Without a Doubt: A Partial Review of John W. Robbins’ Without A Prayer.
By Richard Bacon.
Copyright 1998 © First Presbyterian Church of Rowlett

Some of us "grew up" reading Ayn Rand. At some point in high school between reading Robert Heinlein’s Stranger In A Strange Land and J.D. Salinger’s Catcher In The Rye, I picked up a copy of Ayn Rand’s Anthem. Anthem tells of the rediscovery of ego. The remainder of my high school years included The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged. Rand’s works had a singular appeal to me in the 1960’s. In a world in which everything was seemingly being relegated to a matter of relativity, Rand was sure. She was sure her opinions were more than mere opinions. She was not always right as it turned out, but she was always certain.1 Such a thing appealed to some of us in the sixties.

Rand claimed that her system, which she called "Objectivism," was based upon human reason. Granted, her definition of "reason" was such that it often seemed to drift from rationalism to empiricism back to rationalism again, she was clear that "man qua man" is autonomous. One must never be influenced by faith or force — the twin destroyers of human thought and endeavor.

If we are properly to estimate the influence that Rand’s Objectivism has exerted upon this generation, we must consider that her protogè Nathaniel Branden very early developed the now-rampant "psychology of self-esteem." This false psychological theory has now not only overtaken much of humanist psychology, it has also replaced biblical psychology in many quarters of the professing church. We should consider that an early contributor to the Objectivist Newsletter, Alan Greenspan, is now head of the Federal Reserve Bank. In the 1970’s a political party (The Libertarian Party) was founded based at least in part on Rand’s "objectivist oath."2

For me personally, the key idea that brought me to reject both Rand and her system was a fallacy which she called "the fallacy of the stolen concept." She maintained that every false philosophy, old or new, is made of contradictions and stolen concepts.3 The stolen concept fallacy consists of using a concept while denying an earlier concept upon which the "stolen" one logically or epistemologically depends.

Yet amazingly, the entire Objectivist system is based upon that very fallacy. John Robbins demonstrates that if Ayn Rand had been consistently reasonable, she would have advocated ideas opposed to and even contradictory to the ideas she actually set forth. As one example, Rand advocated the principle of limited civil government; but according to her own presuppositions she should not have done so.

John Robbins, who holds a doctorate from Johns Hopkins University, has written a definitive Christian answer to the philosophy of Objectivism. It is clear to anyone who has read Rand or been involved with Objectivism to any degree that Rand and her philosophy cannot truly be divided.

Yet Robbins does an excellent job of dealing with the message rather than the messenger. Robbins’ criticism of Rand lies in her failure to be reasonable. Historically, Rand dismissed any criticism of her or her philosophy as mysticism or as anti-intellectual. Robbins’ critique is neither.4 Instead, Dr. Robbins deals with Rand’s system at the philosophical level of epistemology, theology, ethics, and political theory. His approach is apogogic. That is to say, he takes Rand’s first principles (axioms or presuppositions) and then demonstrates that deductions from her axioms result in contradictory conclusions.

Rand regarded epistemology as the most important branch of philosophy. This review thus deals primarily with Robbins’ response to Rand’s epistemology. Further, she regarded human reason as the means by which man knows. Reason, according to Rand, integrates the "material" (perceptions we suppose) provided by the senses. Rand, without any argument or explanation, asserted that man is born a tabula rasa (a blank sheet). All information must come via the senses, according to Rand and all varieties of empiricism.

But it is altogether unexplained (and inexplicable for the empiricist) how "knowledge" that a baby’s mind is a tabula rasa could have come from sensory experience alone. If something were already in the mind which allowed man to integrate his perceptions, then not all knowledge comes through the senses, for at least the knowledge of how to integrate sense perceptions does not come from the senses themselves. But if there is nothing which allows or enables man to integrate his perceptions, then we would never be able to identify our perceptions as belonging to something "out there."

