NH Liberty Forum 2015

New Hampshire has a lot of liberty-related events, and the one I attend most often is the Liberty Forum. This year it was in Manchester and had its usual excellent lineup of speakers. I ran into some people I hadn’t seen in years, as well as seeing writers whom I frequently read, and generally enjoyed it.Vendors at NH Liberty Forum 2015

There’s quite a range of people at these events, but the atmosphere was friendly and casual, not too different from a science fiction convention. Some people were rabid supporters of single causes; others took a broader, more philosophical or lifestyle-related approach. The events I attended focused more on the latter. David Kelley gave a talk on the importance of philosophy, William Thomas presented the case for limited government, and the Atlas Society had a table. I found out that it’s holding its 2015 summit in Nashua, almost within walking distance of my home. I mentioned this on Twitter with a sigh (which was corrected to a shrug).

Nick Gillespie at NH Liberty Forum The talk which gave me the most new information was Charlie Arlinghaus’s on New Hampshire history. Knowing how recently New Hampshire had laws on the books requiring the maintenance of Protestant ministers (though they weren’t enforced) gives some perspective.

Most of the people there didn’t have the level of technical savvy I often take for granted, and the tech items I attended weren’t very impressive. The presentation on “Cryptography in one lesson” was good but didn’t tell me anything new, being aimed at a general audience. A presentation on “How activists solve problems in the digital age” sounded like a sales pitch for Google, and when the speaker used the words “It’s not as good as Outlook” for something other than eating camel dung, I gave up and left. But I had fun hanging around the Think Penguin booth. These people sell interesting stuff, including a router with completely open-source firmware. I may get back to them at some point.

There were a couple of closing items today (Sunday), but I didn’t go back for them. It was an enjoyable conference and I’m looking forward to the next one.

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Nathaniel Branden

Nathaniel Branden died on December 3, at the age of 84. Whatever the mistakes he made in his life, he has to be credited with bringing Objectivism to a larger audience. At the same time, his Nathaniel Branden Institute promoted the ideological conformity, the idea that almost any disagreement, even in tastes, is a sin, which has tainted the Objectivist movement ever since. Reason and unquestioning agreement are totally incompatible, as he later came to realize.

Branden’s The Psychology of Self-Esteem presented an idea which was later widely adopted, if only in name. In The Six Pillars of Self-Esteem, he wrote:

Self-esteem is the disposition to experience oneself as competent to cope with the basic challenges of life and as worthy of happiness.

The “self-esteem movement” picked up part of the basic idea but turned it into something to be achieved with sheer positive thinking, rather than something that’s built up through decisions and actions. Conservatives, for their part, have often regarded self-esteem as the sin of pride.

I’ve found it valuable to remember that self-esteem builds on itself. If you’re confident in your ability, you’re motivated to take the actions that will lead to success and to keep going when it gets hard. Being successful gives you more confidence. However, we all experience strings of failures in our lives, and we need a more enduring kind of self-esteem to get through those, a sense of personal integrity and worth and a philosophical view that regards success as a possible and worthy goal. Branden wrote: “What people think, what they believe, what they tell themselves, incluences what they feel and what they do. In turn, they experience what they feel and do as having meaning for who they are.”

We’re so often told we should be “selfless,” that “there’s no I in ‘team,'” etc. People are pushed into self-doubt and self-disparagement in order to make them easy to manipulate. Branden helped to push back against this idea, to tell people that their personal worth is theirs to lay claim to and develop.

Atlas University

David Kelley and William R Thomas have put up a new set of online video lectures in Objectivism, called Atlas University. I’ve just watched the first one by David Kelley, on the subject of reason. For me it covers familiar ground, but it’s quite good. Kelley’s style is direct and simple, without the belligerent air that makes some other speakers for Objectivism turn people off. I’d recommend it to anyone who’s heard about Rand’s philosophy only by rumor and wants to learn more about it. Naturally, I can’t say yet how any of the lectures beyond the first are, but I’m optimistic.

Obligatory nitpick: Kelley mentions in passing that reason can also produce bad results, such as weapons of war and fascism. I understand him to mean that fascism is a set of conceptual ideas, not that it’s a rational philosophy, and that the most bizarre religion is a product of reason in this sense, but I wish he hadn’t chosen that example. The idea that fascism is the outcome of rational thought isn’t as popular as it used to be, but we still hear it. It’s actually the outcome of the idea that people should subordinate their individual thoughts to the mass and the leader.

