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The rest of the sentence is ": before it could identify itself as consciousness, it had to be conscious of something. " pg. 92 of the Ayn Rand Lexicon.

I've heard this many times while studying objectivism but I have to admit that I don't understand why it's a contradiction. For instance, my consciousness is conscious of thoughts, emotions and other non-material contents. Is the point that those contents only got there after being exposed to external entities? Or is it something to do with the definition "the faculty of perceiving that which exists"? I get that it is a faculty of an entity, and it perceives that which exists. Still isn't obvious why that is a contradiction. Help?

Thanks for the response. I'm still not seeing the contradiction.
The part that I do get is

If nothing exists, there can be no consciousness: a consciousness with nothing to be conscious of is a contradiction in terms.

This makes total sense because if nothing exists then it follows obviously that consciousness is something and therefore you can't simultaneously have nothing and something ( in this case consciousness ) and secondarily there wouldn't even be anything to be conscious of ( because nothing exists ) so there is kind of two contradictions just in that one statement. That part I'm fine with.

The part that I asked about is the case where just consciousness exists.

A consciousness conscious of nothing but itself is a contradiction in terms: before it could identify itself as consciousness, it had to be conscious of something.

The way I'm interpreting this part is that we are past the idea of nothing existing and focusing on just consciousness existing (Solipsism) and that a contradiction exists here.

Also, I wish I could strikeout the the "and other non-material contents" part of my question because it's not essential to the question. I'm just interested in the contradiction part. I was trying to show that I understand what consciousness is.

asked May 24 '13 at 23:36

CarGuy's gravatar image


edited May 26 '13 at 11:27

Is "a fooness foo of nothing but itself" a contradiction in terms? It's certainly meaningless.

"I'm aware of nothing but my awareness"? Is it more clear how that doesn't make sense?

"I'm correct about nothing but my correctness"? "I have faith in nothing but my faith in things"? "I acknowledge nothing but my acknowledgement"? "I am concerned with nothing but my concern"? "I love nothing but my love of things"?

The explanation is right there - "before it could identify itself as consciousness, it had to be conscious of something".

(May 26 '13 at 14:02) anthony anthony's gravatar image

One time I got charged $35 for bouncing a check. My balance was $20 and I wrote a check for $10. Unfortunately the bank misapplied the $10 check as $100. So they set my balance as -$80, then charged me $35 as a bounced check fee, bringing my balance to -$115.

I got the check corrected, so the bank corrected my balance by $90, to -$25. I then asked them to get rid of the bounced check fee. The woman on the other end of the phone said "no, you have a bounced check fee because your balance is negative".

I think that's what Rand was getting at. :)

(May 26 '13 at 14:25) anthony anthony's gravatar image

Perhaps the sentence immediately preceding the cited sentence may help (from Galt's Speech, as excerpted in the Lexicon topic of "Consciousness"):

If nothing exists, there can be no consciousness: a consciousness with nothing to be conscious of is a contradiction in terms.

The key phrase is "nothing to be conscious of." The remaining sentences address the related question of whether or not consciousness itself can exist and be self-conscious without (or apart from) anything else existing. For example, the same paragraph concludes:

If that which you claim to perceive does not exist, what you possess is not consciousness.

The question mentions "thoughts, emotions and other non-material contents." Objectivism observes that all such contents derive ultimately from existence independent of consciousness, of which man becomes aware, leading to awareness of oneself as being aware of existence (and of oneself). One can't think without thinking about something. What one is thinking may or may not exist exactly as one is thinking of it, but the ability to have such thoughts at all nevertheless depends on having previously observed existents in reality that do exist. Similarly, emotions, too, depend on awareness of existence that exists independently of one's awareness of it. For further explanation of the nature of emotions, refer to the topic of "Emotions" in the Lexicon. The question doesn't specify what "other non-material contents" might refer to, but Objectivism holds that it would have to refer to something, and man has no means of conceiving of a "something" without relying on elements that exist in reality independently of one's awareness of them. Man wouldn't even be able to communicate his "visions" clearly to others (or to himself) without something in reality to point to or otherwise refer to less directly. See also "Imagination" in the Lexicon for Objectivism's view of imagination. Even if one is asleep and dreaming, it remains true that one's dreams are based on prior waking awareness of existence, fragmented and rearranged in the dream (often quite bizarrely).

