This commentary is part of The Atlas Society's 1999 online "CyberSeminar" entitled " The Continental Origins of Postmodernism ."

Abstract: Bryan’s positive assessment of Heidegger’s “What is Metaphysics” rests, in part, on an erroneous view of metaphysical identity, one that revives the substance/form distinction and the diaphanous model of consciousness. I discuss the distinction between identity and epistemological identification, and between free will and causality, in terms of the Objectivist metaphysics and epistemology. 

Introduction

Bryan Register has offered us a provocative, sympathetic interpretation of Heidegger’s metaphysics. There are many fascinating issues that he raises, and I regret I cannot address all of them. In this comment, I will examine what I think is an error in the interpretation of the axiom of identity that leads to two of Bryan’s key conclusions:
“2) Can we be free if we are governed by causal law, or must freedom be an exception to all law?” (Bryan, as I understand him, avers that free will presupposes some measure of freedom from “causal law.”)
“3) What is the relation of ontological dependence between consciousness and the identities of its objects?” (Bryan states that “without a [conscious] subject, there is literally no identity, just raw existence.”)
In the Objectivist methodology, we need to be cautious about the systematic implications of a position we put forward. I have noticed in Bryan’s posts a tendency to put forward a position with significant implications in a somewhat cavalier manner. There is a tendency in academic philosophy to favor the puzzle over the solution, so that a surface plausibility is sufficient evidence for a generalization, if that generalization produces intriguing questions or distinctions.
Here, I think Bryan’s suggestions amount to reviving the substance/form distinction and the diaphanous model of consciousness. This rests on a presumption that the operations of abstraction (3) and free will (2) are incompatible with metaphysical identity. I will address these two points in this inverted order.

Identification and Identity (Bryan’s point 3)

Bryan interprets Heidegger as holding that “the nothing” precedes “beings” in a sense because existence does not possess identity until identified by consciousness. Bryan puts it this way:
“Without a human subject to perform abstraction, nothing is abstract; that is, no feature is abstracted from the entity of which it is a feature unless a human subject so abstracts it. Now, for facts to obtain, there must be a human subject handy to abstract a feature from an entity, and then reintegrate the feature to the entity (with a proposition).”
This passage represents a persistent confusion of metaphysical identity with conscious identification. Let me begin with David Kelley’s theory of propositional meaning [presented at the 1996 TAS Summer Seminar] since Bryan uses that as the basis of his somewhat sketchy argument. In this theory, Kelley attempts to distinguish the concept of FACT from the concept of REALITY. Colloquially, people often speak of the two as the same, but Kelley proposes a useful distinction that preserves FACT as the criterion of truth.
Essentially, Kelley argues that a FACT is the objective content of a proposition, just as in the Objectivist theory of concepts, a UNIT is the objective content of a concept. A FACT is thus a form of awareness, an aspect of reality as grasped by a consciousness. A proposition is true when it expresses a FACT, i.e., when it correctly identifies the nature of the situation in question. A FACT is the form in which we grasp something. Bryan seems to be saying, that that “something” does not exist as such until we grasp it.
Of course, we cannot experience reality except as we grasp it. But we do not create the metaphysical character of what we grasp. That nature, that IDENTITY, precedes our grasp of it. For example, if I say, “I am male,” I am identifying certain aspects of myself. Metaphysically, Bryan might argue that absent identification, I am simply a brute fact. But the properties (“measurements” in Rand’s terminology) that make it true that I am male exist whether or not they are identified: they are part of my identity. Those properties don’t exist as identified of course, but they exist and are what they are. It is a mistake to speak of something existing (of a substance in other words) without speaking of it having an identity (a form).

