Thursday, June 20, 2013

Ayn Rand's theory of mind

Well I gotta say, no topic has brought strangers out of the woodwork to comment on this blog more quickly than my ongoing real-time review of Atlas Shrugged. Last week there were intellectually incurious types who found a single post about Atlas Shrugged on this blog and never ventured out of that one post.

The same is true of Michael R. Brown, a Randian fanatic who came to this blog and posted on it just so he could tell me that it was a waste of space.

Like the other Objectivists, this one also lacks intellectual curiosity, not bothering to venture off that one blog post (according to my web statistics) to see what else I've said about Rand.

Well nobody said intellectual curiosity was a virtue for a cult member.

Most of the people who like Rand are right-wingers, so it's always a surprise when right-wingers critique Rand like this piece in the National Review. Although it is the National Review, founded by William B. Fuckley (as the Reverend Bookburn likes to call him), who never warmed to Rand because her atheism made the Baby Jesus cry.

But the piece contains an Atlas Shrugged spoiler that made me re-evaluate Rand: here I thought she was a sick fuck - but based on the revelation in the NR critique, she's an even sicker fuck than I previously imagined.

It does give me an incentive to continue reading though, to at least get to the bit about the gas train - one of Rand's final solutions for the "moochers."

But before I continue reading Atlas Shrugged I have to go back to Rand's inability to intuit what people are feeling - the ability to do so is called the "theory of mind" which is impaired in somebody with Asperger's Syndrome:
Theory of mind is based on empathy, the ability to feel for others and put yourself in their situation. Being able to do so will make interacting socially much easier. Understanding the emotions people go through will give you the ability to predict their behavior which will effect social interaction. Knowing what to expect will help you know how to respond to the situation. To children who are unable to take into consideration how others might feel, think or respond, the world can be a terrifying place to be.
I found this fascinating Sally and Anne Test designed to evaluate a child's theory of mind skills. As the test result discussion says:
In order to get the test right, the child has to be able to put itself (sic) in the shoes of Sally. 
Sally does not know the ball has been replaced and the right answer of the test will have to be: Sally will search for the ball in the basket. 
Children with Asperger generally will say: Sally will find the ball in the box because that is where it is! 
In spite of the necessity to change perspective 20% of children with Asperger will give the right answer: sally will search the ball in the basket.
Most children with Asperger can answer this right when they are older and more experienced.
Children without Asperger Syndrome will have no trouble giving the right answer: Sally will search the ball in the basket. 
So the discussion mentions what a neurotypical child will probably say, and what the child with Asperger's Syndrome is likely to say.

But what might the child with Asperger's say about the child who says that Sally will look for the ball in the basket?

Would the child with Asperger's say the neurotypical child is stupid because they gave the "wrong" answer?

Something else of interest from the same web site,
Due to misunderstanding their behavior, adults with Aspergers can be seen as selfish by their peer group members. Other unfair labels can be: egoistic, cold, rigid or uncaring. Their behavior might appear to be unkind or callous. This kind of labelling is unfair and has nothing to do with behaving inappropriately on purpose. Adults with Asperger syndrome are neurologically unable to see things from the other persons point of view. They are frequently told by their peers or partners that their actions or remarks are considered painful or rude which comes as a shock to them since they were never aware of this in the first place. It’s therefore important to get a diagnosis so people around them understand their behavior better. 
How often does one of the "moochers" in Atlas Shrugged accuse a Randian hero of being selfish, egoistic,  etc? All the fucking time.

Reading a scene in Chapter 7 of Atlas Shrugged made me think about Rand's lack of a theory of mind. When Dagny visits d'Anconia's old college professor, Dr. Stadler, she asks him to explain why the State Science Institute he runs has come out against Rearden Metal. He says:
...if you consider that for thirteen years this Institute has had a department of metallurgical research, which has cost over twenty million dollars and has produced nothing but a new silver polish and a new anti-corrosive preparation, which, I believe, is not so good as the old ones - you can imagine what the reaction will be if some private individual comes out with a product that revolutionizes the entire science of metallurgy and proves to be sensationally successful!
Stadler then gives his reasons for this response to the sensationally successful Rearden Metal:
...Men are not open to truth or reason. They cannot be reached by rational argument. The mind is powerless against them...
Now people like superior goods. They will generally pay more for superior goods. So if Rearden Metal is that awesome, why wouldn't people like it? Well in the case of the metallurgists at the State Science Institute, they don't like Rearden Metal because it threatens their own rational self-interest. They may not be the best metallurgists in the world, certainly not compared to Randian Superman Hank Rearden, but they are smart enough to understand that if Rearden Metal makes their work look bad, it's possible they could lose their jobs, or the very least, suffer from a loss of status. People care about income and social standing.

Coming out against Rearden Metal may be corrupt and in fact harmful to society - dare one say selfish? - but it's a rational, strategic move on the part of the SSI workers. But only if you are willing to grant that they have their own minds, their own motivations, their own point of view.

Instead of granting those things, Rand has the revered teacher of d'Anconia and Galt and the Norwegian pirate explain that it's because the people at SSI are not open to truth, reason or rational argument. They are "nothing but vicious animals" according to Stadler.

And Ayn Rand knows just what to do with those vicious animals who are too stupid to reason with. More about that soon.

For the record, a small sampling of people with autism spectrum disorder do not believe Rand had Aspergers.