Abstract: There are two Randian arguments Bryan Register discusses in his summary of Heidegger’s arguments in “What is Metaphysics?” which I discuss. One is the “stolen concept” argument, and the other is the reification of the zero. I also comment on the relationship of Heidegger’s thesis on nothingness to the emotion of dread.
Rand’s argument about stolen concepts is an important argument resting on her view about epistemological hierarchy. The hierarchical view invoked is that all of our knowledge rests on perception, and that the verification of that knowledge rests on identifying the conceptual connections between abstractions and perceptions. Given that abstractions themselves are hierarchical, that some rest on previously formed ones, the steps necessary to connect higher-level abstractions to perceptions are often extensive. One must know explicitly the criteria David Kelley mentioned in his first post
concerning units, their contrast objects, CCD’s, the dimension of isolation, and the some-but-any principle. This makes it challenging to consistently maintain the connections in the conceptual hierarchy.
If the above is true, then a (legitimate) concept that exists between a higher-level concept and perceptions can’t be implicitly invoked outside its place in this hierarchy to refute the higher-level concept. For instance, an obvious example is that one can’t coherently argue against egoism by asserting one will be rewarded in the afterlife by being self-sacrificial. The concept of self-interest is the “stolen” concept in defending self-sacrifice.
Heidegger’s Stealing of the Concept of the “Stolen Concept”
I don’t think Heidegger is accurately employing the above “stolen concept” argument in demanding a contrast object for existence. (Not that Heidegger is trying to invoke an argument Rand named long after he died. Rather, I don’t think Bryan Register can invoke the argument on Heidegger’s behalf.) However, I do think he is cleverly confusing the issue by using an argument that looks like the stolen concept argument. One might say this is stealing the stolen concept. Interestingly, I think this error is a common one, even among Objectivists, and it’s an error that confuses people trying to grasp the axiom of existence.
The axiomatic concept “existence” has an interesting conceptual status. Since it is an axiom, its units are all things, or the world, and any attempt to deny its validity is an automatic invocation of the stolen concept. This is because an argument proposed against it simply has to implicitly deny the concept since any validly formed concept must rely on its truth.
But what about a contrast object for the concept of existence? As strange is it may seem, there is no (conventional) contrast object! It’s a mistake to insist on a search for one, because doing so is an example of using a stolen concept. As Rand points out (Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, 2nd ed. [hardback], p. 58), this also results in there being no CCD for axiomatic concepts, either. The contrast instead is between conventional facts, which differentiate some objects from others, and basic facts (or primaries), which focus attention on all entities. The need for naming the axiom of existence in conceptual terms is to direct attention to it as a primary fact (along with identity and consciousness), i.e. a fact that lies at the base of epistemology for fallible, volitional beings. As with the other primaries, it provides a “regulatory role” in epistemology by directing attention to its universality for all knowledge.
There is another pseudo-“contrast object” for the concept of existence: the other axiomatic concepts. Each axiomatic concept has all of existence as units, but each focuses attention on a different feature of any existential situation of knowledge acquisition, thereby fulfilling different epistemological needs. For example, the concept of identity focuses attention on the fact that entities are what they are, i.e., that they have specific identities, rather than on the fact that they exist. The concept of consciousness focuses on the fact that awareness is required for any knowledge acquisition. In this way, the axiomatic concepts act as “contrast objects” for each other along the dimension of epistemological need.
Heidegger makes the error of trying to reverse the crucial epistemological asymmetry between the concept of existence and the concept of non-existence. The second concept can only be formed in reference to the first, to epistemologically designate a state-of-affairs which does not obtain along the relevant dimension. For example, one can indicate my current financial condition by stating, “There is nothing in William’s wallet.” The concept of “nothingness” functions as an epistemological placeholder to denote the lack of an entity, or the lack of any quantity along the dimension of concern. It’s not possible, in contrast, to first form the concept “nothing,” and then form the concept existence. The concept of “nothing” is epistemologically parasitic on the concept of existence. It’s a mistake to ascribe ontological standing and metaphysical importance to this epistemological state-of-affairs. Rand names this mistake in the realm of the axioms the Reification of the Zero.
