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Authoring Ourselves: On Ideological versus Physical Causation

November 15th, 2011 by Jim May · 19 Comments · Uncategorized

Every hand’s a winner,

And every hand’s a loser.

–Kenny Rogers, The Gambler

Just this morning, the following items came across my radar. Can you detect the basic alternative that is common to all of them?

At the New York Times, Eddy Nahmias asks: “Is Neuroscience the Death of Free Will?” (A very good read in its own right, I’m not linking it just for the title!)

Via Twitter, Linda Cordair (@CordairGallery) tweets:

The bond that links your true family is not one of blood, but of respect and joy in each other’s life.

From Jennifer Casey, at her blog “Rational Jenn”:

Morgan said the most interesting thing to us the other day. It was something like this:

“There are three people who can invent me–you two [pointing at me and Brendan] and ME!”

That statement led to a fascinating conversation about how, yes, we created her, but she is primarily responsible for inventing herself.

Because she is. We gave her the raw materials, but she must learn and figure things out and integrate concepts and make decisions, all things which will shape her mind and sense of self and sense of life–each of which will in turn affect future decisions and her thinking (and even the decision to think).

Emphasis mine.

Those of you who have read enough of my writings about ideological causation should already be able to suspect what’s coming, as I have touched on this connection before.  The obvious form of the alternative, is free will versus determinism, yes — but I want to discuss a closely related expression of this alternative: ideological versus physical causation as the motor of human action.


Ideological causation is my integration of “the inexorable logic of ideas”, with the premise of free will. I first conceived of it sixteen years ago when I spotted the false presumption behind David Kelley’s accusing Leonard Peikoff of “Hegelianism” in regard to the latter’s invocation of “inexorable logic” in explaining that it is ideas that move men (in the latter’s essay “Fact and Value”). “Hegelianism”, as I understood Kelley to mean, was the notion that ideas themselves are the moral agents, and that men were *passively* moved by them.

My immediate reaction to that claim, was to laugh out loud. It was clear to me that Dr. Peikoff had left unexpressed, for simple reasons of economy, the basic premise of free will which all genuine Objectivists would know was part of the underlying assumptions. In other words, ideas do move men, so long as they accept them.  Men are always free to get off that train, I thought.  Else what is the point of Ayn Rand’s most famous quote: “Check your premises”?

That is the key right there. The differences between physical and ideological causation are as follows:

1. Physical causation, or ordinary causality, is driven by the laws of physics, and is deterministic. The entities involved, from quarks to galaxies, act as determined by those laws — there is only one causal path they may follow.

2. Ideological causation is driven by basic logic – and the entities involved retain the ability to interrupt it and to redirect their course onto different causal paths.

“Different causal paths” is of course what I am referring to with my road metaphor. The central idea involved here, is “the ability to interrupt”, also known as free will — and the entities involved are of a special sort: they are the ones possessing a conceptual form of consciousness. Human beings are the only entities we know of that fit this criterion.

Philosophical determinism is, in essence, the insistence upon substituting physical causation for ideological causation as the motor of human action. The very notion of “ideological causation” is that ideas are efficacious in the world, and that is what is specifically being denied by determinism. If that is clear to you, dear reader, the examples of this error in action all over our culture should be multiplying in your mind right now.

Obvious examples of this error are Eddy Nahmias’ neuroscientists, and their thinkalikes in the evolutionary psychology field.  From there, you can see it in every article trumpeting the latest “Gene for X found“, where “X” is some human behavior. But it just keeps going from there.

How many times have you seen some political commentator insist that his opponents are “crazy”? If we take “crazy” to mean an actual illness or other physical issue with his opponent’s brain, that commentator is doing the same thing — he is ascribing physical rather than ideological causation to explaining his opponents’ ideas. This is common with both Leftists and conservatives, and it is due to ideological (not physical) causes that are common to them both.  Conservatives in particular are known for their disdain for the efficacy of ideas; it’s a direct side effect of their “Original Sin” premise (more on that below).

In addition to disease or injury (“you fell on your head/ate paint chips as a kid, didn’t you?”), another common form of physical causation invoked to explain ideological effects, is genetics. This one should be familiar from one of its most virulent and common logical expressions: racism.

