Saturday, June 28, 2008

Objectivism & Religion, Part 14

Evidence for religion. A widespread prejudice among the anti-religious is that no evidence exists for religious phenomena as miracles, God, and the after-life. This is a bit of an exaggeration. There are, as a matter of fact, evidentiary claims made on behalf of all religious phenomena. The religious, for instance, consider their scriptures to constitute evidence, arguing that such scriptures constitute the history of actual events as related by eyewitnesses. And it would be a mere semantic quibble to deny that such things are evidence. The question is whether they constitute valid or relevant evidence. In this light, scriptural evidence, once subjected to rigorous textual criticism, falls way short of the mark.

There are, to be sure, other types of evidence. In Patrick Glynn’s book, God: The Evidence we find a sample of some of the evidentary claims made on behalf of religious faith. First, there is the run through of the improbable universe evidence which, though greatly strengthens the case for agnosticism and gives a generous toehold to deism, hardly gets us to a legitimate position of actual religious faith, with all the concomitant theological bells and whistles. Glynn then offers us some intriguing though hardly conclusive evidence of the utility of religion as psychological therapy and medical placebo. But evidence of utility can hardly be equated with evidence of truth or existence. We know from Sorel and Pareto that false views, or “myths,” can be useful despite being false. So what, then, is Glynn left with? He presents, in his last chapter on evidence, one of the stranger and more confounding phenomena to confront human intelligence in recent years, so-called near death experiences (NDE), with their bizarre tunnels, “mystical” lights, out-of-body experiences and “life reviews.”

Objectivism, of course, would reject the very notion that such experiences could be evidence of anything other than a warped epistemology. The so-called “paranormal,” as Objectivists have told me, is a contradiction, and therefore can’t exist. It’s a claim that a person can sense things that don’t come from the senses—a palpable absurdity. This view, however, is based on a confusion regarding logic. Contradictions can only exist between two propositions. No single claim about a matter of fact, regardless of how strange or incongruous with normal experience, can ever be a contradiction. It can only be a contradiction in relation to another claim of truth; and it is only false if it contradicts a claim that is actually true. Hence what Objectivists are really saying is that the paranormal contradicts some principle of reality which the Objectivists regard as true. Yet in making that claim, the Objectivist is surreptitiously assuming the very point at issue, and is himself committing a logical fallacy.

The first prerequisite for attaining any kind of rational understanding of such strange phenomena as NDEs and the like is to overcome the modern assumption that such things are impossible. Such an assumption may be practical and prudent in everyday life. The historical evidence, however, when impartially collected, is, as the philosopher Santayana noted, “far from supporting it, and logically it is untenable. Logically everything is possible; and if a certain sequence of events happens not to be found in our experience, nothing proves that it may not occur beyond.”

With this in mind, let us examine the naturalistic explanation of NDE, known as the “dying brain hypothesis,” compliments of Susan Blackmore:

Severe stress, extreme fear and cerebral anoxia all cause cortical disinhibition and uncontrolled brain activity, and we already have most of the ideas needed to understand why this should cause NDEs. Tunnels and lights are frequently caused by disinhibition in visual cortex, and similar noises occur during sleep paralysis. OBEs [i.e., Out-of-Body-Experiences] and life reviews can be induced by temporal lobe stimulations… The visions of other worlds and spiritual beings might be real glimpses into another world, but against that hypothesis is evidence that people generally describe other worlds that fit their cultural upbringing. For example, Christians report seeing Jesus, angels and a door or gate to heaven, while Hindus are more likely to meet the king of the dead and his messengers, the Yamdoots.

For the most part, this is a respectable hypothesis—though it is only a hypothesis, as Blackmore herself has stated. I would merely quibble with the relevance of playing the temporal-lobe-stimulation card. Blackmore is not bringing up lobe stimulations merely to disprove that NDEs provide a glimpse into another world: she is also using them to reaffirm the epiphenomenal nature of consciuosness. The fact that specific characteristics of NDEs can be artificially stimulated allegedly proves that NDEs are brain events arising from physical processes. This is the steam-whistle theory of consciousness smuggled into the discussion on NDEs. It should raise alarms even among those who believe that NDEs are purely “natural” phenomenon.

