The Issue of Metaphysical Primacy

"Existence is Identity, Consciousness is Identification." [1]

-- Ayn Rand


Abstract: The issue of metaphysical primacy is defined and explained, and the metaphysical primacy of existence is validated. The relationship of the Objectivist axioms and the primacy of existence to knowledge is explained. Finally, the reversal of the primacy of existence, which is the primacy of consciousness, is briefly examined and the basic performative inconsistency of theism is exposed. The piece concludes with a simple challenge to theists.



Crucial to the success of the argument from existence is a firm grasp of the issue of metaphysical primacy and of the validity of the primacy of existence. Since the Objectivism principally holds that religious ideas are an expression of the primacy of consciousness, identifying the issue of metaphysical primacy and demonstrating the validity of the primacy of existence are indispensable.

Philosopher Dr. Harry Binswanger lists the primacy of existence as one of the most important of Ayn Rand's contributions to philosophy. [2] By identifying the primacy of existence and its pertinence to the development of a rational system of philosophy, Rand brushed away centuries of intellectual dust, build-up and decay that have clouded every field of man's thought. Finally the root of the tree of knowledge has been exposed and its fruit rescued from panic-generating myths and fear-worshipping mystics. With a single act - the naming of an objective starting point - the cumbersome intricacies, unintegrated subsystems, false dichotomies, package deals, stolen concepts and floating abstractions encountered throughout and crippling modern philosophies, can be wiped away once and for all.

But what exactly is the primacy of existence, or more broadly, the issue of metaphysical primacy? What does it pertain to, what gives rise to it, and what exactly is it supposed to accomplish for philosophy? Is it a valid philosophical need? What are the consequences of mistaking the issue of primacy? These and other questions will be briefly surveyed in the following sections. First I will discuss the issue of metaphysical primacy and show why the primacy of existence is the only valid position. Then I will briefly explain how the primacy of existence pertains to cognition and why it is important to knowledge. Then I will describe the historically preferred alternative to the metaphysical primacy of existence, which is the primacy of consciousness, and demonstrate how religious ideas are essentially founded upon this error.


The Issue of Metaphysical Primacy: Where Do We Start?

In order to begin, let us look at the principle of metaphysical primacy, as defined by its originator, Ayn Rand. In her essay, "The Metaphysical Versus the Man-Made," Rand introduces the idea of metaphysical primacy as the fundamental principle which guides all philosophy:

… the basic metaphysical issue that lies at the root of any system of philosophy [is] the primacy of existence or the primacy of consciousness… The primacy of existence (of reality) is the axiom that existence exists, i.e., that the universe exists independent of consciousness (of any consciousness), that things are what they are, that they possess a specific nature, an identity. The epistemological corollary is the axiom that consciousness is the faculty of perceiving that which exists - and that man gains knowledge of reality by looking outward. The rejection of these axioms represents a reversal: the primacy of consciousness - the notion that the universe has no independent existence, that it is the product of a consciousness (either human or divine or both). The epistemological corollary is the notion that man gains knowledge of reality by looking inward (either at his own consciousness or at the revelations it [allegedly] receives from another, superior consciousness). [3]

The term 'primacy' in this context means the state of ranking first. Dr. Leonard Peikoff, in his book Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand [4], clarifies why existence has primacy over consciousness:

The primacy of existence is not an independent principle. It is an elaboration, a further corollary, of the basic axioms. Existence precedes consciousness because, consciousness is consciousness of an object. Nor can consciousness create or suspend the laws governing its objects, because every entity is something and acts accordingly [i.e., according to its identity, not according to the desires of consciousness]. Consciousness, therefore, is only a faculty of awareness. It is the power to grasp, to find out, to discover that which is. It is not a power to alter or control the nature of its objects. [5]

Eric Johnson, in his review of Peikoff's book, restates this very point:

Since the nature (identity) of consciousness is to be aware of reality, existence is prior to, necessary for, and not subject to the control of, consciousness. As a rephrasing of more basic axioms, the principle could be said as "It is....whether you want it to be or not.". In essence, the point is that consciousness, in and of itself (barring physical action) does not change existence.

Not only do we find in our activity in reality that the objects which we perceive do not respond directly to our desires, commands or whims, we also find that, when we focus on the reasons why this is the case, a hierarchical relationship between the objects we perceive and our act of perceiving them becomes evident. Since our consciousness is consciousness of something - i.e., of something which exists, the issue of metaphysical primacy is implicit throughout all cognition, beginning with our first perception of the entities in our environment.

Objectivism holds that implicit in every act of consciousness are certain unalterable and fundamental truths, which are represented by the axiomatic concepts 'existence', 'identity' and 'consciousness'. Our perception of the objects around us testifies to the truth of these concepts and to their relevance to our cognition. When we perceive an object, we gain awareness of its existence. From this we also gain awareness of the fact an object is something as distinguished from nothing and from other objects which we perceive or have perceived (identity), and that we are aware of it (consciousness). Once we begin to identify these concepts in explicit terms, as Objectivism does, we equip ourselves with the material needed to form our first principles in philosophy.

