synthetic zero

June 16th, 2010

Ayn Rand was wrong. Of course, it’s difficult to summarize one’s thinking in a tweet limited to 140 characters; my friend Lisa Plaxco asked me to elaborate, so I’ll attempt to do so in this blog post. Let me start with where I agree with Rand. I agree that blind faith, or believing things without reason, is both unnecessary and in many ways problematic.

But there are so many points at which she goes wrong. Perhaps one of the most fundamental has to do with her conflation of propositional logic and ordinary meaning. As Einstein famously said, “As far as the laws of mathematics refer to reality, they are not certain; as far as they are certain, they do not refer to reality.” Einstein understood the fundamental issue here, which is that to conflate a description of reality with reality itself is to make a very elementary mistake.

Ordinary concepts and propositions simply do not map into the Objectivist conceptual structure: for example, take the assertion that all propositions are either true or false. I remember bringing this up with a classmate of mine in my freshman year at Harvard… he was a physics major and a big fan of Rand. Very smart guy, so I decided to explore this issue with him, because I thought he could appreciate the argument.

The basic argument I made was this: if all propositions are either true, or false, let’s take a simple proposition such as “the apple is red.” Is this true, or false? What if you had an apple and you slowly, ever so slowly, changed it from red to orange? At what point would the proposition cease to be true, and become false?

Or let’s take a statement such as “It is hot today.” Is it true, or false? If you slowly lower the temperature, half a degree at a time, when it does it magically transform from being true to false? Could it be that this statement varies in truth value depending on who is saying it? Could it be that statements can be approximately true, or somewhat true and somewhat false, or true depending on context, depending on who is speaking, who is listening?

Yes, obviously. It’s amazingly, painfully clear that ordinary use of language and concepts can’t possibly map neatly onto propositional, mathematical logic. Propositional logic is an idealized system, it doesn’t relate directly to the way we think or communicate in everyday terms.

I made this argument and my classmate indicated that my arguments seemed quite intriguing, though I wasn’t sure if he was convinced or not. Interestingly, four years later I ran into him in Palo Alto — he was going to grad school at Stanford. He greeted me very warmly, and we got into a conversation about logic and AI. It turned out that he had graduated from Harvard summa cum laude after writing his thesis: on fuzzy logic! I was glad he had found my argument at least somewhat persuasive.

Of course, interestingly, we went on to discuss AI some more, and I was telling him that I thought neural network models were quite promising. He thought that was interesting, but he challenged me: doesn’t it seem as though our thought process is inherently serial, not massively parallel? So I said, okay, but right now, you’re seeing, you’re hearing, you’re feeling the wind on your skin, you’re talking, all at once. Isn’t that obviously massively parallel? He had to agree.

The interesting thing about all this is that we have a cognitive habit which is deeply ingrained: we create internal models which simplify things in some way, which make it easier to think about things conceptually, and then we make the fundamental error of conflating the map with the territory. Of course, any map must necessarily be a simplification of reality in order for it to be useful; but it is inherently a simplification, that is to say, it must leave out massive amounts of detail. As Borges alluded in “On Exactitude in Science“:

In that Empire, the Art of Cartography attained such Perfection that the map of a single Province occupied the entirety of a City, and the map of the Empire, the entirety of a Province. In time, those Unconscionable Maps no longer satisfied, and the Cartographers Guilds struck a Map of the Empire whose size was that of the Empire, and which coincided point for point with it. The following Generations, who were not so fond of the Study of Cartography as their Forebears had been, saw that that vast Map was Useless, and not without some Pitilessness was it, that they delivered it up to the Inclemencies of Sun and Winters. In the Deserts of the West, still today, there are Tattered Ruins of that Map, inhabited by Animals and Beggars; in all the Land there is no other Relic of the Disciplines of Geography.

Leaving out details is of course necessary for information processing; but it is incredibly sloppy and rationally inexcusable to forget that this is what any conceptual system does.

The impetus for my thinking about this was a conversation I was having with Magda today. The problem with the world view of Rand is that it appears to be clear and precise. But, in fact, it is overly simplistic — oversimplified. I was telling Magda that I remember a snarky remark Brian Cantwell Smith made once (someone with whom I’m personally acquainted, who wrote the excellent book On the Origin of Objects which is a very straightforward and entertaining read — essentially explaining how the idea of “objects” can arise starting from a sort of basic physics-inspired view of reality), in which he was joking that reality would be a lot easier to model if we had the Army Corps of Engineers reshape the land to be in exact 1000-foot-high contour increments.  To pretend that your model can map reality exactly is to be incredibly imprecise: sloppy. An equivalent idea would be to try to make a model of the world made up of 1000-foot blocks. Such a model would be apparently clear and exact, but it would be horribly imprecise.

