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OPAR, Chapter One
by Eric Johnson

Date: 18 Oct 1992
Forum: Moderated Discussion of Objectivist Philosophy
Copyright: Eric Johnson

Section 1:

Peikoff begins with the need for philosophy in a coherent form. While this is an epistemological point, it is needed to preface the metaphysics so that a beginner can comprehend that what is about to be presented to him is part of a hierarchy. Thus, Peikoff's first few paragraphs fulfill a pedagogical purpose rather than a rigorous philosophical need (which is consistent with Peikoff's explicit purpose for the book).

Since by his nature, Man needs abstract ideas to guide him, philosophy is a neccesity none can avoid. One can only, whether by unfortunate ignorance or purposeful evasion, avoid having an _integrated_ philosophy. The fundamental choice in gathering the contents of one's mind is: a random, possibly self-contradicting hodge-podge or an explicit, coherent structure. Since the fromer cannot, by its nature, provide consistent guidance, a purposefully assembled system of thought is the only usable option. Like a building, a philosophy must be thought out and carefully assembled if it is to stand. And as with a building, one must begin with the foundation, not a middle floor. The first step is finding and establishing that upon which all else rests. The only beginning that can assure consistency and solidity of foundation is the primary, the irreducible, the irrefutable. Thus, we come to the fundamental axioms...

Section 2: The Fundamental Axioms

The three fundamental axioms are implicit in everything a properly functioning adult mind writes, says, does, or thinks. The greatness of Rand's achievement in metaphysics was in making explicit what everyone already knew only implicitly.

The first of the fundamental axioms is existence. When discussing reality the most simple and at the same time the most broad-sweeping and all-encompassing thing one can say is: it is. Or in a more universal form, "Existence Exists". This fundamental axiom is at the root of all knowledge; before we ask even the simplest of questions about people, things, or ideas, we implicitly use the fact that existence is there. If it was not, there would be no people, things, or ideas to ask questions about. Thus, one has this axiom implicitly the instant one acknowledges any existant.

Once one has acknowledged the existence of something, it is a short step to realizing the next fundamental axiom: that one exists possessing the faculty to percieve existence. This faculty is consciousness. All human thoughts and questions presuppose the existence of a thinker and questioner (who is conscious). Thus, any cognitive process, as an awareness of existence, implicitly includes consciousness. This must be kept absolutely clear: consciousness is inherent in our _grasp_ of existence, not in the fact of existence itself. Existence without consciousness is possible, but consciousness requires something to be conscious of, existence. In sum, any thought, science (including those explaining consciousness physically), philosophy (including those trying to deny consciousness), or cognition of any kind requires awareness of existence, i.e. consciousness.

Now, in essence, the third fundamental axiom has been stated in the formulation of the previous two. In stating, "There is something of which I am conscious," implicitly stated is "That something is something." Explicitly stated, this is the Law of Identity, "A thing is itself" or "A is A". To emphasize the relationship between this axiom and the first, Rand states the Law as "Existence is Identity". Existence and Identity are one fact with different emphasis. The first tells us that something _exists_, the second that _something_ exists.

These three facts, Existence, Consciousness, and Identity, are the fundamental axioms. In combined phrasing they can be summed up in one phrase: "There exists something, with identity, of which I am aware." Note that this combined statement is implicit in every human thought, requiring the three fundamental axioms to be at the base of any system of knowledge. The fact that these axioms are universally present within all thought suggests their validation, which is simply perception. If one percieves, then existence, consciousness, and identity are immediately evident. Therefore, every statement, action, or thought made by a conscious being validates the three basic axioms, even those statements that attempt to deny their validity. This is the very definition of axioms: fundamental perceptually self-evident, irreducible, irrefutable facts of reality. It is from these that the rest of Objectivist philosophy is built.

