Intellectual Independence

This is an excerpt from Resources for Understanding Objectivism by Craig Biddle. It comes from The Objective Standard and was published there on 3 July 2017.

While it’s focused on Objectivism, the philosophy devised by Ayn Rand, the broader point it makes is of of intellectual independence: that only you’re able to learn and understand something for yourself, and only you can make a decision about it—hopefully informed by facts, rather than opinions.

The most important resource for understanding Objectivism is your own reasoning mind. In a certain respect, this point is too obvious to warrant mentioning. In another respect, it can’t be emphasized enough. So I’ll say a few words about it upfront.

Objectivism is often misrepresented by those who fear its actual nature. One of the most widespread and destructive misrepresentations of the philosophy is the claim that it is a set of dogmas issued by Ayn Rand that you must accept and follow in order to be a “good Objectivist.” In other words, this assertion goes, the absolutism of Objectivism is like the dogmatism of religion: doctrinaire, authoritarian, confining.

Ayn Rand Answers

But it is not. And understanding the difference is essential to understanding Objectivism.

Objectivism is indeed a philosophy of absolutes. It’s a system of black-and-white principles. It is also utterly non-dogmatic and profoundly liberating. And its reality-based, life-serving nature lies in the integration of these facts.

Objectivism identifies absolutes about the nature of reality, man’s means of knowledge, the requirements of human life, the source and nature of rights, the moral purpose of government. Its principles are black and white because reality is black and white: Things are what they are; they’re not what they’re not. An idea is either supported by evidence and logic, or it is not. An action either advances human life, or it does not. A law or policy either initiates physical force and thus violates individual rights, or it does not. And so on.

Objectivism recognizes and upholds such absolutes, but it does not call for you to accept them on faith or because some authority said so. Rather, Objectivism calls for you to look at reality for yourself, to use your own mind, and to draw first-hand conclusions on the basis of your own observations and logic. If an idea doesn’t make sense to you, if you don’t see how it is supported by facts, then, according to Objectivism, you should not accept it as true. And this applies emphatically to the principles of Objectivism.

How Not To Die

This is the Objectivist principle of independence. And it too is an absolute: If you want to understand some aspect of reality, you must perceive the world with your own senses and integrate your observations with your own reasoning mind. Of course, you can learn from other people by listening to what they say, considering their arguments, observing their actions, and relating what they say or do to what you know. But the fact remains that in order genuinely to understand an idea, theory, or subject, you must rely ultimately on your own observations and logic. You must establish and maintain a primary orientation toward the facts as you see them, not toward the views or opinions of other people.

Because of this absolutism, Objectivism is profoundly liberating. It does not issue commandments or “categorical imperatives” from on high for you to obey. Rather, the philosophy identifies observation-based principles of the if-then variety—such as: If you want to understand reality, then you must observe reality and think. If you want to live and flourish, then you must think and act accordingly. If you want to live in a social system that enables human flourishing, then you must specify the nature of such a system and work to establish and maintain it. Such principles are not dogmas. They are recognitions of the law of cause and effect…

Reality, Objectivism acknowledges, exists independently of any consensus or consciousness. The function of the mind is not to create reality, but to comprehend it. And the mind is an attribute of the individual.

Ayn Rand and the Prophecy of Atlas Shrugged