Friday, August 14, 2015

Objections to the Axioms (Part 5)

Objection: The Axioms Equivocate on Their Content

This objection concerns exactly what it is that the axioms are explaining and implying.  It highlights a seeming equivocation:
[…]In the Logical Structure of Objectivism, David Kelley makes the following observation:
Notice that neither [the axiom of existence nor the axiom of identity make] any specific statement about the nature of what exists. For example, the axiom of existence does not assert the existence of a physical or material world as opposed to a mental one. The axiom of identity does not assert that all objects are composed of form and matter, as Aristotle said. These things may be true, but they are not axiomatic; the axioms assert the simple and inescapable fact that whatever there is, it is and it is something.
Very well. Now consider what Rand draws from these very same axioms:
To grasp the axiom that existence exists, means to grasp the fact that nature, i.e., the universe as a whole, cannot be created or annihilated, that it cannot come into or go out of existence. Whether its basic constituent elements are atoms, or subatomic particles, or some yet undiscovered forms of energy, it is not ruled by a consciousness or by will or by chance, but by the law of identity. All the countless forms, motions, combinations and dissolutions of elements within the universe—from a floating speck of dust to the formation of a galaxy to the emergence of life—are caused and determined by the identities of the elements involved. 
In other words, she draws from these axioms: (1) that the universe is permanent and can neither be destroyed nor created; (2) the universe is not ruled by will or chance, but by the ‘law of identity’; (3) everything that happens is caused by the ‘identities’ of the elements involved. She also implies that the basic constituents of the universe, whatever they may happen to be, are non-mental (i.e., atoms, particles, or forms of energy). How does Rand draw all these things from these axioms when, according to Kelley [quoted earlier in the blog post] (who, in this instance, is being entirely orthodox) these axioms only assert that ‘something’ distinguishable exists?[1]
I’ll sum up this objection as: “Objectivism equivocates between axioms not specifying content (e.g. specific identities, specific actions), and inferences about reality that supposedly follow from the axioms (e.g. the universe cannot be created or destroyed, reality isn’t ruled by chance).”

Nyquist’s objection here is not directly addressed in the Objectivist literature or lecture courses that I was able to peruse.  Leonard Peikoff’s lecture course The Philosophy of Objectivism and an article in “The Objectivist Newsletter” by Nathaniel Branden (1962) touches on the objection to a large extent, but I will also require my own study of the axioms to fully address Nyquist’s complaint.

In my previous essay, I stated that there are derivative axioms and axiomatic statements.  My response here will continue that chain of thinking, and elaborate on further corollaries to the axioms of existence, identity, and the Law of Causality.

Existence and Time

I will address Nyquist’s first part of his objection in this section. 

In Objectivism, “existence,” “reality,” “the sum or total of existents/that which is,” and “the universe” are synonymous and equally axiomatic.

“Time” is one of the non-axiomatic concepts, even though other philosophies would argue otherwise.  (Although not axiomatic, it’s a very important concept that impacts every entity in some respect, our own daily lives and every field of study, among other things.)

To discover why Objectivism holds that the universe does not begin (is created) or end (is annihilated), we’ll have to unpack the concept of “time” a bit and show its relation to the concept of “existence/universe.”  Leonard Peikoff gives a pretty succinct explanation of this very issue in his lecture series “The Philosophy of Objectivism”:
Time is a measurement of motion; as such, it is a type of relationship. Time applies only within the universe, when you define a standard—such as the motion of the earth around the sun.[…] But when you get to the universe as a whole, obviously no standard is applicable. You cannot get outside the universe. The universe is eternal in the literal sense: non-temporal, out of time.[2]
Branden also expresses this relationship: “The universe did not ‘begin’—it did not, at some point in time, ‘spring into being.’”[3]

The universe is everything which exists, not just a planet or a solar system or even the galaxies or galaxy clusters, but really everything.  Due to this, an implication or corollary is that nothing can be the “cause” of the universe.[4]

Nathaniel Branden explains in his essay why this is obvious: to ask for the “cause” of the sum of all things is to ask for a contradiction.  If the cause exists, it is perforce a part of existence like everything else; if it does not exist, it cannot be a “cause” of anything.  Nothing cannot cause something.  “Causality presupposes existence, existence does not presuppose causality: there can be no cause ‘outside’ of existence or ‘anterior’ to it.”[5]

By the same token, there can be no “end” to the universe.  Things within the universe may come and go, but the universe itself is impervious to the generation and annihilation of the entities within it.  Branden remarks that, “[t]he forms of existence may change and evolve, but the fact of existence is the irreducible primary at the base of all causal chains.”[6] Reality will truly “endure,” “persist,” it will always exist even though any given entity in reality may be generated, change, and cease to exist. 

