Aug 29, 2014

To all who admired Burgess Laughlin, I'm sorry to say he has passed away. Please find his obituary message on his main website:

If you would like to say something about Burgess, feel free to use the comment section here.

Burgess, you will be missed.

Mar 12, 2014

If I were a wealthy donor…

In The Power and the Glory: The Key Ideas and Crusading Lives of Eight Debaters of Reason vs. Faith, I briefly discussed "the rule of inverse interest."

As the work of Celsus [a pagan philosophizer, c. 130-200 CE] illustrates, a reason/faith debater need not write a whole book on faith, a book on reason, or a book on the conflict between them. Instead, a debater might insert comments about faith and reason amongst a great number of other comments about religion, philosophy, or their applications to daily life. The principle here is the rule of inverse interest: Generally, the more fundamental the concept, the less sustained discussion it receives. This is due not to the perversity of the authors but to the nature of ideas such as reason and faith: They are fundamental. Once presented, these ideas serve as the base for other ideas and need no further discussion unless rejected by another debater. (p. 23)

In cultural history, it is a fact that the most fundamental ideas have received little discussion compared to issues of application. In two cases in our culture, fundamental ideas should receive more attention by philosophical activists:
1. Philosophical naturalism vs. supernaturalism.
2. Reason vs. mysticism.

The first dichotomy is a question in the most fundamental branch of philosophy, metaphysics. What is real? Is there one natural world in which every entity has a definite nature, or are there two worlds, the natural and the supernatural?

The second dichotomy is a question of the next-most fundamental branch of philosophy, epistemology. What can we know and how? Other branches—ethics and politics, in particular—logically stand on and therefore depend on metaphysics and epistemology. Thus, philosophically, naturalism vs. supernaturalism and reason vs. mysticism are crucial.

Attention to the two issues is most important for an intellectual movement that wants to change a whole culture. Supernaturalism and mysticism are old and well established; a small, new philosophical movement opposing it must establish its own foundation assertively. That does not mean every activist needs to devote full time to the project. However, someone needs to do so. Some individual or small organization needs to say what naturalism and reason are, how they differ from supernaturalism and mysticism, and what the effects of applying these ideas have been and could be in our culture.

If I were a wealthy donor, I would fund one activist individual to support naturalism. he would be someone who understands the issues, their effects on the other branches of philosophy, and their effects on daily life. This activist, over a matter of years, might create a website, write essays, present lectures, enter formal debates, write books, and perhaps start a small institution. He would be a voice devoted to the issue. If I were a wealthy donor, I would do the same for supporting reason.

Then all the work done now by today's pro-naturalism, pro-reason intellectual activists in the fields of ethics, politics, and political policy-setting would know that the deepest fundamentals were being injected into the culture to prepare the way for radical change.

Burgess Laughliin
Author, The Power and the Glory: The Key Ideas and the Crusading Lives of Eight Debaters of Reason vs. Faith, described here.

Aug 29, 2013

BkRev: Humphry's Final Exit

Derek Humphry, Final Exit: The practicalities of self-deliverance and assisted suicide for the dying, New York, Delta (Random House), 2002, 220 pages

The title of this book is accurate. The book is about killing yourself if faced with a terminal, painful disease. The book is a guide to the many details that need attention, from making sure your death does not inadvertently involve loved ones in a criminal investigation, to wearing a baseball cap so that the bill of the cap will keep the plastic bag, which is over your head, from being drawn into your mouth with each inhalation.

The author makes sure the reader is suitable for suicide. Someone who is merely depressed, for example, should seek counseling not suicide. Once the reader determines that he is qualified for suicide, he can then follow the detailed guidelines for one of the options available. For instance, if one's own physician will not help by prescribing drugs, then the terminally ill person can purchase sedatives, a plastic bag, and other equipment. The author provides a checklist.

The main point of the book is that one must be prepared for a suicide that is both effective and least unpleasant as possible under the circumstances.

The author assumes the reader has no knowledge of chemistry and no experience with any of the ethical and legal issues involved. However, readers can skim parts of the short book. Not all parts apply to all readers, but they are all worth at least a quick reading. At each subject change, the author usually provides a guide to the reader, explaining each section's appropriateness for some readers but not for other readers.