Objectivism upholds the primacy of existence over consciousness, meaning (in part) that existence can exist without consciousness but not vice versa. See "Primacy of Existence vs. Primacy of Consciousness" in The Ayn Rand Lexicon.

(In case the confusion stems from the meaning of "contradiction," there is a Lexicon entry on that topic, as well.)

Update: Solipsism

The expanded form of the question and the questioner's continued puzzlement over some of Ayn Rand's formulations may seem highly baffling to many readers. What is the questioner's context, especially his metaphysical context? The expanded form of the question provides a huge clue: the offhand, even parenthetical appeal to the term "solipsism":

... we are past the idea of nothing existing and focusing on just consciousness existing (Solipsism)....

There is a whole philosophic tradition associated with "Solipsism." Evidently the questioner is very familiar with that tradition but not very well read in Objectivism's source materials beyond a smattering of excerpts from The Ayn Rand Lexicon. The Harper Collins Dictionary of Philosophy, 2nd Edition, by Peter A. Angeles (1992), describes "solipsism" in two separate back-to-back entries:

solipsism, epistemological... 1. the theory that one's consciousness (self, mind) cannot know anything other than its own content. See EGOCENTRIC PREDICAMENT. 2. one's consciousness alone is the underlying justification for, and cause of, any knowledge of the existence or nonexistence of anything at all. Contrasted with OBJECTIVISM (EPISTEMOLOGY).

solipsism, metaphysical literally, "I myself only exist"; the theory that no reality exists other than one's self. The self (mind, consciousness) constitutes the totality of existence. All things are creations of one's consciousness at the moment one is conscious of them. Other things do not have any independent existence; they are states of, and are reducible to, one's consciousness.

(The reference to "objectivism" in this excerpt is generic, not referring specifically Ayn Rand's philosophy other than implicitly as an instance of the wider philosophical category.)

Another entry in the same dictionary explains:

egocentric predicament 1. the apparent situation that each person can have knowledge only of his or her own experiences. One cannot get beyond one's experiences to know anything about the world as it exists apart from oneself. One cannot know anything about another's experiences as they exist to that other person. 2. all knowledge is a product of our own individual consciousness, and no knowledge is possible of anything outside our consciousness....

The philosopher Descartes carried this approach to a logically consistent extreme. In The DIM Hypothesis, Chapter 3, subsection titled, "Worldly Supernaturalism," Dr. Peikoff explains:

Rene Descartes, the father of modern philosophy, was the most influential Platonist to embrace modern science.... As a rationalist, he holds that knowledge is not gained inductively, from sense data, which he regards as confused; rather, it is gained deductively, through inference from the proper starting points, which he believes are intellectual intuitions "clear and distinct" to the mind apart from experience. In this view, the basic principles of thought, such as the laws of logic and causality, are given to us innately and do not refer primarily to this world. On the contrary, Descartes accepts them before he has discovered that there is a world, and he relies on them in order to discover it.

The famous expression, "Cogito ergo sum" ("I think, therefore I am, or I am thinking, therefore I exist") was originated by Descartes. (There is an entry on it in Angeles' dictionary of philosophy, from which the quoted translation is taken.) Here is Ayn Rand's view of this expression as expressed in Galt's Speech:

Whoever you are—you who are alone with my words in this moment, with nothing but your honesty to help you understand—the choice is still open to be a human being, but the price is to start from scratch, to stand naked in the face of reality and, reversing a costly historical error, to declare: 'I am, therefore I'll think.'

