Debate: Existence vs Consciousness


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Commentary:

After reading through some Objectivist writings, I have a comment before Ydemoc goes on.

Dan O’Brian:

Now, here’s an informal comment concerning the primacy of existence vs the primacy of consciousness. It seems to me that Objectivism thrives on the separation of the subject and the object. But, discerning a distinction doesn’t necessitate a separation. For, we know that, as human beings, we are subjects and objects. These two things are, in us, one and the same thing. We exist and we are conscious. Our consciousness exists and our consciousness is conscious. It is subject and object. To say I exist and I am conscious is to look at one and the same thing, namely myself, from different aspects. My existence just is my consciousness; and these two do not exist independent from one another. Thus, for my consciousness to conform to the fact of my own existence, I would have to first presuppose my own existence in order for my consciousness to conform itself to my own existence. The elephant stands on the turtle which stands on the elephant… you get the picture.

Ydemoc:

You wrote: “Now, here’s an informal comment concerning the primacy of existence vs the primacy of consciousness.”

What is metaphysical primacy? Anton Thorn explains: “Lying at the base of all knowledge is a relationship between existence and consciousness implied by the identification of the axioms [see below]. That there is a relationship between the objects of awareness (existence) and the means by which we are aware (consciousness), is undeniable. One would have to be conscious – and therefore be conscious of something – in order to dispute this. This recognition necessarily implies that the relationship between existence and consciousness is not a relationship of equals. There is a priority involved here, a hierarchical order implicit in any act of consciousness.”

David Kelley puts it like this: “Is consciousness creative, constituting its own objects, so that the world known depends on ourselves as knowers; or is it a faculty of response to objects, one whose function is to identify things as they are independently of it? In Ayn Rand’s terms, it is a question of the primacy of consciousness versus the primacy of existence: do the objects of awareness depend on the subject for their existence or identity, or do the contents of consciousness depend on external objects?”

Recall the axioms. They are:

1) that existence exists (i.e., there is a reality)

2) that to exist is to be something (A is A, the law of identity), and

3) that consciousness is conscious of something (the axiom of consciousness)

As Rand points out: “It is axiomatic concepts that identify the precondition of knowledge: the distinction between existence and consciousness, between reality and the awareness of reality, between the object and the subject of cognition. Axiomatic concepts are the foundation of objectivity.”

Existence is first. The universe exists independent of consciousness. Awareness (consciousness) with nothing to be aware of is incoherent, a contradiction in terms: Awareness? Awareness of **what**?

Consciousness (awareness, perception, thinking, and other mental processes) does not have the power to change the laws of nature or erase facts, as Peikoff puts it: “The function of consciousness is not to create reality, but to apprehend it. ‘Existence is Identity, Consciousness is Identification.’” If existence exists, then it has metaphysical primacy.

Dawson Bethrick elaborates: “Together these axioms imply a general, inescapable principle known as the primacy of existence – that is, that existence exists independent of consciousness, which means: the object(s) of consciousness holds metaphysical primacy over the subject of consciousness. This is the objective orientation of the subject-object relationship.

In the words of Anton Thorn: “The primacy of existence view recognizes in the form of a principle that existence exists independent of consciousness. In other words, reality (the realm of existence) does not conform to the contents of consciousness; things are what they are independent of anyone’s wishes, desires, resentments, emotions, fantasies, etc. Since existence exists, that which exists is that which exists (identity) regardless of who likes it or disapproves. On the primacy of existence principle, the function of consciousness is not to determine reality or the identity of its objects, but to discover and identify it.

Opposite to the primacy of existence principle is the primacy of consciousness view. This view holds that existence is in some way subordinate to consciousness, that things are the way they are not by virtue of the fact that they exist (as the primacy of existence teaches), but because of the desires of a consciousness. This is the view that reality conforms to consciousness, that, instead of acting to discover and identify the facts of reality by means of reason, the function of consciousness is to create and/or determine reality. On this view, one can persuade himself to believe that, if he has enough faith, reality will obey his commands and entire mountains will cast themselves into the sea. Explosives engineers need not apply.”

