Atlas Shrugged Theme: Don't Overreach

One of the themes of Atlas Shrugged is one of the themes of my own philosophy: Don't overreach.

I say: If you exceed your abilities, if you try to do more than you can manage, then you will make more mistakes. More things will go wrong. If you do this too much it'll overwhelm your capability to deal with mistakes. That's overreaching: doing activities where your rate of making mistakes is too high for your ability to find and fix mistakes. Overreaching is bad, and pretty much all adult lives have tons of overreaching. The situation is so bad people just give up on correctness and try to muddle through life putting up with many unsolved mistakes.

Rand doesn't say that. But she says something related.

In Atlas Shrugged, the world has a bunch of nasty problems. Dagny tries to ignore them and run a railroad anyway, but the problems are pretty damn overwhelming and this doesn't work out in the long run despite how amazing Dagny is. What should she have done instead? Retreat from a world where she and her values aren't wanted. Give up the railroad. Give up on big accomplishments in screwed up world. Live her own life. Keep it simpler and smaller, like how they live in Galt's Gulch. But keep it pure with no corruption. Live in a way where everything works and there's no compromises, downsides, disasters, people working to make your life harder, looters stealing from you, taxes draining you, and so on.

In other words, Atlas Shrugged says to scale back your ambitions to projects which are reasonably possible in good ways – without tons of stuff going wrong. That's what John Galt and his allies do. They won't participate in corrupt, broken projects. They will only live life in ways that work. They'd rather have a single hand-tooled tractor in Galt's Gulch, or a little farm, or a few barrels of day of oil production, or a cabin instead of a skyscraper ... as long as it's fully theirs, it's fully pure and proper and correct ... there's nothing broken or wrong or bad about it.

In other words, it's better to have less without errors, corruptions, sacrifices, and moral compromises, rather than to have more at the cost of your soul or the cost of it not actually working right.

It's also like how you should learn things in general (e.g. typing, martial arts moves, or video game techniques): do it slowly and correctly and then speed up. Do not do it fast and wrong and try to fix the mistakes when there's a bunch of them. Speed up gradually so you only deal with a few mistakes at a time and keep the mistakes manageable.

In the introduction of Atlas Shrugged (35th anniversary edition), Peikoff quotes Rand's notes:

Her [Dagny's] error—and the cause of her refusal to join the strike—is over-optimism and over-confidence (particularly this last).


Over-confidence-in that she thinks she can do more than an individual actually can. She thinks she can run a railroad (or the world) single-handed, she can make people do what she wants or needs, what is right, by the sheer force of her own talent

Overreaching isn't just for beginners who try to act like experts. Even a great hero can overreach.

Elliot Temple | Permalink | Messages (44)

Open Letter to Charles Tew

Charles Tew is an Objectivist philosopher who makes lots of YouTube Videos. He writes:

After my experience with formal education, I decided that the most productive and rewarding path for a modern philosopher lay outside of the academic system, so I chose to work and teach independently online.

I appreciate the rejection of academia, and I liked his criticism of Alex Epstein, so I wrote a letter to him, below:

Charles Tew,

You say, "I seem to be critical of Objectivists in a way no one else is willing to be".

I am. For example, I have published criticism of Alex Epstein:


I'm an Objectivist and Popperian philosopher who rejected academia. I independently write and make videos. See:

I liked your criticism of Alex.

I worked with Alex for a while when CIP was newer. I did research for him, learned stuff about environmentalism from him, and wrote these articles for CIP:

Alex liked me and said I was one of the few people smart enough to contribute ideas to CIP. He has some good qualities, but I broke things off with him because of his unwillingness to discuss some disagreements to a resolution, and a few other flaws. He was content to ignore the disagreements, but I wasn't. Later I saw he was trying to do social status climbing and to suck up to various groups in ways I thought were immoral (see link #3 above for some info). I think Alex is on the road to become Gail Wynand (as the best case scenario, if he gets what he wants rather than staying somewhat obscure).

Some of the original disagreements:

Following Thomas Szasz, I consider "mental illness" a myth and psychiatry dangerous. Alex says things that aid psychiatry and refused to stop and replace them with neutral statements, while also refusing to refute my arguments or Szasz's books.

I wanted to discuss Popper and induction, but Alex chose never to get around to it. (This I could have accepted, but I think it's worth mentioning.)

Alex was unwilling to read the criticism of sustainability in The Beginning of Infinity by David Deustsch (a physicist and philosopher who is an Ayn Rand fan, a Popperian, and who I worked with extensively and learned a lot from for many years). I thought this was unreasonable because there aren't that many philosophical allies for Alex writing new books, so I considered it his job to become familiar with highly relevant ideas in his field.

