Benevolent Universe premise

trying to think

Recommended Posts

On 12/31/2018 at 9:05 AM, trying to think said:

Where can I find the Objectivist arguments that we do not live in a malevolent universe?

I've always held the benevolent universe premise as a total conviction, but I have also found it hard to formulate the proof.

Here is the only argument in Objectivist literature that I've come across:


"As the simplest empirical refutation of [the malevolent universe] metaphysics—as evidence of the fact that the material universe is not inimical to man and that catastrophes are the exception, not the rule of his existence—observe the fortunes made by insurance companies."

“The Ethics of Emergencies,”
The Virtue of Selfishness, 48


Here are some thoughts of mine:

The benevolent universe premise states in essence that the universe is amenable to man's mind and volition. If you take the contrary, what does that imply? It implies that either the universe is not amenable to man's mind - whether it's positing the fallibility of logic, the impossibility of induction and generalized knowledge, or something along those lines that makes the operation of the rational mind impotent - in which case, no such argument in favor of this malevolent universe premise could be justifiable, and it is self-defeating. If it's otherwise not amenable to man's volition, what does that imply? That man lacks volition, either due to the unreliable nature of reality, which would likewise result in general knowledge and argument not being justifiable (and hence is a self-defeating position), or due to determinism. In the case of determinism we have a similar problem: there really is no "man" in the sense of there being a self-contained entity capable of independent action, but rather a biological phenomenon (or cloud of particles or what have you), and he makes no "arguments" in the sense of propositions making general claims about the world that logically follow one another, but rather he merely emits noises as a part of some pre-determined process. So in that case, there is no way to genuinely formulate an argument, and hence the case is again self-defeating.

One may then try to fall back on arguing that the universe is intelligible and amenable to man's mind and volition, but that everything is eventually doomed to a fate of disaster and death in the end, and hence it is not so benevolent after all.

My first response to this is: if nothing you do has any purpose, if any action is ultimately useless in the end, then it is impossible to have any moral standard to choose between possible actions. If the end aim of any action you take is always for nothing, there is no way to choose between one action or another: they both lead equally to nothing, and so neither is any more justifiable than the other. So without any any moral standard, there is nothing for man to do, no action that he can justify. So first of all, the motive for someone to make an argument for a malevolent universe is self-defeating: if it's true, then there's no reason to make such an argument in the first place.

Second: there is no proof that the universe is malevolent in this sense. There may be some theories (a la heat death of the universe), but these are far from proven, and the willingness to make that leap of belief is absurd, when it is self-defeating to one's purpose in investigating into the nature of the universe in the first place.

I believe there is a third and stronger point, that the argument for such a universe is incoherent and logically self-defeating, as it is for a universe not amenable to man's mind or volition. It would go along the lines of asking, if the universe itself is doomed to non-existence, why would it have come into existence in the first place? I think this contradiction proves that the universe must, by its very nature, exist (and exist eternally). Likewise with man, from a universe which by nature exists and doesn't contain its own non-existence in intrinsic to its nature, why would such a nature of man arise which itself contains within its nature its own non-existence?

Link to comment
Share on other sites


Intrinsicist has some good points about “the benevolent universe premise” in Rand’s philosophy. And there are good points upstream in this thread.

Additionally, I’d add that Rand rejected the idea of Schopenhauer that will to life is a bondage to ultimate pointless striving and a striving whose main theme is suffering. She rejected his view that the attainments of intellect are occasions of freedom from that bondage. (Her opposition to the metaphysical pessimism of Schopenhauer and his followers extends also to opposition of Existentialism, which was contemporary with her own life.) In diametrical opposition, she saw intellect, will, and productivity as cohorts of human life. Life is its own justification and meaning, and is indeed the only realm in which such things as purpose, meaningful action, and justification reside.

Intrincist, I don’t think an argument for the eternity of existence in general can be transplanted to support eternity of life in the universe, neither individual life nor life of a particular species nor life per se. There are the familiar traditions of thinking of the human soul as a living sort of thing and as immortal in that living existence, death of the body notwithstanding. The line of rational argument for this has been to gather together ways in which the nature of the embodied soul differs radically from material existents (animate or inanimate matter and fields) and from those contrast-features proceed to the inference that the soul is of a radically different nature from other pieces of existence and cannot pass out of existence.