Racism is a species of collectivism, of course, so now let’s shine that light over there (yes, this is a very target-rich topic). Among other things, collectivism views individuals as interchangeable. This makes perfect sense from a viewpoint informed exclusively by physical causation: if the active causative agent is genetics, then all individuals bearing the same genes will enact the same effects (i.e. their identity is a function of the physical aspect defining the group, not of any choices made by any individual). They will look the same, act the same, smell the same; one is as good as any other of that particular group.

None of this changes when you swap in some other physical cause. Jump from “nature to “nurture”; now the physical causation involved is one’s environment. From that bizarre “your tools condition your mind” notion that Ayn Rand lambasted in “Atlas Shrugged”, to Marx and his economic determinism, to the Left’s fetish with the deterministic power of society — the end result is the same: if you came from culture X, that is what determines your identity. That’s what you were seeing when some Leftists were asking if Barack Obama was “black enough” — and why Lefties, like religionists, become unhinged in the face of “apostates” who don’t follow the expected program (Herman Cain, Clarence Thomas, Sarah Palin and Ann Coulter for four quick examples.) Then you come to Harry Belafonte and his infamous “race traitor” comments, and you see how all of these examples start blending together when viewed from the correct perspective. (Funny how that happens!)

How about non-physical causes?  Cue the religionists!  What exactly do you think that “Original Sin” or “The devil made me do it” IS, if not another example of a claimed external and determinate cause of individual behavior? The posited cause is “spiritual” rather than physical, the group so defined is humanity itself, and the ultimate “determinor” is God’s law rather than the laws of physics or genetics — but these differences pertain entirely to metaphysics. The essence of the idea, and its moral consequences, are the same. (Christianity has not been consistent on this point over its history with regards to free will, but it has never corrected the basic error. Such is the, er. ideologically determined nature of inherently arbitrary doctrines.)

And finally, this: does anyone recognize Kant’s notion of “innate ideas” here? “Innate” means innate to the nature of the subject being discussed — human nature, in this case. In other words, ideas in the mind that are predetermined by some physical cause. This is the ultimate abstraction of all the concretes I just described, and it’s the one active whenever you hear someone blaming “human nature” for anything.

Here we finally come to one of the signature expressions of the direct opposition between Ayn “Man is a being of self-made soul” Rand, and Immanuel “Out of the crooked timber of humanity no straight thing was ever made” Kant!

That, ladies and gentlemen, is my explanation of the ideological causation behind the “physical causation” fetish.

As for its psychological manifestation, I’ll bet many of you are ahead of me on that one: the signature behavior is that of making excuses. Blame luck, blame God, blame one’s genetics, blame IQ, blame human nature, blame the weather, blame one’s parents or one’s rotten lousy hometown — it doesn’t matter. Such people are petrified of the responsibility of self-authorship, and I am dead certain that a significant portion of the visceral hatred for Ayn Rand comes from those who glimpse this aspect of her philosophy.  Atlas Shrugged is full of this sort of character; they are the ones, like Eric Starnes, screaming “But I couldn’t help it!”  Ayn Rand clearly had their number.

When she said “Man is a being of self-made soul”, she meant specifically that, as individuals, we author ourselves — and are morally responsible for the results. As I have written before, it is our *character* that we author, not our physical bodies or our nature as human beings. It is our character which is “tabula rasa”, not our nature. The latter does not determine the content of our character, but merely defines the potential that every individual has. It’s up to each one of us to actualize it.

We can see the alternative logically playing itself out among Eddy Nahmias’ apostles of physical determinism.

It’s the meaning behind Linda Cordair’s quote: true family is not defined by the physical accidents of birth or genetics, but by the values chosen in common by the individuals involved. (The bond of common experiences in growing up together, counts as such a choice.)

Most importantly, this is what Jennifer Casey is teaching her children, and they will be far and away the better off for it. It will be that sense of self-authorship which forms the basis for Morgan’s self-respect, and self-discipline. The goal of such parenting is not to “imbue the child with one’s values” as so many think it is, but to provide the child with as solid a base as possible from which to sally forth into the world and discover them for herself; as Jenn puts it: “This idea of self-invention relates to my parenting principles in that I deliberately try to stay out of their self-invention as much as possible.” Compare and contrast this with all the square pegs being shoved into round holes by parents whose preconceptions of what their kid is determined to be, overrides what the child himself may think (if he even makes it that far).

