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 of reality by looking outward. The rejection of these axioms represents a reversal: the primacy of consciousness—the notion that the universe has no independent existence, that it is the product of a consciousness (either human or divine or both). The epistemological corollary is the notion that man gains knowledge of reality by looking inward (either at his own consciousness or at the revelations it receives from another, superior consciousness).
This is one of those doctrines within Objectivism that is so enmeshed in its own confusions and inconsistencies that the critic hardly knows how to entangle its web of errors. But let’s take a stab at it.
1. To begin with, how meaningful is it to declare the “primacy of existence” against the “primacy of consciousness,” given that consciousness is itself a part of existence? Since consciousness exists, blanket statements such as “existence has primacy over consciousness” are confusing. If existence is primary and consciousness is part of existence, then consciousness is "primary" along with everything else that exists. Of course, apologists for Rand will declare that the primacy of existence simply means that consciousness does not create reality, as various forms of idealism imply. But if so, why didn’t Rand just say that consciousness doesn’t create “existence” and be done with it?
2. Rand’s primacy of existence construct is a rather confusing way of stating realism. However, Rand’s equation of the primacy of existence (i.e., realism) with the axiom existence exists leads to a palpable contradiction. According to Objectivism, the axiom existence exists does not specify what exists. As David Kelley notes, “the axiom of existence does not assert the existence of a physical or material world as opposed to a mental one.” So how can Rand suddenly equate “existence exists” with realism? How can such a leap be justified? Well, as a matter of fact, it cannot be justifed. As usual with Rand, her argument is based on leveraging the scandalous vagueness of words to equivocate her way to a predetermined conclusion. The term existence, when Rand first introduces it, is equated with the content of consciousness. Consider the following statement of Rand about consciousness: “If that which you claim to perceive does not exist, what you possess is not consciousness.” This implies that everything one perceives exists, which would only be true if existence is confined to mental content (i.e., the content of consciousness). Both the elephant at the zoo perceived by onlookers and the pink elephant perceived by the drunken sot “exist” according to the logic of Rand’s statement. The only way to escape this conclusion is through equivocation, i.e., by claiming that the drunk does not in fact “perceive” the pink elephant, but merely hallucinates it. However, this would involve an assumption which Rand’s axioms, as they are initially introduced and defended, are unable to support. Rand’s axioms make no such distinction concerning what passes or does not pass for perception. She simply states that something exists, and that consciousness is the faculty that perceives this something. From such a trivial beginning, nothing so specific and meaningful as a distinction between “valid” and “invalid” perception can logically follow.
To sum up: it is illogical, even on Rand’s premises, to deduce or infer realism (i.e., the primacy of existence) from the axiom existence exists.
3. Rand’s “primacy of existence” and it’s opposition to the “primacy of consciousness” implies materialism, which contradicts the predominant anti-materialistic tone of Objectivism. Rand defines the “primacy of consciousness as “the notion that the universe has no independent existence, that it is the product of a consciousness (either human or divine or both).” However, if the primacy of consciousness is equated with the belief that existence is the product of consciousness, doesn’t this imply that the primacy of existence should be equated with the belief that consciousness is the product of existence? Now what exactly is this “existence” that Rand declares as “primary”? Rand’s equation of the term existence with the term reality hardly improves matters, since Rand does not go on to define very clearly what she means by the term “reality." By the implications of her confusions, Rand’s reality might be equated with the non-conscious; and once consciousness is divested from reality, materialism easily follows.
The real problem here is not that Rand is an unwitting materialist, but that her metaphysical speculations are so loose that one can draw whatever conclusion one likes from them. Rand is pursuing the false ideal of trying to logically justify some of her most basic beliefs, rather than just accepting them as necessary presuppositions of practical existence, as a sort of animal faith justified over the course of one’s life. Since the type of metaphysical speculation Rand favors is so loose and vague, based, as it is, largely on trivial truisms and empty tautologies, one can draw whatever conclusions one likes from them, whether those conclusions be materialism, idealism, or Objectivism — it’s all equally “valid.”