The “Maverick Philosopher” on Objectivism

by Dawson Bethrick




This article is an edited version of some comments I had made on my blog Do Objectivists Try to “Define God out of Existence”? in January 2009. My comment was made in response to a visitor to my blog named David Parker, who had posted links to five blogs critical of Ayn Rand and Leonard Peikoff by an internet personality steeped in Anal Phil who calls himself “the Maverick Philosopher.” Links to each blog are included in my interaction with these criticisms below.



*     *     *



David Parker posted several links to Bill Vallicella’s recent blog entries about Rand and Peikoff. These blog entries are apparently attempts to interact with and criticize Objectivism. Unfortunately, as is frequently the case as I have found, Vallicella seems to have at best a superficial understanding of Objectivism. His critiques focus only on brief statements quoted from Rand’s and Peikoff’s writings as opposed to entire articles by either, and even then he makes several considerable mistakes in trying to critique them.


Why is it that every time I read some new criticism of Objectivism, its content indicates that its author has apparently only recently heard about Objectivism and is trying to tear it down before he really understands it? In the case of Vallicella’s objections, what is called for is not refutation per se, but drastically needed correction. For the criticisms he makes rely on some rather elementary blunders in his understanding of the source quotes he cites.




In the first blog to which David linked, Vallicella takes what is clearly a positional statement by Peikoff and tries to interact with it as if it were intended as a formal argument against the existence of “God.” I don’t see that Peikoff is presenting an argument to prove that there is no god; I’m quite confident that Peikoff would agree with me that he has no onus to prove that the non-existent does not exist. If “God” does not exist, it doesn’t exist. Period. There’s no need to prove that it does not exist. What Peikoff is pointing out is how the very notion of something “beyond existence” is contrary to rational thought. Perhaps this is what irks Vallicella. Where he is tripped up is that he’s critiquing Peikoff for something he did not (and did not intend to) present in the quoted passage. A fuller understanding of Objectivism, which Vallicella obviously lacks, will make it clear why theism and other forms of subjectivism should be rejected. But Vallicella is too anxious to claim a kill to go learn about what he’s talking about before he sets out to kill it.




In the next blog, Vallicella begins by quoting someone named “Ocham” on the meaning (or purported incoherence) of ‘existence exists’, and states that “neither [Dominic “Bnonn”] Tennant nor 'Ocham' understand what Rand is saying.” But does Vallicella? He considers two alternatives as to what “existence exists” might mean. The first is:


a) That in virtue of which existing things exist itself exists. For example, if one thought of existence as a property of existing things, and one were a realist about properties, then it would make sense for that person to say that existence exists. He would mean by it that the property of existence exists.


Rand was very clear that she did not mean this. Of this we can be sure, for in her book Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, she wrote: “Existence and identity are not attributes of existents, they are the existents” (p. 56). Existence is not one property among others belonging to an existent.

The other alternative which Vallicella considers is as follows:


(b) Existing things exist. Instead of taking 'existence' as denoting that in virtue of which existing things exist, one could take it as a term that applies to whatever exists. Accordingly, existence is whatever exists. To say that existence exists would then mean that existing things exist, or whatever exists exists. But then the dictum would be a tautology. Of course existing things exist, what else would they be 'doing'? Breathing things breath. Running things run. Whatever is in orbit is in orbit.


This is certainly more in line with what Rand means by “existence exists.” Again quoting from Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology: “The units of the concepts ‘existence’ and ‘identity’ are every entity, attribute, action, event or phenomenon (including consciousness) that exists, has ever existed or will ever exist” (ibid.). Peikoff confirms this rendering when he writes:


We start with the irreducible fact and concept of existence – that which is... The first thing to say about that which is is simply: it is. As Parmenides in ancient Greece formulated the principle: what is, is. Or, in Ayn Rand’s words: existence exists. (“Existence” here is a collective noun, denoting the sum of existents.) (Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand, p. 4)