It’s not about the cards you are dealt; those merely set your limits. Your character lies in how you play the hand.

19 Comments so far ↓

  • madmax


    You accuse me of arguing for physical causation. That’s not true. My position, which is still a work in progress, is that ideological causation is the ultimate cause of the events of human history, but it is not the only cause. I think it would be foolish to ignore the role that biology has had in shaping culture, and the role that culture has had in moving history.

    At the end of the last post there was a discussion of the effects to European history of the fact that the Catholic Church banned inter-cousin marriage. Now this is somewhat inexact because while they did ban marriage they did not ban de facto polygamy which was rampant – the Nobles of the era had their official wives and their unofficial harems. But the effect was that in 15 or so centuries Europe, and in particular England, would become the most outbred region on the earth. This had consequences – namely the develop of a society characterized by more trust, less clannishness, more non-familial corporate groupings and a greater development of ideas. Ideas which would lead to Classical Liberalism and Objectivism in time.

    Or take another example. For anyone who has read ‘Blank Slate’ or ‘The Red Queen’ or “Sperm Wars’ or ‘Why Women Have Sex’ or countless other books on evolutionary theory applied to sex and culture, you can not but come away with the understanding that humans come “wired” with a host of in-built mechanisms. Language is in all probability one of them (which means that as loathsome as he is Chomskey is probably close to the truth with his language theories).

    Now I don’t think that this should lead to genetic determinism. The egalitarian science Lefties and the BioCon righties do, but I see no reason why the fact that humanity has a bunch of in-built programs and instincts denies free will.

    But it is undeniable that most Objectivists do think this and they are following Rand’s lead on this. Rand was WRONG in her views of blank slate psychology. She is coming from a pre-1970s perspective when all this material really became available. She was still a part of the blank slate intellectual culture which denied evolutionary mediated differences between the sexes, etc.. (This effected sociology (Durkheim), anthropology (Mead), psychology (Freud and the behaviorists) – all of which were blank-slaters and all of which have been discredited.) It did leave an influence on her. Read her Playboy interview where she argues that humans have no biological drives in the sexual area. That is easily falsified.

    But none of this implies that ideological causality isn’t the major force in moving world events. But it does imply that our culture is extremely influenced by our biology. And that if you understand some of the biological and cultural dynamics in play, then your ability to predict the societal dynamics and where things are heading is that much more powerful. Ideological causality is enhanced.

    For an example of the latter I would say that pretty much all Objectivists are aware of the damage that the welfare state is causing. But none of them want to acknowledge the racial component to that welfare state. It is largely driven by racial egalitarianism. Yes, altruism is still the engine, but racial egalitarianism is providing the train tracks. And it is for that reason that I say that we are heading for racial conflict. But this is a taboo subject for most Objectivists, which I must admit pisses me off to no end.

    I’ll conclude that despite our disagreements, I think you are one of, if not the best, Objectivist blogger. No other O’ist blogger understands both the treachery and the evil of the Left and of the true 19th century Conservatives. Certainly not the dingbats over at NoodleFood. Most other O’ists have their heads in the sand and stress nothing but economics. At least this blog gets some really good thinkers that bring alot more to the table.

  • Neil Parille

    A while ago I wrote an essay on Rand and evolution (which was attacked by Hsieh).

    I didn’t know at the time that Rand did say something positive about evolution in 1980, apparently the religious right was pushing for equal time for creationism.


  • Mike

    This effected…psychology (Freud and the behaviorists) – all of which were blank-slaters and all of which have been discredited.

    What do you mean by saying Freud was a blank-slater? The whole basis of Fruedian psychoanalysis is the view that man is motivated by unconscious instincts or drives.

