Hearn's "Objective Morality": A Critique

by Dawson Bethrick


The following is a modified version of three e-mail messages which I sent to Christian apologist Mr. Brian Hearn, the author of the essay Objective Morality, which seeks to prove that the Christian conception of morality is objective in nature, and that it is on the basis of Christian theism that an objective conception of morality is possible.

On this page I present these three messages, with a few minor editing amendments (for instance, I have changed the address from second person "you" to the third person "Mr. Hearn"), in the original order in which I sent them:

In the first e-mail message, I simply wanted to inform the author of the essay that he had his facts wrong, and that there were numerous conceptual errors plaguing his argument, thus invalidating his desired conclusion.

That same day, Mr. Hearn replied to my message, and asked if I could identify some of the "factual and conceptual" errors to which I had alluded in my first e-mail message. My second e-mail message to Mr. Hearn is a fulfillment of his request. In this message I present quotations from Mr. Hearn's essay and my comments in response to what those quotations say.

In a third, follow-up e-mail message, I explained the nature of objectivity as I understand the term. This is the Objectivist concept of objectivity.

Arguably, the second e-mail message in which I enumerate the problems in Mr. Hearn's essay may make more sense with an understanding of the concept of objectivity as I explain it in the third message. However, I am presenting the three messages in their original chronological order.




Subj: Objective Morality?

Date: 8/22/02 12:13:01 PM Pacific Daylight Time

From: sortion@hotmail.com (Dawson Bethrick)

To: bh@goisc.com


Hello. I recently read the article posted on the "Aletheuo" website titled Objective Morality by "B. Hearn."

There are a number of factual and conceptual errors in this article. Rather than pick through the essay to identify and correct those errors, I think it would be far more productive for the author to examine a paper which already does this very eloquently, and which is already available on the web. That paper is the following:

Is Christian Morality Objective? by Anton Thorn

Since the apparent interest of the "Aletheuo" website is identifying and upholding truth, I suggest that its webmaster forward this link to the author so that he will be enlightened to the truth which your website seeks to champion.

Thank you, and best regards,

Dawson Bethrick




A Review of Hearn's Essay Objective Morality:


Author Brian Hearn opens his essay Objective Morality by relating certain details of a dialogue he shared with one of his co-workers who happened to be an atheist. The topic of their conversation, naturally, was morality and the different ways they approach the issue. Mr. Hearn's atheist co-worker warned that an objective view of morality is dangerous because it "does not evolve with the rest of humanity"; he insinuated that the commandments of religion are little more than "marching orders handed down from on High." The proper alternative proposed by this atheist, according to Mr. Hearn, is "personal morality or moral relativism." As Hearn describes this atheist's position, his "free-floating approach to morality supposedly facilitates the pursuit of happiness whereas absolutes nearly always create intolerance."

Does Mr. Hearn's view of morality fare any better? Is the Christian view of morality truly objective? Does Mr. Hearn provide any substantial reason why one should consider the Christian view of morality to be superior to alternative views of morality? Is a genuinely objective morality compatible with the Christian religion? Addressing questions such as these are the topic of my critique of Mr. Hearn's essay.

Mr. Hearn continues:

"We got beyond the position that objective moral law can only exist with an objective moral Lawgiver, that is, God."

If this is to be taken as an endorsement of the "position that objective moral law can only exist with an objective moral Lawgiver, that is, God," then I would say that this is a factual error. The idea that objective moral principles find their source in a supernatural form of consciousness is itself a consequence of accepting a subjective view of reality. "Subjectivism in metaphysics is the view that existence finds its source in a form of consciousness." (1) An explicit example of this is the Christian view of the cosmology of the universe: "God created the universe ex nihilo by an act of will." On this view, reality is thought to conform to the dictates of consciousness. This is known in rational philosophy as the primacy of consciousness, and it is a view which invalidates itself. The primacy of consciousness is the foundation of the religious view of the world, and its fallout contaminates all religious philosophy.

