Presuppositionalism, Atheism, and Confusion over the Primacy of Existence
Anyone who examines the entries I have published on my blog over the years, going back to March 2005 – nearly 10 years ago now – will find many posts that deal directly with the primacy of existence, how it is fundamental to human cognition, and how it is incompatible with theism.
In a Youtube video titled Why the Primacy of Existence is No Problem for Any Presuppositionalist, video blogger Ozymandias Ramses II (to whom I shall refer as simply “Ozy” from here on out) makes some startling statements intended to support what the title of his video affirms.
To date, I have seen only a couple of Ozy’s videos. Both feature a 50ish-year-old gentleman (presumably Ozy himself) sitting in an overstuffed comfy chair speaking directly into a what appears to be a webcam. There’s no fireplace or any other accoutrements of a warm, inviting home, other than the mild-manner, well-spoken Ozy and the recliner in which he’s relaxing. Behind him is the corner of two plain walls. So Ozy gives us a corner-side chat of sorts.
In the present video, Ozy makes reference to “a lot of videos going back and forth between presuppositionalists and their critics about something called the primacy of existence.” In the notes for his video, Ozy gives only one link to another video – namely one by another video blogger, a fellow calling himself CapriciousBlackBox, titled I dare you to *not exist* and say that. Ozy calls this “a good video” and say it’s “worth watching.” If Ozy is getting his understanding of what the principle of the primacy of existence means from this source (which features a car mechanic in a garage rambling in a most meandering manner about a wide range of issues while mentioning two different “versions” of the primacy of existence – the Objectivist version and what he calls a “short form”) or from presuppositionalists, this would explain a lot of the confusion which we will find in his (Ozy’s) pronouncements about the primacy of existence.
Ozy gives his understanding of the primacy of existence as follows (0:18 – 0:32):
That’s the idea that the very concept of something actually existing is an undeniable truth which is itself assumed whenever we make any other knowledge claims. It’s often expressed tautologically as existence exists.
Ozy’s confusion over the primacy of existence reminds me of the time when presuppositional apologist Dustin Segers was similarly confused. (See here for details.)
Fortunately, we can do better than this – indeed much better. The primacy of existence has to do with the relationship between the subject of consciousness and its objects. Now, I have explained this so many times in my many blog entries that frankly it’s getting tiring having to explain it again, especially since theists seeking to undermine Objectivism never seem to grasp what the primacy of existence is no matter how many times it is explained to them.
Let me repeat: The primacy of existence pertains to the relationship between the subject of consciousness and its objects. By ‘subject of consciousness’ I mean the perceiver or knower, and by ‘object’ I mean anything that the subject of consciousness perceives and/or considers. When I see a ball, for example, I am the subject engaging in conscious activity, and the ball is the object of my conscious activity.
The issue of metaphysical primacy essentially asks: does reality exist independent of consciousness (the primacy of existence), or does reality find its source in and/or conform to conscious activity (the primacy of consciousness)? Thus, the distinctive nature of the issue of metaphysical primacy is its focus on the subject-object relationship.
Briefly, the primacy of existence is the view that the objects which the subject perceives and/or considers hold metaphysical primacy over the subject of consciousness. In other words, existence exists independent of conscious activity, which means: the objects of conscious activity exist and are what they are independent of that conscious activity. When I see a ball, for example, the primacy of existence is the fundamental recognition, however implicit, that the ball exists independent of my perception of it and that it is what it is – it has the nature, characteristics, attributes, etc., that it has – independent of my act of perceiving it. The Objectivist principle of the primacy of existence makes this implicit recognition explicit as a formal axiom. This recognition is axiomatic because we are aware of this relationship directly, not as a result of some elaborate proof; it is conceptually irreducible, just as the axiomatic concepts ‘existence’ and ‘consciousness’ are conceptually irreducible, this relationship between consciousness and its objects is universal to all conscious activity (since all conscious activity involves some object[s]), and since proof is essentially the process of logically reducing a truth to its perceptual basis, any sound proof necessarily presupposes the primacy of existence. By referring to the primacy of existence as an axiom, Objectivism does not mean that we “derive” all truths from the primacy of existence, as though it were some kind of rationalistic well from which all our knowledge automatically springs. Knowledge is not automatic, and nothing will eliminate the need to gather facts from reality to inform our knowledge.
The primacy of existence is the basis of the very concept of objectivity. Objectivity is essentially the application of the primacy of existence to one’s acquisition and validation of knowledge, to his judgments, and to his choices and actions. Like gutters on a bowling lane, the primacy of existence delimits the boundaries proper to rational thought.
It may be helpful to think of the primacy of existence as the recognition that “wishing doesn’t make it so.” In fact, the recognition that “wishing doesn’t make it so” is simply one of many expressions of the primacy of existence. Others may include the recognition that one’s likes or dislikes do not make something true, that one’s preferences do not make something true, that one’s imagination does not make something true, etc., etc. Each of these – wishing, liking, emoting, preferring, imagining, dreaming, etc., - is a type of conscious activity. And in each case, reality does not conform to it. Thus Objectivism identifies the fundamental all of these, namely consciousness, and explicitly recognizes that existence does not originate in, conform to or depend in any way on conscious activity. That is the primacy of existence. Epistemologically, this means that the task of consciousness is not to create or revise reality by force of will, but to perceive and identify the object we perceive. On this view, knowledge of reality is primarily acquired by looking outward at the world, perceiving what exists and identifying the objects we perceive by means of an objective process – namely the process of concept-formation as Objectivism has come to understand it.
But an informed grasp of the fundamental nature of the primacy of existence as a recognition of the proper relationship between consciousness and its objects (not to mention its epistemological implications), is what is conspicuously absent from both Ozy’s and CapriciousBlackBox’s comments on the matter. Given this, they likely do not fully appreciate the subjective predicament that theism represents.
