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.

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The Meaning of “Necessary” Versus “Contingent” Truth

Billiard balls ready to be brokenThere is a long history in philosophy of distinguishing between truths that are “necessary” and truths that are “contingent.”

A necessary truth is a true statement whose negation must imply a contradiction in reality, such that the negation would be impossible.

So, if “One plus one equals two,” is a necessary truth, then the statement “One plus one does not equal two” will imply a contradiction. Given the meanings of “one” and “two,” we can immediately see that the addition of two “ones” (units) always does yield “two,” yet the statement “One plus one does not equal two,” contradicts this. It’s incomprehensible that one plus one should ever add to anything but two. So “One plus one equals two,” is commonly held to be a necessary truth, with its negation being impossible.

A contingent truth is a true statement whose negation does not imply a contradiction in reality, such that the negation could have been the case.

So, if “John married Jessica last Sunday,” is a contingent truth, then the statement “John did not marry Jessica last Sunday,” could have been true, without implying a contradiction in reality. Since John could have chosen not to marry Jessica, or to have married her on a different day, we can see that this is indeed a contingent truth.

The Objectivist View on the Necessary/Contingent Distinction

Objectivism-The Philosophy of Ayn RandCausality (the Law of Cause and Effect) is the Law of Identity applied to action. This means that an entity’s actions follow from its nature. That is, the nature of the entity (its attributes, properties, etc.) causes the action it will take in any given situation. In any given context, there is only one action open to it: the one in accordance with its nature. Any other action would contradict its nature.

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Why Definitions Must Be Justified by Evidence

An amazing Earth with rising sun and water. Philosophy tells us what we can know by reasoning about the origin of water.Are definitions a matter of arbitrary social convention?

Well let’s find out if it makes sense to say that they are. Let’s imagine that Adam’s culture defines “space pixie” as “one of the living creatures that has wings, and whose species is solely responsible for bringing water to Earth.”

If definitions are arbitrary matters of social convention, then Adam can reason like this:

  • Premise 1: If there is water on Earth, it was brought by space pixies.
  • Premise 2: There is water on Earth.
  • Conclusion 1: Therefore, (only) space pixies brought water to Earth.
  • Premise 3: All things that bring water must exist at the time it is brought.
  • Conclusion 2: Therefore, space pixies must have existed.

This argument is deductively valid: If the premises are true, then the conclusions must also be true.

Furthermore, this argument is sound (has true premises and is valid–irrefutably correct) given the stated definition of “space pixie.” If definitions are arbitrary cultural inventions, then Premise 1 is “analytic”–that is, it is true purely by definition: One need only examine the definition of “space pixie” to find that Premise 1 is true. Premise 2 is an empirical truth, obvious to anyone who observes Earth and holds the common definition of “water.” Premise 3 simply states an indubitable fact: that things that act in reality must also exist.

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

Portrait of Immanuel Kant. The German philosopher and writer of the Critique of Pure Reason, whose philosophy is under discussion.

Immanuel Kant

Another reddit user with an interest in Ayn Rand and Objectivism, /u/Abstract_Atheist, posted a “Quick and Easy Refutation of the Noumenal Realm” on reddit. (The “noumenal realm” is commonly described to be Immanuel Kant’s term for the universe “as it is in itself,” apart from human perception. According to Kant, the human apparatus of perception renders the “things-in-themselves” as “appearances,” or roughly synonymously, as “phenomena.”)

Abstract_Atheist’s supposed refutation was to say that, for example, the noumenal realm is either yellow or non-yellow. If it is yellow, then one of our concepts applies to it, (“yellow.”) If it is not yellow, then one of our concepts still applies to it, (“non-yellow.”) In either case, a human concept applies to it, thus (supposedly) negating the noumenal realm’s defining status as outside human cognition.

I, however, do not consider this a good refutation for a reason I outline below. In this, I loosely agree with a comment made by another user (/u/drunkentune.)

My own refutation of Kant’s distinction between “appearance” and “thing-in-itself,” along with my defense of it against /u/wokeupabug, is the subject of my comments below. (I am Sword_of_Apollo):

Sword_of_Apollo:

/u/drunkentune has a point. Non-axiomatic concepts are contextual and can’t generally be said to divide all of existence between themselves and their antitheses. I make this point in my discussion of fairness and justice.

