|Jordan: “First, people disagree over the meanings of things all the time. That doesn't change whether the thing itself is efficacious. The truth or falsity of "existence exists" rests not one bit on whether Michael and I might agree.” |
Why, then, does Rand’s argument depend on an act of grasping a statement? At this point, it’s probably a good idea to repair to the original quote that sparked this thread, and look at it with fresh eyes. Here is the relevant portion of the passage:
1) “Existence exists—and the act of grasping that statement implies [that something exists] two corollary axioms: (2) Something exists which one perceives; and (3) that one exists possessing consciousness…”
I have slightly amended this quote in order to reveal an unspoken conclusion (that something exists), as well as to highlight the three arguments that apparently establish Rand’s axioms, Existence, Identity, Consciousness. The latter are in bold.
An argument is a series of connected steps that lead to, and support, a conclusion. The casual reader might assume from the above passage that Rand has established the validity of her axiomatic concepts. Such a view would be mistaken. Taking argument (1), we have seen earlier that it goes like this: “Existence exists—and the act of grasping that statement implies [that something exists…”]
In other words, there is a thought, an act of understanding and a conclusion that something exists. Also, as we have seen, the preceding premises -- a thought plus a mental act -- imply that the conclusion, the "something" that exists, is consciousness. But Rand has not at this point in the argument established her axiom of consciousness – for that, we have to wait for argument (3).
But she needs the concept of consciousness in order to move her argument in (1) from “existence” to “something”. In other words, she has smuggled the conclusion of her third argument into the premises of her first argument; that is, she has begged the question.
“That something exists” must be the conclusion of argument (1), not only because it follows the premises, but also because it forms the connection between arguments (1) and (2), and the first premise of the second argument, which goes: 2. “…something exists which one perceives…”
In her first argument, Rand has apparently established the Existence axiom, and she now uses this to establish the Identity axiom. But, here, in order to move the argument from “something” to “perceives”, she has to appeal to yet another concept: a perceiving subject, the “one”. But she has also yet to establish this concept – for that, we have to wait until her third argument. So the addition of “one” represents another instance of premise-smuggling.
But in this second argument she does manage to suggest that the “something” is a material object, by teaming it with “perceives”. Which takes us to the third argument: “…one exists possessing consciousness…” This argument apparently establishes Consciousness, but only because Rand has already sneaked in a mental act and a perceiving subject into the previous arguments.
I think this brief analysis demonstrates that Rand’s arguments depend on verbal sleight of hand, and hidden assumptions that are not present in the term “existence”. Some further thoughts spring to mind – especially about that “defining of existence into consciousness” that you mentioned – but I’ll leave it there for the moment. I’m out of action for a day or so. I might post some more thoughts later in the week.
As for your question regarding existence and consciousness, I’m not entirely sure what you mean by “existence trumps consciousness”. If you mean that: if we discover that an idea we hold is inconsistent with the way the external world can be shown to work, that we should therefore modify our idea -- sure, I’ll agree with that.