To do this, as one essay puts it,

it is important to note the order in which these axioms were presented. Note that existence comes first. And it must, because to speak of consciousness is necessarily to speak of existence (because consciousness must be conscious of something), while one can speak of things existing without anyone being conscious of them. This is the Objectivist principle of "The Primacy of Existence". According to it, facts are facts, independent of anyone's consciousness. [6]

While the natures of the objects we perceive vary from each other, one fact binds them all: they exist. This fact, the fact of existence, does not change. It is so rudimentary, fundamental and self-evident that most non-Objectivists dismiss discussion of axioms and axiomatic concepts as unimportant, simply because their truth is obvious. And their truth is obvious, indeed we all take them completely for granted. But this is actually their virtue in establishing a starting point: the axioms are inescapable, undeniable, indisputable and indispensable. The fact of existence is the bedrock on which the development of a rational philosophy can establish its foundation. And that is precisely what Objectivism does.

When we recognize that there is an order to the axioms, an order which parallels our discovery of them, we set in course the beginning of a hierarchy, a hierarchy that is implicit in our every awareness, in the formation of every concept, in every argument we construct. That hierarchy is the hierarchy of knowledge, the hierarchy which accounts for the fact that one must learn to grasp why 2+2=4 before he can comprehend differential calculus, or that one must identify reality and a means of knowledge proper to man before he can define a proper code of values (morality) and the proper form of government (politics).

Objectivism is correct to treat the concept 'existence' as the widest of all concepts. [7] It includes everything which actually exists, regardless of its particular nature or attributes, and that includes also consciousness as well. And once we recognize the nature of existence, that it exists independent of our consciousness of it, that the concept 'existence' is the widest of concepts, and that the relationship between the concepts 'existence', 'identity' and 'consciousness' sets in course a hierarchical progression, we have what we need to recognize the importance of the issue of metaphysical primacy, that existence holds primacy over consciousness.

The essential distinction to keep in mind in consideration of the issue of metaphysical primacy is the relationship between what exists (existence) and the act of being aware of or perceiving that which exists (consciousness). Clarifying and recognizing this distinction eliminate the tempting confusion which entraps some thinkers who interpret the issue of metaphysical primacy as treating existence and consciousness as mutually exclusive and/or as jointly exhaustive concepts. Indeed, since Objectivism recognizes both that existence exists and that consciousness also exists, this confusion is unfounded and untenable, however it is still encountered among those unfamiliar with or uncharitably critical of Objectivism. What is likely the case is that such confusion is the result of poor reading and/or insufficient integration. Objectivism does not assert the commonly mistaken dichotomy "existence or consciousness," but identifies the distinction of holding the primacy of the one over the other as philosophically significant.

Confusions such as this often lie at the root of one's misunderstanding of the issue of metaphysical primacy. David Kelley, an Objectivist philosopher, makes a final point which clinches the essence of the issue:

The fundamental question… is whether consciousness is metaphysically active or passive by nature. Is consciousness creative, constituting its own objects, so that the world known depends on ourselves as knowers; or is consciousness a faculty of response to objects, whose function is to identify things as they are independently of it? In Ayn Rand's terms, it is a question of the primacy of existence versus the primacy of consciousness: do the objects of awareness depend on the subject for their existence or identity, or do the contents of consciousness depend on external objects? [8]

Those who wish to affirm the primacy of consciousness in any sense, essentially hold that consciousness is metaphysically active (i.e., that consciousness creates or manipulates the identity of its own objects), according to Kelley's identification here. Objectivism corrects this by pointing out that "consciousness is the faculty of awareness - the faculty of perceiving that which exists" [9], and that "Existence is Identity, [and] Consciousness is Identification." [10]

One's position on the issue of metaphysical primacy, whether explicitly defined as in Objectivism, or inferred implicitly from a mass of unexamined assumptions as we encounter in other philosophies, has broad-ranging philosophical implications. The issue of metaphysical primacy has not only implications for knowledge, as we'll see briefly below, but also for morality and politics.

In regard to one's own values, which is the concern of morality, the primacy of existence versus the primacy of consciousness is a distinction with life and death consequences. On the primacy of existence, one recognizes that reality has certain constraints and that man has certain needs. In other words, he recognizes that identity is not subject to the influences of his wishes or feelings. He recognizes that his acceptance or denial of these constraints is a matter of his own existence or non-existence as a living being, and that his choices and actions must take this into account if his goal is to remain a living being. On the primacy of consciousness, however, one's wishes or feelings (or those of one's social circle, or of the ruling consciousness) hold metaphysical primacy over these constraints and needs, and can appear and vanish according to conscious intentions.

Dr. Peikoff offers a graphic illustration of the differences between the two principles in the following:

A simple example of the primacy-of-existence orientation would be a man running for his life from an erupting volcano. Such a man acknowledges a fact, the volcano - and the fact that it is what it is and does what it does independent of his feelings or any other state of his consciousness. At least in this instance, he grasps the difference between mental contents and external data, between perceiver and perceived, between subject and object. Implicitly if not explicitly, he knows that wishes are not horses and that ignoring an entity does not make it vanish. Contrast this approach with that of a savage who remains frozen under the same circumstances, eyes fixed sightless on the ground, mind chanting frantic prayers or magic incantations in the hope of wishing away the river of molten lava hurtling toward him. Such an individual has not reached the stage of making a firm distinction between consciousness and existence. Like many of our civilized contemporaries who are his brothers-in-spirit (and like the ostrich), he deals with threats not by identification and consequent action, but by blindness. The implicit premise underlying such behavior is: "If I don’t want it or look at it, it won't be there; i.e., my consciousness controls existence." [11]

On the primacy of existence, one recognizes that the fact that his own life requires values is not open to negotiation. One can only "negotiate" with "mother nature" in fairy tales and fables, not in reality. Just as kissing a frog does not produce a handsome prince, wishing does not satisfy one's hunger nor do hopes make one immortal. These ideas can only be taken seriously on the primacy of consciousness view of reality.