For several decades, Derek Humphry, the author, worked as a journalist in England and in the USA. He helped found and manage euthanasia organizations. At 83, he now lives in Oregon, the first state in the USA to legalize suicide for terminally ill individuals. His books, which initially mainstream publishers would not accept, have been commercial successes. He has assisted three suicides, in the cautious manner he describes and recommends.

The chapters are many and short. The titles are largely self-explanatory and arc from making the decision to end one's life if medically doomed, to rejecting methods that are too risky, and then to the "final act." A few chapter titles are:

Ch. 1: The Most Difficult Decision
Ch. 2: Shopping for the Right Doctor
Ch. 3: Beware of the Law
Ch. 4: The Hospice Option
Ch. 11: Who Shall Know?
Ch. 16: Letters to Be Written
Ch. 20: Storing Drugs
Ch. 22: Self-Deliverance Using a Plastic Bag
Ch. 23: A Speedier Way: Inert Gases
Ch. 24: The Checklist
Ch. 25: The Final Act

Throughout these and other chapters, the author writes clearly and succinctly, with only enough repetition to make sure readers do not miss key points.

I recommend a casual reading of this book now, and then a second, close reading if and when the appropriate time comes to apply it. I hope that need never comes for you or for me. I hope to fully pursue my highest values in life for as long as I can, and then die naturally.

Aug 1, 2013

Best approach to disputes in the Objectivist movement?

I have been a student of Objectivism, and a member of the Objectivist movement, for 50 years. I have seen conflicts arise and fade. I am learning that there is a proper procedure for outside individuals—those who are not directly involved—to approach these conflicts. Part of that procedure consists of asking and answering these questions: 

(1) Exactly what is the type of conflict? Is it philosophical, personal, something else, or a combination?

(2) Exactly what is the issue in dispute? If there are several issues, in what order should I resolve them?

(3) Is all the evidence available that I need in order to make a decision about which side, if either, to support?

(4) If any, what is my stake in this conflict? How does it affect my pursuit of my lifetime philosophical and personal values?

(5) Do I need to make a decision now or at any time? If so, why?

(6) If I do decide to investigate a dispute and if I uncover enough information to form a judgment, should I take a stand (which entails time and effort to formulate, present and defend), either in private or in public?

The main lesson I have learned is to wait until I can answer such questions with confidence. A secondary lesson is that Objectivism (which is a fixed set of ideas) remains unchanged no matter what happens in the Objectivist movement. (For my understanding of "movement," see )

What other approach would you suggest?

Burgess Laughlin
Author of The Power and the Glory: The Key Ideas and Crusading Lives of Eight Debaters of Reason vs. Faith, here

P. S. — Thank you to Pooja Gupta for suggesting Question 6. Thank you to Rohin Gupta for reminding me to make this available on the internet and not merely on Facebook (published as a note three years ago).

Jun 4, 2013

Is reading the news helpful or harmful?

Is reading the news helpful or harmful? This issue is important to me for several reasons. First, I am monitoring my heart rate because I have tachycardia/arrhythmia, racing and irregular heart beat. I take two medications to keep my heart rate low. Reading the news makes my heart beat faster, much faster. Reading the news cancels the effect of the two medications. For me, that illustrates the mind-body power of reading the news.

When I was younger, I was emotionally repressed, but now, at 68, my emotions—which are responses to seeing my values threatened or supported—flow freely. When I read news of a U. S. diplomat being murdered in another country, I do not merely note that fact. I see the victim suffering. I see the murderers gloating. I feel anger at the murderers and at those who allowed the murder to happen. I feel fear for the future, for me, and for my friends. Those powerful feelings have physical effects.

Second, reading the news is intellectually disruptive. It fractures my thinking about my current project. After reading the news, I must take the time to calm down emotionally, and I must reset my focus on my current project. This effort to reset is akin to the struggle fiction writers have after an interruption in their work, when they need to get back "into the story."

Third, reading the news even affects my dreams and therefore the quality of sleep. When I read the news, my dreams are stressful, anxious, and threatening. About a week ago, I stopped reading the news. My dreams have become more peaceful.

Understanding the effects of "reading the news" requires a clear grasp of what is usually meant by that term. First, what is "news"?

NEWS. "News" is a certain kind of information; it is information about past or current events; it is information that someone else, a reporter of the news, thinks (1) I have not heard before, and thinks (2) I will find it to be intriguing enough to set aside what I am doing and follow. News is information that a reporter—a fellow employee, an announcer at a sports event, or a newspaper journalist—shapes for a particular purpose and audience of his choosing.

