Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Atlas Shrugged: Final Verdict

Note: This thing has been sitting around a long time in draft form. It has been almost two months since I read the book.

I finished reading Atlas Shrugged, and I have had some time to think about it. I will review the book on two levels: the surface literary value and the deeper philosophy behind it.

The first two parts of the book are fairly good. The decay of the society, the central mystery of the book, and the lives of the characters are chronicled well, and the filibusters do not get too extreme. However, at the start of the third part the book clearly veers into a tired old formula that I have seen in way too many places. The book becomes Yet Another Utopian Fantasy built upon the insidious premise of: "You can make a perfect world by gathering up all of the right people, letting the rest of humanity go to hell, and then building a new Eden from the ashes."

By the end of the book, it is quite clear that the heroes' plan has resulted in the deaths of millions of people, but that's all right, according to Rand, because these people were following a 'philosophy of death' and so deserved to die. Never mind that one of the people who gets killed is a sympathetic, hardworking childhood friend of the main character. They never even considered pulling him out of the dying world. Even though he perfectly followed the philosophy of the heroes, he apparently wasn't enough of an √úbermensch to be allowed into the Brave New World.

The quality of the writing also goes downhill; everything seems contrived for the sole purpose of making a point. Even Rand's apologists admit this. So what is the core philosophy that the book exists to promote?

Most of the core axioms of Rand's philosophy (reality exists, humans use logic to learn reality and create wealth from it) are clearly true. And much else that Rand says is clearly a useful way of thinking and looking at the world. However, she uses these axioms to generate a lot of conclusions that become ever more extreme and ever less defensible, like a rickety tower build on a foundation of solid bricks.

She clearly has the mind of a philosopher, and not a scientist. Thus, she tumbles into the predictable intellectual traps that philosophers and intellectuals constantly fall prey to. I'll explain this by talking about the basic epistemology of science.

A scientist is someone who observes reality and uses that data to build models of the world. A hypothesis must be tested by observation. A scientist is always willing to accept new information about the world, and is always willing to change mental models based on the information received.

The following two quotes are very instructive:

1) The map is not the territory.
2) All models are wrong, but some models are useful.

Scientists always know that the mental models they form of the world might be incorrect or even wrong. No human mind can ever contain a full and accurate model of the world, for the simple reason that the mind is a small part of the world, and so the mind must contain less information than the world. Therefore, by definition, all of our mental maps or models are a reduced, simplified versions of reality.

A scientist knows that the scientific method can never deliver a final, ultimate truth about the world. The best it can do is repeatedly fail to reject a hypothesis. Once a hypothesis has withstood many, many challenges, you can assume that it is a useful way to generate predictions that have a high probability of coming true. However, you have to accept that reality could throw you a curveball at any time, and you have to be willing to update your mental models to account for the new information the world throws at you.

A scientist knows that reality is messy and confusing, accepts this fact, and attempts to improve our understanding of that reality.

A philosopher, by contrast, believes that ultimate truth can be generated by a process of logic based on definitions. While the core axioms may be based on reality, everything else is generated in the philosopher's mind, by an iterative process, from the axioms. The only thing a philosopher cares about is internal consistency; there is no understanding that you need to check your mental models against reality.

And so, time and time again, a philosopher will generate a model of the world using the philosophical process rather than the scientific method. The results rarely have any connection to the real world. And yet the philosopher falls in love with his or her mental model, because it is so beautifully self-consistent and clean.

Often, other people also fall in love with the philosopher's model. People want easy answers, and a philosophy often gives it to them. The philosopher and/or the followers then attempt to use the philosophical model to explain everything about reality. Rather than accept the facts of reality, they start to bend and twist the facts so they fit in the model.

Eventually, they reach the point where they decide to alter reality so it fits the philosophical model. Sometimes they obtain enough power to actually attempt this. The results of this attempt are almost always a disaster. Ironically enough, Atlas Shrugged shows the horrible human cost that is inflicted whenever a group of philosophers attempt to reshape the world in their image, even as it cheerleads this very process.

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