Recognizing the antithesis between the primacy of existence and the primacy of consciousness is a virtue for which only Objectivism seems prepared to equip a person, while other philosophies tend to ignore or evade the matter. Objectivism is the only philosophy that I know of which not only identifies the primacy of existence explicitly as a fundamental philosophical concern, but which also purposefully develops its metaphysics, epistemology, morality and politics in a manner consistent with the primacy of existence as an ultimate guiding principle.
Occasionally I am asked, by atheists and theists alike, why I would say that theism violates the primacy of existence. That theism does in fact violate the primacy of existence is so obvious to me that it is puzzling that anyone would need to have it explained. But then I realize that, for many years now, I’ve understood the issue of metaphysical primacy and its implications for theism and every other position under the sun, and not everyone else benefits from this understanding. It is this understanding that I wish to share with my readers.
To understand why theism violates the primacy of existence, we must first understand what is meant by the primacy of existence. And in order to appreciate fully what the primacy of existence means, we must understand the issue of metaphysical primacy.
The issue of metaphysical primacy has to do with the relationship between consciousness and its objects. Since all philosophy involves consciousness relating to objects (either real or imagined), the issue of metaphysical primacy bears on all philosophical principles, viewpoints and initiatives. Because consciousness is involved throughout the establishment and development of philosophical principles, the relationship between consciousness and its objects is not some sidebar distraction or marginal curiosity of trivial interest. Ignoring the relationship between consciousness is not an option for serious thinkers, especially once the question of the proper orientation of this relationship has been raised.
Essentially, the issue of metaphysical primacy asks:
What holds metaphysical primacy in the relationship between a consciousness and its objects: the subject of consciousness, or the objects of consciousness?
Such questions may imply that the subject of consciousness and its objects are locked in some sort of contest, with one side vying against the other, and that the issue of metaphysical primacy is an attempt to pick a winner among the two contestants arbitrarily. Either that, or they simply ignore the root of the matter that the issue of metaphysical primacy is getting at, namely identifying the proper relationship between a subject and its objects.
It is an undeniable fact that a subject is distinct from the objects of its awareness: a subject and its objects are not one and the same – the two are engaged in a relationship. Consciousness is consciousness of an object. Also, a subject does not switch sides with the objects of its awareness, as if they could trade places at will and reverse the natural orientation between the one and the other. When you perceive a rock, a chair, or the Golden Gate Bridge, you cannot suddenly become that rock or chair or bridge and look back at yourself as a perceiver. Consciousness is consciousness of an object(s), and the orientation between consciousness and its object(s) is uni-directional, and there’s no reversing this orientation. A person cannot transfer his consciousness to his objects, such that he becomes the object of his consciousness, and the subject of his consciousness is now what used to be its object. The relationship between a subject and its objects is contextually static.
Additionally, the relationship between a subject and its objects is not a relationship of equals. The subject is distinct from its objects, and the subject has certain abilities and capacities which its objects qua objects do not have in the context of their relationship together, even if some of those objects happen to be other conscious individuals (i.e., other persons). When you perceive a mountain or pair of scissors, it is you as the subject who is perceiving these objects. In the context of this relationship, the subject attends to its objects.
Another option, chosen (albeit implicitly) by most philosophies, is to suppose that the subject of consciousness holds metaphysical primacy over its objects. This is known as the primacy of consciousness, or as the primacy of the subject metaphysics, since it grants metaphysical primacy to the subject of consciousness over its objects. This is the view that the objects of consciousness conform to the subject of consciousness, that the subject of consciousness holds the “upper hand” in its relationship with the objects of its awareness. The primacy of consciousness entails that the objects of one’s awareness depend in some way on the subject of awareness, either for their very existence (e.g., the subject of consciousness creates them, either from existing material or “ex nihilo”), for their identity (e.g., the subject of consciousness makes its objects of its awareness what they are), and/or for their capacity to act (e.g., the subject of consciousness controls what its objects do or can do). An attempt to apply the primacy of consciousness consistently would involve all three aspects, holding that objects are created by an act of consciousness, that their identities are assigned to them based on choices made by the creating consciousness, and that the abilities or “potentialities” possessed by objects are given to those objects by a ruling consciousness. (Sound familar?)
The final option (as if it were avertible) is the primacy of existence. Where the primacy of consciousness holds that the subject of consciousness calls all the shots with respect to the existence, identity and/or causal potentiality of its objects, the primacy of existence is the recognition that existence exists independent of consciousness, that the objects of one’s consciousness are what they are independent of conscious activity, that the task of consciousness is neither to create the objects of its awareness, assign identities to them, nor dictate what they can or cannot do, but to perceive and identify its objects. While the primacy of consciousness holds that the objects conform to consciousness, the primacy of existence is the recognition that objects do not conform to consciousness. The primacy of existence is the recognition that the objects of one’s awareness exist independent of one’s awareness of them, that the things one perceives are what they are regardless of what he would prefer or wish them to be.