Unfortunately for theists (and for that matter, any subjectivist), a primacy of consciousness veiwpoint inherent in such a worldview can only backfire on them, as David Kelley explains: “The primacy of consciousness… is subject to the same self-refutation as is the denial of any other axiomatic principle. A person who asserts that the facts of reality depend on his own consciousness [or any consciousness] is making a claim about the nature of consciousness and reality. He intends his claim to be taken as objective, not as a reflective of his own whim. After all, he is asserting that the primacy of existence is false — not just for him, but even for its adherents. So he is assuming that there are facts, and that the function of his mind is to grasp them as they really are, at least in his own case. And that’s inconsistent with his assertion of the primacy of consciousness.”

Anton Thorn points out in his essay “The Issue of Metaphysical Primacy” that “the failure to grasp the distinction between the primacy of existence and the primacy of consciousness is the result of the failure to isolate essentials.” He asks readers who may be having difficulty, to consider the following two questions:

1. Can there be consciousness without existence?

2. Can there be existence without consciousness?

So, as you can see, quite a bit has been written on this topic.

You wrote: “It seems to me that Objectivism thrives on the separation of the subject and the object.”

Can you explain what you mean by “separation” here, and then cite where Objectivism does what you mean?

As laid out above regarding the issue of metaphysical primacy, Objectivism recognizes there is a fundamental distinction between the objects of awareness (existence) and the means by which one is aware of such objects (consciousness), and that there is a relationship between the two. As David Kelley notes: “Perception is a form of contact with the world, a real relation between subject and object, between the perceiver and what he perceives.”

So how does any of this imply “separation”? And, again, where does the the Christian bible speak directly to such matters?

You wrote: “But, discerning a distinction doesn’t necessitate a separation.”

How does anything that Objectivism advocates imply “separation”?

You wrote: “For, we know that, as human beings, we are subjects and objects.”

Dan? Where did your doubt go? You state this with such certainty!

As human beings, we can be perceivers and we can be perceived, we can be knowers and we can be known. And we can even become acquainted with the cognitive workings by which we acquire such knowledge, in which case our own consciousness can become an object to itself, as when we become aware of our own conscious activity when we introspect.

But this only means that consciousness can be a ***secondary object,*** (it’s not consciousness conscious *only* of itself — which would be a contradiction in terms, i.e., asserting “awareness” with nothing to be “aware of” — as if awareness could exist in an objectless-void. Again, “awareness” of **what**!?).

If I see tree, a house, a human being or any other object of awareness, I am perceiving it — it is an object.

When I think about my perception of the tree, house, or human being, my perception of such objects “becomes what is properly understood as a secondary object of consciousness” (since I *first* had to perceive the tree, house, or human being in order for my perception of any of them to be an object of awareness.)

An object is anything one perceives and/or considers. It can be an extra-mental entity like a house, tree, or another human being, or it can be a conscious activity, such as the awareness of these objects.

Dawson Bethrick explains further: “…introspective investigation of conscious activity always involves some object independent of consciousness. For instance, if I think about how I came to the conclusion that running with scissors in one’s hands is dangerous, I could be aware of my own conscious activity only **after I was aware of something *** in the world, **something independent of myself, something independent of my awareness**. Prior to being able to do this, my senses were active, giving me perceptual awareness of things like scissors and organisms capable of holding and running with them, consequently giving me the option of considering such activity and evaluating it, or ignoring it and going on with some other activity.”

In “The Argument from Metaphysical Primacy: A Debate,” Dawson puts it like this: “I perceive other human beings, and when I do they are objects of my awareness. But note that I cannot wish them into existence. Nor can I wish them to become something they are not (just as I cannot wish water to become wine). Why? Because the objects of consciousness hold metaphysical primacy over the subject of consciousness. It’s a fact whether anyone likes it or not.

