Thursday, January 01, 2009

Do Objectivists Try to "Define God out of Existence"?

In the comments section of my blog The Inherent Subjectivism of God-belief, David Parker made some interesting comments which provide me an opportunity to make some important points.

David wrote:

I really don't have a problem saying that if the Christian God exists, He does so with a subjective relationship to all of the objects He created.

At least David seems to get the argument which I presented in my blog. That’s good! Logically, then, David should have no problem with the assessment that his theism conceives of the world subjectively, for this is a direct outcome of theism. As Paul Manata once conceded, “reality is subjective” because it’s “based on the divine mind.” This statement invites problems of its own, of course, since it can only suggest that the “divine mind” on which “reality” is “based” could itself not be part of reality, which would mean that it’s not real.

Also, as I pointed out in the same blog, there are three principal expressions of the primacy of consciousness: the personal, the social and the cosmic (this latter category would include the theistic notion of a invisible supernatural über-consciousness). In the end, however, not only are all three variants of the same metaphysical perspective, the two latter variants (the social and the cosmic versions of the primacy of consciousness) ultimately reduce to the former – the personal version. That’s because the notion in question must originate somewhere, and we always find that it originates with human individuals, such as those who claim to have some means of knowledge other than reason by which they “know” what they claim. So while theists may affirm the cosmic version of the primacy of consciousness in the claims they make about their god, those claims are ultimately based on the presupposition, in one form or another, that one’s own consciousness holds metaphysical primacy over reality.

David wrote:

My problem is when Objectivists insist that what is true of human consciousness must necessarily be true of divine consciousness.

Just to be clear, this is not the Objectivist’s problem; it’s David’s problem. Also, another point of clarification is necessary here. Objectivists do not affirm the existence of “divine consciousness,” so they do not make the claim that “what is true of human consciousness must necessarily be true of divine consciousness.” Since the notion of “divine consciousness” represents a total departure from the realm of existence (as I pointed out above, even Paul Manata’s quoted statement indicates this), the concepts ‘true’ and ‘false’ do not legitimately apply. In the fake environment of the imagination, the believer can claim anything he wants is the case, for his imagination, which he enacts volitionally, calls the shots in that environment. For instance, in the case of theism, the theist can imagine a consciousness which creates its objects ex nihilo, assigns them their natures, revises them, causes them to act, etc., all at will. He can imagine a consciousness to whose intentions reality conforms itself. For the Objectivist, what the theist imagines is ultimately neither here nor there, since it’s all imaginary. Objectivists typically are not going to say, for example, that the theist needs to adhere to the primacy of existence in his imaginary scenarios.

When it comes to validating his god-belief claims, however, the theist himself cannot get around the primacy of existence, which he invokes, knowingly or not, any time he makes a truth claim. Truth necessarily presupposes the primacy of existence, for to say that some state of affairs is true is implicitly to say that it is the case whether anyone recognizes it or not, that it is the case independent of anyone’s consciousness. To claim otherwise is to say that truth has no objective basis. And to acknowledge the primacy of existence in one’s own relationship to reality while affirming the existence a consciousness which holds metaphysical primacy over reality, would only undercut any statement he makes about reality, since he is positing the existence of another consciousness, one presumably outside his own control, which could revise reality at will and without advance notice. At best, he could only make tentative assessments of reality, and these would only be as reliable as a game of chance. Typically, however, theists posture their claims with far more assuredness than their duplicitous metaphysical presuppositions could possibly allow. Either way, however, the theist makes use of a principle (the primacy of existence) while affirming the existence of something which allegedly operates on a contradictory notion (the primacy of consciousness). He is in effect borrowing from an objective orientation in order to affirm something imagined to enjoy a subjective orientation, which results in a contradiction at the most fundamental level of cognition. What justifies such contradiction? Blank out.

