Ayn Rand, Bioshock, and Certainty

For whatever reason, I keep writing about circumstances surrounding Ken Levine. Or podcasting about it. Strange, but for me his public image (if not the man himself, since all I know comes from media outlets) drives me to write things. This interview via USGamer seems just the match to light my giant firecracker of rage! Controlled rage, mind you.

To proceed in a wholly rigorous and somewhat disorganized way, I will list my points via number just for your convenience. Mostly this has nothing to do with game design at all, so steer clear if you want any of that.

1. I think we all know that, to some degree, Bioshock’s story emerged as a critique of Ayn Rand’s “objectivist” philosophy. Of course, that particular example of objectivism in the form of Andrew Ryan wasn’t necessarily objectivism per se, just Ken Levine’s form of it. As he describes himself:

A lot of people point out that Rand took government money you know, and to me that’s what makes for interesting people, interesting characters. Like Curt Schilling, who supported Palin and McCain and Romney, very anti-government, and yet worked with the government to make a big games studio and left them with a rather large bill — so you have these sort of living contradictions and for me they’re the interesting ones, that’s what Andrew Ryan is right?

Levine’s point, then, is that people who believe in certain philosophies contradict those same philosophies. That belief shines through all of his games, Bioshock Infinite included. Yet, that “contradiction” only emerges if you do no further research on Ayn Rand herself.

This is interesting, considering Andrew Ryan violates this same Randian principle via the creation of Little Sisters and the Big Daddies. Further, being a gigantic authoritarian jerk isn’t very Randian either. Freedom from outside forces, and being able to do what you wish independently of any exterior authority, remain stalwarts of the worldview. I could add further than capitalism and limited government aren’t exclusive to objectivism either, meaning without the video introduction at the beginning of the game you’d be hard pressed to distinguish Rapture from a  modern dictatorship rather than an objectivist utopia. And, of course, that is exactly what Ayn Rand was talking about here, which is exactly what happens in Rapture:


So if it’s a critique of objectivism, it’s a particularly confused one. We tend to judge on the face value of the ideas without looking at them closely, especially if we disagree. Their very existence provokes a narcissistic defense where, rather than learning about the other person’s ideas, we reinforce and hold our own preconceived notions more closely than ever. In psychology, they call this the “backfire effect”, and it completely explains every dichotomous social argument in American today, from political to scientific to religious.

So what does Ayn Rand says about taking government assistance? Well, let’s actually read her own words, rather than judge in advance.

Many students of Objectivism are troubled by a certain kind of moral dilemma confronting them in today’s society. We are frequently asked the questions: “Is it morally proper to accept scholarships, private or public?” and: “Is it morally proper for an advocate of capitalism to accept a government research grant or a government job?”

I shall hasten to answer: “Yes”—then proceed to explain and qualify it. There are many confusions on these issues, created by the influence and implications of the altruist morality.

There is nothing wrong in accepting private scholarships. The fact that a man has no claim on others (i.e., that it is not their moral duty to help him and that he cannot demand their help as his right) does not preclude or prohibit good will among men and does not make it immoral to offer or to accept voluntary, non-sacrificial assistance.

A different principle and different considerations are involved in the case of public (i.e., governmental) scholarships. The right to accept them rests on the right of the victims to the property (or some part of it) which was taken from them by force.

The recipient of a public scholarship is morally justified only so long as he regards it as restitution and opposes all forms of welfare statism. Those who advocate public scholarships, have no right to them; those who oppose them, have. If this sounds like a paradox, the fault lies in the moral contradictions of welfare statism, not in its victims.

Since there is no such thing as the right of some men to vote away the rights of others, and no such thing as the right of the government to seize the property of some men for the unearned benefit of others—the advocates and supporters of the welfare state are morally guilty of robbing their opponents, and the fact that the robbery is legalized makes it morally worse, not better. The victims do not have to add self-inflicted martyrdom to the injury done to them by others; they do not have to let the looters profit doubly, by letting them distribute the money exclusively to the parasites who clamored for it. Whenever the welfare-state laws offer them some small restitution, the victims should take it…

The same moral principles and considerations apply to the issue of accepting social security, unemployment insurance or other payments of that kind. It is obvious, in such cases, that a man receives his own money which was taken from him by force, directly and specifically, without his consent, against his own choice. Those who advocated such laws are morally guilty, since they assumed the “right” to force employers and unwilling co-workers. But the victims, who opposed such laws, have a clear right to any refund of their own money—and they would not advance the cause of freedom if they left their money, unclaimed, for the benefit of the welfare-state administration.

In a surprise to no one who read philosophy texts at all, qualifications and explanations always arise. Ayn Rand isn’t a Kantian; she is not making a maxim that should be applied as a general rule, but a complex philosophy of individuality. Give her the benefit of the doubt, and you’ll see she strives for partial restitution from the institution that took the resources in the first place. Can we criticize this thoroughly? I’m sure we can! But if you don’t know what you’re attacking very well, then I don’t call that a great criticism; I call that appealing to your demographic. So there’s my first beef: do some research guys! When Levine says this, then, I am less inclined to believe him:

…There are these ideals, and that’s not just a left-wing or a right-wing thing but both — and I think that to me is what propaganda is, right, the difference between propaganda and thought. Propaganda shields ideas from danger, and I think I’d rather expose ideas to danger. I think that’s what I like to make in these games, is to take ideas and say, well, let’s see what happens when these aren’t protected.

Newsflash: the way you present ideas is more secularist propaganda than anything written by Ayn Rand, I assure you.


This sort of thing is a big SIGH.

