Friday, June 12, 2015

The Metaphysically Given as Absolute

Previous: The Primacy of Existence

The Objectivist view of metaphysics ends with the principle that alternatives to facts of reality are impossible and unimaginable.  These facts, which Ayn Rand called the “metaphysically given,” necessarily exist.  Man-made facts, on the other hand, are conditional, not necessary.  Due to this, metaphysically given facts are absolute.

The Metaphysically Given vs. the Man-Made

According to this distinction, there are facts that are necessarily a part of existence, and other facts that are not.  The metaphysically given is the name for any such fact that exists apart from human action.  Man-made facts are any objects, institutions, practices, or rules of conduct that we originated.  A mountain range is metaphysically given; a skyline of buildings is man-made.  The motions by which a horse gallops or a bird flies are metaphysically given; the mechanics behind a car being driven or an airplane being flown are man-made.  The laws of thermodynamics are metaphysically given; the laws against assault and battery are man-made.

This distinction is a culmination of the previous principles.  If, let’s say, the Sun exists, then it is what it is (the law of identity).  It is an entity of a certain nature, acting in accordance with its identity (the law of causality).  And clearly, the Sun is independent of consciousness, unaffected by the thoughts or beliefs or feelings of anyone (the primacy of existence).  Given all of this, the fact of the Sun had to be: given the circumstances of its origin, no alternative was possible.  As this is the case with the Sun and every other metaphysically given fact, they are all absolute, which means in this case that the facts are necessitated by the nature of existence, and unchangeable by human action, or any other purported entity’s action.

By articulating how metaphysically given facts are absolute, we’ve also explained why they are “necessary.”  We call facts “necessary” if their nonexistence would involve a contradiction.  (Which is to say that its nonexistence would be impossible; it had to be.)  In this sense, “necessity” is a description of certain existents from a special angle: it names existents insofar as they are governed by the law of identity.

The case is a little different for man-made facts.  Of course, man-made facts (like a pencil or a sculpture) have identity, and have causes.  Once they come to be, they exist independently of a person choosing to acknowledge them.   The difference lies in their ultimate cause: human choice.  Even though choice is an aspect of human identity, any given choice could have been otherwise.  No human choice, and thus no man-made fact, had to be.

A clarification should be made in regard to what human creativity is.  By the nature of reality, it cannot mean the religious meaning ascribed to it, that of creating something out of a void or creating miracles, which equate to entities acting in contradiction to their natures.  Both of these are attempts to alter the metaphysically given, which is impossible.  Creativity is the power to rearrange the present combinations of natural elements and thus create something that did not exist before.

Applying the Distinction

The differences between the metaphysically given and the man-made have wide-reaching consequences: they impact every branch of philosophy and every area of human life.

We must always keep in mind that metaphysically given facts are reality itself.  This means that we must accept such facts without evaluation, whether of praise or blame.  Metaphysically given facts are not “true” or “false.”  And they are not “right” or “wrong.” The Appalachian Mountains, a lightning bolt, or a deer are not true, false, right or wrong; they simply exist. Such facts serve as the standard for truth, and as the standard for right and wrong; in this way, the metaphysically given impacts every judgment, goal, value, and choice of human life.  As the name suggests, it is “the given,” the immutable background and setting in which we live our lives.

This is not the case with man-made facts.  These facts are products of human choice, and must be evaluated as a result.  Human choices could have been different, and can be changed. The “Appalachian Mountains” could have been named something else if people chose to do so, for instance.  People can express their thoughts of “lightning bolts” in different languages. And individuals can choose to write innumerable essays on the subject of the “deer.” These choices can be rational or irrational, morally right or wrong, and so they must be judged.  Unlike the metaphysically given, which should be given unquestioned acceptance, the man-made must be judged, and accepted or rejected and changed when it is deemed necessary.

Rejecting the Distinction

If a person adheres to the distinction between these types of facts, he will clearly perceive what is in his power to change, and what he must accept as immutable and inalterable.  Confusing the distinction or rejecting it will lead to two possible errors, both catastrophic: treating the man-made as if it were inalterable and unquestionable, and regarding the metaphysically given as not absolute.

The first error consists in presuming that the choices and conclusions of men are sacred and inviolable.  If racism and barbarism are traditional values or customs, then this person will regard opposing these principles as inconceivable and unrealistic.  Such an individual would happily abandon whatever he regards as true and right if the status quo holds a different opinion on the matter.  This sort of attitude will result in complete conformity to the views and choices of other people, no matter how erroneous or morally evil.  Examples of this attitude are various religious persecutions, the Dark Ages, and the followers of Nazism.  Even the uncritical acceptance of a boss’ decision could count as an example, if the decision is seen as an unalterable fact of reality.

That first error has led to various disasters in history, but I believe that the second error is worse: that of regarding the metaphysically given as alterable.

Ayn Rand called this erroneous thinking the fallacy of “rewriting reality.”  These people don’t see such a thing as a “metaphysically given”: facts are not absolute to them, so they simply imagine alternatives to them.  As Dr. Peikoff notes, “[i]n effect, they regard the universe as being merely a first draft of reality, which anyone may decide at will to rewrite.”

