A (sort of) Objectivist Comment on “Dune”

“Prophecy and prescience – How can they be put to the test in the face of the unanswered questions? Consider: How much is actual prediction of the ‘wave form’ (as Muad’Dib referred to his vision-image) and how much is the prophet shaping the future to fit the prophecy? What of the harmonics inherent in the act of prophecy? Does the prophet see the future or does he see a line of weakness, a fault or cleavage that he may shatter with words or decisions as a diamond-cutter shatters his gem with a blow of a knife?”
— Frank Herbert, “Dune“, page 312.
(The Kaaba. Prophecies, prophets, a mysterious black stone enshrined in a huge granitic cube. The “power of religion” is the theme of Dune. But isn’t it the theme here on Earth too?)

Disregarding the unjust competition of the Epic of Gilgamesh, Dune can arguably be considered the first “chosen one” sci-fi novel ever to appear. Luke, Neo, Aragorn, Potter, all of them owe at least some of their powers to Paul Atreides, and, of course, to Frank Herbert. But what really caught my attention right from the start of the book was Herbert’s (sort of) Objectivist tendencies. If I had to pick one single word to represent Objectivism, that word would be “reason”. If I had to pick one for Dune, it would also be… — OK, it would be “sandworms” — but the next choice would be “reason”, as well.

The story takes place far from Earth, in a desert planet called Arrakis. The surface theme is power struggle. The main contenders are the House of Atreides (the good) and the House of Harkonnen (the bad), but the conflict involves a conspiracy where everybody has something at stake, including the very Emperor (the ugly).

But the deeper theme is religion, or the power religion has on people. At the center of it all is the Fremen, the toughened war-like and deeply religious local people, who have a strong and mystical relationship with the melange (the “spice”), the main natural resource of Arrakis. That’s what moves the world of Dune and the war we witness.

But there is nothing — NOTHING — in Dune to imply a God. A diet rich in melange enhances reasoning and creates something like “prescient” powers. The Bene Gesserit “witches” plant legends amidst the peoples as a backup for their machinations. That’s it.

To “prove” my point, I don’t think I need to dwell on the feasibility of religious conspiracies. You cannot honestly think the whole Middle-Eastern mess is just about God.

But you might think prescient powers imply mysticism. I say they don’t.

What is thinking? According to Objectivism, it is integration of concretes; it is looking at the world as it is and extracting patterns from it. Think Newton watching an apple fall and abstracting the law of gravity, but also you predicting daily traffic or the weather.

Now, think of experienced chess players, who foresee ten to fifteen moves ahead in each of dozens of simultaneous games, blindfolded!

Think also what coffee does to you. Well, at least I think a lot better with a good dose of cafeine. In fact, I would probably write like a three-year-old if I didn’t have two large cups of coffee first thing in the morning.

Now, feed generations of expert chess players with the melange (think “Red Bull with steroids”) for thousands of years, and indoctrinate them within a whole culture of reason, a culture that use it to separate lesser humans from humans just like Aristotle and Ayn Rand did to separate animals from men. What would the abilities of such people look like to us?

Prescience.

In a world like Dune, our “spiced-up” grandmasters would become prophets! In a world like ours, however, they would burn at the stake.

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4 thoughts on “A (sort of) Objectivist Comment on “Dune”

  1. Very interesting take on Dune, Objectivism, and religion. When I was younger I fell under the spell of Herbert’s universe and was taken by the Zen feel of many of the chapter quotes, along with the messianic story. The sheer originality of his universe, in my mind, has never been equaled.

    I also went through a “Rand” phase during which I read everything I could get my hands on. But I never made the connection to Dune, which is interesting since I was equally captivated by it. Some compartmentalizing, I guess.

    Anyway, very good post and insights into these writings. Thanks!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Many thanks for your comments.

    I am glad someone liked this crazy post of mine. I ended up writing about religion, but my original intention was to comment on a passage at the very beginning of the book, one when Paul practices a “mind-body lesson”. Allow me to share it with you here.

    I believe it will remind you of both your “Rand phase” and your “Dune phase”, and I trust you will agree with me that this passage is pure Objectivism! Who knows, maybe you will dig your Dune edition up or even renew your interest in Ayn Rand.

    “Three quick breaths triggered the responses: he fell into the floating awareness … focusing the consciousness … aortal dilation … avoiding the unfocused mechanism of consciousness … to be conscious by choice … blood enriched and swift-flooding the overload regions … one does not obtain food-safety-freedom by instinct alone … animal consciousness does not extend beyond the given moment nor into the idea that its victims may become extinct … the animal destroys and does not produce … animal pleasures remain close to sensation levels and avoid the perceptual … the human requires a background grid through which to see his universe … focused consciousness by choice, this forms your grid … bodily integrity follows nerve-blood flow according to the deepest awareness of cell needs … all things/cells/beings are impermanent … strive for flow-permanence within …”

    Thanks again!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I never lost interest in Objectivism per se, as much of it has been integrated into my thinking. In other words, one can get to a point of repeating ideas that becomes…well…repetitive. That doesn’t devalue the ideas, of course.

    That passage you quoted is definitely Objectivist from beginning to end! Specifically, the distinction between sensational and perceptual levels of consciousness jumped out at me. Do you know of any information linking Herbert to Objectivist thought? The other strain that runs through Dune is his use of Zen Buddhist ideas. You might find this interesting: http://rebirthofreason.com/Articles/Hibbert/Objectivism_and_Zen.shtml

    Liked by 1 person

    • First, to answer you: No, I have no information linking Herbert and Objectivism, and, to be honest, it didn’t occur to me to look for it even after I wrote my piece. But now that you mentioned, I might.
      Now, very interesting article you mentioned, thanks! When he says that “Zen has no concept of a supernatural being” it gets my attention. In fact, although I have never studied Buddhism, I’ve always envied people who can meditate and willingly “empty their minds” to focus on the moment. That’s something I still hope to be able to do some day. I am sure there is a lot to learn about “subjective reality” in those experiences. Objectivism is not exhaustive in its analysis of consciousness, that’s for sure.
      BTW this expression “subjective reality”, which the article uses, has appeared in a discussion I had just TODAY with a psychologist. One problem my “objectivist self” faces all the time with people in general, and with psychologists in particular, is that they confound subjective and objective reality. In sum, ever since Kant, ALL is subjective reality, but people don’t even realize that in their discourses because they are already so embedded in this post-Kantian tradition where objective reality IS subjective reality. It is very hard to talk to people when you realize that.
      But I digress…
      Thanks again for the article, and I will try to read more on Zen.
      (Could you find this “John Galt Recants” article? I couldn’t.)
      Best!

      Like

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