2. That secular disposition (which I see as a seperate worldview) comes through in a further quote:

Science has a lot of things in its corner that are towards the good — evolution in this country is from an empirical standpoint difficult to argue with. The thing about science is that, unlike religion, it opens itself up to fallibility — it says ‘well, we could be wrong.’ It’s designed to be wrong and testable and that’s what makes it so powerful — the problem is that when there’s any hole in a theory people do this thing called God in the Gaps. Which is that any time there’s a gap you plug in what you believe, as if that… Well, two problems there. One is that people’s beliefs are different, and two is that there’s no evidence there so the holes still need filling.

Or, as Benjamin Franklin would say, that people believe they are right isn’t a proof that they are right.

Ken Levine believes in the power of progress, apparently, that history trends towards the good. Of course, Martin Luther King’s Christianity made a major contribution to that belief in the salvific nature of reality, but no matter for the advancement of argument. I can add, further, that Levine believes that empirical discovery and science are the end-all, be-all of truth and objectivity in the world. So far, so secular, with no surprises.

Of course, I’m not sure where we get this idea that religions remain “infallible” or some such nonsense. Have you heard of ecumenical communication between different denominations? Many people on the Christian bandwagon fundamentally disagree with each other on a host of issues; somehow, we’re still all nominally Christian and respect each other’s beliefs. Hopefully!

It’s often understood that religion fills a “hole” of sorts in human explanation and the psyche. That’s the sort of distinction that makes no sense. To me, personally, I love learning about new ideas, new thoughts, new religions. I like interacting and finding people to whom I do not agree, even vehemently (as the case may be). I do not consider this normative, only descriptive of how my generation sees religious affiliation: a means to discussion, and not a Bible brow-beating.

Partly that’s my optimism, but that belief in religion is no less lacking in evidence than Levine’s belief in a vague notion of scientific progress. Here’s the wonderful flip side – believing science and empirical data as the foundation of your worldview requires just as much a leap of faith. You need to make an assumption that 1. this mental framework which happens to accord with the way humans think is right and applies to reality directly, 2. that scientific evidence will find the solution to every problem of missing knowledge eventually and 3. that this trust in science is infallible. Just because something finds use and functions well does not prove its quality as “right”, either – just useful.

I could add further that objectivity isn’t a “thing” so much as a concept, and much of what we perceive isn’t actual reality but our internal mental states (projection, in psychological terms). Psychology should make us more suspect of everything, especially our certainty in secularism as a mere replacement for religion. Such certainty in scientific inquiry never seems to belabor the people espousing it as the end-all, be-all of human knowledge – to civilization’s detriment, of course. That makes this quote all the more fun:

“…The thing Ryan and Comstock [leader of The Founders in Infinite] have in common is their absolute certainty. As different as they are philosophically, night and day — one is an atheist capitalist empiricist, the other is nationalist and religious — they’re so similar in the sense that they have certainty. I think that once you start having certainty, once you think you have infallibility, I think that’s when things get really dangerous.”

And I think it gets dangerous when we make an idol out of science, rather than seeing the vast reams of human experience. A materialist worldview isn’t the only one. We all need a grounding point, and that requires certainity in something. Hence, James 1:6 and a bunch of other Bible verses on the subject of doubt:

But he must ask in faith without any doubting, for the one who doubts is like the surf of the sea, driven and tossed by the wind.

So you tell me: am I being irrational and too certain here, or is he?

About Zachery Oliver

Zachery Oliver, MTS, is the lead writer for Theology Gaming, a blog focused on the integration of games and theological issues. He can be reached at viewtifulzfo at gmail dot com or on Theology Gaming’s Facebook Page.
  • Feels like there was a bit of a jump somewhere in there or a connection you made that I couldn’t quite follow. After reading the initial quote from Levine, I thought he was saying that he simply finds Ayn Rand and Kurt Schilling interesting because of their apparent contradictions.

    I don’t think he was trying to say that *as a rule*, people with certain beliefs contradict their specific philosophies (ie, conservative capitalists).

    However, looking at it now, I think i can see how that link was drawn.

    I don’t want to get too into the validity of Levine’s philosophy, especially since it’s obvious that his infatuation with antagonists is a lot less about drawing them well. It’s a lot more about building suitable videogame antagonists. When Bioshock came out, Andrew Ryan and Frank Fontaine were probably the most original and unique videogame foes players ever saw. But those same standards don’t hold up as well once you know the trick. Also, they look like cartoon characters compared to any antagonist in recent cinema.

    Like put Comstock alongside Loki in Thor movies and tell me that one of those characters is better than the other. I’m not sure you can do it. They’re not relatable to anything in the real world. And maybe that’s okay.

    • Zachery Oliver

      I was just trying to point out that what may appear a contradiction from our perspective may, in fact, be a perfectly logical course of action for the person (it especially works in Rand’s case, seeing as she actually DID explain it – just Levine didn’t look it up). Same thing applies to people of faith in general…especially missionaries who die in far-off places for what seems like illogical reasons to the greater culture at large nowadays.

      Levine’s stories tend to follow that mold, all said: people with contradictory philosophies, even if said philosophies aren’t actually that way. Differences in perception, you know? And that’s Levine’s perspective, and I find that perfectly fine. A story should have an opinion, even if it’s one I don’t like. Just that it is rather anemic when compared with the “real thing” in this case (either objectivism or nationalist Christianity/civic religion/whatever Bioshock Infinite is about).

    • How did you comment on this essay three years ago when it was published this week? 😛

      DUDE, you got time travel?! I wants some of that.