The same constraints and needs of man are consequently pertinent to an objective view of politics, since politics is the application of the principles of moral philosophy to the task of defining the social system proper for man. Any moral philosophy which fails to take into account man's objective needs and the constraints of reality cannot lead to a proper social theory. On the primacy of existence, these needs and constraints are identified and integrated into such a theory. But on the primacy of consciousness, they may be denied, ignored, misconstrued or simply deemed unimportant as the contents of the ruling consciousness are elevated to take their role as a standard for moral and political ideals.

All of these points should be borne in mind if one is to grasp the philosophy of Objectivism in general as well as the argument from existence in particular. For further discussion of these issues, readers may review the following (in addition to other materials cited elsewhere in this essay):

The First Principles of Ayn Rand, by Tibor Machan
The Primacy of Existence, by Michael Huemer
Axioms: The Eight-Fold Way, by Ron Miller
Introduction to Objectivism, by Russell Madden


The Primacy of Existence and Knowledge

Many who are unfamiliar with or new to Objectivism have asked how the axioms 'existence', 'identity' and 'consciousness' provide an anchor to cognition. Although Ayn Rand principally considered metaphysics and epistemology to constitute the foundation of her philosophy [12], we can rightly say that the axioms and their corollary derivatives provide the foundation to cognition, and therefore to epistemology. Since knowledge is hierarchical in nature [13], it is difficult to see how one can object to our cognitive need for an objective starting point. If new knowledge can only be validated by reference to previously acquired knowledge, how do we know that this previously acquired knowledge is valid? According to Objectivism, the answer to this question is that we must begin with the general, perceptually available facts of reality as our beginning point.

Peikoff rightly calls the axioms "perceptual self-evidencies." [14] Since awareness begins with the objects external to itself by a means of sense perception (since consciousness is consciousness of something), our cognition also begins with external objects. When we look at reality, as Dr. Peikoff notes, the "first thing to say about that which is is simply: it is." [15] Or, as Ayn Rand famously put it, existence exists. This axiom in turn leads us to two corollary recognitions: that which exists is that which exists (i.e., A is A, the law of identity), and: consciousness is the awareness of existence. Thus we have the axioms 'existence', 'identity' and 'consciousness'.

The next question might be obvious to some: How do the axioms work as the foundation to cognition? Since knowledge is knowledge of reality, reality must be the standard of what we call knowledge. Reality is the realm of existence. The axioms, in identifying in terms of explicit essentials that which is implicit in our every act of awareness, work as the foundation of our cognition by guiding that which we can accept as legitimate knowledge. How so? Principally, and broadly, by distinguishing the objects which we perceive (existence, identity) from the means by which we perceive them (consciousness), and by recognizing the primacy of the former (existence, identity) over the latter (consciousness), thus setting in objective order the hierarchical nature of knowledge which is present throughout our cognition. As we saw in the discussion above, Objectivism holds explicitly that existence has metaphysical primacy over consciousness.

Since consciousness does not create or change the identity of the objects it perceives, we cannot accept those statements which contradict the identity of our objects as genuine knowledge. A contradiction is a violation of the law of identity. One does not look at a cat, for instance, and say "This cat is a bowl of rice," or "A is both itself and not itself." Why? Because that which exists is that which it is, or A is A. Existence exists, and existence holds metaphysical primacy over consciousness.

Some may ask, "How does one prove the truth of the axioms?" But such questions miss the point. The fact of the case is, we need the axioms for any proof. The axioms are not the product of proofs, but, as noted above, perceptually self-evident. They are implicit in our every act of awareness, but in the philosophy of Objectivism, they are made explicit at the outset of our thinking and integrated consistently throughout the development of a non-contradictory, comprehensive philosophic system.

Furthermore, to deny or reject the axioms requires their use. Since the axioms are implicit in our every act of awareness, they are also assumed in every task of thought. Any course of thought which leads one to reject the axioms 'existence', 'identity' and 'consciousness' as the proper starting point of reason, naturally implicates and defeats itself. Although this leads to futile self-contradiction and stolen concepts, it is not uncommon to encounter in modern philosophical models (e.g., Descartes, Kant, et al.). As Allan Gotthelf notes, "Many philosophers have attempted to build their systems on the denial of the existence of an independent reality. In maintaining that the independence of the real is axiomatic, Ayn Rand is in effect maintaining that every such attempt will ultimately make use of the very fact it is attempting to deny." [16]

Some will ask if the axioms are to be accepted on faith. Not only do such questions imply that faith is a legitimate means of knowledge, they also miss the point that the axioms name the general, perceptually self-evident facts of reality. The function of our senses is not a conceptual product or matter of faith. Our senses are automatic. If you touch your fingertip to a flame, for instance, the deliverance of pain through your senses to your brain is immediate and automatic, and not a product of conceptual importation. One cannot touch his fingertip to a flame and decide to feel pleasure as a result. Similarly, the axioms are not true on the basis of hope, desire or wishing. Since the axioms are implicit in every act of our awareness and conscious action, they are already present in our hopes, desires and wishes.