Ayn Rand elaborates on Descartes on pp. 24-25 in the Signet paperback edition of FNI:

While promising a philosophical system as rational, demonstrable and scientific as mathematics, Descartes began with the basic epistemological premise of every Witch Doctor (a premise he shared explicitly with Augustine): "the prior certainty of consciousness," the belief that the existence of an external world is not self-evident, but must be proved by deduction from the contents of one's consciousness—which means: the concept of consciousness as some faculty other than the faculty of perception—which means: the indiscriminate contents of one's consciousness as the irreducible primary and absolute, to which reality has to conform. What followed was the grotesquely tragic spectacle of philosophers struggling to prove the existence of an external world by staring, with the Witch Doctor's blind, inward stare, at the random twists of their conceptions—then of perception—then of sensations.

When the medieval Witch Doctor had merely ordered men to doubt the validity of their mind, the philosophers' rebellion against him [the medieval Witch Doctor] consisted of proclaiming that they doubted whether man was conscious at all and whether anything existed for him to be conscious of.

Objectivism views consciousness of any kind, in any animal, human or non-human, as a faculty for observing and identifying existence, apart from oneself first and foremost, and (in man) secondarily directed inward, introspectively, to one's own mental processes, after one has been observing external existence for some time. Objectivism very strongly denies that consciousness can exist with nothing but itself to be conscious of, and that any such concept of consciousness is an invalid concept, not representative of reality.

The original form of the question asked:

For instance, my consciousness is conscious of thoughts, emotions and other ... contents. Is the point that those contents only got there after being exposed to external entities?

If "being exposed to external entities" means sensing and perceiving external existence, then the answer is yes! -- exactly. All consciousness begins with sensations. In all but the lowest forms of consciousness, these are automatically integrated into percepts. In man, the percepts can be further integrated (volitionally) into concepts, and all valid concepts in man's consciousness are integrations of senseory-perceptual material. Man's consciousness is not an epistemological "mirror" that passively "reflects" whatever impinges on it; consciousness has identity, according to Objectivism; it has a specific nature and perceives existence by specific means and specific "processing." But the ultimate source of the material which a consciousness "processes" is external existence and one's own existence as part of existence in general.

Given Objectivism's emphasis on the primacy of existence over consciousness (epistemologically and metaphysically), it is also important to understand that the term "contradiction" in Objectivism (and in Aristotle) includes any denial of the identity of an existent, any denial of a fact of reality. A contradiction, in essence (in Aristotle and Objectivism), is a claim that something can exist and not exist at the same time and in the same respect. The "something" in a contradiction can be any aspect of existence, including attributes, actions and relationships of entities as well as entities per se. Since a "consciousness conscious of nothing but itself" cannot exist (in the Objectivist view), any claim that it does exist is a contradiction. It is a denial of reality. And since the concept of consciousness subsumes awareness of existence, one contradicts the conceptual roots of that concept if one claims that conscious can arise or function independently of existence. (See "'Stolen Concept,' Fallacy of" in The Ayn Rand Lexicon.)

The expanded form of the question states:

I was trying to show that I understand what consciousness is.

To understand what consciousness is, one must begin with metaphysics, i.e., looking outward at reality, looking at what consciousness does and where consciousness does it. On this metaphysics, any other concept of consciousness is, indeed, a contradiction in terms, i.e., a denial of the identity of what one's concept refers to in reality.

If the questioner or anyone else needs further elaboration on how the basic metaphysical axioms of existence, identity and consciousness are validated in Objectivism, refer to those topics in The Ayn Rand Lexicon, and, if possible (sooner or later), consult the original texts from which the Lexicon excerpts are taken. The refutation of Descartes and solipsism is a byproduct of Objectivism's validation of its fundamental metaphysics.

answered May 25 '13 at 21:20

Ideas%20for%20Life's gravatar image

Ideas for Life ♦

edited May 27 '13 at 11:50

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Asked: May 24 '13 at 23:36

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Last updated: May 27 '13 at 11:50