Question: What is the Objectivist view of reality?
Answer: “Reality exists as an objective absolute—facts are facts, independent of man’s feelings, wishes, hopes or fears.” ( Ayn Rand , “Introducing Objectivism,” The Objectivist Newsletter Vol. 1 No. 8, August 1962, p. 35)
Objectivism holds that there is one reality, the one in which we live. It is self-evident that reality exists and is what it is; our job is to discover it. Objectivism stands against all forms of metaphysical relativism or idealism. It holds it as undeniable that humans have free will, and opposes metaphysical determinism or fatalism. More generally, it holds that there is no fundamental contradiction between the free, abstract character of mental life and the physical body in which it resides. And so it denies the existence of any “supernatural” or ineffable dimension for spirits or souls.
Let’s consider each of these points in turn.
RELATIVISM AND OBJECTIVE REALITY
Today, especially in university departments of literature, there are some fashionable “postmodernists” who claim that we create reality with words, in our own minds. This view is an instance of a position that has frequently reappeared in philosophy: metaphysical relativism or idealism. It is the view that, ultimately, nothing is real except in relation to our perceiving it or thinking of it.
Reality exists, regardless of whether we want it to or not.
But reality is not a function of our ideas. It exists, and it is what it is, regardless of whether we want it to be or not. Denying this is the intellectual equivalent of closing one’s eyes while driving down the highway. Car crashes do not happen just because one believes they do; they often happen even when we wish them not to. Facts are facts, independently of us. This is why things happen that surprise us. It is why science has been the process of establishing the truth about nature without regard for our preconceptions. It is why babies have to learn; they are discovering the world “out there.” Things in reality have real properties and exert causal powers without regard for us and our knowledge of them. Ayn Rand summed up this attitude to reality as the principle of the primacy of existence.
As Ayn Rand wrote in “The Metaphysical Versus the Man-Made” (Philosophy: Who Needs It): “The primacy of existence (of reality) is the axiom that existence exists, i.e., that the universe exists independent of consciousness (of any consciousness), that things are what they are, that they possess a specific nature, an identity.
The epistemological corollary is the axiom that consciousness is the faculty of perceiving that which exists—and that man gains knowledge by looking outward.” Consciousness (i.e., the mind) is in essence a faculty of awareness. We are aware of the world around us through sense-perceptions, of course, but even in our abstract and theoretical knowledge we function primarily through identification of how things are. To give a simple example, we decide whether to say “that is a yellow house,” but we know that what makes that statement knowledge, rather than hot air, is whether or not it identifies a house that really is yellow.
FREE WILL VS. DETERMINISM
Through our senses we see and feel a material world. It has physical characteristics such as form and mass. But our thoughts seem free: We choose by our own lights what we should do, even how we should move our bodies, and we can rove with our minds into worlds of fantasy and imagination that never existed. Our legs can be made to flinch by the tap of a hammer on our knees. But we can make up our minds unflinchingly to do whatever we must, even if it costs us our lives.
Many philosophers and scientists believe in metaphysical determinism. This is the idea that everything in existence proceeds ineluctably from cause to effect, like a computer program, the orbits of the planets, or the motion of billiard-balls on a pool table. According to determinism, the universe was set in motion somehow, perhaps in a Big Bang, perhaps by God, and everything that has happened since has had to happen; nothing else was possible, the outcome is determined.
In this view, we may feel like we make choices, but underneath our choices there lies some process that proceeds like clockwork: our genetic development, social and environmental factors, or perhaps something else or all of the above. Whatever the causal story given, in this view our actions and even our thoughts happen in the one and only way they can.
Objectivism holds, in contrast, that man has free will. We have the ability of choice, not over every aspect of existence, of course, but over a range of actions within our power. Every day we do things that we might have done differently. Our freedom to choose our actions is of the essence of what it means to be human: It underlies our need for moral guidance and is a major cause of our fallibility, but is also at the root of our ability to progress by imagining and creating improvements on the brute forms of nature.
The fact of free will is self-evident.
The fact of free will is self-evident; each of us knows we have the ability to control our own minds, to focus our thoughts on one issue or another, and to direct our own actions. Some fear that admitting we have free will amounts to denying causality, thereby rejecting the scientific worldview. After all, science has ably demonstrated that most things in reality function deterministically. Mechanistic theories of physics and chemistry, for example, work brilliantly because they are true; planets do not choose their orbits, and DNA molecules do not recombine out of delight in making life.
But the idea of free will doesn’t deny causality or science, it just points out that for at least some of the things you do, you are the cause. We may not yet understand scientifically how the chemicals in the brain and nervous system give rise to this capacity, but science can no more explain away the fact of free will than the germ theory of disease could explain away diphtheria. Science doesn’t eliminate real features of existence, ones that we experience in every moment; it explains them.
MIND AND BODY
Free will is just one way in which the mind seems quite different from physical matter. The spiritual realm of thought, imagination, values, and aspirations seems far removed from the realm of material objects, physical forces, and biological need. Many philosophers have puzzled over questions such as whether a thought has weight or what the size of the mind is. One simple way to answer to these questions is to suppose that the mind is somehow radically distinct from the body: that there is a dichotomy between the two.
