Archive for the ‘Metaphysical Spouting’ Category

Retiring falsifiability? A storm in Russell’s teacup

Friday, January 17th, 2014

My good friend Sean Carroll took a lot of flak recently for answering this year’s Edge question, “What scientific idea is ready for retirement?,” with “Falsifiability”, and for using string theory and the multiverse as examples of why science needs to break out of its narrow Popperian cage.  For more, see this blog post of Sean’s, where one commenter after another piles on the beleaguered dude for his abandonment of science and reason themselves.

My take, for whatever it’s worth, is that Sean and his critics are both right.

Sean is right that “falsifiability” is a crude slogan that fails to capture what science really aims at.  As a doofus example, the theory that zebras exist is presumably both “true” and “scientific,” but it’s not “falsifiable”: if zebras didn’t exist, there would be no experiment that proved their nonexistence.  (And that’s to say nothing of empirical claims involving multiple nested quantifiers: e.g., “for every physical device that tries to solve the Traveling Salesman Problem in polynomial time, there exists an input on which the device fails.”)  Less doofusly, a huge fraction of all scientific progress really consists of mathematical or computational derivations from previously-accepted theories—and, as such, has no “falsifiable content” apart from the theories themselves.  So, do workings-out of mathematical consequences count as “science”?  In practice, the Nobel committee says sure they do, but only if the final results of the derivations are “directly” confirmed by experiment.  Far better, it seems to me, to say that science is a search for explanations that do essential and nontrivial work, within the network of abstract ideas whose ultimate purpose to account for our observations.  (On this particular question, I endorse everything David Deutsch has to say in The Beginning of Infinity, which you should read if you haven’t.)

On the other side, I think Sean’s critics are right that falsifiability shouldn’t be “retired.”  Instead, falsifiability’s portfolio should be expanded, with full-time assistants (like explanatory power) hired to lighten falsifiability’s load.

I also, to be honest, don’t see that modern philosophy of science has advanced much beyond Popper in its understanding of these issues.  Last year, I did something weird and impulsive: I read Karl Popper.  Given all the smack people talk about him these days, I was pleasantly surprised by the amount of nuance, reasonableness, and just general getting-it that I found.  Indeed, I found a lot more of those things in Popper than I found in his latter-day overthrowers Kuhn and Feyerabend.  For Popper (if not for some of his later admirers), falsifiability was not a crude bludgeon.  Rather, it was the centerpiece of a richly-articulated worldview holding that millennia of human philosophical reflection had gotten it backwards: the question isn’t how to arrive at the Truth, but rather how to eliminate error.  Which sounds kind of obvious, until I meet yet another person who rails to me about how empirical positivism can’t provide its own ultimate justification, and should therefore be replaced by the person’s favorite brand of cringe-inducing ugh.

Oh, I also think Sean might have made a tactical error in choosing string theory and the multiverse as his examples for why falsifiability needs to be retired.  For it seems overwhelmingly likely to me that the following two propositions are both true:

1. Falsifiability is too crude of a concept to describe how science works.
2. In the specific cases of string theory and the multiverse, a dearth of novel falsifiable predictions really is a big problem.

As usual, the best bet is to use explanatory power as our criterion—in which case, I’d say string theory emerges as a complex and evolving story.  On one end, there are insights like holography and AdS/CFT, which seem clearly to do explanatory work, and which I’d guess will stand as permanent contributions to human knowledge, even if the whole foundations on which they currently rest get superseded by something else.  On the other end, there’s the idea, championed by a minority of string theorists and widely repeated in the press, that the anthropic principle applied to different patches of multiverse can be invoked as a sort of get-out-of-jail-free card, to rescue a favored theory from earlier hopes of successful empirical predictions that then failed to pan out.  I wouldn’t know how to answer a layperson who asked why that wasn’t exactly the sort of thing Sir Karl was worried about, and for good reason.

Finally, not that Edge asked me, but I’d say the whole notions of “determinism” and “indeterminism” in physics are past ready for retirement.  I can’t think of any work they do, that isn’t better done by predictability and unpredictability.

