I will never forget this. One morning, when I was about seven years old, I sat down with my younger brother and sister to a breakfast of scrambled eggs and toast. I dug in immediately, preferring my eggs as warm as possible.
“Look!”, came a cry from across the dining room table. It was my brother speaking.
I looked over and saw him mashing at his breakfast with the edge of his fork. My sister, seated next to him, was doing the same. Their faces were alight with glee. They looked up at me expectantly, then returned intently to making a mess on their plates, then looked at me expectantly again. My expression must have shown my incomprehension. What was I supposed to be looking at? Three-year-olds playing with their food? What else was new?
“I’m making More Eggs!”, my brother explained.
I tried to return my attention to eating my breakfast, but, before long, my resolve broke down. I just couldn’t let it be, for some reason. “You’re not making More Eggs, just smaller pieces,” I said, setting down my fork.
“Yes we are,” said my sister.
The usual sibling game of No-you’re-not / Yes-we-are followed, of course. I kept saying the bit about the increased number of smaller pieces, but the twins kept pretending, with the beatific certitude of pint-sized televangelists, that they were actually making More Eggs. We were getting nowhere and I was getting bored. Why did they insist on postponing the inevitable? I thought for a moment.
“Look,” I said, in my best affected big-brotherly tone of head-patting and gentle correction, “each time you cut a bit of egg with your fork, you get twice as many pieces.” I paused for effect. They nodded in agreement. I sighed to myself in quiet relief. “But each piece is half the size.”
Brilliant!, I congratulated myself. I watched their eyes closely, waiting for the light of comprehension to kindle there. Their little show was a flop.
My brother’s eyes went distant for a moment. There it was; he was realizing defeat. “Huh-uh,” he said then. “There’s More Eggs!”
What!? I couldn’t believe it. They’d never taken a prank this far before. It was diabolical! I peered even more intently into their eyes. They were sparkling still with glee. I peered yet closer. Where was the malice? I could see that they were enjoying my distress, but where was the cold glint of deliberate will? No. —No! Slowly, it dawned on me, though I could hardly believe it. They weren’t gleeful because their scheme to bug the hell out of me had proved marvelously successful. They were gleeful because, horror of horrors, they really, truly believed they had discovered how to make More Eggs! The fact that their new-found power seemed to be driving me crazy was just gravy.
I started to lose it. “Don’t you see?”, I strained. “If you could really make More Eggs that way, you’d only need one egg to feed a thousand people! You can’t create eggs by smashing them up with a fork! … I know! How about you give me all your eggs but one tiny bit, and you can make “more” out of that for yourself?”
I think my brother was about to take me up on my challenge when Mom intervened. Everyone’s eggs were to remain on his or her own plate, she insisted. I started to plead with her to set the twins straight. She was, unbelievably, dismissive. Didn’t she see that they were dangerously insane? This was important! I tried again and again to explain to the twins that they weren’t making More Eggs, and to my mother that she should just tell them that they weren’t. Nobody budged.
Before long, I’m not ashamed to say, I was apoplectic, or as close to it as a seven-year-old can get. I’d nearly made myself sick. The twins grinned their idiot grins at me from across the dining room table. Mom returned to the kitchen. Slowly, resignedly, I picked up my fork and finished a cold breakfast.
What has any of this got to do with philosophy? I think we’ll all agree that that’s obvious—and soon afterwards find out that we have surprisingly different ideas about what, exactly, this obvious connection is. On a related matter, Leonard Peikoff once wrote this:
If you went up to an ordinary individual, itemized every object and person he cared for, then said to him seriously: “I intend to smash them all and leave you groveling in the muck,” he would become indignant, even outraged. What set Ayn Rand apart from mankind is the fact that she heard the whole itemization and the intention to smash everything in the simple statement that “reality is unreal.” [From “My Thirty Years With Ayn Rand”]
In my case, I wasn’t outraged because I felt the twins were threatening everything I held dear. (Which is good, I suppose, because they weren’t.) I was horrified. It was like I had sat down to breakfast with zombies. I had discovered that, in a very real and important sense, the twins were not human.1
At age seven, because I naively and wrongly assumed that the twins thought about and perceived the world as I did, I got a very early foretaste of a now-familiar horror: the experience of attempting to reason with someone utterly unreachable by reason. Here were two little creatures, by all appearances people, who had language, with whom I regularly conversed, and I had discovered that an unfathomable, unbridgeable void separated us.
On a related matter, Friedrich Nietzsche once wrote this:
The intellectual conscience.—I keep having the same experience and keep resisting it every time, I do not want to believe it although it is palpable: the great majority of people lack an intellectual conscience; indeed, it has often seemed to me as if anyone calling for an intellectual conscience were as lonely in the most densely populated cities as if he were in a desert. Everybody looks at you with strange eyes and goes right on handling his scales, calling this good and that evil; nobody even blushes when you intimate that their weights are underweight—nor do people feel outraged: they merely laugh at your doubts. I mean: the great majority of people does not consider it contemptible to believe this or that and to live accordingly, without first having given themselves an account of the final and most certain reasons pro and con, and without even troubling themselves about such reasons afterward—the most gifted men and the noblest women still belong to this “great majority.” But what is goodheartedness, refinement, or genius to me, when the person who has these virtues tolerates slack feelings in his faith and judgments and when he does not account the desire for certainty as his inmost craving and deepest distress—as that which separates the higher human beings from the lower! Among some pious people I have found a hatred of reason and was well disposed to them for that: for this at least betrayed their bad intellectual conscience! But to stand in the midst of this rerum concordia discors [“Discordant concord of things”: Horace, Epistles, I.12.19.] and of this whole marvelous uncertainty and rich ambiguity of existence without questioning, without trembling with the craving and the rapture of such questioning, without at least hating the person who questions, perhaps even finding him faintly amusing—that is what I feel to be contemptible, and this is the feeling for which I look first in everybody:—some folly keeps persuading me that every human being has this feeling, simply because he is human. This is my sense of injustice. [The Gay Science, I, 2]
Aren’t we fortunate, we philosophical ones, to have avoided the chasm within? Yet … even in the most unlikely places, I keep having the same experience: a poignant flush of empathy, vertigo, and nausea all together. Familiar-looking zombies waltz to strange music, some atonal idée fixe, while an eggy paste dribbles from their chins.
1. I hope it goes without saying that I didn’t need to be horrified. Many years after my own More Eggs incident, I learned that a famous psychologist, Jean Piaget, had studied a similar phenomenon. (Cf. http://hubcap.clemson.edu/~campber/piaget.html. Note: I have only skimmed this piece and the author’s website, and have no informed opinion about his judgments on either Piaget or Objectivism.)