We had some disagreements about physics which got in the way of Alex publishing an article about sustainability I was working on for him. (If Alex had read The Beginning of Infinity, he could have learned the physics I was talking about and how it's relevant to anti-sustainability arguments.)

Alex wasn't serious and careful enough about fact checking and sources/citations. See link #2 above for an example. I consider almost everyone to do an inadequate job with this. I have a scholarship blog category which mostly contains criticisms of various intellectual and books for this kind of problem.

In drafts for Moral Case for Fossil Fuels, Alex attacked the tobacco industry and smokers. I asked him not to and thought it was an unnecessary tangent in addition to being wrong, but he kept it in. After the book came out, I criticized it in post #1 linked above.

Alex thought I was too arrogant because I criticized Peikoff. He said I should give Peikoff the benefit of the doubt. I did give Peikoff the benefit of the doubt, a ton, but I still reached some critical views anyway. (Despite his flaws, I still appreciate lots of Peikoff's work, especially his old audio recordings. I generally find his old stuff superior to his new stuff. My guess is it's because back then either Rand was still alive and guiding him, or less time had passed for him to go his own way.)

Some of my Peikoff criticism:

Alex was part of the inspiration for my writing on what I call Paths Forward. It's about how and why to have some kinda path open by which your mistakes can be corrected and rational people can resolve disagreements with you instead of hitting a 100% impasse with no way to make progress. We should expect to be mistaken about some of our ideas (we're fallible), and in some cases other people know a better idea and would like to tell us, and it's bad to design our intellectual life in a way that that help cannot reach us. I've found pretty much all intellectuals in the world are uninterested in criticism and corrections. Many will discuss a bit, but then they just stop without having any methods of reaching some sort of resolution, and they don't really care. You can ask them something like: "What if you're wrong and your response to me essentially means you plan to stay wrong for the rest of your life? If you're wrong, much of your career will be a waste or actively harmful. And yet you have not addressed the following arguments that you're wrong, nor can you link to anyone else who has ever answered them..." And the answer is generally just: "I guess I'll risk it." And they don't care enough to take an interest in trying to create methods to enable a better answer. Sad!

An aspect of this which came up with Alex is he would respond to disagreements a few times but then stop, rather than doing enough back-and-forth to make serious progress. So I explained to him the proper pattern of discussion with really knowledgeable people who disagree:

I say something that Alex already has an answer to. We can't skip this step because I don't know which answer Alex will give. He briefly gives the answer, which I've heard before, and I say my answer to that. He can't predict my answer because there are several common answers. Then he says his next answer (that I've heard before, and already have an answer to, but can't predict due to there being other answers that other people use). And so on. You have to go back and forth repeatedly (but it should go quickly) to get to the first part where someone says something the other guy hasn't heard before. But he wouldn't do that, so it shut down discussion. (Virtually no one will do it.)

Alex was not receptive to this explanation and approach (nor did he explain why it's false). He seemed to think basically what everyone else also seems to think: that he was busy and that it was fine for him to just make unexplained judgement calls about what issues to pursue and what issues to be confident he's right about and ignore criticism regarding. Whereas I think that basically a serious intellectual should either answer a challenge, acknowledge he hasn't gotten around to answering it and therefore doesn't know in advance what conclusion he would reach if he had time for it (stay neutral), or link to anything written by anyone (other people or yourself in the past) which addressed the issue and you will endorse and take responsibility for. See the Paths Forward essays for more info.

BTW I found that Harry Binswanger was willing to discuss more than Alex, but it was only temporary and he then banned my dissent because – he said – some of his customers didn't like it. But if that was the whole issue, he would have continued discussing with me on another forum or privately. See my final summary, criticism, and moral judgement regarding Binswanger:

My best judgement is that George Reisman is in the right in his dispute with Peikoff/ARI/Binswanger.

I hope you'll be interested in discussing some of this or some philosophy ideas. I bet we could find something we disagree about, in which case at least one of us could learn that we were mistaken. That appeals to me and hopefully to you too.

Update: I wrote some additional Thoughts on Charles Tew.

Elliot Temple | Permalink | Messages (46)

Thoughts on Charles Tew

Charles Tew (CT) is an Objectivist philosopher. I watched more of his YouTube videos and looked around his web presence. I have some comments. This is not a review. This is not a complete evaluation. It's some particular things I noticed, many of which are tangential to his main points.

