Sunday, August 07, 2016

Normativity and the Primacy of Existence

Ever-valiant defender of the faith James Anderson has posted a blog entry titled Atheism, Amoralism, and Arationalism. It’s more of the usual fare that we’ve all seen many times before, the same tired claim that atheism as such is philosophically self-destructive because of some imagined consequence it supposedly has for the basis of thought and virtue. Anderson just likes to use a lot of big words in order to make his version appear more beefy.

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 not 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 which this 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)
So rather than reality conforming to the contents of conscious activity (cf. “And God said let there be light, and there was light”), our conscious activity, given the primacy of existence, must conform to reality if the product of our conscious activity (i.e., our conceptual formulations) is to identify reality accurately. Thinkers do have a choice not to do this, which is why the imperative here is hypothetical in nature: what is the thinker’s goal, to identify reality on its own terms, or to blank out and invest himself in fantasies? If one chooses the former goal, he will need to grasp the normative implications of the primacy of existence.

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.
Why encourage thinkers to “embrace both amoralism and arationalism”? If they accept one of these, why urge them to make their philosophical predicament worse instead of re-examining their premises? Why seek to deepen people’s philosophical self-destruction? Could it be that misery loves company?

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?

Nothing can.

by Dawson Bethrick


Jason mc said...

Probably, the urge to 'deepen people’s philosophical self-destruction' arises from the apologetic strategy of denigrating rival worldviews. None may be allowed to stand as live options, lest they tempt the believer to stray into them.

Regarding the issue of metaphysical primacy, I want to challenge you a bit. You refer to 'the proper orientation between consciousness and its objects'. You say that the proper position is the primacy of existence, and give some examples to support this view.

The alternative view, the primacy of consciousness, has exhaustively been shown to be impossible to consistently hold.

My question is: what's wrong with a mixed metaphysics? I.e. the view that in some acts of consciousness, PoE holds, and in others, PoC holds?

Instances of correct PoC seem to arise in things called social constructs. Like market value. The prices of things depend, partly at least, on how much people value them. Or cultural beauty standards, as another example. Both objective facts, and subjective feelings, together seem to determine the facts here.

(I haven't yet made my way through the whole IP archive so if you've already tackled something like this... Cool. I'll read it gladly.)

I know John Searle has written on this topic. I doubt his account makes explicit use of the PoE concept... but it might be compatible with it, him being a direct realist. It's on my reading list...

All the best.

Ydemoc said...

Hey Dawson,

I'm way behind in my reading right now (and with this entry, it looks like I'll be even FURTHER behind!).

But I just wanted to say: Thanks again!


Bahnsen Burner said...

Hi Jason,

Thank you for your recent comments, and for your questions here.

You wrote: Probably, the urge to 'deepen people’s philosophical self-destruction' arises from the apologetic strategy of denigrating rival worldviews. None may be allowed to stand as live options, lest they tempt the believer to stray into them.”

Yes, I think this is a fairly accurate summary of the motivation behind Anderson’s urge that non-believers who make one philosophical mistake multiply the destruction of that mistake by repeating it in another area. But Anderson does something quite insidious here: he uses the idea of consistency as his outward justification for doing so. But in response I say that consistency as such is not an end in itself, and consistency applied to vice is no virtue. The casualty here is virtue, and this makes Anderson’s encouragement all the more vicious. I think he’s just allowed his apologetic ambitions blind himself to these points, however temporarily, for I don’t think he’s essentially a bad man as such. But his worldview doesn’t help! That’s my point.

You wrote: “Regarding the issue of metaphysical primacy, I want to challenge you a bit.”

Sure, go ahead.

You wrote: “You refer to 'the proper orientation between consciousness and its objects'. You say that the proper position is the primacy of existence, and give some examples to support this view.”

Yes, I do. I can offer more if it’s not clear. But I’m curious why this would not be clear once it’s pointed out. That’s okay – devil’s advocate is a welcome sparring partner (until he overstays of course).

You wrote: “The alternative view, the primacy of consciousness, has exhaustively been shown to be impossible to consistently hold.”