Luke Muehlhauser interviews me about philosophical progress

Saturday, December 14th, 2013

I’m shipping out today to sunny Rio de Janeiro, where I’ll be giving a weeklong course about BosonSampling, at the invitation of Ernesto Galvão.  Then it’s on to Pennsylvania (where I’ll celebrate Christmas Eve with old family friends), Israel (where I’ll drop off Dana and Lily with Dana’s family in Tel Aviv, then lecture at the Jerusalem Winter School in Theoretical Physics), Puerto Rico (where I’ll speak at the FQXi conference on Physics of Information), back to Israel, and then New York before returning to Boston at the beginning of February.  Given this travel schedule, it’s possible that blogging will be even lighter than usual for the next month and a half (or not—we’ll see).

In the meantime, however, I’ve got the equivalent of at least five new blog posts to tide over Shtetl-Optimized fans.  Luke Muehlhauser, the Executive Director of the Machine Intelligence Research Institute (formerly the Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence), did an in-depth interview with me about “philosophical progress,” in which he prodded me to expand on certain comments in Why Philosophers Should Care About Computational Complexity and The Ghost in the Quantum Turing Machine.  Here are (abridged versions of) Luke’s five questions:

1. Why are you so interested in philosophy? And what is the social value of philosophy, from your perspective?

2. What are some of your favorite examples of illuminating Q-primes [i.e., scientifically-addressable pieces of big philosophical questions] that were solved within your own field, theoretical computer science?

3. Do you wish philosophy-the-field would be reformed in certain ways? Would you like to see more crosstalk between disciplines about philosophical issues? Do you think that, as Clark Glymour suggested, philosophy departments should be defunded unless they produce work that is directly useful to other fields … ?

4. Suppose a mathematically and analytically skilled student wanted to make progress, in roughly the way you describe, on the Big Questions of philosophy. What would you recommend they study? What should they read to be inspired? What skills should they develop? Where should they go to study?

5. Which object-level thinking tactics … do you use in your own theoretical (especially philosophical) research?  Are there tactics you suspect might be helpful, which you haven’t yet used much yourself?

For the answers—or at least my answers—click here!

PS. In case you missed it before, Quantum Computing Since Democritus was chosen by Scientific American blogger Jennifer Ouellette (via the “Time Lord,” Sean Carroll) as the top physics book of 2013.  Woohoo!!

The Ghost in the Quantum Turing Machine

Saturday, June 15th, 2013

I’ve been traveling this past week (in Israel and the French Riviera), heavily distracted by real life from my blogging career.  But by popular request, let me now provide a link to my very first post-tenure publication: The Ghost in the Quantum Turing Machine.

Here’s the abstract:

In honor of Alan Turing’s hundredth birthday, I unwisely set out some thoughts about one of Turing’s obsessions throughout his life, the question of physics and free will. I focus relatively narrowly on a notion that I call “Knightian freedom”: a certain kind of in-principle physical unpredictability that goes beyond probabilistic unpredictability. Other, more metaphysical aspects of free will I regard as possibly outside the scope of science. I examine a viewpoint, suggested independently by Carl Hoefer, Cristi Stoica, and even Turing himself, that tries to find scope for “freedom” in the universe’s boundary conditions rather than in the dynamical laws. Taking this viewpoint seriously leads to many interesting conceptual problems. I investigate how far one can go toward solving those problems, and along the way, encounter (among other things) the No-Cloning Theorem, the measurement problem, decoherence, chaos, the arrow of time, the holographic principle, Newcomb’s paradox, Boltzmann brains, algorithmic information theory, and the Common Prior Assumption. I also compare the viewpoint explored here to the more radical speculations of Roger Penrose. The result of all this is an unusual perspective on time, quantum mechanics, and causation, of which I myself remain skeptical, but which has several appealing features. Among other things, it suggests interesting empirical questions in neuroscience, physics, and cosmology; and takes a millennia-old philosophical debate into some underexplored territory.

See here (and also here) for interesting discussions over on Less Wrong.  I welcome further discussion in the comments section of this post, and will jump in myself after a few days to address questions (update: eh, already have).  There are three reasons for the self-imposed delay: first, general busyness.  Second, inspired by the McGeoch affair, I’m trying out a new experiment, in which I strive not to be on such an emotional hair-trigger about the comments people leave on my blog.  And third, based on past experience, I anticipate comments like the following:

“Hey Scott, I didn’t have time to read this 85-page essay that you labored over for two years.  So, can you please just summarize your argument in the space of a blog comment?  Also, based on the other comments here, I have an objection that I’m sure never occurred to you.  Oh, wait, just now scanning the table of contents…”

So, I decided to leave some time for people to RTFM (Read The Free-Will Manuscript) before I entered the fray.

