Deconstructing a quote by Ayn Rand

Ayn Rand once said, “…an error made on your own is safer than ten truths accepted on faith, because the first leaves you the means to correct it, but the second destroys your capacity to distinguish truth from error.” This is a ridiculous and meaningless statement, and you need to know why.

First, let me tell you why I think this is important. This matters because so many people latch on to this statement as if it were profound. It’s a sentence that sounds good: it sounds like it’s about being independent, not being a follower, thinking for yourself, being rational, and understanding truth! It’s the kind of thing that people can whip out at a moment’s notice whenever they want to feel superior to someone whom they think is guilty of the Dreaded Sin of Faith.

But it’s actually nonsense. It’s cheap, specious, binary thinking that leads to cheap, specious, and binary conclusions.

To start, let’s take a clear look at first part the quote: “an error made on your own is safer than ten truths accepted on faith”.

This statement has a familiar format that I’m sure you recognize. The logical format, put abstractly, is this:

“An instance of THING with property X is [as good as | better than] N instances of THING without property X.”

It is a cutesy and clever way of saying “property X is better than not property X”.  The value of N reflects either how much better it is to have property X, or possibly how histrionic and prone to hyperbole the speaker of the statement is.

The most well-known example of an argument in this logical form is,

“A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.”

The inference that you are supposed to make is that the specific characteristic of being in the hand (property X) is more desirable than the characteristic of being in the bush (not property X), at least as far as birds (THING) are concerned.

Ayn Rand’s wording is a little ambiguous, however. What is “THING” in her statement?

She is pitting “errors” against “truths”. I can only assume that by “truths” she means “true beliefs”, which would imply that by “errors” she means “false beliefs”. That wording is a little weird, if only because the word “error” can much more than false beliefs: spelling errors, typing errors, transfer fail errors, and so on.

But in order to move past that, I’m going to assume that Rand meant “false belief” when she said “error”, just as I’m assuming she meant “true beliefs” when she said “truths”.  Her slightly revised quotation then becomes:

“A false belief that you conclude on your own is safer than ten true beliefs that you accept on faith, because the first leaves you the means to correct it, but the second destroys your capacity to distinguish truth from error.”

I think this is a reasonable re-wording, that preserves her original intent and makes the A-to-B contrast much more clear.

So what we are talking about is beliefs (a belief is the “THING” in this case), and she is saying that a belief more desirable when it is something that you “conclude on your own” (that’s “property X”) than when you you “accept it one faith” (this is “not property X”). She’s basically trying to find a witty way of saying “You should conclude beliefs on your own.”

In my opinion, she should have just said that. But whatever.



So let’s look at the idea of “concluding on your own” more closely. More specifically, what does it mean to say that you came to a conclusion “on your own”? While we are at it, what does it mean to accept something “on faith”?

As usual, there are extreme cases that people always point to as the “obvious examples”.

If you see a pretty flower in front of you, then you arrive at the belief that there is a pretty flower in front of you on your own. In that context, the phrase “on your own” means that no social intervention is required, no trust of other people is required. Sure, your senses may have tricked you, but they are still your own senses, so in a very important way even a false conclusion that you have arrived at is still one that you arrived at on your own. (If, for example, it is actually a very cleverly camouflaged butterfly, that would be an example of Ayn Rand’s “error” that you made “on your own”.)

If someone tells you that there is a purple dragon sitting on top of the Empire State Building, but it has not been reported in the newspapers, none of your friends have seen it, and moreover if you went to New York you would not be able to see it for yourself either, then the only way you can end up believing in the purple dragon on top of the Empire State Building is to accept it on faith.  This is an extreme example, because not only are you not using your own senses, but you are told that even if you go there you cannot trust your own senses to give you the information. There is nothing that you can do to experience the dragon yourself, and moreover if anyone else tells you that they cannot see the dragon… well, their senses are unreliable as well. Clearly, the only way that you can accept this belief is purely as a social phenomenon: that is, through the interaction with other people. You are told something, you trust that person, therefore you believe. That is social, which is clearly not on your own.