(I believe one of the major achievements in the history of mathematics was the “discovery” of the concept “zero,” suggestive evidence for the epistemological claim of priority above.)
The Mood of Dread
I find Heidegger’s invocation of (trying to) imagine non-existence fascinating. He invites us to imagine our own non-existence, to thrust ourselves into this state, and he suggests we will feel overwhelming dread doing so. I must agree, and having watched some of my own cancer patients try to come to grips with their own imminent demise, I would suggest this is a universal reaction. Essentially, Heidegger is inviting one to conceptualize a contradiction, a contradiction similar to “imagining” a square triangle, but on the grand scale of the axioms! I have to give him credit for urging the mind-body integration thesis on us! I would think that the attempt to imagine this impossibility would lead one to the rejection of the thesis, but I would be wrong in the case of Heidegger.
Another thing I can say about this exercise proposed by Heidegger is that I think Rand would agree with it in trying to understand Heidegger's argument. She suggests that one evaluate a philosophical thesis by “...accept[ing] it--for a few brief moments. Tell yourself, in effect: ‘If I were to accept it as true, what would follow?’...To take ideas seriously means that you intend to live by, to practice, any idea you accept as true...In order to evaluate it properly, ask yourself what a given theory, if accepted, would do to a human life, starting with your own” (“Philosophical Detection,” in Philosophy: Who Needs It, p. 19 [hardback]). I tend to agree.
Bryan Register wrote:
I think that there is a crucial point of unclarity in the argument I was trying to attribute to Heidegger, and I want to make sure we’re all clear on it. (I only have a moment, so I’ll discuss other, related, issues later.) William Dale says:
“Heidegger makes the error of trying to reverse the crucial epistemological asymmetry between the concept of existence and the concept of non-existence. ...It’s not possible, in contrast, to first form the concept ‘nothing,’ and then form the concept existence. The concept of ‘nothing’ is epistemologically parasitic on the concept of existence.”
This is not what I think Heidegger is saying. I did not take Heidegger to be saying that, first we form the concept ‘nothing,’ then, we form the concept ‘being.’ Rather, to form any concept at all, we must distinguish its units from everything else, and then integrate those units. If this is the theory of concept-formation we want to have, then we’re stuck with this theory, and this theory demands a contrast object for the units of any concept. Apparently, ‘being’ is a concept which somehow violates this requirement; this concept can be formed without the usual process of differentiation and integration. Heidegger’s argument seems to be that there is in fact nothing special about the concept ‘being’: Rand will be right, you have to have contrasts for any concept.
However, this does not commit Heidegger to *reversing* the hierarchy between ‘being’ and ‘nothing.’ Rather, he seems to suggest that the two come as a pair, that we can grasp neither being nor the nothing without simultaneously grasping the other (though his point is not about concept-formation). Whether this argument is successful or not is a different question, but I want to be careful that we are critiquing the actual argument and not a subtly different one. So, to repeat: Heidegger seems to argue for simultaneity of grasping being and the nothing, not for a hierarchy either different from or identical to the usual hierarchy.
Bryan Register wrote:
I keep re-reading William Dale’s comments on my essay, and I keep finding that I can’t respond to them. I hope that he can clear up a few things.
William Dale says: “But what about a contrast object for the concept of existence? As strange is it may seem, there is no (conventional) contrast object!...The contrast instead is between conventional facts, which differentiate some objects from others, and basic facts (or primaries), which focus attention on all entities.” I don't think this is going to work. As far as I can see, what William Dale is suggesting is that the contrast object for ‘being’ is: particular beings. I can’t see why this would be any different from saying that the contrast object for ‘cat’ is: all the cats.