For now, just one remark: some people might wonder whether this essay marks a new “research direction” for me.  While it’s difficult to predict the future (even probabilistically :-) ), I can say that my own motivations were exactly the opposite: I wanted to set out my thoughts about various mammoth philosophical issues once and for all, so that then I could get back to complexity, quantum computing, and just general complaining about the state of the world.

“Quantum Information and the Brain”

Thursday, January 24th, 2013

A month and a half ago, I gave a 45-minute lecture / attempted standup act with the intentionally-nutty title above, for my invited talk at the wonderful NIPS (Neural Information Processing Systems) conference at Lake Tahoe.  Video of the talk is now available at VideoLectures net.  That site also did a short written interview with me, where they asked about the “message” of my talk (which is unfortunately hard to summarize, though I tried!), as well as the Aaron Swartz case and various other things.  If you just want the PowerPoint slides from my talk, you can get those here.

Now, I could’ve just given my usual talk on quantum computing and complexity.  But besides increasing boredom with that talk, one reason for my unusual topic was that, when I sent in the abstract, I was under the mistaken impression that NIPS was at least half a “neuroscience” conference.  So, I felt a responsibility to address how quantum information science might intersect the study of the brain, even if the intersection ultimately turned out to be the empty set!  (As I say in the talk, the fact that people have speculated about connections between the two, and have sometimes been wrong but for interesting reasons, could easily give me 45 minutes’ worth of material.)

Anyway, it turned out that, while NIPS was founded by people interested in modeling the brain, these days it’s more of a straight machine learning conference.  Still, I hope the audience there at least found my talk an amusing appetizer to their hearty meal of kernels, sparsity, and Bayesian nonparametric regression.  I certainly learned a lot from them; while this was my first machine learning conference, I’ll try to make sure it isn’t my last.

(Incidentally, the full set of NIPS videos is here; it includes great talks by Terry Sejnowski, Stanislas Dehaene, Geoffrey Hinton, and many others.  It was a weird honor to be in such distinguished company — I wouldn’t have invited myself!)

A causality post, for no particular reason

Friday, November 2nd, 2012

The following question emerged from a conversation with the machine learning theorist Pedro Domingos a month ago.

Consider a hypothetical race of intelligent beings, the Armchairians, who never take any actions: never intervene in the world, never do controlled experiments, never try to build anything and see if it works.  The sole goal of the Armchairians is to observe the world around them and, crucially, to make accurate predictions about what’s going to happen next.  Would the Armchairians ever develop the notion of cause and effect?  Or would they be satisfied with the notion of statistical correlation?  Or is the question kind of silly, the answer depending entirely on what we mean by “developing the notion of cause and effect”?  Feel free to opine away in the comments section.

Why Many-Worlds is not like Copernicanism

Saturday, August 18th, 2012

[Update (8/26): Inspired by the great responses to my last Physics StackExchange question, I just asked a new one---also about the possibilities for gravitational decoherence, but now focused on Gambini et al.'s "Montevideo interpretation" of quantum mechanics.

Also, on a completely unrelated topic, my friend Jonah Sinick has created a memorial YouTube video for the great mathematician Bill Thurston, who sadly passed away last week.  Maybe I should cave in and set up a Twitter feed for this sort of thing...]

[Update (8/26): I've now posted what I see as one of the main physics questions in this discussion on Physics StackExchange: "Reversing gravitational decoherence."  Check it out, and help answer if you can!]

[Update (8/23): If you like this blog, and haven't yet read the comments on this post, you should probably do so!  To those who've complained about not enough meaty quantum debates on this blog lately, the comment section of this post is my answer.]

[Update: Argh!  For some bizarre reason, comments were turned off for this post.  They're on now.  Sorry about that.]

I’m in Anaheim, CA for a great conference celebrating the 80th birthday of the physicist Yakir Aharonov.  I’ll be happy to discuss the conference in the comments if people are interested.

In the meantime, though, since my flight here was delayed 4 hours, I decided to (1) pass the time, (2) distract myself from the inanities blaring on CNN at the airport gate, (3) honor Yakir’s half-century of work on the foundations of quantum mechanics, and (4) honor the commenters who wanted me to stop ranting and get back to quantum stuff, by sharing some thoughts about a topic that, unlike gun control or the Olympics, is completely uncontroversial: the Many-Worlds Interpretation of quantum mechanics.