Yes, it has. Consider: if one were to say, “the primacy of existence is false because I want it to be false,” who would find this convincing? Typically people who embrace the POC find more subtle ways to peddle their craft.


Bahnsen Burner said...

You asked: “My question is: what's wrong with a mixed metaphysics? I.e. the view that in some acts of consciousness, PoE holds, and in others, PoC holds?”

Well, in a profound way, this is what most people try to achieve in the way they divide their “mundane” activity from their “spiritual” activity. It’s as though they have two diametrically opposed worlds that they think they’re inhabiting, one governed by the primacy of existence, the other by the primacy of consciousness. A consistent metaphysics in terms of metaphysical primacy is not under consideration, because they’ve never explicitly considered it before, and even if they did for a moment or two, most people have been taught ways to evade conflicts between thoughts and suppress the resulting psychological fallout (e.g., instead of identifying and dealing with their internal conflicts, they take drugs or “prescription meds,” or go to church, turn the music louder, watch an extra hour of reruns, and what have you).

But what would justify a mixed metaphysics, namely a metaphysics which tries to strike a compromise between the POE and the POC? On what basis would such a compromise be rationally defensible? Certainly not on the primacy of existence; it holds that truth, rational judgment and moral norms presuppose the primacy of existence without compromise. (Some have faulted Objectivism for being even more strict than Christian ethics just on this point.)

What about on the basis of the POC? Can the primacy of consciousness – i.e., the primacy of wishing makes it so, of emotions, of imagination, of “hopes,” of looking inward over looking outward – offer something that’s at all consistent and reliable, enough so to justify choosing one alternative over another? Suppose one consciousness claims “The primacy of existence clearly applies in case X, but the primacy of consciousness applies in case Y” (presumably because he wishes; could the primacy of existence support this? No). Then another consciousness could, assuming the primacy of consciousness, come along and say, “No, the primacy of consciousness applies in case X, and the primacy of existence applies in case Y” (again, presumably because he wishes). Here we would have ultimate subjectivism battling ultimate subjectivism. But if you survey the history of human thought, we have example after example of just this, in just about every guise you can imagine (since the imagination is not only the limit, but the final arbiter).

All of this misses the fact that truth as such presupposes the primacy of existence, as demonstrated in the examples I’ve given. If this is not clear, please let me know. It may simply be that there’s a misunderstanding operating in the background here. If so, I want to help correct that.


Bahnsen Burner said...

You wrote: “Instances of correct PoC seem to arise in things called social constructs. Like market value. The prices of things depend, partly at least, on how much people value them.”

In the realm of values, it is very common for thinkers to assume that values are inherently subjective, unless of course (as in the case of religious apologists) they’re said to have been handed down by some sort of divine fiat decree. This stems from the assumption that values are simply products of preference and desire (where preferences and desires are treated as irreducible primaries having no contextual relationship to a mind-independent reality). In fact, contrary to this assumption, there is such a category as objective moral values, and their basis is the facts pertaining to man’s nature as a living organism which possesses a volitional consciousness capable for conceptual integration. Man needs food, water, shelter, protection, reason, work, philosophy, happiness, etc., regardless of what anyone desires or prefers; one can “prefer” that man can survive without work, for example, but that won’t make our need for work go away. This category of values is what I’m talking about when I’m talking objective moral values. Specific preferences and desires are essentially irrelevant. The primacy of consciousness has no place here. This is pure primacy of existence all the way.

As for price-setting, in a free market, prices can be set as a consequence of a broad context of factors, with approaches to price-setting ranging from arbitrary notions (e.g., “I should be able to get $1000.00 for this soiled napkin autographed by C. Abner Forkenheit” – who the hell is he?) to very broad analyses which take into account production costs, storage and transfer expenses, damage and loss rates, marketing expenses, packaging, third-party resellers, etc. A company which takes the former, arbitary route, probably won’t stay in business very long (i.e., reality can’t be cheated, given the primacy of existence). But one which does its homework will stand a better chance of remaining competitive (cf. Bacon’s dictum, “Nature, to be commanded, must be obeyed”).


Bahnsen Burner said...

You wrote: “Or cultural beauty standards, as another example. Both objective facts, and subjective feelings, together seem to determine the facts here.”

