OPAR 1.3: The Primacy of Existence Versus the Primacy of Consciousness

The third principle fundamental to Objectivist metaphysics is the principle of the primacy of existence. Another corollary of the Objectivist axioms, the primacy of existence principle states that the universe exists independent of any consciousness and that the function of consciousness is to look outward and perceive reality rather than to create it. Existence, according to the principle, is the primary metaphysical factor with consciousness as its dependent. It seems to me that it would not be necessary for Objectivism to include such a principle within its philosophy if so many philosophers throughout history were not so fiercely committed to its antithesis, the principle of the primacy of consciousness. The primacy of consciousness concept declares the exact opposite: that existence is the product of consciousness (either human consciousness, social consciousness, or supernatural consciousness), that consciousness is independent of reality, and that man can gain superior knowledge of the universe by looking inward or by polling his neighbors. With the primacy of existence principle, Objectivism explicitly refutes this notion, declaring that existence has primacy over consciousness and that things are what they are independent of consciousness.

What I love about the study of metaphysics is that it makes explicit ideas that people rely on as the basis for their personal worldviews without realizing. Metaphysics shines light on fundamental assumptions and beliefs that are hidden deep below the surface, like a spelunker illuminating a pasty white blind cave shrimp for the first time. It strikes me that many, if not most, disagreements throughout all of philosophy stem from a fundamental disagreement over whether existence or consciousness is the more primary factor. Rand writes in Philosophy: Who Needs It, “The basic metaphysical issue that lies at the root of any system of philosophy [is] the primacy of existence or the primacy of consciousness” (32). And yet, in spite of this issue being extraordinarily basic and consequential, it strikes me that if you were to ask the average college-educated person, “Which do you believe in: the primacy of existence or the primacy of consciousness?” the average college-educated person would neither understand what you were asking nor be able to give any sort of meaningful answer even after you defined all of the relevant terms and gave some context. Like the blind cave shrimp, this issue is not something that most people are aware even exists, despite the fact that every person’s worldview implicitly depends upon his or her answer to this question.

The history of philosophy is ripe with manifestations of the primacy of consciousness view. Peikoff writes, “With rare exceptions, Western philosophy … is dominated by attempts to construe existence as a subordinate realm. Three versions of the primacy of consciousness have been prevalent. They are distinguished by their answer to the question: upon whose consciousness is existence dependent?” (OPAR, 21). From Plato to Descartes, Kant, Hegel, and all of Christianity, philosophers have overwhelmingly upheld the primacy of consciousness principle—except for Aristotle (and Rand).

Plato was one of the earliest and most influential philosophers to (implicitly) promote the primacy of consciousness view with his theory of the Forms. According to the most prevalent Plato interpretation, Plato’s theory states that long before human beings ever had bodies, our souls (which, without bodies would just be consciousnesses) existed in the heavenly World of the Forms, where we became directly acquainted with “real knowledge,” the true essence of things, and the blueprints of perfection. But then, we left the World of the Forms and were born in this universe, which is merely an imperfect shadow of that perfect conceptual World. In this physical world, what feels like learning is in fact just remembering our past experiences of direct contact with the Forms. Our memories of the Forms are what teach us about the shadow universe in which we now find ourselves. In this sense, individual consciousness does not directly create or control reality, per say—the Forms do, which are in a sense, a certain kind of consciousness (although they are not divine beings like the Christian God). Because the Forms rule over the reality in which we live, and because the Forms are fundamentally intellectible rather than substantive, consciousness, rather than existence, reigns supreme for Plato.

Plato’s philosophy would later prove highly influential to the development of Christianity, which also promotes the primacy of consciousness principle, although much more explicitly. Both Christianity and Plato can be categorized within the “supernatural” variant of the primacy of consciousness view, which relies on communications—including innate ideas, feelings, and individual revelations—between a Supreme mind and a human mind (21). In Christianity, God is an omniscient, omnipresent, and omnipotent consciousness who created the universe and directly controls the events that occur on earth. According to Christianity, a divine consciousness is the alpha and the omega, the primary factor, the creator and controller of all that is. By praying to God or by thinking certain thoughts, humans can communicate with this divine force and petition that God change reality in one way or another. In this view, events happen not because the universe has certain characteristics and natural laws, but because a divine consciousness directs the motions of the planets and the movement of time and space, forever into eternity. While certain knowledge can be gained from observing the physical world, the highest and best knowledge is gained by turning within—by connecting with God.