The contrary to the primacy of existence is the primacy of consciousness. Where the primacy of existence formally recognizes the fundamental fact that the objects of consciousness exist and are what they are independent of the conscious activity of the subject, the primacy of consciousness grants metaphysical primacy to the subject of consciousness in the subject-object relationship. On this view, the objects of consciousness depend on the activity of consciousness for their existence, their identity, or at any rate conform to conscious activity in some way. This is the fundamental orientation in the subject-object relationship underpinning the notion that wishing makes it so. When one sets out to champion a cause essentially because he wants it to be true (cf. Mike Licona’s admission “I want it [i.e., the resurrection of Jesus] to be true”), we can be sure that his worldview makes allowance for the primacy of consciousness metaphysics. Indeed, if presuppositionalists display anything consistently, it is the attitude that they want their worldview to prevail and any other position to reduce to naught regardless of the facts against the former and in favor of the latter.
A most obvious example of the primacy of consciousness metaphysics is the notion of a supernatural consciousness which can by the sheer force of its will essentially wish the universe into being. On the Christian view, this amounts to the doctrine of “creation ex nihilo.” This does not mean that “God” – a supernatural consciousness alleged to possess such a power – took pre-existing materials and fashioned them into galaxies, stars, planets, dirt, etc. On the contrary, the Christian view holds that the Christian god essentially wished all the material making up the universe into being “from nothing,” or, from the contents of its own imagination. Such a view clearly and irrevocably grants metaphysical primacy to the subject of consciousness over any and all of its objects.
Epistemologically, the primacy of consciousness means that, just as the objects of consciousness find their source in and conform to the contents of consciousness, knowledge of reality is acquired essentially by looking inward, into one’s feelings, one’s preferences, one’s imaginations, and treating them as though they were factual. This is the core nature of faith - i.e., an emotionally driven commitment to things one develops and enshrines in his imagination. The believer imagines a god, accepts the premise that what he imagines is real, and develops a deep-seated psychological fear of it (cf. “holy terror”). He does not acquire “knowledge” of his god by looking outward at the world, for when he looks out the world he will only perceive objects that are finite, natural (or man-made), perceptible, material, corruptible, etc., and his god is supposed to contradict all of these qualities. Indeed, theists are unable to identify any method of “knowing” their god that can be reliably distinguished from their imagination.
So it should be clear that the issue of metaphysical primacy has to do with the proper nature of subject-object relationship, that the primacy of existence is the fundamental, i.e., axiomatic, recognition that the objects of consciousness exist and are what they are independent of conscious activity, and that the primacy of existence and the primacy of consciousness are wholly contrary to and incompatible with one another. But none of these points are brought out by either Ozy or CapriciousBlackBox when they speak about the primacy of existence and its applicability to a thorough critique of presuppositionalism.
Again, notice that Ozy makes no reference to this relationship in his discussion of the primacy of existence and his case for it not posing any problems to presuppositionalists. We will get to the reason why the primacy of existence poses an insuperable problem for presuppositionalists below. But for the time being, I think it’s important to notice that neither Ozy nor CapriciousBlackBox speak about the relationship between consciousness and its objects and the propriety of the orientation between a subject and its relationship to the objects it perceives and/or considers when they make pronouncements about the primacy of existence. Moreover, we will see that Ozy apparently believes that the primacy of existence is nothing more than merely the axiom of existence itself, thus failing to make an important distinction between the two.
Referring to CapriciousBlackBox’s video, Ozy states (0:44 – 1:18):
In that video, he argues for the undeniability of the primacy of existence while acknowledging it may not be a sufficient foundation on which to secure the rest of our knowledge claims when arguing with presuppositionalists. But, he further argues, it does serve as a legitimate and satisfactory rejoinder to the presuppositionalist question, ‘Can you be certain of anything?’ More precisely, he argues, it’s satisfactory when talking to the disciples of Sye Ten Bruggencate, or the so-called Sye-clones. And I want to challenge that. That’s what this video is about.
Also notice that the presuppositionalist challenge, as it appears at this point in Ozy’s video, consists of the question “Can you be certain of anything?” This is known as a polar question in that it requires an answer in terms of yes or no. Now if the atheist replies “no,” this will of course invite the follow-up question, “Are you certain of that?” It’s essentially a little game that the apologist wants to play. If the atheist replies, “Yes, I can be certain of some things,” the apologist at this point is going to ask for examples of affirmations that the atheist can be certain of. Although this tactic is clearly baiting, an Objectivist is in the position to propose the axiom of existence – i.e., the fundamental recognition that existence exists – as such an example of something he is certain in. There would of course be many more examples as well. For example, I am certain that a moon orbits the earth, dogs are biological organisms, the Pacific Ocean is larger than Los Angeles County, that gold can be melted, that electric light bulbs have already been invented and put into use, that I’ve eaten food before, etc. I can also point to the primacy of existence as another example of something I am certain of.
Now, I see nothing wrong with answering the presuppositionalist’s yes-no question affirmatively and citing such examples, and yet, we still need to be careful to distinguish between the axiom of existence on the one hand, and the primacy of existence on the other, as I explained above. Unfortunately, Ozy does not seem to be at all cognizant of this distinction.
Ozy continues (1:20 – 2:32):
The problem with the primacy of existence as a counter-apologetical response to the presuppositionalist challenge, is not merely that it doesn’t suffice as a foundation for knowledge. It’s true that it’s no foundation for the rest of our knowledge claims. Nothing convincingly follows from the premise existence exists. It’s just too vague and too general. That’s not the problem. The problem is that it begs the very question at issue which is being raised by the presuppositionalist and presented as a challenge to us. Specifically, the presuppositionalist argument is that one needs some general epistemological account of how one can know anything, not some specific proposition, but how anything at all can be known as opposed to being merely believed to be true. More specifically, the presuppositionalist is challenging his opponent to explain how he or she can rely upon his or her cognitive faculties – everything from reliance upon memory and your perceptual abilities, to your trust in induction and deduction. So, the general question being put to you is: Is there anything you can genuinely know, and how is such knowledge even a possibility given the conceptual resources within your non-Christian worldview?