What about the other side of the argument? Is there any possibility that these NDEs constitute a veritable intimation of immortality—a glimpse into the “undiscover’d country from whose bourne no traveller returns”? Those who regard NDEs as evidence for an after-life attempt to stress the difficulty of explaining them on materialistic or conventionally naturalistic grounds. Even Blackmore concedes that some phenomenon associated with NDEs could potentially raise problems for materialism. She relates the experience of a 44 year old man who, while still comatose, had his dentures removed by a nurse. When he saw the same nurse for the first time a week later, he said, “Oh, that nurse knows where my dentures are.” (Supposedly, during his NDE, this individual had seen the nurse remove his dentures.) There are other reports of individuals having out-of-body experiences during NDEs and remembering seeing things they could not have possibly witnessed while comatose. One of the strangest episodes involves singer and songwriter Pam Reynolds, who was subjected to a desperate procedure to remove a grossly swollen blood in the brain stem in which her body temperature was lowered to sixty degrees. All her vital signs, including her EEG brain waves, flattened to silence. As the surgeon began cutting her skull, Reynold’s felt herself “pop” outside her body and hover above the operating table. She would later describe, with considerable accuracy for a person who knew nothing about surgical practice, the Midas Rex bone saw used to cut into her head. She also described the nurses in the operating room and listened to what they were saying. In short, a very strange experience all way around, very difficult to explain on materialistic grounds. “These cases are potentially important,” admits Blackmore, “because if they are true, then there is something seriously wrong with all materialist and functionalist theories of consciousness.”

Do such experiences constitute, not merely proof against materialism, but evidence for God and the after-life? That is difficult to say. While NDEs aren’t easily explicable on conventionally naturalistic grounds, perhaps its the narrowness of this conventional naturalism that is at fault. Nature, after all, may be as strange as she likes. Yet I can hardly blame those who have experienced NDEs for regarding them as a glimpse into the after-life and as evidence for their religious convictions. To be sure, whether they are or not, no one really knows. But it is not irrational or “mystical” to suspect they might be. We will all find out one way or the other at some point. Until then, we’re all just guessing.

Friday, June 27, 2008

The Determinists Strike Again

The Wall St Journal carries the intriguing story of neurological research that suggests many of our decisions are made before our consciousness is aware of them. "This doesn't rule out free will" says neuroscientist J D Haynes, "but it does make it implausible." This is the latest in a long line of results - largely since the introduction of MRI technology - that has seen this long standing debate move firmly in the determinist direction. As the article suggests:

Such experiments suggest that our best reasons for some choices we make are understood only by our cells. The findings lend credence to researchers who argue that many important decisions may be best made by going with our gut -- not by thinking about them too much.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Web Weirdness

The internets are a strange place. I give you the site of one Dave Michael Linehan, allegedly associated with the University of Tennessee, Knoxville yet apparently working from Thailand. Dave is shooting for something called the Atlantis Research Project, which is a synthesis of the environmental work of Al Gore, Leonardo DiCaprio, and King Bhumibol Adulyadej of Thailand with Noam Chomsky and "Dr" Ayn Rand.

We here at the ARCHNblog admit that we didn't see that one coming. But why do we care? Because as well as the Randian connection, oddly, if you click on the link "Enter the Discussion Area" he has for some unknown reason made the ARCHNblog said "Discussion Area". However we know nothing of Dave's work, which seems if nothing else at least highly original. Methinks some fat-fingers coding has gone on here, which Dave, should he be reading this, may care to correct at some point.

