Rand on God

Ayn Rand has many things to say about religion. However, I found one of her comments in a place I didn’t expect: the lengthy appendix to Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology (order from Amazon.) Somebody asks her about the conceptual status of “God.” She replies:

[“God”] is not a concept. At best, one could say it is a concept in the sense in which a dramatist uses concepts to create a character. It is an isolation of actual characteristics of man combined with projection of impossible, irrational characteristics which do not arise from reality — such as omnipotence and omniscience.

Besides, God isn’t even supposed to be a concept: he is sui generis, so that nothing relevant to man or the rest of nature is supposed, by the proponents of that viewpoint, to apply to God. A concept has to involve two or more similar concretes, and there is nothing like God. He is supposed to be unique. Therefore, by their own terms of setting up the problem, they have taken God out of the conceptual realm. And quite properly, because he is out of reality. (page 148)

Incidentally, I also found the material between pages 150 and 157 to contain a number of interesting comments about volition and the distinction between mind and matter.

4 thoughts on “Rand on God

  1. Neil Parille

    “A concept has to involve two or more similar concretes, and there is nothing like God. He is supposed to be unique. Therefore, by their own terms of setting up the problem, they have taken God out of the conceptual realm. And quite properly, because he is out of reality.”

    I don’t find this persuasive. Why do you need two concretes to conceptualize something? What about the concept “reality”? There is only one reality, yet the concept makes sense. Or, if a child goes to a zoo and sees a specific creature (a hippo say) does he need to see a second to form a concept?

  2. Ari

    The concept “reality” is a bit different, because it means simply, “everything that exists.” It is the sum total of every instance of every (valid) concept and everything that has not been conceptualized.

    One can see an individual hippo, but one cannot form a concept of a “hippo” until one realizes that there’s more than one of them, and that they are distinct from all other animals.

    I think Rand’s point is two-fold. First, God is not a concept; it’s more of a proper name for one supposed thing. Second, the idea of God includes “impossible, irrational characteristics,” which means that God isn’t even something real. So “God” is not a concept, the way that “man” is, and God does not exist, the way my friend Joe does.

  3. Neil Parille

    Leaving God and the universe aside, I still think the theory is very problematic. For example, we can’t form the concept “solar system” until we discover that there is more than one? In fact, that seems to be the exact opposite of the way the mind works. We conceptualize something (our solar system) and then search for others.

  4. Ari

    At this point, I don’t think it’s very fruitful to continue discussions about Rand’s theory of concepts without getting into the substance of her theory (which is not the emphasis of this blog).

    However, I will wrap up with a couple of brief replies to Neil. The entire point of a concept is to name a class of objects that are similar in some key respect but that differ within a defined range. “Man” is a rational animal; men can be short, tall, thin, fat, etc. Generally, If there’s only one of something in the universe that we know of, we assign it a proper name, not a concept. “Joe” is not a concept; he is a particular person. We do in fact learn about solar systems in the context of knowing about other stars with revolving planets. If, for some reason, our solar system were surrounded by a shroud that blocked all external light, people would have had a much harder time reaching the concept of “solar system;” most likely they could have done it only when they discovered that there’s something beyond the shroud. To take another example, let us say that a man was raised by wolves his entire life, and he never saw another person. In fact, this man probably would never reach a conceptual stage, but, if he could, he might indeed notice that he was different from all other animals. But he could only accomplish this by reaching a concept of “animal,” and then noticing that he was not a member of any known species. Then he might extrapolate that there might be other beings like him, somewhere. But any such discovery would be radically dependent upon the prior discovery of many other concepts formed in the common way of integrating two or more similar things in contrast with other things.

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