Normativity and the Primacy of Existence
There’s a lot of material to chew on in Anderson’s piece, and I may interact more with his statements there in future installments on my own blog if I find myself so inclined. For the present entry, I will focus primarily on one of the several related issues Anderson raises, namely the idea of normativity.
Anderson produces a quote from Alvin Plantinga indicating that “normativity” – essentially a standard for “right and wrong” and “good and bad” – is incompatible with “metaphysical naturalism.” You see, metaphysical naturalism, says Plantinga, “has no room for normativity.” If this is true, that’s too bad for metaphysical naturalism.
But it’s certainly not the case in Objectivism. In fact, one could argue quite feasibly that normativity is implicit in every act of consciousness, even sensation and perception, given the primacy of existence. The primacy of existence is the proper orientation between consciousness and its objects, and below I will delve deeper into this. Ironically, in spite of Plantinga’s assertions, theism rejects the primacy of existence and consequently is incompatible with normativity.
Anderson does do his readers the service of running through a variety of options he sees open (to varying degrees) to atheists regarding the relationship between moral norms and epistemic norms, and, what I find refreshing, he admits the list of seven alternatives he identifies is exhaustive. “I’m not claiming these are the only options an atheist could entertain,” writes Anderson, “but they do seem to be the main ones.”
The problem I see with his list, and this is a howler on grand scale, is that none of the options he surveys makes any statement about the need to identify the proper relationship between consciousness and its objects and integrate the implications that relationship has for knowledge and morality into a coherent analysis of normativity. It’s as though this most fundamental relationship in all philosophy were simply not a factor to be considered when developing an explanation for epistemic and moral norms. While saddening, this is quite ordinary.
The normative implications of the relationship between consciousness and its objects should not be too difficult to grasp, but since thinkers are so much in the habit of taking it for granted and wading into the deep end of philosophy long before their ready even to tread water, they need to be spelled out.
Consider any act of awareness. Notice that when you are engaged in an act of awareness, there is always some object (or set of objects) of which you are aware. Whether you are looking at a cloud overhead, feeling a dentist’s drill, rooting for your favorite sports team, or chuckling at a coworker’s witty comment, there is always some object that you are aware of. Even if you’re lying in bed at night and just thinking about the day you’re just finishing up, there are your memories that you are reviewing in your mind.
Now since to exist is to be something, to have identity, the relationship between your conscious activity and the objects of your consciousness also exists and has identity. This is not a relationship of equals as any real-time experiment will prove. Just focus your attention on any object before you and try to alter it somehow by an act of will. The object will remain what it is. It holds metaphysical primacy over your conscious activity.
Even if the act in question is a denial of the primacy of existence, that act performatively affirms the primacy of existence by virtue of (a) having an object of the conscious action (in this case, the primacy of existence as a principle) thereby involving one in a relationship between himself as a conscious subject and some object, and (b) constituting a negation which one attempts to pass off as a truth that obtains independent of anyone’s wishes, preferences, temper tantrums, etc. For example, if someone declares “The primacy of existence is not true,” he’s probably not intending to say “the primacy of existence is not true because I don’t like it” or “because I don’t want it to be true.” Rather, he’s intending to verbalize an identification he thinks he’s made of a reality that he implicitly knows exists independent of his conscious activity.
This means that what specifically a person believes, or whether he believes in a god or in zombies or only in non-imaginary things, is irrelevant to the question of what metaphysically “grounds” normativity. Normativity is implicit in the very first act of perceiving anything, since the relationship between perceiving and the object perceived has a static, one-way nature. Because it is not a relationship between equals, one side of the transaction holds metaphysical primacy over the other: the thing perceived is not produced (or “created”) by the conscious activity, nor does the conscious activity have the power to alter the object’s nature (e.g., no amount of wishing will turn water into wine). The perceiver either perceives and identifies the objects before him or ignores them, but the objects themselves still exist and continue to be what they are all the same. Nothing can violate this. That’s normativity with a vengeance!
Since the primacy of existence, being self-evidently true, instructs us that there is only one proper orientation between consciousness and its objects, thus ruling out any expression of the primacy of consciousness (e.g., wishing makes it so), conscious experience as such comes with its own normative requirements built-in, and our task as thinkers is to recognize, understand and apply this to our thinking, our choices, and our actions. As Porter points out:
The primacy of existence is normative. It’s within the power of cognitive consciousness to obey or disobey, but it’s outranked in every respect and any disobedience is failure. Ay product which fails to appropriately conform is not cognition. Reality, whatever it is, is the absolute specification to which cognitive consciousness must ensure the conformity of its malleable product. (Ayn Rand’s Theory of Knowledge, p. 198)
I'd say that all thinkers to one extent or another do in fact sense that existence holds metaphysical primacy over conscious activity implicitly; they implicitly know that reality will not conform to their wishing, beliefs, imagination and emotions, but take this fact for granted, ignoring its implications for philosophy and, in many cases, even resenting any reminder of it. Unfortunately, few thinkers seem willing to grasp it explicitly and apply it consistently in their worldview. Most wobble between casual ignorance to outright evasion.