Mr. Hearn writes:

"So what about the claim that objective moral law can be based on 'the objective facts about the nature of human beings and human life'? Given such facts, how does one prioritize and formulate them into first principles for an objective moral law? Would not the act of prioritizing and formulating these facts be a subjective process? Furthermore, would not the prioritization and formulation criteria be a subjective precursor?"

If these questions are taken to imply that objective morality is impossible if its standard is the facts of reality and man's nature as a living being (and I think the context only suggests that they should be taken to imply this), then I would say that these statements, or at least their affirmation of this conclusion, would be another instance of a factual error.

Mr. Hearn writes:

"Perhaps a fact-based system of morality could also offer a mechanism to deal with ethical dilemmas, but such a means would have to supercede fact."

First of all, what is the alternative to "a fact-based system of morality"? A system of morality which is not based on facts. In other words, a moral system in which facts are irrelevant. Additionally, supposing "a fact-based system of morality" does "offer a mechanism to deal with ethical dilemmas," how can one determine that this would entail "a means [that] would have to supercede fact"? What exactly is meant by "supercede fact"?

Then Mr. Hearn writes:

"Again you are left with subjectivity and the whole process of trying to establish an objective moral framework based on fact alone involves circular reasoning."

It is not at all clear how one is "left with subjectivity" as a result of embracing "a fact-based system of morality" which is supposed to "offer a mechanism to deal with ethical dilemmas." I think the lack of clarity here is due in part to Hearn's failure to define his terms. I've looked high and low in his essay to find where he define terms such as 'subjectivity' and 'morality', which are critical points of interest to the topic of his essay. Yet, the reader must simply assume what these terms mean, thus raising the chances of misunderstanding and risking further conceptual carelessness. Hearn does offer a definition of 'objective' in his first footnote, namely "universally and invariably true across all space and time – objective principles are 'recognized and discovered, not invented by humans'," citing Christian apologist Paul Copan. While one can make a very good case for the view that "objective principles are 'recognized and discovered, not invented by human beings'," I think defining the concept 'objective' as "universally and invariably true across all space and time" is shoddy at best, and fails to grasp the central issue of objectivity, which is the nature of the relationship between consciousness and existence (known as the issue of metaphysical primacy, an issue of which primitive philosophies - including religion - show no awareness or understanding).

You ask the following question:

"Finally; why should we abide by laws that somehow result from the 'facts about human life?'"

That's very easy to answer. One acts on objective moral principles because he wants to live. As Ayn Rand put it, "The purpose of morality is to teach you, not to suffer and die, but to enjoy yourself and live." (2) Why does the religionist think one should obey a god's moral laws? Well, presumably for the express purpose of pleasing that god. In other words, for the religionist, the purpose of morality has no genuine relevance to living on earth. For the religionist, morality is a form of service to someone else. Why is it moral to serve someone else? Blank out. The religious view of morality amounts to a morality which is divorced from reality (Hearn himself seems to think that "a fact based view of morality" somehow results in subjectivity) and from reason (since ultimately you appeal to "divine revelation" as the proper guide to moral principle).

For instance, it is a fact that man requires values in order to live. Rational morality (i.e., a moral code which is based on the objective facts of reality which are discovered by means of reason) teaches one how to identify and pursue those values which he needs in order to live. Morality is "a code of values to guide man's choices and actions" (3); a value is a benefit to one's life which one acts to gain and/or keep at his own expense. Morality, in this rational sense, has real-world reference and real-world relevance for man. It is a matter of life and death for him. Man cannot change the fact that he requires values in order to live. We all need food, water, shelter, clothing, a rational means of knowledge (as opposed to an irrational or mystical pretense to knowledge, which is what religion provides), etc. Without these things, man will die. If one wants to die, then he will no longer have the capacity for values; values are a benefit to his life. But if one wants to live, there is no disputing that morality is an objective, metaphysical necessity to man's survival.

Mr. Hearn asks (in regard to a moral system which is based on facts):

"Wouldn't that ethic have to transcend the mere pool of facts about our nature and our existence?"

