The Primacy of Existence Principle in Objectivist Thought: Some Clarification

Barred spiral galaxy in space. Represents science and philosophy.In a recent reddit comment, I offered some clarification of how the Primacy of Existence Principle flows directly from Ayn Rand’s axioms. A reddit acquaintance found the principle, as expressed in Leonard Peikoff’s book, Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand, confusing and seemingly unjustified from the axioms. He wondered whether it was potentially possible for some non-human consciousness (“God”) to contradict the Primacy of Existence and have control over physical reality, or for the nature of certain things to be such as to obey consciousness in ways that would contradict the Primacy of Existence. So I made the following comment in response:

I think there are two senses in which one can talk about “consciousness”: what I’ll call “fundamental” and “expanded.” In the fundamental sense, consciousness means strictly the faculty of perceiving or grasping that which exists. In this sense, emotions, wishes, acts of will, the control of one’s body are not part of consciousness. Speaking in the expanded sense, consciousness includes perception of reality and all of those other things, like emotions, will, and bodily control.

My understanding of the Consciousness Axiom, “Consciousness perceives existence,” is that it uses consciousness in the fundamental sense. It is axiomatic that the fundamental function of consciousness is the grasping of existence; i.e. the awareness of some object. If it does not perceive some object, it is not consciousness.

The primacy of existence recognizes that the fundamental function of consciousness (consciousness in the “strict” or fundamental sense) is the perception of an object. The primacy of consciousness revolts against the axiom that “Consciousness perceives existence.” To a primacy-of-consciousness mentality, the fundamental function of consciousness is the “creation of reality” (the object of consciousness.) (Think of the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics: the mere observation “creates” the reality; it’s not that the process leading to the observation has physical consequences that alter the observed quantity.)

In my understanding, the primacy of existence principle does not say that consciousness in the expanded sense cannot alter reality. This would actually be quite absurd: clearly consciousness can move your body and alter reality that way. Scientists have also developed technology that allows a person to move a prosthetic or cursor on a screen by using his mind in a certain way. Emotions provoke bodily reactions. Etc. All of these are examples of consciousness (in the expanded sense) interacting with physical reality by certain, specific causal mechanisms.

All of this happens “on top of” the fundamental function of consciousness: perceiving reality. On this “higher” level, a wish can accomplish certain things, as determined by the causal links involved. But these causal links are independent of consciousness on the fundamental level: fundamental consciousness does not alter or create these causal links merely by its becoming aware of them. (Specific conditions in reality have to be met for such causal links to be generated.)

Applying this to “God,” we can say that the fundamental function of any god’s consciousness–if it is consciousness–is to perceive a pre-existing reality. Axiomatically, entities cannot be created ex nihilo: existence exists, and the “sheer non-existent” does not exist. Consciousness, by the Consciousness Axiom, does not create or alter things as its fundamental function: it perceives them.

So, is it metaphysically possible (not impossible) for a God to exist (as a finite entity with the faculty of consciousness) that alters reality by acts of his consciousness in the expanded sense? Yes. Humans do this and it is consistent with the primacy of existence, (though still arbitrary in the current context of knowledge.) Is it metaphysically possible for a God to exist whose consciousness creates or alters reality, instead of perceiving it, as its fundamental function? No. To claim this is to violate the axioms and fall into self-refutation and the destruction of the basic meaning of the words one utters. That is the primacy-of-consciousness approach to “God.”

Here is the link to the reddit thread with the question and my answer: Primacy of existence as overgeneralization.

The above comment was aimed at someone already familiar with Ayn Rand’s philosophy of Objectivism. If you aren’t familiar with it, I recommend reading my Introduction to Objectivism page, and the works on my Books and Links page. You may also want to see the related posts listed below.

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Related Posts:

The Axioms of Objectivism

Ontology and The Problem of Universals: An Objectivist Comments

A Critique of Kant on the Noumenal World / Phenomenal World Distinction (“Thing-in-Itself” vs “Appearance”)

Proceeding from Axioms in Objectivism – YouTube Edition

The Arbitrary (from The Objectivism Seminar)

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