The Metaphysical Versus the Man-Made

by Ayn Rand
From Philosophy: Who Needs It
Philosophy: Who Needs It
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Today, this is (implicitly) understood and (more or less) accepted in regard to the physical sciences (hence their progress). It is neither understood nor accepted — and is, in fact, vociferously denied — in regard to the humanities, the sciences dealing with man (hence their stagnant barbarism). Almost unanimously, man is regarded as an unnatural phenomenon: either as a supernatural entity, whose mystic (divine) endowment, the mind (“soul”), is above nature — or as a subnatural entity, whose mystic (demoniacal) endowment, the mind, is an enemy of nature (“ecology”). The purpose of all such theories is to exempt man from the Law of IdentityTo exist is to be something, as distinguished from the nothing of non-existence, it is to be an entity of a specific nature made of specific attributes...
Galt’s Speech, 125View Full Lexicon Entry
.

But man exists and his mind exists. Both are part of nature, both possess a specific identity. The attribute of volition does not contradict the fact of identity, just as the existence of living organisms does not contradict the existence of inanimate matter. Living organisms possess the power of self-initiated motion, which inanimate matter does not possess; man’s consciousness possesses the power of self-initiated motion in the realm of cognition (thinking), which the consciousnesses of other living species do not possess. But just as animals are able to move only in accordance with the nature of their bodies, so man is able to initiate and direct his mental action only in accordance with the nature (the identity) of his consciousness. His volition is limited to his cognitive processes; he has the power to identify (and to conceive of rearranging) the elements of reality, but not the power to alter them. He has the power to use his cognitive faculty as its nature requires, but not the power to alter it nor to escape the consequences of its misuse. He has the power to suspend, evade, corrupt or subvert his perception of reality, but not the power to escape the existential and psychological disasters that follow. (The use or misuse of his cognitive faculty determines a man’s choice of values, which determine his emotions and his character. It is in this sense that man is a being of self-made soul.) 

Man’s faculty of volition“Volitional” means selected from two or more alternatives that were possible under the circumstances, the difference being made by the individual’s decision, which could have been otherwise...
Leonard Peikoff, Lecture 3View Full Lexicon Entry
as such is not a contradiction of nature, but it opens the way for a host of contradictions — when and if men do not grasp the crucial difference between the metaphysically given and any object, institution, procedure, or rule of conduct made by man.

It is the metaphysically given that must be accepted: it cannot be changed. It is the man-made that must never be accepted uncritically: it must be judged, then accepted or rejected and changed when necessary.


It is the metaphysically given that must be accepted: it cannot be changed. It is the man-made that must never be accepted uncritically: it must be judged, then accepted or rejected and changed when necessary. Man is not omniscient or infallible: he can make innocent errors through lack of knowledge, or he can lie, cheat and fake. The man-made may be a product of genius, perceptiveness, ingenuity — or it may be a product of stupidity, deception, malice, evil. One man may be right and everyone else wrong, or vice versa (or any numerical division in between). Nature does not give man any automatic guarantee of the truth of his judgments (and this is a metaphysically given fact, which must be accepted). Who, then, is to judge? Each man, to the best of his ability and honesty. What is his standard of judgment? The metaphysically given.

The metaphysically given cannot be true or false, it simply is — and man determines the truth or falsehood of his judgments by whether they correspond to or contradict the facts of reality. The metaphysically given cannot be right or wrong — it is the standard of right or wrong, by which a (rational) man judges his goals, his values, his choices. The metaphysically given is, was, will be, and had to be. Nothing made by man had to be: it was made by choice.

To rebel against the metaphysically given is to engage in a futile attempt to negate existence. To accept the man-made as beyond challenge is to engage in a successful attempt to negate one’s own consciousness. Serenity comes from the ability to say “Yes” to existence. Courage comes from the ability to say “No” to the wrong choices made by others.

Any natural phenomenon, i.e., any event which occurs without human participation, is the metaphysically given, and could not have occurred differently or failed to occur; any phenomenon involving human action is the man-made, and could have been different. For example, a flood occurring in an uninhabited land, is the metaphysically given; a dam built to contain the flood water, is the man-made; if the builders miscalculate and the dam breaks, the disaster is metaphysical in its origin, but intensified by man in its consequences. To correct the situation, men must obey nature by studying the causes and potentialities of the flood, then command nature by building better flood controls. 