I’m inclined to think that aesthetic judgments are far more complex than many would likely suppose off the bat. For example, I find “rap music” horrendously offensive to my tastes (it almost hurts), and I know that many folks would probably find my tastes to be offensive as well. (For example, I LOVE Webern’s music, and have since the mid-1980s when I first discovered it; since then I’ve met really only one other person who appreciates it as I do). But I think that the reason why an individual likes one set of aesthetics and not others is not something one can just dismiss as merely “subjective preference.” There is a constellation of causes here, one which Rand summed up with her concept of ‘sense of life’, which very much can be objectively informed. She gives many insights on this in her book The Romantic Manifesto. Check it out sometime. It’s a life-changer, and for the better!

Let me know if you still have some lingering questions on this. But please be specific if you can.


Bahnsen Burner said...

Hi Ydemoc,

As always, great to hear from you!

You think you're behind on your reading? I can do one better: I'm behind on my blogging!

Well, I'll try to remedy that soon!

We need to catch up one of these days.


Jason mc said...

Hi Dawson,

I appreciate the response. I'll try to be clear and specific in my follow-up.

To the question, 'what would justify a mixed metaphysics'? I agree that neither PoE nor PoC would. But I point to the mentioned evaluative phenomena as possible mixed examples.

I take your point in the objective basis of moral values. But there's also personal taste. And there's a massive marketing industry working to change tastes. Businesses can't ignore market reality, but they work to mould it to their interests, on a psychological level.

The Romantic Manifesto - another one for my reading list.

I was unclear in my point there. I actually had in mind standards of physical human beauty. The objective part would include visible bodily health. The subjective part seems to vary from person to person, and with the masses across time and world cultures.

And again, it seems to be partly malleable by deliberate effort. The activist groups striving to change the culture in this way certainly hope so. E.g 'fat acceptance'.

I realise I've strayed pretty far from the main topic of IP here...

But if anyone wants to try to formulate a transcendental argument for the existence of God based on fat acceptance, I'd like to read it.

All the best

Bahnsen Burner said...

Hi again Jason,

I guess I’m not quite grasping what you’re asking. If you’re asking whether there are people who are irrational and make subjective choices regarding what they find aesthetically pleasing, clearly the answer is yes – probably no one is completely immune to this. The difference here is one of what people actually do and what people should do (cf. is-ought).

And yes, there are people, especially in the entertainment world, who are always trying to exploit the culture’s vulnerabilities in these areas, and to make those vulnerabilities even weaker, to bring them down. Often this come in the form of “shock value.” Take for example the magazine cover featuring a nude Lady Gaga wrapped in meat. This was some years ago now. Perhaps you remember it. Unfortunately I do.

I think my immediate point here is to caution you from supposing that ‘personal taste’ is inherently subjective simply because it varies from individual to individual. I don’t think that’s true. Everyone having the same taste would not make taste objective. The standard of objectivity involves an orientation between consciousness and the facts of reality, not invariance with other minds. Rational philosophy teaches an individual that, even if everyone else is irrational, you can be rational, and here’s how. I think that’s pretty powerful.

Clearly the topic of my blog entry above is about the basis of normativity in epistemology and ethics, and I tried to constrain my points to just this. (Thought I have no problem with comments spinning off into different orbits, so don’t worry about that, Jason. I enjoy it!)


Bahnsen Burner said...

But a broader point here to keep in mind is that philosophy is hierarchical, beginning with metaphysics (e.g., the issue of metaphysical primacy), then epistemology, then morality/ethics, then politics (the application of moral principles to interpersonal relationships) and then finally art.

In his book Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand, Peikoff makes the following point (p. 130):

<< Human knowledge is not like a village of squat bungalows, with every room huddling down against the earth’s surface. Rather, it is like a city of towering skyscrapers, with the uppermost story of each building resting on the lower ones, and they on the still lower, until one reaches the foundation, where the builder started. The foundation supports the whole structure by virtue of being in contact with solid ground. >>

Using this analogy, art is not on the ground floor. Perhaps it’s up on the 50th or 70th floor. Or higher. (Even this may vary from individual, given how much thought he has devoted to informing and developing his understanding of the more fundamental provinces of philosophy.) It’s not difficult, once one is on the 50th floor, to lose track of what’s happening on the street level. This is why Rand stressed the importance of a fully integrated philosophy. Art, she maintained, is a vital human need that brings to bear the sum of one’s implicit philosophical convictions. (See some pointers here.)

