The philosophy of Objectivism states as one of its most fundamental axioms the axiom of existence (existence exists, something exists). It also holds to the axiom of consciousness, that to grasp existence is to be conscious (I am conscious). Both these axioms are irreducible, that is to say, existence and consciousness cannot be explained by further concepts or axioms.
Furthermore, Objectivism holds that, in the relation between existence and consciousness, existence is primary to consciousness: existence is independent of our awareness of it, and existing things and properties are independent of consciousness. In contrast, it also defines what primacy of consciousness would mean: existence depends on our consciousness, and existing things and properties are a product of consciousness. Objectivists hold that either one or the other must be true.
One may argue that the emphasis on first principles by Objectivists is spurious and that people, even Objectivists, do not acquire their beliefs by going to first principles. I think one could make a good case for this insistence in strict foundationalism as a trait of the ultra-rational mindset (of course an Objectivist would scoff at anyone using “rational” as a derogatory term).
But there is something seductive about these principles that appeals to anyone raised in the Western intellectual tradition. As the popularity of the bankrupt Correspondence Theory of truth demonstrates, it is part of the general understanding of educated people that reality is what it is and that consciousness is identification of that reality. The belief that our senses “trick” us away from understanding reality is also common and reflects an understanding of reality existing independently from the (mischievous, tricky) senses (I do want to point out that neither of these things are beliefs held by Objectivists).
So does our understanding of science as a purely objective endeavor by which we discover the inner workings of an outside, shared reality. And the concept of consciousness being an irreducible awareness of reality explains why Western thought, until recently, refused to acknowledge that most interpretation and reasoning are unconscious.
So the primacy of existence (PoE), I think, is merely a formalized version of the beliefs about reality which permeate Western intellectual culture.
Now, to be clear, I do not believe that God, or society, or any other consciousness is in control of reality. I believe that natural law exists and can be discovered through scientific means. I’ve also discussed in other entries why I think various forms of subjective “truths” are wrong (such as liberal feminism, voluntaryism and theism).
The problem starts when we try to systematize this into a principle like the primacy of existence. I’ve chosen this entry by Bahnsen Burner as my starting point, since the primacy of existence in an atheological context is his primary topic.
I’ve always respected Bahnsen Burner’s work and I think that, insofar as theological discussions go, the primacy of existence provides an appropriate counter-weight to the heavy subjectivism of Christianity. I am also sympathetic to PoE arguments because they were my introduction to atheology. That being said, I think PoE as formulated by Objectivism, here represented by Bahnsen Burner, is a mistake, a reformulation of a first approximation as a universal principle (akin to stating that Newton’s Laws apply to all physical contexts).
Bahnsen Burner spends the time to explain exactly what the PoE means. His explanation includes the following:
In other words, existence exists independent of conscious activity, which means: the objects of conscious activity exist and are what they are independent of that conscious activity. When I see a ball, for example, the primacy of existence is the fundamental recognition, however implicit, that the ball exists independent of my perception of it and that it is what it is – it has the nature, characteristics, attributes, etc., that it has – independent of my act of perceiving it…
Epistemologically, this means that the task of consciousness is not to create or revise reality by force of will, but to perceive and identify the object we perceive.
But in my entry on Correspondence Theory, I’ve already explained why this is impossible. For those who didn’t read that entry, I will explain it again using Bahnsen Burner’s example of a ball. When I observe a ball, I observe it as being a ball, but the concept of ball does not exist in nature. There is no Platonic ideal of “ball” floating around for us to perceive: we have a prototype of “ball” but it exists solely in our minds and is not independent of my perception of balls.
Now, an Objectivist may reply that, regardless of the identification of the ball as a ball, something exists which I am perceiving, and that something is independent of my perception. As I already said, I agree with that statement: I do not deny that there is such a thing as external objects.
The problem is that this statement alone leads us nowhere. Without knowing that the ball is a ball, I can have no concept of perceiving a ball, or of what properties it can or cannot have. Its nature as a ball is the result of identification and prior concept-formation, and is therefore not independent.
Now onto the properties. If I say “the ball is red,” what am I really saying? As any Objectivist could tell you, the way we see colors is the result of an interaction between the object and our senses: there is no actual redness out there independent of our senses. While they know this, they don’t seem to understand how it completely demolishes the idea that properties of objects are what they are independently of perception.
Again, this is not to deny that there is something being perceived (in this case, light wavelengths being reflected off a surface). What I am saying is that the PoE does not stand up to these observations. Remember that the PoE entails that an observed ball “has the nature, characteristics, attributes, etc., that it has- independent of my act of perceiving it.” This implies that our mental abilities, such as perception, must not construct the nature or properties of the ball in any way. But this is clearly incorrect.
Ayn Rand herself was aware of this fact, and stated in Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology that “[e]verything we perceive is the result of our processing,” but then added “which is not arbitrary or subjective.” It may not be subjective according to Rand’s definition, but it is arbitrary (there is no particular reason why a specific wavelength should be expressed as “red” in our minds), and it certainly does not conform to the primacy of existence. If “ball” and “red” are the result of mental processing, then “ball” and “red” do not exist independently of the mind. The mind does more than “perceive and identify” an object: it constructs the object out of perception, including its nature and properties.
On to the primacy of consciousness:
On this view, the objects of consciousness depend on the activity of consciousness for their existence, their identity, or at any rate conform to conscious activity in some way.
This view seems to be the correct one, insofar as the objects of consciousness do depend on the activity of consciousness for their nature and identity.
Epistemologically, the primacy of consciousness means that, just as the objects of consciousness find their source in and conform to the contents of consciousness, knowledge of reality is acquired essentially by looking inward, into one’s feelings, one’s preferences, one’s imaginations, and treating them as though they were factual.
I don’t agree that upholding the primacy of consciousness necessarily implies that knowledge of reality is acquired by looking inward, although I know many people act as if this is the case (including the people I lambast in the entries I linked above). Indeed, I don’t believe that knowledge of reality is acquired by looking inward, unless it includes something trivial like “we acquire knowledge by looking at the outcome of the processing of our perceptions.” I believe that methods which examine external reality, like science, are inherently superior to methods which examine internal reality, like religion, in finding knowledge of reality (this is a problem for Objectivism, since Ayn Rand believed that knowledge about our emotional life can be gained through introspection, and Peikoff claimed that volition could be proven by introspection).
There is a big difference between believing that the objects of consciousness only exist due to consciousness, and believing that the objects of consciousness exist independently of consciousness but that their identity is dependent on consciousness in accordance with natural law. The former denies the internal world/external reality dichotomy, while the latter does not. The former entails that the best way of finding reality is by looking inward, and the latter entails that the best way of finding reality is by looking outward, but without the absolutism and over-reliance on rationality which is typical of Western philosophy.