Bryan Register, in his review of Calvinist John Robbins' book Without a Prayer: Ayn Rand and the Close of Her System [17] entitled Has Objectivism Been Refuted?, also encounters and corrects this frequently committed error. Citing Robbins' assertion "Reason can never cease to be the handmaid of faith: All thought must start somewhere, and that initial postulate is unproved, by definition... . The only question that remains is, Which faith-which axiom-shall reason serve?" [18], Register states

Since Objectivism is grounded on a set of axioms, which are by definition unprovable, Robbins concludes that Objectivism rests on an act of faith in those axioms. But this assumes that there are only two kinds of claims: those one proves and those which one takes on faith. In fact, as the Objectivist literature makes clear, there is a third type of claim: one which is valid because it formulates a fact that is directly perceived. Such are the most fundamental perceptual judgments and such are the axioms.

While it is the case that the axioms are unprovable, they can be validated, which is not the case in faith claims. Validation in this sense is a process broader than proof, "one that subsumes any process of establishing an idea's relationship to reality, whether deductive reasoning, inductive reasoning, or perceptual self-evidence." [19] In the case of the axioms, this validation is accomplished simply by looking at one's surroundings, i.e., by recognizing that one's senses are directed at objects and grasping the facts that those objects exist, have identity (i.e., they are what they are; they are themselves), and that one is conscious of them, just as plainly as you, my reader, are reading these words.

The axioms are not items of religious faith that one must accept under the duress of imagined damnation or church banishment, but facts which all men, regardless of their religious commitments (or lack thereof), take completely for granted because of their readily perceptible nature and rudimentary relationship to cognition. One does not attend weekly meetings in a sterile social hall to hear sermons repeating over and over ad nauseum the statement 'existence exists', akin to what we find with religious claims, in order to know the axioms. They are natural, not supernatural, and the means by which one becomes aware of them is not through some alleged mystical means of acquiring knowledge, such as 'revelation', which some claim to possess while claiming that others can never possess it, but by reason, the faculty which identifies and integrates what our senses discover, which any individual can use by choice. As Peikoff points out:

One knows that the axioms are true not by inference of any kind, but by sense perception. When one perceives a tomato, for example, there is no evidence that it exists, beyond the fact that one perceives it; and there is no evidence that one is aware, beyond the fact that one is perceiving it. [20]

In the case of the axioms, "There is nothing to be said in their behalf except: look at reality." [21] But in the case of faith claims, there is no validation apart from measuring a claim's conformity to previously accepted faith commitments, assumptions which have no legitimate tie to reality and which must be accepted in spite of their contradiction to the perceptually available facts of reality (e.g., the idea that existence is "created" by an act of will, or the gospel story that five loaves of bread and two fishes could be magically multiplied to feed five thousand [22]). Apologist John Frame admits as much when he concedes, "We know without knowing how we know." [23] Whatever 'means of validation' believers claim to have in defense of their confessional investment, it is not reason.

Nathaniel Branden argues that the claim that the axioms are an article of faith, or more broadly, that reason finds its foundation on faith (or, as Robbins puts it, borrowing from Aquinas, "Reason can never cease to be the handmaid of faith…"), commits the fallacy of the stolen concept. Indeed, in his short essay The Stolen Concept, Branden points out that

Reason is the faculty that identifies and integrates the material provided by the senses. Faith is the acceptance of ideas or allegations without sensory evidence or rational demonstration. "Faith in reason" is a contradiction in terms. "Faith" is a concept that possesses meaning only in contradistinction to reason. The concept of "faith" cannot antecede reason, it cannot provide the grounds for the acceptance of reason—it is the revolt against reason.

Indeed, a revolt against reason can hardly be construed as the basis of reason. To accept "ideas or allegations without sensory evidence or rational demonstration" which reduces to sensory evidence [24], is to accept ideas without reference to reality. What, then, guarantees that these ideas have anything to do with reality? The claim that reason must be "accepted on faith" is the attempt to kidnap reason from objectivity and to recruit it in the effort to validate the arbitrary. It is the attempt to replace the perceptually available facts of reality with one's wishes and whims as the arbiters of knowledge. But even to attempt this, detractors against reason (i.e., advocates of faith) must assume the validity of the axioms in their rejection of them, committing them to what Branden calls, in his essay noted above, "[o]ne of the most grotesque instances of the stolen concept fallacy."

Those who intend to assert ideational content as legitimate knowledge of reality have no choice about the fact that we must be willing to declare our starting points. Those who refuse to identify their starting points, or ignore their need for starting points, risk the error of asserting their notions as floating in the air, with nothing to anchor them, with no reference in reality. Those who are willing to declare their starting points should be willing to investigate what Objectivism has to say on this crucial matter. Without an objective grounding to our cognition, our cognition is at the mercy of our whims and destined to mistake the arbitrary for the valid.


