The Primacy of Existence: A Validation

By Dawson Bethrick



The following presentation of the primacy of existence principle was posted to the discussion forum on January 31, 2005, as an installment to the thread titled The 'Fallacy of the Primacy of consciousness'. I chose to submit this presentation since it was clear, after reading the previously posted exchanges in the same thread, that many of the participants in the discussion did not have a very good understanding of what the primacy of existence is saying. This is not unique in my experience: theists definitely sense the threat that identifying this principle poses to their god-beliefs, so itís not unusual to see apologists trying to distort it (along with other discoveries made by Ayn Rand) in order to discredit it. And indeed, subsequent discussion shows that religious apologists have a very difficult time coming to grips with this undeniable principle at the foundation of all thought.




I am always amazed to see people operate by a principle in most everything they do, and yet deny the validity of that very same principle when it is named and their attention is directed to it. This of course is just what is happening when someone denies the truth of the primacy of existence principle. Most people who deny its truth will at the same time admit that wishing doesn't make something true. But do they understand why wishing does not make something true? The issue of metaphysical primacy is, according to Rand, the most fundamental of all philosophical questions. It is borne on the recognition that there is a reality (the axiom of existence) and that man is aware of it (the axiom of consciousness). (To those who already wish to resist Rand on this point, we ask: Are you not aware that there is a reality?) Given these two axioms, the issue of metaphysical primacy asks a simple question: What is the proper relationship between consciousness and existence? Or, to put the matter in clearer terms: What is the proper relationship between the subject of awareness and the objects of which the subject is aware?

Many thinkers never stop to consider whether or not there is a relationship between their consciousness and the objects which they are aware of, let alone whether there is a proper relationship as opposed to an improper relationship between subject and object. And yet, since all thought is consciousness in action, the question of the nature of this relationship is inescapable to one's understanding of the world, of truth, of values, of society, etc. Why then do so many resist identifying the proper nature of this relationship? So I ask, do you recognize that there is a relationship between subject and object? If so, what do you think that relationship is?

Consider what one would be saying if he affirmed that the subject has primacy over its objects. He would essentially be saying that their identity derives from what he holds in his consciousness, that his consciousness has final say as to, not just what to call them, but what they are, what their nature is, what they can and/or will become, and what range of action is available to them. In terms of fundamentals, this position is akin to affirming that wishing does make it so.

One person had stated, "If counsciousness is simultaneous with existence then this argument is pointless. 'cogito ergo sum, et vice versa' would be my rejoinder." [sic] Statements like this suggest to me that the individual making it does not understand what is being asked by the question of metaphysical primacy very well. The subject of awareness is distinct from the objects it is aware of. A subject does not switch sides with its objects. The relationship between subject and object is not a relationship of equals, and this is easy to demonstrate. Fix your attention on an object in your visual field. Right now I'm looking at the stapler sitting next to my computer. I am aware of it by means of perception: I am the subject, and the stapler is the object of my awareness. As the object of my awareness, the stapler had to be there for me even to be able to perceive it to begin with. In this sense alone my very perception of the object already implies the primacy of the object - of existence. My perception of the object certainly did not bring it into existence. But did my perception of the stapler change it in any way? Or is it still the same stapler I used yesterday to fasten several sheets together? Indeed, it is still the same stapler. Did it change colors as a result of my mere perception of it? No, it did not; it was tan yesterday, and it is still tan today. Did it sprout arms and legs and acquire animation as a result of my perceiving it? No, it did not. Did it turn into a Ford Taurus as a result of my perception of it? No, it did not. So already just by perceiving the object, the truth of the primacy of existence is implicit: the object remains what it is, and I am simply aware of it.

Now let's try another experiment. Let me compare what I perceive with what I imagine. While I am looking at the stapler, I imagine it starts to levitate off the desk it is sitting on. Does the stapler obey me? No, it does not. What if I imagine that the stapler changes form, turning itself into a tape dispenser. Will it do so as a consequence of my imagining? No, the object does not obey my imagination; it remains what it was before I conjured such visions. What about wishing? Suppose I wish the stapler to levitate off the table top. Does it levitate then? No, it does not. What if I wish it could speak to me? Does it do so? No, it did not. It is still the same stapler it was before I wished otherwise. Both imagination and wishing are actions of my consciousness. But the object of my consciousness did not respond to these conscious actions. So far, I've not had any luck in influencing the identity, position or very reality of the object of my awareness by perceiving, imagining or wishing. So I command the stapler to levitate. What do you think happened? Did it levitate? No, it did not. It stayed right there - it did not obey my commands, wishes or imagination.

Let's ask some more questions in an attempt to ascertain the proper relationship between consciousness and its objects. Can I switch places with the stapler such that it is aware of me instead of me being aware of it? No, I cannot. I cannot become a stapler, and the stapler cannot become me. Whatever relationship obtains between myself as subject and the stapler as the object of my awareness, it is fixed, it is absolute, it does not change. And the relationship that obtains is in fact what the primacy of existence principle says it is. The primacy of existence principle is simply the recognition that the objects of awareness are what they are independent of the subject which perceives them, thinks about them, wishes about them, doesn't know about them, approves or disapproves, etc. This is an ever-present principle in the sense that it obtains in all instances of the subject-object relationship of our conscious interaction with reality. Just as wishing doesn't make it so, existence does not conform to consciousness. When I get my phone bill and it tells me that I owe my carrier $200.00, my wishing otherwise will not change this. Why? Because existence holds primacy over my consciousness. If I become hungry and there is no food in my cupboards, wishing cans of soup and boxes of crackers to suddenly populate their shelves will not make them appear. Why? Because existence holds primacy over my consciousness.

The recognition of the truth of the primacy of existence is the essence of the concept of objectivity. Essentially, objectivity is the consistent recognition that the object of awareness holds metaphysical primacy over the subject, that consciousness is a means of awareness of the object, not a cause which brings its objects into existence. Objectivism is the philosophy which is borne on the consistent application of this principle to all issues of life. Subjectivism, on the other hand, constitutes a reversal of the primacy of existence principle. Subjectivism essentially holds that the subject (consciousness) holds metaphysical primacy over its objects (existence), and is the metaphysical basis of the belief that wishing makes truth, that might makes right, that faith is a means of validating beliefs. Thus, Objectivism is the consistent application of the recognition that reality does not conform to consciousness to all spheres of philosophy, while subjectivism constitutes an affront to this, pretending that reality conforms to consciousness.

Since all reasoning, including the process of proving a conclusion, is conscious activity, and consciousness is consciousness of something, the primacy of existence is a necessary precondition of proof. One does not need to prove the primacy of existence since it is validated in every instance of consciousness (since consciousness is consciousness of something, and the objects of our consciousness do not conform to our will). To deny this is to deny the fundamental nature of consciousness to begin with. As Rand put it, Existence is Identity, Consciousness is Identification. These principles would have to be true even for someone to consider disputing them. But still some continue to dispute it in spite of this fact.

Dawson Bethrick



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