“The need for naming the axiom of existence in conceptual terms is to direct attention to it as a primary fact (along with identity and consciousness), i.e., a fact that lies at the base of epistemology for fallible, volitional beings. As with the other primaries, it provides a ‘regulatory role’ in epistemology by directing attention to its universality for all knowledge.”
Now William Dale is trying to make clearer the claim that particular beings can be the contrast objects for the concept ‘being’: this can be the case because the specific role of the concept ‘being’ is to call our attention to being as such, as distinct from any particular beings. But as I understand things, there is no being as such, only particular beings, and ‘being’ refers to each of those beings severally. Moreover, being is not a fact of any kind; *that* some particular being has some feature is a fact.
“I find Heidegger’s invocation of (trying to) imagine non-existence fascinating. He invites us to imagine our own non-existence, to thrust ourselves into this state, and he suggests we will feel overwhelming dread doing so....Essentially, Heidegger is inviting one to conceptualize a contradiction, a contradiction similar to ‘imagining’ a square triangle, but on the grand scale of the axioms!”
I'm afraid I don’t understand. What’s the contradiction? Clearly, we must have a notion of our own death. If we don’t have such a notion, then we don’t have any idea what would be an alternative to being alive, and thus the concept ‘life’ makes no meaningful distinction for us; it has no contrast object. Thus, ‘life’ could no longer be a standard of value because it would be an invalid concept; a consequence many of you don’t look forward to and which is, besides, plainly false.
“Another thing I can say about this exercise proposed by Heidegger is that I think Rand would agree with it in trying to understand Heidegger’s argument. She suggests that one evaluate a philosophical thesis by ‘...accept[ing] it--for a few brief moments. Tell yourself, in effect: “If I were to accept it as true, what would follow?”....’”
Again, I don’t follow. William Dale seems to be suggesting that there’s something rather obviously nasty which would follow from contemplating the possibility of one’s own death, but I certainly don’t know what it is.
William Dale wrote:
“I’m afraid I don't understand. What’s the contradiction?”
The contradiction is that one can’t coherently imagine from the inside looking out the state of not existing. I don’t know how to make it any clearer. There is no way to use our consciousness to experience non-consciousness--that’s a direct contradiction of what the axioms represent. It struck me that this is the “dread” Heidegger is urging.
“Clearly, we must have a notion of our own death.”
Of course we have “a notion” of this, but equally as clearly not in the way Heidegger implies. That notion rests on seeing people alive, seeing them dead, and knowing what it’s like to be alive, not from experiencing being dead. (I wouldn’t urge people to try this out.) Bryan’s choice of “notion” here introduces vagarity to obscure the point.
“If we don’t have such a notion, then we don’t have any idea what would be an alternative to being alive, and thus the concept ‘life’ makes no meaningful distinction for us; it has no contrast object. Thus, ‘life’ could no longer be a standard of value because it would be an invalid concept; a consequence many of you don’t look forward to and which is, besides, plainly false.”
There is, of course, no need to point out this obviously absurd point. All we need is to recognize ourselves as mortal beings and observe other mortal beings dying. We don’t, obviously, form this concept by experiencing being dead.
“Again, I don’t follow. William Dale seems to be suggesting that there’s something rather obviously nasty which would follow from contemplating the possibility of one’s own death, but I certainly don’t know what it is.”
This is distinctly not what I implied, and certainly not with an intelligibly sympathetic reading of what I wrote. I do think there is something obviously nasty about trying to experience the state of being dead from the first-person perspective. This is completely different from “contemplating the possibility of one’s own death.” I mentioned before that I’ve spent a fair amount of time, likely more time than others on the list, with people who are dying and trying to come to terms with this fact. They spend time imagining their own demise, and I can safely assert that most of them do not look forward to the experience.
Perhaps this helps Bryan understand the distinction I was trying to make.
Bryan Register wrote:
Thanks to William Dale for clarifying his point that we cannot imagine our own death: “The contradiction is that one can’t coherently imagine from the inside looking out the state of not existing.”