I think the real quick and easy refutation of the “noumenal realm” is a statement of the axioms:

1. Existence exists.

2. An existent is itself.

3. Consciousness perceives existence.

This last axiom directly eliminates any distinction between a “noumenal” and “phenomenal” realm. I discussed this with /u/ReallyNicole in a thread, here.

Also, as a side-note, have you listened to or read Understanding Objectivism and/or Objectivism Through Induction?

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Ontology and The Problem of Universals: An Objectivist Comments

shiny_red_applesAyn Rand is sometimes accused of misunderstanding the “Problem of Universals,” that philosophers such as Plato, Aristotle, Boethius and William of Ockham have dealt with for millennia.

The Problem of Universals consists of the question: To what do people refer when we use terms that can be applied to different particular things? For example the term “man” is applied not just to one entity, but to many entities that are each called a “man.” Another example is “spherical.” Many different things can be said to be “spherical.” An answer to the Problem of Universals will explain how this use of single terms for multiple different objects works.

In Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, (ITOE) Rand claims to have solved the ancient Problem of Universals. She describes in detail the process by which man forms generally applicable concepts from his perceptions of particulars in reality. Critics sometimes charge that Rand is giving us an epistemological theory when a solution to the Problem of Universals calls for an ontological theory. (Ontology, properly conceived, is the branch of metaphysics that deals with the most fundamental classification of existents; it is the study of “what there is,” metaphysically.)

But considering the Problem of Universals purely ontological, and thus considering Rand’s theory of concept formation irrelevant to it, improperly privileges variants of “Realism” (about universals) by treating the rejection of such abstract objects as sufficient to define a single theory (variously referred to as “Nominalism” or “Anti-Realism.”) The rejection of universals in external reality does not specify a positive theory of what universals are and how they are related to external reality. Much more explanation is required to do this, as evidenced by the various subcategories of Nominalism/Anti-Realism. In ITOE, Ayn Rand presents an alternative theory on the level of the variants of Anti-Realism in the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. (i.e. Predicate Nominalism, Resemblance Nominalism, Trope Nominalism and Conceptualism.)

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The Social Metaphysics of Communism: MiG Pilot

MiG_PilotThe book, MiG Pilot, is the true story of a Soviet pilot who defected to the United States in 1976. As a MiG-25 pilot, Lieutenant Viktor Belenko was among the most elite officers of the Soviet military. Like all Soviet military men of the period, he was thoroughly indoctrinated in Communist ideals and fed misinformation about the West his whole life. Yet through many years of observation and logical thinking, he came to see that there was something deeply wrong with the USSR. The rampant drunkenness, dishonesty and economic stagnation he witnessed eventually drove him to fly his MiG-25 to Japan, seeking asylum in the United States–the very heart of the “Dark Forces” he had been taught to fear.

The following incident is from Lt. Belenko’s time as a MiG-25 pilot stationed at Chuguyevka in Southern Siberia. Belenko’s thoughts at the time are represented in {green braces.} Again, I stress that this book is nonfiction; as in, this actually happened:
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God: The Immovable Mover

Some deep discussion of causality and metaphysics. My refutation of this “First Cause” argument for God appears in the comments under “Sword of Apollo.”

God: The Immovable Mover.

[Note: Jacob T. Brunton is philosophically sophisticated and usually argues civilly. These characteristics led me to give him the benefit of every doubt when it came to intellectual honesty. I am not one who is quick to judge such a person an incorrigible evader or intellectually dishonest, since I think that there are many deep, yet honest errors that smart people can make in thinking about philosophy. But through argument with Mr. Brunton on multiple occasions, I have been given the evidence to conclude, beyond any doubt, that he is not honest in his philosophical viewpoints; especially in his regard for the Bible.

My past discussions with Mr. Brunton can still be informative to others, and so I will leave them as they are. But he will no longer be allowed to comment on this blog, and I will make no further comments in direct response to him on any blog. —  6-27-2013]