In response to this second alternative, Vallicella says (as if this were a deficiency): “But then the dictum would be a tautology.” Of course it’s a tautology! Just like the standard expression of the law of identity: A is A. The same is the case with mathematical equations. 2 + 2 = 4 is clearly tautological, since both expressions on either side of the equation represent the same sum. It is hard to see how anyone could think this is problematic in any way. It certainly is not problematic for Objectivism. In his essay on “The Analytic-Synthetic Dichotomy,” Peikoff points out that all truths are in a sense tautological (cf. Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, p. 100). More importantly, Vallicella also indicates that the axiom “existence exists,” on the interpretation considered in the second alternative, is true. And yes, the Objectivist axiom of existence is true.

What Vallicella states next makes it clear that he has no deep understanding of Objectivism whatsoever. For in spite of the statements which I have quoted from both Rand and Peikoff which endorse the second interpretation which Vallicella considers, he writes:


From Rand's texts it is clear that she intends neither the (a) nor the (b) construal.


Why does Vallicella make this blunder? The answer to that question can be found in what he stated next:


What she is trying to say is something non-tautological: that the things that exist exist and have the attributes they have independently of us. Here we read, "The primacy of existence (of reality) is the axiom that existence exists, i.e., that the universe exists independent of consciousness (of any consciousness), that things are what they are, that they possess a specific nature, an identity." Rand is advancing a version of metaphysical realism. Existence EXISTS! (Pound the lectern, stamp the foot, flare the nostrils.)


Those who are unfamiliar with Objectivism are liable to suppose that Vallicella has scored a major point here against Objectivism. In fact, however, he has confused the axiom of existence with the principle of the primacy of existence. They are related, but they are not one and the same, and Vallicella misses what distinguishes them. Paul Manata made a very similar error when he tried to take down Objectivism (see my essay The Axioms and the Primacy of Existence). First look at the axiom of existence. The axiom of existence is the recognition that existence exists, that what is, is. This axiom necessarily implies two corollary axioms: the axiom of identity (to exist is to be something, A is A), and the axiom of consciousness (consciousness is consciousness of some object). One would have to be conscious in order to recognize that things exist. So just recognizing that things exist validates the axiom of consciousness.

Now we have a relationship to consider, namely the things which we are aware of, and our awareness of those things. Existence exists, and consciousness is conscious of existence. Or if you like, there is the object(s) of consciousness, and there is the subject of consciousness. It is in respect to this relationship that the principle of the primacy of existence identifies the proper orientation between the subject of consciousness and its objects. It states that the objects of consciousness exist and are what they are independent of the subject of consciousness. This is the objective orientation of the subject-object relationship, since the objects of consciousness hold metaphysical primacy over the subject of consciousness. The alternative to the objective orientation in the subject-object relationship is the subjective orientation, which reverses the proper orientation between a subject and its objects by giving the subject the upper hand in this relationship, such that the objects either originate from, depend on and/or conform to the subject which regards them. Even David himself has acknowledged that the primacy of existence (i.e., the objective orientation) is the proper orientation in the subject-object relationship (he does so in the lengthy comments section of this blog), at least in the case of human consciousness. However, he’s still holding out, apparently, for a consciousness which enjoys the subjective orientation to manifest itself outside his own imagination.

Now Rand distinguished between these two poles of the subject-object relationship using the concepts ‘consciousness’ and ‘existence’ respectively. She was not wrong to do this, but many outsiders to Objectivism (especially those who are in too big a hurry to refute Objectivism to sit down and actually get a firsthand understanding of what it teaches) are easily tripped up by her use of these terms. This is why Vallicella says that “the problem, of course, is that Rand chose to express herself in an inept and idiosyncratic way using the ambiguous sentence, 'Existence exists’.” I really don’t see why anyone would find this problematic though. I understand it quite clearly. Why doesn’t Vallicella? The problem seems to be his, not Rand’s.