Proponents of MWI, such as David Deutsch, often argue that MWI is a lot like Copernican astronomy: an exhilarating expansion in our picture of the universe, which follows straightforwardly from Occam’s Razor applied to certain observed facts (the motions of the planets in one case, the double-slit experiment in the other).  Yes, many holdouts stubbornly refuse to accept the new picture, but their skepticism says more about sociology than science.  If you want, you can describe all the quantum-mechanical experiments anyone has ever done, or will do for the foreseeable future, by treating “measurement” as an unanalyzed primitive and never invoking parallel universes.  But you can also describe all astronomical observations using a reference frame that places the earth is the center of the universe.  In both cases, say the MWIers, the problem with your choice is its unmotivated perversity: you mangle the theory’s mathematical simplicity, for no better reason than a narrow parochial urge to place yourself and your own experiences at the center of creation.  The observed motions of the planets clearly want a sun-centered model.  In the same way, Schrödinger’s equation clearly wants measurement to be just another special case of unitary evolution—one that happens to cause your own brain and measuring apparatus to get entangled with the system you’re measuring, thereby “splitting” the world into decoherent branches that will never again meet.  History has never been kind to people who put what they want over what the equations want, and it won’t be kind to the MWI-deniers either.

This is an important argument, which demands a response by anyone who isn’t 100% on-board with MWI.  Unlike some people, I happily accept this argument’s framing of the issue: no, MWI is not some crazy speculative idea that runs afoul of Occam’s razor.  On the contrary, MWI really is just the “obvious, straightforward” reading of quantum mechanics itself, if you take quantum mechanics literally as a description of the whole universe, and assume nothing new will ever be discovered that changes the picture.

Nevertheless, I claim that the analogy between MWI and Copernican astronomy fails in two major respects.

The first is simply that the inference, from interference experiments to the reality of many-worlds, strikes me as much more “brittle” than the inference from astronomical observations to the Copernican system, and in particular, too brittle to bear the weight that the MWIers place on it.  Once you know anything about the dynamics of the solar system, it’s hard to imagine what could possibly be discovered in the future, that would ever again make it reasonable to put the earth at the “center.”  By contrast, we do more-or-less know what could be discovered that would make it reasonable to privilege “our” world over the other MWI branches.  Namely, any kind of “dynamical collapse” process, any source of fundamentally-irreversible decoherence between the microscopic realm and that of experience, any physical account of the origin of the Born rule, would do the trick.

Admittedly, like most quantum folks, I used to dismiss the notion of “dynamical collapse” as so contrived and ugly as not to be worth bothering with.  But while I remain unimpressed by the specific models on the table (like the GRW theory), I’m now agnostic about the possibility itself.  Yes, the linearity of quantum mechanics does indeed seem incredibly hard to tinker with.  But as Roger Penrose never tires of pointing out, there’s at least one phenomenon—gravity—that we understand how to combine with quantum-mechanical linearity only in various special cases (like 2+1 dimensions, or supersymmetric anti-deSitter space), and whose reconciliation with quantum mechanics seems to raise fundamental problems (i.e., what does it even mean to have a superposition over different causal structures, with different Hilbert spaces potentially associated to them?).

To make the discussion more concrete, consider the proposed experiment of Bouwmeester et al., which seeks to test (loosely) whether one can have a coherent superposition over two states of the gravitational field that differ by a single Planck length or more.  This experiment hasn’t been done yet, but some people think it will become feasible within a decade or two.  Most likely it will just confirm quantum mechanics, like every previous attempt to test the theory for the last century.  But it’s not a given that it will; quantum mechanics has really, truly never been tested in this regime.  So suppose the interference pattern isn’t seen.  Then poof!  The whole vast ensemble of parallel universes spoken about by the MWI folks would have disappeared with a single experiment.  In the case of Copernicanism, I can’t think of any analogous hypothetical discovery with even a shred of plausibility: maybe a vector field that pervades the universe but whose unique source was the earth?  So, this is what I mean in saying that the inference from existing QM experiments to parallel worlds seems too “brittle.”