Section 3: Causality

Although the three basic axioms are the only fundamentals, there are other axioms. One such axiom is the concept of "entity". Like the previous axioms, "entity" is presupposed by all human thought and is perceptually self-evident (since we percieve things as entities). Unlike the previous, it is a narrowing of "existent" and is not the basis of _all_ other knowledge, and is therefore not a _basic_ axiom. However, the metaphysical status of "entity" is very important, particularly in contrast to the entity's attributes, relationships, and actions, which have no existence apart from the entity.In other words, there is no "fast" independent from things that move, there is only "fast cars", "fast rabbits", "fast people", etc. Likewise, "on top of" and "running" have no siginificance apart from the things that are on top or running. The entity has metaphysical primacy over its categories.

Putting "identity", "entity", and "action" together leads to another important fact: the Law of Causality. Since all actions are caused by entities and all entities have a specific identity, causality follows from these more fundamental concepts, making it a corollary of the Law of Identity. This corollary is simply stated as "Entities act in accordance with their natures."

Explicit acknowledgement of the Law of Causality, with entities causing actions determined by their identity, eliminates many faulty lines of reasoning and thoughts. Peikoff gives several examples. Can miracles occur? No, a miracle is defined as something acting contrary to its nature. Does the universe require a cause? No, the universe as a whole is an entity, not an action. Can one action cause another? Not without entities, which have metaphysical primacy over actions. Is the universe full of chaos and chance events? No action is without an entity which caused it. And all of this follows naturally from causality, which is itself an implication of "existence exists".

Section 4: Primacy of Existence over Consciousness

Another corollary of the basic axioms is the principle of primacy of existence. Since the nature (identity) of consciousness is to be aware of reality, existence is prior to, neccesary for, and not subject to the control of, consciousness. As a rephrasing of more basic axioms, the principle could be said as "It is....whether you want it to be or not.". In essence, the point is that consciousness, in and of itself (barring physical action) does not change existence.

The alternative is primacy of consciousness. This principle, held by most philosophies other than Objectivisim, holds that consciousness has metaphysical primacy over existence. Adherents of this principle believe that reality is malleable to the efforts of thought. Whether the consciousness in question is God, social groups, or individuals, holders of this basic belief accept consciousness first, then reality, thus ignoring the nature of both reality and consciousness.

The contrast between the two viewpoints is very telling. By the principle of primacy of existence, extrospection is neccesary to gain information about reality, objectivity is possible, and reason is the only path to knowledge. Primacy of consciousness, in contrast, needs only introspection as a source of information, sees truth as different for each consciousness, and often leads to mysticism. In fact, one example of the dramatic effect of the choice between these two alternatives is shown in the next section.

Section 5: The Metaphysically Given as Absolute

Given the axiom of existence and the principle of primacy of existence, it can be quickly shown that anything inherent in existence has to be. Once a fact is determined to be part of reality, one knows that fact is itself and no other fact (identity). One knows the fact is lawful, not random (causality). And one knows the fact to not be subject to anyone's whims (primacy of existence). Therefore, anything that is metaphysically given is absolute.

To make this formulation useful, the immediate question is: What is the metaphysically given? The answer is: everything but the man-made. The distinction is made because anything caused by human choice, as the result of a _choice_, could have been different. The law of gravity is metaphysically given and therefore absolute, without any alternative. Congress' latest spending bill was created by men and could have been otherwise, many other choices being available.

This crucial distinction between the two types of facts leads us to look upon the metaphysically given and the man-made in very differnent ways. Since the facts of reality simply _are_, one cannot wish for them to have been otherwise, as there was never that possibility. In contrast, every human result had alternatives. Therefore one cannot fully evaluate such a fact without asking if it should have been choosen over those other options. More simply put, one must judge the choice.

Failure to treat each type of fact in one of the above ways according to its nature leads to a host of errors. Regarding the man-made to be as absolute as the metaphysically given leads to passive acceptance of that which could be changed. Treating the facts of reality as being as flexible as human choice leads to worthless protesting of and worrying about things that are unchangable. The first error leads to ethical and political passivity. The second leads to such activities as prayer, despairing over the nature of man, and raising conflicts and dichotomies between mental states and reality. Avoiding these two great errors is one of the primary applications of the tools of metaphysics.