Friday, June 20, 2008

"Atlas Shrugged" Movie Denounced, Even Before It's Made

Despite some unconvincing attempts at hype, the "Atlas Shrugged" movie is - somewhat predictably - still faltering at the development stage, with director Vadim Perelman now gone from the project. Will this ever get made? The ARCHNblog thinks no, mainly as it will be impossible, as Cinematical's Kim Vonyer perceptively notes here, "trying to make a film that's going to please both the hardcore Objectivists (those who follow Rand's philosophy) and the average moviegoer who just wants to be entertained is, in my opinion, just an exercise in futility."

So true. And as if confirmation of Vonyer's prophecy were needed, we have this, the second nutty comment this month from ARI-flavoured Objectivist Ed Cline:
"As an Objectivist, I'm happy that Perelman has "shrugged" off any attempt to translate the novel to the screen. It would take a director and producer with minimal respect for the author and the novel to pull it off, and all I can see, given the esthetic and moral turpitude and hostility of Hollywood today, is a story so botched up that I would watch it only if I were bound and gagged and tied to a movie theater seat. I was never happy with the production of The Fountainhead; there's just too much great writing and storytelling and drama in that novel, and it deserved an extended production and length at least as long as one of the Godfather films."
And you thought the "Bonfire of the Vanities" anti-hype was bad...That should give "Atlas Shrugged"'s producers an idea of what they're in for. Funnily enough, Ed doesn't mention that arch enemy of the ARI, The Atlas Society's David Kelley, was script consultant on this production. We at the ARCHNblog suspect that the only way round this might be to have Leonard Peikoff writing, directing, and even playing John Galt. It's amazing what they can do with digital these days.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Objectivism & Religion, Part 13

Deism. In December of 2004, Anthony Flew, who for most of his career had championed atheism, announced his "conversion" to theism. Most theists were delighted by the news. Francis Collins, head of the Human Genome Project and a devout Christian, called Flew's book There is a God, in which Flew explicates his reasons for his change of mind, as "Towering and courageous." Atheists, as to be expected, were less pleased. Dawkins described Flew's embrace of deism as an "over-publicized tergiversation" and made reference to Flew's advanced age. To characterize Flew's abandonment of atheism as a "tergiversation," as well as to bring up his age (Flew was eighty when the "tergiversation" happened) suggests a strong degree of petulance on Dawkin's part. But in examining Flew's book, one wonders what the fuss is all about. Having read the slender tome, I find little in it that would offend the non-militant, fair-minded atheist; nor do I find much in it that would give comfort to the devoutly religious. The theism that Flew "converted" to is of an entirely non-religious nature. Flew accepts no specific religious creed. He continues to be a mortalist (that is, he doesn't believe in life after death). He has made it clear that he is deist who now believes that the argument of design provides a more convincing hypothesis for the universe than any of the rival theories put forth by atheists.

Not surprising, most of the arguments Flew presents for his deistic theism run along the typical "argument from design" paradigm. He notes, for example, the gross improbability of the universe, which has led to some rather fanciful attempts by atheistical scientists to assume the existence of multiple universes (i.e., the theory of multiverse). To what extent such design-probability arguments support theism is, of course, debatable. Flew doesn't discuss, for example, the classic arguments advanced by Hume against design theology. Yet, to be fair, Flew does manage to present one argument that, if not entirely convincing, nevertheless constitutes an immense challenge to the scientific pretensions of the new atheists. This involves the perplexing question of abiogenesis:
Most studies on the origin of life are carried out by scientists who rarely attend the philosophical dimension of their findings [writes Flew]. Philosophers, on the other hand, have said little on the nature and origin of life. The philosophical question that has not been answered in origin-of-life studies is this: How can a universe of mindless matter produce beings with intrinsic ends, self-replication capabilities, and "coded chemistry"?

