Rand and Peikoff on God and Existence
Does existence exist? And what might that question mean?
The following is by Leonard Peikoff, acolyte of Ayn Rand:
Every argument for God and every attribute ascribed to Him rests on a false metaphysical premise. None can survive for a moment on a correct metaphysics . . . .
Existence exists, and only existence exists. Existence is a primary: it is uncreated, indestructible, eternal. So if you are to postulate something beyond existence—some supernatural realm—you must do it by openly denying reason, dispensing with definitions, proofs, arguments, and saying flatly, “To Hell with argument, I have faith.” That, of course, is a willful rejection of reason.
Objectivism advocates reason as man’s sole means of knowledge, and therefore, for the reasons I have already given, it is atheist. It denies any supernatural dimension presented as a contradiction of nature, of existence. This applies not only to God, but also to every variant of the supernatural ever advocated or to be advocated. In other words, we accept reality, and that’s all.
Most professional philosophers consider Rand and Co. not worth discussing. One of my mottoes, however, is Nihil philosophicum a nobis alienum putamus (see here for explanation); so I will engage Rand’s ideas to see if they generate any light. But I will try to avoid the polemical and tabloid style Rand and friends favor.
In the quotation above we meet once again our old friend 'Existence exists.' Ayn Rand and her followers use 'existence' to refer collectively to what exists, not to something common to them— a property perhaps — in virtue of which existents exist. They are of course free to use ‘existence’ in this way. Now it cannot be denied that all existing things exist, and that only existing things exist. This is entirely trivial, a truth of logic. Anyone who denies it embraces the following formal-logical contradiction: There are existing things that do not exist. We should all agree, then, with the first sentence of the second paragraph. Existence exists!
So far, so good. But we haven’t gone very far.
Peikoff then tells tells us that to postulate something supernatural such as God is "to postulate something beyond existence." Now it may well be that there is no God or anything beyond nature. But how would it follow that there is something beyond existence, i.e., beyond what exists, if God exists? For if God exists, then he is one more thing that exists. It may well be that everything that exists is a thing of nature. Distinguished philosophers have held that reality is exhausted by the space-time system and its contents. But the nonexistence of God does not follow from the triviality that everything that exists exists. Does it take a genius to see that the following argument is invalid?
1. Existence exists.
2. God does not exist.
One cannot derive a substantive metaphysical conclusion from a mere tautology. No doubt, whatever exists exists. But one cannot exclude God from the company of what exists by asserting the tautology that whatever exists exists. The above argument is a non sequitur. Here is an example of a valid argument:
3. Nothing supernatural exists.
4. God is supernatural.
5. God does not exist.
For Peikoff to get the result he wants, the nonexistence of God, from the premise 'Existence exists,' he must conflate 'existence' with 'natural existence.' Instead of saying "only existence exists," he should have said 'only natural existence exists.' But then he would lose the self-evidence of "Existence exists and only existence exists." And he would also be begging the question. Do you see the game Peikoff is playing? It is trivially true that only what exists exists. But it is not trivially true that only what is natural exists.
Conflating a trivial self-evident thesis with a nontrivial controversial thesis has all the advantages of theft over honest toil as Bertrand Russell said in a different connection. It would take a certain amount of honest philosophical toil to construct a really good argument for the nonexistence of any and all supernatural entities. But terminological mischief is easy. What Peikoff seems to be doing above is smuggling the nonexistence of the supernatural into the term 'existence' Clearly, this is an intellectually disreputable move.
It is like a bad ontological argument in reverse. On one bad version of the ontological argument, one defines God into existence by smuggling the notion of existence into the concept of God and then announcing that since we have the concept of God, God must exist. Peikoff is doing the opposite: he defines God and the supernatural out of existence by importing their nonexistence into the term 'existence.' But you can no more define God out of existence than you can define him into existence.
An Objection and a Reply
"You are missing the point! The claim that existence exists is the claim that whatever exists, exists independently of all consciousness, including divine consciousness. It is a substantive claim, not a mere tautology. It is a claim about the nature of existence. It asserts the primacy of existence over consciousness. It is a statement of extreme metaphysical realism: to exist is to be independent of all minds and their states. This axiom implies that no existents are created or caused to exist by a mind. But then God, as the creator of everything distinct from himself, cannot exist."
Here, then, is a Rand-inspired argument for the nonexistence of God resting on Rand's axiom of existence.
1) To exist is to exist independently of all consciousness. (The notorious axiom)
2) Things other than God exist. (Obviously true)
3) Things other than God exist independently of all consciousness. (Follows from 1 and 2)
4) If God exists, then it is not the case that everything that exists exists independently of all consciousness. (True given the classical conception of God as creator according to which whatever exists that is not God is maintained in existence moment-by-moment by God's creative power.)
5) God does not exist. (Follows from 3 and 4 by standard logical rules including modus tollens)
This argument stands and falls with its first premise. Why should we accept it? It is not self-evident. Its negation -- some items that exist depend for their existence on consciousness -- is not a contradiction. Indeed, the negation is true: my current headache pain exists but it would not not exist were I not conscious of it. My felt pain depends for its existence on consciousness, my consciousness. Here is an indisputable instance in which esse est percipi.
Note also that the Rand argument can be run in reverse with no breach of logical propriety. Simply deny the conclusion and then infer the negation of the initial premise. In brief: if God exists, then Rand's existence axiom is false. This shows that Rand’s argument is not rationally compelling. Of course, the argument run in reverse is also not rationally compelling. So we have a stand-off.
We read above that existence, i.e. existents, are uncreated, indestructible, and eternal. Well, if there is no God, then existents are indeed uncreated. But how could existents be indestructible? Is the Moon indestructible? Obviously not. Is there anything in nature that is indestructible? No. So what might Rand or rather Peikoff mean by his strange assertion? Does he mean that, while each natural item is destructible, it is 'indestructible' that there be some natural items or other? That would amount to saying that it will always be the case that natural things exist. But doesn’t current cosmology allow for a Big Crunch in which the whole of space-time and everything in it ceases to exist?
And how can natural items be eternal? What is eternal is outside of time. But everything in nature in in time. Perhaps Peikoff means that everything in nature is omnitemporal, i.e., existent at every time. But the Moon did not always exist and it is a good bet that it will will not always exist.
I conclude that the Randian existence axiom does not bear up well under scrutiny.
(Rand below looks a little like Nancy Pelosi who, horribile dictu, is still Speaker of the U. S. House of Representatives. Both leave a lot to be desired character-wise, but Rand is sharp as a tack while Pelosi is dumb as a post.)