WHAT "READING THE NEWS" DOES NOT MEAN. "Reading the news" does not mean simply reading (or listening) to acquire information. Reading a 500-page scholarly text on the decline of the Roman Empire is not "reading the news," even though the information in the book may be new to me. When I select and read such a book, I take the initiative to define my specific purpose, buy the book, develop a reading schedule, think about what I am reading, and take notes.

WHAT "READING THE NEWS" MEANS. "Reading the news" typically refers to an individual immersing himself in a stream of reports. An hourly, five-minute news segment on radio is an example. For five minutes I will hear a stream of reports about events that the reporter thinks are important for his audience. The reports are about dissimilar events (a bombing in Baghdad, a lottery prize going unclaimed, and the closing of a bridge for repairs). The reports usually are about events that are out of the control of the reader, either because they have already happened or because he lacks the power to change them. The reports are typically sketchy and provisional, subject to revision.

INTEGRATION IS KEY. The most fundamental factor distinguishing "reading the news" (in the meaning used here) and investigation is integration. In an investigation the investigator has a particular purpose that integrates his actions, the information he gains, and the information he already has. Jumping into a stream of news is an act of non-integration. "Being informed" is not a specific purpose. One can "be informed" about a topic, such as the state of one's culture, by investigating the subject once or occasionally—and then thinking in principles.

Examining a news stream does make sense for some individuals. An editorial cartoonist might frequently scan a news stream for subjects for his daily cartoon. A professional weblog writer might daily peruse a news stream looking for items suitable for principled commentary.  These individuals have a delimited purpose. They are investigating rather than drifting with the stream.

CONCLUSION. For me, the state of mind that results from "reading the news" is unpleasant emotionally, destructive cognitively, and damaging physically. That is why I have stopped "reading the news" in any form—print, internet, radio, or TV. I no longer look at my Facebook newsfeed, the quintessential example of a news stream. Instead, for particular reasons at particular times, I do visit individual Friend pages.

So far, refusing to "read the news" has brought a greater sense of peace, greater power of concentration, and greater awareness of my immediate surroundings.

Burgess Laughlin
Author of The Power and the Glory: The Key Ideas and Crusading Lives of Eight Debaters of Reason vs. Faith, described at

P.S. — I began my current experiment in shunning news streams after reading Rolf Dobelli, "News is bad for you—and giving up reading it will make you happier," The Guardian, April 12, 2013, linked at the end. The article has flaws. It is an edited translation of a German newspaper column. Accordingly it lacks citations; and more examples would have made some points clearer. His main theme is accurate: purposeful investigation seeking specific information is necessary for success in life, but plunging, without a specific purpose, into a news stream created by someone else can be destructive.

Jan 22, 2013

Attracting an audience by implying their rationality or irrationality

Through various means, and over the long-term, a writer attracts a particular audience for his writings. Content is one means of drawing readers in. A writer who writes about chess will, all other factors being equal, build an audience of individuals interested in chess. Style is another factor. A writer who writes clearly and integrates his points thoroughly will tend to acquire an audience of clear thinkers.

Another element of style is the writer's treatment of each link in the chain of fact, value, emotion, and action. Rational readers can learn a fact in the text they are reading. When they connect that fact to a value they hold, they will automatically experience an emotion. If the value is a high one, and the circumstances are appropriate, readers will take action. For example, if a writer says, "Smith Company has published my new book, Preventing Dental Problems," then those readers who respect the writer's knowledge and are concerned about their dental health will feel hopeful about their future dental health and either investigate the book further or take direct action to purchase it. The writer has stated a fact, perhaps including expected benefits of knowing that fact; readers connect that fact to their own values, experience an emotion, and take action.

EXAMPLES. Consider two cases, one at each end of a style spectrum. The first is an announcement published in the "Objectivist Calendar" column of The Objectivist Newsletter, Vol. 1, No. 1 (January, 1962), p. 4. It says:

The next New York series of "Basic Principles of Objectivism" will be given at the Hotel Roosevelt, 45 St. & Madison Ave., at 7:30 P.M., on twenty consecutive Tuesday evenings, beginning February 13. Registration is now open.