The answer here is: no; not if one's intention is to live and enjoy his life. The trouble seems to be that some people do not like to see other people living and enjoying their lives on their own terms; they want to preach a supposedly "holy" set of terms by which they're supposed to live. (I once heard someone define 'Puritanism' as "the fear that someone, somewhere, may be enjoying his life.") Again, here we see how the religious view sees morality as a form of service, specifically selfless service, either to others, or to invisible magic beings which could not possibly benefit from man's sacrifices to begin with.

Keep in mind that action for man is necessarily goal-oriented. When we act, we act in order to achieve something. It may be as simple as bending down in order to tie your shoe, or as sophisticated as running a business in order to gain and maintain independence from others. The fact that our actions are goal-oriented necessitates questions such as: Why are you doing that? or What should acting morally be expected to accomplish? A mystic would answer such questions by saying that his actions are ultimately expected to please some invisible magic being.

By accepting that there are such things as invisible magic beings (e.g., "God, demons, angels," etc.) and that one has an obligation to live his life in selfless service to them, he has already set in motion the premise that the standard of his actions is not the requirements of his life on earth (these may be met as a secondary or tertiary consequence; even serious mystics find ways to rationalize pursuit of earthly values, even though he holds that sacrificing them is the greatest virtue), but the requirements of the supernatural. This in turn necessitates a non-rational means of knowledge (i.e., whim, emotionalism, subjective speculation or "faith") in order to discover just what those requirements are. So not only are the facts of reality irrelevant to one's actions, the goal of those actions has no objective value to his life, and the means by which he is supposed to know these things amounts to nothing more than a rejection of reason. We see the real-life consequences of this view of morality in the Middle East today on every day's headline news.

Mr. Hearn then asks a very revealing set of questions:

"What about the notion that 'one's life is, in itself, a value; and the objective standard for one to follow is that which advances this value'? Of course this is wholly arbitrary. Why is one’s life a value? What is objective, or even unambiguous about the notion of advancement? Why would man have any objective value in an atheist-universe where he is merely a bag of atoms with a configuration brought about by chance?"

Apparently Mr. Hearn thinks it is "wholly arbitrary" to consider his life as a value in itself, as an end in itself. Well, that's not surprising, since he's already accepted the view that morality should constitute a form of selfless service to invisible magic beings (which, again, could not in any way benefit from your sacrifices to begin with). But I'm willing to bet an indefinitely large sum of money that he still takes action on a daily basis on behalf of your life. Do his actions work to advance his values, or to diminish and surrender them? If the goal of any actions Mr. Hearn takes on a daily basis is to benefit his life, then obviously his life is a value to him. So, when Mr. Hearn asks, "Why is one's life a value?" how does he answer this himself? Indeed, when the goal of man's actions is to benefit his life, then his life is the standard of value for those actions, regardless of how one might try to rationalize this.

It is most revealing that one of the few times when Mr. Hearn mentions the concept 'value' in his essay is when he quotes a non-theist and responds to what the non-theist says.

While I agree that "our feelings don’t give us objective value," Mr. Hearn goes on to say that "The good news is that we do have objective value because we are the awesome work of The Creator." What he is saying here is that objective value finds its source in a subjective view of reality. Again, subjectivism in metaphysics is the view that existence finds its source in a form of consciousness. This is the Christian doctrine of "creation": the universe (i.e., the sum total of existence) is the product of some invisible magic being's whims. It's a neat trick if you can do it.

When Mr. Hearn writes, "Without God, morality is arbitrary," he is essentially saying that without an object to which one can sacrifice his values (including his life), then there is no morality. He is also saying that, without someone there to tell him what to do, he'd have no idea what actions would be moral or why. In other words, the Christian view of morality is not based on reason, but on the arbitrary notion that there are invisible magic beings whose dictates should be obeyed unquestioningly.

Mr. Hearn writes:

"He then brought up Christendom's violent history as an example. I mentioned to him that those who committed violence in the name of Christ were not acting in accordance with His teachings - I thought that needed to be cleared up."