This post will make more sense if you've already read my Open Letter to Charles Tew, and perhaps seen some of CT's videos. Also if you're familiar with Objectivism.

Some things CT said were really good. He has at least a sliver of greatness, which is rare. And I appreciate that he's a content creator, that he's trying to make stuff, share ideas, do something.

CT aims to be a firebrand. I appreciate that. There were sections of his videos which fit this and which I particularly liked. I think he's correct in his claim that aspects of his style are similar to Ayn Rand, and that ARI's style is dissimilar to Rand.

I surveyed the comments on several videos. The discussion quality in comments is terrible. I wondered how and why he attracted those people to comment, and if he values a higher view count without concern for who is watching and why. That's the kind of thing he's criticized others for. I wonder if CT thinks low quality comments are just inevitably part of how YouTube works, rather than depending on the audience you attract. Or perhaps he's concerned about it and wishes to improve the situation. Or didn't think of the issue and just took some normal social interaction stuff for granted.

CT replied "thank you" to two YouTube commenters who wrote generic praise. I didn't read that many comments, so there's presumably many more similar comments. That is not what Howard Roark would have done. It's sucking up get a larger audience of boring or bad people. It helps bring in more of the kind of people who write low quality comments. It signals not being a firebrand. There were other relevant signs too, like he said something about doing off-topic bits at the start of a video because Sam Harris structured videos that way – which suggests he's trying to copy what's popular instead of thinking about what, in his own opinion, makes the best format intellectually. (I just jump into the content in my videos. People don't or shouldn't care about my issues with audio equipment. That's far from the most important thing I have to talk about.)

CT said the only active intellectual today that he respects much is Harry Binswanger. I hope he'll reply to my Binswanger criticism, which I included in my letter to CT.

CT said he is not a member of HBL. He didn't explain why. I find that really strange. If I only admired one living intellectual, and they had a forum, I'd join it! I'd want to read their stuff and talk with them.

CT focuses many videos on popular non-Objectivists who are actively creating content today, like Stephan Molyneux, Sam Harris, Sargon of Akkad, or Jordan Peterson. I don't know why, but I don't agree with that emphasis. I spend a larger portion of my own time talking about ideas in general, or about ideas in relation to people who are important to philosophy (that's mostly dead people like Socrates, Aristotle, Godwin, Burke, Popper, Rand), or talking about ideas in relation to people I find notable and interesting in some way (who often happen to be obscure, like CT). Maybe CT is attracted to current social popularity. Why doesn't CT do more commentary and analysis regarding Binswanger (his favorite living content creator other than himself) or Ayn Rand (there is a shortage of quality material explaining Rand's books and helping people understand them correctly – who else makes stuff like my Atlas Shrugged Close Reading?).

People like Harris, Molyneux, Akkad and Peterson are not very important in the big picture. Responding to them won't change the world. (I'm responding to CT right now, but the primary purpose is to organize my own thoughts, and the secondary purpose is to share stuff about how I think and view the world which I think is important, valuable content. And I only do this kind of response as the minority of what I make.) If CT is actually important and right about almost everything – as he claims to believe – then he should find something better to do (like his books – except see my comments on that below). He should make really important material that's great for people who don't care at all about Harris/Peterson/etc. He should make timeless material about what really matters and what will actually potentially persuade many people and change the world. He should be trying to make improved versions of some of Ayn Rand's work – since Ayn Rand's work, great as it was, was inadequate to fix things and set the tone of the world. If that's too hard for him today, he should try to improve his philosophy so he can do that. He should aim for something that would make a big difference, not work to build up a bit more audience of people with little if anything to contribute. If his videos are just him practicing, that'd be OK but I don't think they are presented that way and they don't strike me as optimized for practicing and self-learning.

CT has videos about addiction. I didn't watch those. I focused on clicking video titles I thought I'd agree with or like for two reasons. One, those are more enjoyable in the straightforward way: I like things I like. There's plenty of things I dislike in the world and I don't seek them out without a specific reason. Two, I don't know if CT is open to discussion. This comes up with lots of content. I think it's wrong, and there's no way to fix that problem, no way to correct the author (or get corrected myself). Formulating my criticisms seems a bit pointless, if there's no discussion, when it's standard stuff I've already thought and written about a dozen times. And if I wanted to cover it again, I'd typically be better off doing it my own way – thinking about how I want to approach the material this time and why – instead of responding to a particular person. If CT is open to discussion and to engaging with important literature like Szasz (which he's either already read or ought to be happy to fill in the gap in his knowledge enough to have some opinion of Szasz's ideas), I'd be more interested in his views that I expect to disagree with in ways I've been over repeatedly in the past.

