Friday, January 24, 2014

The Primacy of Existence

Previous: The Law of Causality (Cause and Effect)

Objectivism is named for one of its key concepts that it emphasizes and upholds—the concept of “objectivity.”  Ayn Rand said this about objectivity in part: “It pertains to the relationship of consciousness to existence. Metaphysically [by the nature of reality—my comment], it is the recognition of the fact that reality exists independent of any perceiver’s consciousness.”[1] In general philosophy, this “recognition” is a position called “metaphysical objectivity”; in Objectivism, it is known as the “Primacy of Existence.” 

Like the law of causality, it is a law inherent in existence, and it describes the precise role of consciousness in relation to existence.  It is the most important principle in Metaphysics, and is a further corollary of the axioms and the law of causality.  I will describe how one could reach the primacy of existence from experience.  Then I will explain the opposition to this view, the primacy of consciousness.  Afterwards, I’ll explain a process for reaching generalized knowledge like the axioms without using strict induction, using the process of Aristotle’s that has been named “intuitive induction.”  Lastly, I’ll answer an objection about the mind’s control over the body in light of the primacy of existence.

Existence’s Independence from Consciousness

Reaching the primacy of existence requires someone to make a certain set of observations about himself, consciousness in general, and the world around him.  Like causality, these observations are made early in our lives, but many individuals never fully realize the principle or live by it.  (In fact, the majority of people in history did not fully accept it, and most people would not accept it today.)

As children, we know in some form that objects act orderly, such as balls rolling around, water splashing and making us feel better when we’re thirsty, and knives and forks cutting our meat when we poke and slice into it.  At some point, we figure out that we have a mind or consciousness, and that it works in certain, orderly ways as well.  If we close our eyes, the world disappears from our sight, and when we open them again, we in turn see the world; if we plug our nose, then we can no longer smell, etc.

This is the process in which we begin to make the distinction between our means of awareness and what we’re aware of, the inner world as against the outer world.  This is how we implicitly reach the axiomatic concepts of “consciousness,” “the senses’ validity,” and “the self.”  And this begins our journey towards the idea that existence is independent from consciousness.

The primacy of existence requires the distinction between consciousness and existence, specifically the limits of consciousness in relation to the rest of existence. 

We begin to discover the limits of consciousness as children.  We can perceive the world, but our consciousness does not control or change the world around us.  The toy we broke won’t fix itself because we wish it to, the other child that we hate won’t disappear just because we are mad at them, the game we want doesn’t magically fall in our hands because we desire it. 

Without physically interacting with the world, nothing about it changes.  If we don’t pick up a rock, and nothing else interacts with it, then the rock will basically remain exactly where it is, regardless of the state of our consciousness at any given moment.  (I qualified that statement because elements within rocks gradually decay, but consciousness has nothing to do with that fact.)  It will be unaffected by our perception, memory, imagination, emotions or desires.  The crucial observation that must be made is that nothing else in existence is affected by our state of consciousness as such.  Nothing our consciousness thinks, feels, remembers, or wishes will change the nature of things; it won’t create or destroy anything, or change their identities, or the nature of their actions.

The adult presentation of this fundamental fact is, in effect, a combination of two facts: that consciousness is a certain kind of entity with its own nature, that it too obeys the law of identity, and the law of causality.  Consciousness, just like every other thing, is constituted by a certain nature, and acts in certain ways, and only in those ways.

The principle Objectivism draws from these facts is that existence is independent from consciousness.  Things are whatever they are, regardless of the actions of consciousness, because consciousness does not have the power to alter the nature of things.

Existence is primary, it comes first.  Consciousness is a dependent: the world and the nature of its actions do not depend on any act of consciousness.  Rather, the power of consciousness is to perceive, to bear witness, to identify that which exists.  This is the way in which existence is independent from consciousness, and why existence has primacy over consciousness.

The Primacy of Consciousness

I said earlier that the majority of people in history and in the present day do not fully understand or accept the primacy of existence.  This is because the dominant perspective on reality and the mind’s role in regards to it has been that consciousness does create and control existence.

