In the philosophy of Ayn Rand

The "Primacy of Existence" or "Existence Exists" was the only really interesting idea I ever got out of Ayn Rand, the only one you can really sink your teeth into in a philosophical sense. Purely as matter of superficial verbal logic, for many years I considered this argument absolutely irrefutable; but emotionally, I could sense that something was missing. Perhaps it was a nagging feeling in the back of my mind that it was not quite right logically.

"Existence exists" is the principal Objectivist argument for atheism; to be more exact, it is a refutation of the Argument from the First Cause, one of the oldest ideas in philosophy.

The Objectivist argument runs this way:

Existence exists. Existence is the sum of everything that exists. If a thing exists, it is part of existence and cannot cause existence. If it stands outside of existence, then it does not exist, and cannot cause existence either.

Existence precedes causality. Causality presupposes existence, not the other way around. Existence is the fundamental fact, the fundamental reality, the fundamental concept. To ask "Why is there something rather than nothing?" is self contradictory: if there were nothing, we wouldn't be here to ask the question. To ask "Why is there existence?" is self-contradictory: to demand a cause for all of existence is self-contradictory. This is because a thing must exist before it can cause anything.

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[NOTE: The paragraph immediately above is part of a broader doctrine called "The Hierarchy of Concepts". This states that many concepts are derived from other concepts. For example, the concept of "orphan" is derived from the concept of "parent". A concept used in violation of its proper level in the hierarchy of concepts -- the act of using a concept while ignoring, contradicting or denying the validity of the concepts on which it logically and genetically depends -- is called a "stolen concept".

Several examples are given. For example, Descarte's "I think, therefore I am" is a "stolen concept", because "thinking" can only be engaged in by an entity that "exists"! To use the concept of "thinking" while doubting one's own "existence" is logically incorrect -- a "stolen concept". Proudhon's "All property is theft" is a "stolen concept", because the concept of "theft" presupposes the concept of "legally and rightfully owned property". Thus, to demand a cause of all of existence is a "stolen concept", because existence comes first. Causes can only be exerted by entities that exist. I repeat: existence precedes causality, while causality presupposes existence, not the other way around.

My own favourite example of a "stolen concept" is the joke:
"Your money or your life!"
"Take my life, I'm saving my money for my old age."
This is a "stolen concept", because one must be "alive" to "get old".
The Hierarchy of Concepts is not usually discussed in conjunction with the Primacy of Existence for reasons which will become obvious.]

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QUESTION: But if the Primacy of Existence is a fact -- if "Existence Exists" because of the Hierarchy of Concepts -- then "Existence" is not primary at all; it is the Hierarchy of Concepts which is primary. How can that be? Can the Hierarchy of Concepts precede or cause existence? That doesn't make sense.

The Objectivists will reply that, no, the Hierarchy of Concepts cannot "cause" anything; it can, and does, merely show that certain questions are self-contradictory.

Very well; agreed. But we are not talking about the Hierarchy of Concepts causing or invalidating a concept; we are talking about existence, the sum of everything that exists: galaxies, constellations, 15 billion light years of space, billions of stars and planets, etc. It certainly seems to me that we are talking about "causing things": the universe, for one.

In other words, the "Primacy of Existence" does not do away with the necessity for a "cause" of existence at all; it simply shifts it away from God onto the Hierarchy of Concepts. According to this view, then, existence exists -- not because God wanted it that way -- but because existence precedes causality, and because causality precedes existence. There are at least two different causal relationships here. Something is very wrong.

Note that the "Primacy of Existence" is not just one concept, but two: they are intrinsically bound up with each other, chasing each other right around in a circle, like a puppy chasing his tail. Thus, existence exists, which precedes causality, which presupposes existence, which precedes causality, which presupposes existence, which precedes causality, which presupposes existence, ad infinitum.

QUESTION: Is "Existence Exists" the introductory, or minor, premise to a syllogism ("Socrates is a man), or is it the conclusion? Or both? Is it a circular argument?
"Your guess", as Ayn Rand used to say, "is as good as mine."