Paul Davies "observes that most theories of biogenesis have concentrated on the chemistry of life, but "life is more than just complex chemical reactions. The cell is also an information storing, processing and replicating system. We need to explain the origin of information, and the way in which the information processing machinery came to exist." [Davies] emphasizes the fact that the gene is nothing but a set of coded instructions with a precise recipe for manufacturing proteins. Most important, these genetic instructions are not the kind of information you find in thermodynamics and statistical mechanics; rather, they constitute semantic information. These instructions can be effective only in a molecular environment capable of interpreting the meaning in the genetic code. The origin question rises to the top at this point. "The problem of how meaningful or semantic information can emerge spontaneously from a collection of mindless molecules subject to blind and purposeless forces presents a deep conceptual challenge."

It is true that protobiologists do have theories of the evolution of the first living matter, but they are dealing with a different category of problem. They are dealing with the interaction of chemicals, whereas our questions have to do with how something can be intrinsically purpose-driven and how matter can be managed by symbol processing.

Whether this argument advances the case for theism, even of the minimal, deist sort, is open to question. But even if it doesn't advance the cause of theism, it does manage to provide a strong case against any version of militant atheism. Confronted with arguments such as this one, I cannot see how any Objectivist can continue to regard belief in God as patently irrational. Indeed, if you compare the claims of atheism with those of rational theism, it's not easy to determine which view is more rational. The rational theist argues that, because it's grossly implausible to assume that a coded chemistry could have emerged spontaneously from inorganic matter (see this article for greater explication of the point), it is not unreasonable to assume that life has its origin in some sort of intelligence or understanding that is beyond human comprehension. The atheist, on the other hand, argues that life emerges out of matter spontaneously, by "chance," as it were—that in other words, we all evolved from rocks. Is this really the more plausible view?

I'm not aware that any prominent Objectivist has said anything about abiogenesis. Perhaps it's too empirical subject for the typical orthodox Objectivist, given his unfortunate penchant for trying to determine matters of fact through logical, moral, and rhetorical constructions. Objectivists have, however, commented on deism and not with complete disfavor, either. It's not that they advocate the position; but they are not inclined to criticize it. Peikoff recognizes that it is not a religious position. Yet his view that deism is merely "the step between Christianity and outright atheism" is a bit of an exaggeration. That may have been true in the eighteenth century, but it isn't true any longer. Now the traffic tends to move in the opposite direction. Nor is it necessary to regard deism as way station between atheism and Christianity. Deism seems an entirely rational position in and of itself—perhaps the most plausible outside of agnosticism. In any case, there doesn't seem any strong reasons to object to it.

If, however, deism is not a religious doctrine (as even Peikoff admits), this raises questions as to the point of atheism, particularly of the uncompromising or militant type. What is objectionable in specific religions is not the belief in God per se, but the belief that God wants everyone to act in certain ways. If so, then the real point of issue is the morality put forth by the religious, not their belief in God. Why, then, bring up the issue of God at all?

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Ayn Rand And The World She Made

Anne Heller's much awaited new biography is scheduled for February 09. For a flavour of Heller's style, which appears to be a refreshing change from the fervid toadying of likes of James Valliant, try this New York Observer piece.

(Hat tip to Neil Parille)

Sunday, June 08, 2008

Old News

It's pretty old news now that the grandioise, heavily Objectivist-influenced education project Founders College has gone belly up. But given that we at the ARCHNblog were on its case fairly thoroughly from the git-go, we suppose we should note its passing even if belatedly. Our sympathies of course to the students.

In the miscellaneous commentary flying around, this very oddball remark from ARI-approved author Ed Cline stood out:

"I attended the formal opening of Founders. Intially, the opening was I guess standard, but then it began to take on a "religious" character that raised a few flags in my mind. Then the conductor, who was also scheduled to teach music at Founders, led the orchestra in a composition which I immediately dubbed "An Ode to Tylenol Headaches" (atonal, mind-splitting rubbish). I was seated in the rear next to Gary Hull. I heard him exclaim some expletives. I wasn't far off myself in that regard. He got up and walked out of sight to have a smoke. I joined him for a smoke, for I wasn't about to sit still and be assualted by the noise. Dr.Hull in so many words wondered where Fuller found the "creep." I sympathized. So, that whole event left a very bad taste in my mouth."