As you might remember, I wagered $100,000 that scalable quantum computing will indeed turn out to be compatible with the laws of physics.  Some people considered that foolhardy, and they might be right—but I think the evidence seems pretty compelling that quantum mechanics can be extrapolated at least that far.  (We can already make condensed-matter states involving entanglement among millions of particles; for that to be possible but not quantum computing would seem to require a nasty conspiracy.)  On the other hand, when it comes to extending quantum-mechanical linearity all the way up to the scale of everyday life, or to the gravitational metric of the entire universe—as is needed for MWI—even my nerve falters.  Maybe quantum mechanics does go that far up; or maybe, as has happened several times in physics when exploring a new scale, we have something profoundly new to learn.  I wouldn’t give much more informative odds than 50/50.

The second way I’d say the MWI/Copernicus analogy breaks down arises from a closer examination of one of the MWIers’ favorite notions: that of “parochial-ness.”  Why, exactly, do people say that putting the earth at the center of creation is “parochial”—given that relativity assures us that we can put it there, if we want, with perfect mathematical consistency?  I think the answer is: because once you understand the Copernican system, it’s obvious that the only thing that could possibly make it natural to place the earth at the center, is the accident of happening to live on the earth.  If you could fly a spaceship far above the plane of the solar system, and watch the tiny earth circling the sun alongside Mercury, Venus, and the sun’s other tiny satellites, the geocentric theory would seem as arbitrary to you as holding Cheez-Its to be the sole aim and purpose of human civilization.  Now, as a practical matter, you’ll probably never fly that spaceship beyond the solar system.  But that’s irrelevant: firstly, because you can very easily imagine flying the spaceship, and secondly, because there’s no in-principle obstacle to your descendants doing it for real.

Now let’s compare to the situation with MWI.  Consider the belief that “our” universe is more real than all the other MWI branches.  If you want to describe that belief as “parochial,” then from which standpoint is it parochial?  The standpoint of some hypothetical godlike being who sees the entire wavefunction of the universe?  The problem is that, unlike with my solar system story, it’s not at all obvious that such an observer can even exist, or that the concept of such an observer makes sense.  You can’t “look in on the multiverse from the outside” in the same way you can look in on the solar system from the outside, without violating the quantum-mechanical linearity on which the multiverse picture depends in the first place.

The closest you could come, probably, is to perform a Wigner’s friend experiment, wherein you’d verify via an interference experiment that some other person was placed into a superposition of two different brain states.  But I’m not willing to say with confidence that the Wigner’s friend experiment can even be done, in principle, on a conscious being: what if irreversible decoherence is somehow a necessary condition for consciousness?  (We know that increase in entropy, of which decoherence is one example, seems intertwined with and possibly responsible for our subjective sense of the passage of time.)  In any case, it seems clear that we can’t talk about Wigner’s-friend-type experiments without also talking, at least implicitly, about consciousness and the mind/body problemand that that fact ought to make us exceedingly reluctant to declare that the right answer is obvious and that anyone who doesn’t see it is an idiot.  In the case of Copernicanism, the “flying outside the solar system” thought experiment isn’t similarly entangled with any of the mysteries of personal identity.

There’s a reason why Nobel Prizes are regularly awarded for confirmations of effects that were predicted decades earlier by theorists, and that therefore surprised almost no one when they were finally found.  Were we smart enough, it’s possible that we could deduce almost everything interesting about the world a priori.  Alas, history has shown that we’re usually not smart enough: that even in theoretical physics, our tendencies to introduce hidden premises and to handwave across gaps in argument are so overwhelming that we rarely get far without constant sanity checks from nature.

I can’t think of any better summary of the empirical attitude than the famous comment by Donald Knuth: “Beware of bugs in the above code.  I’ve only proved it correct; I haven’t tried it.”  In the same way, I hereby declare myself ready to support MWI, but only with the following disclaimer: “Beware of bugs in my argument for parallel copies of myself.  I’ve only proved that they exist; I haven’t heard a thing from them.”

Why Philosophers Should Care About Computational Complexity

Monday, August 8th, 2011

Update (August 11, 2011): Thanks to everyone who offered useful feedback!  I uploaded a slightly-revised version, adding a “note of humility” to the introduction, correcting the footnote about Cramer’s Conjecture, incorporating Gil Kalai’s point that an efficient program to pass the Turing Test could exist but be computationally intractable to find, adding some more references, and starting the statement of Valiant’s sample-size theorem with the word “Consider…” instead of “Fix…”


I just posted a 53-page essay of that name to ECCC; it’s what I was writing pretty much nonstop for the last two months.  The essay will appear in a volume entitled “Computability: Gödel, Turing, Church, and beyond,” which MIT Press will be publishing next year (to coincide with Alan T.’s hundredth birthday).

