What does it mean to be absolute? Generally speaking, an absolute is an unalterable certainty—a fact that is universally valid and is not conditioned by other facts nor reined in by parameters. In English, the word absolute derives from the Middle French word “absolut,” from the Latin “absolutus,” a past participle of “absolvo,” meaning “to set free, end, and complete.” Something that is absolute cannot be changed nor tempered; it submits to no higher authority or law than itself. In the culminating principle of Objectivist metaphysics, Ayn Rand employs the concepts of absoluteness and changeability to differentiate between two different types of observable facts: the metaphysically given and the man-made. Peikoff, in his account of this final metaphysical principle in OPAR, states that while man-made facts are products of human choice and therefore do not have to be, no alternative to a metaphysically given fact is possible or imaginable (OPAR, 23). In other words, the metaphysically given is absolute.
“Metaphysical” means, “pertaining to the fundamental nature of reality;” and “given,” in the philosophical sense, means, “not requiring proof or explanation.” With the term metaphysically-given, then, Rand and Peikoff are referring to things like our solar system, the law of gravity, death, mountain ranges, thunderstorms, planetary motion, sea turtles, mold, etc. The metaphysically-given is every characteristic, feature, and fact inherent in existence that is untouched by human action. Man-made things, by contrast, are “objects, institutions, practices, or rules of conduct that are of human origin” (OPAR, 23). In other words, man-made facts are entities brought about by human action and choice. This would include things like nuclear reactors, birth certificates, the institution of marriage, public schools, toothbrushes, space ships, the U.S. Constitution, plastic, or a landscaped backyard.
For Rand and Peikoff, metaphysically given facts are inescapable and unalterable because of the laws of identity and causality. According to the law of identity, every entity is comprised of a certain set of characteristics and only those characteristics. According to the law of causality, in any given set of circumstances, entities can act only in the one way that is expressive of the characteristics which they possess. Metaphysically given facts have to be exactly as they are because—except for where choice is involved—entities’ specific characteristics allow for only one possible outcome in a given set of circumstances. For example, a rock, when kicked by a mountain goat at 10,000 feet, will tumble down a mountain. Due to the nature of gravity and the characteristics of rocks and air, that is the only thing the rock can do in those circumstances. Peikoff writes, “If such a fact is, then, within the relevant circumstances, it is immutable, inescapable, absolute. ‘Absolute’ in this context means necessitated by the nature of existence and therefore, unchangeable by human (or any other) agency” (24). Because it is the nature of gravity to pull objects toward other objects, and because it is the nature of rocks to have a certain density and weight and to fall downward when dropped, and because a particular slope on a particular day did not have any trees growing on it or boulders blocking the path, the tumbling rock is necessary. That fact cannot be escaped.
Man-made facts, like metaphysically given facts, are also subject to the laws of identity and causality, but they are not unquestionable metaphysical truths, unchangeable and universally necessary. Man-made facts, according to Rand and Peikoff, are products of human choice and therefore do not have to be. Any choice could have been made differently. Peikoff writes that, “Man-made facts, of course, also have identity; they too have causes; and once they exist, they exist, whether or not any particular man decides to recognize them. In their case, however, the ultimate cause, as we will see in the next chapter, is an act(s) of human choice; and even though the power of choice is an aspect of human identity, any choice by its nature could have been otherwise. No man-made fact, therefore, is necessary; none had to be” (24-25). It is in man’s nature to have to make choices. The act of making a choice is inescapable for human beings—but the particular choice that is made is chosen rather necessary.
In addition to choice, people also have the power of creativity. The word “creativity,” though, is almost not the right word. People don’t actually create things according to Rand—they arrange entities into new configurations. People take metaphysically given things (like a rock or a sharp piece of bone), and position the things in such a way as to bring into existence a combination or integration of natural elements that had not existed before (Rand, 34). Millions of years ago, the cave man, for example, took a rock and a sharp piece of bone and moved them against each other in such a way that the rock “became” a wheel. (That might not be the actual sequence of events that occurred when the wheel was invented, but you get the idea.) Creativity is really just human beings initiating a set of circumstances under which certain objects will react in a particular way (as dictated by their natures) to achieve a desired result. Those who would be creative can only succeed by paying attention to the nature of the metaphysically given. “Man’s creativity, therefore,” writes Peikoff, “is not defiance of the absolutism of reality, but the opposite. In order to succeed, his actions must conform to the metaphysically given” (OPAR, 25). In order to be productive and creative, human beings must conform to the natural laws of the universe.
Peikoff writes that to confuse the metaphysically given and the man-made is to “court a series of disastrous errors” (26). Metaphysically given facts should be accepted without evaluation, while man-made facts should always be judged. Man-made facts can be true or false, right or wrong, but metaphysically given facts cannot. Metaphysically given facts just are and must be. There is nothing to evaluate about them. This distinction is extremely important to Objectivism, branching into every area of philosophy and human life.
When it comes to man-made facts, people often make the mistake of thinking that tradition or the consensus of the times is “reality” that cannot be changed. This might take the form of someone treating man-made institutions and practices as though they were permanent and immortal, refusing to even consider that an entity such as the public school system might not actually be good for children and does not have to exist. The error lies in thinking that because human beings have created and committed to a particular man-made thing, that thing must be eternal, unchangeable, and necessary. False. No matter how many millions or billions of people commit to a particular behavior or practice, and no matter how many years the behavior or practice has remained popular, no entity brought into existence by an act of human choice had to be. If the thing did not have to be, the universe does not require that it continue to be. Man-made things can be changed.
Another error is made in regarding the metaphysically given as alterable and imagining alternatives to aspects of reality that are absolute and unchangeable. For example, one might try to imagine a perfect world without death and suffering, condemning actual reality because life involves struggle and eventual death. Because life involves pain, some might say, life is terrible, and we should instead yearn for a better world in another dimension. Because life ends in death, life is meaningless. Peikoff writes that “this amounts not merely to evading reality, but to declaring war on it” (26). The historical root of this error of trying to rewrite reality comes from religion, from the idea that the world was created by a supernatural consciousness who could have created things differently but just chose to make the world this way. Other worlds were (and maybe still are) always possible because the ultimate “creator” of reality is a supernatural being who can alter natural law whenever he pleases. In making this error, people set their desires above actual reality and refuse to accept what actually is. Unfortunately, one cannot make peace with the universe if one cannot recognize the necessity and absoluteness of that which is.
Peikoff succinctly sums up the final principle of Objectivist metaphysics in the statement: “Nothing is possible except what is actual” (28)—metaphysically speaking, of course. Similarly, nothing is changeable except that which has been brought about by human choice. It is man’s responsibility to conform to the universe—it is not the universe’s responsibility to conform to us. A recognition of the critical difference between the metaphysical and the man-made is necessary for successful human action. To fail to accept the difference between the metaphysical and the man-made is to invite internal philosophical turmoil as well as external conflict with reality. By accepting the absoluteness of the world for what it is, and by working with the natural laws of existence rather than against them, human beings can achieve harmony with the universe.
Questions and Concerns:
- Peikoff mentions that Hume and Kant “searched for a perceptual manifestation labeled ‘necessity.’ Like a metaphysical glue sticking events together or holding facts in place; unable to find it, they proceeded to banish necessity from the world” (24). What did Kant and Hume actually write on this subject? What were their arguments, and how exactly did they “banish necessity” from the world?
Level of Difficulty: Low-ish
Mystery Number: 90
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.