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Saturday, February 21, 2009


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Like Bill, I'd welcome further exposition of the grounds on which Objectivism assigns ontological primacy to existence external to consciousness.

I'm actually sympathetic to the notion that "every consciousness is a consciosness of something that exists," but not as this is understood by Objectivists. I believe that consciousness is intrinsically reflexive, so every consciousness is (at least) a consciousness of itself "as existing". I don't think, however, that such reflexive consciousness needs to involve consciousness of itself "as a state of consciousness." This is relevant to how we parse the intentional content of a state of consciousness. But it's not going to get us to the sort of "object of consciousness" that Objectivism posits as a precondition of consciousness.

Hi Bob,

You bring up further fascinating subtleties. I am inclined to agree with you that every episode of consciousness is conscious of itself as existing. (Whether this is a full-blown reflective consciousness or something like Sartre's pre-reflective cogito or Brentano's innere Wahrnehmung I leave undecided for now.) And you may be right that consciousness conscious of itself as existing need not conceptualize itself explicitly under the rubric, state of consciousness.

Further, consciousness conscious of itself as existing 'touches ontological bedrock,' i.e., proves to itself that it exists an sich and not merely for consciousness!

So we can get to transcendent existence from consciousness; it is just that the transcendent existence we get to is the existence of consciousness itself.

But what Miss Rand wants is something further, much further, namely the transcendent existence of things that are not conscious.

Hi Bill -
Your comment about touching 'ontological bedrock' gets at the crucial point for this discussion.

I hesitated about using the locution of 'reflexivity', since I know that many people use this term to mark out a special kind of consciousness that is relatively "highly developed". But as I use the term, I think it applies to all consciousness.

I have to reject the implied compliment to my analytical and writing skills over Rand's. Obviously, you and I differ on standards of clarity (and logic), because I regard the two quotes you give from my Ayn Rand Lexicon as paradigms of clear, accurate, careful, writing. So we are back to the methodological differences between analytic philosophy and other philosophies (including but certainly not limited to Objectivism).

You request a step-by-step argument, and I give one on the thread on Searle and the intentionality of sensations. But I'm a little worried by it, because before we ask for polemical arguments against the primacy of consciousness, we should all agree that existence does exist independently of consciousness. That is axiomatic and undeniable. Why undeniable? Because consider the proposition:

"The primacy of existence is false."

To be false is to contradict the facts of reality. A false statement "says of what is, that it is not, or of what is not that it is."

The very distinction between true and false ideas rests on accepting that the world is a certain way independent of our beliefs.

There can be no actual proof of the primacy of existence (nor of any other axiom) because it is one of the presuppositions of proof. You prove that something is not just a mistaken idea in consciousness but an idea that corresponds to fact.

Please excuse me quoting very briefly from Holy Scripture (taking that as a joke not an insult):

"'You cannot prove that you exist or that you're conscious,' they chatter, blanking out the fact that proof presupposes existence, consciousness and a complex chain of knowledge: the existence of something to know, of a consciousness able to know it, and of a knowledge that has learned to distinguish between such concepts as the proved and the unproved."

And from the other Holy Scripture (Aristotle's Metaphysics, Gamma):

"for not to know of what things one should demand demonstration, and of what one should not, argues want of education. For it is impossible that there should be demonstration of absolutely everything (there would be an infinite regress, so that there would still be no demonstration)."

I'm glad to say that for once, Harry Binswanger and I aren't in total disagreement. It is certainly true that "X believes p" and "p" express different propositions, although there are cases in which from "X believes p", it follows that p is true. ( E.g., "I sincerely believe that I am in pain", at least arguably, implies that I am in pain.) Also, it doesn't follow that there is no X such that for any p, "X believes p" implies "p is true." (I. e.,the distinction between "X believes p" and "p" doesn't rule out an omniscient being.

But this distinction doesn't suffice to show that existence has primacy over consciousness, in the sense that Objectivists want. Suppose there is a mind with underived content. It isn't immediately evident that there is no distinction to be made here between the underived content and beliefs about that content. "I believe that I'm perceiving a sense datum" is made true by "I'm perceiving a sense datum": the two propositions are not identical.