With these corrections in mind, let’s examine Ozy’s statement with regard to the axiom of existence. He says that “it’s no foundation for the rest of our knowledge.” But what would be his argument for this? Specifically, what does he propose as an alternative starting point? How would any proposed alternative avoid presupposing the fact that existence exists? Again, the axiom of existence is conceptually irreducible - i.e., it does not rest on more fundamental assumptions. Also, its truth is perceptually self-evident: if you are aware at all, you are aware of something, which means – as Objectivism holds – you are aware of existence. “Existence” is “a collective noun, denoting the sum of existents” (Leonard Peikoff, Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand, p. 4).
As a foundation to knowledge, the axioms (that is, the axioms of existence, consciousness, identity, and the primacy of existence) provide (a) the only anchor to objective knowledge (since it anchors knowledge to the realm of facts and only the realm of facts), (b) the only objective standard for knowledge (which is possibly only on the consistent application of the primacy of existence), and therefore (c) the only objectively reliable means of delimiting man’s knowledge to that which is true - since they confine man’s knowledge to the realm of facts and distinguishes facts from wishing, emotions, imaginations, and even error, from the very beginning of our quest for knowledge. Since the axioms do in fact fulfill these tasks while not resting on more fundamental assumptions, they constitute the only foundation available for rational thought.
But Ozy says that the axiom of existence is “too vague and too general.” So Ozy believes that there is some boundary which an axiom should not cross and that the axiom of existence has in fact breached that boundary. He does not indicate how one can objectively demarcate such a boundary, but then again objectivity is the application of the primacy of existence to knowledge in the first place. The concept ‘existence’ is in fact the widest of all concepts, since it includes everything that exists. Is Ozy saying that there should be no such concept? Concepts are open-ended in their reference. The concept ‘man’, for example, includes all men who currently exist, who have existed in the past and who will exist in the future. Thus concepts are not numerically limited to a specific number of units it can subsume. So the claim that the axiom of existence is “too general” misses one of its most important virtues: the axiom of existence applies to everything that exists (as opposed to, for example, things that we merely imagine). Granted, many thinkers do not like being reminded that the imaginary is not real, in which case the motivation to discount the Objectivist axioms is clear.
But is it true that the axiom of existence is “too vague”? Is it “vague” to say that something exists? If so, how? I can only suppose that Ozy simply does not know what Objectivism means by the concept ‘existence’, even though the Objectivist literature is explicitly clear on this matter. (See for example chapter 6, “Axiomatic Concepts,” of Ayn Rand’s introduction to Objectivist Epistemology for starters.) Thus it appears that Ozy is simply making statements without having done his homework on the matter.
Ozy states that “nothing convincingly follows from the premise existence exists.” But we’ve already seen many general implications that the axioms have for our knowledge. For example, that knowledge is knowledge of what exists; that reality does not conform to conscious intentions; that facts are distinguished from imagination, from wishing, etc. If one says that these are unimportant, he’s only making a statement about himself and how little he values the quality of what he accepts as knowledge. But Ozy seems to be making another mistake which is quite common: many non-objective thinkers uncritically assume that “axiom” necessarily means that all knowledge is supposed to be deduced from an axiom’s content. But this is not what Objectivism holds. As I indicated above, nothing can substitute the task of gathering facts from the world to inform our knowledge of it. The axioms are not presented as any kind of shortcut to knowledge or ticket to omniscience. Thus to criticize Objectivism because “nothing convincingly follows from the premise existence exists” risks fundamentally misrepresenting Objectivism.
But, says Ozy, these (i.e., that the axiom of existence is “too vague and too general” and that “nothing convincingly follows from the premise existence exists”) are “not the problem.” Rather, claims Ozy, the axiom of existence “begs the very question at issue which is being raised by the presuppositionalist and presented as a challenge to us.” But this objection confuses axioms with argument. But the axioms are not “arguments”; specifically, since the axioms identify what we perceive directly, they are not inferred and thus are not deductive in nature. The fallacy of begging the question, however, is a matter pertaining to arguments. There is no fallacy committed when one opens his eyes and looks at the world and recognizes that things exist. It is this recognition – that things exist – which the axiom of existence makes explicit and formally affirms as the conceptually irreducible starting point to knowledge.
So again, if the “presuppositionalist challenge” is the yes-no question we saw above, namely “Can you be certain of anything?” I still see no problem in answering this question affirmatively and citing the axioms as particularly important examples of things I’m certain of. Now, we must keep in mind also that presuppositionalists are on a campaign to wipe out certainty, which is why they are constantly trying to undermine it. So of course presuppositionalists are going to try to find some way to raise objections against anything we might affirm certainty in.
But now Ozy says that the “presuppositionalist challenge” is more than merely the yes-no question he gave earlier. Now the challenge has moved on to something else:
Specifically, the presuppositionalist argument is that one needs some general epistemological account of how one can know anything, not some specific proposition, but how anything at all can be known as opposed to being merely believed to be true.
Now I have to interject a point here which ties into something I brought out earlier. Presuppositionalists view the very existence of non-believers as a threat to their religious beliefs. So long as there are people out there who don’t believe in the gods they imagine, they will always represent another source of nagging insecurity for the faithful. Presuppositionalists suffer from this malady to acute extremes, and they have launched an all-out war on the human mind. Any hint of certainty in one’s views on the non-believer’s part is intolerable for the apologist, and he is intent on snuffing it out no matter how well justified that certainty might be. In essence, while presuppositionalists may pose questions about epistemology, they are not really interested in learning about epistemology and understanding the proper method of acquiring and validating knowledge. If they were, they would have abandoned Christianity long ago (just as I did!).