Section 6: Idealism and Materialism as rejection of the Basic Axioms

Now that he has fully developed the structure of Objectivist metaphysics, Peikoff moves to apply these principles in refuting two error-laden schools of philosophy, idealism and materialism.

Idealism, in all its forms, advocates a "spiritual" realm which is higher than the physical world. Since "spiritual" means "pertaining to consciousness", idealism is based on the primacy of consciousness. All of the premises of idealism, and any other belief in the "supernatural" is in clear contradiction to Objectivist metaphysics. Such beliefs attempt to "transend" reality, deny identity, ignore the true nature of consciousness, violate causality, remove the primacy of existence, and question the metaphysically given. But of course such beliefs, as human cognition, implicitly uses the very basic axioms they are trying to deny. Objectivism thus rejects idealism in all in variants and all its implications.

Materialism, at the other end of the error-spectrum, accepts reality while rejecting consciousness. This philosophy often claims to represent rationality and science while denying the very faculty that rationality and science are direct products of. Materialists use a variety of objections based on the nature of consciousness to attempt to deny it, including: lack of observability, lack of definition, and lack of physical measure. All of these arguements ignore one basic fact, the perceptual self-evidency of consciousness. As a perceptual self-evidency, consciousness clearly does exist and cannot be further reduced for definition. Thus, the axiom of consciousness easily sweeps away the materialist position.

And just as application of the basic axioms destroys these "monist" views (believing in one or the other, either reality or consciousness), the "dualist" view of mind and body being in opposition is eliminated. Since consciousness exists and and has a specific identity as the faculty of percieving existence, by definition there is no conflict between the two.

In conclusion, Peikoff, having fully established the Objectivist metaphysics and shown the inadequecy of other views on metaphysics, emphasizes the uniqueness of the Objectivist viewpoint. The foundation is set, he is ready to move on.

Extra Commentary

A few comments after finishing the essay to get the ball rolling...

1) I found Peikoff's choice of ordering the basic axioms rather bad. Piekoff presents and validates them in the order: Existence, Consciousness, Identity. To me the order Existence, Identity, then Consciousness seems far more appropriate. Firstly, that is the order children develop the axioms explicitly. Secondly, that was the order of explicit philosophical discovery (Parmenides, then Aristotle, then Augustine). Thirdly, since Existence and Identity are so closely tied and both have primacy over consciousness, it seems logical to put consciousness last. Perhaps a minor point, but as one with intrest in the pedagogical processes in OPAR and O'ism in general, it concerns me. Any insight or comments?

2) On another pedagogical point, I thought the mock conversation on defending the axioms was a bit contrived and overdone. I think a general outline of method would have worked better. Or is such a detailed defense of the axioms rhetorically and pedagogically neccesary? I think Peikoff could have saved a page of text with no loss of philosophical rigor or content.

3) Something I considered using as an example of the metaphysically given but discarded due to possible misinterpertation was past events. An example: the U.S. has been a mixed economy for some time now. By the guidance of the nature of the metaphysically given, one should not spend time worrying that the U.S. _has been_ a mixed economy anymore than one should obsess about the fact that men are mortal or despair because failure is possible. Of course, by seeing that the economy is man-made, it must be judged now (and in this case, found wanting). In my mind an important distinction must be made between the current state of a human construct (man-made) and the fact that past man-made actions are in the past and now unchangable (metaphyically given). As far as I can see, Objectivist metaphysics gives a strong orrientation towards spending mental energies worrying about the present and future rather than the past (beyond the degree to which studying the past is neccesary to deal with the present and future).

Am I stating the obvious here? Or have I missed some subtle point and misused terminology? And am I right in thinking that this is the type of point that could confuse the beginner or blur distinctions without rigorous wording?

4) Could and should Peikoff have made the concepts "entity" and "existant" more clear and explicit? I had a little trouble the first time thru. (see pages 12-13 and footnote 12)


Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand

Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology (2nd ed.), Chapter 6 and pages 240-263

Gary Hull's Study Guide to OPAR

Philosophy: Who Needs It, Chapter 3 "The Metaphysical versus the Man-Made"

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