25 Sep 2010

Achieving Objectivity in Harvard Yard

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Mitchell Heisman

In October of 1903, a 23-year-old prodigy who had recently finished his first book and who was widely regarded as a genius, Otto Weininger rented a room in the house in Vienna where Ludwig van Beethoven died 76 years earlier, and shot himself in the heart.

Weininger, a prodigy who had received his doctorate at an unusually young age, wrote a book, titled Geschlecht und Charakter (Sex and Character) arriving at extremely troubling conclusions. Weininger believed that human beings and human culture and society inevitably contain a mixture of positive, active, productive, moral, and logical (male, Christian) traits and impulses as well as their passive, unproductive, amoral, and sensual (female and Jewish) opposites.

Weininger was of Jewish descent and afflicted with homosexual inclinations and was in despair over the decline of modern Western civilization due to ascendancy of the female/Jewish impulses he deplored, so acting in consistency with his philosophical conclusions, Weininger took his own life.

Last Saturday, Mitchell Heisman, a 35-year-old psychology graduate from the University of Albany, shot himself in the head in front of Memorial Church in the Harvard Yard within the sight of a campus tour. Heisman had been residing nearby in Somerville, Massachusetts, supporting himself on a legacy from his father and by working in some Boston area bookshops, while pursuing his own studies and working on a (so far unpublished) book.

Mitchell Heisman published on the Internet a 1905-page suicide note in which he explains his actions as an experiment in nihilism undertaken in search of objectivity. Heisman, like Weininger of Jewish descent, is critical of liberal democracy, egalitarianism, materialism, modernism, and Jewish ethical opposition to “biological realism and the eugenic evolution of biological life.”

The suicide note pdf is fascinating document displaying considerable learning and evidencing a sharp sense of humor and originality of thought.

The most rigorous objectivity implies indifference to the consequence of objectivity, i.e. whether the consequences of objectivity yield life or death for the observer. In other words, the elimination of subjectivity demands indifference to self-preservation when self-preservation conflicts with objectivity. The attempt at rigorous objectivity could potentially counter the interests of self-preservation or even amount to rational self-destruction. The most total objectivity appears to lead to the most total self-negation. Objectivity towards biological factors is objectivity towards life factors. Indifference to life factors leads to indifference between the choices of life and death. To approach objectivity with respect to self-interest ultimately leads to indifference to whether one is alive or dead.

The dead are most indifferent; the least interested; the least biased; the least prejudiced one way or the other. What is closest to total indifference is to be dead. If an observer hypothesizes death then, from that perspective, the observer has no vested interests in life and thus possible grounds for the most objective view. The more an observer is reduced to nothing, the more the observer is no longer a factor, the more the observer might set the conditions for the most rigorous objectivity.

It is likely that most people will not even consider the veracity of this correlation between death and objectivity even if they understand it intellectually because most will consciously or unconsciously choose to place the interests of self-preservation over the interests of objectivity. In other words, to even consider the validity of this view assumes that one is willing and able to even consider prioritizing objectivity over one’s own self-preservation. Since it not safe to simply assume this on an individual level, let alone a social level, relatively few are willing and able to seriously address this issue (and majority consensus can be expected to dismiss the issue). In short, for most people, including most “scientists”, overcoming self-preservation is not ultimately a subject for rational debate and objective discussion.

Maximizing objectivity can be incompatible with maximizing subjective interests. In some situations, anything less than death is compromise. The choice between objectivity and self-preservation may lead one to a Stoic’s choice between life and death.

Whereas the humanities cannot be what they are without human subjectivities, the inhumanities, or hard sciences, require the subjective element be removed as much as possible as sources of error. Objectivity leads towards the elimination of subjectivity, i.e. the elimination of one’s “humanity”. A value free science has no basis on which to value human things over non-human things and thus no basis to value life over death or vice versa. Social science will become equal to the standards of physical science when social scientists overcome the subjective preference for the life of humanity over the death of humanity.

To attempt to resolve the contradiction of myself as a scientist and a human being on the side of science leads towards viewing myself as a material object. While this contradiction may be impossible to resolve, the closest approximation of reconciliation may consist of the state of death. In death, the teleologically-inclining biases of human subjectivity that hinder one from viewing one’s self as a material object are eliminated.