The Primacy of Consciousness: The Fault of Theism

Confusing the relationship between that which exists and the faculty of perceiving that which exists results in the failure to grasp the crucial thrust of the issue of metaphysical primacy. Rand touches on this point when she states:

The source of this reversal [i.e., assuming the primacy of consciousness over existence] is the inability or unwillingness fully to grasp the difference between one's inner state and the outer world, i.e., between the perceiver and the perceived (thus blending consciousness and existence into one indeterminate package-deal). This crucial distinction is not given to man automatically; it has to be learned. It is implicit in any awareness, but it has to be grasped conceptually and held as an absolute. As far as can be observed, infants and savages do not grasp it (they may, perhaps, have some rudimentary glimmer of it). Very few men ever choose to grasp it and fully to accept it. The majority keep swinging from side to side, implicitly recognizing the primacy of existence in some cases and denying it in others, adopting a kind of hit-or-miss, rule-of-thumb epistemological agnosticism, through ignorance and/or by intention - the result of which is the shrinking of their intellectual range, i.e., of their capacity to deal with abstractions. And although few people today believe that the singing of mystic incantations [cf., prayer] will bring rain, most people still regard as valid an argument such as: "If there is no God, who created the universe?" [25]

The failure to grasp the distinction between the primacy of existence and the primacy of consciousness is the result of the failure to isolate essentials. Consider the following questions:

  1. Can there be consciousness without existence?
  2. Can there be existence without consciousness?

The answer to the first question is obviously negative; it essentially asks whether something can exist if there is no existence at all, and if there can be consciousness when there is nothing to be conscious of. However, in terms of essentials, this is precisely what the primacy of consciousness asserts: it attempts to posit some form of consciousness as prior to the fact of existence. But if we attempt to assert consciousness prior to existence, of what is it conscious? Those who affirm the primacy of consciousness view of reality will most likely see no problem in asserting consciousness conscious only of itself. [26] But how can something be identified as conscious if it has nothing to be conscious of, i.e., if it has no content? And how can consciousness acquire content without an object to be aware of, and without a means of acquiring awareness of its objects (i.e., without perceptual faculties, such as the senses)?

Those who assert such self-referential circularity usually do not recognize that they have condemned the form of consciousness which they want to assert to little more than a dog chasing its tail in terms of (alleged) awareness, for they give this consciousness nothing to be conscious of, and that leads to a contradiction in terms because of its commitment to the fallacy of pure self-reference. [27]

The answer to the second question, "Can there be existence without consciousness?" is demonstrably affirmative, and this certainty is the primacy of existence principle defined above. Consider the world and our awareness of it. When we discover objects in reality such as a mountain, a lake or another person, we do not experience these objects as "coming into" existence with our initial awareness of them. We experience them as stable parts of reality, as unalterable facts of reality which exist independent of our awareness, but still perceivable by a means of perception. We do not experience the objects of our awareness as extensions of our consciousness, as some might claim, or as the extension of someone else's consciousness. We experience them as primary concrete entities which exist whether we approve of their existence or not.

We are not immortal or eternal beings, yet we do possess consciousness; and we are aware of the world. Our awareness of the world began around the time of our birth. In my case, that was in 1966. But I learned as I grew, that the world had existed long before I came along and became aware of it. The earth itself where the world finds its location has existed for millions of years before me. It has many recorded histories, many people have existed prior to me, and many events have taken place before I was born. This means that the existence of the world - i.e., reality - was not and is not dependent upon my awareness of it. In other words, existence exists independent of my consciousness.

The same is true for all men who are consciousness of existence, and for the same reason: consciousness is conscious of something, and something exists. The existence of the world is no more dependent upon the consciousness of a group of men or of the sum of all men who now exist or who have ever existed, than it is dependent on my own awareness of it. In both cases, the primacy of personal consciousness and the primacy of social consciousness are demonstrably false.

With very few arguable exceptions (such as personal preferences or emotional experiences), whenever one asserts something as true, he asserts it as a truth independent of his own consciousness. If for example I assert that apples grow on apple trees, am I claiming that this is true only when I am conscious of it? Certainly not. Apples and apple trees have existed longer than I have been alive, and will of course survive my death, and even now while I am alive they bring forth fruit well outside the range of my awareness. The facts that apples exist and that they come from apple trees are not dependent upon my awareness. Indeed, my awareness of the fact that apples come from apple trees is dependent upon the fact that apples indeed come from apple trees. By identifying the fact that apples come from apple trees, I am implicitly affirming the primacy of existence, for I do not take such an identification as true in the context of being dependent upon my awareness of it, but a fact of reality independent of any consciousness. This is the case any time one asserts a truth statement about reality. Thus, every time one asserts a fact about reality, even if he is mistaken about that fact, he is asserting that fact as a fact which does not depend on either his or our consciousness of that fact in order for it to be a fact. Why? Because existence exists independent of consciousness. This is the primacy of existence metaphysics.

Thus, we see that the primacy of consciousness fails in two cases. It fails in the case of the implication that existence and/or facts are dependent upon the consciousness of an individual, and it fails in the case of the implication that existence and/or facts are dependent upon the consciousness of a group of individuals. Thus, the personal and the social expressions of the primacy of consciousness metaphysics should be dismissed as false metaphysics.