One can perceive other persons, and for the perceiver those other persons are the objects of his perception. Also, I can introspect, so that I can have awareness of how my own conscious faculty works. But in such a case, consciousness is only a secondary object; I had to perceive something external to it to have something to identify as consciousness in the first place.

In the case of perceiving other human beings or introspecting on the operations of my own conscious activity, the same orientation between subject and object obtains: the objects remain what they are independent of the conscious activity involved in perceiving and/or considering them.”

You wrote: “These two things are, in us, one and the same thing. We exist and we are conscious. Our consciousness exists and our consciousness is conscious. It is subject and object. To say I exist and I am conscious is to look at one and the same thing, namely myself, from different aspects.”

I think that what has been explained above is more than sufficient to address your comment. But just in case it isn’t clear to you, here is a little more on the topic from Dawson Bethrick, from his blog entry: “Has the Primacy of Existence Been Refuted?”:

“Let me say a few words then about the nature of consciousness and how it secures the principle of the secondary objectivity of consciousness.

The principle of the secondary objectivity of consciousness holds that consciousness can in fact be its own object (where ‘object’ denotes something one is aware of), but only after it has content other than itself. Objectivism recognizes that consciousness is not an independently existing entity, but in fact a particular type of activity performed by a biological organism. I have already posted a discussion of mine in which I defend the view that consciousness is in fact biological (see my blog The Biological Nature of Consciousness). Speaking on the nature of consciousness as it pertains to philosophy, Rand wrote:

‘Awareness is not a passive state, but an active process. On the lower levels of awareness, a complex neurological process is required to enable man to experience a sensation and to integrate sensations into percepts; that process is automatic and non-volitional: man is aware of its results, but not of the process itself. On the higher, conceptual level, the process is psychological, conscious and volitional. In either case, awareness is achieved and maintained by continuous action.
Directly or indirectly, every phenomenon of consciousness is derived from one’s awareness of the external world. Some object, i.e., some content, is involved in every state of awareness. Extrospection is a process of cognition directed outward—a process of apprehending some existent(s) of the external world. Introspection is a process of cognition directed inward—a process of apprehending one’s own psychological actions in regard to some existent(s) of the external world, such actions as thinking, feeling, reminiscing, etc. It is only in relation to the external world that the various actions of a consciousness can be experienced, grasped, defined or communicated. Awareness is awareness of something. A content-less state of consciousness is a contradiction in terms.’ (Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, p. 37)

And just as one cannot be conscious of a thing unless it exists, one cannot be conscious of an activity until it happens. Since consciousness is essentially an action performed by an organism, the action of consciousness would need to happen before it could be available as an object of any consciousness, including its own. In other words, an organism cannot be conscious of its own consciousness until it has performed those actions by which it is conscious of something; before this, it’s simply not available as an object to be conscious of.

This is true for the three basic levels of consciousness which man possesses, namely the level of sensation, of perception, and of conceptualization. One could not be conscious of one’s own sensations until he has sensed something; only then could his sensory activity be available as an object of his own consciousness. Similarly with perception: one could not be conscious of one’s own perception until he has perceived something; only then could his perceptual activity be available as an object of his own consciousness. Lastly, one could not be conscious of one’s own conceptualization until he has conceptualized something; only then could his conceptual activity be available as an object of his own consciousness.

So there are three fundamental facts about the nature of consciousness to consider here:

1. Consciousness requires an object.
2. Consciousness is essentially active in nature.
3. Consciousness cannot be its own object unless it exists, which means: until it happens.

It is for these reasons, as explained above, that conscious can in fact be an object of itself, but only as a secondary object – it must have an object distinct from its own activity before its own activity can itself be an object of its own activity. Thus Objectivism is correct in affirming that the notion of a consciousness conscious only of itself is a contradiction in terms: it would constitute an affirmation of consciousness while ignoring the nature of consciousness. Thus the notion commits the fallacy of the stolen concept.”