Am I wrong in this assessment? No, I am not. Presuppositionalists have demonstrated that they are attitudinally opposed to knowledge with a consistency that would make even the most stringent laboratory experts green with envy. I have observed these characteristics in presuppositionalists in particular since I first encountered one back in 1998, and I cannot identify one who does not have them in at least some measure. Most specifically, they are not open to learning new things about epistemology, but rather have made a commitment to condemning, denouncing, bad-mouthing all rational defenses of knowledge and failing to articulate a clear alternative in place of what they reject.
So I think it’s important to keep these points in mind when considering “the presuppositionalist challenge.”
Now notice what Ozy states here:
More specifically, the presuppositionalist is challenging his opponent to explain how he or she can rely upon his or her cognitive faculties – everything from reliance upon memory and your perceptual abilities, to your trust in induction and deduction.
But suppose I go to the trouble of preparing an explanation to address ultimately what is a series of questions posed by the presuppositionalist. Of course, he could turn right around and ask if I were using my faculties to assemble such an explanation, which of course would be the case. It is typically at this point that the apologist will accuse me of circular reasoning, but this would only show that he doesn’t understand what a circular argument is. An explanation is not the same thing as an argument. For example, I can explain a position without at the same time try to defend it; the two are distinct. For example, I can explain a movie plot without attempting to defend the assessment that it’s any good. It may be that I think it’s a good movie plot, but the defense of this assessment is distinct from my explanation of the movie plot itself.
Reason is the faculty which identifies and integrates everything we are conscious of. If something exists and we have awareness of it, we can identify it. We do this even with objects whose nature we do not fully understand. Consider the concept ‘thing’ and notice its multi-purpose utility. Suppose my coworker calls me over to his desk to look at a problem on one of his spreadsheets. As I get to his desk I notice a curious object – a strange “thing” – sitting near his phone. I don’t know what it is specifically, but just in perceiving it I have enough information to make reference to it by using the concept ‘thing’. And I already did so using the concept ‘object’. Similarly with concepts such as ‘contraption’, ‘device’, ‘gadget’, etc. With more knowledge of its nature and function, I will be able to include the object in a narrower concept. But lacking that deeper knowledge of the item (there’s another one!) does not prevent me from including it in a variety of concepts that I have already formed, thus identifying it at least in general terms. There is certainly nothing circular or fallacious about this; indeed, to charge a position with a fallacy is to make use of concepts already, and any attempt to charge the very process of forming concepts with some fallacy or another, would commit the fallacy of the stolen concept.
But what about using reason to identify reason itself? Isn’t that “circular”? Not at all. If reason exists and we are aware of it (such as if I retrace the steps I took in identifying something), then reason itself as a method can be identified as well. And indeed, we have identified reason. To suggest that it is fallacious to apply reason to itself in order to give us greater understanding of how it works, would mean that we would already be committing a fallacy just by identifying it, in which case any talk of reason would in essence be fallacious. Thus such a charge, like the one above, would commit the fallacy of the stolen concept.
Consider the question: How would you validate your consciousness? How would a presuppositionalist address this question without arguing in a circle? Any answer he gives would make use of his consciousness and thereby performatively assume its validity from the outset. But that’s precisely what he’s been called to demonstrate.
But if consciousness is an axiom, then clearly so is its validity. Thus there is no need to erect some kind of argument intended to “prove” the validity of consciousness, since (a) proof presupposes consciousness, and (b) simply contemplating the question, or even rejecting the question outright for some reason, even a bad reason, would sufficiently demonstrate the validity of consciousness, for he would be demonstrating that he has consciousness of something.
This is just another reason why Objectivism prevails over other worldviews, including Christianity. Nowhere in the Christian bible is consciousness affirmed as an axiom. We saw here, for example, how readily the presuppositionalist borrows from Objectivism as though Objectivism’s fundamentals could be imported into Christianity. This enterprise is doomed from the beginning since Christianity constitutes an outright assault on the axioms, particularly given its allegiance to the primacy of consciousness.
Ozy clarifies “the presuppositionalist challenge” yet again:
So, the general question being put to you is: Is there anything you can genuinely know, and how is such knowledge even a possibility given the conceptual resources within your non-Christian worldview?
So in answer to presuppositionalism as Ozy frames its challenge here, is:
1. Yes, there are many things that I can and do genuinely know. Knowledge is clearly possible and achievable. By ‘knowledge’ here I essentially mean identification of reality in conceptual form by means of an objective method. That objective method is called: reason. It is an indisputable fact that man possesses consciousness, perceives objects within the range of his senses, and has the ability to identify the objects of his awareness in conceptual form in a manner that is in keeping with the primacy of existence – i.e., with the principle of objectivity (cf. “wishing doesn’t make it so” as explained above). The axiom of consciousness affirms and validates all of this just by being grasped by any knower. The reason why the question of whether or not genuine knowledge is possible continues to haunt presuppositionalists (as it surely does), is two-fold: (a) their worldview provides no objective understanding of how the mind operates, including how it forms concepts, what concepts are, and how they relate to the objects we perceive; and (b) their worldview is crypto-skeptical in nature, meaning: skepticism is the ultimate retreat for the believer, for this is the only way to make room for faith in imaginary beings.