Why, obviously some non-Objectivist premises had mysteriously crept in to no wonder it failed! Hilarious.

Thursday, June 05, 2008

Objectivism & Religion, Part 12

Agnosticism. Peikoff has this to say of agnosticism:

[There is] a widespread approach to ideas which Objectivism repudiates altogether: agnosticism. I mean this term in a sense which applies to the question of God, but to many other issues also, such as extra-sensory perception or the claim that the stars influence man’s destiny. In regard to all such claims, the agnostic is the type who says, “I can’t prove these claims are true, but you can’t prove they are false, so the only proper conclusion is: I don’t know; no one knows; no one can know one way or the other.”

The agnostic viewpoint poses as fair, impartial, and balanced. See how many fallacies you can find in it. Here are a few obvious ones: First, the agnostic allows the arbitrary into the realm of human cognition. He treats arbitrary claims as ideas proper to consider, discuss, evaluate—and then he regretfully says, “I don’t know,” instead of dismissing the arbitrary out of hand. Second, the onus-of-proof issue: the agnostic demands proof of a negative in a context where there is no evidence for the positive. “It’s up to you,” he says, “to prove that the fourth moon of Jupiter did not cause your sex life and that it was not a result of your previous incarnation as the Pharaoh of Egypt.” Third, the agnostic says, “Maybe these things will one day be proved.” In other words, he asserts possibilities or hypotheses with no jot of evidential basis.

Peikoff here misrepresents agnosticism. He equates agnosticism with the creed of “I don’t know” and “Anything is possible." Is Peikoff right in his description of agnosticism? Perhaps we should turn to some actual agnostics to find out. And there is no better witness to call to the stand than the man who originally coined the term, Thomas Henry Huxley. Here is Huxley’s description of agnosticism:

Agnosticism … is not a creed, but a method, the essence of which lies in the rigorous application of a single principle. That principle is of great antiquity; it is as old as Socrates; as old as the writer who said, "Try all things, hold fast by that which is good" it is the foundation of the Reformation, which simply illustrated the axiom that every man should be able to give a reason for the faith that is in him; it is the great principle of Descartes; it is the fundamental axiom of modern science. Positively the principle may be expressed: In matters of the intellect, follow your reason as far as it will take you, without regard to any other consideration. And negatively: In matters of the intellect do not pretend that conclusions are certain which are not demonstrated or demonstrable. That I take to be the agnostic faith, which if a man keep whole and undefiled, he shall not be ashamed to look the universe in the face, whatever the future may have in store for him.

Now many Objectivists will protest Huxley’s use of the word faith, but here it is important to understand that Huxley is not advocating a blind faith (he was scientist, after all) but a justified faith—justified by the fruits of experience. Huxley understands that you cannot prove your starting points; that you have to begin with faith and then see how it works out. If your faith is corroborated by experiential trials that you subject it to, you are justified in keeping fast to it. Otherwise, you try something else. Agnosticism, then, for Huxley is simply the critical method of thinking. It means always keeping an open mind to new evidence. As Huxley puts it: “The results of the working out of the agnostic principle will vary according to individual knowledge and capacity, and according to the general condition of science. That which is unproven today may be proven by the help of new discoveries to-morrow. The only negative fixed points will be those negations which flow from the demonstrable limitation of our faculties. And the only obligation accepted is to have the mind always open to conviction.”

“Do not block the path of inquiry!” insisted philosopher C. S. Peirce. This is the great danger for those who believe that knowledge, in order to be useful, must be "certain:" that they will close their minds to new evidence, because, after all, the debate is over, certainty has been achieved! The path to inquiry is blocked by the de facto dogmatism of all claims to certainty. All Huxley’s agnosticism is trying to insist upon is to keep the mind open, keep the path to inquiry clear.