In this view, existence is dependent on consciousness; consciousness creates the world, and changes the nature and actions of things as it wishes.  Peikoff once wrote that according to the primacy of consciousness, “A thing is or does what consciousness ordains, it says; A does not have to be A if consciousness does not wish it to be so.”[2] In one of her journal entries, Rand remarked that, “…The ‘primacy of consciousness’ is the primacy of wishes…”[3]

This viewpoint’s primary advocate historically has been religion, and the prime example is the Christian notion of an omnipotent, omniscient God who created the universe, sustains it, and periodically subjects it to violations of the law of identity, termed “miracles.”  Another important example of this position comes from the Greek philosopher Plato, who wrote (in the Timaeus) of a demiurge, a God who comes and tries to shape the material world into his vision of perfection, but fails because matter won’t completely conform to his plan.  Plato’s demiurge and Christianity’s (and Judaism’s) God represents the supernaturalistic type of the primacy of consciousness, in which existence is a product of a cosmic, supernatural being, God.

Besides religion and Plato, the German philosopher Immanuel Kant held that the structure of the consciousness of all men, with its forms of perception and innate ideas, creates the world that we deal with (the “phenomenal” world).  Another German philosopher, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, developing from Kant, held that the thoughts and the struggles of men were really part of the stages of development of God; our thoughts worked towards the completion of the Absolute (or God or the Idea, which are synonymous for Hegel).  Such positions represent the social version of the primacy of consciousness.  On this view, a group of people, such as a society, a nation, an economic class, or all of humanity, can create reality or change its laws of nature through the power of consciousness.

Lastly, there is the personal version of the primacy of consciousness, in which each individual consciousness controls the nature of existence—for that specific individual.  Each mind, in effect, creates and lords over its own, private universe.  There have been skeptics and solipsists throughout history who have maintained this view in some form, but the originator of the viewpoint was the Greek philosopher Protagoras, whose philosophy of relativism held that, “Man is the measure of all things, of the things that are that they are, of the things that are not that they are not.”[4] Protagoras means that there is no absolute truth or absolute facts; there is only “truth for me” as against “truth for you.”  In other words, the “truth” was whatever anyone thought was the truth, regardless of reasons.

In the end, it does not matter if the consciousness in question is divine, possessed by a group, or held by a single individual: it cannot create or control existence.  The cause of thinking that consciousness does create or control existence is a failure to fully make the distinction between the perceiver and the perceived, between what exists, and the awareness of what exists.  It is a blending of existence with consciousness.  But reality is not a blend: it is a realm of separate, definite things with their own identities and actions.  Reality is not a mold for consciousness to shape, or something that can bend to its will or its wish.

An Intuitive Induction

In my essay on axioms, I stated that the axioms of philosophy are not formed by induction or deduction, but by the process of differentiation.  While true, Aristotle had something important to say about the process that we use to form the axioms and other principles that are at the base of all proofs.  (For a fuller discussion of what Aristotle says about this process and how it relates to the Law of Contradiction (alternatively called the “Principle of Non-Contradiction” or “Law of Noncontradiction”), consult Dr. Leonard Peikoff’s essay, “An ‘Intuitive Induction’,” The New Scholasticism volume 59, number 2 from 1985, pages 185-199.)

In general, Aristotle held that forming ideas was carried out by reason through the process of abstraction.  I said in another essay that, “By abstraction, [Aristotle] meant a special focus on the similarities among things, while ignoring or not specifying the magnitudes of their differences. Certain things have similarities which we can cognitively focus on and ‘pull out,’ separate in thought what can’t be separated in reality. Once mentally separated, we could discover an implicit universal that applies to all the particulars of a certain kind, and that allows us to form the concept, definition, or proposition.”[5]

“Induction” was the term he used for this process of reasoning from particular perceptions of individuals to universals, his term for concepts or ideas.  (See his Posterior Analytics, book 2, chapter 19.)  He also held that an analogous process occurs at the level of propositions, where a person reasons from particulars facts that are known by perception to universal truths.  And since primary premises are propositions and general truths, “Thus it is clear that we must get to know the primary premises by induction; for the method by which even sense-perception implants the universal is inductive.”[6]

Some thinking states are “unfailingly true,” meaning that they will be error-free, whereas other states can be erroneous, such as holding opinions or making certain calculations.  Aristotle called the error-free thinking state “intuition,” and it is this intuitive aspect of reason that reaches and understands the primary premises/principles.  In his essay of the same name, Dr. Leonard Peikoff named this process of coming to know primary premises “intuitive induction.”  The process is inductive because it consists of a person coming to know a number of singular propositions that have to be known before the general principle can be even conceived of, and afterwards it can be known.  But the process is intuitive because it is not an inference from facts or an argument: the general principle really is self-evident once it is conceived, and it does not require inference or proof from a set of premises.