Free Will and Causality

In turning to free will, Bryan supposes there is a contradiction between the idea that actions are governed by causal law, and the fact that we have freedom of choice among a range of actions. If this is so, then we must not be subject to causal law, he argues. This is essentially the argument that consciousness, to function as it does, must be without identity of its own, i.e., diaphanous. But causality is, at its root, identity applied to action. It is the recognition that as actions do not exist but as actions of entities, so the causal powers of an entity are an aspect of its identity, and so the acts of consciousness are themselves particular.
The puzzle is this: if the identities of entities necessitate their actions, then is it not true that in any circumstance C formed of Entities E(1) to E(n), each in a particular state and/or relation to the others, the actions that occur are necessitated? The earth orbits the sun as it does, for example, because of the effects of its mass and velocity interacting with the mass and velocities of the sun, the moon, the planets, stars, galaxies, you and me (in our little way), etc.
But the definition of free will is that in a certain circumstance, a choice exists that is not necessitated. The earth orbits as it must, but when I walk, I can go any direction on the earth’s surface. I must conform to the effects on me of the earth’s orbit and gravity, but within some range I can choose.
When we say that some event is necessitated, we usually mean that a one-to-one correspondence exists between its cause and this particular outcome. Yet why do we think this is a bedrock point of metaphysics, that this is what causal law is? Philosophers of science have puzzled over quantum mechanics, for instance, precisely because they insist that elementary particles must exhibit causality just as a billiard ball does. But why assume that?
We might better express causality by saying that an entity’s causal powers have identity. That is, an entity has certain causal powers (and, implicitly, not others). With this conception, we find nothing metaphysically odd about quantum indeterminacy, nor about free will. It is not that one’s nature is nothing, and thus can choose its identity to freely cause its actions. Rather, one’s nature is such that we can choose within a certain range. If one’s nature truly were nothing, it would be quite a mystery how it comes to be constrained, as Bryan notes that it is. Determining exactly the range of actions an entity might take (as quantum mechanics does for particles that exhibit probabilistic characteristics) is a matter of induction; it is a matter for science. Indeed, the content of our causal laws (the law of gravity, for example) is not itself axiomatic, but rather is an induction.
We will not improve our grasp of the problem of induction, on the other hand, by employing the metaphor of “the nothing.”

Heidegger’s Legacy

Thus as I read Heidegger in “What is Metaphysics?” he is not proposing useful metaphysical solutions to tricky puzzles, but rather is exemplifying a method that exalts emotion as a source of knowledge and is hasty to use logical puzzles as a justification for reifying a metaphor into a purportedly higher order of knowledge. I admit I lack Bryan’s extensive familiarity with the literature of existentialism, and I thank him for bringing it to bear on the issues in this reading.
However, here I have discussed two of Bryan’s interpretations of Heidegger's “nothing,” and as I have indicated, I find these revivify false metaphysical presuppositions, to no particular benefit. While Heidegger, as Bryan interprets him, is not uniquely pernicious in the content of his claims, I think we will see that Heidegger’s methodology of deprecating logic and common sense, exalting emotion, and employing rather floating abstractions has probably exerted a powerful and destructive force on the intellectual life of this century. But this we will have to see as the seminar progresses.
Bryan Register wrote:
 
Will Thomas criticizes my introduction for running together identity and identification, and I want to address the issue more thoroughly. First, though, he says:
 
“I have noticed in Bryan’s posts a tendency to put forward a position with significant implications in a somewhat cavalier manner. There is a tendency in academic philosophy to favor the puzzle over the solution, so that a surface plausibility is sufficient evidence for a generalization, if that generalization produces intriguing questions or distinctions.”
 
I’d never noticed that tendency. To the contrary, in my experience, when a philosopher hasn’t got a solution to a puzzle such as Frege’s or Kripke’s, it irritates the hell out of him; some philosophers experience a deep level of dread and angst (not Heidegger here) when they can’t solve a puzzle. No one would ever adopt a theory just to get a puzzle, and people generally introduce puzzles in order to prove a point about the unfortunate effects of someone else’s theory.
 
More importantly, Will Thomas raises issues about facts which I seem to have ignored while relying on David Kelley’s talk on that issue.
 
“Essentially, Kelley argues that a FACT is the objective content of a proposition, just as in the Objectivist theory of concepts, a UNIT is the objective content of a concept. A FACT is thus a form of awareness, an aspect of reality as grasped by a consciousness. A proposition is true when it expresses a FACT, i.e., when it correctly identifies the nature of the situation in question. A FACT is the form in which we grasp something. Bryan seems to be saying, that that ‘something’ does not exist as such until we grasp it.”
 
