevent our destruction.
That’s not to say that the average human being, on their own, without self-examination, will develop a philosophy that Rand or Jesus would approve of. And it’s not to say that individual human beings aren’t capable of great evil – and that human communities aren’t capable of greater evil towards their members.
But it does mean that humans are good enough to live on this Earth.
Just our continued existence shows that even though it seems like we live in a cold and cruel universe, the cards are stacked just enough in humanity’s favor for it to be possible for at least some people to thrive, it also shows that while humans are capable of great evil, the bias of humanity is stacked just enough in our favor for human existence to continue.
Rising above the average, of course, is up to you.