Understood in this way, the process of reaching axioms and corollaries of axioms of Objectivism could be called an “intuitive induction.”  To demonstrate how, I’ll present the ways in which someone might reach the primacy of existence.
  1. A person perceives that this orange doesn’t fall into his mouth simply because he wishes it to, and he perceives that the rainy weather won’t stop just because he hates being wet and wants it to stop, etc.  These instances, and their logical equivalents, would amount to a person gaining knowledge about the world as true, singular judgments about the things involved.  The person might make judgments about his own consciousness in relation to all sorts of things that exist, and may make judgments about the consciousness’s of others and of animals in relation to what they are aware of. (For some people, even one instance could be enough to reach this principle and certain other primary principles.)
  2. Eventually, the person performs the necessary abstracting-inducing processes, and conceives the general principle, “No consciousness (no matter what type of consciousness, or what action it performs) can alter the identity or the nature of actions of anything that exists (no matter what exists, what constitutes its identity, or how it acts).”  Exactly how this is done can vary significantly.  A person might reach the primacy of existence principle directly from the perceptual judgments he makes, or he might reach it through a series of transitional propositions, advancing to more and more universal conceptualizations.

    The process of grasping this principle could go a number of different ways; for instance: This tree doesn’t disappear because I want it to…No tree disappears because I want it to…Nothing disappears just because I want it to…Nothing is altered in any way no matter what my consciousness wills…Nothing is altered in any way no matter what any consciousness wills (by “alter,” in this context, I mean “a violation of the law of identity and/or causality”); or, This tree doesn’t bear fruit just because I wish for that to happen…This tree doesn’t do anything just because I wish for it… Nothing does anything just because I wish for it…Nothing is altered in any way no matter what any consciousness wills; etc.
  3. Once the last proposition is grasped (in one way or another), the person learning the principle comes to see that by the very nature of “existence” and “consciousness,” consciousness as such necessarily is only a faculty of awareness, that it cannot alter the nature of existence.  This is the moment when he finally knows the primacy of existence as a necessary truth, and afterwards the person can see the necessity in every specific instance of this law that he considers.  (I’ll cover the issue of “necessity” and “necessary truths” more in my next essay.)
I still think that axioms and corollaries of axioms, such as the law of causality and the primacy of existence, are not formed by induction, if “induction” means a progressive reasoning from particular facts to a general proposition which requires proof. 

Though, I can see now how Aristotle’s view of axioms could lead to a process like this, an “intuitive induction.”  For him, the faculty of reason has various powers, and he holds that reason can gain both discursive and non-discursive knowledge, which is “knowledge through argument” and “knowledge through intuition,” respectively.  The non-discursive knowledge is the starting point for the discursive knowledge, and the latter depends on the former.  And axioms (like his “Principle of Non-contradiction”) are exactly the kind of non-discursive knowledge that will be the starting point for all discursive, provable knowledge.  The rational power of intuition forms non-discursive knowledge that is immediate, it comes directly from experience and sensory perception without argument or inference.  In this sense, “intuition” could be interpreted as an intelligent discernment, appraisal, comprehension, or insight.[7]  And since these axioms or first principles will be universal in their content, but still gained by experience, it makes sense that Aristotle would regard these as “inductive,” as well.

This is very compatible with the Objectivist view of axioms and corollaries of axioms.  The axioms and corollaries of axioms in Objectivism are general principles gained by direct experience and/or sense-perception.  A process of reason reaches these principles, but it is not a process that leads to principles that need or require proof.  In my essay on axioms, I referred to this process as “differentiation,” and I still think that’s true, but an “intuitive induction” might be a more precise term.  Intuition here is the ability of reason to intelligently discern and appraise the facts of reality.

In Objectivism, the constitution of metaphysics is only a piecemeal, progressive development of principles from the existence axiom.  Based on what has just been discussed, the Objectivist metaphysics could also be described as an intuitive investigation into the ramifications of the axiom that “Existence exists.”

One of the results of such an investigation will be that: “If existence exists, then it has metaphysical primacy [over consciousness]. It is not a derivative or ‘manifestation’ or ‘appearance’ of some true reality at its root, such as God or society or one's urges. It is reality. As such, its elements are uncreated and eternal, and its laws, immutable.”[8]

An Objection: Primacy of Existence vs. the Mind’s Control over the Body

I’d like to discuss a possible objection to the principle of the primacy of existence.[9] 

“Isn’t it the case that consciousness does alter or change existence, at least sometimes?  You want to move your hand, and your hand moves, you want to hold your breath, and you stop breathing for a while, etc.  So, it seems like the primacy of existence doesn’t hold in regard to a person’s own body, since your mind does affect your body, and your body is a part of ‘existence’ as well.”