Note that, to explain why philosophers should care about computational complexity, I also had to touch on the related questions of why anyone should care about computational complexity, and why computational complexity theorists should care about philosophy.  Anyway, here’s the abstract:

One might think that, once we know something is computable, how efficiently it can be computed is a practical question with little further philosophical importance.  In this essay, I offer a detailed case that one would be wrong.  In particular, I argue that computational complexity theory—the field that studies the resources (such as time, space, and randomness) needed to solve computational problems—leads to new perspectives on the nature of mathematical knowledge, the strong AI debate, computationalism, the problem of logical omniscience, Hume’s problem of induction and Goodman’s grue riddle, the foundations of quantum mechanics, economic rationality, closed timelike curves, and several other topics of philosophical interest.  I end by discussing aspects of complexity theory itself that could benefit from philosophical analysis.

Weighing in with 70 footnotes and 126 references, the essay is basically a huge, sprawling mess; I hope that at least some of you will enjoy getting lost in it.  I’d like to thank my editor, Oron Shagrir, for kicking me for more than a year until I finally wrote this thing.

My diavlog with Anthony Aguirre

Saturday, July 24th, 2010

Bloggingheads has just posted an hour-long diavlog between the cosmologist Anthony Aguirre and your humble blogger.  Topics discussed include: the anthropic principle; how to do quantum mechanics if the universe is so large that there could be multiple copies of you; Nick Bostrom’s “God’s Coin Toss” thought experiment; the cosmological constant; the total amount of computation in the observable universe; whether it’s reasonable to restrict cosmology to our observable region and ignore everything beyond that; whether the universe “is” a computer; whether, when we ask the preceding question, we’re no better than those Renaissance folks who asked whether the universe “is” a clockwork mechanism; and other questions that neither Anthony, myself, nor anyone else is really qualified to address.

There was one point that sort of implicit in the discussion, but I noticed afterward that I never said explicitly, so let me do it now.  The question of whether the universe “is” a computer, I see as almost too meaningless to deserve discussion.  The reason is that the notion of “computation” is so broad that pretty much any system, following any sort of rules whatsoever (yes, even non-Turing-computable rules) could be regarded as some sort of computation.  So the right question to ask is not whether the universe is a computer, but rather what kind of computer it is.  How many bits can it store?  How many operations can it perform?  What’s the class of problems that it can solve in polynomial time?

My diavlog with Eliezer Yudkowsky

Monday, August 17th, 2009

Here it is.  It’s mostly about the Singularity and the Many-Worlds Interpretation.

(I apologize if Eliezer and I agreed too much, and also apologize for not quite realizing that the sun was going to set while I was speaking.)

And here’s the discussion that already took place over at Eliezer’s blogging-grounds, Less Wrong.

The complement of Atlas Shrugged

Monday, March 23rd, 2009

A few months ago I read Atlas Shrugged, the 1,069-page Ayn Rand opus that was recently praised by Stephen Colbert (for its newfound popularity with beleaguered CEOs).  As I mentioned in the comments of a previous post, like many other nerds I went through a brief Aynfatuation around the age of 14.  Rand’s portrayal of an anti-mind, anti-reason cabal of collectivist rulers, who spout oleaginous platitudes about love and self-sacrifice even as they mercilessly repress any spark of individuality, happens to be extremely relevant to at least two cases I’m aware of:

  1. Soviet Russia.
  2. The average American high school.

But it didn’t last long.  Even in the midst of it, I could see problems: I wrote a term paper analyzing the rape scene in The Fountainhead as immoral and irreconcilable with the rest of an otherwise supremely-rational novel.  And ironically, once I went to college and started doing more-or-less what Rand extols as life’s highest purposes—pursuing my ambitions, tackling math and science problems, trying to create something original—her philosophy itself seemed more and more quaint and irrelevant.  I snapped out of it before I reached Atlas.  (Or did I subconsciously fear that, if I did read Atlas, I’d be brainwashed forever?  Or did I just figure that, having read the 752-page Fountainhead and dozens of essays, I already got the basic idea?)