His problems do not end with “merely infelicity of expression” however. Vallicella says that the primacy of existence (he calls it “the thesis of metaphysical realism”) cannot be reached “by either inferring it from or conflating it with the Law of Identity.” For one thing, it’s clear that Rand is not trying to infer the primacy of existence from some prior truths, for not only does she categorize this recognition as axiomatic, all truths presuppose the primacy of existence. Now it’s not clear what Vallicella may mean by “conflating it with the Law of Identity,” but just try to conceive of the law of identity if the primacy of existence were not true and the alternative to it, the primacy of consciousness, were true. Given this orientation between subject and object, if anything exists, it would not exist independent of consciousness, rather it would depend on consciousness, not only for the fact that it exists, but also for every attribute making it up, in other words, for its identity. No object of consciousness would have any inherent identity of its own; it would be whatever the subject intends it to be at any point in time (supposing ‘time’ could even make sense in such a nightmarish realm).


Vallicella clarifies his case at this point:


My point is not that metaphysical realism is false; my point is that denying it is not equivalent to denying the Law of Identity.


But has he really made this point? Not that I can see. If one denies the primacy of existence (which is what Vallicella means by “metaphysical realism”), then consciousness would have metaphysical primacy. The law of identity essentially says that a thing is what it is, but this would be inadmissible without the attendant recognition that a thing is what it is independent of consciousness (i.e., independent of anyone’s wishing, commands, evasions, imagination, etc.). So not only does Vallicella not establish what he identifies as his point, it is not clear why he would be so anxious about making such a point in the first place. Again, it seems that he does not understand what he’s talking about. The concern should be whether or not the Objectivist axioms and the primacy of existence are true. I do not see that Vallicella has shown that they are not true. If he does not show them to be untrue, then he cannot claim to have refuted Objectivism. Far from it in fact. Indeed, to say that they are not true would be to assume that they are true, for it would be saying that something is the case independent of one’s own wishing or other conscious operations (unless of course he’s claiming that something is the case because he wants it).

Vallicella then quotes a passage from Rand’s novel Atlas Shrugged, and huffs:


So the disasters of the 20th century originated in the evasion by people like Hitler and Stalin of the fact that A is A! This is just silly.


Notice that Vallicella does not offer an argument here. He does ask a couple questions after this, but questions are not arguments. To address them, Vallicella may want to read Peikoff’s book The Ominous Parallels after getting a better understanding of what Objectivism teaches.

Vallicella’s final argument in this blog is against the recognition that “there is no alternative to existence.” For reasons that are not clear, Vallicella thinks he needs to contest this as well. To do so, he relies on the necessary-contingent dichotomy, which of course Objectivism rightfully rejects. Curiously, Vallicella does indicate some awareness of this fact in one of the blogs David linked to, but he does not seem to integrate it into his critique. Too bad. But what would be the alternative to existence? Something that does not exist?





In the next blog which David linked to, Vallicella acknowledges that “there are professional philosophers who take Rand's work seriously.” And much to his chagrin, he’s right. He cites for instance the members on the steering committee of The Ayn Rand Society. But in spite of this acknowledged fact, Vallicella still drools with animosity towards Rand, opining about her “professional respectability.” No, Rand was no academic. She was an outsider. She was first and foremost a businesswoman, specifically a novelist, and one of the 20th century’s most outspoken defenders of capitalism. These are all big strikes against Rand from the academic establishment’s point of view. So the jeering that Vallicella repeats here is nothing new.




In the next installment Vallicella raises an objection against a brief passage from Peikoff’s above-mentioned essay “The Analytic-Synthetic Dichotomy.” Here Vallicella accuses Peikoff of


the modal fallacy of confusing the necessitas consequentiae with the necessitas consequentiis, the necessity of the consequence with the necessity of the consequent,” specifically in regard to Peikoff’s view that propositions denoting man-made facts are necessarily true (since man-made facts are still facts) even though “some facts are not necessary.