I agree entirely with Porter when he states:
I think the primacy of existence is the most important issue in philosophy. I think it’s the real axiom of Objectivism. (Ayn Rand’s Theory of Knowledge, p. 198)
One of my readers asked the following:
I understand the primacy of existence as objects of consciousness hold primacy over the subjects and the primacy of consciousness affirming the opposite. But I do not see the problem in affirming that existence exists, existence has metaphysical primacy and that God exists. Where lies the violation in asserting that existence exists and so does God?
Even though many theists do not explicitly identify consciousness as one of the primary characteristics which they attribute to their god (many defenders of theism gravitate to higher abstractions when speaking of their god, such as aseity, cotermineity of their god’s being with its self-consciousness, immutability, infinity, unity, etc.), it is clear from what they say about their god that they do in fact hold it to be a conscious being. In fact, they typically tend to take the assumption that their god is conscious completely for granted, for it is vital to just about everything else they claim about their god. According to what theists say, their god knows, sees, judges, gets angry, expresses joy, loves, commands, plans, determines, experiences pleasure, wishes, etc. All these actions are actions requiring consciousness. Indeed, it would be quite unusual if a theist were to affirm a god which performs all these actions but which is not at the same time conscious of anything. Christian apologists of the Vantillian tradition emphatically dismiss rival religions for not consistently embracing what they call a “personal” deity, i.e., a deity which is self-aware. A non-conscious deity would be what they call an “impersonal” being (cf. John Frame, Apologetics to the Glory of God, p. 34f).
Since theism entails belief in a deity which is conscious, the question raised by the issue of metaphysical primacy has us focus on the relationship between the deity as a conscious subject, and any objects it is said to be conscious of (either by perception or by some other means). When we consider the orientation which theism attributes to the relationship between its god as a conscious subject and any objects it is said to be conscious of, the question becomes:
Does this relationship resemble the primacy of existence, or the primacy of consciousness?Simply stating that the deity in question possesses consciousness, is not enough to answer this question. We need more information. We need to know more about what theists say about their god. Statements like the following indicate in no uncertain way the orientation which theists have in mind for their god in its relationship as a subject of consciousness to any objects it is supposedly aware of:
Christianity holds that God is the creator of every fact... God’s thought is placed back of every fact. (Cornelius Van Til, Christian Theistic-Evidences, p. 88; quoted in Bahnsen, Van Til’s Apologetic: Readings & Analysis, p. 378)
God wills, that is, creates the universe. God wills, that is, by his providence controls the course of development of the created universe and brings it to its climax. (Cornelius Van Til, “Apologetics,” 1959)
We now know that the world exists simply because God wills it. (Cornelius Van Til, “The Election of All Men in Christ,” The Great Debate Today, 1970)
Fact: God willed the universe into being. Fact: He willed the universe into being by simply speaking it into existence instantaneously. References: Psalm 33:6,9 Psalm 148:5 Hebrews 11:3 Thought: He did not have to speak in order to create, but He did. God could have just thought the universe into being. Instead, He spoke it into being. He used His word to create. (Lesson 6: The Seven Days of Creation: A Deeper Study of Gen. 1:1 to 2:3)
God is Creator of everything, this vast universe. All was created by His Word. He spoke it into being. It is written: (Genesis 1:3) And God said... and it was so. His Word is powerful... God's Word spoke the universe into being. His Word is powerful beyond our comprehension. (Terrell Smith, What Do Christians Believe?)
All things came into being through the will of God. It was God's pleasure that the universe and everything in it be created. (Mike Scott, Can you explain why God created the universe?)
God's will is the final and exclusively determinative power of whatsoever comes to pass. The nature of any created thing is what it is because of an act of determination in relation to it on the part of God. (Jack Cottrell, Sovereignty and Free Will)
God is active in history by definition of who He is, He has created everything and is present with it, controls it, and exercises authority over it to reveal Himself to the praise of His glorious grace. Every fact, and therefore every fact of history, is a fact created by Christ for Christ. (Chris Bolt, “Redemption in Apologetics,” The Portable Presuppositionalist, p. 180)
Every fact is what it is because God has said it is what it is. (Ibid., p. 162)
I'll show you.
Since any claim about reality implicitly affirms the primacy of existence (the recognition that existence exists independent of consciousness), any assertion that a god exists performatively contradicts itself by virtue of its implicit affirmation of the primacy of existence on the one hand (as a precondition for intelligibly making any statement about reality) and the primacy of consciousness on the other (as the fundamental orientation entailed by theism in the subject-object relationship).