I’ll end by discussing one of the other errors Rand makes in her thinking: her conception of self-interest as being the highest good. The virtue of this idea is that it encourages decentralized, distributed system function. However, the problem with this idea is that it conflates a model of reality (a model in which we divide the world into entities we call individuals) with reality itself, which is far more intricate and complex. Of course, she’s right that some degree of self-interest is important: but in a more general sense, self-interest is local optimization. Doing what makes sense for yourself as an individual means working with a criterion of local optimization as your goal: improving things in your immediate surroundings (e.g., your “self”).

The problem with this is obvious if you again include more about what is actually part of the world; what we already understand about the world in ordinary terms; for example: fish in a lake. Suppose you had four fisheries all fishing in the same lake. Now, as we all know, if you overfish the lake, then you will eventually cause the extinction of fish in the lake. Thus it is clearly in the long-term interest of the fisheries to carefully manage the resource of the fish in the lake, to prevent the catastrophe of the destruction of the fishing industry.

Suppose, however, that three of the four fisheries agreed to voluntarily limit their catch, but one did not. The one that did not simply went out and caught as many fish as possible, which certainly would work to their short-term economic advantage. This fishery would make much more money than the others, and thus be far more successful in the marketplace. Yet eventually the behavior of this fourth fishery would destroy the livelihoods of all the fisheries.

The reason maximization of local (individual) self-interest is not a sufficient criterion for making decisions is that it is not stable (in a mathematical sense), in general, over the long term. Objectivism and Randian philosophy (I hesitate to even use the word “philosophy” in conjunction with Rand, as it is so riddled with these sorts of massive errors it hardly qualifies as philosophy at all — it’s more like confused adolescent fantasy — admittedly to people untrained in real philosophy it might seem “philosophical”, but it’s really a joke when compared to any serious philosophy for all the reasons and many more I’ve stated here) leads to reification of the principle of local optimization in space and time. But it’s well-known that purely local algorithms for optimization are prone to getting stuck in local optima which can be quite far from the global optimum. Add in the factor of time, and you can get a system which optimizes itself locally into a disaster such as the BP oil spill.

Now, of course, in theory, a truly rational actor would take into account long-term considerations in what they do. The problem, however, with Ayn Rand’s approach is that it relies simply on the hope that every individual actor will, on their own, take into account long-term and large-scale considerations in every one of their decisions. But that’s simply not possible — not everyone has the time, the expertise, or the information and skill to do so. Furthermore, for those subset of people, or companies, or groups which do attempt to take longer term considerations into account, they can be trampled in the short run by unscrupulous competitors who fail to take these considerations into account. Thus, operating a society based only on short-term and local optimization rules leads to systemic instability, because it virtually forces all actors to behave in a way which maximizes short-term gain at the expense of long-term stability. Of course, this is not just a theoretical, philosophical concern: it’s what just happened with the financial meltdown.

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8 responses to this post:
  1. Lee Kane says:

    Interesting post - but I feel Rand’s thinking about true or falseness was, I think, more subtle than this represents. For one, I think she did not argue that how we label or understand things, if based on reality, made those labels or understandings necessarily correct. To continue with your example… If you take an all red apple and slowly shift to it green, you are making an error in labeling if you continue to call it red, when it should be called some new color or color combination — but you are not disproving the Randian objective existence of various sizes of lightwaves. If you argue, “yes, but my point is that at what point does it go from being red to some other color? Since any two people would likely decide differently or even one person might become confused — doesn’t that prove the lack of existence of red itself?”

    I would say, in Rand’s system, “No, it totally does not, and you are missing the point.” For her, there is a difference between “objective” reality and how we interpret and label it (note: not, however, in how we perceive it). In Rand’s system, we can get how we understand what our senses are telling us wrong — but we can get it wrong precisely because there is an objective “right.” And if we can not agree on what is red or not red, as something slowly shifts from one to another, it doesn’t prove that there is no reality — in this case, no differences in sizes of lightwaves — but that our understanding needs work, or that one of us is right about where red lies and one of us is wrong, or that the red paradigm itself is flawed or too limited to describe reality. (c.f., optical illusions).