Binswanger might at this point appeal to a famous, and much disputed, argument that there cannot be a logically private object. People who take Wittgenstein to have shown this may be right; but this position about private objects is the result of a complicated argument. It is not an axiom. (Of course, Binswanger may have some other argument in mind that allowing underived content would collapse the distinction between "X believes p" and "p"; but in that case, what is it?)

I agree that true axioms can't be proved; but one must beware of declaring controversial views to be axioms.

Harry - I don't think we're on the same page here. I don't think anybody has asserted the primacy of consciousness, nor asked (rhetorically) for arguments against that notion. In contrast, speaking for Objectivism, you have asserted the primacy of existence. I don't ask for a demonstrative proof of your claim, but for reasons that don't whither under critical scrutiny.

I still think that a huge obstacle to mutual understanding is that we aren't working from a shared set of definitions. It's still not clear to me, for example, whether existence, as understood by Objectivists, includes or excludes conscious states. If it includes consciousness, then a statement like "If nothing exists, there can be no consciousness," is trivially true. If it excludes consciousness, then I can at least understand claims about the primacy of existence, even though I think they are in need of support.


Part of the problem here is that you don't address head on the main points I (and others) make. You evade them. For example, I distinguished between

2. Every consciousness is a consciousness of something that exists.


3*. Consciousness cannot exist unless some of the objects of consciousness exist independently of any consciousness.

I said that while (2) is plainly false, (3*) is defensible. Do you or do you not agree? And do you not see that both propositions can be reasonably teased out of the passages quoted? So please answer this question: do you accept both propositions or only the second one?

This whole argument trades on an ambiguity in sentences like

(*) Kate wants to marry a rich man

This could mean (1) that there is a specific rich man (Stanford) that Kate wants to marry, i.e. the sentence expresses Kate's wish to marry Stanford, without being specific about the identity of the man; or (2) that Kate has no particular person in mind, but simply wants it to be the case that, whomsoever she ends up marrying, that person is rich and male. In general, the fact that all desire is desire of something does not imply the real existence anything, unless it is specified that all desires are type (1) desires, i.e. are desires directed towards particular existing individuals. But to make that assumption would be to beg the question, for it is the real existence of things that was to be proved in the first place.

A similar argument applies to consciousness. E.g. I can be conscious of 'something' in the sense of being conscious of a hallucination. But that does not imply that anything exists corresponding to the hallucination.

(Which is essentially to agree with Bill's point. Also to add that Binswanger seems to be ground-shifting or obfuscating here. He quotes Aristotle to the effect that asking for a demonstration must come to an end at some point. Agreed. But the question was whether the existence of mind-independent reality follows from 'all consciousness is consciousness of something'. It doesn't, any more than it follows from 'all desire is desire of something').


We are in complete agreement (for once!) at least with respect to what you said in your immediately preceding comment. But to be charitable to Rand, my (3*) above could be what she intends in the passages quoted, and this proposition is not obviously indefensible. Do you agree?

I have been pondering a variation of what you said:

"It is therefore manifestly false...that every act of consciousness by its very nature as an act of consciousness entails the mind-independent existence of its intentional object."

I have encountered some Objectivists arguing this:

Every act of consciousness directed upon an object entails the mind-independent existence of some (not necessarily the same) object.

Please forgive me because I am not a trained philosopher and have spent more time reading Mortimer Adler then any serious literature; however, this seems plain enough even for my mind to grasp.

I suppose "directed upon an object" should be clarified to be something that could possibly exist in time an space (a horse, a unicorn, etc.)

Does that fact that I am imagining a unicorn entail that some object exists independently of my consciousness? In other words:

Can there be imagined objects that aren't contingency on perceived objects coming before them?

Well there is my best shot. I hope that made sense.

Pardon my spelling in the second to last sentence - I meant contingent.

If I've understand their view correctly, Objectivists would say that when you imagine a unicorn, each of its properties derives from something you have perceived in the external world. You don't have to be perceiving any of these properties in the external world while you are imagining the unicorn, but none of the unicorn's properties could be present in your consciousness without stemming from some previous external perception.