David quoted Ayn Rand:

… the basic metaphysical issue that lies at the root of any system of philosophy [is] the primacy of existence or the primacy of consciousness… 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. The epistemological corollary is the axiom that consciousness is the faculty of perceiving that which exists - and that man gains knowledge of reality by looking outward. The rejection of these axioms represents a reversal: the primacy of consciousness - the notion that the universe has no independent existence, that it is the product of a consciousness (either human or divine or both). The epistemological corollary is the notion that man gains knowledge of reality by looking inward (either at his own consciousness or at the revelations it [allegedly] receives from another, superior consciousness). Philosophy: Who Needs It, (New York: Signet, 1984), pp. 23-34.

David then quoted Eric Johnson’s review of chapter one of Leonard Peikoff’s book Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand:

Since the nature (identity) of consciousness is to be aware of reality, existence is prior to, necessary 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.

David then stated:

Now we can both agree that with respect to humans, there is strong evidence that our consciousness cannot alter the identify of any of its objects without physical action.

Indeed, there is overwhelming evidence for this, and after studying the issue for over 16 years, I have yet to see any evidence to the contrary. I am wholly convinced that the primacy of existence is absolute, exceptionless, undefeatable. The theist may say that’s fine for me, but supposes that there are justifiable reasons for affirming the primacy of consciousness, even in the case of his god. Unfortunately, the very idea of a position having “justifiable reasons” itself assumes the primacy of existence, for it makes “an objective claim on our credence, and not as a truth created by him who utters it” (David Kelley, The Evidence of the Senses, p. 34). In essence, one would have to assume the truth of the primacy of existence in order to deny it or affirm something which allegedly defies it. The result would be a self-contradictory metaphysical viewpoint, a very poor basis for a worldview, a theory of truth, an understanding of logic, a system of values, etc.

Also, it should be pointed out that the primacy of existence does not apply only to human consciousness. The primacy of existence applies in the case of non-human animal consciousness as well. In fact, in every instance of consciousness we find in nature, the primacy of existence obtains. When a cat, a horse, a chipmunk or wolverine dies, for instance, thus no longer being conscious of the world, the world does not vanish out of existence; it goes on. Existence still exists. However, there’s nothing that will stop someone from imagining that a consciousness “outside of nature” enjoys the opposite relationship, if he’s so inclined. Unfortunately for such individuals, I have already shown how supernaturalism finds its basis in imagination and is consequently inherently subjective as well.

David continued:

But what evidence is there that this applies with respect to a divine consciousness?

Either this question is utterly irrelevant, or it’s both question-begging and fallaciously complex. First, if by “divine consciousness” one means what Rand understood by this term – essentially something imaginary (“an isolation of actual characteristics of man combined with the projection of impossible, irrational characteristics which do not arise from reality” – Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, p. 148) – then obviously the question of “what evidence is there that this applies with respect to divine consciousness” would be completely moot. If Rand is correct in her assessment of the notion of “a divine consciousness” (and I’m fully convinced she is), the Objectivist position that the universe is not the product of any consciousness – “either human or divine or both” – is unimpeachably secured.

On the other hand, if by “a divine consciousness” one has in mind something that he believes actually exists – as theists claim to believe – then David’s question is epistemically premature, for it assumes the truth of what is in question, namely the claim that “a divine consciousness” exists. In fact, David’s question seems to assume the existence of “a divine consciousness” without any attempt to establish it. In earlier discussions with David, he has pointed to arguments intended to establish the existence of such a thing (namely Alvin Plantinga’s Two Dozen (Or So) Theistic Arguments which is a set of “lecture notes” that are in places so rough that they are sometimes almost incoherent). Unfortunately, none of these arguments deal with the issue of metaphysical primacy, so they are fundamentally disadvantaged when it comes to Objectivist challenges to theism. For instance, none of Plantinga’s arguments make any attempt to reconcile the acceptance of two opposing (i.e., contradictory) metaphysical orientations, the objective (in the case of human consciousness) and the subjective (in the case of “a divine consciousness”). It’s quite possible, in fact, that theists may think there’s no need to reconcile such contradictions, even though for the theist they occur at the very foundation of his worldview. That’s probably because they haven’t given this issue much if any thought.