However, this leaves me with the questions I started with. ‘Death’ is a concept which we form by attending to other organisms and their deaths. So then we can deduce, rationalistic-style, that we, like other organisms, will die. I have a feeling that this is not what Heidegger has in mind, and I also have a feeling that William’s cancer patients are not worried about this abstract eventuality. It seems to me that the very point Heidegger is trying to make is that we have a more immediate experience of our own impending death; naturally this does not require us to experience being dead, but it does require that we have some kind of access to what it is(n’t) like to be dead, else we couldn’t feel angst in the face of our eventual being dead.
To put it another way, if death is not an object which we can experience in some way (in advance of being dead), then it’s not an object we can fear. (By ‘object’ here I mean objects in relation to subjects, not physical objects.) It seems to me that all of the components of our world rushing away from us and assuming insignificance and absurdity--losing their place in the teleological hierarchy we-ve imposed on them--is an apt description of the kind of experience we *can* have but which is of death.
I don’t think the further contemplation of this morbid possibility is going to bring us much in the way of returns.
William Dale wrote:
Let me reply to Bryan’s concerns about my proposed referents and contrasts for the axiomatic concept of existence.
He objects to the contrast between the axiomatic concept of existence (or “being” as he insists) and particular existents. He also rejects the suggestion that a legitimate contrast exists between various axiomatic concepts.
Bryan Register says that “...being is not a fact...” What is the content of “being” here? Based on what Bryan wrote, I’m taking it to be a substitutable synonym for the term “existence,” representing all existents. And, if this wasn’t clear from my earlier post, I agree with Bryan that there is no “being as such” if this phrase suggests something “beyond” all particular existents for Existence.
I never said being “is a fact” as Bryan Register suggests. I said that (the axiomatic concept of) Existence was based on the two distinctions I named (and further describe below), and these distinctions are based on certain facts about epistemology, namely a volitional being’s need to conceptually identify metaphysical axioms.
As an axiomatic concept, i.e., one that conceptually states a metaphysical primary, “existence” has a cognitive status unique to these concepts which separates them from other concepts. It has the special features of axiomatic concepts such as being implicit in all knowledge and not being coherently deniable without (at least implicitly) relying on its truth. These special features are what distinguish these concepts from all other concepts, and these are the dimensions of differentiation from all other concepts.
The feature of reality it recognizes is: in any act of knowledge acquisition, for the axiom of Existence, some feature of reality (or “being”) is attended to. That is, any act of knowledge acquisition requires one to attend to some aspect of reality. If an act of volitional consciousness does not so attend, then the person is cognitively disconnected from reality. I want to emphasize that one is not then in contact with “nothing,” if nothing is taken to imply some metaphysical “thing.” Rather, one is failing to have knowledge. The axiomatic concept’s function is as an epistemological reminder that if one isn’t attending to reality, then one is not attending, period. One of the axiomatic concept’s primary roles is to rule out of court the possibility of “supernatural knowledge.” The necessity for any act of knowledge acquisition to have perceptual content is the fact being recognized by the axiom of Existence in the form of an axiomatic concept.
Another important distinction is the differences between the axiomatic concepts of existence, identity, and consciousness. This is a contrast needed to delineate the different conscious needs of volitional beings in any act of knowledge acquisition: attention must be focused on real existents (Existence axiom), one must differentiate based on real features (Identity axiom), and knowledge requires an act of conscious recognition (Consciousness axiom). These conscious needs is the dimension of differentiation.
These two contrasts--1) between features of any act of knowledge acquisition versus features of a particular act of knowledge acquisition, and 2) between the axiomatic concepts based on the needs of a volitional consciousness--are the source for the differentiation of axiomatic concepts from other concepts and from each other. I don’t see any reason to accept Bryan Register’s insistence that in order to have a concept of Existence, we are required to either adopt a metaphysical status for “Nothingness” or jettison our conceptual theory.
Bryan Register wrote:
William Dale has tried to clarify the axiomatic concept ‘existence.’ He says: “I never said being ‘is a fact’ as Bryan suggests.”