These facts, that the universe is neither created nor destroyed, are actual corollaries of the axiom that “existence exists.”  The universe has always existed (nothing cannot cause something), and will always exist (particular entities can end and forms can change, but not the sum of everything).

As Peikoff once said (in a different context that’s relevant here):
Existence is a self-sufficient primary. It is not a product of a supernatural dimension, or of anything else. There is nothing antecedent to existence, nothing apart from it—and no alternative to it. Existence exists—and only existence exists. Its existence and its nature are irreducible and unalterable.[7]
Existence and Identity with Causality

Having explained how and why the universe is permanent, I can now address the second and third parts of Nyquist’s objection.  He asks how the “law of identity” can lead to the principle that the universe is ruled by such a law to the exclusion of “will” or of “chance.”  He also asks how “identity” can cause everything that happens.

Answering the second part requires a fuller grasp of the laws of identity and causality.  The law of identity states that A is A; that things are what they are.  The law of causality states that entities are the cause of action, that actions are actions of entities.  Combining the laws gives a more detailed view of the law of causality: the identity of the entity or entities involved cause and determine the action or actions.  An entity of a certain kind will act in certain ways, and only in those ways.  Entities can neither act apart from their identities, nor against their identities.  (Apart from an entity’s identity or nature, it is nothing and can do nothing; an action in contradiction of a thing’s nature is impossible because contradictions as such are impossible.)

This is the way in which the law of identity rules the universe; it is also the answer to part three of Nyquist’s objection.  “Since things are what they are, since everything that exists possesses a specific identity, nothing in reality can occur causelessly or by chance,” Leonard Peikoff remarks in his essay criticizing the “Analytic/Synthetic Dichotomy.”[8] Every action is caused by the nature/identity of the entity acting, and the same cause leads to the same effect (the same entity will carry out the same action when subjected to the same circumstances).  Such being the case, it is the fact of identity that makes the universe orderly, lawful, uniform.

That reality is lawful and orderly due to identity and causality excludes other proposed candidates, such as “will” or “chance.”

Will, as I’m interpreting it here, is some type of consciousness, whether godly/divine (such as in religion), social, or personal (various types of subjectivism, like Plato’s demiurge or solipsism).  Objectivism’s answer as to why “will” cannot control or regulate reality is really contained in the principle “the Primacy of Existence.”  Bringing in the fact (and axiom) of consciousness allows us to grasp its relations to existence, identity, and causality.[9]

Consciousness exists and has identity, and acts only in certain ways.  But its identity and actions are that of awareness, it is aware of existence; it does not create reality or control how all entities operate.  Things are what they are and act in accordance with their natures independently of consciousness, consciousness is metaphysically impotent.  All of these statements apply to any purported “wills,” no matter the type.

“Chance” here means something that happens causelessly, without a cause.  Given the Objectivist law of causality, a “chance event” is a contradiction.  Every event has a cause because every action has a cause—the nature of the entity acting.  There can be no causeless events; every event involves at least one entity acting in accordance with its nature.

The Basic Constituents of the Universe

Now, let’s move on to the fourth part of the objection before finally answering the charge of equivocation.

Nyquist notes that according to Rand’s quoted passage she would hold that the ultimate constituents or “stuff” of the universe is non-mental at the very least.

We have to keep in mind that Rand constantly stresses the importance of context when discussing anything, particularly in the case of providing definitions when confronting a key concept.  The online Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines “mental” as “of or relating to the mind,” and “occurring or experienced in the mind.”[10]

Objectivism holds that the concept “mental” pertains to consciousness, the faculty of awareness.  And consciousness is a faculty of certain living things, we know from introspection (when considering oneself) and observation combined with inference (in the case of other minds).  It is at this macroscopic level that we understand “mental.”  So, if you asked Rand if we could say that the basic, ultimate constituents are mental in the way we understand it, she would say that it is unjustified and rationalistic (that is, heavy on deductions without reference to facts and reality).  (That is her basic criticism of all Idealist arguments, such as Plato’s world of Forms, Kant’s Transcendental Idealism, Augustine’s all-present God, and Leibniz’s Monads.)

This doesn’t mean that the “material realm” gets a free pass.  She said in an old Epistemology Workshop that,
[…]For instance, we couldn’t say: everything is material, if by ‘material’ we mean that of which the physical objects on the perceptual level are made—‘material’ in the normal, perceptual meaning of the word. If this is what we mean by ‘material,’ then we do not have the knowledge to say that ultimately everything is sub-subatomic particles which in certain aggregates are matter. […][11]
The case is that Rand did not believe it was philosophy’s job to make conclusions about the basic constituents of the universe.  As philosophers, we cannot assign conditions to something that is not known to us.  The only thing we can know philosophically is that the ultimate constituents exist and have identity.  Rand reminds us of what the job of philosophy involves:
[…]You see it isn’t the job of philosophy to tell us what exists, it’s only to tell us what has to be true of everything that exists [identity] and what are the rules by which you can claim knowledge. And in regard to the constituent elements of the universe, all we can say is that they would have to have identity. That we can prove. Any other conclusions we cannot draw philosophically.[12]
So while it’s true that Rand implies that the basic constituents are non-mental, she would argue that they are non-material too, as we currently define those terms.

