I am currently rereading one of my favorite novels, Atlas Shrugged, by Ayn Rand (pictured above). Near the end of her life, Rand appointed Objectivist philosopher Leonard Peikoff as the legal heir to her estate. He is the world’s foremost authority on Ayn Rand’s philosophy. By a stroke of luck, Dr. Peikoff recently visited my show at the Waldorf. We chatted after the show about Atlas Shrugged, and Rand’s other masterpiece, The Fountainhead.
A few days later, I emailed Dr. Peikoff, requesting an interview for my blog. Although I’ve been a magician my entire life, I’m always trying to learn more about the subtle wrinkles of my field. By interviewing a preeminent thinker in another field, I hoped to find answers to questions in my own field.
Steve Cohen: I don’t often get a chance to speak with a philosopher, and you don’t often get a chance to speak to a conjuror.
Leonard Peikoff: [laughing] No, very rarely!
LP: She lived in a New York apartment most of her adult life. After she came from Russia, she lived for a short while in California. But the bulk of her adult life was on 36th Street in Manhattan. Between Madison and Park – 36 East 36th. Then she moved to 120 East 34th.
I spent a lot of time in conversation with Ayn Rand, two or three times a week, for eight to ten hours at a stretch. I read the entire book Atlas Shrugged in manuscript form. And we had to keep waiting; there was a two-year delay while she wrote John Galt’s speech. We read everything up to there, and had to wait two years to hear what happened next.
SC: When you write a book of such breadth, each of the characters must be incredibly well-developed. How did she keep track of them?
LP: She had extensive journals for all of her novels, and all of that has been published under the title, The Journals of Ayn Rand. Everything. So you can see it. And she did all of that in advance of starting.
SC: I’ll have a look at her Journals after I finish Atlas Shrugged this time. I’ve prepared several questions about the nature of belief, deception, and magic, and would like to hear your opinions.
LP: What’s your first question?
SC: Do you believe in magic?
LP: My own response to magic is admiration of the skill of the magician. I take it in the same way as watching a brilliant athlete or pianist, and get pleasure from the ease and delight with which they exhibit their genius. I certainly do not take it as evidence of a power of unreason lurking behind the scenes. On the contrary, part of the delight is knowing that there is a rational explanation which the magician is so skillfully concealing. If I thought it were real, I would run for the hills.
SC: We often hear the axiom “seeing is believing.” However on p. 319 of Atlas Shrugged, there is a quote from Dr. Ferris’ book “Why Do You Think You Think” that states: “Only the crassest ignoramus can still hold to the old-fashioned notion that seeing is believing. That which you can see is the first thing to disbelieve.”
My question is: what can we trust if not our eyes? What is the nature of belief, and how can someone like me (who is forever trying to convince people of something that is not necessarily true) create conviction in others?
LP: I say that, absolutely, seeing is believing. You can trust your eyes, and all your senses. In fact, they are necessarily valid because the only way to establish any truth is by reference to the sensory data. That’s the basis on which we form concepts and conclusions. If your senses aren’t valid, you can’t even have such a word as valid.
Now people get confused on this, because they don’t distinguish what the senses tell us from the interpretation that we place on that data. If I see a man in a red suit and a white beard and a big stomach, and I say, “I see Santa Claus,” my senses do not deceive me, but my interpretation does.
That’s true of all alleged cases where you perceive something, and then blame the senses.
So for any issue, you must distinguish: what do you see? And what do you make of it? Now a lot of people will see something that they can’t explain, and then come up with mystical interpretations. Whether that’s the occurrence of the seasons, or the tides, the attraction of magnets, or whatever it happens to be. They will resort to inner spirits, God, and so on. Their senses – what they see – is valid. However, their interpretation, their mysticism, is not relevant.
A proper attitude would be, if you can’t explain something that you do perceive, you just say the truth: “I do perceive it, and I can’t explain it.” Half of the things that were not explicable in the past, later became so. And many of the things that are not explicable yet, will be in due course. That would be a rational attitude.