I just wrote a very long message responding to this, and then I realized that I had misread it. So I’ve deleted that very long message, and I’m going to replace it with a question of clarification. What is the something, which is *not a fact*, of which a fact is the form of our grasp? Where I come from, we grasp facts, so Will Thomas is using the language oddly; until I understand what he means, I’m going to back off from responding.
 
William Thomas wrote:
 
If Bryan does not quite follow my summary of the Kelley interpretation of FACT, then I was wrong to presume that he was seeking to argue from that interpretation. So for my part, I am not sure what he is talking about, or what he takes his identity argument to mean.
 
But, to clarify what I wrote: What is a UNIT, as the Objectivist epistemology uses the term? It is an existent as grasped as a member of a group by a conceptual consciousness. When we use concepts to grasp, to intend, to mean existents, we grasp, mean, intend them as units. The content of conceptual awareness is units.
 
When we discussed the theory of propositional knowledge a few years back in the CyberSeminar, David Kelley advanced a view that he also presented at the 1996 Summer Seminar, a view that seems reasonable to me. This is that the content of knowledge at the propositional level is facts. So a FACT is the form by which we grasp an aspect of reality by means of a proposition. A fact is some existents, a certain “state of affairs,” grasped by a conceptual consciousness. (For example, “I am American” expresses a fact, as does “The sunset was to the west of me.”) Facts are thus objective, in Objectivist terminology, because they are a form of conscious grasp of reality. Admittedly, this uses “fact” in a slightly unusual manner, but it does get at what is going on when the cops on Dragnet say “Just the facts, Ma’am.” (It was Dragnet, in FACT, wasn’t it?)
 
I thought Bryan was using this theory, but emphasizing the “conscious grasp” aspect of facts at the expense of “of reality.” I took him to mean that reality merely exists, i.e., reality is substance, not form. I took him to mean that it is only when consciousness grasps reality in some way that there is identity, i.e., that form is epistemological. If I have misunderstood Bryan’s argument, I hope he will clarify what he means, and why he thinks Heidegger offers a useful contribution to understanding this issue.
 
Bryan Register wrote:
 
I want to try again to present, in Objectivese, the argument I’m attributing to Heidegger (or at least an awfully similar argument). Here’s Will Thomas again:
 
“I thought Bryan was using [David Kelley’s] theory, but emphasizing the ‘conscious grasp’ aspect of facts at the expense of ‘of reality.’ I took him to mean that reality merely exists, i.e., reality is substance, not form. I took him to mean that it is only when consciousness grasps reality in some way that there is identity, i.e., that form is epistemological.”
 
I don’t know how to parse that sentence with all the i.e.’s in it. But, for the part that’s clear, this is not quite what I had in mind, but I see why you could take me this way. The point I was trying to make held exclusively at the level of facts (and thus identity), and it holds for a specific reason.
 
Facts are abstract entities, and are thus mind-dependent. Now, the form in which entities are perceived is also mind-dependent, but in a less radical way. This is because facts rest on other abstract entities, concepts. And the abstract categories of things in the world to which concepts attach are themselves mind-dependent (the things are there, but the categories are not, without the mind). So facts are mind-dependent the way perceptual form is, but also in a second way, because they rest on a lower-level *abstract* feature, which neither perceptual form nor even categories do. So there’s something odd about facts such that they seem more thoroughly dependent on the activities of the subject. However, something’s possessing an identity is a matter of facts obtaining. The identity of my cat is: that it is white, that it has black spots, that it is female, that it has pulled over the scratching post. But these are all facts, and without the activities of the subject not only are there no facts, there are no categories on which facts are based. So, no subject, no identity.
 
