Ayn Rand herself, oddly, had nothing to say about determinism. She asserts in many places that man has free will, that he is a being of volitional consciousness, that he has one choice, to think or not to think, etc. etc.; but I have scoured the ouevre in vain for an actual argument. She left this task to her disciples, first Nathaniel Branden and later Leonard Peikoff. Branden took a stab at it in his article for The Objectivist Newsletter called “The Contradiction of Determinism,” arguing as follows: Determinists say everything is determined. But then it’s also determined that they’re determinists! So their argument can’t be valid. QED. You think I exaggerate?
But if man believes what he has to believe, if he is not free to test his beliefs against reality and to validate or reject them — if the actions and content of his mind are determined by factors that may or may not have anything to do with reason, logic and reality — then he can never know if his conclusions are true or false. [Emphasis in original.]
Of course the contradiction is imaginary. I may be determined by my chemical makeup — and surely that is quite real — to believe certain things, but those beliefs can still be true or false, no matter how much stuff Branden puts in italics. I sympathize with free will, but not with this argument.
Fast forward thirty years. It’s 1991, Rand is ten years in the grave, and Peikoff, having had a lot of time to think about it, comes out with Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand, which is supposed to codify her thought into one relatively easy-to-digest treatise. Let’s see how he treats determinism.
When the determinist claims that man is determined, this applies to all of man’s ideas also, including his own advocacy of determinism. Given the factors operating on him, he believes, he had to become a determinist, just as his opponents had no alternative but to oppose him. How then can he know that his viewpoint is true? Are the factors that shape his brain infallible? Does he automatically follow reason and logic? Clearly not; if he did, error would be impossible to him….
If a determinist tried to assess his viewpoint as knowledge, he would have to say, in effect: “I am in control of my mind. I do have the power to decide to focus on reality. I do not merely submit spinelessly to whatever distortions happen to be decreed by some chain of forces stretching back to infinity. I am free, free to be objective, free to conclude — that I am not free.
Like any rejection of a philosophic axiom, determinism is self-refuting.
This is Branden’s argument in fancier dress. Determinism postulates that, given perfect knowledge, like Laplace’s imaginary mathematical demon, the future is predictable, down to one’s thoughts. This atomic-level supposition, true or false, in no way interferes with one’s ability to reason and to compare one’s conclusions with reality. Objectivists who accept Branden’s and Peikoff’s argument are remarkably quiescent.
I think, however, that there really is a contradiction in determinism. Consider the following thought experiment, known after its inventor as Newcomb’s Paradox: You have two boxes, A and B. A contains a thousand dollars. B contains either a million dollars or nothing. If you choose A, you get the contents of A and B. If you choose B, you get the contents of B only.
Imagine there is something — a machine, an intelligence, a mathematical demon — that can predict your choice with, say, 90% accuracy. If it predicts you choose A, it puts nothing in B. If it predicts you choose B, it puts the million in B. Which do you choose? (By the way, just so you don’t get cute, if the machine predicts you will decide by some random method like a coin flip, it also leaves B empty.)
The paradox lies in the absolutely plausible arguments for either alternative. Two accepted principles of decision theory conflict. The expected utility principle argues for Box B: if you calculate your payoff you will find it far larger if the predictor is 90%, or even 55%, accurate. But the dominance principle, that if one strategy is always better you should choose it, argues for Box A. After all, the being has already made its decision. Why not take the contents of Box B and the extra thousand dollars?
I would argue that paradoxes cannot exist and that the predictor (and therefore, determinism) is impossible.
Tomorrow I will discuss Objectivist sexual psychology, which, unlike today’s hifalutin topic, has caused a lot of real human misery.
An Attempted Solution to Newcomb’s Paradox: Interesting but inadequate.
Divine Foreknowledge and Newcomb’s Paradox: A useful summary by a theologian of various philosophers’ views on the subject.
The Hangman’s Paradox and Newcomb’s Paradox as Psychological Games.