I didn't see CT learning much of anything from non-Objectivists, which concerns me because there are good ideas which Rand didn't know, which other people figured out. That includes plenty which don't contradict Objectivism, and also, IMO, a few which do correct Objectivism in some way (usually fairly minor in terms of how much it changes Objectivism – the one big correction I'm aware of is about induction, but even that is mostly a correction of Rand's followers like Peikoff – Rand herself wrote little about induction, said she wasn't an expert on it, and didn't claim to have a solution to the problem of induction. And Popper's solution, despite rejecting induction itself, solves the important problem and offers everything I think Rand would have wanted in an epistemology – in particular, that people can and do create legitimate knowledge).

I don't think CT should use Patreon. That site hates his values and kicks people off who they disagree with politically, e.g. Lauren Southern. CT could easily be kicked off Patreon if he gets enough income/fans/attention to be noticed. Even relying on YouTube much is risky – YouTube kicks some people off for having right wing political views, they're very biased. (I don't know if iTunes kicks off podcasts for political reasons.)


CT says he doesn't like reading that much. That's bizarre for someone saying they are a philosopher. Actually it's totally normal, but it's a mistake that seems weird to me because I know better. Part of a philosopher's job is to read a lot (and listen and watch material too). That involves developing skills including being great at (and, ideally, liking):

  • reading pretty fast
  • reading slowly and carefully
  • speed reading, preferably with multiple techniques so you can match the technique to the content
  • skimming
  • targeted, selective reading, including by using an index or a software feature to search for words
  • watching videos and listening to audio at high speed
  • using text to speech software, and broadly being good at converting things into other formats so you have a lot of control of how you go through content so you can choose the best options each time
  • reading Amazon reviews, using amazon's preview of the book, finding it on google books, googling the author, etc, to quickly get some info about a book
  • using the library
  • knowing how to quickly survey many books on a topic (some never getting past the online research phase, others you actually read parts of) and figuring out which are good or bad and why, and which to read (and which parts of them, or the whole thing) and which not to read

(I also think it's a philosopher's job to learn to write and to learn to like writing. Video and audio are only secondary formats. They have some good things about them but they aren't the primary way to communicate ideas with serious people. I have some more comments related to this below.)

Sanctuaries for the Best of the Human Species

Another thing I was wondering is whether CT wants to be alone in the world, to be special. He says things like that others don't criticize Objectivism like he does. Is he bragging, or would he be thrilled to find out I exist and eager to discuss with me? He hasn't replied to my letter yet, but it's only been a day. Maybe he's reading through the many links or he happens to be busy this weekend. Who knows. I will wait and see. This is not a criticism, it's just a potential issue I thought of, a way he could be. I'm not accusing him, just considering the possibilities. It's interesting to me because I consider myself to be in a similar position to what CT thinks his situation is. I think I'm pretty alone in a world of dumb people. This is a common belief. I have various reasons to think it which are not common. CT has some legitimate reasons to think this kinda thing, too. But anyway, I don't like it. I want better people to talk with, to get criticism from, to get suggestions from, to have more articles worth reading and videos worth watching, etc. But lots of people actually don't want that. It's intuitive to me to want it, and I kinda assumed CT would want it when I wrote my letter, but it occurred to me that my perspective is unusual, so maybe he's not interested in finding someone reasonably like-minded who he can talk with as perhaps an equal or even someone who is anywhere near equal. (Related, why wouldn't he be on HBL talking with Binswanger? Binswanger is actually pretty responsive to people who post on his HBL forum. So CT could be talking more with someone he admires, if he wanted to.) I think one should want to find, meet and talk with great people. One should care enough to pursue leads on that, and definitely not feel threatened by it. One of my favorite passages from Atlas Shrugged:

“Miss Taggart, do you know the hallmark of the second-rater? It’s resentment of another man’s achievement. Those touchy mediocrities who sit trembling lest someone’s work prove greater than their own—they have no inkling of the loneliness that comes when you reach the top. The loneliness for an equal—for a mind to respect and an achievement to admire. They bare their teeth at you from out of their rat holes, thinking that you take pleasure in letting your brilliance dim them—while you’d give a year of your life to see a flicker of talent anywhere among them. They envy achievement, and their dream of greatness is a world where all men have become their acknowledged inferiors. They don’t know that that dream is the infallible proof of mediocrity, because that sort of world is what the man of achievement would not be able to bear. They have no way of knowing what he feels when surrounded by inferiors—hatred? no, not hatred, but boredom—the terrible, hopeless, draining, paralyzing boredom. Of what account are praise and adulation from men whom you don’t respect? Have you ever felt the longing for someone you could admire? For something, not to look down at, but up to?”