But to declare that all of man’s efforts to improve the conditions of his existence are futile, to declare that nature is unknowable because we cannot prove that there will be a flood next year, even though there has been one every year in memory, to declare that human knowledge is an illusion because the original dam builders were certain that the dam would hold, but it did not — is to drive men back to the primordial confusion on the relationship of consciousness to existence, and thus to rob men of serenity and courage (as well as of many other things). Yet this is what modern philosophy has been declaring for two hundred years or longer.

Observe that the philosophical system based on the axiom of the primacy of existence (i.e., on recognizing the absolutism of reality) led to the recognition of man’s identity and rights. But the philosophical systems based on the primacy of consciousness (i.e., on the seemingly megalomaniacal notion that nature is whatever man wants it to be) lead to the view that man possesses no identity, that he is infinitely flexible, malleable, usable and disposable. Ask yourself why.

A major part of the philosophers’ attack on man’s mind is devoted to attempts to obliterate the difference between the metaphysically given and the man-made. The confusion on this issue started as an ancient error (to which even Aristotle contributed in some of his Platonist aspects); but today it is running deliberately and inexcusably wild.

A typical package-deal“Package-dealing” is the fallacy of failing to discriminate crucial differences. It consists of treating together, as parts of a single conceptual whole or “package,” elements which differ essentially in nature, truth-status, importance or value...
The Metaphysical Versus the Man-Made, 24View Full Lexicon Entry
, used by professors of philosophy, runs as follows: to prove the assertion that there is no such thing as “necessity” in the universe, a professor declares that just as this country did not have to have fifty states, there could have been forty-eight or fifty-two — so the solar system did not have to have nine planets, there could have been seven or eleven. It is not sufficient, he declares, to prove that something is, one must also prove that it had to be — and since nothing had to be, nothing is certain and anything goes.

The technique of undercutting man’s mind consists in palming off the man-made as if it were the metaphysically given, then ascribing to nature the concepts that refer only to men’s lack of knowledge, such as “chance” or “contingency,” then reversing the two elements of the package-deal. From the assertion: “Man is unpredictable, therefore nature is unpredictable,” the argument goes to: “Nature possesses volition, man does not — nature is free, man is ruled by unknowable forces — nature is not to be conquered, man is.” 

Most people believe that an issue of this kind is empty academic talk, of no practical significance to anyone — which blinds them to its consequences in their own lives. If one were to tell them that the package-deal made of this issue is part of the nagging uncertainty, the quiet hopelessness, the gray despair of their daily inner state, they would deny it: they would not recognize it introspectively. But the inability to introspect is one of the consequences of this package-deal.

Most men have no knowledge of the nature or the functioning of a human consciousness and, consequently, no knowledge of what is or is not possible to them, what one can or cannot demand of oneself and of others, what is or is not one’s fault. On the implicit premise that consciousness has no identity, men alternate between the feeling that they possess some sort of omnipotent power over their consciousness and can abuse it with impunity (“It doesn’t matter, it’s only in my mind”) — and the feeling that they have no choice, no control, that the content of consciousness is innately predetermined, that they are victims of the impenetrable mystery inside their own skulls, prisoners of an unknowable enemy, helpless automatons driven by inexplicable emotions (“I can’t help it, that’s the way I am”).

Many men are crippled by the influence of this uncertainty. When such a man considers a goal or desire he wants to achieve, the first question in his mind is: “Can I do it?” — not: “What is required to do it?” His question means: “Do I have the innate ability?” For example: “I want to be a composer more than anything else on earth, but I have no idea of how it’s done. Do I have that mysterious gift which will do it for me, somehow?” He has never heard of a premise such as the primacy of consciousness, but that is the premise moving him as he embarks on a hopeless search through the dark labyrinth of his consciousnessExistence exists—and the act of grasping that statement implies two corollary axioms: that something exists which one perceives and that one exists possessing consciousness, consciousness being the faculty of perceiving that which exists...
Galt’s Speech, 124View Full Lexicon Entry
(hopeless, because without reference to existence, nothing can be learned about one’s consciousness).

About the Author
Ayn Rand
Ayn Rand
Learn more about Ayn Rand’s life and writings at AynRand.org.