Rand’s axioms: Existence exists. Now lets examine the Objectivist axioms, beginning with the axiom of existence. The Objectivist axioms are very instructive as to the dangers of an overly-speculative, rationalistic, largely verbal philosophy. Rand uses the vagueness of her axioms to confuse their tautological meaning with other more problematic meanings. This confusion is at the very heart of the Objectivist axioms.
When we say that some object such as a cat or dog exists, we mean that they have a substantive, independent existence “in reality." Unicorns aren’t recognized as existing or as "real," because no such entity exists in the world of fact and matter. But although unicorns don't exist as real animals, they could be said to exist as an idea or an object of the imagination. If we accept that unicorns exist in this sense, we must also admit that this "non-real" type of existence is very different from the existence that dogs and cats enjoy. It will not do to conflate these two types of existence.
When Objectivists insist that “existence exists,” in what sense do they mean it? In the cat and dog sense, or in the unicorn sense?
“The axiom of Existence states that something exists,” writes David Kelley. “This is the most basic fact of reality. It is simply the statement that there is reality; that whatever there is, is, that whatever one perceives is there to be perceived.”
From these statements, it seems that Objectivism endorses the cat and dog sense of existence. Existence exists becomes merely a pithy way of saying reality exists. Yet Kelley later on backs away from this interpretation: “Notice that [none of the Objectivst axioms make] any specific statement about the nature of what exists. For example, the axiom of existence does not assert the existence of a physical or material world as opposed to a mental one.” [The Logical Structure of Objectivism, 20-22]
So it would appear that existence is used in the unicorn sense. Existence exists merely indicates that something, however ephemeral, exists. It could be a mere idea or essence or image, entirely mythical, like the unicorn. If so, how can Kelley describe this idea as a “basic fact of reality” or equate the phrase existence exists with the phrase reality exists. If all that exists is a stream of essences trickling through consciousness, how can that be described as reality—or, even worse, as a fact of reality?
If we examine all this from a foundationalist mindset (a mindset which Objectivists must honor if they wish to remain consistent), it is clear that the Objectivist axiom of existence fails to deliver what it promises. In the sense that it is foundationally true and obvious (i.e., in the unicorn sense), it is merely an empty, mostly irrelevant tautology. In the sense that it is meaningful, it is neither obvious nor self-evident, but is problematic and conjectural. Kelley describes axioms as “statements validated directly by perceptual observation.” While all sane people believe that existence exists in the cat and dog sense of the term, this belief is not “validated” by direct perceptual observation. Our belief in reality (and it is only a belief) is based on something far more complex and enduring than mere observation. A man, if he has drunk enough whiskey, may observe a pink elephant riding on a unicorn. Yet to say that this pink elephant exists because the drunk is conscious of it is to lapse into palpable idealism. It is only when we have brought intelligence and our practical sense of things (which is based on memory, the “validity” of which is deeply problematical and hardly self-evident) to bear on this observation that we can determine that it is far from real.
To say that “something” exists in the unicorn sense of the term constitutes no great insight into the foundations of knowledge or reality. Who denies it? Objectivists are under the illusion that there exists this large contingent of philosophers that deny the axiom existence exists in the trivial, unicorn sense of the phrase. But strange to say, they cannot produce any such philosopher.