This ignores several facts. For one thing, no two Christians fully agree on what exactly Jesus taught (indeed, the writings in the New Testament are in some places so ambiguous and open to wide interpretation that disputes among believers are inevitable), let alone fully follow those teachings (can Mr. Hearn name one Christian who follows the New Testament's teachings perfectly and for a sustained period of time?).

It also ignores the philosophical causality of the atrocities of Christianity's history. Ideas put into practice have real-life consequences. As I have shown so far, Christian morality is not a morality of values, but a morality of self-sacrifice. What happens when this kind of morality is developed into a social theory? Since the believer's morality teaches that he has a duty to consider invisible magic beings and other humans above his own interests, it is clear, according to a social theory which proceeds from the basis of Christian morality, that the individual does not have a right to exist for his own sake. Indeed, he has a duty to sacrifice himself to others. Why? Blank out. Don't ask.

If man is viewed as inherently wicked or depraved, then he cannot be allowed to roam free; he must be brought under submission. The New Testament speaks about the "kingdom of god." This is state and religion welded into a single whole. Since man has no right to exist for his own sake, he must serve others, either invisible magic beings, or the society or state. Since man is impotent, they tell us, he needs to be brought under the submission of ruling powers. "Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God: the powers that are ordained of God. Whosoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God: and they that resist shall receive unto themselves damnation" (Rom. 13:1-2). In other words, if you do not submit and sacrifice, you're going to hell. (You know that kid on the Dell commercials? He's always saying "Dude, you're getting a Dell!" Religion says, "Dude, you're going to hell!")

Incidentally, Thorn also writes on this subject. See his essay Religion and the Bloody Glove.

The fact of the matter is, the Dark Ages were dark on principle. This was the time when religion and state were in bed together. This is what we see in the theocratic Arab nations today. They want to tell everyone what to worship, when to worship, how to worship, etc. Again, the individual, under such systems of social theory, does not have the right to exist for his own sake. The same with the Communists. Communism is simply a secular counterpart to religion: both hold that the individual does not have the right to exist for his own sake. He is subject to the force of others. Regardless of what Jesus taught, this is the result of his sacrificial ethics when applied to social theory. Indeed, where does Jesus speak against slavery? He nowhere does this, nor do those who came after Jesus. Where does Jesus speak against the initiation of the use of force? He does not. But Jesus does tell believers to "turn the cheek" (Matt. 5:39) when force is used against them. Perhaps a corollary of the "golden rule" is "allow others to do to you what you would love to do to them." Look at what Jesus tells us in Luke 12:47-48: "And that servant, which knew his lord's will, and prepared not himself, neither did according to his will, shall be beaten with many stripes. But he that knew not, and did commit things worthy of stripes, shall be beaten with few stripes." Servitude and violence go hand in hand, just as faith and force are natural corollaries.

Where in an objective morality one pursues values for his own gain and at his own expense by choice, in a subjective morality one obeys out of fear. An objective morality recognizes man's need for goal-oriented action; a subjective morality ignores this need and tells man that he must do what the dictator says. Such a moral system becomes even more arbitrary (i.e., goal-less) when one's soteriology states that one is saved by faith, not by works (cf. Eph. 2:8-9, et al.).

Is it no wonder, with the morality of self-sacrifice and statements like "Look not every man on his own things, but every man also on the things of others" (Phil. 2:4), that many clerical leaders are openly socialistic? It does not puzzle me one bit.

Mr. Hearn also writes:

"I would also venture to say that the crimes of the Crusaders, for example, would have been far worse had they operated under an atheistic worldview."