2. Knowledge is possible because we have the ability to identify and integrate the objects we perceive by means of concepts. The objective theory of concepts, one of Rand’s crowning achievements in philosophy, explains how this process works (see her book Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology). Since knowledge is essentially the identification of reality in conceptual form by means of an objective method, the way in which the human mind acquires and validates its knowledge can itself be identified and understood. This is what the objective theory of concepts allows those who choose to employ it to do, effectively removing the mysteriousness of how we know what we know (as opposed to remaining in the darkness of “we know without knowing how we know,” per presuppositionalist John Frame).
Notice that in order to attack both of these answers, the presuppositionalist would essentially have to rely on their truth: he would essentially be saying that something is wrong – which is a claim to knowledge, and he would be using concepts in order to do this – which his own worldview does not explain.
Ozy continues (3:25 – 4:05):
Now, given that the question is how knowledge is even possible, what they want is an account of how and why you trust in your cognitive capacities when you reason, including the very use of such things as induction and deduction, and specific forms of deductive argumentation such as reductio ad absurdum argumentation. So it’s nothing to your purposes as a counter-apologist to trot out a deductive argument or a reductio ad absurdum argument, specifically for the primacy of existence, for instance. Because the challenge being put to you is precisely to come up with a means by which you can defend the use of deductive argumentation itself. That’s the challenge.
Obviously, the means by which I can use “deductive argumentation itself” are my mental faculties – i.e., my consciousness, including the “cognitive capacities” which I possess. Any “defense” I put forward for my “use of deductive argumentation itself” is going to involve me using my consciousness, my mental faculties, my “cognitive capacities.” But even closer to home for the presuppositionalist, his entire apologetic is already implicitly granting the validity of my mental faculties or “cognitive capacities” by posing the challenge to me in the first place. His entire scheme is geared towards me falling into certain booby traps that his gimmickry attempts to set up (primarily by taking radical skepticism as his epistemological standard), but in order for this even to get started, I first have to understand what he’s saying, which means: his entire apologetic cannot get off the ground unless my mental faculties were already functioning. So just by posing his challenge to me, he expects me to understand what he says and thereby presupposes the validity, the reliability, the trustworthiness of my cognitive faculties. This should not be difficult to recognize, but the apologist’s actual ambition is not to discover and learn truths, but to damn the human mind altogether.
One last point before moving on; again, it is necessary to correct Ozy here: Objectivism does not establish the primacy of existence by a deductive argument. We do not infer the primacy of existence from other facts. The primacy of existence is implicit in every act of awareness, and Objectivism makes it explicit by formally identifying it and recognizing its axiomatic nature. We don’t have to “prove” that the objects of consciousness hold metaphysical primacy over the activity of consciousness; any proof presupposes the primacy of existence. Unfortunately, worldviews other than Objectivism, so far as I’ve seen, nowhere make formal, explicitly recognition of the primacy of existence at the fundamental level of knowledge, so most thinkers – even very intelligent ones, like Ozy – are simply not in the habit of understanding their ideas in terms of their implications with regard to the issue of metaphysical primacy. Thus such thinkers often make major mistakes – mistakes that are obvious to informed Objectivists – when they try to comment on the primacy of existence, the axioms, even the nature of reason itself.
Ozy states (4:06 – 5:08):
This is why they’re constantly asking if it would be circular reasoning to defend the use of reasoning using reasoning. This is why they ask, how do you know that you’re not dreaming? or how do you know that you’re not a brain in a vat? or … that you’re not insane having hallucinations? or that your reasoning is not impaired by drugs? or that you’re not suffering from some other cognitive malfunction? How exactly can you, or anyone, on your worldview be confident that the process by which you arrive at your conclusions reliably leads to true conclusions? …even if it’s not a perfect process? And how can you be confident that the processes you are utilizing right now are properly functioning? They can even grant the primacy of existence claim to their challengers for the sake of argument because they can say, “Yeah, yeah, sure, if you assume that reasoning is a reliable belief or process, and you trust that your cognitive faculties are properly functioning, then you can trust in that conclusion that existence is a given, that it can’t be doubted. But you’re assuming the very thing I’ve challenged you to defend,” they can say.
It is clear from what Ozy states here that he thinks the axiom of existence is a conclusion. This is emphatically wrong. The recognition that existence exists is not a conclusion of some prior course of reasoning. From what premises would one draw the conclusion, “Therefore, existence exists?” Those premises themselves would have to take the form of propositions which in turn are composed of concepts, and those concepts, to be meaningful, would have to denote something - i.e., things that exist. (If none of the concepts informing those premises denoted anything that exists, then they would have no objective content and thus be meaningless anyway.) In such a case, the premises of such an argument would already presuppose the truth of its conclusion – namely, that existence exists – in which case the argument itself would be circular and we would still need to know how we arrived at the “conclusion” that existence exists.
But the axiom of existence is not a conclusion in the first place – it’s an axiom. By this Objectivism means a perceptually self-evident, conceptually irreducible firsthand recognition based directly on perceptual awareness: we look out at the world and see things, and recognize implicitly that things exist. The axiom of existence makes this implicit recognition explicit: it is a formal, explicit recognition of what is implicit in every instance of consciousness – since consciousness is always conscious of something, and whenever a person is conscious, his existence as a conscious agent is a metaphysical precondition of his being conscious of anything. The fact that existence exists, then, is inescapable, both metaphysically and epistemologically. Since we are directly aware of existence, the recognition of the fact that existence exists is axiomatic and therefore not a result of some prior inference. Thus it is not a conclusion, but a first-level fundamental.
