Ayn Rand and Forty Years: My Objections to Objectivism
Ayn Rand’s Address To The Graduating Class Of The United States Military Academy at West Point,
New York – March 6, 1974
Forty years of water incessantly dripping on a flat plateau can carve out a badlands tableau. Deep furrows, gullies and blind box canyons make its map appear as if it were crumpled up and tossed in wastebasket for a week. We have lived through forty years of acid raining down from Ivory Towers, perverting the innocent minds that are drawn to be educated. Ayn Rand would certainly be persona non grata at any Graduation ceremony nowadays.
I am a great fan of Ayn Rand. However I am not an acolyte. In my opinion she elevates the rational mind into a God. She writes in her address to the West Point grads “Are the things you see around you real–or are they only an illusion? Do they exist independent of any observer–or are they created by the observer? Are they the object or the subject of man’s consciousness? Are they what they are–or can they be changed by a mere act of your consciousness, such as a wish?”
THE THINGS WE SEE? We have never “seen” a thing. We see one thing and only one thing: photons. Photons, quanta of light, impact our retina, causing neurochemical cascades in neurons that interact with other cascades in other neurons. The net output is further integrated with other neurons from other areas of the retina, from the same eye and from the other. These outputs are further integrated in the thalamic nuclei and then “filtered” through associative visual cortex. An image occurs in our mind’s eye.
Yes, Ayn is correct that to a very large degree the image can be assumed to be “thing” itself. But, though it is an image of the thing, it is NOT the thing itself! The mental steps preceding an observation: i.e. I perceive a pattern of impulses that I have learned is associated with photons reflecting off of a certain object may be taken as given. It is not necessary to preface every thought with that disclaimer.
However, though 99% of the time the assumption is correct, it is not always so.
Take the Rainbow for instance. No one doubts the reality of the rainbow. However, it is a case of a mental image having NO basis in the external physical world.
The Rainbow is not in the water droplets, or the atmosphere. It is only in the mind. Ayn asks, “Are they only an illusion?” I suggest that ONLY, is a bad choice of words. Is a rainbow “merely” or “only” an illusion?
It is the example that shows the Truth. Our mental construction of the world is like a dim image traced on translucent paper laid atop of Reality. 99.99% of the time we can rely on it to make our way IN the world, BUT it does not suffice to explain the world. The rainbow is man example of something that exists on the traced paper that does not exist under it. There are perhaps many, many other mental phenomena that are analogous.
The miracle of consciousness ought never be dismissed as a given! And that is what Ayn rand does when she writes “only an illusion”. For, what manner of matter can have illusions?