Well, that of course depends on which atheistic worldview one is speaking of. Rational philosophy is of course an atheistic philosophy; it does not base its views on faith in revelations or any other expression of the arbitrary. Would "the crimes of the Crusaders… have been far worse had they operated under" Objectivism, the philosophy of reason? Such a question is fallaciously complex. The fact is, Objectivism would not enable anything like the crusade wars or any kind of campaign to convert people. Objectivism does not divide men into two opposing collectives, the chosen vs. the damned; religion does this - it always has, and it always will. Those who claim to be among the chosen of course also pretend to be the spokespersons on behalf of the supernatural. But Objectivism does not entertain silly notions like "the supernatural." This is simply another mystic idea intended to make the pursuit of the unearned all the more convenient for those who take it seriously. Under Objectivism, there would be no initiation of the use of force, since each individual has the right to exist for his own sake. According to Objectivism, the purpose of a government is not to ensure a people's supposed "spiritual salvation" but to protect the individual's right to his own life. But when a society is cultivated on a philosophy which does not teach that the individual has the right to his own life, but that he must sacrifice himself to whoever's dictates, there will be the ever-urgent push to enlarge the scope of rule to engulf more people willing to sacrifice themselves, and thus a crusade war - to convert or kill - is a very likely consequence.

Mr. Hearn writes:

"In other words, it wasn’t Christianity that had run amok; it was man and the evil within him."

This obviously ignores the fact that Christianity encourages this kind of evil, despite its superficial appearance to uphold the opposite. In Christianity, virtue is punished while vice is rewarded. Being a victim is elevated to the status of a supreme virtue while independent judgment is scorned as a heinous vice (cf. Matt. 7:1-2). Observe:

Christ, in terms of the Christian philosophy, is the human ideal. He personifies that which men should strive to emulate. Yet, according to the Christian mythology, he died on the cross not for his own sins but for the sins of the nonideal people. In other words, a man of perfect virtue was sacrificed for men who are vicious and who are expected or supposed to accept that sacrifice. If I were a Christian, nothing could make me more indignant than that: the notion of sacrificing the ideal to the nonideal, or virtue to vice. And it is in the name of that symbol that men are asked to sacrifice themselves for their inferiors. That is precisely how the symbolism is used. (4)

If Christianity is so opposed to the atrocities like the Crusades, Inquisitions, witch hunts, persecution of scientists and the prohibition of scientific advancement (e.g., anesthesia), one must honestly ask: Why did these injustices go on throughout the centuries of Christian rule? Superficial assertions such as "it was man and the evil within him" simply beg the question.

Mr. Hearn writes:

"What about the infamous murderer Stalin who not only held an atheistic worldview but also acted within its scope?"

Yes, Stalin was a tyrannical murderer, and he was an atheist operating within an atheistic worldview. But to say that atheism as such therefore leads to such atrocities is to miss the point seriously and with grave consequences. Atheism as such is not a worldview. Rather, atheism is simply the absence of god-belief. If one identifies himself as an atheist, he simply announces what he does not believe, not what he does believe. (5) Stalin's philosophy had its foundations in the Marxist-Leninist ideas of his predecessors. According to this ideology, the individual does not that the right to exist for his own sake; rather, he is the property of the state. Stalin's claim to power was no more valid and proper than the "divine right of kings" of past ages. But note the fundamental similarities here: both religion and communism apply the ethics of sacrifice to social theory; where the individual under religion has a duty to sacrifice himself to his god or his church, the individual under communism has a duty to sacrifice himself to the state. The same fundamental remains unchallenged: the ethics of sacrifice.

This is why I mentioned above - in regard to the crusade wars - that it depends on which atheistic philosophy is put into practice. An atheistic philosophy which is nothing more than a secular mirror image of religion, will certainly lead to consequences destructive to human individuals, as we have seen in the case of communism in the Soviet Union, China and elsewhere. Keep in mind that Russia was "Christianized" by force under Prince Vladimir I in 988 CE. For over nine centuries, the soil of Russian society was steeped in the mind-numbing trappings of Christian mysticism. It is no mystery why Russia turned to communism in the first decades of the twentieth century. That was a time bomb waiting to explode.

Objectivism, on the other hand, also an atheistic philosophy, is in no sense similar or akin to communism. Objectivism recognizes the individual's right to exist for his own sake, and advocates the establishment of a constitutional form of government designed to protect this right. This is certainly not compatible with the religious view of man, which holds that he has a duty to sacrifice himself to invisible magic beings, or with the communist view of man, which holds that he has a duty to sacrifice himself to the state. According to Objectivism, no man has a "duty" to sacrifice himself to others, nor does he have a right to sacrifice others to his own ends.