Dave Gordon - I think you're right about how Objectivists view imagined things, like unicorns. So far, it's plain vanilla empiricist epistemology, sharing in the strengths and weaknesses of that epistemology. But it seems Objectivists want to derive metaphysical conclusions from their epistemology. That's where things get very confusing, at least for me.

David Parker:

"Does that fact that I am imagining a unicorn entail that some object exists independently of my consciousness?"

Yes, according to Rand's "tabula rasa" view.

DP: "In other words:

"Can there be imagined objects that aren't [contingent] on perceived objects coming before them?"

No, according to Rand's "tabula rasa" view.

Here's the only passage listed in the Lexicon where she provides any explication of her claim that man is born "tabula rasa":


Rand: "At birth, a child's mind is tabula rasa; he has the potential of awareness--the mechanism of a human consciousness--but no content. Speaking metaphorically, he has a camera with an extremely sensitive unexposed film (his conscious mind) and an extremely complex computer waiting to be programmed (his subconscious). Both are blank. He knows nothing of the external world. He faces an immense chaos which he must learn to perceive by means of the complex mechanism which he must learn to operate.

"If, in any two years of adult life, men could learn as much as an infant learns in his first two years, they would have the capacity of genius. To focus his eyes (which is not an innate, but an acquired skill), to perceive the things around him by integrating his sensations into percepts (which is not an innate, but an acquired skill), to coordinate his muscles for the task of crawling, then standing upright, then walking--and, ultimately, to grasp the process of concept-formation and learn to speak--these are some of an infant's tasks and achievements whose magnitude is not equaled by most men in the rest of their lives."

["The Comprachicos," NL, 190]


(NL is The New Left: The Anti-Industrial Revolution (1971). "The Comprachicos" originally appeared as a 5-part article in Volume 8, Number 9-12 -- August 1970-December 1970 -- of The Objectivist.)

Thanks for the clarifications and references Ellen Stuttle and David Gordon!

I am currently reading a summary of Rand's case against God as presented by Anton Thorn, http://www.geocities.com/Athens/Sparta/1019/AFE.html>http://www.geocities.com/Athens/Sparta/1019/AFE.html

This puzzles me:

"The primacy of existence is not an independent principle. It is an elaboration, a further corollary, of the basic axioms. Existence precedes consciousness because, consciousness is consciousness of an object. Nor can consciousness create or suspend the laws governing its objects, because every entity is something and acts accordingly [i.e., according to its identity, not according to the desires of consciousness]. Consciousness, therefore, is only a faculty of awareness. It is the power to grasp, to find out, to discover that which is. It is not a power to alter or control the nature of its objects."
-Peikoff, Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand, pg 19

It doesn't require much to convince me that human consciousness cannot "alter or control the nature of its objects" if we're talking about perceived objects. My problem is when Objectivists insist that God is subject to the scope of this conclusion as well.

They get angry at me when I ask why. When I ask why existence excludes God, the answer I usually get is, "well how can you differentiate God from something you are imagining?" I think bobkoepp is spot on in his comment about epistemology.

Anyways, enough ranting. I have really enjoyed this series on Rand!


The Objectivists get angry with you when you ask questions? That says something about them doesn't it? You have to understand that they are ideologues and dogmatists. So if you merely question what they say in a sincere attempt to understand, they take it as an attack that must be repelled with anger and invective.

You are right to be puzzled by the Peikoff quotation. Take the sentence, "Existence precedes consciousness because, consciousness is consciousness of an object." This is an example of just how shoddy the reasoning of Objectivists is. From 'consciousness is consciousness of an object' it does not follow that existence precedes consciousness unless it is assumed that every object exists independently of consciousness. But that it precisely the issue! Peikoff is apparently too 'intellectually challenged' to see that he is arguing in a circle. And if he just announces that the primacy of existence is a corrolary of an axiom, then he dogmatically helps himself to a proposition that is not self-evident but is in need of support.

Objectivists maintain that existence has primacy over any consciousness, including divine consciousness. If you ask why, they say it is an axiom. How convenient! Just set up a bunch of 'axioms' and then, to absolve oneself of the need of supporting them, keep repeating that they are axioms. A is A! Existence exists!

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