    In short, in Rand’s system, light-waves exist in various wavelengths, and the fact that we perceive wavelengths and differences between wavelengths proves that these things (objectively) exist — ie., once we put words to what we are seeing we can make mistakes in interpreting what we are seeing but that does not disprove that light is pouring into the cones of our eyeballs at different wavelengths and that these variously sized waves are really out there, an objective “other,” not just a dream in our heads.

    Finally, she did say that something can not be both all red and all green at the same time. Now, we know thanks to quantum physics that some bits of reality can be two things at once, and even in two places at once, and can not be fully known where they are and how fast they are moving at the same time. This actually does disprove her assertion that something can not be all red and all green, though I think her system would actually take quantum physics in stride: by my asserting that things can be in two places at once I am making an objective claim and if I claimed otherwise before — it was not that reality changed, it’s that my prior interpretation of what I was perceiving was incorrect. In other words, and here I go out on a limb in my interpretation of Rand — even to claim that something can be in two places at once, requires me to admit there is the objective existence of a.) things b.) places c.) myself as being able to perceive both.

    Anyway, I actually do think Rand is beside the point in many respects and I am not a particular fan.

    By the way, I also think the critique of Rand on happiness also over-simplifies her in order to knock her down; and, ironically, supports her. You assume that happiness, in Rand’s system must be pursued in a particular way, and then show how that leads, basically, to unhappiness. Obviously, Rand would counter that those are irrational methods of pursuing happiness if they lead to unhappiness, not a refutation of the value of pursuing happiness.

    The financial meltdown doesn’t disprove Rand; in fact, your assumption that the meltdown is a bad thing actually proves Rand (ie., if the meltdown is bad — ie., causes unhappiness — then bemoaning it represents an acceptance of happiness as an individual and social goal.)

    Of course, I think happiness itself raises many questions, that Rand would no doubt argue over.

    June 17th, 2010 at 10:36 am
  2. mitsu says:

    I think you’re missing the point of my critique, actually. The issue is not whether or not there is some sort of “objective” reality, but the status of propositions themselves, which is a separate question. There are many fundamental holes in Rand’s thinking, but I haven’t addressed the specific question of whether or not one can speak of an objective reality (that would take an entirely separate set of articles), and I’m also not referring to the status of universals (i.e., does “red” exist) but rather the status of propositions themselves; their truth value.

    Rand clearly states that well-formed propositions can have only one truth value, and that this truth value is objective: true or false. The point of my exercise with my friend was that this assertion is not only clearly incorrect, it is essentially impossible to define for most real world examples of propositions which obviously have meaning but which cannot be said to have a single unequivocal truth value. What you’re essentially saying is that we ought to change the statement “the apple is red” to some other statement, such as “the apple is giving off light in a precise frequency range of X to Y” — but that is a *different* proposition. My point is that language and concepts, as actually used in real life, cannot be mapped into propositional logic in most cases. I never asserted that there were *no* propositions that could be mapped relatively cleanly into formal logic.

    To say, in other words, that you can replace “the apple is red” with some other statement such as “the frequency of the light is X” creates just another question: what is the “correct” translation of “the apple is red” into light frequency? But in fact there is no clear, unequivocal translation of this kind. The same goes for statements such as “it is hot today” and “I am in love with you” and so on.

    In fact, in general, one ought to replace notions of propositions having truth values with a more complex system which allows propositions to take on fuzzy values (fuzzy logic a la Zadeh) — but even that is incomplete. It’s even better to model truth value relative to context — for example the same object may appear red or not depending on the color of surrounding objects (a well known effect in color theory), and it may depend on the physiology of the observer, and many other factors, in addition to the relative fuzziness of the assertion itself.

    The whole point of my argument was simply to dismantle one leg of Rand’s Objectivist manifesto — and to show that she was really not a very careful thinker. The point of my post was not to dismantle every aspect of Rand — which I can certainly do, given enough time, but I’m not addressing every ridiculous thing she said or did in this one post.