According to Rand’s take on Immanuel Kant, it was Kant who secularized the primacy of consciousness view and paved the way for the “social” variant (22-23). For Kant, though, consciousness is not supreme because it is divine; rather, consciousness is all that we have because we are cut off from “real reality” (also known as the noumenal world, or the world of “things in themselves”). Cut off from the highest and most real knowledge of the noumenal world, our consciousness is left to shape the phenomenal world in which we live. Kant referred to the universe as “the world as it is known,” claiming that reality conforms to the knowledge process. Everything we see, hear, taste, smell, or touch is a consciousness-tempered fragment that orders our experience of existence. In this sense, consciousness is the primary metaphysical factor not because it is a mystical force like God or the Forms, but rather because existence is a product of our consciousness. Peikoff claims that the epistemology behind the social variant of the primacy of consciousness view was expanded and developed by Hegel. According to the social variant, since no individual person is competent to create or control the universe, groups are capable instead. These groups might include humankind as a whole or groups based on race, sex, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, nation, etc. In the social variant, groups and consensus are the means to truth. Our individual senses may not be able lead us to real reality, but as a group, if we all think we are seeing the same thing, then we can coerce and override reality (22).

The third variant of the primacy of consciousness view is the personal variant, which holds that a person’s consciousness controls reality, but just for that person. What’s true for me might not be true for you. If you think you are a unicorn, then for you, you are a unicorn. The personal view holds that truth, on an individual level, can be whatever a person rules that it is—for themselves (23). Peikoff did not cite a specific philosopher who promoted this variant; that is something I will have to look into later.

In opposition to the primacy of consciousness view and all its variants, Objectivism declares that existence, not consciousness, is the irreducible starting point of metaphysics. Existence exists regardless of whether any consciousness exists, and without existence, consciousness could not be (18). Peikoff sums up the primacy of existence view as, “Things are what they are independent of consciousness” (18). Consciousness has no direct control over what exists. A person’s internal processes do not create or shape the actual world; rather, the universe exists outside of and in spite of consciousness and is totally unaffected by a person’s or a group’s feelings and desires. Peikoff writes,  “If existence exists, then it has metaphysical primacy. It is not a derivative or ‘manifestation’ or ‘appearance’ of some true reality at its root, such as God or society or one’s urges. It is reality. As such, its elements are uncreated and eternal, and its laws, immutable” (23). In other words, no mental force caused the world to come into existence, and neither can mental force alter natural law. What is—is. 

Consciousness is a secondary phenomenon. According to Objectivist Harry Binswanger, “The fact that consciousness has an object means that consciousness cannot be self-contained. Consciousness is inherently something that points outside of itself, to something else.” Going back to the axioms, the only reason we know that we are conscious is because existence exists, because we perceive something. A consciousness without something to perceive would not be a consciousness. It would be nothing. Rather than create the world, the job of consciousness is to look out and perceive, which is a backseat role. If existence is independent of consciousness, then the only way to know anything about the universe, according to Objectivism, is through extrospection—not through feelings, revelations, groupthink, or personal whims. Integration of sensory data through the use of logic and reason is the only means to knowledge. And if a person wants to change the world, the way to do that is to act according to reality. Nothing other than action can affect the universe.

While the primacy of existence position is not a view that is popular in philosophy, it is one that is absolutely vital to Objectivism. In Peikoff’s words, “[Rand’s] philosophy is the primacy of existence come to full, systematic expression in Western thought for the first time” (23). While I have many chapters yet to go in OPAR, it sounds like what will follow is further development of this fundamental principle. Why this millennia-long obsession with the primacy of consciousness from philosophers all over the globe? I am not sure that I know the answer—yet. Regardless, in spite of the onslaught of contemporary and historical opposition, when it comes to the primacy of existence principle, Objectivism has it right.

Questions and Concerns:

  • The questions I have about this issue are quite big and are still bubbling. I am not sure I understand my questions well enough to list them just yet.

Level of Difficulty: Medium

Mystery Number: 80

Works Cited:

1. Peikoff, Leonard. Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand (New York: Dutton, 1991). New York: Meridian, 1993.

2. Rand, Ayn. Philosophy: Who Needs It. New York: Signet, 1984.