    (It’s also questionable that Margaret Mead was a radical “blank slater” in the line of your dismissive stereotype, as you can see in her comment in a preface of Coming of Age in Samoa from 1973: “the interplay between individual endowment and cultural style, the limits set by biology and the way in which human imagination can transcend those limits…” I’ve copied that over from a review well worth reading. His comments on Pinker’s Blank Slate, which you seem to have read much too uncritically, are also well worth taking to heart.)

    Or take another example. For anyone who has read ‘Blank Slate’ or ‘The Red Queen’ or “Sperm Wars’ or ‘Why Women Have Sex’ or countless other books on evolutionary theory applied to sex and culture, you can not but come away with the understanding that humans come “wired” with a host of in-built mechanisms.

    Your statement is false–I’ve read them and come away with no such “understanding.”

    Language is in all probability one of them (which means that as loathsome as he is Chomskey is probably close to the truth with his language theories).

    Oh, really? So you agree that the concepts of “carburetor” or “bureaucrat” have important innate elements to them? Chomsky has argued as such–he argues that in fact there must be thousands of innate elements of meaning, thousands of categories that cannot be learned from the evidence of the senses and instead must be inborn. This is because his theories are a response to the stripped-down epistemology of the British empiricists as handled by the Anglo-American analytic approaches of the 20th century, which indeed on their own terms can be shown not to succeed at explaining human knowledge.

    More generally, Chomsky’s theories are not convincing to a good number of linguists. Try Michael Tomasello’s Constructing a Language for a state of the art introduction to what is actually known about how children learn language–despite the guff of Chomskyan nativists, theories of language learning intended to tie Chomskyan theory down to the actual nuts and bolts of language learning (including Pinker’s technical work on language learning) all fail, whereas non-nativist theories actually work.

    Similarly, Chomskyan views of innate principles of syntactic structure are frequently flouted by phenomena in many languages, uncluding such well-studied languages as English–to the extent that Chomskyans actually put forward concrete proposals as to what is actually innate as opposed to being due to the operation of general cognitive capacities. (On the latter point, I’ll point you again to Michael Tomasello, one of whose critical articles is here. Another easily accessible example is a good review by Larry Trask of yet another of the plethora of pop science linguistics books from a Chomskyan viewpoint, showing how one-sided and illogical the argument is.) I mean, really, if you think the evidence is strongly in favor of Chomsky being fundamentally right, then you’re either coming from an exclusively one-sided experience with the issues or you have a bias towards nativism.

    Rand was WRONG in her views of blank slate psychology.

    In fact, she wrote relatively little about psychology–hers was principally a blank-slate epistemology, and it’s dismaying to see how frequently and adamantly you confuse the two.

    Read her Playboy interview where she argues that humans have no biological drives in the sexual area. That is easily falsified.

    It’s clear if you bother reading what she actually said, she was attacking the idea of non-rational instincts–biologically-programmed knowledge:

    “A man is equipped with a certain kind of physical mechanism and certain needs, but without any knowledge of how to fulfill them. For instance, man needs food. He experiences hunger. But, unless he learns first to identify this hunger, then to know that he needs food and how to obtain it, he will starve. The need, the hunger, will not tell him how to satisfy it. Man is born with certain physical and psychological needs, but he can neither discover them nor satisfy them without the use of his mind. Man has to discover what is right or wrong for him as a rational being. His so-called urges will not tell him what to do.”

    If you take “drive” in one common sense, ” A strong motivating tendency or instinct, especially of sexual or aggressive origin, that prompts activity toward a particular end,” that is, a particular object, then her dismissal is hardly anything to write home about; if, instead, you take “drive” as roughly equivalent to need, then her statement makes it clear that in that sense she fully recognized “biological drives.”

    And I can’t avoid pointing out that it was the behaviorists who were crazy-hot into innate biological drives as sources of behavior. For example, Clark Hull: “Hull’s model is couched in biological terms: Organisms suffer deprivation. Deprivation creates needs. Needs activate drives. Drives activate behavior. Behavior is goal directed. Achieving the goal has survival value.” Emphasis added–what is the nature of the goal indicated? A mental state (in Hull’s “drive theory,” a state of relaxation), or an external object? A lot rides on the answer to that.

