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Rand’s Immortal Robot and “Values”

From a comment on the Mises blog from a while back:

Stephan Kinsella March 11, 2005 at 2:34 pm

One thing to keep in mind is there is a difference between being immortal and knowing you are immortal. I have noted this before (where, I cannot find) regarding Ayn Rand’s views about the nature of value. In Virtue of Selfishness she writes:

It is only the concept of ‘Life’ that makes the concept of ‘Value’ possible. It is only to a living entity that things can be good or evil. … To make this point fully clear, try to imagine an immortal, indestructible robot, an entity which moves and acts, but which cannot be affected by anything, which cannot be changed in any respect, which cannot be damaged, injured, or destroyed. Such an entity would not be able to have any values; it would have nothing to gain or to lose; It could not regard anything as for or against it, as serving or threatening its welfare, as fulfilling or frustrating its interests. It could have no interests and no goals… Only a living entity can have goals or can originate them. And it is only a living organism that has the capacity for self-generated, goal-directed action.

(See this Randian essay on related matters: “Why An Immortal God Cannot Value  And Therefore Cannot Love or Know Purpose” by Anton Thorn.)

The problem here, it seems to me, is the assumption that IF you are immortal, then you would be absolutely sure of this fact. Because the argument seems to rely not so much on *being* immortal, but in believing you are immortal. (I think the argument is fallacious in either case.)

What really matters, for action, is what one believes to be the case. This seems to me to apply to Rand’s hypo about “valuing” as much as it does this little discussion about time preference. Now in my view, we would still have time preference, and still value, even if we were immortal and knew it.

But even from the perspective of those here arguing about whether immortality affects time preference (or, in Rand’s case, the capacity to have values), the focus has to be on what the actor thinks or believes, not on what is really the case. Suppose A is immortal but does not know it. He only knows he is older than others and has not yet died. He assumes he has some weird gene that makes him live longer but he has no way of knowing or proving he is really immortal. In this case, he would not act as if he is immortal (whatever the implications of that are) since he does not think he is.

Also assume this: A is not immortal but falsely believes he is. Presumably he would act as if he is immortal. But note: today, many people, e.g. Christians, do in effect believe they are immortal; they believe they don’t really “die” but their soul goes to heaven and exists forever. These people evidently are (from their point of view) immortal, yet still value, and still have time preference.

So clearly, this entire focus on “immortality” is doubly mistaken. First, it is not immortality that matters–it is one’s beliefs about one’s own mortality. And second, apparently even a belief in immortality does not undercut the capacity to have values of time preference.


I really think a big flaw in this entire hypo is that no one can ever know they are immortal–even an immortal person could not know it. In fact, it’s probably impossible to be immortal anyway, given entropy and the universe’s ultimate collapse.


A related, but better, argument, is that of Mises, when he argues that God cannot act (and so the concept is incoherent). See, e.g., Mises in UFOES:

Natural theology saw the characteristic mark of deity in freedom from the limitations of the human mind and the human will. Deity is omniscient and almighty. But in elaborating these ideas the philosophers failed to see that a concept of deity that implies an acting God, that is, a God behaving in the way man behaves in acting, is self-contradictory. Man acts because he is dissatisfied with the state of affairs as it prevails in the absence of his intervention. Man acts because he lacks the power to render conditions fully satisfactory and must resort to appropriate means in order to render them less unsatisfactory. But for an almighty supreme being there cannot be any dissatisfaction with the prevailing state of affairs. The Almighty does not act, because there is no state of affairs that he cannot render fully satisfactory without any action, i.e., without resorting to any means. For Him there is no such thing as a distinction between ends and means. It is anthropomorphism to ascribe action to God. Starting from the limitations of his human nature, man’s discursive reasoning can never circumscribe and define the essence of omnipotence.

And in Human Action:

Scholastic philosophers and theologians and likewise Theists and Deists of the Age of Reason conceived an absolute and perfect being, unchangeable, omnipotent, and omniscient, and yet planning and acting, aiming at ends and employing means for the attainment of these ends. But action can only be imputed to a discontented being, and repeated action only to a being who lacks the power to remove his uneasiness once and for all at one stroke. An acting being is discontented and therefore not almighty. If he were contented, he would not act, and if he were almighty, he would have long since radically removed his discontent. For an all-powerful being there is no pressure to choose between various states of uneasiness; he is not under the necessity of acquiescing in the lesser evil. Omnipotence would mean the power to achieve everything and to enjoy full satisfaction without being restrained by any limitations. But this is incompatible with the very concept of action. For an almighty being the categories of ends and means do not exist. He is above all human comprehension, concepts, and understanding. For the almighty being every “means” renders unlimited services, he can apply every “means” for the attainment of any ends, he can achieve every end without the employment of any means. It is beyond the faculties of the human mind to think the concept of almightiness consistently to its ultimate logical consequences. The paradoxes are insoluble. Has the almighty being the power to achieve something which is immune to his later interference? If he has this power, then there are limits to his might and he is no longer almighty; if he lacks this power, he is by virtue of this fact alone not almighty.