    >The financial meltdown doesn’t disprove Rand

    Again, you’re changing the question. I did not attack Rand’s assertion that it is a good idea to “pursue happiness” — I am attacking her idea of the only “ethical” way to pursue happiness which is, as you well know, her assertion that the way to do this is simply by setting up rules which allow people to maximally pursue their own individual happiness while not committing fraud and while honoring contractual arrangements, in a voluntary fashion. I.e., libertarianism. In other words, she didn’t merely say “people ought to pursue happiness”, she specified a specific way people ought to pursue happiness, based on the notion that individual freedom of action was the value that ought to be maximized at all costs.

    Libertarians typically use this argument against any sort of government regulation. In their view, government ought to exist solely for the purpose of enforcing contracts and preventing fraud and theft. Everything else ought to be the purview of individual responsibility. The point I am making with my examples is that this is tantamount to presuming that local optimization in space and time ought to be the sole principle governing society.

    Local optimization has many virtues, not least of which it is by definition decentralized and therefore highly efficient and fast. The problem with it, however, is that it is well known that purely local optimization in space and time can lead to disasters such as massive market bubbles and crashes, and things such as the BP oil disaster, simply because left to their own devices, an individual or corporation which is mostly concerned with short-term profit can and will sacrifice the long-term. Market signals are insufficient to prevent this; the market encodes primarily local information (of course, there’s some long-term information encoded by the market, but most people simply lack the time to correctly forecast the market long-term, and as the bubble/crash shows, it doesn’t work in practice to simply rely on the market to forestall crashes, as even Greenspan figured out).

    These are all very obvious examples. Clearly, some form of longer-term oversight is not only a good idea but essential for the effective functioning of society, even as one attempts to prevent it from becoming top-down centralized control. You need to balance local and global optimization, in other words. Rand focused only on one of those two principles, and that sort of focus inevitably leads to disaster in the long run. Thus my assertion that her thought is an “evil force in the world” — I was exaggerating for effect in my tweet, but it’s basically right.

    June 17th, 2010 at 12:11 pm
  3. heather says:

    I’d call that an Ayn Rant

    June 17th, 2010 at 3:45 pm
  4. mitsu says:


    June 17th, 2010 at 3:46 pm
  5. LK says:

    Ha, ha. You must also see the joke in your proposition that argues the truth that propositions can not have truth value. Other than that - I still submit you are arguing against an Ayn Rand that does not exist (and in saying so I make if not my own joke, at least a pun). For Rand, the truth of something lies within that thing — not within our fallible knowledge of it. (as I mentioned, knowledge does not equal sensory perception for her.) Put another way — to turn your microscope on Ayn Rand through the lonely lens of epistomology is actually to view her out of focus.
    Throughout your critique you start with her supposed “models of reality” but that is the opposite of Rand. She starts with reality.

    Also a bit amusing — you argue Rand (or her philosophy) is not only wrong but, actually, evil. If you believe your own proposition about the knowability of things, then you already are aware such a claim can not be made. As you know, the only claim you can make is that the wrongness and evilness can not be known to exist in Rand or in her ideas but only in your personal construct of them– ie., your knowledge of the wrongness and evilness lies in your personal dialectic with Rand’s thinking, not within her thinking itself. Actually, if you were to claim that, I would in this case agree with you. I also wonder, where is the fuzzy logic in such a proposition.

    On happiness, there is more baked into my short comment to be considered for I think it struck the main point. But to take a new tack completely Our financial system is possibly as close to the direct opposite of the Randian ideal as can be had. Here, in fact you have her favorite bugbears — a powerful, organized, non-value creating interest group (the financial industry) symbiotically feeding off of and feeding a corrupt government, at the expense of the individual, who is victimized by both. I’m sure many libertarians have no true or deep understanding of Rand but it is precisely the thing she’d want Atlas shrugging off, with its destructive derivatives industry built upon the back of enabling government financial institutions (even prior to the bailout). The conservative argues the meltdown was caused by the government via Fannie and Freddie. The liberal argues it was caused by greedy corporations and traders. The libertarian argues it was caused by the corrupt dialectic between the two. And that’s really Rand.

    June 18th, 2010 at 9:39 pm
  6. mitsu says:

    Lee, I appreciate your attempts to defend or explicate Rand, but I’m afraid that you’re careening all over the place in your post, misunderstanding my argument and assuming I’m saying a bunch of things I’m not saying. I suppose that’s what I get for writing a post about Ayn Rand, whose thought is rife with such holes and basic absurdities; I don’t really enjoy writing about her thought as it invites precisely these sorts of poorly-considered arguments and issues.

