The Generalist

The Neo-Mystics

A Declaration of Independence for the Mind

Throughout History, mysticism has attempted to disassociate Man from his faculty of Reason. The underlying theme of the mystic, in all of his manifestations, proclaims that Man is helpless – impotent against the supernatural, God, and the unknowable. When the veil of superstition engulfed mankind during the darkness of earlier times, the mystic could easily ply his trade. Everything could be ascribed to the gods whom mankind dare not challenge. Any ritual, enslavement, or brutality could be justified as ‘Divine Will’. Man’s intellectual efforts were directed towards the noumenal spirit world of the hereafter.

In the modern era, the mystic has been compelled to develop a much more subtle strategy. He can no longer simply dismiss the power of rational inquiry when skyscrapers and airplanes are ubiquitious. Indeed, the Neo-Mystic has learned to embrace rational inquiry but only for specific purposes.

The Neo-Mystic’s facade begins by embracing technology and the “sciences” – precisely those inquiries least relevant to man’s happiness on Earth. He expects to deduce the nature of black holes a million light-years away, but a rational ethics to guide everyday life is banned as being impossible. The Neo-Mystic celebrates the necessarily complex, specialized terminology that adorn science — Reason is further isolated from the everyday use of the layman. The Neo-Mystic further states that “science” has no truths because it is a constantly changing, organic doctrine. Thus he accomplishes all of his ancient tasks. Rational inquiry is relegated to the sole use of the “sciences” and the search for Truth has been undermined — none exist. Eventually, without Ethics, technology cannot advance1. Without technological advancement, new sources of data cannot be collected and scientific theory can no longer expand.

Ayn Rand identified the mystic as the villain of History. In her philosophical teachings, Objectivism, she states that Man’s conceptual faculty, Reason, is his only tool for distinguishing Good and Evil. The Good has value and ultimately all values must originate by promoting one’s life. Obviously, any form of mysticism that disrupts man’s ability to value is considered Evil. Man must use his rational faculty (Aristotlean epistemology) specifically in the pursuit of happiness (Epicurean philosophy). An animal can enjoy the simple pleasures of a meal while awaiting the guillotine, a man cannot. Man’s happiness can only be acheived by engaging in long-term rational planning. In sharp contrast to the Neo-Mystic, Rand’s Objectivism emphasizes exactly those rational inquiries most important to the pursuit of happiness: morality, psychology, and economics.

Michael Shermer, editor of Skeptic Magazine, is well known for using rational arguments to destroy the pathetic remnants of religious doctrines. However, in his paper, The Unlikeliest Cult in History, Shermer gives a classic rendition of the modern Neo-Mystic while targeting Ayn Rand and Objectivism. After Shermer criticizes Rand’s private life and some of the followers of Objectivism, he moves on, to the real victims of his paper:

Morals do not exist in nature and thus cannot be discovered. In nature there are just actions–physical actions, biological actions, and human actions. Human actors act to increase their happiness, however they personally define it. Their actions become moral or immoral when someone else judges them as such. Thus, morality is a strictly human creation, subject to all the cultural influences and social constructions as other such human creations. Since virtually everyone and every group claims they know what right and wrong human action is, and since virtually all of these moralities are different from all others to a greater or lesser extent, then reason alone tells us they cannot all be correct ……. The broad range of human action is a rich continuum that precludes its pigeonholing into the unambiguous yeses and noes that political laws and moral codes require.

In the above passage, Shermer states one of the fundamental themes of Neo-Mysticism; Reason can identify the principles of Nature, but not the principles of Ethics. First, Shermer creates a false dichotomy between Ethics and Nature, proclaiming there are no systems of thought for the former. Then, he goes ahead and prescribes an ethical system anyway, using the flawed logic of a moral relativist. The ethics of relativism state that the method of moral judgement is subjective. The relativist confuses the method of moral judgement with it’s final personalized calculation. The method of moral judgement is always objectively the same, one’s rational self-interest — rational in the sense that one’s own long-term potential is furthered. Using Shermer’s subjective version of ethics, one can no longer properly differentiate the motivations of a kamikaze pilot from those of a millionaire industrialist.

Objectivism also states that Man, because he has a conceptual faculty, must judge — he has no choice. Man can only choose how he judges. A person who attempts to be non-judgemental is no different than a person who pretends he cannot see because he has closed his eyes. An unintentional demonstration follows when Shermer proclaims that Man cannot judge ethical behavior — then Shermer himself judges Rand and Objectivism as a dangerous ‘cult’:

But as soon as a group sets itself up to be the final moral arbiter of other people’s actions, especially when its members believe they have discovered absolute standards of right and wrong, it is the beginning of the end of tolerance and thus, reason and rationality. It is this characteristic more than any other that makes a cult, a religion, a nation, or any other group, dangerous to individual freedom.