Are omnipotence and omniscience compatible? Omniscience presupposes that all future happenings are already unalterably determined. If there is omniscience, omnipotence is inconceivable. Impotence to change anything in the predetermined course of events would restrict the power of any agent.

Action is a display of potency and control that are limited. It is a manifestation of man who is restrained by the circumscribed powers of his mind, the physiological nature of his body, the. vicissitudes of his environment, and the scarcity of the external factors on which his welfare depends. It is vain to refer to the imperfections and weaknesses of human life if one aims at depicting something absolutely perfect. The very idea of absolute perfection is in every way selfcontradictory. The state of absolute perfection must be conceived as complete, final, and not exposed to any change. Change could only impair its perfection and transform it into a less perfect state; the mere possibility that a change can occur is incompatible with the concept of absolute perfection. But the absence of change—i.e., perfect immutability, rigidity and immobility—is tantamount to the absence of life. Life and perfection are incompatible, but so are death and perfection.

The living is not perfect because it is liable to change; the dead is not perfect because it does not live.

I.e., God cannot act. Yet part of the idea of God is that he does act. So, it’s an incoherent idea.

{ 7 comments… add one }
  • Wirkman Virkkala June 23, 2010, 4:22 pm

    And third, life-over-death has nothing to do with why one prefers peanuts to turds for eating, thus valuing peanuts and disvaluing turds. This issue was all covered by the marginalist economists, who never had to cook up an absurd robot to explain the nature of value.

    Rand was simply wrong regarding the way she made Life the basis of values.

    Life may be a requirement for evaluation, but for reasons Herbert Spencer latched onto when he defined life as the “adjustment of inner relations to outer relations,” and defined conduct as “acts adjusted to ends.” This process of adjustment always engenders values. Life-vs.-death is irrelevant. Rand has nothing to offer us here.

  • Juan Fernando Carpio June 23, 2010, 5:04 pm

    Both of you are wrong of course, since most of what provides inner guidance is beyond (or rather, below) reason itself. Women have a biological clock and the rest of us can sense (these things called instincts) drives that generate priorities (aka values) to name one realm where they do. In other words, it is the fact that we’re an evolutionarily designed machine that expires that which leads us through hormonal cycles in life, that which ends up being rationalized. Both of you assume the Randian tabula rasa to criticize her…tabula rasa based stance.

    The 70’s called, they want their themes back.

  • scott. June 23, 2010, 5:41 pm

    how does this relate to the argument that death is what gives life it’s urgency and fragility? would you say this argument refutes that or is it irrelevant to it?

  • Scott F June 24, 2010, 6:09 pm

    I accept your argument that time preference would not be affected by immortality however I reject your argument that it’s impossible to know if your immortal or mortal.

    I have developed a counter argument


  • Steven Swenson November 12, 2012, 5:52 am

    I came across this article while googling for the quote about Ayn Rand’s indestructible robot.

    You’re taking Rand’s quote out of context and switching it to a different context in order to make your argument. You’re depending on the context of human beings which already have values in order to argue that an immortal, indestructible robot could have values.

    Keep the contexts in line here. Nothing can help or hinder the robot. It has nothing to gain or lose. So it could not come to see anything as for or against it. What -could- be for or against it? Rand didn’t say it was a robot with a conceptual consciousness like what humans have. She simply said that it is a robot. So I think we can leave human spiritual needs (like art and self esteem) out of it. Compare the robot to the lower animals, like cats and dogs. But I suppose even if the robot were capable of human intellect, it could still have no values because it is “unchanging”. Even when humans pursue spiritual values, it is still a mental change they’re after. A benefit to our inner world. If the robot can neither gain nor lose in the outer or inner world, Rand’s argument stands even for conceptual beings.

    It is the alternative between life and death that makes value possible and necessary, and which necessitates an objective approach to ethics.

    • Steven Swenson November 12, 2012, 6:01 am

      Actually, I should elaborate slightly. It is only volitional beings that need ethics, because the lower animals act automatically to pursue their values. We are capable of choosing to pursue or destroy our lives, and we are fallible. So we humans have a distinct need for ethics, and to approach the field of ethics as objectively as we can.

  • Robert Parris July 8, 2016, 7:46 pm

    The traditional view of God as omniscient is incoherent. Or rather how the doctrine is formulated is incoherent. If humans were given libertarian free will (incompatibilistic free will) then God simply does not know exactly what they will do. And He cannot control them in anything like the way most theists believe. Open theism holds that God created humans as libertarianly free and that that is how He WANTED to create them. That’s what He wants. Actually free beings. So while He may predict to a large degree what any one of us may do, He does not know with exactitude. The future is not something out there already existing to be known. All there is is the present. We all create the future together moment by moment. IOW, God knows all that is knowable, but the free actions of free creatures is not something that can be known with certitude by anyone, including God. Hence, God may have an agenda as to how He wants things to transpire, and He may act (in a radically different way than traditional theism suggests), but He cannot unilaterally assure that things will transpire as He wishes. So, the entire Misean corpus applies also to God, as a special case obviously; but not a radical departure.

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