Regarding personal tastes, there’s a lot involved in what goes into developing one’s artistic preferences or leanings. It’s an enormous context, which makes the whole topic both exciting and extremely delicate. The point is that those preferences are not irreducible primaries. If they were, I could just as easily decide to like Ansel Adams as well as Lady Gaga dressed in a side of beef. I don’t think I’d ever find a portrait of a chocolate cake with the rotting carcass of a dead squirrel draped over it aesthetically pleasing. I don’t think I’m unique in this.

Anyway, if I’m not speaking directly to your question, my apologies. But if you’re interested in the topic of art, personal tastes, and the role philosophy plays in this area (an interest that I strongly encourage), please get a copy of Rand’s book The Romantic Manifesto. Just be careful here: it’s best to have a strong grasp of her metaphysics, epistemology and morality before diving in.

Okay, I need to head off to work.


Jason mc said...

I appreciate the detailed response, Dawson.

I'll try to restate the main point of my argument more clearly, as it's clearer to me now. It comes down to an apparent tension between the concept of the POE and free will.

Some objects of consciousness, some objective facts of reality, are what they are as a result of causes which include some subject's conscious, volitional activity. So we have facts that seem to obtain not 'independently of conscious actions'.

Cf. the idea of objectivity, defined similarly to POE: 'In metaphysics the objective position is the view that the objects of consciousness are what they are independent of any subject’s conscious activity' (from your essay here.)

To illustrate, two non-magical examples:

1. Someone wins a beauty contest. A panel of judges picks the winner out of 100 contestants. The winner won, because of the judges' conscious actions (their liking, disliking, preferring, emoting, in this case).

2. Similarly, the conscious actions of buyers and sellers (their preferences, likes and dislikes, wishes, perhaps fantasies inspired by advertising material) influence their economic decisions, and these ultimately cause prevailing market prices to arrive at whatever particular dollar values they are at any given time.

Till next time.

Bahnsen Burner said...


Yes, I understand what you’re saying, and I’ve seen this kind of objection raised before. But it is a rather elementary mistake. The primacy of existence does not deny the fact that we have consciousness; it does not deny the nature of the kind of consciousness we have (i.e., a volitional consciousness); it does not deny the fact that we have volitional control over many of our own body functions (e.g., moving our own limbs and fingers, speaking out loud, pushing buttons, handling tools, driving vehicles, etc.).

Yes, human beings do act, and since this is an obvious fact of reality, the primacy of existence would be very poorly formulated if it denied this or were somehow incompatible with it. But the primacy of existence does not deny this. Not even close!

Take for example the desire to take a sip of coffee. Does the desire by itself serve to satisfy itself? Does desiring as such satisfy the desirer’s desire? Does just desiring to have a sip of coffee produce the desired results? Of course, it doesn’t. Reality doesn’t obey our desires (again, POE). If I want a sip of coffee, I need to act - I need to apply my volition to my own movements in goal-oriented fashion to achieve what I desire, and even this is not foolproof – e.g., I might drop the cup of coffee or someone might knock into it as he clumsily tries to reach for his coffee, dangerously close to mine!

So clearly conscious activity by its lonesome is not sufficient to affect the objects we perceive. We need to grasp the concept of productive labor, and all its philosophical implications (and importance!).

Consider: I look at a coffee cup and it happens to be empty. If I want the cup to be full of coffee again, does just wishing, commanding, imagining, emoting, saying “hocus pocus” or getting angry fill the cup with coffee? No, clearly it does not. Why not? Objectivism identifies the reason why this does not happen with a self-evident principle, the primacy of existence, which identifies the relationship we actually find between our consciousness and the objects of our consciousness.

Does this principle mean you can’t take volitionally-guided action to fill the cup with coffee? Of course not.