This first case presents facts, and it relies on rational readers to recognize the value. (In a longer announcement, and in a different, more general publication, a rational writer might have identified the benefits of attending, but would still let readers make the evaluation and the decision to act.)

The second case is a composite of insulting announcements I have seen recently:

Gladys Grumbly, the most awesome speaker of the day, will be talking about introspection at the Wilshire Community Center on February 12 at 8 pm. You will love her presentation! You owe it to yourself to go! Sign up now! Don't delay and don't miss this absolutely fantastic opportunity!!! Click on the name below and be certain to Like this page now!!!

This second case insults rational readers. It presents a clich├ęd and "floating" evaluation ("Awesome"? In what way does it create a sense of awe? In whom? So what?). Further, the second announcement tells rational readers what emotional response, "love," they will feel and further insults rational readers by saying that they "owe" it to themselves to attend, not allowing readers to connect the announcement to their own individual hierarchy of values. Lastly, the announcement degrades its readers by commanding action (using the imperative mood), not merely giving instructions for implementation.

RESULTS. The writer in the first case is writing objectively, that is, writing about facts and allowing rational readers, his only intended audience, to evaluate those facts and take action. The writer in the second case is assuming his robotic readers must be pushed into evaluating, feeling, and taking action.

The writer of the second case will eventually lose rational readers—those who want to evaluate, feel, and take action at their own initiative and in the context of their own personal values. The readers who accept such abuse and remain the writer's followers will tend to be automatons. The writer may then wonder why he has such a seemingly passive and unintelligent audience.

Over the long-term, the writer creates his audience through a process similar to natural selection: Assume readers are irrational, write accordingly, and the rational ones will go away; or assume readers are rational, write accordingly, and they will continue to pay attention to one's writings as the years go by.

Burgess Laughlin
Author of The Power and the Glory: The Key Ideas and Crusading Lives of Eight Debaters of Reason vs. Faith, here

Jan 20, 2013

A Personal Index for Understanding Objectivism

Leonard Peikoff, Understanding Objectivism: A Guide to Learning Ayn Rand's Philosophy, editor Michael S. Berliner, New York, New American Library, 2012, 383 pages.

In 1983, philosopher Leonard Peikoff, the foremost student of Ayn Rand's philosophy, Objectivism, presented eleven lectures on "distinguishing the right and the wrong methods for trying to understand philosophy in general and for understanding and validating Objectivism in particular." (Back cover) Michael Berliner, "cochairman of the Board of Directors of the Ayn Rand Institute and senior advisor to the Ayn Rand Archives," has undertaken the enormous labor of editing and publishing the lectures. Berliner has produced a book that flows smoothly while clearly conveying its difficult subject matter. The book is a treasure chest of Dr. Peikoff's insights not only into the philosophy of Ayn Rand but also into methods of thinking philosophically.

The book's table of contents identifies the broad subject of each chapter, for example, Chapter Six, "Objectivism Versus the Intrinsic and Subjective." Unfortunately, this first printing of Understanding Objectivism has no index to lead readers back to particular topics. For my own purposes, I have compiled an abbreviated and informal list of the topics that intrigued me. This narrow personal index is not a substitute for a full formal index compiled for a broad set of readers. It reflects mainly my interests. I have listed some phrases as natural whole phrases—for example: "rational self-interest" not "self-interest, rational." The reader should be cautious, also, because I have not yet double-checked the page references for accuracy. Further, listings of page numbers are not exhaustive. Often, I made note of a topic only after seeing it mentioned once or twice.

Despite these defects in this personal index, some readers may find it helpful. If nothing else, it shows prospective buyers of the book the great range of subjects covered—to the benefit of long-term, serious students of Objectivism.

analytic-synthetic dichotomy, 255. artistic choices, 339. axiom, as a precondition, 165.