Unlike most circular arguments, the proposition that "Existence Exists" doesn't assume in the premise that which is to be proven in the conclusion, but it definitely goes around in a perfect, tight, endless, infinite little circle, like the puppy dog aforesaid (except that the puppy has to stop after a while).
I've never seen anything like this before. I don't know what to make of it.

QUESTION: I wonder what a follower of Saint Thomas Aquinas would make of the idea that God, because He exists, cannot cause existence, i.e., the rest of the universe? I don't think a Thomist would find this logical at all.

What this all comes down to, in addition to all the other problems, is simply a difference in point of view, or, if you prefer, of definition of terms.

The Thomists think of God on the one hand, and the universe, created by God, on the other. They never use the word "Existence" as an all-inclusive term, i.e., "Existence = universe + God".

Among Thomists, the word "existence" is used solely with reference to God's "essence", i.e., "God is the only Being whose existence is His essence". He is defined as existing, therefore He exists! (This is no longer considered valid).

The Objectivists use the word "Existence" in an all-inclusive sense, as including God, who -- because he exists -- cannot cause the universe, i.e., the rest of existence (I don't think a Thomist would see the logic to this).

In other words, both philosophers are using the same tactic: defining their terms in such a way as to prove themselves automatically right.

To me, one argument is about as valid as the other, except that the Thomistic argument is not self-contradictory.

It is hard to tell whether Rand is actually parodying another argument of the Thomists or simply borrowing an argument from the Epicureans, the only school of ancient philosophy that did not accept the need for a First Cause. In any case, her argument is not particularly original.

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"Parody" is not too strong a word for it. The Thomists would, I think, and with more logic, argue that the existence of GOD precedes causality, and that the causality of everything that exists (except for God) presupposes the existence of GOD.

God, by definition, is perfect, which means complete, finished, per-fectus. God cannot have a beginning or end. If God had not existed at one time, and then came into existence as the result of some cause exterior to Himself, then God would not be God. The idea is absurd. Thus, it is the existence of GOD which is the fundamental fact, the fundamental reality, the fundamental concept.

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In my view, to the extent to which "Existence Exists" has any validity at all, it is simply the expression of the child's question of "Who created God? Where did God come from?" -- questions so obvious that they have probably been asked by nearly every child who ever received any religious instruction at all. Every Sunday school teacher has a stock answer or two to these questions, all ready and waiting; but there is no answer. If any child can ask a question which no philosopher or theologian can answer -- not really -- then what good is all this cobweb cogitation? It's fun, of course, but what good is it?

In other words, "Existence Exists" is simply a banal idea dressed up in pretentious language, a common problem in philosophy, as elsewhere.

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Another argument in favour of atheism used by Objectivists is that if the Argument from First Cause were valid, it would require an infinite regress of Gods, each creating the next God. Again, this is simply another restatement of the child's objection: where did God come from?

Rand imagines that she is shortening the process by one step -- by eliminating God -- but instead she merely pushes the burden of "causality" off of God and onto the Hierarchy of Concepts, which cannot be valid.

Finally, since the combination "Existence Exists + the Hierarchy of Concepts" is obviously invalid, the question arises of whether its two component concepts are only invalid together, in combination, or separately, one or the other or both. It seems to me that the Hierarchy of Concepts is quite a valid idea, although hardly profound and probably not original. In reality, it is merely a sub-category of self-refuting or self-defeating concepts, just another item in the vast inventory of stock philosophical ideas.

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My own ideas are irrelevant, since my only intent here is to show that the so-called "philosophy of Ayn Rand" is self-contradictory, but I would like to say at this point that I dislike and distrust atheists (at least if they are aggressive about it) and I think materialism is a mistake. It should be obvious today that atheism has an even worse record than Christianity (which is really saying something) and that Christianity has produced much of value, while atheism has produced nothing.
That includes the "philosophy" of Ayn Rand.

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