Bahnsen Burner said...

If a panel of judges has been invited to cast votes in a beauty pageant, do they just *think* “that one’s the winner because I want it”? I doubt it. Rather, they have certain criteria that they will need to consult in their evaluation (i.e., conforming their judgments to a given standard) and go through the active process of actually registering and delivering their votes, whether it’s filling out a card and placing it into a hat or dialing it into a handheld device, etc. Reality doesn’t just automatically adjust itself to conscious activity. We need to take action. And since multiple individuals are involved in the whole process, the outcome is a sum of many, many actions, not just a sum of desires.

Similarly in the marketplace. You’ve probably heard the expression that people “vote with their pocketbook.” It’s not just the conscious actions of sellers and buyers, but their physical actions that count. If I’m a seller and my sole action is conscious in nature (“Damn, I hope someone comes in and buys something today!”), how long am I going to survive? If I’m relying solely on conscious actions, what will I have to sell? I don’t even have anything in my shop; I won’t even have a shop! I need to act.

Objectivism teaches that we need to guide our choices and actions by rational principle. That’s the primacy of existence applied to the task of identifying and integrating what we perceive in reality further applied to the task of living, given our nature as biological organisms. Bacon’s dictum – “Nature, to be commanded, must be obeyed” – while rather metaphorical, is pregnant with implications. Since nature cannot be commanded simply by conscious activity, but by consciously directed action, we need to apply our reason to our actions to achieve our goals.

We are not just conscious beings floating around in some hypothetical Ethernet. We are real physical beings with real attributes and real abilities. Man is, as Rand put it, an integration of matter and consciousness. In accurately understanding reality, we cannot divide man into two warring halves and focus only on one or the other half. This is what virtually all the philosophies throughout history, prior to Objectivism (and many since), have done to one extent or another.

Fascinating questions. But they’ve all been raised and addressed before, Jason. Please, continue exploring. I can tell you’re a willing learner. That will benefit you more than anything else.


Jason mc said...

Hi Dawson,

Thanks for the explanation. I think I get the concept more fully now. POE is understood to be compatible with facts in reality that happen to be causally dependent on, say, prior states of human conscious, as the chain of causality there necessarily includes bodily, physical interactions. So these facts aren't considered metaphysically dependent on those states of consciousness.

Does that seem right?

I've been ruminating on a post for my own blog, discussing religion, epistemology and ethics. The basic idea came from watching this video, a few clips from some TV show episode. The post will be about religious suspicion of atheists, and about how differing moral views regarding 'faith' probably hinder communication.

I think presuppositionalists are a religious anomaly in this respect: they have to some extent adopted a secular, sceptical view of faith. This is evident in their keenness to ascribe faith to atheists. Like, you're just as bad as us. And when they try to show they have a minimal number of presuppositions/faith beliefs.

To contrast, from the video: the atheist offers as a conciliatory statement, "we just have different philosophies."

The patriarch responds: "I don't have a philosophy. I have a faith." He's proud of it. I have something valuable, that you don't have.

Considering the view of faith a virtue: this could be a matter of dutiful obedience, believing what you're told (divine command ethics leading to divine command epistemology?). But then, some religious communities have probably inherited the ancient conceptions of virtue, as excellence of character, or strength. So by implication, lack of faith would be interpreted as weakness. This would seem to be relevant to cultures that place a high premium on masculinity.

(I had the privilege of a non-religious upbringing. I remember once in school, when my non-belief came up in conversation, the somewhat hostile reaction I got from one Christian classmate. This reaction was amusingly baffling to me at the time, but now I think I understand where some of this animus comes from.)

I don't want my piece to be totally speculative, so I got the idea to visit one or two of my local churches and ask someone who preaches faith. And it'll be cool visit the local Masjid and get an Islamic take too.

Joe said...

Hi Dawson,
This is a very insightful post.Thanks for taking the time to share your thoughts.I am trying to imagine how a Christian might respond. I am wondering what your response would be if the Christian brought up the Trinity. The consciousness of God is possible because each person is the object of the other persons of the Trinity. Is this a way to explain how God could be aware and conscious being? Would this avoid theism being subjective? What about those theists who claim that God is the ground of existence or being?