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Techniques of focus

The Objectivist philosophy holds that the primary choice is the choice to focus one’s mind. People usually think of choosing as a matter of deciding whether to take some action or not, but really that can’t be primary. We don’t do things “just because” we decide to; we do them for some purpose. Is the choice of purpose the primary act of volition, then? Not really; we don’t pick goals out of the blue, but select them based on how we think about the world. The first act of choice is to direct our minds in one way rather than another, to think carefully or sloppily, to try to take in everything or to focus in on one object.

From a casual reading of Rand, it’s easy to interpret this as just the choice to focus or not. This would imply a very simple mental strategy: think as much as possible, except when you’re resting and recharging. A broader interpretation of the camera analogy is more fruitful, though. There are times when we need to be narrowly focused on something specific; in other cases this would result in our missing a lot. A simple example: When you’re driving a car, you should focus on the road and traffic; but if you focused on them to the exclusion of everything else, you’d become tense and wouldn’t enjoy the trip, and probably you’d be less safe than if you paid some attention to the scenery and plans for arrival. The ideal state of mental focus is a complex balance, not an on-off switch.

The ability to focus improves with practice and degrades with neglect. Good thinkers have a variety of techniques to use their minds to the best of their capacity. Aids to memory and habit can’t replace a commitment to thinking, but they can make it more effective.

As a personal example, I’ve formed the habit lately of using a diary application on my iPod to write down everything with calories that I eat and drink each day. I don’t try to count every calorie but just note what I’ve consumed in general terms. I haven’t deliberately eaten less while doing this, but I’ve lost some weight and am now consistently under 180 pounds. The practice makes me more accountable to myself; each time I think of eating something, I’m aware of how much I’ve already eaten and think about whether I’m really hungry or just want to munch something to pass the time. There are days when I know it’s hopeless to write down everything, and I just make a notation such as “too much con suite stuff.” That serves as a reminder to make up for it in the next few days.

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Ryan and Rand

Just a quick note on Paul Ryan’s views on Ayn Rand. He’s expressed enough admiration for her in the past to get both the Religious Right and the Religious Left mad at him. However, according to National Review Online in April of this year, he’s said of Rand, “I reject her philosophy. It’s an atheist philosophy.”

Perhaps he’s had a change of views. Perhaps his earlier interest was exaggerated. Perhaps when Romney first suggested he might be a vice presidential candidate, he had a religious conversion of convenience. I don’t know enough about him to decide, but I hope that people won’t assume the views he expresses in the campaign reflect Objectivist positions.

How (not) to approach philosophy

Followers of Ayn Rand’s philosophy have a reputation for being very hostile to anyone who disagrees with them on any philosophical issues. Rand herself showed this hostility on a number of occasions. This would seem to be strange behavior on the part of people who claim to be advocates of reason above all else, but it very often happens.

A question I’ve considered for a long time is whether this is a flaw in the philosophy or simply a personality trait that’s filtered down to her followers. Her personality was certainly a factor, but if that were all there was to it, they should have calmed down over the years. However, the treatment of the Institute for Objectivist Studies (now the Atlas Society) by the Ayn Rand Institute not too many years ago exhibited lots of vitriol, and I haven’t seen any indications of change since then.

I think the key is in the way Rand and many of her followers approach philosophy, rather than its particular content. You might think of this as a matter of meta-philosophical premises. Rand held that her philosophy had to be accepted or rejected as an integrated whole, that rejecting any part of it meant rejecting it as a philosophy. This makes for a very fragile edifice; knock out any part of it and the whole thing collapses. It’s no wonder that people who think that way react to any dispute as a fundamental threat.

A related premise is the persistent attribution of “hidden premises” to opponents. Galt’s speech in Atlas Shrugged does this repeatedly: “The purpose of your struggle is not to know, not to grasp or name or hear the things I shall now state to your hearing: that yours is the Morality of Death.” “But you know the unadmitted answer, refusing to acknowledge what you see, what hidden premise moves your world.” “There is no honest revolt again reason — and when you accept any part of their creed, your motive is to get away with something your reason would not permit you to attempt.” If opposing views are the product of hidden evil, any consideration you give them could be a sign of corruption on your own part.

There is huge value in Rand’s philosophy, but these problems in the meta-philosophical approach have very often kept it from being taken as seriously as it deserves. There are people who approach it without this baggage, but they suffer the additional burden of being denounced by the orthodox. It looked for a while as if the IOS / Atlas Society would bring about a shift in the public understanding of Objectivism, but it has shifted its focus away from addressing basic philosophical issues to focusing on current issues and popular culture, and so isn’t doing nearly as much as it could. Something more is needed.