You wrote: “My existence just is my consciousness; and these two do not exist independent from one another.”

You seem to be ignoring basic facts and taking a lot for granted, treating consciousness as though it were an entity as opposed to an activity performed by an entity.

You continue: “Thus, for my consciousness to conform to the fact of my own existence, I would have to first presuppose my own existence in order for my consciousness to conform itself to my own existence.”

What do you mean by “presuppose” here? Why not simply acknowledge explicitly the fact that you do exist and proceed to use your consciousness in a rational manner? — after all, existence, which includes consciousness, is implicit in everything you do anyway. Why struggle against it?

You wrote: “The elephant stands on the turtle which stands on the elephant… you get the picture.”

Again, from Dawson Bethrick: “So, to put the matter in a nutshell and hopefully bring it home for those who may still be having a hard time understanding this, we can safely say: it is perfectly fine to speak of consciousness, and in so doing, consciousness is an object of our speaking – i.e., it is an object of consciousness at that point. But since consciousness requires and object, the very idea of consciousness of consciousness forces the question: Consciousness of consciousness of what? To answer this by saying “consciousness of consciousness of itself” is essentially to say: “Consciousness of consciousness of consciousness,” which in turn forces the obvious question: Consciousness of consciousness of consciousness of what? To continue lengthening the chain by adding more instances of “of consciousness” to answer this question, is to confess that one really has no answer, but insists on there not being any object independent of consciousness itself. At which point we can wonder why, but it couldn’t be important – no evasion of reality ever is.”

In other words, Objectivism avoids the charge of circularity/infinite regress implicit in your “turtles all the way down” charge, thanks to its conceptually irreducible and perceptually self-evident starting points, i.e., the axioms and the primacy of existence. So there is no occasion for circularity.

When I had difficulty grasping some of this (and I’m not saying that this is the case where you’re concerned…. I’m just throwing it out there), I found that answering the question “Awareness — awareness of **what**!?! — to be quite helpful.

But just in case there’s room for doubt as to whether or not I have, indeed, presented you with a tremendous amount of material, or that faith is somehow required to recognize this fact, let me leave you with a few more final thoughts, this from David Kelley:

“We do not begin as knowers with beliefs whose truth we must posit, without warrant, before we can develop standards for the reliability of belief-forming processes. We begin with the direct perceptual awareness of objects and their attributes; we notice similarities that allow us to form and apply concepts; and we are implicitly aware of the ontological facts that the principles of logic identify. Since we are capable of grasping facts, we are in a position to recognize errors when they occur, and thus recognize the fact of our fallibility. Since we are capable of identifying the nature of things in the world, we are capable of identifying the nature of our own faculties as things in the world, and of learning how to minimize the dangers of their malfunctioning. At each stage, from perception to concepts to the rules of evidence to the rules of justification, our conclusions are fully grounded in and justified by what came before. We cannot go back psychologically, taking with us only our epistemological principles, and actually relearn everything anew. But we can look back epistemologically, using the principles we have learned, and evaluate the whole structure of knowledge in a fully normative and noncircular way.”

There! That ought to do the trick!

Commentary:

Next we will be introduced to an formal Objectivist argument against God.

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2 thoughts on “Debate: Existence vs Consciousness

  1. I haven’t yet finished this entire post, but i feel the need to argue this point:

    “Awareness (consciousness) with nothing to be aware of is incoherent, a contradiction in terms: Awareness? Awareness of **what**?”

    I’ve heard this argument from Peikoff and other objectivists too, but it seems to glance over subjective experience. What you gather through your senses is simply, as Russell puts it, ‘sense-data.’ Whether or not this data corresponds to objects, and whether or not we can prove those objects exist independent of our experiencing them, is the argument that Rand and objectivism completely ignores.

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