The implications which the primacy of existence has for epistemology and morality are enormous and pervasive. If the objects of consciousness exist and are what they are independent of consciousness, then the task of consciousness is not to create those objects (e.g., wish them into being) or to alter them into what they are not by an act of will (e.g., wishing water into wine), but to perceive and identify those objects according to the nature we discover in those objects by looking outward (as opposed to the subjective approach of looking inward and pretending that the objects one finds in the world are what one prefers them to be – cf. “just have faith!”). In short, the primacy of existence means that reason is the proper standard of knowledge. Reason is the faculty which identifies and integrates the objects of the senses – the things we see, feel, touch, etc., when we look outward. (Rational introspection is the application of reason in the effort to identify and integrate the steps one has taken to reach a conclusion, why he feels a certain way, why he likes or dislikes something, etc.) And we do this by means of a conceptual process (hence any worldview fit for rational human consumption will need a theory of concepts which explores and understands what concepts are and how they are formed – this is something Christianity surely does not have).
In the realm of morality, the primacy of existence informs us that, as biological organisms facing a fundamental alternative (i.e., life vs. death), our existence is conditional and thus certain courses of actions are needed in order to maintain our lives. As biological organisms, we need values; no act of wishing or preferring or imagining will alter this. Our need for values, including food, water, shelter, happiness, love, personal fulfillment, etc., has profound normative implications: we must not only identify what values we need in order to live, we must also identify what is the proper course of action to achieve those values (this is known as virtue). Morality is thus the application of reason to the task of living; it is a code of values to guide man’s choices and actions. (See my blog The Moral Code of Life.) Thus man needs morality because his life depends on it. (It’s important to note here a fundamental distinction between objective morality and the morality of subjective worldviews, like theism: whereas in subjective worldviews, man must serve morality, in Objectivism, morality serves man.)
Like objectivity then, normativity as such presupposes the primacy of existence metaphysics: Reality is what it is independent of anyone’s wishes, emotions, preferences, likes or dislikes, imagination, temper tantrums, etc., and this inalterability of reality provides a basis and a standard for man’s cognition and right action. As Bacon put it, “Nature, to be commanded, must be obeyed.” We either identify reality according to its terms and govern our actions accordingly (e.g., learning that touching your finger to an open flame results in pain and choosing not to play with fire), or ignore reality to the detriment of our own values, up to and including our life as such (e.g., ignore the fact that dousing oneself with gasoline and lighting a match will very likely result in death). Since we have this choice and the actions we perform have real consequences for our lives (whether we like it or not – that’s the primacy of existence), we need an objective standard which guides our choices and actions. In other words, we need morality because existence holds metaphysical primacy over conscious activity.
On the other hand, on theism’s metaphysical premises, what could possibly serve as a basis for normativity? Theism stands squarely and explicitly on the primacy of consciousness – e.g., the primacy of wishing makes it so, the primacy of commandments, the primacy of the subject over the object (metaphysical subjectivism). According to theism, a supernatural consciousness has the ability to will things into and out of existence, to alter the objects of its consciousness by an act of sheer will, to wish water into wine, to command dead people back to life, to magically cast a mountain on land into the sea, etc. There could be no reliable normative standard in the cartoon universe of theism.
On this view, reason clearly cannot serve as the standard of knowledge, for man, being fallible and non-omniscient, would never be able to identify reliably the objects of his awareness with any accuracy or precision. If a supernatural being has the power to alter reality by sheer force of will, even if it has made no changes, man can never achieve certainty. The master of the house fills the water pots with water and walks away; moments later when he comes back, he discovers that the water has changed to wine. Looking outward only gives us awareness of “appearances” rather than “ultimate reality” (cf. Bahnsen, Always Ready, p. 181), and thus we cannot fully trust what we perceive. Thus, we must look inward into the contents of our consciousness, to our imagination, our feelings, our wishes, our hopes, and it is here were “the Truth” can be finally discerned, having no dependent relationship on what is actually real. This is mysticism; its method is faith: the investment of one’s hopes in imagination and fantasy.