Peikoff mischaracterizes agnosticism as insisting on the proof of negatives. But that’s not in the least true. Agnosticism is merely pointing out that lack of evidence does not constitute proof that something doesn’t exist. This is not the same thing as saying that the all things are possible. Nor is it claiming we can’t have any beliefs or suspicions about extra-empirical entities such as the God of the Bible. There is nothing contradictory in an agnostic saying he doesn’t believe in that sort of God. But he doesn’t regard this belief as “certain” and determined for all time. The agnostic remains a steadfast fallibilist. He remains open to any new evidence that might be brought forth on the question. And so, when the agnostic H. L. Mencken was asked what he would do if, following his earthly demise, he suddenly found himself confronted by the twelve apostles, he answered: “I would simply say, ‘Gentlemen, I was mistaken.’”

Monday, June 02, 2008

Philosophy and Conduct

Does belief in the relativity of truth lead to dishonesty? A fascinating article in the San Francisco Examiner looks into the differences between conservatives and liberals on the question of honesty. The empirical evidence on the question leads to some interesting questions regarding the relation between philosophical ideas and a commitment to honest dealing.

A number of studies have found that conservatives tend to place more emphasis on honesty than liberals. Far more liberals than conservatives are willing to condone dishonesty on taxes, welfare benefits, illegal downloads, academic tests, and in business. “A study in the Journal of Business Ethics involving 392 college students found that stronger beliefs toward “conservatism” translated into “higher levels of ethical values. ” Academics concluded in the Journal of Psychology that there was a link between ‘political liberalism’ and ‘lying in your own self-interest,’ based on a study involving 156 adults. Liberals were more willing to ‘let others take the blame’ for their own ethical lapses, ‘copy a published article’ and pass it off as their own, and were more accepting of ‘cheating on an exam,’ according to still another study in the Journal of Business Ethics."

How can we explain this dishonesty gap between right and left? Peter Schweitzer, the author of the Examiner article, advances the following thesis:

The honesty gap is ... not a result of “bad people” becoming liberals and “good people” becoming conservatives. In my mind, a more likely explanation is bad ideas. Modern liberalism is infused with idea that truth is relative. Surveys consistently show this. And if truth is relative, it also must follow that honesty is subjective.

Sixties organizer Saul Alinsky, who both Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton say inspired and influenced them, once said the effective political advocate “doesn’t have a fixed truth; truth to him is relative and changing, everything to him is relative and changing. He is a political relativist.”

Is the greater dishonesty among liberals a logical consequence of philosophical premises, as Schweitzer suggests? If so, what role, if any, does religion play in this? After all, conservatives tend to be more religious than liberals. Can religion make people more honest?

I personally find Schweitzer’s thesis to be somewhat implausible. In the first place, most people, whether they regard themselves as liberals or conservatives, right or left, aren’t sophisticated enough in their thinking to logical deduce dishonesty from the relativity of truth. Moreover, if you examine reasons people give to justify their dishonesty, it quickly becomes apparent that these reasons are mere rationalizations. Hence, illegal downloading is justified on the grounds that it only hurts big corporations. Evading taxes is justified on the grounds that the money will go to fund an “illegal war.” Cheating on an exam is justified on the grounds that “everybody does it.” These reasons for dishonesty are themselves crude and poorly thought out that they are obviously rationalizations. But what, specifically, are they rationalizations? They are rationalizing psychological complexes that lack strong moral sentiments in favor of honesty. In other words, these are people who suffer from a weak moral conscience. They may also lack the discipline required to keep to the “straight and narrow” demanded by honesty. Remaining honest can be difficult. It involves resisting temptations of immediate gratification. Dishonesty allows people to achieve goals and acquire things without earning them—that is, without doing the hard work necessary to pass an exam or purchase legal music online or pull of the rewarding business deal.

One way in which religion may actually help people be honest is through using community-based pressure to motivate people to do the right thing. One thing I have noticed examining studies of the relation between religion and conduct is that religious belief per se does not seem to make much difference: it is church attendance that is critical. Church attendance motives people to honest because they are afraid that if they lie or cheat, they will lose face with the other members of the church. Secularism has struggled to develop an institution that has the same motivational effect on people.