To suppose, because communism is atheist and that it leads to atrocities such as those which were committed under Stalin, that another philosophy will lead to those same results simply because it dispenses with the primitive mysticism of god-belief, is a most superficial and desperate instance of charging guilt by association. And, more importantly, such suppositions fail to identify the philosophical causality of those very atrocities which are held up as the inevitable consequence of embracing atheism. That causality is the ethics of self-sacrifice and the rejection of man's right to exist for his own sake.

Mr. Hearn writes (speaking of Stalin's "barbarism"):

"Christianity however would classify such an act of barbarism as, 'objectively wrong'."

I'm curious: where do the words "objectively wrong" appear in the Bible? How exactly does the Bible define the concept 'objective'? The term appears nowhere in my concordance, and I have never come across this expression in my readings of, for instance, the New Testament.

Would it be a surprise to Mr. Hearn that Objectivism, the philosophy of reason, an atheistic philosophy, would also classify Stalin's policies as "objectively wrong"? Well, if Mr. Hearn has never studied Objectivism, it wouldn't surprise me if he did not know this.

Mr. Hearn writes:

"… moral relativism offers no solid philosophical footing for moral criticism."

Agreed (if by "moral relativism" one is referring to view of morality which is based on a false view of reality, man's nature, knowledge and the purpose of human action). But that is not the only reason to reject it.

As for Mr. Hearn's other complaints about moral relativism, they are irrelevant to my points of criticism here (since I do not advocate moral relativism, nor do I reject the need to identify absolutes). The same is the case about the silly properties attributed to biblegod, since belief in the existence of invisible magic beings is irrational.


Best regards,

Dawson Bethrick




On the Nature of Objectivity:

It should be no secret to readers, obviously, that I do not agree with Mr. Hearn's claim that Christianity's moral system is in any way objective in nature. In fact, I don't think there's anything about Christianity that is objective. However, it is most probably the case that Mr. Hearn has a different conception of what objective means. And he's probably wondering exactly how one would go about establishing the claim that Christianity - touted by many believers as the very ground necessary for rationality to begin with (6) - is in fact an irrational belief system. I don't know if Mr. Hearn would find my case for this verdict very convincing, but I do think that thinkers like him should be aware of it, since it is an issue which no thinker can justifiably disregard.

I had mentioned in my past message that "the central issue of objectivity… is the nature of the relationship between consciousness and existence." This is probably not relevant to what Mr. Hearn has in mind when he says that Christian morality is objective in nature. However, this is the philosophical issue to which the concept 'objectivity' refers.

Here is what I mean when I speak of the nature of the relationship between consciousness and existence. Consider the following facts:

  1. It is true that there is a reality. Things exist. Existence exists. Reality is the realm of existence.
  2. It is also true that we are conscious. Consciousness is a faculty of awareness, and the objects of consciousness are the things which exist.

Thus, there are two basic facts which any system of knowledge must take into account: the fact that existence exists (i.e., there is a reality), and the fact that consciousness exists (i.e., we possess the faculty of awareness). These facts are fundamental, irreducible and primary. One would have to assume them even to deny or ignore them. This goes for the atheist as well as the Christian, and anyone else who prides himself as a thinker (since thinking is an act of consciousness).

Already, a relationship between these two fundamental facts - the fact that existence exists and the fact that consciousness exists - is implicit in the very act of identifying these facts.

Now here is the crucial question: What is that relationship?

To answer this question, consider consciousness. Consciousness is by nature consciousness of something; to be conscious is to be conscious of objects. A consciousness conscious of nothing is a contradiction in terms; if it is not conscious of something, then it cannot be said to be conscious at all, since consciousness requires an object. Furthermore, consciousness conscious only of itself is also a contradiction in terms. If it is not conscious of objects outside itself, how did it identify itself as being conscious?

So, since consciousness is by nature consciousness of objects, consciousness requires objects to be conscious of in order for consciousness to exist. Because consciousness requires objects, consciousness has a dependent relationship upon those objects: unless those objects exist, there is nothing to be conscious of, and therefore there cannot be any consciousness.