But the theist is still dissatisfied, because, as the persistent question which Ayn Rand points out in her quote above - "If there is no God, who created the universe?" - suggests, many men still want to assert in some form the idea that existence is dependent upon something prior, indeed upon a form of consciousness. We have already seen why two types of the primacy of consciousness - the personal and the social - are invalid. But theists do not claim that the existence of the world and of truth is dependent upon either the personal or social form of consciousness - which some philosophic systems propose [28], but upon an alleged cosmic or supernatural form of consciousness. In other words, they want to assert some kind of "macro-consciousness," a consciousness which "transcends existence and reality," as the origin and/or director of existence, reality and the things which go on in it. Some may recognize that this is invalid in the case of both the personal and the social primacy of consciousness metaphysics, but merrily assume that this principle can be valid on their premises anyway, regardless of the facts. Furthermore, theists do not even attempt to validate their cosmic version of the primacy of consciousness as opposed to the personal and the social primacy of consciousness, principally because they rarely if ever recognize the essentials involved. Indeed, at root level, their apologetic paradigms are amiss when it comes to identifying essentials. [29]

So the theist is performatively inconsistent with himself. That is, he implicitly affirms the validity of a principle (the primacy of existence) in the practice of affirming truth claims, but explicitly affirms the validity of a contradictory principle (the primacy of consciousness) in the content of the truth claims which he asserts. In other words, he implicitly denies the metaphysical primacy of consciousness in two senses - the personal and the social - whenever he asserts a truth claim about reality. He assumes that the supposed truths he identifies are true independent of his own consciousness and of the consciousness of others. But then he turns around and asserts the primacy of consciousness in principle when he affirms the notion that a God (i.e., a cosmic will or designer)is responsible for reality (i.e., for existence). Thus, he is inconsistent in that he denies the primacy of consciousness on the personal and social levels, but does not hesitate to affirm it at the cosmic level. For him, this seems to be "safe territory," for the resulting construct - theism - is securely removed beyond the realm of all testability and falsifiability. What he fails to recognize, however, is that he commits himself to a performative inconsistency. [30]

If one were to illustrate this inconsistency graphically, we might have something as follows:

Act vs. Content of theistic claim

Primacy of Consciousness

Primacy of Existence

Theist's act of asserting claim (e.g., "God exists")

Both the personal and the social aspects of the primacy of consciousness are implicitly denied. (Claim's alleged truth is not assumed to be dependent on the consciousness of oneself or of others.)

The validity of the primacy of existence is implicitly assumed. (Claim is said to be true independent of one's own and others' consciousness.)

Content of theist's claim (e.g., "God exists")

The supernatural aspect of the primacy of consciousness is explicitly affirmed. (I.e., existence is said to find its source in God's consciousness.)

The primacy of existence is consequently and explicitly denied. (Existence does not hold metaphysical primacy over consciousness.)

The above graph displays the assumptive implications on the part of the theist between his act of claiming that God exists, and the content of his claim, in their relation to the issue of metaphysical primacy. The inconsistency clearly occurs between his act of claiming and the content of his claim.

The performative inconsistency identified here is the result of a fundamental, two-fold and complementary reversal of the facts. As we can now see, god-belief rests on the assumption that consciousness is metaphysically active: that consciousness can create its objects and manipulate their identity. Christianity supplies this view in the doctrine of creation and the doctrine of miracles. Together these theistic doctrines adhere to metaphysical subjectivism, which is the view that the knowing subject creates its objects by an act of consciousness, essentially that existence finds its source in a form of consciousness. This reverses the fact that consciousness is metaphysically passive, that consciousness does not create its own objects, nor does it manipulate their identity, but rather perceives their existence through a means of perception (thereby acknowledging that objects exist independent of consciousness) and discovers their identity by looking outward (thereby acknowledging that the role of consciousness is not to fabricate identity, but to discover it).

The complement to this reversal is the assumption that consciousness is epistemologically passive. Christianity supplies this view in the form of the doctrine of revelation. This is the view that consciousness passively receives its contents from the ruling consciousness (i.e., "God"), which is essentially conceived as a cosmic storehouse of all knowledge [31], via some sort of non-perceptual transmission (i.e., by divine intervention). Knowledge, according to this view, is not the result of actively seeking out the relevant facts of the case, discovering their identity and testing one's conclusions against one's previously validated certainties, but a spontaneous implantation, a "bestowal" or "gift" of sorts, directly inserted into the mind of the believer by the ruling consciousness. Obviously, both reversals coincide completely with the point made by Dr. Kelley which I quoted above, that the "fundamental question… is whether consciousness is metaphysically active or passive by nature." To affirm either reversal, implicitly or explicitly, is to grant validity to the primacy of consciousness metaphysics.

The answer to the theist's unnecessary dilemmas and reversals is to grasp the concept of objectivity, i.e., to recognize and affirm on a thoroughly consistent basis the validity of the primacy of existence in all matters, for this avoids such hapless and unwitting inconsistencies. Quite simply, the case for objectivity is the case against god-belief. By recognizing that the only valid place to begin our philosophizing is with the very fact of existence itself - existence exists - we affirm a starting point which all cognition must assume and which all theorizing necessarily takes for granted. The fact that existence exists does not change, nor do its principal corollaries (i.e., the laws of identity, causality, etc.), thus providing fundamental stability to cognition. Furthermore, by affirming the primacy of existence, we recognize that consciousness is consciousness of something, that consciousness is not metaphysically creative of its objects, but actively aware of them, thus necessitating the epistemology of reason and repudiating the notion of revelation. This is because consciousness, like any entity or attribute which exists, has identity, and consequently, so should our philosophy, since our philosophy is, in rough terms, the operating system or software of the mind.