At any rate, before we can ask “what evidence is there that [the primacy of existence] applies with respect to a divine consciousness,” we must first ask: what evidence is there for such a thing in the first place? For if it is not possible to establish as an objective fact the existence of “a divine consciousness” in the first place, then the question of what orientation said consciousness has between itself as a subject and any objects of its awareness would be, again, completely moot. Thus David’s question is fallaciously complex, for it essentially requires us to assume that “a divine consciousness” exists in order to gather evidences pertaining to what its conscious orientation might possibly be.

Now, I know of no actually existing “divine consciousness.” I’ve heard claims about such things throughout my life, and for a while (in my misguided youth) I even tried to believe some of them. In the end, however, I made an explicit decision to be honest, and in so doing I had to confront the fact that my god-belief rested on the props of the imaginary through and through. I realized that religion captivates the believer unwittingly by invading his imagination and affecting his emotional life, thus seizing control his cognition. As a result, I eventually came to realize that theistic apologists seem wholly unable to explain how one can reliably distinguish between what they call “God” and what may really only be imaginary. This is because, as believers, their cognition has been hijacked by a series of mind-game devices which sabotage their ability to make such distinctions consistently in the first place. At one time this was my affliction, but the choice to be honest coupled with a worldview which is firmly grounded in the primacy of existence showed me the way back to reality. It’s no wonder to me why theists have such resentment for Objectivism.

Sadly, even when it is shown to theists that their god-belief is inherently subjective, they still insist that their imaginary deity exists all the same. But notice the conundrum in which the theist finds himself here. To affirm the existence of such a thing would performatively assume the truth of the primacy of existence. In effect, he is saying that his god exists whether or not anyone acknowledges its existence. I.e., he is saying that it exists independent of anyone’s conscious intensions. Thus he makes use of the primacy of existence. But then notice the nature of what he is claiming: that there exists a consciousness which enjoys precisely the opposite relationship with its objects as that which the theist’s own pronouncements performatively assume. He gives no indication of what could possibly justify such a move, but it’s clear that, to be consistent, any justification he could give would have to adhere to the primacy of existence, since he has already acknowledged that the primacy of existence applies in the case of his own conscious relationship to the world. Theists at this point typically throw their arms up and say, “Well, I have no problem with God having a subjective relationship to all the objects he’s created.” But that’s not an argument, nor is it a justification. It’s simply an autobiographical admission to intellectual default on the matter. He’s tacitly saying that, yes, there is an irresolvable contradiction here, but finds it acceptable.

David asked:

Do Objectivists just assume this and move on?

Objectivists do not believe there is such a thing in reality as “a divine consciousness” in the first place. So I doubt any of them would assume that the primacy of existence applies to “a divine consciousness,” since there is no such thing.

David then stated:

If so, then this still looks like defining God out of existence to me. Especially when one argues that God's existence is metaphysically impossible precisely because of violating said axiom.

Well, since (as I pointed out above) Objectivists are not assuming that the primacy of existence applies to “a divine consciousness” (they recognize that theism is committed to the primacy of consciousness, which is why they reject it), then the condition on which David’s conclusion here depends, does not obtain. Objectivists do not “define God out of existence,” nor are they “setting out” to do so. It’s not the case that Objectivists start out with the assumption that there is a god and then try to gerrymander their terms so that denial of its existence is plausible or justified. To accuse Objectivists of “defining God out of existence” not only construes (uncharitably, I might add) Objectivists as ungrateful housekeepers shooing a fly out of their home, it also mischaracterizes Objectivist epistemology. Objectivists see no good reason to suppose a god does exist, and they also see many reasons why the notion of a god is contrary to objective reality (such as the inherent subjectivism of theism, which I have soundly established and which David seems to accept, given his initial statement above).