Thus, the relationship between consciousness and existence (i.e., things which exist external to consciousness) is not a relationship of equals.

Since the relationship between consciousness is not a relationship of equals, we have what is called the issue of metaphysical primacy: does consciousness hold metaphysical primacy over existence? Or, does existence hold metaphysical primacy over consciousness?

Well, obviously, if objects must first exist in order for there to be any possibility of consciousness (since those objects must be there for consciousness to have something to be conscious of), then existence must hold metaphysical primacy over consciousness.

The primacy of existence principle recognizes that existence (reality) exists independent of consciousness (of any consciousness). This means that things are what they are independent of our desires, our wishes, our errors, etc. Just as it is the case that things remain the way they are regardless of what our ideas may be, it is also the case that wishing doesn't make a claim true. The primacy of existence principle is the objective principle, since, literally, the objects of consciousness hold metaphysical primacy over the subject (the perceiver).

The primacy of existence principle tells us why it is the case that one's conscious intentions (e.g., desires, wishes, ideals, etc.) do not supercede the nature of the objects of consciousness. For instance, if I say that the Golden Gate Bridge spans the Mississippi River, you can be certain that my claim will never hold true, since my desire or claim that the Golden Gate Bridge spans the Mississippi River will never alter the fact that this bridge spans the inlet to the San Francisco Bay (called the Golden Gate), which is some 2000 miles from the Mississippi River, give or take. Why? Because existence exists independent of consciousness, reality is what it is independent of our desires, wishes and imaginations.

The contrary view is known as the primacy of consciousness. This view holds that the objects of consciousness are in some way dependent upon consciousness, either for their existence, or for the nature of their specific attributes. This is the subjective view; it holds that the subject (the perceiver) holds metaphysical primacy over its objects. Subjectivism in metaphysics, then, is the view that existence (reality) finds its source in a form of consciousness, or that reality in some manner conforms to the contents of consciousness. For instance, on the primacy of consciousness view, if I say that the Golden Gate Bridge to span the Mississippi River instead of the inlet to San Francisco Bay, then it does, simply because I want it to. On this view, wishes rather than the facts of reality are the arbiter of truth.

So, we have two fundamental views of reality: the primacy of existence holds that existence exists independent of consciousness, that things are the way they are independent of our wishes and imaginations, that the task of consciousness is not to create its objects, but to perceive and identify them, that there is a relationship between consciousness and existence, and that, because of these facts, existence must hold metaphysical primacy over consciousness; and, the primacy of consciousness, which holds that existence is dependent upon consciousness, that consciousness has the "final say" in what reality is, that existence finds its source in a form of consciousness and that reality must conform to consciousness in some manner, that wishes, desires and imaginations are the final court of appeal in determining the nature of reality and deciding the truth of ideas.

In terms of objectivity vs. subjectivity, one can think of the objectivity as the primacy of the object (that's the primacy of existence) and subjectivity as the primacy of the subject (that's the primacy of consciousness).

Recall the example of Golden Gate Bridge. I had mentioned that, according to the primacy of consciousness, I could make the claim that this bridge spans the Mississippi River, and, if you are operating on the primacy of existence principle, you could rightly be certain that I was wrong. But if both of us are operating on the primacy of consciousness view of reality, I could make this claim and believe it's true simply because I want it to be true, while you claim that the Golden Gate Bridge spans the Nile River. Of course, our claims would be in conflict with each other, but how could we resolve those claims? We couldn't appeal to reality, since we would both be operating on the view that reality conforms to our desires and wishes: where it is my wish that the Golden Gate Bridge spans the Mississippi River, it is your wish that the same bridge spans the Nile River. We would have no rational way of settling our conflict, and if we each insisted that our respective claim was the true and proper view, it is very likely that we would eventually come to blows (i.e., resort to violence) in order to settle the dispute, since the possibility of reasonable discourse at this point had long since been abandoned (since reason is only possible on the primacy of existence view). (7)