So, having now returned to Atlas out of curiosity, what can I say?  Numerous readers have already listed the reasons why, judged as a conventional novel, it’s pretty bad: wooden dialogue, over-the-top melodrama, characters barely recognizable as human.  But of course, Atlas doesn’t ask to be judged as a conventional novel.  Rand and her followers clearly saw it as a secular Bible: a Book of Books that lays out for all eternity, through parables and explicit exhortation, what you should value and how you should live your life.  This presents an obvious problem for me: how does one review a book that seeks, among other things, to define the standards by which all books should be reviewed?

Mulling over this question, I hit on an answer: I should look not at what’s in the book—whose every word is perfect by definition, to true believers who define ‘perfect’ as ‘that exemplified by Atlas Shrugged‘—but at what’s not in it.  In other words, I should review the complement of the book.  By approaching the donut through the hole, I will try to explain how, even considering it on its own terms, Atlas Shrugged fails to provide an account of human life that I found comprehensive or satisfying.

(Though on the positive side, it still makes much more sense than my 11th-grade English teacher.)

Without further ado, here are the ten most striking things I noticed in the complement of Atlas Shrugged.

  1. Recent technologies.  For a novel set in the future, whose whole point is to defend capitalism, technology, innovation, and industry, Atlas is startlingly uninterested in any technologies being developed at the time it was written (the fifties).  For Rand, the ultimate symbol of technological progress is the railroad—though she’s also impressed by steel mills, copper mines, skyscrapers, factories, and bridges.  Transistors, computers, space travel, and even plastic and interstate highways seem entirely absent from her universe, while nuclear energy (which no one could ignore at the time) enters only metaphorically, through the sinister “Project X.”  Airplanes, which were starting to overtake trains as a form of passenger travel even as Atlas was written, do play a tiny role, though it’s never explained where the busy protagonists learned to pilot.  Overall, I got the impression that Rand didn’t really care for technology as such—only for what certain specific, 19th-century technologies symbolized to her about Man’s dominance over Nature.
  2. Curiosity about the physical universe.  This, of course, is related to point 1.  For Rand, the physical world seems to be of interest only as a medium to be bent to human will.  When I read The Fountainhead as a teenager, I found myself wondering what Rand would’ve made of academic scientists: people who generally share her respect for reason, reality, and creative achievement, but not her metaphysical certainty or her hatred of all government planning.  (Also, while most male scientists resemble a cross between Howard Roark and John Galt, it must be admitted that a tiny minority of them are awkward nerds.)
    In Atlas, Rand finally supplies an answer to this question, in the form of Dr. Robert Stadler.  It turns out that in Rand’s eschatology, academic scientists are the worst evil imaginable: people smart enough to see the truth of her philosophy, but who nevertheless choose to reject it.  Science, as a whole, does not come off well in Atlas: the country starves while Stadler’s State Science Institute builds a new cyclotron; and Dr. Floyd Ferris, the author of obscurantist popular physics books, later turns into a cold-blooded torturer.  (That last bit, actually, has a ring of truth to it.)
    More important, in a book with hundreds of pages of philosophizing about human nature, there’s no mention of evolution; in a book obsessed with “physics,” there’s no evidence of any acquaintance with relativity, quantum mechanics, or pretty much anything else about physics.  (When Stadler starts talking about particles approaching the speed of light, Dagny impatiently changes the subject.)  It’s an interesting question whether Rand outright rejected the content of modern science; maybe we’ll pick up that debate in the comments section.  But another possibility—that Rand was simply indifferent to the sorts of things an Einstein, Darwin, or Robert Stadler might discover, that she didn’t care whether they were true or not—is, to my mind, hardly more defensible for a “philosopher of reason.”
  3. Family.  Whittaker Chambers (of pumpkin patch fame) pointed out this startling omission in his review of 1957.  The characters in Atlas mate often enough, but they never reproduce, or even discuss the possibility of reproduction (if only to take precautions against it).  Also, the only family relationships portrayed at length are entirely negative in character: Rearden’s mother, brother, and wife are all contemptible collectivists who mooch off the great man even as they despise him, while Dagny’s brother Jim is the wretched prince of looters.  Any Republicans seeking solace in Atlas should be warned: Ayn Rand is not your go-to philosopher for family values (much less “Judeo-Christian” ones).