  • Mike

    I see that one of the links didn’t come out right. Tomasello’s paper on UG (Chomsky’s Universal Grammar, which I prefer to call UGH, the Universal Grammar Hypothesis, but only used as an acronym) is here (the link should open a PDF). [NOTE (Bill Brown): I fixed the link in the original comment.] This paragraph is especially worth quoting:

    “I think it is important that the oddness of the UG hypothesis about language acquisition be emphasized; it has basically no parallels in hypotheses about how children acquire competence in other cognitive domains. For example, such skills as music and mathematics are, like language, unique to humans and universal among human groups, with some variations. But no one has to date proposed anything like UniversalMusic or UniversalMathematics, and no one has as yet proposed any parameters of these abilities to explain cross-cultural diversity (e.g., +/- variables, which some cultures use, as in algebra, and some do not—or certain tonal patterns in music). It is not that psychologists think that these skills have no important biological bases—they assuredly do—it is just that proposing an innate UM does not seem to be a testable hypothesis, it has no interesting empirical consequences beyond those generated by positing biological bases in general, and so overall it does not help us in any way to get closer to the phylogenetic and ontogenetic origins of these interesting cognitive skills.”

    This is a very nice counter-statement to the Chomskyan claim that the uniqueness of language to humans among species but its universality among humans shows its special biologically innate status. But this counter-blast and many others like it are rarely mentioned in such books as Ray Jackendoff’s Patterns in the Mind that are assigned in introductory linguistics classes (I know, I was a TA for one such class), which just regurgitate the “poverty of stimulus” argument and the Nicaraguan deaf children and the like, without any indication to the reader that other interpretations and arguments from the same data are possible. (For myself, I mentioned Terence Deacon’s The Symbolic Species in passing and made clear to the students that what was important was their ability to understand the point of the argument, for it is, alas, an important part of modern linguistic theory in the US and certain parts of Europe suffering under Bostonian-Cantabrigian cultural imperialism, not whether they believed it. –For a more useful bit of rebellion, when one of the syntacticians in our department got copies of the Baker book reviewed by Trask that he gave out to all and sundry, I made sure to point to Trask’s review on the departmental list-serve. Every linguist but the syntacticians appreciated the heads-up.)

    Also, while I’m not a Popperian, I’ve been familiar with his work for at least twenty-three years now. While falsifiability is hardly the ultimate criterion of truth, Popper himself didn’t intend it to be–that was a misrepresentation by the logical positivists he was arguing against. It was intended as a criterion separating science from non-science, and unlike the logical positivists Popper was not opposed on principle to metaphysics; whether it’s a solid criterion is something one can argue about, but falsifiability in the Popperian sense is nonetheless a good rule of thumb for whether something’s scientific or not, and as I have actually seen Popperian falsifiability used to support Chomskyan approaches to the scientific study of language, it’s a good rhetorical tool on Tomasello’s part.

  • Mike

    And one more link, to a good critique of the Chomskyan-Pinkerian arguments for a “language organ” in the terms often used in pop science linguistics tracts (like the Baker, Pinker, and Jackendoff mentioned previously). They’re only convincing if you don’t think them through. I certainly don’t agree with everything on the guy’s site, but his commentary on languages and linguistics are quite good. –And yes, I suppose this is arguably overkill, but the claim that Chomsky is probably close to right on the basis of exposure to popular books by Pinker and the evolutionary psychologists is just…lamentable.

  • Michael

    None of Steve pinker’s arguments about language are applicable: they either show a frankly unscientific trend to evangelism in leaping to conclusions not supported by the data (many of his claims about notions of structure, which it turns out are no longer believed by even the most ardent Chomskian nativists)or they are simply inapplicable to debate on tabula rasa — they pertain to the capacity to learn, not to the prior presence of knowledge.

  • Jim May

    Now I don’t think that this should lead to genetic determinism. The egalitarian science Lefties and the BioCon righties do, but I see no reason why the fact that humanity has a bunch of in-built programs and instincts denies free will.

    That one’s easy. Volition, in its purest essence, pertains to the selection of focus (including the choice to focus on nothing). This means, choosing the target of focus; consider this and not that.