As for the litany of “how do you know?” and “How can you be certain?” type questions cited as characteristics of the presuppositionalist playbook, Ozy is spot on: these are precisely the kinds of questions that presuppositionalist will pose, typically in rapid-fire succession, as though they were rehearsed under the baton of tape-recorded lecture. Thus the presuppositionalist’s “debating tactics” are both canned and predictable. What’s also predictable is the presuppositionalist’s anti-learning attitude: he asks a lot of questions, chooses not to give the answers he’s given mature and charitable consideration, dismisses whatever responses his questions field with robotic zeal (often by claiming it commits some fallacy or another, and typically without making any effort to show how the responses commit said fallacy), and – most noteworthy – offers no constructive and understandable alternative as the proper solution to the questions he himself raises. The ultimate irony of presuppositionalism’s gimmickry is that the worldview it is intended to promote and defend cannot address the questions they routinely discharge. Presuppositionalists are out to knock down and destroy, not to educate and inform. Their pose as thinkers interested in epistemological and other philosophical matters, is just that: a pose and a pretense. Dishonesty of this sort cannot be separated from presuppositionalism as such, since it is inherent in the entire apologetic enterprise itself.
Make no mistake about the insidious nature of what’s going on here (and again I think Ozy’s characterization of presuppositionalism’s tactics is accurate). Notice how the line of interrogation on the part of the apologist begins with a series of “How do you know?” and “How can you be certain?” type questions. Such questions are essentially asking respondents to identify whatever method they use to accomplish the activity in question. It is not a call to defend the method, just to identify one. After all, one cannot be expected to defend something until it’s been identified, and pointing to one’s methods is the proper response to these kinds of questions.
But lurking behind it all is the determination to strike down whatever is offered in response to such questions with statements to the effect “But you’re assuming the very thing I’ve challenged you to defend.” And even though Ozy is correct in his characterization, he does not catch the subtle shift here from a call to simply identify one’s method to “now defend it.” This is why presuppositionalism is nothing more than a parlor game for wannabe sophists eager to congratulate themselves on meaningless “wins.” Apologists don’t seem to mind that they lose by squandering opportunities to learn something about knowledge; rather, they’re only interested in being able to go back to the backslappers’ stable at night and hear their buddies praise their performances out in the field. It’s all geared towards enabling those who suffer from utterly impoverished self-esteem to feel empowered to tell others essentially nothing more than, “You’re so stupid!”
The proper answer to the types of questions which presuppositionalists ask – i.e., the “How do you know?” type questions which Ozy lists above – is uniform throughout: We know these things by means of reason. Reason is man’s only means of knowledge because it is the only objective means of knowledge. Given that presuppositonalism’s standard barrage of questions ask non-Christians to identify the means by which they know certain things, we should answer them by pointing to the objective means of knowledge. For example, consider the following dialogue:
Presupper: How do you know that existence exists?
Thinker: By the objective means of knowledge.
Presupper: But how can you be sure that your faculties are functioning properly?
Thinker: By the objective means of knowledge.
Presupper: But how do you know you’re not merely dreaming?
Thinker: By the objective means of knowledge.
Presupper: How do you know you’re not hallucinating?
Thinker: By the objective means of knowledge.
Presupper: But how do you know you’re not a brain in a vat?
Thinker: By the objective means of knowledge.
Presupper: How do you know that the objective means of knowledge is justified?
Thinker: By the objective means of knowledge.
Presupper: But that’s just circular logic!
Thinker: How so?
Presupper: You’re using the objective means to justify the objective means the knowledge.
Thinker: Do you see where you slipped just now?
Presupper: No, slip? Slip where?
Thinker: You asked me how I know something, and I answered by identifying the means by which I know it. You then interpreted this as something other than merely identifying the means by which I know something, which is the question you asked and the question I answered. You did not ask, “How do you justify the objective means of knowledge?” Rather, you asked, “How do you *know* that the objective means of knowledge is justified?” So when I’m asked how I know something, I point to the means by which I know anything, which is the objective means of knowledge. The objective means of knowledge is self-justifying, given its basis in undeniable axioms, its adherence to the primacy of existence, and its dependence on and application of the proper relationship between the conceptual level of consciousness and its basis in sense perception – i.e., our objective contact with reality.
Presupper: But… but…
Thinker: Now you can reject the objective means of knowledge if you like. No one is going to force you to think objectively. But let me ask you a question if I may.
Presupper: Go on. [gritting his teeth]
Thinker: According to *your* worldview, what is the relationship between the conceptual level of consciousness and perception?
Presupper: [blank out]
Ozy made a few other points that I want to respond to. For example, he states (5:42 – 6:17):
What the presuppositionalist is asking you to do is provide some sort of account, which he boasts he has, for how anyone can trust deduction, induction, memory, the senses, etc., So saying “existence exists” or “I think therefore I am” is a complete waste of time. If you reason your way to the so-called primacy of existence conclusion, then you’ve utilized your reasoning, the very thing you’ve been challenged to defend. And hence you are begging the question against them. You are literally smuggling your conclusion in as a hidden premise in your argument.
But there are a number of problems in this “challenge,” which again I think Ozy has accurately described.
Where Ozy errs is, again, in supposing that the axiom of existence (which he still mislabels as the primacy of existence) is a conclusion. This of course is not true: the axiom of existence is not a conclusion inferred from more fundamental premises – it is the most fundamental of all premises. Specifically, it identifies a general fact that we perceive directly. So simply affirming the fact that existence exists can in no way be fallacious.
But even Objectivists would not say that that the axiom “existence exists” will settle the matter conclusively. On the contrary, there’s much to say here, most of it corrective in nature (since the entire artifice erected by presuppositionalism is flawed).
The axiom of existence is not Objectivism’s only axiom. We also have, among others, the axiom of consciousness. Ozy clearly is not very well informed about Objectivism’s fundamentals, so it’s not a surprise that it doesn’t cross his mind to make reference to it and integrate into his consideration of “the presuppositionalist challenge.”