I cannot fully reconcile my understanding of the world with my existence in it. There is a conflict between the value of objectivity and the facts of my life. This experiment is designed to demonstrate a point of incompatibility between “truth” and “life”. In this experiment I hypothesize that the private separation of facts and values, when disclosed to the wider social world, creates a conflict of interest between the value of sociobiological objectivity and the “facts” of my sociobiological existence such that it leads to a voluntary and rational completion of this work in an act of self-destruction. …

How far would one be willing to go in pursuit of scientific objectivity? Objectivity and survival are least compatible when objectivity becomes a means of life, subordinate to life as opposed to life subordinated to objectivity. If the greatest objectivity implicates confronting the most subjective biases, this implicates confronting those truths that most conflict with the subjective will to live. By simply changing my values from life values to death values, and setting my trajectory for rational biological self-destruction, I am able to liberate myself from many of the biases that dominate the horizons of most people’s lives. By valuing certain scientific observations because they are destructive to my life, I am removing self-preservation factors that hinder objectivity. This is how I am in a position to hypothesize my own death.

So if objectivity is not justified as end, then objectivity can be a means of rational self-destruction through the overcoming of the bias towards life. Rational self-destruction through the overcoming of the bias towards life, in turn, can be a means of achieving objectivity. And this means: To will death as a means of willing truth and to will truth as a means of willing death. …

Why am I doing this? Ah, yes, now I remember the punchline: I’ll try anything once!

There is nothing to take seriously!

I have not had time yet to read the whole thing, so I’m not completely sure just what I think of all of the late Mr. Heisman’s opinions, but I am intrigued enough to have resolved to read all of it. I’ve even downloaded and saved a copy.

My guess, at this point, is that his book is probably well worth publishing.

HuffPo story

Harvard Crimson


New York Post

5 Feedbacks on "Achieving Objectivity in Harvard Yard"

Ron Drummond

I read the last section of Heisman’s “Punchline”, and it’s pretty clear to me that the guy walked himself into a corner and talked himself into seeing it as a door out. As I was reading it, anticipating the 20-page bibliography with which his suicide note concludes, I predicted that that bibliography would not contain a certain book by Abrams & Primack, nor anything at all by Stuart Kauffman — and I was right. Though it’s doubtful those books would have saved him, for the simple reason that he had long since trained himself to see dark corners in every horizon — but they contain and convey the understandings that untangle his most profound misprision, that reductionism is functionally meaningful or descriptively accurate under any conditions; it’s not.


Well, interested because it’s my alma mater, but there is a part of me that wants to say “Enough already! Don’t read it. Every time we read and publicize the work of a suicide, we encourage other depressed people to off themselves.” I can’t find the link, but I read somewhre about a study where a whole group of people who wanted to be euthanized (terminal cases) were put on antidepressants, and after a few weeks about 80-90% no longer wanted to be killed but wanted to make the most of however much life was left to them. Since antidepressants are not happy pills, but just alleviate depression, that makes me think that suicide is a symptom of depression rather than a sane wish or decision.

Mind you, I’m biased, having known too many desperately depressed people (some relatives) who have had to be watched (some hospitalized) to keep them alive. Suicide may seem like one’s own decision, about own’s own life, but each of us affects hundreds of loved ones and acquaintances. The negative ripple effects of a suicide go on for years after their death. It is never a neutral decision. It is a sublimely selfish, hostile act. No man is an island, Donne wrote. We are not our own. We belong to our families and those who love us.

Guess I’m just one of those sentimental religious types who weeps at the death of a promising young man like this and wishes that he had got treatment for depression and was still around to study and write…

Kragen Javier Sitaker

Retriever: although I haven’t finished reading the book, it definitely does not appear to me to be the work of a depressed person.

I do worry that it may encourage suicide.

Michael R. Brown

What a pity he identified with himself as a dissociated intellect – even to kill his living body and lose all existence in the world.

Cat Owens

This young man may have been depressed but could no longer identify it as such because of his dissociative qualities. He reminds me of a friend who has Asperger’s syndrome. I am sorry Mitchell is gone and I wonder if he is aware of anything now that changes his philosophy…


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