Sunday, June 01, 2008

Objectivism & Religion, Part 11

Peikoff’s arguments against God. Peikoff, in his book Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand, provides several arguments against the existence of God. The arguments are all “metaphysical” in the bad (i.e., Aristotelean) sense of the word; that is to say, they are all guilty of attempting to determine matters of fact by means of logical or moral or rhetorical constructions. The existence of God, however, is an entirely empirical question: either there’s convincing evidence for God’s existence or there isn’t. It is in respect to the evidence that we must judge the question. Metaphysical reasonings based on so-called “axioms” are cognitively useless.

Peikoff claims that all the arguments for God’s existence contradict the Objectivist axioms:
Is God the creator of the universe? Not if existence has primacy over consciousness.

Is God the designer of the universe? Not if A is A. The alternative to “design” is not “chance.” It is causality.

Is God omnipotent? Nothing and no one can alter the metaphysically given.

Is God infinite? “Infinite” does not mean large; it means larger than any specific quantity, i.e., of no specific quantity. An infinite quantity would be a quantity without identity. But A is A. Every entity, accordingly, is infinite.

Can God perform miracles? A “miracle” does not mean merely the unusual…. A miracle is an action not possible to the entities involved by their nature; it would be a violation of identity.

Is God purely spiritual? “Spiritual” means pertaining to consciousness, and consciousness is a faculty of certain living organisms…. A consciousness transcending nature would be a faculty transcending organism and object. So far from being all-knowing such a thing would have neither means nor content of perception; it would be nonconscious. [OPAR, 31-32]

These arguments against theism are even worse than the rationalistic arguments made on the theistic side, such as the wretched cosmological and ontological “proofs” for God’s existence. They all seek to leverage the scandalous vagueness of abstruse terms to reach conclusions that the premises cannot support.

Two of the three Objectivist axioms are tautologies. The problem with tautologies is not that they are false, but that they are trivial: nothing of any consequence can be derived from them. The tautology existence exists is logically consistent with every proposition about existence, including the proposition God exists.

Peikoff’s first argument makes uses of the one non-tautological axiom, the axiom of consciousness, which claims that “one exists possessing consciousness, consciousness being the faculty of perceiving that which exists.” Rand believed that from this axiom (with assistance from the other two) sprung a further principle, known as the primacy of existence over consciousness. This is a rather incoherent distinction. Since consciousness (as Rand’s second axiom declares) exists, then consciousness must be part of existence. So what then does it mean to say that existence is primary over consciousness? What Rand is really asserting is the primacy of that portion of existence that is not conscious: that is, she is asserting the primacy of matter. Primacy in what sense? Well, here’s where we run into problems of ambiguity. Rand claims that those who deny the primacy of existence believe that existence is “created” by consciousness. Plato, Christianity, and German Idealism are all presented as advocates of this view. Unfortunately, no Objectivist has ever provided any evidence of a genuine platonist or Christian or German Idealist who actually holds that view. Idealists don’t believe consciousness creates existence. Nor do they believe in the primacy of consciousness. What they believe in is the primacy of the contents of consciousness—which is something different. Where those contents ultimately come from is a matter of debate between various idealist factions; but I’m not aware of any faction that declares that all of existence is “created” by consciousness.

When Peikoff declares that God can’t be the creator of existence because existence is primary, what has he established? He’s established nothing. No theist, Christian or otherwise, ever asserted that God created existence. God, it is claimed, created the “heavens and the earth” or the “universe”—which, again, is something different. Since God existed before the creation of the universe, any notion of God creating “existence” is absurd. Peikoff is here playing fast and loose with the term existence, trying to use it as if it were a precise synonym for universe or material world.