“I’ve felt it all my life,” she said. It was an answer she could not refuse him.

Also there's one of my favorite Rand quotes that I've never seen any other Objectivists take notice of, from The “Inexplicable Personal Alchemy” in The Return of the Primitive:

Where are America’s young fighters for ideas, the rebels against conformity to the gutter—the young men of “inexplicable personal alchemy,” the independent minds dedicated to the supremacy of truth?

With very rare exceptions, they are perishing in silence, unknown and unnoticed. Consciously or subconsciously, philosophically and psychologically, it is against them that the cult of irrationality—i.e., our entire academic and cultural Establishment—is directed.

They perish gradually, giving up, extinguishing their minds before they have a chance to grasp the nature of the evil they are facing. In lonely agony, they go from confident eagerness to bewilderment to indignation to resignation—to obscurity. And while their elders putter about, conserving redwood forests and building sanctuaries for mallard ducks, nobody notices those youths as they drop out of sight one by one, like sparks vanishing in limitless black space; nobody builds sanctuaries for the best of the human species.

I have a discussion forum (plus websites, articles, videos, open blog comments, and a public email address) that attempts to offer some sanctuary for the best of the human species, especially fighters for ideas. I am unaware of any serious attempt by anyone else to build such a sanctuary (and I've looked quite a lot, both for sanctuaries and for people to invite to mine or discuss with). I hope CT will appreciate and join my sanctuary, or at least care enough to say what he thinks is wrong with it – or, in the alternative (or additionally) I hope he'll care to build his own sanctuary and try to offer sanctuary to me (or tell me why I'm not worthy of such a sanctuary – what am I so wrong or dumb about, that I'm not at all the person I think I am, and is there any way to fix it?). If CT is the person he thinks he is and claims to be, he ought to know this quote and have thought about it, and be taking action accordingly, right? Or if he missed it, perhaps he'll thank me for pointing him to it and start living by it. I know he's trying to be a fighter for ideas, and I respect that, and I am too, and I hope that can lead to some mutually beneficial interaction – but I've had similar hopes with many people and routinely been disappointed by how bad and unreasonable they turn out to be. And unlike most people who say that, I have much of it publicly documented and anyone is welcome to point out how I'm mistaken in my evaluations of what happened. But I haven't given up and have e.g. contacted CT!

Also related to my own view of the world: when I wrote my letter to CT, at the end I suggested discussion. I had in mind asychronous text discussion, particularly on a forum with support for nested quoting and permalinks. He may have thought I wanted a verbal discussion, perhaps to go on YouTube. He seems to favor that kinda format. But I don't think verbal discussion is very good compared to text, especially when it's done in real time so people are rushed. Text with proper quoting is the most serious format which is best for making intellectual progress. It's easier to clear up miscommunications with text, easier to avoid talking past each other, easier to double check things (rereading is much easier than asking people to repeat things), it's easier to be calm and unemotional, it's easier to edit, it's easier for other people to skim or engage with, and so on.

And guys, this isn't just about CT. If you're reading this, and you think you're a fighter for ideas, or want to be, say something. Type a comment below.

Book Writing

CT is writing multiple books but doesn't seem to have any (public) essays. He should build up to books. Writing is hard. People should start small, e.g. tweets.

Master writing tweets. Then 250 word essays, then 500 word essays. Write dozens or hundreds. Work your way up to long essays (like 3000 words). Get really experienced with that. Find out all kinds of ways it's hard, what problems come up, etc, and make progress as a writer. Get fast and comfortable at writing and editing, so it's natural and intuitive and partly automated.

And try dozens of writing styles and see what works well for you, what you like, etc. Experiment.

And read stuff about how to write. Look for tips. Look for in-depth guides. See what ideas are out there and start forming opinions of them and trying most of them out at least a little.

Try to figure out what types of editing and polishing produce a lot of value, and what's unnecessary except for your most polished material, and what's unnecessary in all cases. How can you best spend your writing time to efficiently create a lot of value? What is less efficient but worth doing in special cases? What is common stuff people do that you shouldn't do at all?