I suspect David’s charge also hinges on an unfamiliarity with the Objectivist conception of possibility. While some worldviews adopt the ‘conceivability model’ of possibility (which essentially equates “possible” with “imaginable”), Objectivism holds to the objective model of possibility. (For details, see Peikoff, Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand, pp. 175-179.) Quite simply, on the objective view, there is no justification for the claim that “a divine consciousness” is metaphysically possible. It’s already been shown that theism is inherently subjective, which means theism rules itself out of any objective consideration. So it’s not an act of “defining God out of existence,” but rather a consistently rational integration of the relevant data, an impeccably logical conclusion, which tells us that “a divine consciousness” is metaphysically impossible. Our conclusion is fully consistent with the primacy of existence, which we know to be true (as David concedes, “with respect to humans”), in both content (facts gleaned from reality) and methodology (by an objective process).

Meanwhile, the theist is unable to produce any validation for affirming the primacy of consciousness in his god-belief which is compatible with the primacy of existence as the proper orientation of his own consciousness. Notice, for instance, that David acknowledges the truth of the primacy of existence “with respect to humans,” which would presumably include David himself. So if it’s the case that the objects of David’s consciousness do not conform to his conscious intensions, then we can reasonably suppose that truth does not conform to David’s conscious intensions either (unless of course David is willing to admit that, on his worldview, truth has no objective basis, which would be impossible to reconcile with his admission that the primacy of existence applies “with respect to humans”). Consequently, David’s epistemology, if it is to produce reliable results, would itself have to adhere to the primacy of existence every step of the way in all his thinking. For instance, he would not be able reasonably to say his god-belief claims are true because he wants them to be true any more than he could reasonably say that reality conforms to his wishing. So how does he infer the existence of a consciousness which holds metaphysical primacy over its objects? Or does he infer it at all? This is unclear to me. When asked to identify his starting point, David responded with the statement “The Bible is the Word of God,” which could only mean that he assumes his god’s existence from the very outset. Where David objects to Objectivists for allegedly “defining God out of existence,” one could quite consider the attempt to bundle one’s god-belief into his starting point as, to quote Justin Hall, “a case of defining god into existence.” (Emphasis added)

An even greater irony which lurks behind David’s charge that Objectivists aim to “define God out of existence,” has to do with the pervasiveness of the primacy of existence in human cognition. Suppose for a moment that Objectivists do try to “define God out of existence.” What would David have against this? Could it be that it would violate the primacy of existence? Think about it: the objection that one may be “defining God out of existence” charges the accused with presuming that reality will conform to his conscious intensions. Essentially, he’s saying that the accused doesn’t want to acknowledge the existence of something and is consequently trying to “define it out of existence” on an ad hoc basis, as if reality would somehow snap into obedience and adjust itself accordingly. Now obviously, if one were to proceed on such a basis, as if reality conformed to one’s consciousness, he would be defying the primacy of existence. But what could someone who worships a consciousness which defies the primacy of existence possibly have against defiance of the primacy of existence?

For theists, the question boils down to: on what basis can we affirm a position which, like theism, assumes the metaphysical primacy of consciousness? Can we affirm this on the basis of the primacy of existence? While it is the case that we need the primacy of existence to affirm any statement as true of reality, the problem here is that the primacy of existence and the primacy of consciousness are contradictory to each other. The presence of assumptions granting metaphysical primacy to consciousness would cancel out any thoughts attempting to ground themselves on the primacy of existence. In attempting such a compromise, one would short-circuit his own thinking by undercutting any claim to objectivity. So this wouldn’t work. Could we affirm such a position on the basis of the primacy of consciousness? But we already know that the primacy of existence applies in human cognition. Unfortunately, the theist is stuck here. There is no escape.

by Dawson Bethrick

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