Jason mc said...

I think that to specify what God is conscious of would fall short of providing an explanation of how such a being could be conscious. Lacking sense organs, neural structures, and being changeless (precluding the possibility of learning over time) all cast doubt on the notion.

So smart theists will not eagerly accept the burden of having to provide an explanation. The idea of divine consciousness seems unexplainable. A causal explanation, involving time, would contradict divine timelessness. God is defined as being timelessly aware of all facts, and this is taken on faith.

As for subjectivity, this comes in to play in God's relationship to 'creation'. Created things conform to God's consciousness of them (as in creation ex nihilo, and miracles). God's 'knowledge' can't come from reason and learning, it's necessarily radically different from human knowledge...

(Regarding what this implies for theists, and the possibility of human objectivity, I'll leave for someone else to tackle.)

praestans said...

Dear Dawson

I'm trying t find material on the paramountcy'v being human-centred rather than the skandalising'v this by apologists substituting jesus-centredness t find peace, love etc...

I'm sure u'v ritn lots on this. please direct/ixplain.


Francois Tremblay said...

Anderson's blog doesn't allow for comments. Coward much? Not interested in dialogue, more interested in sniping from the safety of his ideological crow's nest, I guess.

Anyway, I wrote my own analysis of his nonsense here:

Thank you BB for pointing this entry out. It was very interesting conceptually, but ultimately it didn't have much more substance than the usual apologetics, it's just better written.

Bahnsen Burner said...

Hello Francois,

It's really nice to hear from you! I hope you've been well. Thank you for commenting.

Yes, it's true that while Anderson does tend to write better than many apologists (one would hope with all that uber-education!), the content leaves much wanting! From what I've observed, Anderson's arguments have not improved at all from the days when he wrote the paper you clobbered here, back in the good ol' days. (Remember that? I sure do!)

But you do raise a good point, namely the apparent inaccessibility of the comment form on Anderson's blog. I even have a Wordpress account it still I could not get in there an post a comment. I did try, too, several times in fact, before putting up my post here. I don't think he is interested in dialogue. Statements he's made about me in particular indicate that he has not found dialogue with me to be very fruitful. That's odd! When I dialogue with mature thinkers, most seem to find something to learn from me, just as I learn from them. I relish the exchange. But someone with a confessional investment is more concerned about protecting something than interested in growing intellectually. Perhaps once one attains a "higher degree" from some pompous institution, he becomes the know-it-all he's always presumed himself to be, and simply has "transcendent excuses" not to condescend himself and discuss things with puny, lowly people like myself. His loss.

Of course, I hope I'm mistaken in this impression, and would be delighted to discuss these and other matters with Anderson. Perhaps he could explain certain things to me, such as how one can reliably distinguish his god from something that is merely imaginary, or how one can speak of objective epistemic and moral norms without any consideration of the proper orientation between the subject of consciousness and its objects. Or, perhaps he could explain how Christianity, in spite of its lack of a theory of concepts, can have anything of deep philosophical value to offer on these matters.

But I shall not be holding my breath. I have better things to do.

Again, nice to hear from you. Chime in again sometime. I'll be sure to check out your blog, Francois.

Best to you!

Francois Tremblay said...

Thank you for reminding me of that entry! I didn't even remember it. You have a good memory.

I would very much like this Anderson fellow to address either of us. Sadly it doesn't seem like he has any interest. He hasn't commented on either. Well, whacha gonna do.

Not that I would expect much. It seems he has no argument for the impossibility of secular moral norms except "well, it doesn't make sense to me!"

Bahnsen Burner said...

Hi Francois,

I may be wrong (and would love to be!), but I don’t think Anderson is going to show his face around either your blog or mine. I suspect, even if he were aware of our interaction with his writings (he might not be!), he’d probably not read through them very carefully (let’s not expose ourselves to a different point of view!), and would resist any urge he might have of venturing over into what he would probably consider “hostile territory” to engage in a debate he’d have no chance of winning. As a member of the professoriate, he has a paying audience who come to soak up his pearls of wisdom in lapdog fashion. He surely wouldn’t want to risk being shown up by undereducated brutes like myself.