Here, we can take advantage of our advanced scientific age, although I believe this objection could have been answered even back in ancient Greece.  Thanks to the sciences of biology and physiology (among others) we know that our consciousness is integrated with our brains and bodies into one organism.  This integration implies that a person’s consciousness can do things with or to that person’s body that cannot be done to other people, to other living things, or to anything else in reality.  If you imagine, or think, or remember something, or an emotion strikes you, certain actions take place in the brain as well; if you will an action, like walking, your consciousness produces a physical effect, and you begin to walk.  But notice that because your consciousness is linked to only your brain and body, it can only have these effects on your brain/body, not anyone or anything else, neither other physical objects, nor the mental contents of other conscious beings.

The important point to grasp here is that even in regards to your own body, existence still has primacy over consciousness.  Your body, its organs and physical and mental processes are still independent of consciousness, as in they are whatever they are regardless of what your consciousness wants or wishes.  If your leg breaks, then it will not mend and fix itself just because you wish for it to do so, even though there’s a connection between your consciousness and your leg.  The mind’s control over the body presupposes functioning parts of the body; a man cannot properly walk with a broken leg bone or damaged nerves, and the will or wish of one’s consciousness won’t fix the leg or make the person walk.  Even the proper functioning of consciousness depends on the condition of the body; a crippling brain/spinal injury or neurological disease could completely stop a mind’s ability to control and direct a given person’s body, or it could even stop someone’s ability to think or remember at all.

So the way that consciousness affects the body that it is integrated with is unique to that organism, but it still has to obey the laws of existence, and it cannot violate them.  And in order to affect the brain and body, consciousness still has to rely on physical laws and conditions that allow for such interactions.  Since these interactions are not violations of the laws of identity and causality, they do not violate the primacy of existence.


[1] Leonard Peikoff, Chapter 4: “Who Is the Final Authority in Ethics?” by Ayn Rand, The Voice of Reason: Essays in Objectivist Thought (1989). Ed. New York: New American Library.
[2] Leonard Peikoff, “Existence as Possessing Primacy over Consciousness,” Objectivism: the Philosophy of Ayn Rand, (1991). New York: Dutton.
[3] Ayn Rand, “For Yale lecture (random philosophical notes),” Journals of Ayn Rand (1997). David Harriman, ed. New York: Dutton.
[4] Bostock, D (1988). Plato's Theaetus. Oxford.
[5] “Induction of Objectivity (Aristotle).” Section: The Connection between Percepts and Concepts.
[6] Aristotle, Posterior Analytics, Book II, 100b4-5
[7] Louis F. Groarke. “Aristotle: Logic.”  Section: “13: Non-Discursive Reasoning”
[8] Leonard Peikoff, “Existence as Possessing Primacy over Consciousness,” Objectivism: the Philosophy of Ayn Rand, (1991). New York: Dutton.
[9] “A discussion of the Objectivist view of the primacy of existence.”

Next in the series: The Metaphysically Given as Absolute


  1. Hey, Roderick, I haven't connected for a while. I am enjoying your essay.

    With regard to the "possible objection of one's own body" This might be better explained by going back to the Aristotelian conception of causation - not everything is efficient causation - the nature of a thing may also be a cause. One's intention, or purpose, can begin causal chains that create changes in reality - as in your essay, and in my response. Also, is the brain altered by acts of consciousness, especially habituated kinds of processes? For instance, many athletes mentally rehearse their future performance, and believe it enhances it -

    Definitely appreciate your writings, and I'm glad to have the time once again to get into them. I had not heard of intuitive induction before, nor of some the approaches.

    And, the brain (consciousness?) can effect certain machines -

    Thanks again for the paper - very, very interesting.
    I am not arguing that your argument is not the case, but that these points may need to be addressed.

  2. Hi Roderick.

    I agree with ontological objectivity. That which is true is not dependent on a view or perception of it. I agree with this concept on its logical validity though and not solely from my observation of the experience I am having. If I based it solely on my experience as I have grown, it would be based in a subjective milieu. I find that appealing to the logic of A is A is much better than the observance of A is A. This gives me the logic of consistency and from that derives objectivity. It then gives me a way to apprehend what is objectively true bypassing the incredulity of my perception by an appeal to the authority of consistency.

    I then must contend with my practice of adherence to this logic but I can at least be assured that if I have avoided contradiction, then I have apprehended a true proposition.

    Do you agree so far?