Consider how this plays out in morality. Since on the theistic worldview, reality is essentially analogous to a cartoon and man’s life is only a temporary station in his transit to an afterlife that awaits him after his biological functions cease, morality ultimately has nothing to do with meeting the conditions of man’s existence qua biological organism, but rather with serving and worshiping a being which can only be imagined. In the final analysis, life-based teleology is consequently irrelevant to how “right and wrong” are to be conceived, for the wishes, preferences and commandments of a supernatural being are the “ultimate standard,” no matter what they might be. Man’s values, then, are continually subject to sacrifice, if the supernatural consciousness so desires, and man is expected to simply accept this as part of “God’s plan” or “the Lord’s will.”
It gets worse. For example, the Christian god, says Greg Bahnsen, “has a morally sufficient reason for the evil which exists” (“Always Ready,” p. 172). This turns morality completely upside down. Indeed, how can one trust someone when he’s low enough to use evil to achieve his ends? How can one call a being “good” when it’s on such cozy terms with evil? Evil is that which destroys or threatens man’s values. To say that there is such a thing as “a morally sufficient reason for evil” is essentially to say there is a morally sufficient reason to destroy human values, up to and including human lives. When people have this idea in their head (think ISIS here), good people need to take action to protect themselves, and quick!
It’s rather telling that Bahnsen never tells us what that alleged “morally sufficient reason for the evil which exists” is which he says his god has. But this is right in line with the epistemic implications of theism’s anti-normativity; when one embraces a form of subjectivism, one does not need to have identified something in order to pass judgment on it. And that’s precisely what Bahnsen models here: he does not identify what “reason” justifies his god’s use of evil to achieve its ends, but Bahnsen still evaluates it as “morally sufficient” all the same. What specifically is he calling “a morally sufficient reason”? Even he cannot say. This is the stuff of faith – i.e., investing one’s hopes in the imaginary. Bahnsen does not even explain how he knows any of this – of course! He can’t! It’s just his own subjective speculations on what needs to be the case in order to maintain fidelity to the metaphysics of wishing makes it so.
Consider another example: according to the gospel tradition, the Christian god as a father willfully turns its back on its own son Jesus when he’s being tortured and readied for execution, and Christians seem to think this is an expression of love. Seriously?! What kind of father would do this? This is in the same category as Abraham unquestioningly obeying a voice commanding him to prepare his own son as a burnt offering to an invisible magic being. It’s a test of faith, we’re told. This is essentially asking the believer if he can maintain his commitment to religious fantasies even when they threaten to destroy his highest values.
So the choices we all have before us are quite clear: either we recognize the fact that existence exists independent of conscious activity and thereby conform to the normative implications which this fact has for knowledge and morality, or we deny reality and ignore the nature of the relationship between consciousness and its objects and thereby abandon knowledge and morality to subjective speculations and irrational fantasies.
In the final section of his blog entry, Anderson states that “the atheist bears something of a burden to indicate how epistemic norms might be explained on a consistently atheistic basis.” I have done more than this: I have explained not only how normativity does not require theism, but in fact that theism and normativity are philosophical opposites. So when Anderson announces that “given the parallels between moral norms and rational norms, a worldview which struggles to account for the former will also struggle to account for the latter,” we can point to how the Christian worldview does worse than merely struggle to account for moral and rational norms, it explicitly stands against them given theism’s rejection of the primacy of existence as well as its lack of a theory of concepts. To show that normativity is compatible with theism, the very least that Anderson would have to do is to show that normativity has its basis in the primacy of wishing makes it so. Then, in a manner consistent with theism’s foundations, Anderson could wish away the need to have a firm philosophical grasp of the nature of concepts and the process by which we form them.
But where I probably disagree most emphatically with Anderson is his following statement:
I maintain that a consistent atheist ought to embrace both amoralism (the denial of objective moral norms) and arationalism (the denial of objective epistemic norms). At least, those atheists who have openly embraced amoralism should also, for consistency’s sake, advocate arationalism, because the logic that leads from atheism to amoralism continues to push through to arationalism.
I conclude then, that Plantinga and apologists who repeat his nonsense are entirely mistaken when they claim that theism is the only worldview with which normative rational and moral standards are compatible. That they never discuss the issue of metaphysical primacy, but rather steer way out of its way so that they don’t allow attention to be drawn to it, should not surprise anyone. But the question must be asked: How can thinkers suppose that they are providing a thorough analysis of the metaphysical preconditions of epistemic and moral normativity if they never present an explicit understanding of the nature of the relationship between consciousness and its objects? If one claims that he is interested in identifying and preserving the truth, what could possibly justify ignoring the most fundamental issue in all philosophy?
by Dawson Bethrick