After long essays, don't just keep making slightly longer things until you get to books. That won't work well. Long essays can be written with certain kinds of organizational techniques (and, indeed, with limited knowledge of organizing writing at all) and books need other, different ones. To work towards books, the next step after long essays is to try different ways of organizing what you write.

Try different methods of outlining. Try different approaches without an outline. Try different ways of writing notes about the essay in advance to see what helps or not. (Some of this will have been learned while writing essays in the first place, but focus on it more now.) Try dividing essays into named or unnamed sections more. Try writing strictly or loosely to an outline. Try more or less detailed outlining. Try various methods of brainstorming about what to write. Try writing by inspiration for topic and content. Try writing in a more methodical way or more casually and off-hand like speaking in real time or like stream of consciousness writing. Try writing test essays about a topic and seeing how they come out, then a separate real one. Try writing a really-quick, super-rough draft, then editing the hell out of it. Try approaches with more or less editing. Try developing the skill of writing good material the first time that doesn't need much editing – quickly, without a high effort – and see if you can do that effectively. And so on.

And then try putting together longer stuff in various ways, e.g. by writing a 15k word piece that involves 5 long essays glued together, and try different ways of gluing smaller pieces into bigger works. Try making bigger works with fairly independent parts, and with more interconnections, and compare the results and the difficulty of creating them. And think about whether tight coupling of sections of writing is good or bad and why. Tight coupling is the programmer term for having lots of dependencies between parts of a program and, spoiler alert, it's broadly considered bad. Find out issues like that exist – there are many others worth knowing about – and learn about them.

Books are hard – especially some types more than others – and many people spend a ton of time on writing a book and get a bad result. It's better to spend a ton of time on practicing and learning and get to the point you're more reasonably confident you know how to do a good book, and you have the skills so that it won't cost so much time and energy to make. Also, before books, one needs to debate hundreds of people, if not thousands (not as video taped social performances, but mostly as asynchronous text discussion). One really needs to do his best to get criticism from all comers, to find out every reason anyone knows that the ideas you plan to put in the book may be mistaken, and address that. One needs to subject all the book ideas to Paths Forward. One should normally only write books about ideas that one already has public essays about (to allow people to reply to the ideas before you put all the work into making a book version). (BTW, I'm not picky about publication mediums. Blog posts are a type of essay. It doesn't have to be prestigious. You can self-publish on your own website, no problem. You do need to visit other people's forums to seek out more discussion and feedback though, especially if you're obscure.)

Book writing is normally overreaching. People make an overwhelmingly large amount of errors while writing books – which overwhelms their ability to correct errors, and so the books end up with tons of errors in them – because they don't have the massive amount of background knowledge one needs to properly prepare.

In general, people should mostly do fairly easy things. If something isn't easy for you, that means it has a high resource cost (time, energy, etc) for you to do it. If you built up your skills more first – if you focused on self-improvement and self-education more for a while – then you could do the same thing for a cheaper resource cost. If you keep becoming more powerful and practicing and learning, things get easier and easier, so you can do them at a lower resource cost and have way more resources left over to keep learning even more. It's important for life to be a virtuous cycle with a big focus on making progress, and you keep getting better at doing things so you can do more and more stuff more easily. But what people usually do is they focus so much on doing things (like writing books) way too early on, and it's really expensive and takes all their time and energy away from making progress, and so they are always resource-starved (too busy) to learn as much as they should, and so they never get very far in life. And they think they can't take time out to do a bunch more learning and practicing because they don't have time for it, but such activities save time in the long run!

I don't know if CT is making these mistakes but I suspect it (not an accusation, just my initial guess that I will readily change my mind about if I get more information indicating otherwise) and I wanted to write about them again, and some of my comments about how to build up towards writing a book are new.

Elliot Temple | Permalink | Messages (20)

Objectivism and Empathy Discussion

A new guy joined the Fallible Ideas chatroom on Discord (come join us and ask a question!) and had some questions about Objectivism. Excerpt:

The objectivist ideology is lacking in empathy. <-- this is the claim

How likely is that to be the case?

Objectivism strongly lacks empathy in some cases, and has plenty in others. it depends on the situation and the things at stake. Harris doesn't attempt to define empathy, investigate when it's good or bad, appropriate or inappropriate, and engage with the Objectivist position on the matter or explain his own mainstream position on the matter.


In one of my favorite Rand quotes, she suggests redirecting empathy from some less important causes to another more important cause. The point is a disagreement about which things (smart youths or ducks) are more deserving of empathy, charity, help.