    Volition and consciousness come as a single package. There is no such thing as a consciousness with no volition; such a “consciousness”, being unable to direct its focus to something in particular, cannot be conscious of things in particular — of entities, and of their identities. In what sense is it conscious, then?

    The reason why instincts can exist and work in animals, is precisely because animals, operating solely on the perceptual/associational level, can be aware of entities and their attributes, but not ideas, abstractions, concepts.

    Beavers, for example, have a built-in instinct that tells them how and where to build dams. Researchers have established that they will tend to build where the sound of rushing water is the loudest (they can be induced to build at a particular location by using speakers playing water sounds). This works because beaver awareness is only of the sound, and of the “itch” to pile up wood there in a certain way until the sound stops. Like all animals, however, beavers cannot conceive of this “itch”, and so cannot conceive of ignoring or overriding it.

    Humans can do that — and that’s why they don’t have “instincts” in the form that animals do. This means that a human experiencing the “itch” can be aware of more than that itch — he can be aware of the *idea* of the itch. He can question it, or reject it — he can refuse to scratch it.

    Ideological causality means specifically this, that human beings are moved by chosen ideas over and above everything else — even including very basic ones like hunger. That isn’t to say that we can switch these things off; only that a human *decides* to act on them or not. Animals don’t, because they lack the type of consciousness required to become aware of such a choice. This is the basic fact underlying Ayn Rand’s observation that human beings are the only entities that can act against their own natures.

    As I said in the post, human nature defines limits, the space within which the will operates. We can choose not to eat, but we’ll still starve to death like any animal if we don’t. Hunger urges a choice, it does not *make* that choice.

    For the human form of consciousness, ideas do not merely trump “instinct”; in removing any limit to the choices that come within the purview of human volition, they exclude the possibility.

    This is where the concept of “innate ideas” comes in. This is the attempt to elevate animal instincts into some sort of conceptual equivalent. It relies on the fact that the fundamental incompatibility between instinct and free will is not immediately apparent.

    And yet, the logic of the very idea cannot be denied. The fact that Lefties and “bio-cons” have reached the same conclusion is due to this logic. They are simply further down the road than you are at the moment, madmax, and it is they who are right: if there can be such a thing as innate ideas, there can ultimately be no free will — because since “innate” means “built-in”, this doctrine boils down to “ideas as preprogramming” — in other words, “instinct” as insects have them, that cannot be overridden.

    The only way that this could be so, would be if overriding them were in fact inconceivable to the human mind — and this is immediately and introspectively false. Humans can conceive of the inverse of any idea.

    We have built-in urges, yes. But an urge is not an idea. Human beings can invent, discover, accept and reject *any* idea upon which they choose focus, including the idea of delaying or overriding any urge.

    Because of this, there is no urge that can “author” any ideas (though they certainly can nudge one’s awareness *to* an idea, which is their function; if you are hungry, you think of food).

    As for the dodge of characterizing these ideas as being “below” the consciousness — the so-called “unconscious” urges, directives etc. of Freud — it falls to the objections raised by Nahmias. The only way these “hidden” ideas could work would be if we could never detect their operation, that we could never observe their actions and consequences. This is obviously false. There is no way that such sub-conscious material can affect our actions without our noticing it — and once we notice it, we can actively interfere with it.

    That wouldn’t be possible if there were a “bunch of in-built programs and instincts”. If we can override them, ideas are causal and they aren’t “built-in programs” (because they can be “deleted”). If we can’t override them, it’s because we cannot conceive of overriding them any more than a beaver can conceive of refusing to build a dam — in which case we don’t have free will.

    So, the inexorable logic of explaining the content of human character (which is simply a lifetime of accumulated and accepted ideas) by references to physical causation, forces its adherents to deny free will. Some just deny the existence of ideas at all; the more sophisticated ones look for deterministic causes *of* ideas. They conflate epistemology with psychology, and in its turn, psychology with physiology, with the goal of reducing everything to it — hence “materialistic reductionism”, or determinism.

    The ideological flow of these ideas leads me to make a testable prediction: you will find that determinists will not only despise the notion of moral responsibility, but they disdain the very notion of philosophy itself. For Leftists, this end manifests as a technocratic disdain for philosophy as useless; the conservative version despises it as an over-reliance on the intellect they so distrust.