Binswanger, disagreements with as example of rational people differing,  149, 165. blurting out, as one step in thinking process, 194. Brown, Fredric, as Peikoff's favorite science-fiction writer, 339.

career, choosing, 329-331. cause and effect, 153. chewing, 24, 304-305; purpose of philosophical, 268. circularity, good and bad types of, 280. cognitive necessity, as a guide, 102. commonsense, 221 and 222. compartmentalization, 229 and 274. consciousness, 270. context, 146, 282; defined, 186.
corollary, 151-152. crow epistemology, 198 and 328.

deduction, 63. definitions, 50-58; not the same as the entity defined, 52; depend on one's purpose, 199; purpose of, 215. Descartes, 151. desert island ethics, 189. determinism, vs. indeterminism, 255-256; in rationalism, 220. Devil's advocate, 81. dishonesty vs. dependence, 363-364. dogmatism, 187.

eclecticism, 264. egalitarianism, 354. emotion, being aware of to avoid distorting thinking, 200. emotionalism, righteous, 179. empiricism, 147, 308, 310, 311; symptoms of, 134. ethics, scope of, 135. explicit vs. implicit, 362-363.

fatigue, effects on consciousness, 200. floating abstractions, 211. friends, choosing, 335.

genius, 302; as a requirement for formulating philosophical fundamentals, 205. gun control, 137.

happiness, 104. hierarchical structure, principle of, 138, 145, 157, 222. honesty, 247 and 277; evaluating a movement's followers' vs. leaders', 366. Hume, as a concrete-bound philosopher, 240.

idealism, philosophical, 151 and 213. induction, 63, 286; and deduction, 141; no particular order for performing, 235; problem of , 276. intrinsicism, 245; and self-evidence, 183-184, 190; as Rand's coined term, 175. intrinsicist "Objectivism," 186, 187. irrationalism, 264-265.

James, William, 249. judging others, 344-357.

Kant, as a mixture of bad philosophies, 234, and 308-310.

law of identity, 146 and 196. liberty, 140. lying, 71.

mathematics, 218-219. metaphysics, of epistemology, 201-202. mind, 270. mind/body dichotomy, as root of many philosophcal errors, 25. mirroring reality, fallacy of, 235, 236, 237, and 310. monism, 224. moralizers, 341-342. motherhood, 382. mysticism, 154, 155, 308; defined and related by intrinsicism, 180-181; moving from rationalism to, 232.

Objectivist, serious, 32. objectivity, validating the concept of, 20; essence of, 193 and 194. Occam's Razor, 143. options, 313; in life, 187-188. oscillating between definitions and entities, method of, 54 and 66. outline for writing, not dictated by reality, 235.

partner in life, benefits of having, 381. Peikoff's own experiences with rationalism and other issues, 263, 326, 327, 340, 375 (the movie E.T.), 377, 379, and 381. philosophy, attacks on, 2; meaning of, 17; method for making real, 23, 100, and 101; as an ally in keeping us sane, 382; structured as an X, 161; as a system, 101 and 167. Plato, 185, 310; as an intrinsicist, 189. pluralism, 257. polemics, defined, as a symptom of rationalism, 238, and 242-244. polylogism, 259-260. pragmatism, 249-250, 311. principle, living on, 92-93. proof, 63; as pointing, 64. psycho-epistemology, 359. psychologizing, 361.

Rand, interested in others' reactions to her, 320. rationalism, 54, 59, 147, 308-310; testing oneself to detect, 229; and repression, 59, 322, and 323. rational self-interest, 314. Rawls, John, 354. reason, 154-155. recreation, 336. reduction, 58 and 306. religion as intrinsicism, 189. rights, 138 and 203. Roark as a fictional character combining philosophical and concrete optional characteristics, 320. Russell, Bertrand, as an ex. empiricist, 240.

sanction, 375-376. self-criticism, improper, 191-192. self-evidence, 145, 183, 213 and 283; only at perceptual level, 190-191; improper claims of, 64; as axioms, 81. selfishness, argument for, 164. skyscrapers, loving as optional, 334; analogy for cognitive hierarchy, 158 and 222. Sophists, 247. soul, 270. soulmate, requirement for, 335. spiral theory of gaining knowledge, 31, 101, 136, 198, and 281; exercise for, 167. stupidity, as self-made, 360; Peikoff's definition, 192. symbolic logic, 241. synthesis, as integration, 101. system building, 254.

Tertullian, 265. test of a teacher as cognitive empathy, 357. test of honesty, 357. thinking, structured, 136. tout, living one's life as a, 337. tragic sense of life, 343. trichotomy, 175 and 308; of objectivity, subjectivity, and intrinsicism, 202. 

understanding, 15 and 64; method for, 41; summary of method for, 62; requirements for, 63; elements of, 65.

workaholic, 336. writing and emotions, 237.

Burgess Laughlin
Author, The Power and the Glory: The Key Ideas and Crusading Lives of Eight Debaters of Reason vs. Faith, here