    First of all, please don’t misunderstand my position. I have made no attempt in this post to detail in depth my own epistemology, which is extremely intricate and bears little resemblance to anything you’ve considered in the past (based on your remarks above). For example, I did not argue that “propositions can not have truth value”, nor have I been arguing that truth can only be found in my “personal constructs” and so on. I don’t want to get into what my actual views are on these subjects, but suffice it to say they’re far more subtle than what you’re assuming here.

    I am making, above, two very straightforward arguments. The first argument I made is a direct consequence of the following two assertions about Rand’s thought (again I hate to even use the word “thought” to describe Rand’s fuzzy-headed ideas, but anyway):

    1. All propositions are either true or false (law of the excluded middle)

    2. A statement such as “the apple is red” is a proposition.

    My argument I believe quite conclusively demonstrates that holding those two views together is irrational. Either one has to give up 1) or give up 2) in the light of the very obvious and simple argument I put forward. Note that my classmate, whom I mentioned above, understood Rand to be asserting these two things, and my argument, obvious though it is, apparently eventually convinced him that Rand must be wrong about this.

    It is this and only this I argued in the first part of my post, above. I made no additional assertions about how it is impossible to assign any truth value to any propositions whatsoever, nor have I made any assertions that truth value is entirely relative or subjective. For example, in Zadeh’s fuzzy logic, propositions can take on truth values ranging from 0 to 1 (false to true), which obviously includes the values 0 and 1 in the spectrum. I think Zadeh’s model is still too simplistic but it is a proof of concept that the argument I am making does not involve giving up all notions of any sort of truth — it simply involves giving up the notion that propositions can only have one of two truth values. My own use of language is far more sophisticated than either a notion of pure relativism or even Zadeh’s approach; if you want to understand my views on certainty, I would say they’re somewhat along the lines of Wittgenstein’s argument in On Certainty as well as his views in Philosophical Investigations — one of the things he says is that even though one can never be absolutely certain of any proposition, it is nevertheless correct to speak of being certain because that is how the language game is played (that is to say to be “almost completely certain” is functionally what we really mean when we say we are “certain” about something). However, there’s far more I could say on that subject, particularly regarding relativity of truth; my position is quite complex, and I don’t have the time or space to say it here in these comments (I will however detail it in future posts, and I’ve alluded to it in some prior posts).

    Regarding your comments about the financial system, again you’re arguing about a completely separate point from the one I was making. Of course I am aware that libertarians frequently make the argument that market instability is due not to some failing in libertarian ideas but due to the fact that the market does not reach the libertarian ideal of one which completely lacks government involvement. But that is a mostly unrelated point to the one I was making. My argument was that, whether or not one can argue that in the case of our own financial system government interference contributes to market instability, one can easily come up with highly simplified thought experiments which DO involve absolutely no government interference and yet clearly suffer from serious long-term instability (as is the case with my “fish in the lake” example, quite obviously). Another example more apropos to the financial crash: there have been numerous experiments in economic psychology (a new and quite fascinating field) which show conclusively that market bubbles occur even in idealized market conditions with absolutely no “government” intervention whatsoever. These experiments have been ongoing for many years now and are quite incontrovertible. For example, consider this survey paper:


    Whether or not one can argue that government interference was a contributing factor in the recent market crash, it’s simply beyond question that even purely free markets do not, in fact, always reach equilibrium and stay there, in practice. The simple reason for this is that while a market is rising, it is in fact reasonable for market participants to try to cash in on this rising market even when asset prices exceed their underlying value. This phenomenon does not depend on government interference, whatsoever.

    June 18th, 2010 at 11:28 pm
  7. omnia et nihil » Thinking without words says:

    [...] In the idea for the “apple is red” example I used in my anti-Rand post, I have: apple (image of apple with mottled surface), then I have a little animation of red -> [...]

    June 24th, 2010 at 5:34 pm
  8. graywyvern says:

    ayn rand serves as a nietzsche for stupid people (although she came along too late to rescue nietzsche from his own equally stupid followers). just as there are musics for nonmusicians, & musics for musicians & people who care to discern things in music, so must there be in philosophy a place for those who do not share the critical thinking abilities one might be forgiven from thinking necessary for a true student of philosophy. for we are living in a levelling age–that styles itself rebellious–& all things must be meddled in by the masses.


    July 6th, 2010 at 12:24 pm

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