Examples of this type of thinking are all-pervasive.  The claims of political theorists Engels and Marx that Socialism is the natural and inevitable evolution of Capitalism, as if the choices of human beings are the same as the evolutionary development of animals or plants; the view that in love, it is opposites that attract; the belief that reality is either material or spiritual: that it cannot contain multiple elements.  All facts and reasoning to the contrary, these people proclaim that this is how the world is and has to be.

This belief that the metaphysically given is alterable began with the religious belief that the universe was created by a God or Being that could have made things differently, and can still do so if He wills it.  This attitude started in religious schools, but historically spread into secular schools of thought and affects the minds of many people even today.

Another Intuitive Induction

In my previous essay, I discussed intuitive inductions and their relation to the Objectivist principles.  Since this is a corollary of the primacy of existence principle, I’ll explain how this is another intuitive induction.

Grasping this principle requires a few more considerations than grasping the primacy of existence.  The idea of something being “metaphysically given” is relevant because there is something to contrast it to: our volitional actions.

A full, philosophical understanding of volition/free will is not necessary for understanding this principle.  It is enough to recognize that people choose actions and that the choices are not set in stone or demanded by reality: they can be otherwise.  A rock must obey the law of gravity: no choice or alternative is possible to it.  A person can choose to obey the law against arson or not, the history of crime illustrates the possibility of breaking this kind of law.

Once we recognize that there are things in reality that are not immutable, we have a reason to clarify their differences, and to explain how we must react to each respectively.  Metaphysically given facts could not have been otherwise, they are the inevitable results of the facts of reality.  They are not the result of human actions, and so we term them “necessary”: it is impossible for these facts not to exist, given the nature of reality.  The opposite of metaphysically given facts are contradictions that could not exist.  The designation “absolute” comes from the combination of the fact that metaphysically given facts are necessary with the primacy of existence.  Human actions and choices cannot change the nature of the metaphysically given.  And thus the metaphysically given is absolute; human actions and choices are neither necessary nor absolute; they can be otherwise, and they can be changed.

Once we recognize that the metaphysically given really is absolute, the conclusion regarding it is obvious: we must acquiesce to the metaphysical facts, without evaluation.  There is no reason to rebel against something that cannot be contested against by the nature of reality (by the primacy of existence).  On the other hand, we must perforce recognize that the same affirmation cannot be automatically given to the man-made: we can and must judge human actions and decisions.  These choices and decisions can be accepted or rejected, and then changed when we deem it necessary.

The Origins of the “Mind-Body” Dichotomy

The main lesson of this principle is that it is our responsibility to conform to reality, not the other way around. Respecting reality will not assure success in everything you do, but it is a necessary component for doing anything correctly.  Sticking to this principle, however, is a guarantee that you will not blame existence for your failures; you won’t hold a metaphysical grudge.

Someone who rejects or opposes the metaphysically given will expect existence to obey his desires.  However, existence will not obey a person’s wish, the primary of consciousness is a false theory.  This revelation might make a person form a high-reaching conclusion: that the core of human life is conflict with reality.  He will perceive a clash between the self and the external world, an irreconcilable split.  One side of the conflict are his desires and wishes that he seeks to instill within reality; on the other, the facts of reality that are mysteriously unaffected by his wishes.  This erroneous type of thinking is responsible for the erection of many oppositions that are similar in their elements, which I’ll list shortly (many of them, at least).  According to Objectivism, the broadest name for these dichotomies, the one which links them all and is the essential dichotomy, is between the spiritual/mental/mind realm and the material/physical/body realm.

The mind-body dichotomy has infected every branch and problem of philosophy, and is thus one of philosophy’s hardest challenges to resolve.   To drive this point home, consider the scale and breadth of these dichotomies: reason vs. emotion; fact vs. value; concepts vs. percepts; pure science vs. applied science/technology; love vs. sex; Idealism vs. Materialism; theory vs. practice; Rationalism vs. Empiricism; business vs. art; happiness vs. pleasure; moral vs. practical; Deontology (Duty Ethics) vs. Consequentialism; thought vs. action.

Objectivism holds that all these conflicts are in error. Nothing about reality forces us to make impossible choices between the spiritual and the material sides of life.  The proper relationship should be unity, harmony, integration.  In order to attain this harmony and integration, one of the first steps is to serenely accept what can't be changed, courageously change what can be changed for the better, and wisely discern the difference.[2]


[1]: Leonard Peikoff, "The Metaphysically Given as Absolute," Objectivism: the Philosophy of Ayn Rand, (1991).  New York: Dutton.
[2]: Referencing Reinhold Niebuhr's (1892–1971) prayer, part of which states:
God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
The courage to change the things I can,
And the wisdom to know the difference.
Ayn Rand approvingly quotes these lines in her essay "The Metaphysical vs. the Man-Made," and discusses her interpretation of them.

Next in the series: The Order of the Objectivist Metaphysics

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