Let me put it another way. In perception, there is the form in which we perceive objects (how they look to us) and also the objects, which are not distinct from the form in which we perceive them. The objects are there whether we are or not, while form is obviously mind-dependent. In conception, there is the category of things which the concept connects to, and also the members of that category. The members are there whether we are or not, but they aren’t in an abstract category without us around. Nevertheless, the members of the category exhaust the category. With facts, however, there is nothing but the fact. There’s is no something along with the fact (in the sense that the object is ‘along with’ the form or the members ‘along with’ the category) that we grasp in the form of a fact; we grasp the fact itself. But, since identity is a matter of facts obtaining, no subject, no identity. Without the subject, everything is nothing in particular.
 
This is the analogy I was trying to draw to Heidegger. I hope it’s a bit clearer now, but if it’s still muddled, I’ll be happy to take another stab.
 
I do plan to respond to many of the other comments on my essay, but I’ve been a bit busy so I’ve had to take it as it comes so far.
 
Bryan Register wrote:
 
Thanks to Will Thomas for trying to clarify his point, but I’m still not clear. Here’s why.
 
Will Thomas says: “But, to clarify what I wrote: What is a UNIT, as the Objectivist epistemology uses the term? It is an existent as grasped as a member of a group by a conceptual consciousness. When we use concepts to grasp, to intend, to mean existents, we grasp, mean, intend them as units. The content of conceptual awareness is units.”
 
After a fashion, this is true. However, the units are entities (treated in a certain way), so the content of conceptual awareness is ultimately entities. I think that Will is trying to build an analogy, between a fact as the referent of a proposition, and its units as the content of a concept. Now, I don’t quite follow the analogy, because the units are entities (treated in a certain way), while the fact does not appear to be anything other than a fact, and there’s no fact without a subject. (More on this point in next post.)
 
So my question can be clarified. There’s a relation (of informed identity) between a unit and an entity, and there’s supposed to be a similar relation between a fact and a something-or-other. What’s the something?
 
“So a FACT is the form by which we grasp an aspect of reality by means of a proposition. A fact is some existents, a certain ‘state of affairs,’ grasped by a conceptual consciousness.”
 
I hope you can see why this does not help. ‘Some existents’ or a ‘state of affairs’ does not fill in with the same clarity for facts what facts are the form of our grasp of as entities do for units. Will Thomas continues to note:
 
“(For example, ‘I am American’ expresses a fact, as does ‘The sunset was to the west of me.’) Facts are thus objective, in Objectivist terminology, because they are a form of conscious grasp of reality. Admittedly, this uses ‘fact’ in a slightly unusual manner...”
 
I think the manner is more than slightly unusual. Facts are not a grasp of anything, facts are things which are grasped. To treat a fact as something which is the form *of* grasping something (as distinct from the form in which the something is grasped) is to make facts something mental or psychological: features of the subject. So I’m still unclear.
 
William Thomas wrote:
 
Bryan Register does not see how we might use “fact” to denote the objective content of a proposition, just as we use “unit” to denote the objective content of a concept. By “objective” in each case, Objectivism means: relating to a conscious grasp of reality. Non-Objectivist philosophies typically overemphasize either the subjective (“conscious”) aspect of the objective, or the intrinsic (“reality”).
 
Bryan writes: “There’s a relation (of informed identity) between a unit and an entity, and there’s supposed to be a similar relation between a fact and a something-or-other. What’s the something?”
 
I will clarify. By “informed identity” I suppose Bryan to mean that we realize the unit and the entity (or existent) thus conceptualized are in fact the same thing, except that a unit is that thing as grasped conceptually as a member of a group, in virtue of some relevant dimension of similarity. A FACT is the same thing as an aspect of the identity of “something” in just that way.
 
Imagine A asks “Show me a unit of CAT,” and B points to his Siamese. A may say: “No, no, that’s the existent. I want to see the unit.” But that’s just it: what one sees is the existent, and that means, aspects of its identity, too. What one must grasp conceptually, is how it is a unit of CAT in virtue of that identity (it purrs, retracts its claws, is amazingly anti-social, and so on).
 