    Now go take a look at the comments on Eddy Nahmias’ article and try that prediction out. I haven’t seen those, as I didn’t know there were any comments there until it was pointed out to me on Twitter after I posted this article.

    Lastly: absolutely none of this is to say that physical causation plays no role. In the example of the Church banning cousin marriages, for example, the physical consequences of that rule undoubtedly exist. Humans respond to physical causation all the time; they follow the buffalo, they move to warmer climates, they arm themselves against animals. The key to remember is the *decision* to do those things were not physically caused; they were driven by ideas.

  • Andrew Dalton

    “Volition and consciousness come as a single package. ”

    Jim –

    Did you intend to qualify this as conceptual consciousness?

  • Neil Parille


    You said that conservatives have disdain for the efficacy of ideas. Can you give me some names and citations. Conservatives are always complaining about what schools are teaching children. I don’t think they would do that if they didn’t believe “ideas have consequences,” to borrow the title of the one of the most famous conservative books of last century.

    The doctrine of Original Sin is not contradictory to free will. A person can have freedom but be constrained. In fact it seems confirmed by introspection. I often have a temptation to do things I don’t want to do, but I am able to control myself.

    It’s been a while since I read Sowell’s book A Conflict of Visions, but he talked about a “constrained” and “unconstrained” view of human nature. I think Rand’s view of man puts her in the (largely) unconstrained camp. I mentioned before her claim that you can raise your IQ from 110 to 140 and her belief that we only use a small amount of our brain power.

  • Inspector


    Well said. I’ve been too busy to reply to Madmax’s post.


    I would characterize your position as being that you saw a conflict between what Rand had said and some certain facts about biology that you knew to exist. You had concluded that Rand was wrong, and that as a consequence certain ideas about evolutionary psychology and such were true.

    I hope that Jim has successfully shown to you the point that I want to make in response to this. Namely, that the conflict you thought you saw did not exist at all. Those biological facts can be completely true, and yet not at all conflict with what Rand said about free will and human consciousness. And, as a consequence of this, it is not at all necessary to accept the implications of biology that evolutionary psychologists would have you accept.

    To say that again: one can simultaneously accept biological facts about evolution and reflexive urges, and *not at all* accept the implications that evolutionary psychologists would have you believe that those facts have. Those facts can be true *without* contradicting what Rand had said, and therefore the implications of what Rand said are still 100% true, even in the face of anything biology has since discovered.

    This is an opportunity for you. You can examine the implications of this, and where they lead. Some adjustments – not 180’s or anything, but adjustments – are in order.

  • Inspector

    “You said that conservatives have disdain for the efficacy of ideas. Can you give me some names and citations. Conservatives are always complaining about what schools are teaching children. I don’t think they would do that if they didn’t believe “ideas have consequences,” to borrow the title of the one of the most famous conservative books of last century.”

    This is actually a fair question, although I believe it can be answered. For instance, it applies quite well to certain schools of conservatives. American ones of the better part of the early twentieth century, for instance. Bear in mind that many modern conservatives aren’t purely conservative, but only mostly so. Sowell would be a good example of a mixture of Classical Liberal and American Conservative. I’m sure Jim can elaborate.

    The next may also not be entirely unfair. If hunger is no contradiction to free will – and it isn’t – then a hypothetical desire to “sin” wouldn’t be either, provided the doctrine held that it could, like hunger, be ignored. Now there is the question of the complexity of the alleged desire; if one was claiming some kind of automatic-knowledge-level desire, then that would be false on its face.

    And, of course, none of the above stops Orig Sin from being complete bollocks, quite apart from its relationship to free will.

    Another curiosity is that you seem to imply that the doctrine of original sin is simply a psychological phenomenon, while the versions that I have heard put it a lot deeper than that. An inherited guilt for crimes of the species of man, and all that rot.

  • Inspector

    Addendum, supporting the point of conservative disdain for ideas: the traditional manifestation is a preference for “common sense” over philosophy. Which I hope everyone here knows is nonsense, given that “common sense” is nothing but the product of one’s ideas, i.e. one’s philosophy.