In different forms, the mind-body dichotomy underlies many traditional ideas about human nature. Religious thinkers, for example, see the mind as an immortal soul that transcends the mortal husk of the body. They posit a spiritual life that is higher, freer, and better than material existence. This dichotomy has led to the tradition of asceticism, i.e., abusing the body for the sake of spiritual purity, and to the ideal of chastity, the experience of love unconnected to sex and the other lusts of the body. It also exists in secular forms, such as the division between reason and emotion symbolized by Star Trek’s unemotional Vulcans; the rational self is the mind, in this view, which must struggle to be free of the irrational passions that arise from our physical nature. In sum, it projects a view of man at war with himself, an angel imprisoned in the body of a beast, at once both Dr. Jekyll and Mister Hyde.
Like many classical Greek philosophies, including Aristotelianism, Objectivism rejects this entire conception of man. There is a difference between the mind and body, to be sure, but no dichotomy or conflict. They are both aspects of human nature. We are living organisms, and all our faculties, mental as well as physical, work together to keep us alive.
What we call the mind is the set of capacities to be aware, to perceive the world, to think about it, to feel, to value, to make choices. How do these capacities arise? In many respects, the answer to that question must come from science, not philosophy. But everything we know indicates that they are the product of biological evolution and that they depend on our physical sense organs and brain, as well as on the many other support structures that the body provides.
We have spiritual needs for values, principles, ideals, aesthetic experience, and love.
What we call our spiritual needs, moreover, are not in conflict with our physical or biological needs. They are rooted in the same basic need to maintain our lives through purposeful action. Human beings lack sufficient instinctive drives to survive without thinking, learning, and making choices. Reason is our most important tool for survival. But it is a complex and highly demanding tool. According to Objectivism , our spiritual needs for values, principles, ideals, aesthetic experience, and love are requirements for the healthy functioning of a rational, volitional mode of cognition.
In the course of life, we all encounter specific conflicts between our spiritual and our physical values (as well as conflicts within each category), but there is no inherent, global conflict between these aspects of our nature. Indeed, our most important activities serve the needs of body and soul, together. We live best when our reason and emotion are in harmony, for example. We know true love when we combine mental esteem with physical passion. Productive work is both a means of earning our daily bread and an expression of our creative powers.
NATURAL VS. SUPERNATURAL
The idea of exalting the spirit over the material existence of the body has long been tightly connected in religious thought to the idea that there exists some reality beyond the material world we know through our senses, a world our spirits long for as an escape from the needs of the body and the constraints of physical reality. In many traditions, this is a heaven, a place beyond all physical law to which the spirit can travel and in which many or even all things are possible. Many religions attribute this supernatural kind of existence, this existence beyond nature, to their God or gods.
Objectivism holds that it is simply nonsense to speak of anything “supernatural”—literally beyond or above nature. The term “nature,” in the broadest sense, refers to the world we perceive, the world of objects that interact in accordance with causal law. If we discovered some dimension or universe that had radically different properties from the environment we live in, it would still be part of nature. If we could discover it or it could affect us, it would have some real, specific properties and would interact with our world in some way. However strange it might be, its characteristics could be compared in meaningful ways with things we already know, and it could be measured somehow. In fact, science has already explored some very weird and alien realms, as compared with the level of reality we see and hear. To pick just one example, light functions in ways so strange that we are not sure how to describe it: wave or particle? But even so, we know a tremendous amount about it, and use it to banish the night and communicate around the globe in the blink of an eye.
The supernatural is supposed to be beyond human comprehension, to exist in no particular way, to affect our reality miraculously, beyond any and all physical laws. And indeed, supernaturalists make great hay out of the areas where science is silent either because the question is not really scientific or because the scientific jury is still out. It is as if they resent science for not yet explaining every single issue to their satisfaction, and yet insist that their most precious beliefs be immune to rational scrutiny.
In effect, the supernaturalists want to have their cake and eat it too. They claim that gods, angels, and devils exist, but are not anything in particular. They hope to go to a heaven by some means, but not any specific means. And heaven must be a real place (some even say it is a lush garden stocked with virgins or a cheerful land in the clouds), but it isn’t anywhere real. The Buddhists even go so far as to deny that the realm beyond—nirvana—is any place at all. In fact, supernaturalism amounts to a brazen advocacy of contradictions. But, as Ayn Rand pointed out over and over, contradictions can exist only in the human mind, not in reality as such. No fact is essentially contradictory.
So there is no world beyond nature, nor any life beyond this one. But in contrast to the supernaturalists’ view of nature as a vale of tears, an oppressive prison for the soul, Objectivism holds that we live in a “benevolent universe.” We are beings well-adapted to the real world in which we live, with the free will to carve our own path and the ability to achieve happiness and even exaltation. Reality does not watch out for us, and there is no reason to think any deity does so either. In fact, we must watch out for reality, as Ayn Rand recognized when she summed up her metaphysics with Francis Bacon’s dictum “Nature, to be commanded, must be obeyed.” But command nature we can, and this is what makes the universe essentially benevolent: It is propitious to beings like us.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
William R Thomas writes about and teaches Objectivist ideas. He is the editor of The Literary Art of Ayn Rand and of Ethics at Work, both published by The Atlas Society. He is also an economist, teaching occasionally at a variety of universities.