Vallicella is tripped up by this because he’s looking at the matter from a perspective which accepts the necessary-contingent dichotomy from the very beginning (as is common practice in Anal Phil). There is no modal confusion on Peikoff’s part here, since once a man-made fact is a fact, it is a fact – i.e., there’s no going back and undoing them. A statement identifying said fact cannot be false, which means it is necessarily true. Essentially, Peikoff’s point is that truth has the same relationship to facts, regardless of whether they are metaphysically given or man-made. And Peikoff is right about this. The correspondence between a statement identifying, for example, the fact that the Pacific Ocean exists (which is metaphysically given) and the fact which that statement is identifying, is essentially no different from the correspondence between a statement identifying, for example, the fact that men have built ships which sail the Pacific Ocean (a man-made fact) and the fact which that statement is identifying. It’s clear that Vallicella has not absorbed Peikoff’s broader points very well, and several of the commentators posting in response to Vallicella’s blog entry try to explain this to him. The rejoinders offered in response to those comments do not suggest that Vallicella’s understanding has improved.




In the final blog to which David linked, Vallicella tackles the primacy of existence. He writes:


[Rand] thinks that to say that x is self-identical is to say something about x’s mode of existence, namely, that x exists independently of any consciousness. If this were true, a mere law of logic would entail not only the nonexistence of God, but also the necessary nonexistence (i.e., the impossibility) of God.


Well, we can’t have that! (That’s about the extent of that “argument”.) In fact, however, the expression “mode of existence” is not Objectivist locution. It belongs to Anal Phil, which Objectivists are wise to reject, due to its implicit commitment to the primacy of consciousness. I have defended the primacy of existence in several articles on my blog. Vallicella is correct to recognize the fatal implications which this undefeatable principle poses for theism.

Vallicella continues:


What’s more, it amounts to a solving by logical fiat of the problem of the external world.


If in fact Rand is trying to solve a problem (real or unreal) “by logical fiat,” why would anyone who doesn’t accept the primacy of existence have a problem with her doing so in such a manner? Does Vallicella really understand the issue he’s discussing? His next statement gives us a clue on this:

He writes:


If Rand were right, one would be able to prove that an object of perception exists apart from its being perceived by simply pointing out that it is self-identical. Yonder mountain, qua object of perception, is of course self-identical; but that scarcely proves that it exists independently of my consciosness [sic] of it.


Apparently Vallicella missed the part about the primacy of existence being axiomatic. As an axiom, it is not subject to proof; proof presupposes its truth. We recognize that the objects we perceive exist independent of our awareness of them; we do not have to prove that they do. When I look in my wallet and see only two one-dollar bills, that’s what’s in there whether I want to accept it or what I would prefer that there were two one-hundred-dollar bills in there instead. Existence exists independent of consciousness. Of anyone’s consciousness. Why would anyone object to this recognition? Perhaps because he doesn’t want it to be true?

Then Vallicella gives us this whopper:


In sum, Rand is attempting to squeeze controversial metaphysical assertions out of a mere logical axiom. It can’t be done.


Vallicella says “it can’t be done.” Is this because he wishes this to be the case (i.e., the primacy of consciousness)? Or, is it because some state of affairs which obtains independent of anyone’s wishing, misperceptions, doubts, insistence, etc. (i.e., the primacy of existence)? If it’s the former, then why should anyone accept it? Someone else could simply wish it the other way around. If it’s the latter, does he realize that he’s making use of the very principle he’s trying to undermine?

In a way, statements like these, coming from theists, are quite reassuring. They tell me that Objectivism is right to challenge theism on the basis of metaphysical primacy. While some theists insist that theism is compatible with the primacy of existence (e.g., Patrick Toner), others try to make exception to the primacy of existence for their god (e.g., “My problem is when Objectivists insist that what is true of human consciousness must necessarily be true of divine consciousness,” David Parker, January 1, 2009 comment) or deny the primacy of existence altogether. There seems to be no uniform response from theists on this matter. It cuts and divides them against themselves, and they typically don’t even know it.





Back to Katholon