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Sunday, June 26, 2011

Philosopher Robert Nozick

I don't know whether Robert Anton Wilson and noted libertarian philosopher Robert Nozick knew each other's work; the only item I could find on the Internet pairing them together was a blog post by Julian Sanchez, mourning Nozick's death, one year after Nozick died on Jan. 23, 2002.

Recalling when he heard the news, Sanchez wrote, "A co-worker over at Laissez Faire Books, where I worked then, emailed me from the West Coast office assuming I’d heard, which I hadn’t. My first thought, after sitting stunned for a minute or two, was of Robert Anton Wilson, who has a character in The Illuminatus! Trilogy explain that 'all the great anarchists died on the 23rd day of some month or other…' "

When I recent read an interview with Nozick — conducted, as it happens, by the same Julian Sanchez — I couldn't help but think RAW and Nozick might have had an interesting conversation.

I thought, for example, that Nozick's criticism of Ayn Rand was interesting:

JS: Most of Invariances is asking, in one way or another, “What is truth?” In exploring how we come to know truth, and what sorts of truth we have access to, you seem to make relatively modest claims about the kinds of knowledge, and the kind of certainty, we can hope for.

RN: Evolution plays a large role in my discussion of necessary truths and metaphysical truths, and I ask “why would evolution have endowed us with such powerful cognitive capacities to know about all possibilities?” Maybe evolution just gives us ‘good enough’ theories like Euclidean geometry that are approximately true and able to get us around the world, but when we probe further we discover that they’re not strictly speaking accurate. That question about cognitive capacity connects up with one segment of the libertarian movement: that influenced greatly by Ayn Rand, that has axioms like the law of identity, “A is A” and all that, from which they think conclusions follow that most people, elsewhere in philosophy, don’t think follow from these logical truths.

I take evolution very seriously, and think that the capacities we have, including of apprehending a truth, have been strongly shaped, not to mention created, by evolution. So you could ask: “Why, then, do we have such powerful capacities as to give us these necessary truths, rather than truths that hold roughly and approximately at the actual world, and in similar worlds. The followers of Rand, for example, treat “A is A” not just as “everything is identical to itself” but as a kind of statement about essences and the limits of things. “A is A, and it can’t be anything else, and once it’s A today, it can’t change its spots tomorrow.” Now, that doesn’t follow. I mean, from the law of identity, nothing follows about limitations on change. The weather is identical to itself but it’s changing all the time. The use that’s made by people in the Randian tradition of this principle of logic that everything is identical to itself to place limits on what the future behavior of things can be, or on the future nature of current things, is completely unjustified so far as I can see; it’s illegitimate.

I was also struck by Nozick's distinction between two types of libertarians:

JS: So even if they have good politics, you don’t care much for the Objectivist approach?

RN: I’m going to alienate a number of your book orderers, if I didn’t already with what I said about Rand, but there was something startling about the attraction to non-initiation of force principles that the Randians had, at the same time that they were diligently acting as thought police. Bold entrepreneurs? Yes. But bold exploration of ideas? No.

JS: Why do you think it is that people of generally illiberal temperament would pick up classical liberal ideas? The combination seems mysterious.

RN: It is mysterious. Perhaps it has to do with the two sides of libertarian ideas. There is the boldness and excitement of libertarian ideas, the new possibilities for thinking, and for life in society that they open up, and there also are the sharp, and sharply reasoned, weapons they provide for attacking and even crushing other ideas. So perhaps it is not surprising that libertarianism has attracted two distinct types of temperaments, each one resonating to one of libertarianism’s two different aspects.

It seems to me that Robert Anton Wilson was a good example of the first type of temperament.

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