The recognition that we are conscious of things is implicit throughout all conscious activity, and the axiom of consciousness makes this recognition explicit. Like the axiom of existence, the axiom of consciousness is also not a conclusion of an argument drawn from prior premises. Indeed, the process of drawing conclusions is itself a type of conscious activity. So the recognition that we are conscious is available to us long before we get to the stage where we’re ready to start formulating arguments.
Something else needs to be borne in mind here. Objectivism identifies three distinct levels of consciousness, and they are related to each other in order of dependence. First is the sensory level of consciousness. This level of consciousness gives an organism awareness of momentary, isolated sense qualities. Sensations are immediate and cannot be retained, and they last only as long as the stimulating contact that causes them lasts. It is an automatic form of consciousness, strictly mechanical, as when one physical object comes in contact with another. There is no volitional aspect to this level of consciousness.
Next is the perceptual level of consciousness. Like the level of sensations, the level of perceptions is also automatic, non-volitional, and mechanical in the same sense. The perceptual level automatically integrates sensations into percepts, thus giving us awareness of entire entities as distinct objects as opposed to just a chaotic series of sensations. There is no choice (i.e., no volition) involved in perception’s integration of sensations into percepts, just as there is no choice involved in sensations proper – if there were, there’d be no need for painkillers; one could simply choose not to feel pain. At the perceptual level of consciousness, we can distinguish between one entity and other entities, and we can isolate one entity against a background of any number of other entities in the same field of perceptual awareness. A dog, for example, can perceive a rat, isolate the rat it perceives from everything else it perceives, and track its movements. (There may be some argument that continuing to focus on one object distinct from a host of others perceived at the same time implies volition, but it would not follow from this that perceptual integration of sensations into percepts is itself volitional.) An organism which has only the sensory level of consciousness cannot do this. Also, percepts can be retained in memory, which is a benefit that the sensory level does not share.
Lastly comes the conceptual level of consciousness. Just as the perceptual level of consciousness depends on the sensational level of consciousness for its content, so too does the conceptual level depend on the perceptual level for its content. But unlike the more fundamental levels of consciousness, the conceptual level of consciousness is volitional. And just as both the sensory and perceptual levels have their distinct units – the sensation and percept respectively – the conceptual level has its unit: the concept. Concepts are distinct from sensations and percepts in that they expand man’s knowledge beyond the mere range of his senses. The concept ‘man’, for example, includes all men, including those who currently exist, those who lived in the past, as well as those who will live in the future. The concept ‘man’, then, gives us universal awareness of all units of a class (albeit only generally). Neither the sensory nor the perceptual level of consciousness give an organism such universal awareness. It is only when we get to the conceptual level that we are able to perform mental activities such as inferring, inducing, deducing, evaluating, forming judgments, etc., for these all need the ability to form concepts and integrate them into broader or more refined abstractions.
Now, with all this in mind, let’s consider “the presuppositionalist challenge.” A common theme throughout the challenge is the notion of trust. Trust is essentially confidence in some thing, whether it is a person, an ability, a situation, etc. In order to trust or have confidence in something, then, one would need, at least implicitly, to assess or evaluate the object of trust as worthy of trust to begin with. But now that we understand the distinctions of the three levels of consciousness, at which level is this possible? Clearly it’s not possible at the sensory level of consciousness, nor is it possible at the perceptual level of consciousness. It is only when we get to the conceptual level of consciousness (and even then, once we’ve developed a large number of concepts) that assessment, evaluation and therefore trust and confidence are even possible for a thinker. But this fact spells doom for the entire presuppositionalist enterprise.
Consider the question, “How do you account for your trust in your senses?” Such a question implies that human beings (i.e., those to whom the challenge is directed) have the ability to be conscious, make assessments, formulate judgments, and deem things worthy of trust, apart from sense perception. Essentially, such a question ignores the dependence of conceptual integration on sense perception, treating the conceptual level of consciousness as though it did not depend on sense perception and therefore were possible apart from the perceptual level of consciousness. To the degree that the challenge makes this assumption, even if only implicitly, it commits the fallacy of the stolen concept – i.e., it makes use of concepts, such as the concept ‘trust’ in this case, while ignoring or denying its genetic roots – i.e., their ultimate dependence on perceptual input. It ignores the fact that the perceptual level is fundamental to the conceptual level of consciousness. While it is possible to perceive without forming concepts (even salamanders do this), it is not possible to form concepts apart from perception or without perceptual input. The conceptual level of consciousness is not possible apart from sense perception, and since the challenge fundamentally ignores this fact, it is fallacious.
Again, since presuppositionalists themselves do not understand the relationship between the conceptual level of consciousness and the perceptual level of consciousness, they believe these are truly puzzling questions, which is why they continue to recycle them in their apologetic encounters. Collectively, these questions actually point only to their own ignorance on such matters, for these problems have in fact been solved, and presuppositionalists are just not familiar with or even open to considering the proper solution. Rather, they employ these questions because they are hoping that opponents of Christianity will be flabbergasted and have no alternative but to throw up their arms in defeat and exclaim, “Duh, I donno! Must be goddidit!” That’s right: ignorance always paves the way to god-belief, and emotion and imagination are always the engines that take one to it. And this precisely is why presuppositionalists cling so desperately to skeptical tactics.
I also notice that Ozy does not give any examples of what he would consider – given the understanding of presuppositionalism that he offers in his chat – a suitable response to presuppositionalism. He is quick to tell us what will not suffice, but he does not tell us what, in his opinion, would suffice.