They [young fighters for ideas, rebels against conformity, independent minds seeking the truth] perish gradually, giving up, extinguishing their minds before they have a chance to grasp the nature of the evil they are facing [our irrational culture]. In lonely agony, they go from confident eagerness to bewilderment to indignation to resignation—to obscurity. And while their elders putter about, conserving redwood forests and building sanctuaries for mallard ducks, nobody notices those youths as they drop out of sight one by one, like sparks vanishing in limitless black space; nobody builds sanctuaries for the best of the human species.

Read the full conversation: 12 page PDF

Elliot Temple | Permalink | Messages (0)

Brandon Cropper Is Not an Objectivist

Brandon Cropper has recently gotten attention as an active Objectivist YouTuber. I don't think he's an Objectivist. I've typed in what he said to Rucka Rucka Ali about biological determinism. FYI the Objectivist view is, in short, the blank slate view.

There may be minor transcription errors and I left out some filler words and false starts. Starting at 5:40, Cropper says:

If there is at least a little bit of wiggle room there to say that genes have something to do with it, or are innate something, we can't say innate knowledge, we're not allowed to, somebody will come spank our hand. But as Objectivists we have these certain things we have to not say like "innate knowledge". But what is it? It's an innate tendency for men as opposed to women to be more aggressive? Or is it just in the nature of males as such that physical violence is part of their domain and therefore they have the predisposition for it or something? However we say it, there it is, 97% of murderers are men. How are we going to say it though?

The idea that males are innately or genetically predisposed to violence is incompatible with Ayn Rand's philosophy which clearly and directly states otherwise, and argues its case.

But what stands out to me more is that he's intentionally trying to avoid saying what he thinks. He thinks Objectivism is wrong about this, but he still wants to be an Objectivist anyway – I guess he likes other parts of Objectivism. OK but he believes the way to remain an Objectivist (or at least to avoid complaints from the YouTube audience he's pandering to like Gail Wynand pandered?) is by obeying speech restrictions – just never say anything that Objectivism disapproves of. That is totally contrary to the Objectivist spirit of free thought, inquiry and judgment. Objectivism has never tried to silence people who disagree with it. It's disturbing for a person trying to teach and lead Objectivism to view it like a religion that prohibits profanity rather than as a rational philosophy.

Elliot Temple | Permalink | Messages (44)

Objectivism, Certainty, Peikoff, More

This is lightly edited from 2013 emails I wrote to FI list. I was talking about Peikoff's Objective Communication audio lectures.

First Email

Ayn Rand (AR) advocates fallibilism. In a serious, substantive way, in print.

So far from Leonard Peikoff, I've heard a lot of stuff that sounds potentially incompatible with fallibilism, such as advocating certainty, with no effort made to explain how he means something compatible with fallibilism.

I've heard him dismiss some fallibilist arguments, which are true, as ridiculously stupid, without argument.

I've heard him define skepticism as a denial that certainty is possible. Then talk about it as a denial that knowledge is possible. The unstated and unargued premise is that knowledge requires certainty (he didn't mention Justified True Belief, but is that what he has in mind?). How that premise is compatible with fallibilism, he has not informed me.

I have not heard him advocate fallibilism like Rand has.

In addition to certainty, Peikoff has said perfection is possible. He clarified that he meant contextual perfection. Perhaps he also thinks that only contextual certainty is possible. I think this is a misuse of words. He hasn't explained why it isn't. And he keeps talking about "certainty" without any mention of "contextual certainty". If he means something rather different than a typical infallibilist meaning, shouldn't he be clear about it?

Further, when he attacks skeptics for rejecting certainty, it's unclear that those skeptics are all rejecting "contextual certainty" (if that is what he actually means but doesn't say). There are skeptics who (correctly) refute non-contextual certainty (which is infallibilism). If a skeptic refutes non-contextual certainty, and an anti-skeptic like Peikoff advocates contextual certainty, then they haven't necessarily contradicted each other. Peikoff talks about these subjects but doesn't deal with points like this. But he doesn't just omit stuff; he seems to be contradicting points like this -- and therefore be mistaken -- and he fails to explain how he isn't mistaken.

Peikoff focusses his attacks on the worst kinds of skeptics and acts like he has criticized the entire category of all skepticism. He doesn't mention or discuss that there are different types of skeptics (e.g. rejecting all knowledge, or just rejecting non-contextual certainty. He seems to lump fallibilists in with skeptics, though I have no doubt he wouldn't want to lump AR in with skeptics, so his position isn't explained well.)

If you want to exclude people like myself and Karl Popper (and AR) from being skeptics, fine. But then you can't just define skepticism as rejecting certainty! Unless you add a bunch of clarifications and qualifications about what you mean, Popper absolutely does reject certainty! (As do I.) You'd also have to stop presenting it as skeptics and non-skeptics, only two categories, since Popper and Peikoff would be non-skeptics with major differences in views. (I don't normally present it as skeptics and non-skeptics, but Peikoff did.)

These comments above are from his Objective Communication lectures. Epistemology is not the primary topic, but he keeps talking about it. (He's also talked about induction and empiricism a number of times. That material is also problematic.)

I've never seen AR do it like Peikoff. Whenever she talks about these things I have a tiny fraction of the objections. But when it's Peikoff (or Binswanger or I think many other Objectivists) then I see lots of problems.

On another note, Peikoff's comments about how awful school is are worthwhile. They are directed especially at grad school and university. He talks about how much it trashed his mind (despite his best efforts not to let it do that), and how dangerous it is and hard to stay rational, and how much time and effort it took to recover.

In a way, it excuses his other mistakes. He actually read some stuff from a paper he wrote in grad school. He's improved a lot since then!! So that's great. One can respect how far he's come and perhaps sympathize a bit with some of his mistakes.

I for one have the advantage of avoiding a lot of the tortures Peikoff endured at school. It really helps. Yeah, sure, K-12 sucked but I never took it seriously after around 6th grade or maybe earlier. It's so much worse and harder if you take it seriously.

(But I fear he wouldn't appreciate this perspective much. I fear he'd say he's super awesome now and not making mistakes, and I'm wrong about epistemology -- but without wishing to debate it to a conclusion in a serious way, as I am willing to do. If he rejects the attitudes and role of a learner still making progress, then it becomes hard to sympathize with errors. If he also isn't open to answering criticisms, then it's even worse.)

How few philosophers Objectivists find to appreciate is one of the worrisome things that does apply to AR herself (I learned from AR, Popper, Goldratt and others. Peikoff doesn't seem to have gotten much value from people besides AR). Like it's a problem with Peikoff but also with AR. She was aware of Mises and Szasz. But she missed Popper, Burke, Godwin and Feynman, for example. Is there any excuse for that? Godwin is obscure but Szasz was aware of him! Mises was aware of Godwin too, but Mises read a translation and totally got the wrong idea. Szasz and Mises were also aware of Burke. I'm not sure how much Mises knew about Burke, but Szasz had a good understanding. Szasz also knew a lot about Popper, and had some familiarity with Feynman. So if Szasz can find all these philosophers, and learn from them, what is AR's excuse?

And of course I can and did find and study Godwin and others too. I sought out good philosophy with some success. It's not trivial to find, but it's worth the effort.

Second Email

Peikoff's on-topic comments about Objective Communication continue to be good. No monumental breakthrough, but lots of solid points explained well.

Peikoff said certainty is conclusiveness.

If we figure he meant contextual conclusiveness (if he didn't, that's worse!), that's Popper-compatible. Popperians reach what they call "tentative" conclusions which means that they are the current conclusion but could need to be reevaluated if the context changes (e.g. something new is thought of).

But can something called "tentativity" really be what Peikoff has in mind for "certainty"? I don't think so. If you listen to how he talks about it, and his examples, they do not fit this interpretation of the definition. But he doesn't clarify the correct definition or the way to interpret this one.

No comments are made about how his definition is compatible with this other thing he doesn't mean, or what's wrong with this thing. He doesn't address it. I don't think he's thought of it.

Long story short, what's going on is Peikoff is mistaken about the topic so his comments come off confused from the perspective of someone who already understands what he's missing.

Peikoff is targeting his comments against ideas much worse than his own. He's defeating what he sees as his (awful, pathetic) rivals. But why hasn't he engaged with any better rivals?

I don't think it's pure ignorance. For one thing, that would not be excusable: he should have checked for the existence of some better ideas.

But also, Peikoff knows (and endorses) Binswanger, and Binswanger knows of Popper. Binswanger's attitude to Popper is a combination of extreme ignorance and extreme venom (with extras features such as misquoting Popper and then not caring or correcting it). Some other Objectivists also know of Popper but reject him without rational, well-informed arguments or an adequate understanding of his ideas.

I suppose I should look these issues up in OPAR. But he's supposed to be talking to an audience with merely some knowledge of Objectivism. So if you've read everything AR says about this, that ought to be (more than) enough. His comments weren't meant only for audiences that have read OPAR.

Elliot Temple | Permalink | Messages (0)