Not only did William say that existence is a fact in his earlier post:
“The need for naming the axiom of existence in conceptual terms is to direct attention to it as a primary fact (along with identity and consciousness), i.e., a fact that lies at the base of epistemology for fallible, volitional beings.”
...he does it again in this post:
“The necessity for any act of knowledge acquisition to have perceptual content is the fact being recognized by the axiom of Existence in the form of an axiomatic concept.”
...and he also implicitly treats it so again in this post:
“It has the special features of axiomatic concepts such as being implicit in all knowledge and not being coherently deniable without (at least implicitly) relying on its truth.”
...by treating (the concept of it) it as the sort of thing that can be true or false.
I’m not piling this on to win debating points, but to call attention to some linguistic uses which are, I think, both common and mistaken. The word ‘existence,’ as I understand it, is a word which is to be used to refer severally to all things, properties, etc. But no single word expresses a proposition (asserts a fact, or whatever). You need a whole sentence to do that.
But let’s say (what is likely) that William Dale was indeed trying to talk about the axiomatic *proposition* that existence exists, and that his usage was just a slip-up, understandable given this audience. Then I think there’s a deeper issue, which I’ll discuss briefly in my next post.
Bryan Register wrote:
Continuing my last argument, about the axiomatic proposition that existence exists:
As I understand it, a fact is an arrangement of some particular thing or things and a universal category; the arrangement is the inclusion of the particular in the universal category. Now, membership for a particular in a universal category obtains should the particular have the feature the category members all have. (Or perhaps: should the particular exhibit the feature which is a member of the category.) In the proposition ‘Bessie is a cat,’ ‘Bessie’ refers to a particular, ‘is a’ indicates a relation of category inclusion by the subject in the predicate, and ‘cat’ refers to the category in which the referent of the sentence is a member. Bessie is a cat in virtue of having, as it were, catness. But catness is a property, or set of properties.
Now, with the axiomatic claim that existence exists, things are less clear. The word ‘existence’ refers severally to everything, and the structure of the sentence indicates category-inclusion by the referent of the subject in the category referred to by the predicate term where the predicate term has to be an action verb (like ‘Bessie runs’). But now what is that predicate doing? What is it to say of something that it exists? Rand is clear (and correct) that existence is not a property of something, so there is apparently no property possessed by those things which exist and lacked by those which do not. Ever since Kant, it has been well-known that ‘existence’ is not a predicate because existence is not a property. But Kant points this out in an effort to refute the ontological proof for God, which says that God, by His very nature, exists--just as Rand (just as mistakenly) says that existence, by its very nature, exists. There *is no fact* in which the property possessed by the the referent of the subject term of the sentence which asserts the fact is existence, because existence is not a property at all, and so cannot be a property of anything (including existence).
To put it more concretely: If I say “Bashful is,” you’re none the wiser. What is this Bashful? “Bashful is a kitten”--now, that’s more helpful. Indeed, in using the name ‘Bashful’ referringly, I have assumed that that name refers to something. This is as close as we can get to saying that something exists. (And, thankfully, predicate calculus doesn’t even allow us to make the mistake I’m trying to correct.)
So I don’t know of any cognitive value in this axiomatic concept ‘existence,’ and I'm positively confident that there is no value in saying of something that it exists. William Dale, however, says why we need the concept of existence:
“The feature of reality it recognizes is: in any act of knowledge acquisition, for the axiom of Existence, some feature of reality (or ‘being’) is attended to.”
Again, this implicitly treats existence as a fact (‘existence’ as a proposition) because it is propositions which assert that some feature is a feature of reality. But what William is trying to say is of course correct. Why not say “Consciousness is intrinsically intentional,” or “Consciousness is always about that which is not itself”? That actually says what we want to say (unlike the way we have tried to say it), and it is equally self-evident on phenomenological reflection.
Back to Bryan Register, "Getting a Grip on Nothing"