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19 September 2007

The Roots of Objectivism

Why reality, which exists outside of consciousness, cannot be explained or analysed

By Onkar Ghate

No doubt you’ve noticed, from the first two parts of this series, that Rand’s philosophy makes no appeal to God or faith. According to Objectivism, the absolute is reality. There is not, and cannot be, a consciousness that explains reality or the universe. And so to spend time longing for, pleading with, or praying to such a consciousness is futile. The basic reason for this is abstract but simple to grasp.

Reality—that which exists—can have no cause or explanation: any alleged cause would itself have to exist, i.e., be a part of reality. Likewise, the universe—the totality of all that which exists—can have no cause or explanation: any alleged cause would have to exist apart from the universe, i.e., apart from the totality of what exists.

The things that exist can neither be created nor annihilated (though they can change their forms and combinations): there is no “realm of nothingness” from which they could be created or to which they could be banished; a “realm of nothingness” is a contradiction in terms.

The fact that things exist is a basic fact, incapable of explanation or analysis. As Rand famously put it, existence exists; this is an axiom, the starting point of all knowledge and investigation. We can study the nature, interrelationships and interactions of the things that exist, but not the fact that they exist. The things that exist—whatever they are—simply are, and are what they are (the law of identity, A is A).

What is consciousness? It’s a faculty of some living organisms, like dogs, cats and human beings. It enables the organism to be aware of the world and to control and guide its overall actions.
Consciousness is a derivative, not a starting point. It presupposes the existence of a living organism, and of a world to be aware of and navigate through, in pursuit of the organism’s values.

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The idea of a consciousness existing prior to (the rest of) reality is nonsensical: there would exist no living organism whose faculty it was and there would exist nothing for this disembodied consciousness to be aware of. The idea of a consciousness as the source or master of reality is nonsensical. No dictate from consciousness can conjure something out of “nothingness” or banish something to “nothingness”: existence exists. Nor can any dictate from consciousness turn tomatoes into tulips or make pigs fly: things are what they are, A is A. The miraculous is the non-existent.

At their root, the monotheistic religions say that a cosmic consciousness has primacy over existence. This consciousness decrees, and reality obeys. But in actual fact, existence has primacy over consciousness. The facts of reality exist and are what they are independent of any mind. The power of consciousness is not to create, annihilate or alter reality, but only to apprehend it. The facts of reality set the terms, which every consciousness must obey if it is to possess knowledge.

If the religious approach were correct, faith might be worth something. To believe something in absence or even in defiance of logical evidence—a virgin birth, say—might be a way to prove your blind loyalty to the supreme consciousness; only with proof of your submission, will you receive its sanction and enlightenment.
But if you understand that the religious approach contradicts the fundamental facts of reality, then faith is worthless. If you want to know the world, you need to use your own mind to grasp it, through careful observation and logical thought. You need reason.

Rand once observed that religion and philosophy address the same issues. Each seeks to offer us a comprehensive view of the world—of its nature and our place in it. They differ not in their questions, but in their method of answering: one by faith, the other by reason. Where am I? How do I know it? What should I do? Rand’s philosophy offers reasoned and unique answers to these.

Where am I? In a world that exists and is what it is, a world that’s firm, stable, natural, knowable. How do I know it? Only by means of my unadulterated reason. What should I do? Think rationally about all the values my life requires and about how to produce them, and then work passionately towards achieving them. The result? A profoundly personal joy, one that requires no external justification or sanction.