Since the issue of metaphysical primacy is of such fundamental concern to philosophy, and because however we answer it has such a dramatic impact on our cognition, this issue must be dealt with before we can move on and decide any subsequent philosophical points. Failing to deal with this issue at the outset of our intellectual pursuit of truth and rational principle will simply sabotage that pursuit. It would be like trying to build a skyscraper with no knowledge of the foundation on which we planned to erect it. Similarly, we must have a clear understanding of the nature of the relationship between consciousness and existence before we can develop a consistent theory of knowledge (as my example about the Golden Gate Bridge aptly demonstrates), as well as before we start thinking about what a proper code of morality for man might be (since we need a clear understanding of what knowledge is before we can apply that knowledge to our choices and actions). Knowledge is hierarchical in this sense (for the very reason one would need to understand why 2+2=4 before he could hope to master differential calculus).

For instance, consider William Lane Craig's Kalam cosmological argument. Where does this argument take into account the issue of metaphysical primacy? Indeed, his argument nowhere exhibits any clear awareness of this issue. He has begun philosophizing in mid-stream, taking matters regarding this issue completely for granted, and deducing and inferring his conclusions with no clear understanding of the proper relationship between existence and consciousness in mind at all. How, then, can one be sure that any conclusions he draws will be based on a consistent view of reality? Indeed, we cannot be sure of this at all.

Ask yourself: Which of the two fundamental views of reality, the primacy of existence or the primacy of consciousness, lies at the foundation of the religious view of the world? What does the religious view of the world essentially say? Sure, the religious view acknowledges that there is a reality (some even claim that there is more than one reality!). But "behind" that reality they claim that there is a form of consciousness which not only created that reality, but also directs all the events that happen in reality.

Here I quote Dr. Leonard Peikoff:

Witness the popular question 'Who created the universe?' - which presupposes that the universe is not eternal, but has a source beyond itself, in some cosmic personality or will. It is useless to object that this question involves an infinite regress, even though it does (if a creator is required to explain existence, then a second creator is required to explain the first, and so on). Typically, the believer will reply: 'One can't ask for an explanation of God. He is an inherently necessary being. After all, one must start somewhere.' Such a person does not contest the need of an irreducible starting point, as long as it is a form of consciousness; what he finds unsatisfactory is the idea of existence as the starting point. Driven by the primacy of consciousness, a person of this mentality refuses to begin with the world, which we know to exist; he insists on jumping beyond the world to the unknowable, even though such a procedure explains nothing. [Footnote: Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand, p. 21.]

I recall how a couple years ago two Mormon missionaries were passing me on the sidewalk. One of them interjected as he was passing me, "What do you feel about Jesus?" I turned and asked him in return, "Do you want to know what I feel about Jesus, or what I think about Jesus?" He was clearly not prepared for this question and stood there stupefied. He was too puzzled to respond, so I moved on. I doubt he wanted to hear what I had to say on this matter anyway.

Best regards,

Dawson Bethrick




(1) This is Anton Thorn's definition for the term 'subjectivism' - see his article Important Terms Relevant to the Development of an Objective Atheology.

(2) Ayn Rand, Atlas Shrugged, p. 932.

(3) Ayn Rand, "The Objectivist Ethics," The Virtue of Selfishness, p. 13.

(4) Ayn Rand, "Playboy's Interview with Ayn Rand," p. 10.

(5) See my Definition of an Atheist.

(6) Cf. Greg Bahnsen's "Great Debate" with Gordon Stein.

(7) These points eloquently confirm the major point of Ayn Rand's essay "Faith and Force: Destroyers of the Modern World," in her book Philosophy: Who Needs It (pp. 58-76). In that article Rand argues that "faith and force…are corollaries," and that "every period of history dominated by mysticism, was a period of statism, of dictatorship, of tyranny" (p. 66). My example of two people claiming that the Golden Gate Bridge spans either the Mississippi River or the Nile River, is wholly analogous to the nature of the conflict between the Christians and the Muslims in the crusade wars during the Middle Ages: since both sides based their positions on faith in the supernatural, both sides necessarily surrendered reason and consequently the only tool by which they could rationally resolve conflict.



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