Re: virus: existence / representation
Fri, 26 Mar 1999 10:49:25 EST


I will try to form a response to your last EM on this topic. But in the meantime I wanted to share something from a very similar exchange that I am having right now with another objectivist - this one a bit more orthodox randian than than you and I. In fact earlier our exchange about these ideas degenerated into an almost hopeless ad hominem mutual flame fest, but for the sake of other participants we have agreed to make another go at civility.

I was interested to hear any thoughts you may have on this.

In article <>, (Infidel100) writes:

>Jake: All concepts (as representations) are in principal subjectable to
>criticism. ... >>
>Infidel: This is something we never agreed on. You cannot subject to
>criticism that which is presupposed by every for of criticism, namely the
>epistemological foundation of all knowledge -- the axioms of reality. You
>cannot base your rational criticism on the premise of non-existence.

I am currently having a very similar discussion on an EM list, and perhaps my vocabulary on this topic is changing a little, but the point I am trying to make remains the same. So I am going to try some rewording of the old arguments that we have been hacking away repetitively at for some time.

You seem to believe that I am somehow basing rational criticism on a premise of non-existence. This is really a round about way of once again saying that I am arguing that the universe does not exist. I don't know whether that is what you intended or not, but that is result of what you are saying. At no point have I ever argued that premise. I fact as best I can tell "nonexistence" is not even a premise. I don't really even know what it means. I can imagine other possible conceptions for existence, but I am not even capable of contemplating non-existence. Some transcendental meditation folks claim that they can contemplate non-existence, but I am certain that they are fooling themselves.

Existence is fundamentally an ontological "idea", or really the correct way of talking about it is that the exploration of existence is an ontological process ("ontological idea" is sort of an oxymoron, though an interesting one). Although we use what we know (epistemology) to explore it, and we assume for very good reasons that our epistemological systems of representation are built out of the ontological universe, the two while intimately and necessarily connected, are always necessarily separate. The moment we make any representation about the ontological, it ceases to be ontological, and instead becomes an epistemological representation ABOUT ontology.

So back to the misconception you have about my position. I do not premise rational criticism on non-existence. Before we could have a concept of nonexistence, we would have to have a concept of existence. And of course once we have a concept of existence, non-existence as an absolute state of affairs is an untenable position assuming that we are talking about ontological processes as I understand them. In fact I think "non-existence as an absolute state of affairs" is not even an incorrect statement - it is a meaningless statement. It would have to be meaningful before we could even assign it correct/incorrect status.

However, this conundrum does not preclude/prevent us from forming a CONCEPT - A REPRESENTATION ABOUT existence, which is what epistemology demands of any premise. And thenceforth any invocation of the fact of existence will necessarily invoke a concept of existence. The only "axioms" of existece that aren't in principle subject to rational criticism are the ones that we don't know. We can know ABOUT them, but any knowlege - any concept ABOUT them is a representation - not the thing itself - and thus in principle subjectable to rational criticism just like any other piece of epistemology.

For any concept of existence, rational criticism of it does not invoke nonexistence

And once we have done so, we may then have two competing concepts of existence that can be compared and rationally criticized. If this happens, modifications will be made, understandings will be reconciled, and some will be discarded. This is what is meant by holding the representation "the universe exists" in priciple open to rational criticism. To at least be able to articulate the form of appropriate criticism. If you do not IN PRINCIPLE hold the representation "the universe exists" open to rational criticism, all criticisms of it will appear to take the form of an argument for nonexistence.

My purpose here is not to even engage in rational criticism of the representation, but to show the valid forms that rational criticism of the representation can take. I can do this because I hold it in principle open to rational criticism even though in practice I accept it. If I was incapable of showing such forms, then I wouldn't really be even holding it in principle subject to rational criticism. In fact the ability to show such forms, makes me all the more certain of my holding the representation in practice a closed subject. Far from making me less certain of my premises, I find that it makes me more certain.

It's like the biologist or paleontologist who can clearly articulate what sorts of things in principle if shown to be true would radically alter her understanding of biological evolution. Such a biologist has philosophically covered her backside. Some biologists haven't done so, and when confronted by a creationist or anti-evolutionist of mild philosophical sophistication, are left somewhat speechless and dumbfounded, certainly on the losing end of a rhetorical exchange, and perhaps doubting herself when she really shouldn't be.