In response to the question “Where lies the violation in asserting that existence exists and so does God?”, recall the the point I made in my blog The Axioms and the Primacy of Existence, namely that the axiom of existence ("existence exists") is "not the only axiom, that it is not a recognition that remains isolated from other recognitions." To say "existence exists" implies the axiom of consciousness, for one would have to be conscious in order to say this. Affirming both the axiom of existence and the axiom of consciousness in turn implicitly affirms the primacy of existence: Existence exists independent of consciousness.
So in making the statement “existence exists and so does God,” one is in fact declaring “existence exists independent of consciousness, and so does this consciousness upon which existence depends,” which is a direct self-contradiction. It affirms on the one hand, explicitly, that existence exists independent of consciousness (of any consciousness), and on the other – in the very same breath – it affirms the existence of a consciousness on which existence depends. For as we saw in the quotes above, “God” is characterized as a consciousness which creates all existence distinct from itself by an act of will. Thus not only does this position affirm a contradiction at the level of metaphysical primacy, it also leads to the irresolvable problem of divine lonesomeness.
Theists who resist this criticism can test it for themselves. Let them ask themselves the following question:
When you affirm that your god exists, are you presupposing that your god exists independent of your own consciousness? Or, are you saying that your god exists only as a feature of your own psychology, as a figment of your imagination, that the existence of “God” ultimately depends on your own consciousness?
But what is it that they are affirming? They are affirming the existence of a consciousness upon which existence depends. In other words, in the very content of the god-belief claims which they assert, they are affirming the primacy of consciousness – the very opposite of the primacy of existence, a principle which they need in order to make their god-belief claims sensible by any measure.
In this way, theists are directly contradicting themselves whenever they affirm their god’s existence. They implicitly affirm the primacy of existence in the very act of asserting their god-belief claims, and they expressly affirm the primacy of consciousness in the very content of their god-belief claims.
In an exchange between myself and presuppositionalist Chris Bolt (see the comments section of my blog Can the Water in My Drinking Glass Turn into Merlot?), I had asked him if he disputes the truth of the Objectivist axioms, which I listed specifically for him to see.
In contemplating the axiom of existence, Bolt stated:
Do I believe that something exists? Yes, God exists, for example.
just by saying ‘God exists,’ Bolt performatively contradicts himself. He makes use of the primacy of existence while affirming a claim which denies the primacy of existence.
But Bolt is mistaken here. As I explained, I am simply being consistent with the Objectivist worldview, noting that “the only alternative to Objectivism, is some sort of subjectivism.” I cited presuppositionalism’s own champion, Greg Bahnsen, to help him understand. Bahnsen states:
”Circularity” in one’s philosophical system is just another name for “consistency” in outlook throughout one’s system. That is, one’s starting point and final conclusion cohere with each other. (Van Til’s Apologetic: Readings & Analysis, p. 170n.42)
Bolt did give a reason why he thinks I am wrong to point out the self-contradiction in the claim “God exists.” Indeed, he stated that my objection
takes the ‘primacy of existence’ and attempts to apply it to a foreign worldview.
As we saw above, the issue of metaphysical primacy seeks to identify the proper orientation between the subject of consciousness and its objects. Unless Bolt denies the reality of consciousness, he must surely recognize that there is a relationship between consciousness and its objects, since consciousness is consciousness of some thing, whether he believes in a god or not. Belief in the Christian god – since it requires consciousness (belief being an activity performed by consciousness) – does not exempt one’s consciousness from its need for an object, nor does it provide an escape from the fact that consciousness implies a relationship between itself and its objects.
So the “you’re arguing from a foreign worldview” objection fails, since there is no such thing as a consciousness without anything to be conscious of. As Ayn Rand pointed out:
a consciousness with nothing to be conscious of is a contradiction in terms. (Atlas Shrugged, Galt’s Speech)
That’s the primacy of existence. By supposing that something exists and is what it is even if people don’t believe it, an individual is informing his supposition with the primacy of existence.
There is no escape from this, because there is no escape in human cognition from the facts that consciousness is consciousness of an object and that there is a relationship between consciousness and its objects. The “foreign worldview” retort is a dodge that simply does not and cannot succeed. To invoke it is to assume the truth of the primacy of existence: it is an attempt to identify the state of affairs as they are supposed to exist independent of anyone’s wishing, emotions, protestations, errors in judgment, evasions, etc. The retort itself makes use of the very principle it is trying to dismiss.
Bolt also stated:
Perhaps more importantly, there is no explanation here of how affirming that God exists denies the primacy of existence.