  4. “Angular,” attractive people who also happen to be collectivists, or “shapeless” people who happen to be rational individualists.  In the universe of Atlas, physical appearance is destiny—always, without exception, from John Galt down to the last minor villain.  Whenever Rand introduces a new character, you learn immediately, after a one-paragraph physical description, everything she wants you to know about that character’s moral essence: “angular” equals good, “limp,” “petulant,” and so on equal bad.  Admittedly, most movies also save the audience from unwanted thought by making similar identifications.  But Rand’s harping on this theme is so insistent, so vitriolic, that it leaves little doubt she really did accept the eugenic notion that a person’s character is visible on his or her face.
  5. Personalities.  In Atlas, as in The Fountainhead, each character has (to put it mildly) a philosophy, but no personality independent of that philosophy, no Objectively-neutral character traits.  What, for example, do we know about Howard Roark?  Well, he has orange hair, likes to smoke cigarettes, and is a brilliant architect and defender of individualism.  What do we know about John Galt?  He has gold hair, likes to smoke cigarettes, and is a brilliant inventor and defender of individualism.  Besides occupation and hair color, they’re pretty much identical.  Neither is suffered to have any family, culture, backstory, weaknesses, quirks, or even hobbies or favorite foods (not counting cigarettes, of course).  Yes, I know this is by explicit authorial design.  But it also seems to undermine Rand’s basic thesis: that Galt and Roark are not gods or robots, but ordinary mortals.
  6. Positive portrayal of uncertainty.  In Atlas, “rationality” is equated over and over with being certain one is right.  The only topic the good guys, like Hank and Dagny, ever change their minds about is whether the collectivists are (a) evil or (b) really, really evil.  (Spoiler alert: after 800 pages, they opt for (b).)  The idea that rationality might have anything to do with being uncertain—with admitting you’re wrong, changing your mind, withholding judgment—simply does not exist in Rand’s universe.  For me, this is the single most troubling aspect of her thought.
  7. Honest disagreements.  Atlas might be the closest thing ever written to a novelization of Aumann’s Agreement Theorem.  In RandLand, whenever two rational people meet, they discover to their delight that they agree about everything—not merely the basics like capitalism and individualism, but also the usefulness of Rearden Metal, the beauty of Halley’s Fifth Concerto, and so on.  (Again, the one exception is the disagreement between those who’ve already accepted the full evil of the collectivists, and those still willing to give them a chance.)  In “Galt’s Gulch” (the book’s utopia), there’s one judge to resolve disputes, but he’s never had to do anything since no disputes have ever arisen.
  8. History.  When I read The Fountainhead as a teenager, there was one detail that kept bothering me: the fact that it was published in 1943.  At such a time, how could Rand possibly imagine the ultimate human evil to be a left-wing newspaper critic?  Atlas continues the willful obliviousness to real events, like (say) World War II or the Cold War.  And yet—just like when she removes family, personality, culture, evolution, and so on from the picture—Rand clearly wants us to apply the lessons from her pared-down, stylized world to this world.  Which raises an obvious question: if her philosophy is rich enough to deal with all these elephants in the room, then why does she have to avoid mentioning the elephants while writing thousands of pages about the room’s contents?
  9. Efficient evil people.  In Atlas, there’s not a single competent industrialist who isn’t also an exemplar of virtue.  The heroine, Dagny, is a railroad executive who makes trains run on time—who knows in her heart that reliable train service is its own justification, and that what the trains are transporting and why is morally irrelevant.  Granted, after 900 pages, Dagny finally admits to herself that she’s been serving an evil cause, and should probably stop.  But even then, her earlier “don’t ask why” policy is understood to have been entirely forgivable: a consequence of too much virtue rather than too little.  I found it odd that Rand, who (for all her faults) was normally a razor-sharp debater, could write this way so soon after the Holocaust without thinking through the obvious implications.
  10. Ethnicity.  Seriously: to write two sprawling novels set in the US, with hundreds of characters between them, and not a single non-Aryan?  Even in the 40s and 50s?  For me, the issue here is not political correctness, but something much more basic: for all Rand’s praise of “reality,” how much interest did she have in its contents?  On a related note, somehow Rand seems to have gotten the idea that “the East,” and India in particular, were entirely populated by mystical savages sitting cross-legged on mats, eating soybeans as they condemned reason and reality.  To which I can only reply: what did she have against soybeans?  Edamame is pretty tasty.

Murray Rothbard and Eliezer Yudkowsky take different routes to some of the same conclusions.