When Peikoff declares that God can’t be the designer of the universe, because that would violate A is A, he is once more trying to draw non-tautological rabbits from tautological hats. A is A merely asserts the identity of any specific symbol of consciousness to itself. Objectivists try to extend this self-evident but tautological notion of identity into a kind of declaration of the intelligibility of reality. Things must have identity, or else how could we ever come to know them? This implicit premise of Objectivism, masked by the often repeated mantra A is A, is problematic in several directions. While it is true that intelligibility is a precondition of knowledge, this does not mean that intelligibility is also a precondition of existence as well—not if we wish to be consistent with realism. Realism asserts that material objects have a place, movement, origin and destiny of their own, regardless of what the individual may think or fail to think about them. Embedded in this view is the possibility of both error and unintelligibility. Since the object of knowledge lays beyond the realm of consciousness, the possibility not only of error, but of partial unknowability cannot be ruled out of hand. As Santayana once noted: "There may be surds, there may be hard facts, there may be dark abysses before which intelligence must be silent, for fear of going mad." Although every existent must have a nature, that does not mean that every existent is identifiable to consciousness. Not every aspect of the universe exists for the convenience of our intellects. To think otherwise is to flounder into the morass of idealism.

While implicit notions of intelligibility indicate the essential incoherency of the third Objectivist axiom, even more serious is its lack of specificity. Objects, this axiom asserts, must have identity, but it may be any identity. Therefore no specific identity can be ruled out of hand. For this reason, Peikoff’s is wrong to assume that A is A contradicts the theistic premise of God as a designer. If the universe actually was “designed” by God, then that is the identity the universe manifests—end of issue.

Peikoff next asserts that God cannot be omnipotent because “no one can alter the metaphysically given.” But how does he know this? That statement cannot be deduced from any of the axioms, because the axioms don’t contain any empirical content. If God exists and is capable of altering the “metaphysically given,” then his existence and identity are included in these supposed facts. There is nothing in the Objectivist axioms, if taken in their self-evident sense, that would necessarily over-rule this.

Peikoff’s take on infinity is bizarre. “ An infinite quantity would be a quantity without identity,” he asserts. But here he commits the error pointed out earlier of confusing what is identifiable to the human mind with what exists in reality. On realist premises you cannot assume that everything that exists must be intelligible (i.e., identifiable) to the human mind. It is possible that some things may be unintelligible. Hence we cannot rule out the possible existence of infinity.

Nor do miracles violate the so-called “law of identity.” If nature of the universe is such that miracles are possible, then miracles are part of the identity of the universe. Again, it’s important to appreciate how useless metaphysical arguments are to ascertaining facts of reality.

The final objection that Peikoff raises to theism may be the silliest. If reduced to essentials, it would read as follows: God cannot be purely spiritual because a purely spiritual entities are impossible. And not only that, but since non-spiritual entities lack both the means and the content of perception, they can’t be all-knowing. Yet this all rests of the assumption that only physical bodies can be conscious. While this may be true, it doesn’t follow from the Objectivist axioms. As to Peikoff’s additional assertion—I don’t see what the point Peikoff is trying to make in raising it. On the (gratuitous) assumptions of his own argument, a non-physical spiritual entity cannot possibly exist. But if such an entity is impossible, why is he claiming that this impossible entity can’t also be all-knowing? If it can’t exist, questions about whether it is all-knowing are beside the point. So why bring it up?

Peikoff concludes with the following assertion: “At every point, the notion [of God] clashes with the facts of reality and with the precondition of thought.” For better or worse, Peikoff’s metaphysical arguments only address the second of these two problems, i.e., the preconditions of thought. He doesn’t make a factual case against God. Facts involve presenting evidence, and Peikoff provides no evidence, just rationalistic speculation. Even worse, his “precondition of thought” arguments rest on idealist premises. Reality cannot be solely judged on the basis of preconditions of thought—not unless you assume that all of reality is amenable to human thought. That is an assumption accepted by various forms of idealism. But a realist must recognize the possibility that some aspects reality might be unknowable; and this assumption defeats Peikoff’s “preconditions of thought” argumentation at its core.