In Conclusion: A Simple Test

While many defenders of the religious view of the world, particularly those which assert a universe-creating and reality-ruling deity, may object to the accusation that such worldviews are committed to the primacy of consciousness view of reality, there is a simple test by which we can discover their true intention in regard to the metaphysical basis of their philosophical outlook. And that test is: Ask them if they are willing to adhere consistently to the primacy of existence metaphysics as advocated by Objectivism. If they are willing to do so, then they must be willing to abandon their god-belief commitments. If they are not willing to abandon their god-belief commitments, then they cannot ascribe consistently to the primacy of existence metaphysics. This is because the primacy of existence metaphysics is completely and irreconcilably incompatible with the religious view of reality.

Should the religious defender claim that he is willing to be consistently rational, then what is his starting point? Is he conscious of that starting point, and are his principles, theories and conclusions consistently developed with that starting point in mind? Or, do his philosophical theories and conclusions rely on gerrymandering their bases in the effort to make them appear to be consistent with that starting point, an enterprise engaged long after those conclusions have been accepted as unquestionably true on the claim of knowledge without rational means (e.g., 'revelation')?

If the theist is willing to embrace the primacy of existence view of reality wholeheartedly, is he then willing to recognize the invalidity of such questions as "If God does not exist, who created the universe?"? If the theist is willing to assume existence as such as his starting point, is he willing to abandon the idea that existence as such does not require a creator?

The typical theist is oblivious to the fundamental importance of these matters. As one creationist author puts it, "The creationist sees God as the source of all existence. Christian theology developed the doctrine of creation as creatio ex nihilo (creation out of nothing)." [32] Another theist claimed that "Existence exists because God exists." [33] Existence as such is thus explicitly thought to be a product of conscious selection.

If statements like these are not enough to demonstrate the fact that Christianity holds to the primacy of consciousness view of reality, then let us look deeper into the matter to discover whether or not this identification is true to the particular evidence we find in Christian sources. To continue this exploration, I invite readers to review my essay, The Ruling Consciousness, which examines the purported nature of the Christian God according to its primary source, the Bible, to determine whether or not it is committed to the primacy of consciousness metaphysics.

The identification of the issue of metaphysical primacy is only one of Ayn Rand's unique and noble contributions to the field of philosophy. But in principle it is the one contribution which makes all her other contributions sensible and meaningful. It is also the one principle which can be asserted at the outset of a rational approach to atheology, the one principle which slashes off unnecessary, unusable and unworkable ideas from the very beginning. It is because of the validity of the metaphysical primacy of existence that an objective atheology is possible.


Anton Thorn




[1] Atlas Shrugged, p.934.

[2] See his article "Ayn Rand's Philosophic Achievement," The Objectivist Forum, June, 1982, p. 9. Along with the primacy of existence, Dr. Binswanger also lists Rand's theory of concepts, theory of free will, Man's Life as the standard of morality, the moral basis of individual rights and the psycho-epistemology of art among the most important of her contributions to philosophy.

[3] Philosophy: Who Needs It, (New York: Signet, 1984), pp. 23-34.

[4] New York: Meridian, 1993, 493 pages.

[5] P. 19.

[6] Quoted from Are the Primacy of Existence and the Primacy of Consciousness Exhaustive Metaphysics? Astute readers will note that the author of this piece puts the axioms in the following order: existence, consciousness and then identity; I prefer the following order: existence, identity and then consciousness. While the former agrees with Dr. Leonard Peikoff's order of presentation (cf. Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand, pp. 4-7), I tend to agree with Eric Johnson when he states in his review of OPAR, Chapter One:

I found Peikoff's choice of ordering the basic axioms rather bad. Peikoff presents and validates them in the order: Existence, Consciousness, Identity. To me the order Existence, Identity, then Consciousness seems far more appropriate. Firstly, that is the order children develop the axioms explicitly. Secondly, that was the order of explicit philosophical discovery (Parmenides, then Aristotle, then Augustine). Thirdly, since Existence and Identity are so closely tied and both have primacy over consciousness, it seems logical to put consciousness last. Perhaps a minor point, but as one with intrest in the pedagogical processes in OPAR and O'ism in general, it concerns me. [sic]

While this may be a "minor point" in the larger scheme of things, it does strike me as somewhat critical if perchance one makes the unwitting error of assuming that the identity of existents is somehow dependent on the workings of consciousness. Because I consider this a possibility if we should go with Peikoff's ordering, I agree completely with Johnson's caution here. In fairness to Peikoff, however, there may be a reason why he chooses the ordering which he presents for reasons unknown to me. For purposes of my original point, however, it is to be emphasized in both cases that existence precedes consciousness. Furthermore, Rand herself identifies the axiomatic concepts in this order (Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, 2nd Ed., p. 55), and held that between 'existence' and 'identity', as "an issue of perspective," 'existence' "is the wider concept" (Ibid., 240), meaning that 'existence' distinguishes between those things which exist and nothing, while 'identity' distinguishes objects from each other. The concept 'consciousness' of course is not so wide as either concept, since it only applies to a class of existents, not to all existents as a whole.

[7] See for instance Rand, Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, 2nd Ed., p. 56; Peikoff, Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand, p. 5.

