Rationalism Among Objectivists

by Jason Stotts

I was perusing this week’s Objectivist Blog Carnival when I noticed a post that sounded interesting: Benjamin Skipper’s “You Can Only Hate What’s *There*.”  Now, I was interested in this because I’m very interested in theories of emotion and this piece sounded particularly misguided by the title.  The piece didn’t disappoint.

The core argument is this:

What clarified things for me is remembering that only existence exists. That which does not exist cannot have an impact on reality, and anyone who claims to deal with things that don’t exist, such as supernatural entities, are only dealing with content within their mind. Since the thing doesn’t actually exist, they can’t interact with it, or even direct their emotions towards it.

This is one of the best example of rationalism I’ve encountered recently.  Consider the premise that “that which does not exist cannot have an impact on reality.”  That’s true, but only if you consider no more than the literal meanings of the words.  Consider the implication, though.  Ben thinks that believing in a god won’t have an impact on reality, since the god doesn’t exist.  History, of course, disagrees.  He also thinks that you can’t direct your emotions to something that doesn’t exist.  That’s also nonsense and, in fact, we do this all the time.

Consider this scenario: I think I hear something in the night and I become afraid that someone might be breaking into my house to do me harm.  I will feel fear and the object of my fear will be the person who wishes me harm.  Now, let’s say that I was mistaken that there was someone breaking in to my house, my fear will subside because it turns out there was no object of my emotion.  But, emotions do not need actually existing objects, they respond to beliefs, and we can have beliefs about all sorts of things, whether they exist or not.  In my example, my emotional response of fear was to the belief that someone might be breaking into my house, not the that fact that someone actually was.  As another example, I believe unicorns are creatures that look a lot like horses, but who have a single horn on their head.  This thought might even cause me some pleasure to consider what such a creature might look like.  However, unicorns do not exist.  Yet, I can still form beliefs about them and I can respond emotionally to my beliefs.  Just because I am “only dealing with content within [my] mind,” does not mean that I’m not having real emotions.  In fact, emotions only ever deal with things within my mind, beliefs, even if the beliefs are formed because of some fact of reality.  The object of an emotion is always a belief.

This rationalistic deduction is the kind of thing that leads nascent Objectivists astray and causes them to hold all sorts of crazy beliefs.  Rationalism is one of our most dangerous enemies as philosophers and we need to ward against this kind of thinking in all things.

Now, let this discussion not be taken as a general criticism of Ben or his blog as I don’t read it regularly and don’t know either way.  Let this also not be taken as a criticism of Ben himself, as it is not an ad hominem.  However, do take it as a complete repudiation of this post by Ben and, perhaps, also his understanding of emotions.

3 Responses to “Rationalism Among Objectivists”


  1. Benjamin

    Oh, I don’t deny that beliefs themselves have an impact on reality; just not in a way people think they do (given false beliefs). In your example, it is true that a belief in God will drive a person to act and think in certain ways, but in the reality that actually exists his actions will be of a different nature. If he prays quietly in his head, for instance, he’ll believe that he’s directing his thoughts to his deity, but in actual reality he’s only thinking to himself, therefore making it so he’s only dealing with content of his mind. He’ll still be dealing with existents in the end, but with his false beliefs he’ll do so in a misguided way.

    In the concrete examples of my argument I’ve been trying to figure out why such things, as Rand has argued, as regulations of successful companies (e.g. antitrust against Google) or praising of paint splatters amounts to hatred of the good for being good. My theory is that these people are being dishonest, as the facts of reality don’t support their beliefs and even flagrantly refute them, and yet they continue on their courses, such as calling for more regulations of greedy companies, as a cover for what is actuality a hatred for good things such as business success and aesthetic masterpieces.

    Though, your argument has given me pause, making me realize I need to think more, perhaps upon what gives rise to a belief to begin with. In essence, I suspected the above examples to be cases of people evading their own maliciousness by adopting beliefs — covers — in order to justify what they’re doing, like James Taggart did with his altruism, but perhaps not. It’s easy enough to see concrete examples of hatred for the good in, say, cases of students picking on the “nerd” in class or an associate getting angry at hearing about a fortunate thing happening to someone, but more difficult to abstract it in cases where a person will hate a business for its size or prefer incoherent “abstract” art.

    And you hardly need to be apologetic. Your rebuttal was written with perfect manners. What is rationalism, by the way?

  2. JasonStotts

    Benjamin,

    Rationalism is a big subject, but for our purposes here it is trying to deduce facts of reality from premises or theorems. In your case, you took the axiom “existence exists” and tried to deduce things from it. That can be very dangerous. Just because something is logically consistent or internally consistent does not mean it’s true (correctly references reality).

    I think you need to spend some time thinking about how the mind works. We don’t hold images in our minds and think with them. We don’t hold “facts” in our minds. We hold beliefs, such as “S is P,” and sometimes these beliefs are facts and sometimes they are not. Further, our emotional process doesn’t respond to things in the world directly, it responds to our beliefs and sometimes are beliefs are about things in the world. Unfortunately, sometimes our beliefs have no reference at all to things in the world.

    Just because someone wrongly believes in a god does not mean that this will not greatly impact him and it certainly does not mean he cannot direct emotions to his belief, even though no gods exist. There is no doubt he is wrong and it is also likely he is deluding himself (he has some doubts which he must evade in order to do this), but this should not be taken to mean that he won’t act from these mistaken beliefs or feel emotions about them.

    In terms of Ayn Rand’s idea of hatred of the good for being the good, I haven’t spent that much time thinking about it. However, from what I do understand, it is an issue of their feeling fundamentally unfit for life and wishing for death. However, due to their evasion of this fact and their unwillingness to take that kind of concrete action, they grow to envy and hate those who are fit for life and who do live well. Remember that “good” for Objectivism is living well for an individual, so the issue is related to life and living well. Good, for Objectivism, is not some non-natural property, or an intrinsic property, or a state ordained by a god.

    ~Jason

  3. Harsha

    Jason,

    Nice post. I like the way you explain Rationalism and conclude about the main point Objectivism IS all about. Its definitely more concerned about the life of an individual as such. Perhaps, I need to think and introspect about myself too as to how our emotional processes work.

    Keep going!
    Harsha.