When Bryan writes that his own cat’s identity is “having black spots,” etc., I find that sounds a lot like the product of a theory that equates identity with abstractions such as predicates (e.g., “having black spots”). The cat is what it is, and it possesses the identity that is grasped by saying it “has black spots” regardless of the presence of a subject to grasp it.
 
What if A asks: “Show me the FACT that that cat loves you”? Now, B may be able to induce Kitty to set aside its anti-social nature and rub against B’s leg, and purr, and so on. Now the purring, the rubbing, the physical contact between B and Kitty are all aspects of the identity of reality. They are a situation. They are existents with a certain identity. It is the identity of this “something” that is grasped propositionally as “the FACT that Kitty loves B.” (One might quibble, and say they amount to evidence that leads to that conclusion. So one could say the rubbing is grasped propositionally as “the FACT that Kitty is rubbing against B’s leg”).
 
Another way of putting this is: When one creates a proposition out of concepts, one is asserting a conjunction of the units of the various concepts. This means one has specified a conjunction of ranges of measurements omitted, i.e., a conjunction of certain characteristics in reality. When that conjunction obtains, the proposition is FACTual. But it is only factual because it grasps the identity of an aspect of reality, an aspect with an identity such that it falls within the range of measurements specified.
 
A UNIT is the form in which one denotes an existent, conceptually. A FACT is the form in which one grasps the identity of an existent, conceptually. (Often it is the identity of several related actions, entities, attributes, and so forth.) Thus CAT, to those who have the concept, directs one’s attention to certain creatures. By “Kitty loves B,” one grasps some aspect of the identity of one of those creatures (and of B, and of love, for that matter).
 
Thus, in the case of both, there is nothing more out in reality as such but existents, including of course their identities. Units and facts are the content of different types of conscious awareness of existents’ identities.
 
When Bryan writes that facts are “abstract,” because they can only be grasped by means of concepts, this seems to me to be a mistake. Just as no (proper) UNIT is abstract, but rather is a concrete regarded abstractly in terms of certain concrete, existing relationships, so no FACT is abstract. Kitty’s love for B is concrete, if intangible. (Kitty’s rubbing B’s leg is also fully concrete, and quite tangible.)
 
So, I hope it is clearer now what I mean by saying FACTs are objective, and in holding, contra Bryan, that identity as a metaphysical principle is not dependent on identification for its existence.
 
Bryan Register wrote:
 
Thanks to Will Thomas for clarifying his employment of ‘fact.’ Here’s the key paragraph:
 
“I will clarify. By ‘informed identity’ I suppose Bryan to mean that we realize the unit and the entity (or existent) thus conceptualized are in fact the same thing, except that a unit is that thing as grasped conceptually as a member of a group, in virtue of some relevant dimension of similarity. A FACT is the same thing as an aspect of the identity of ‘something’ in just that way.”
 
That *is* what I meant with ‘informed identity’! (My God, we understand one another; let’s have a national holiday!) So here’s where the difference emerges. For Will Thomas, a fact is the same as a thing’s identity, except that it is the form in which we grasp the thing’s identity. For the argument I was trying to attribute to Heidegger (in Objectivese), something’s identity is a matter of a set of facts obtaining. So there’s a reversal of primacy: for Will, there’s (intrinsic) identity, and a(n objective) fact is the same as that identity but is the form in which we grasp the identity, while for my Objectivese version of Heidegger, there’s a set of (objective) facts obtaining, and a thing’s identity is a matter of the obtaining of those facts.
 
This certainly narrows the area of unclarity, but the next question seems to be, what’s the difference between these two conceptions? On the one hand, facts are how we grasp identity; on the other, identity is a matter of facts obtaining. But, if the facts did not obtain, the identity would be different, so, of course, identity *is* a matter of facts obtaining. I’ll have to give this some thought, but I think I’m going to turn to other comments for a little while.
 
I hope everyone can see why I presented Heidegger in a sympathetic way. You’ve got to admit these two conceptions look awfully similar to one another as stated here.
Back to Bryan Register, "Getting a Grip on Nothing"

> Return to the parent page for this 1999 online CyberSeminar, "The Continental Origins of Postmodernism."

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