Shermer considers certain cults and nations as dangerous threats to freedom and reason. But why are such things as freedom and reason important if no moral absolutes exist?

Finally, Shermer attempts to create an ambiguous, fluid boundary between truth and falsehood, as if at any moment truth can be rendered false. In his final crescendo, he revels in the special, organic nature of science – there are no lasting truths.

What separates science from all other human activities (and morality has never been successfully placed on a scientific basis), is its belief in the tentative nature of all conclusions. There are no final absolutes in science, only varying degrees of probability. Even scientific “facts” are just conclusions confirmed to such an extent it would be reasonable to offer temporary agreement, but never final assent. Science is not the affirmation of a set of beliefs but a process of inquiry aimed at building a testable body of knowledge constantly open to rejection or confirmation. In science, knowledge is fluid and certainty fleeting. That is the heart of its limitation. It is also its greatest strength.

Contrary to Shermer, truth can never be false — 1+1=2 is always true. The context of a given truth remains incomplete2 in the sense that it can always be expanded. The assertion, that 1 apple plus 1 orange is unequal to 2 oranges does not invalidate the truth of 1+1=2. Similarily, the moral truth that individuals have equality before the law cannot suddenly be falsified because the term ‘individual’ defies a precise definition. As a tool of survival, truth allows Man to recognize falsehoods — mathematical truth recognizes the evil of 2+2=5; moral truth recognizes the evil of individual A murdering individual B.

The basic tenet of all mysticism is to deny human happiness. The Neo-Mystic, is the mystic in retreat — as a marxist he accepted ‘atheism’ to promote a new monotheism of the State; with the overwhelming failure of marxism, today’s Neo-Mystic grudgingly accepts capitalistic practice, but only on a pragmatic basis and only as a moral relativist3. Regardless of his facade, he will always fundamentally reject the use of rational inquiry in the pursuit of happiness. The Neo-Mystic promotes efficacy over Nature but not efficacy over himself, he seeks power without self control. Today’s mystic no longer openly advocates man on the cross, instead he clandestinely advocates a psychopath with a nuclear weapon. His goal is the same.


1 von Mises, Ludwig; The Ultimate Foundation of Economic Science (Foundation for Economic Education, 2002) “What transformed the world of horsedrawn carriages, sailing ships and windmills step by step into a world of airplanes and electronics was the laissez-faire prinicple.” It is no coincidence that in the course of five thousand years of recorded history, technology began it’s great leap forward at the exact time and place where laissez-faire capitalism was embraced. Capitalism provides the three fundamental ingredients: the specialization of labor, the motivational component of self-interest, and the decentralized decision-making of the profit motive.

2 Kline, Morris; Mathematics The Loss of Certainty (New York: Oxford University Press. 1982). A common misinterpretation of Godel’s Incompleteness Theorem is that it somehow proves truth can be false — a vicious circular argument. Actually the theorem proves that arbitrary assertions can always be formed which remain unprovable within a given context or axiomatic system. The Theorem itself is a true statement about the nature of all axiomatic systems.

3 The pragmatist is like a talking parrot, he uses imitation without integration. Engaging in capitalistic practices ad-hoc, the pragmatist is unable to apply the theory of capitalism under a new circumstance.References:Smith, Adam ; The Wealth of Nations (New York: Random House, Inc. 1994).

Shermer, Michael; The Unlikeliest Cult in History (The Skeptic. 1993).

Rand, Ayn; Return of the Primitive (Penguin Group. New York. January 1999).

Binswanger, Harry; The Ayn Rand Lexicon (Meridian Printing. New York. January 1986).

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  1. BJ Pearson

    16 Apr 2011 - 11:36 pm

    Interesting read, Just a few comments:

    1. Straw-man with the Neo-Mystic being embodied in Sherman.

    2. “a rational ethics to guide everyday life is banned as being impossible.” – really? The Neo-Mystic doesn’t take a tolerant view of other ideas? (consider siddhartha) Perhaps the Neo-Mystic would instead embrace such an absolute – it frees him from the burden of thought.

    3. Paragraph 6 is rife with ad hominem.

    4. Done reading dribble – leaving page.

  2. Yale Landsberg

    4 Jul 2013 - 12:21 pm

    Dear Anthony and Lisa,

    As there are irrational skeptics and there are rational skeptics, and there are irrational libertarians and there are rational libertarians, of course, there are also irrational mystics and there are rational ones. So how about reading the story of someone who claims to be a rational mystic or at least got paid to be a crazy one Just by reading what is found via NOTE: Soon to be an ebook with the help of some dear folks with first-class Von Mises credentials as well as great hearts.

    Looking forward to your feedback!


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