For my own part, I take individual life and species life to be sorts of existence that lose existence, in the sense of living existence, full stop, at death. And this general setting is no general excuse for life-long despair, but in general for striving, having projects, and loving.

It would be good to note for this thread that in the final chapter of A Companion to Ayn Rand, the authors look at some of the passages of Rand’s that express the benevolent universe premise, “offer an explicit characterization of it, indicate the history of Rand’s use of the relevant terminology, and show how it depends on fundamentals of Objectivism.”

Link to comment
Share on other sites

What is the difference between the Universe and nature? How does the premise of a benevolent Universe coincide with the premise of a cruel nature? I find it hard to answer this without inferring different intentions behind the terms. Perhaps in the context Rand would say that nature is cruel, 'nature' would not include the individual, but only the individual's natural environment. While presuming a benevolent Universe includes man's mind and spirit, and thus includes the tools to deal with and overcome a cruel nature.

That feels like rationalizing, though.

Link to comment
Share on other sites


I doubt Rand would make any distinction between universe and nature in this context. In her published writing, the idea is expressed most strongly in Atlas in remarks of Ragnar to Dagny in Atlantis, and there her term for the realm is earth. In that work she speaks also of “the man who belonged on earth”, and that sense about the fundamental human condition is at hand as well for Roark of Fountainhead and for the protagonist of Anthem.

The chapter I mentioned above in the Blackwell volume mentions the idea of benevolence being a thing about the world, our world, as some theologians and as Isabell Patterson would see it, on account of the oversight of the cosmic consciousness that is God. Patterson and Rand exchanged views on this, and Patterson could not imagine how an atheist could see man as situated in a benevolent world.

Somewhat before reading any Rand, while I as a young man, I became an atheist. It felt so clean and honest. It felt also like the end of an always love affair. But there was something else. I felt this enormous benevolence towards all human kind. I think that was because then I knew there was no one with grand oversight and power watching over them. They were on their own, as I’d come to see the cosmos was on its own.

Yet I didn’t feel we didn’t fit on earth or that nature without God was a malevolent thing. I myself have never had any use for the notion of “cruel nature.” I do always remember that, as I put it to my friends, “nature is a giant.” I say that when 300,000 people are wiped out by a tidal wave or 100,000 people are wiped out by an earthquake, and so forth. And on the individual level, loved ones have died of various things in my life, as in everyone’s life—from my next-door-neighbor cousin a year younger than I who was killed in Vietnam to my first life partner who died in my arms of disease when we were both 41—yet “cruel nature” has been without meaning to me. (There is something else, related in some opaque way, I think, which my partner of the last 25 years and I have in common: we’ve never had that thought people say “why me?” when we have been near death or had painful condition or a bad limitation.) Death just seems natural for us, and a thing to plan for and ever-expect, natural and normal even though we humans are such a remarkable animal, the crowning glory of life on earth.

Well, one more thing. I don’t really care about life off the earth except as curiosity. I expect the human species to live on beyond me and to eventually die out here on earth, the only abode it will have ever really had (die off due to nuclear wars, sooner or later or later). Each morning I rise about 4, and as I make my way past eastern windows on the way to the coffee machine, I say to myself words from the Rig Veda: “so many days have not yet broken”. I give it the meaning “what will I yet create, and too, what will mankind yet create?” We fit here, the more rational, the better. 

Link to comment
Share on other sites

I came to the conclusion a long time ago that humans are made out of the same stuff the rest of the universe is.

The fact that the human species has survived and thrived is proof that the universe is benevolent, but not as a separate entity. It's more like saying our bodies are benevolent to our individual selves.

The only non-benevolent part is illness, maiming and death.

The existence of happiness and achieving potential makes up for all that.

This thought is not all that profound, I admit, but it has served me as an anchor.


  • Like 1
Link to comment
Share on other sites

Create an account or sign in to comment

You need to be a member in order to leave a comment

Create an account

Sign up for a new account in our community. It's easy!

Register a new account

Sign in

Already have an account? Sign in here.

Sign In Now