by Rafael Eilon
Undoubtedly many subscribers to this forum -- perhaps most -- have gone through a phase when Rand's teaching had dominated their thinking; a phase when they thought that she had all the right answers, and all one had to do was study what she taught. I myself have gone through such a phase, which lasted more than a decade in my case. During that time, my admiration of Rand strongly affected my judgment; and I now think this resulted in a certain degree of blindness.
Such a state of admiration-induced partial blindness is very common, caused by the idolization of an admired teacher. In most cases, however, the teachings of admired teachers have flaws; and gradually, with time, the eyes of even the most ardent admirer usually open to see those flaws.
It took decades, as I said, for my eyes to open to what I consider the most significant flaw in Rand's teaching. At first, I only felt a vague uneasiness when reading her formulation of fundamentals; but with time and learning, my own view gradually took form with increasing clarity and certainty. Let me then get more specific and introduce my subject.
Perhaps the most fundamental principle of Rand's philosophical system is the "Primacy of Existence" principle. The meaning of this principle is supposed to be very simple and axiomatic; in other words, such a key principle is supposed to be a clear and meaningful observation of a self-evident fact. Does the PoE principle answer such a description? I don't think so. (By PoE I mean here the Primacy of Existence principle, not either of Einstein's Principles of Equivalence.) Let me ask you this: when Rand taught us to "check our premises", did she expect us to keep a fundamental premise such as this one immune from checking?
I am quite sure that Rand considered NO premise immune from checking. It is therefore rather alarming to discover how many difficulties arise when this particular premise is exposed to even the simplest logical query. Let me outline some of these difficulties.
1) Primacy in relation to what, and in what sense?
Of course, everyone knows that the primacy is in relation to consciousness. But while it is natural for a believer in the primacy of consciousness to hold that consciousness is external to existence and separate from it, this is not the case for a believer in the primacy of existence. consciousness is a fact _of_ existence ("consciousness has identity", wrote Ayn Rand, who also wrote that "existence is identity; consciousness is identification"), so that "primacy" of existence in relation to consciousness does not mean that consciousness came as an _external_ result of existence, but that it emerged, at some stage of the evolution of existence, as a part of existence itself. Perhaps some forms of the primacy of consciousness are the exact inverse of this (namely, that existence appeared at some stage of the evolution of consciousness); but in both cases, the word "primacy" is not sufficient to describe such a relation.
Appending this clarification to the PoE principle would, I am fairly sure, have met with Rand's agreement (and perhaps its equivalent can be found in OPAR or Peikoff's other presentations, if you look for it specifically). But the axiom raises further questions which readily carry us into "foreign territory"; i.e., they point the way down a logical path that leads away from Objectivism, to views that Rand would (apparently) not endorse. Consider the following:
2) How does consciousness relate to _physical_ existence?
To Rand, consciousness is (apparently) the _antithesis_ of physical existence. Physical existence is causally determined by physical antecedents; consciousness (as Rand has it) is not. Physical existence can be analyzed in terms of basic physical constituents; consciousness (as Rand has it) cannot. Consciousness can study physical existence; physical existence (as Rand has it) cannot study consciousness (or itself). Etc.
This is a form of dualism -- denials notwithstanding. What does this dualism mean when applied to the PoE principle? To understand this, I propose a simple thought experiment. Let us modify the principle by substituting "Physical Existence" for the more general "Existence"; thus we get a principle of the "Primacy of Physical Existence." In the context of such a modified principle, the Objectivist dualism means that the primacy is an _external_ primacy; in other words, it implies that physical existence preceded, and then "gave rise" to, something that is foreign and external to it (namely consciousness); something that arose from physical existence like "a Phoenix from the ashes", and somehow gained a _non-physical_ existence of its own.
3) Isn't it a form of mysticism to believe in any kind of non-physical existence?
Apparently, according to Rand and her avowed followers, it is not. While Rand purports to oppose any form of mysticism, her definition of the term "mysticism" is far from clear; a belief that the "mind" is a non-physical entity certainly doesn't fall under that definition. As far as I can ascertain, Rand believed that the existence of the mind as a non-physical entity was self-evident and irrefutable.
It is at this point that Objectivism and I part ways. To me, the definition of mysticism has become ontological, not merely logical or epistemological: I consider a belief in anything non-physical as mysticism. Consciousness (or "the mind") exists, of course; it is an active capacity of certain physical systems. It evolved physically and it remains physical.
The metaphysical axiom thus loses its hazy appeal and becomes drily clear and simple: "Primacy of Existence" becomes "Exclusivity of Physical Existence." Ever since I became aware of this option, I have been unable to think otherwise. I think an educated person of our day has no excuse for believing otherwise -- and most don't.
I shall leave the logical defense of this position for further discussion. Your comments are welcome.
Edited by Rafael Eilon, 09 December 2006 - 08:02 AM.