It’s been pointed out by more than one thinker that academics have had it easy, intellectually speaking, and have gotten lazy, given the anti-intellectual climate of university campuses. The professors are the new priestly class – don’t you dare disagree or question them, and don’t learn how to detect bullshit. This is ripest of course in the humanities, which have been corrupted by horrid political programs for the better part of a century now. Think of the buzz words “diversity,” “multiculturalism,” “white privilege,” etc. A nearby community college recently hosted “Whiteness History Month” (see here).

I’m not saying Anderson himself is party to any of these alarming trends (I'd be surprised if he were), but rather making the point that the climate in these “higher learning” institutions lends them more to being places of propaganda and indoctrination than foundries of intellectual excellence.

However, I think there’s another point here that’s easy for folks to miss. In addition to "it doesn't make sense to me" or "I can't understand how," both of which are statements about the individual himself rather than about the topic at hand (I can't explain how my microwave works, but I use it quite frequently!), Anderson et al. have something else: choice quotes from non-Christian thinkers which play right into their hands and bolster their mystical narrative. You'll see that Christian apologists are happy to cite the words of atheists, but only if the statements they cite can be shown to be a case in point (and often they do, even without being ripped from their original context). This appears to give their ignorance ("I don't see how...") the impression of having some kind of evidential support: "See! One of their own even admits they have no moral foundation!"

What's ironic, and what they typically fail to see, is that the folks they're citing are very often guilty of the very thing they like to accuse non-believers of doing, namely "borrowing from the Christian worldview." Many (if not most?) critics of religion have inherited subliminal influences from religion (e.g., primacy of consciousness, anti-conceptual premises, sacrificial ethics, implicit collectivism, etc.) without realizing it. And the apologists, clueless as they so often are, don't even recognize the kinship between what they're scoffing at and their own position. They’re completely blinded by the distraction of “theism good, atheism bad,” never confronting the issues of proper starting point, the subject-object relationship, the nature of concepts, a philosophical understanding of definition, etc.

I mean, if you were defending a worldview that has no theory of concepts whatsoever, what would motivate you to quote critics of your position whose philosophy does have a theory of concepts, and a robust one at that? So I don’t think the Andersons of the world will ever be quoting statements I’ve made here on my blog which easily lend themselves to supporting their fantasy-saturated narrative. In that sense, they must see me as a bit of a spoilsport.


Francois Tremblay said...

Agreed on all points!

Kevin said...

Hi, I'm new here, stumbled across your blog by accident, and got intrigued. Your post raised one question (well, several actually, but we'll start with one!) that I'd be interested to hear you respond to. I'm no philosopher, so forgive me if this seems basic =].

In your post you wrote, "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...morality is thus the application of reason to the task of living."

This is the first I've encountered this term, 'the primacy of existence' (evidence of my ignorance, I suppose), but I think I get what you mean - moral norms are what they are because reality is what it is, and without normative values we will perish. Yes?

My question is this: isn't there a fundamental 'moral' value that lies behind your position, which isn't based on the primacy of existence? Namely, the moral judgment that life is preferable to death. On what basis do you assume this?

The system of values you propose flow from the assumption that humans should seek to preserve our lives. As you say, "Thus man needs morality because his life depends on it." Well, what if we assume that death is preferable to life? Then, proceeding from the same facts of existence, we would end up with completely opposite "normative values."

So it seems that a moral value, namely that life is preferable to death, lies behind, or is more primary, than what you call existence. It seems like you presuppose this moral value before you start applying your reason to the facts of existence in order to discover moral values.

Again, I'm no philosopher, so maybe there's an easy answer to this. I'd love to hear your response.

Full disclosure, I am a Christian. Have a pretty meager philosophy background (a few classes in college, a few books here and there). I did read a little Bahnsen years ago. Just didn't want you to think I was trolling you.

Look forward to your response!

Francois Tremblay said...

Jason- I've written a refutation of Bahnsen Burner's position on this issue, which you might find interesting.

Robert Kidd said...

Wow. So elegantly and succinctly put.