Robbins ably points out that a tabula rasa mind is simply a contradiction in terms. A mind cannot simultaneously be conscious of nothing and yet still be said to be conscious. As even Rand admitted ". . . a consciousness with nothing to be conscious of is a contradiction in terms . . . ."5

Not only is Rand’s account of the working of the mind defective (how does the mind pull itself up by its own bootstraps?), so also is her accounting of the existence of universal concepts in the human mind. Rand gave no account of what sensations are not the (assumed) relationship between a world "out there," human senses, and human percepts. The fact is, whether Rand or any empiricist cares to admit it, we do not begin with sensations but with propositions when constructing an epistemology.

Robbins points out in his book that Rand, by her own definition of faith (which definition was quite derogatory), posited faith in the senses. In her Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology [hereafter OE], Rand proclaimed "For the puposes of this series, the validity [sic] of the senses must be taken for granted . . . ."6

Robbins responds to Rand: "But this writer, heeding Rand’s own warnings about faith, refuses to take it for granted. If Rand had been logically consistent, she also would have refused."7

Rand’s inability to account for universal concepts is explained by her attempt to begin her epistemology at the sensational level. We can be sure something exists, she claimed, because we can sense it. Thus for Rand, "It may be supposed that the concept ‘existent’ is implicit even on the level of sensation," and "The building block of man’s knowledge is the concept of an ‘existent’ — of something that exists."8

Concepts, according to Rand, are formed by a "mental focus that takes out or separates a certain aspect of reality from all others."9 This mental focus seems to be prior to language, for Rand claims a child is able to form the concept of a table or chair prior to his subsequently learning the designations "table" and "chair."10

Yet Rand also claims, "words transform concepts into (mental) entities; definitions provide them with identity."11 As Robbins aptly points out, Rand places us on an epistemological "merry-go-round" with this supposed account of words and concepts.

For an empiricist, concepts depend upon abstractions from similar perceptions. Thus Rand claimed, "If a child considers a match, a pencil, and a stick, he observes that length is the attribute they have in common, but their specific lengths differ. The difference is one of measurement. In order to form the concept ‘length,’ the child’s mind retains the attribute and omits its particular measurements."12

Hopefully even Rand’s putative child could see the problems with this explanation. Her explanation might at least explain something if she were to posit three pencils which were identical in every way except their lengths. Such a supposition would then allow her to assert as she did that length is "the attribute" which is different among the three items. In point of fact, a match, a pencil, and a stick could conceivably share several attributes in common: color, hardness, shape, woodenness, etc. But even assuming that Rand could identify length as the only distinguishing attribute, she must still engage in circular definition.

Basically, Rand identified as "length" that attribute of any individual [‘existent’ in Rand’s terminology] which can be quantified by a unit of length, without also specifying the quantity of units. Thus her definition of the concept of length presupposes the concept of length as well as the measurability of whatever it is that we conceive length to be. Rand is here guilty of the fallacy of the stolen concept.

It is possible to go into considerable more datail, as Robbins’ does in his critique of Rand’s epistemology. But while possible, it is not necessary. Despite Rand’s claims to the contrary, the fact remains that her epistemology is subject to all the criticisms to which empiricism has always been subject.


1 Given the fact that most of her work has been fiction, it would be more accurate to say that her heroes were certain. Thus, Rand stated "An error made on your own is safer than ten truths accepted on faith . . ."

2 "I swear by my life and my love of it, that I will never live for the sake of another man, nor ask another man to live for mine."

3 Ayn Rand, Philosophy: Who Needs It (Indianapolis and NYC: The Bobbs Merrill Co., Inc., 1982), p. 26

4 Robbins’ earlier work, Answer to Ayn Rand (1974) also went unanswered.

5 Atlas Shrugged, cited in Robbins, p. 30.

6 OE, p. 9 cited in Robbins, p. 33.

7 Robbins, p. 33.

8 OE, p. 11 cited in Robbins, p. 42.

9 OE, p. 15 cited in Robbins, p. 59.

10 OE, p. 12 cited in Robbins, p. 59.

11 OE, p. 16 cited in Robbins, p. 59.

12 OE, cited in Robbins, p. 60.