But let’s face it: most beliefs that you have about the world are like neither the pretty flower in front of you nor the purple dragon on the Empire State building. You probably believe in Antarctica, even if you haven’t been there, because you have been told by people whom you trust that you could go there and experience it for yourself. You have seen pictures and maps and cartoons featuring cute penguins. So rather than believing in a massive conspiracy of cartographers and biologists (not to mention cartoonists and movie-makers), you believe that Antarctica exists.

I can’t read Ayn Rand’s mind, but I suspect she would say that you arrived at the belief in Antarctica “on your own”. However, the truth of the matter is that it involved a complex interplay of logical relationships between prior beliefs in your mind. Moreover, at least some of these beliefs are social in nature.

Belief in AntarcticaAs a single and individual piece of evidence, the fact that Antarctica exists on a map isn’t really a very strong reason to believe in a continent, except that you also have a web of beliefs that technology for mapping is very good, and that maps come from different sources, and that if there was a discrepancy it would be on the news, and that nobody could sustain such a big lie for long without it getting out, and so on and on and on. These are all ancillary beliefs that you have about the world in general that support your belief in Antarctica (assuming you’ve never been there).

In that vast network, there are some things that you accept just because they seem likely to you. Accepting a belief because it seems probable based on your experience is not air-tight; however, it’s completely reasonable, and it’s the way a lot of beliefs work.  It is called inductive inference. You believe the sun will come up tomorrow because it’s come up every morning in your life so far. It’s not an air-tight reason, but it’s good enough for placing bets. So part of the reason that you believe in Antarctica might also be because you have used maps a lot, and they have never been wrong about the places you have been to, so it seems reasonable to trust the maps about places that you haven’t been to as well.

You might also feel that you trust your friends, who tell you that Antarctica exists. You might also feel that you trust your teachers when they told you that Antarctica exists.  Individually, on their own, these small clues might not be enough to get you to believe in something; however, they are all part of the fabric of why you are so confident that Antarctica exists.

So although I think it’s reasonable to say that you belief in Antarctica is not “based on pure faith”, neither is it “completely on your own”.  It occupies a middle gray-area: and interplay of beliefs, some of which are rooted in your own senses and logic, and others of which are social in nature and involve trust in other people.

This is one of the reasons Rand’s quote fails on the face of it: it is comparing two irrelevant  things. The vast majority of all human beliefs are neither things that a person arrives at (completely) on his own, nor are they things that a person believes (completely) just through faith. Most beliefs are concluded as the result of a mixture between the two.


So what about the last part of the quotation: “[concluding on your own] leaves you the means to correct [an error], but [faith] destroys your capacity to distinguish truth from error.”

This may be true in the extreme cases that I mentioned above (the pretty flower and the purple dragon), but what are we to make of this when we are talking about the gray area in between: those beliefs that we conclude from the interplay of a large number of interacting beliefs, some of which are social and some of which are our own experience?

In those cases, there is nothing intrinsically more destructive about social beliefs than experiential beliefs. You can believe something “because a person you trust told you” and still ask questions, still listen to other people, and still conclude later that you might have been wrong.

Similarly, there is nothing inherently noble about working things our for yourself, or trusting your own senses and pre-existing beliefs. In that complex web, if you are unwilling to cast doubt on any of the beliefs in that web, and you are unwilling to cast doubt on the experiences you thought you had, and you are unwilling  to admit that one of the logical relationships that you believed might be wrong, then you are just as prone to “not distinguishing truth from error” as anyone else.

This quotation from Ayn Rand is puffery. It’s what people who describe themselves as “rational” use to justify condescending to people whom they believe to be irrational.

Because in the end, almost all beliefs are at least partially social; and the thing that destroys a person’s “ability to tell truth from falsity” isn’t trusting the word of the people around you, it’s unwillingness to question yourself.

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