The Charge of Equivocation

I don’t believe the charge of equivocation holds.  These statements that I’ve discussed in this article are neither inferences nor are they just the axioms in isolation, either.  These corollaries require additional context that isn’t always explained in the main works by Rand, or are only explained verbally in lecture courses (until the Ayn Rand Institute converts all the courses into a book format).  The responses I’ve made are the results of considering the axioms in light of new facts and observations.  They are corollaries of the axioms once the additional relevant information is combined with the axioms.

It is true that the axioms do not assert specific natures or forms of existence or specific identities; they state merely that something exists and whatever exists is what it is.  That is what the axioms of existence and identity say when considered separately.  The statements that Nyquist quotes from Rand come after the axioms are integrated with new information, new observations, a new context, such as the notion of “time” and causality in relation to the idea of “chance.”  These integrations flesh out the axioms and law of causality more fully, but that’s not the same thing as saying that Objectivism swaps claims in the case of axioms.

That’s the reason why Objectivism holds that these statements and views are corollaries.  They are statements concerning the axioms in new contexts, in a new angle or perspective.  I’ll also note that these statements precede issues like proof: you cannot (for instance) prove that the universe has no beginning or end, because both options assume what you are trying to prove.  A proof that existence always existed depends on existence; a proof that existence will never end depends on “nothing” coming into being—an impossible occurrence, as Rand remarks in that same Epistemology Workshop,
[…]Non-existence as such—particularly in the same generalized sense in which I use the term ‘existence’ in saying ‘existence exists,’ that is, as the widest abstraction without yet specifying any content, or applying to all content—you cannot have the concept ‘non-existence’ in that same fundamental way. In other words, you can’t say: this is something pertaining to the whole universe, to everything I know, and I don’t say what. In other words, without specifying content.

[…]Non-existence-apart from what it is that doesn’t exist—is an impossible concept. It’s a hole—a literal blank, a zero.[13]
I believe these statements are corollaries of the axioms, which have to be grasped through the intuitive induction process I’ve mentioned in other posts.  Once the requisite context is connected to the axioms, the corollaries should be seen as obvious.

Rather than equivocating on the content of the axioms, I think these statements give us a clearer idea of what the axioms really mean, filling in the details of the metaphysical fact of existence.


[1]: Greg Nyquist, Ayn Rand Contra Human Nature, “Objectivism & ‘Metaphysics,’ Part 10,” Words in brackets mine; words in parentheses are in the original.
[2]: Leonard Peikoff, The Philosophy of Objectivism lecture series, Lecture 2, Question period.
[3]: Nathaniel Branden, The Objectivist Newsletter, “Intellectual Ammunition Department: The ‘First Cause’ Argument,” May 1962, p. 19.
[4]: L. Peikoff, The Philosophy of Objectivism lecture series, Lecture 2.
[5]: N. Branden, “The ‘First Cause’ Argument.”
[6]: Ibid.
[7]: L. Peikoff, “The Analytic-Synthetic Dichotomy,” Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, p. 109.
[8]: Ibid., p. 108.
[9]: For more information on this principle, see my essay “The Primacy of Existence.”
[11]: Ayn Rand. Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, 2nd Expanded Edition, “Philosophy of Science: Properties of Ultimate Constituents.”
[12]: Ibid.
[13]: Ibid. “Abstraction as Measurement-Omission: Three ‘Hard Cases.’”

1 comment:

  1. "Things are what they are and act in accordance with their natures independently of consciousness, consciousness is metaphysically impotent"

    But cannot consciousness control one's own behavior? Else how to explain this very essay and the thoughts that give rise to it? Through our thoughts, does not consciousness affect our actions, and in so doing, indirectly, become metaphysically efficacious? Consciousness has identity, and part of that identity is the power to affect the actions of the conscious being, and through that power, affect the universe.

    "But its identity and actions are that of awareness, it is aware of existence; it does not create reality or control how all entities operate."

    But surely, consciousness is not merely aware of our actions, but often the instigator of them. Surely, if the idea that perception is valid, that awareness must also include the perception that we are directing our actions, that we ARE causal agents, and that our thoughts, as mediated by our physical bodies, may have effects in the physical world. Thoughts do have metaphysical potency, but only as the director of our actions.

    Of course, Rand defines consciousness as "the faculty of awareness", but a definition is not everything that a concept contains, surely consciousness is also the director of our actions - else we have to invent some other concept to cover a faculty that controls our actions.