Ozy does point out that the kinds of challenges which presuppositionalists employ in their apologetic strategies are not new, and he is correct on this. These are age-old philosophical quandaries which have puzzled thinkers for millennia. (One thing that is curious though is that we do not find discussion of these problems – or any solutions to them – anywhere in “Scripture.”) But Ozy insists that what he calls the primacy of existence (in actuality, the axiom of existence) is not a suitable response. Regarding this kind of challenge, Ozy states (6:35 – 7:48):
It’s been addressed in many different ways ever since [ancient Greece]. And one may not like the question. One might even feel one needn’t take the question seriously, and I’ll leave it to each to decide whether to take it seriously or not. But if so, if you do take it seriously, how you want to wrestle with it is up to you. But what one must not do, except on pain of utterly circular reasoning and failing to appreciate the question, is to respond with some proposition such as “existence exists” or “I think therefore I am,” which one has arrived at by reasoning. All such answers miss the point of the challenge. If you think the challenge is pointless or confused, then argue that. But don’t delude yourself into thinking that you’ve responded to the challenge when you present an argument, no matter how self-evident the conclusion seems to you, for why you can trust in the use of argumentation itself. Rejoinders, such as the primacy of existence argument, Descartes’ cogito ergo sum argument…, and statements such as “I know I’m not you’re god” or “I know I’m not omniscient,” are nothing to the point.
But aside from this, I would point out that simply accepting the false premise that is smuggled into the overall challenge (which I exposed above), will simply condemn any response one might offer to the challenge. Any response, not just the ones which Ozy specifies, since to be rational they would have to be products of at least some time of reasoning process, will be liable to the same counter-response by the presuppositionalist. Again, Ozy does not offer any indication on what he would consider an effective reply that addresses the challenge on its own terms.
Now what I’ve given above does in fact address the challenge, but my interaction with the challenge does not consist simply of stating “existence exists” and supposing that’s sufficient. On the contrary, I provide an analysis intending to do what should be done, namely to point out the fallacious nature of the challenge as presuppositionalists employ it.
Ozy closes his chat with the following (8:31 – 8:42):
So in conclusion, there is no legitimate use of the primacy of existence argument when arguing with a presuppositionalist, not even with the most confused Sye-clone version.
So here I will explain, albeit briefly, why the primacy of existence constitutes an insuperable hurdle for the presuppositionalist. And here I will point out that the primacy of existence poses an insurmountable challenge for all theists, presuppositionalists being merely a small subset of a larger population that is epistemologically empty-handed.
The primacy of existence is a challenge to the presuppositionalist given his theism, regardless of whatever arguments he may think he has against non-believers, regardless of how potent he thinks his apologetic is as a challenge to non-Christian viewpoints, regardless how effectively he thinks he has stumped opponents in a debate.
We saw above that presuppositionalism hinges desperately on ignorance of the relationship between the conceptual level of consciousness and sense perception. But this is not the only area of ignorance that directly plagues their apologetic. Similarly, and even more fundamentally, they are ignorant on the proper relationship between consciousness and its objects. This alone has dramatic consequences for their understanding of knowledge, of the world, of their own minds, and when coupled with the former area of ignorance, the philosophical damage is tremendous.
Very simply, the Christian worldview is wholly incompatible with the very concept of truth. We saw earlier that the primacy of existence is the fundamental recognition of the fact that the objects of consciousness exist and are what they are independent of conscious activity. When we perceive a ball, for example, no amount of wishing, hoping, emoting, commanding, imagining, fantasizing, etc., will alter the ball’s nature. It exists and is what it is independent of conscious activity. Again, wishing doesn’t make it so.
Objectivism points out how this fact is fundamental to the concept of truth: when we state that something is the case about the world, and affirm that this statement is true, we are making use of the primacy of existence (qua fundamental recognition about the subject-object relationship). We are essentially saying that “X is the case regardless of what anyone thinks, believes, wishes, hopes, wants, likes, dislikes, prefers, imagines, dreams, etc.” In other words, we are implicitly saying that “X is the case independent of consciousness.” If I say that the Ural Mountains are located in Russia, I’m not implying any disclaimer that this statement can be made untrue if someone doesn’t like this fact, if someone wishes otherwise, if someone didn’t know this, if someone always believed otherwise, if someone imagines otherwise, etc. On the contrary, I’m making the statement as a statement identifying a fact which exists and is what it is independent of any conscious activity.
So the dependence of truth as such on the primacy of existence is demonstrable and undeniable.
Now take a look at the Christian worldview. What does it teach? Well, for one, it teaches that there is a consciousness whose wishing does hold metaphysical primacy over its objects, including the entire universe. According to what Christians tell us, this god (which we can only imagine) essentially wished the universe into being by sheer force of will; everything in the universe exists and is what it is, not independently of conscious activity, but as a result of conscious activity. Thus in Christianity we have at its very foundations the primacy of consciousness: a form of consciousness (albeit, one that we can only imagine) holds metaphysical primacy over everything else that exists.
Given Christianity’s allegiance to the primacy of consciousness metaphysics, it is fundamentally at odds with the very concept of truth, with truth as such. Whenever a Christian affirms that his god exists, he is performatively contradicting himself. For in making this affirmation, he makes use of the primacy of existence (as anyone does any time he affirms something to be the case in reality, even if he’s mistaken) while the content of what he claims assumes the primacy of consciousness metaphysics. In essence, he’s affirming that wishing makes it so in the content of what he claims (cf. “God created the earth and heaven” essentially by wishing them into existence) while implying that wishing doesn’t make it so (cf. “it’s true even if you don’t like it!").
So yes, there is a definite place for the primacy of existence in any encounter with any religionist, including presuppositionalists. But, the important thing is to understand what the primacy of existence actually is, and that is an area where I hope Ozy will endeavor to improve himself. In fact, I would go even further and say that, given the fundamentality of the issue of metaphysical primacy, focusing on the primacy of existence as the foundation of truth as such and Christianity’s rejection of the primacy of existence in favor of the primacy of consciousness, represents the most direct and the most effective way to deal with presuppositionalism.
For more resources on the primacy of existence and how Christianity is in fundamental conflict with it, see the following items from my own writings: