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Ayn Rand, Not A Physicalist

One of the most common mistaken assertions about Ayn Rand by those who call themselves "Objectivists" imply that Rand was a strict "materialist" or "physicalist." By physicalist I mean anyone who believes the physical attributes of existence are all there are, and that everything can ultimately be understood in terms of the physical.

She was not a physicalist, especially regarding human consciousness. Her views directly contradict those physicalist views sometimes expressed as, "the brain is the mind," or, as Steven Pinker put it, "the mind is what the brain does."

That is definitely not Ayn Rand's view, and definitely not my view. The brain is physical (material), the mind (consciousness) is not physical.

It is interesting to me that most of those who believe they are students of Ayn Rand reveal how little they really understand Rand when it comes to the nature of the mind. There is no way to demonstrate this without quoting Rand at length.

[Note: In the following quotes, Rand uses the words "matter" and "material" for the physical.]

"Please bear in mind the full statement: 'Existence 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.'" [Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, "Foreword to the First Edition"]

About consciousness, she wrote:

"And above all, above absolutely all, he must not lose the commitment to reason—because if he does, everything crashes. ... His essence, as a being, is his consciousness—not his body, because the body without consciousness is just inanimate matter. Whether he has a soul or is a material being with the attribute of consciousness, in either case his distinctive, essential attribute is consciousness, not matter. And his consciousness is his reason. When he renounces that, he has renounced himself, his essence, his nature...." [The Journals of Ayn Rand, "13 - Notes While Writing: 1947-1952"]

"Man's consciousness is not material—but neither is it an element opposed to matter. It is the element by which man controls matter—but the two are part of one entity and one universe—man cannot change matter, he can control it only by understanding it and shaping it to his purpose. (The distinction between "entity" and "action"—between noun and verb. The essence of being.)

"Man's soul or spirit is his consciousness—here, now, on earth. The ruling element, the control, the free-will element of his consciousness is his reason. The rest—his emotions, his memory, his desires, his instincts—all are determined by his thinking, by the kind of conclusions he has made and the kind of premises he has accepted." [The Journals of Ayn Rand, "13 - Notes While Writing: 1947-1952"]

She clearly distinguishes between the physical (material) body and the non-physical consciousness:

"Man is an entity of mind and body, an indivisible union of two elements: of consciousness and matter. Matter is that which one perceives, consciousness is that which perceives it; your fundamental act of perception is an indivisible whole consisting of both; to deny, to [separate] or to equate them is to contradict the nature of your perception, to contradict the axiom of existence, to contradict your basic definitions and to invalidate whatever concepts you might attempt to hold thereafter.

Your consciousness is that which you know—and are alone to know—by direct perception. It is that indivisible unit where knowledge and being are one, it is your "I," it is the self which distinguishes you from all else in the universe. No consciousness can perceive another consciousness, only the results of its actions in material form, since only matter is an object of perception, and consciousness is the subject, perceivable by its nature only to itself. To perceive the consciousness, the "I," of another would mean to become that other "I"—a contradiction in terms; to speak of souls perceiving one another is a denial of your "I," of perception, of consciousness, of matter. The 'I' is the irreducible unit of life. [The Journals of Ayn Rand, "14 - Notes While Writing Galt's Speech"]

She even recognizes that life itself is a non-physical "element" or attribute:

"Just as life is the integrating element which organizes matter into a living cell, the element which distinguishes an organism from the unstructured mass of inorganic matter—so consciousness, an attribute of life, directs the actions of the organism to use, to shape, to realign matter for the purpose of maintaining its existence.

"That which you call your soul or spirit is your consciousness, the life-keeper of your body. Your body is a machine, your consciousness—your mind—is its driver ..." [The Journals of Ayn Rand, "14 - Notes While Writing Galt's Speech"]

She explicitly states that the consciousness is "nonmaterial:"

"Man is a being endowed with consciousness—an attribute which matter does not possess. His consciousness is the free, nonmaterial element in him." [The Letters of Ayn Rand, "The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged Years" (1945-1959), To Nathan Blumenthal, January 13, 1950]

This may be the central issue. The brain is purely physical, an organ of the physical body. The mind is consciousness which is not physical and cannot be produced by any action of the physical, such as the actions of physical neurons.

The physical is deterministic. Whatever the physical does is determined by the laws of physics. If consciousness were produced by the brain, it would not be human consciousness because it would not be volitional, that is, self-determined.

The view Rand held, and the view I hold is neither mystical nor dualistic. We both regard consciousness as a perfectly natural attribute, just not a physical one, and not one any physical action can produce. The physical is what consciousness is conscious of, and what one cannot be conscious of is not physical. You cannot be conscious of consciousness, certainly not of anyone else's (or any other creature's), and not even of your own. Just as you cannot see your "seeing," but know you see because you do it, you cannot be conscious of your consciousness itself, but know you are conscious because you are.

Non-mystical View of Non-physical

This is not an argument for the view that life, consciouness, and the human mind (volition, reason, and intellect) are non-physical&mdah;arguments which I've made elsewhere (see links). This is meant only to demonstrate it was Ayn Rand's view these things are not physical.

There is nothing mystical about this view. The non-physical attributes of life, consciousness, and the human mind are perfectly natural attributes of reality, just not physical ones, but any view of nature or reality that excludes these attributes or mistakenly attempts to make them physical in some way is an incomplete view of nature, and therefore of reality itself.

For Rand, the physical (that which consciousness is conscious of) and conciouness are distinctly different things. One is not derived from the other nor does it arise from the other, as an, "emergent attribute," for example.

You may not agree with this view; but, if you do not, please do not attribute your physicalist view of conscious to Ayn Rand.

—(10/20/10)