    How timely. Hermain Cain just got done being quoted as saying “We need a leader, not a reader.” What would you call that, if not a disdain for ideas?

  • Andrew Dalton

    Inspector –

    The Christian doctrine of original sin is indeed much stronger than what conservatives claim is supported by, say, psychology or biology or history. At most, their evidence shows that evil exists in the world and is possible to any person. This is true, but such evidence doesn’t contradict any worldview except for perhaps some variants of Leftism that hold that evil is a byproduct of bad social arrangements, or a myth promulgated by the powerful.

    Conservatives who make such claims are either pulling a dishonest bait-and-switch to promote their religion, or they are repeating cliches about the “fallen” nature of man without a clear understanding of what Christians mean by that.

    The centrality in Christian doctrine of Jesus’ death and resurrection–to redeem humanity from what would otherwise be universal damnation–refutes the notion that original sin can be reduced to a belief about psychology. And the unavoidable supernatural claims of this doctrine means that it cannot be supported by any evidence in reality.

  • Neil Parille

    Mr. Inspector,

    This is the first time I’ve heard Herman Cain mentioned as an authority on conservatism.

    I’m sure there are certain conservative who have anti-intellectual populist themes, such as George Wallace. On the left there was Harry Truman complaining that his opponents used “four dollar words” or something like that. But even here, were they denying the “efficacy” of ideas?

    Obviously people act the way they do in large part because of ideas. (Biology plays something of a role in my opinion as well.)

    What O’ists seem to mean when they talk about ideas is that philosophical ideas (generally metaphysics and epistemology) as embraced by intellectuals determine culture. This is what I think is incorrect, or at least exaggerated. I don’t think, for example, that Germans voted for the Nazis because German intellectuals were corrupted by Kant. That doesn’t mean it wasn’t “ideas” that caused Nazism, but I’d say that there were lots of bad ideas floating around when Germans were desperate for solutions. I don’t know of any Nazi leaders who were professed Kantians, nor do I think anyone is more likely to believe absurd racial theories because he is an empiricist, a Hegelian, a Kantian or whatever.

    The great von Mises was a Kantian after all.

  • Inspector


    Yes, very good. I was hoping someone would make that point.

    Mr. Parille,

    “But even here, were they denying the “efficacy” of ideas?”

    Um. *Yes*.

    “I don’t think, for example, that Germans voted for the Nazis because German intellectuals were corrupted by Kant… I don’t know of any Nazi leaders who were professed Kantians, nor do I think anyone is more likely to believe absurd racial theories because he is an empiricist, a Hegelian, a Kantian or whatever.”

    This is either ignorant or deliberately disingenuine. (I suppose it was a matter of time)

    You’ve oversimplified Dr. Peikoff’s thesis of The Ominous Parallels either because you haven’t actually read the book, or because you’re trying to smear it with said oversimplification. Either way, I feel no obligation to take that seriously as an argument.

  • Neil Parille

    Mr. Inspector,

    I don’t know anyone who denies the efficacy of ideas. I’m sure there are a few people, but you should give me names and citations.

    I’m not oversimplifying Peikoff’s book.

  • Antacid


    “How timely. Hermain Cain just got done being quoted as saying “We need a leader, not a reader.” What would you call that, if not a disdain for ideas?”

    Not that I’m a fan of his, but I thought he was referring to a script reader –someone only good at reading from pre-written speeches.

  • Inspector


    I’d love to be proven wrong. For all his flaws, I’d rather see him in office than any of the other major candidates. But, as far as I can gather, the context of the quote is,

    “Who knows every detail of every country or every situation on the planet? Nobody! We’ve got plenty of experts, we need a leader, not a reader.”

  • KFJ

    “true family is not defined by the physical accidents of birth or genetics, but by the values chosen in common by the individuals involved. (The bond of common experiences in growing up together, counts as such a choice.)”


    Please stop and think about this for a moment.

    Who among us ever chose our parents and siblings?

    People don’t just pop into existence, fully-formed, out of thin air.

    The ability to exercise choice presupposes a character that’s already been formed (at least in part), and ability to act upon one’s own initiative. When and where you are born is a contingent fact with profound existential consequences.