[8] David Kelley, "The Primacy of Existence," The Objectivist Forum, Oct. 1981, p. 2. See also chapter 1, "The Primacy of Existence," of Dr. Kelley's book The Evidence of the Senses, (Baton Rouge, LA: Louisiana State University Press, 1986), p. 8. Dr. Kelley's book is highly recommended for a fuller defense of the primacy of existence and the Objectivist view of the role of sense perception in cognition.

[9] Ayn Rand, Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, p. 29.

[10] Atlas Shrugged, p. 934.

[11] Peikoff, Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand, pp. 18-19.

[12] Rand states, referring to the metaphysical and epistemological branches of philosophy, that "These two branches are the theoretical foundation of philosophy," "Philosophy: Who Needs It," Philosophy: Who Needs It, (New York: Signet, 1984), p. 3. This is the essay form of Ayn Rand's lecture to the graduating class of West Point in 1974, and is available online (albeit with a few typos).

[13] See for instance Peikoff, "Knowledge as Hierarchical," Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand, pp. 129-141.

[14] Ibid., p. 8.

[15] Ibid., p. 4.

[16] On Ayn Rand, (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 2000), p. 42.

[17] Hobbs, New Mexico: The Trinity Foundation, 1997. 399 pp.

[18] Without a Prayer, p. 22.

[19] Peikoff, Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand, p. 8. Peikoff also states (Ibid., p. 120) that proof (in contrast to validation) "is the process of establishing truth by reducing a proposition to axioms, i.e., ultimately, to sensory evidence. Such reduction is the only means man has of discovering the relationship between nonaxiomatic propositions and the facts of reality." Thus, for any proof to be ultimately successful in establishing the truth of a proposition, we need the axioms. Special thanks to Alex Silverman for pointing out the importance of including this point here.

[20] Ibid. Emphasis added.

[21] Ibid. As mentioned above, 'reality', according to Objectivism, is the realm of existence. If something exists, it exists as part of reality. Objectivism therefore does not accept the notion of something existing "apart from" reality. Such ideas are unsalvageably incoherent.

[22] Cf. Matthew 14:15-21 and parallels. Darryl Kight offers some succinct insights on such matters in his short piece on The Virtue of Faith.

[23] John M. Frame, Presuppositional Apologetics: An Introduction, Part 1 of 2; Introduction and "Creation," p. 6-7. This article is in PDF format and requires PDF application to view.

[24] For a discussion of the importance of reducing knowledge to sense perception, see the previously cited chapter "Knowledge as Hierarchical" in Peikoff's Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand, pp. 129-141.

[25] Rand, Philosophy: Who Needs It, pp. 24-25.

[26] Misconceptions about the nature of consciousness are often fortified by an erroneous view of sense perception, including the views that sense perception is invalid as a means of contact with reality, that sense perception can provide man with only a "hint" or "glimmer" of what reality is, that perception may provide the practical truths which man needs on a daily basis, but plays no role in his ascertainment of "profound" or "spiritual" truths, etc. The purpose of Kelley's Evidence of the Senses is to provide a thorough-going defense of the validity of sense perception, and to dispel many of the assumptions crucial to the rejection of perception as the ultimate basis of knowledge. Readers who are interested in these matters are highly recommended to review this book.

[27] I discuss this problem at length in my essay God and Pure Self-Reference.

[28] While it is likely the case that the personal level of the primacy of consciousness is implicitly present in any instance of primacy of consciousness metaphysics, most philosophic systems which adopt the primacy of consciousness view of reality normally assert either the social or the cosmic/supernatural variant. The personal aspect of primacy of consciousness metaphysics would include any form of solipsism as well as irrational forms of egoism (as opposed to the rational egoism of Objectivism). The social primacy of consciousness is found at the root of any form of collectivism, such as Marxism, communism, Nazism, fascism, etc., whether explicitly religious or not. These versions of philosophy in effect attempt to hold the "collective consciousness" of society as an absolute holding primacy over the facts of reality. As such, they are merely the secularization of religious metaphysics, replacing religion's supernatural consciousness with its secular counterpart, the State or Society, and ultimately, the dictator. See my essay Religion Wears a Bloody Glove for more details in this regard.

[29] Cf. for example a simple version of the "first cause" argument:

Premise 1. Anything which begins to exist has a cause.
Premise 2. The Universe began to exist.
Conclusion: Therefore, the universe has a cause.

From arguments like these, theists assume the validity of their cosmic primacy of consciousness metaphysics. What they hesitate to identify in terms of explicit essentials is the fact that causality has no meaning outside the context of existence. Causality is metaphysically dependent upon existence: something (which exists) does the causing. It is because of this fact - the fact that causality is metaphysically dependent on existence - that gives the overall argument from "first cause" its ring of truth when they assert God as the ultimate first cause. But what they fail to recognize is that now they are asserting consciousness as prior to existence, and here the dog begins chasing its own tail again.

[30] See additionally my short essay A Lesson on the Issue of Metaphysical Primacy.

[31] It should also be noted that, since God is said to be both omniscient and infallible, God's own knowledge is not thought to be the product of reasoning, but an omnitemporaneous, non-hierarchical phenomenon. In other words, God's own knowledge, since God is not subject to ignorance or error, has always been complete. Thus, even God's own consciousness is essentially thought to be epistemologically passive, since God has knowledge without any effort at all.

[32] Personal correspondence.

[33] Personal correspondence.


Copyright 2001 Anton Thorn. All rights reserved.


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