Introduction to Metaphysics

I begin my discussion of metaphysics with Ayn Rand, not because she made much ground in that field, because she did not, but because she swept away all of the of the "metaphysical lumber" that plagued philosophy since Hume. Though she wrote very little about metaphysics itself, what she wrote is important.

Ayn rand correctly identified the place of metaphysics in the hierarchy of philosophy and the importance of that branch of philosophy to all others, and to one's view of life and reality.

She wrote:

"Are you in a universe which is ruled by natural laws and, therefore, is stable, firm, absolute—and knowable? Or are you in an incomprehensible chaos, a realm of inexplicable miracles, an unpredictable, unknowable flux, which your mind is impotent to grasp? Are the things you see around you real—or are they only an illusion? Do they exist independent of any observer—or are they created by the observer? Are they the object or the subject of man's consciousness? Are they what they are—or can they be changed by a mere act of your consciousness, such as a wish?

"The nature of your actions—and of your ambition—will be different, according to which set of answers you come to accept. These answers are the province of metaphysics—the study of existence as such or, in Aristotle's words, of "being qua being"—the basic branch of philosophy." [Ayn Rand, "Philosophy;Who Needs It," Philosophy: Who Needs It, p. 2]

Ayn Rand called metaphysics, "the basic branch of philosophy," but she never actually developed that branch of philosophy within the corpus of her philosophy. All of Objectivism rests on a single axiom of metaphysics, "existence exists," and its corollary axioms of identity, a thing is what it is, or A is A. Ayn Rand wrote An Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, but never An Introduction to Objectivist Metaphysics.

The closest thing to metaphysics in Objectivism is the chapter entitled "Reality" in Leonard Peikoff's Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand. That "metaphysics" consists of a reiteration of the axioms of existence, identity, and consciousness, a reemphasis of the primacy of existence, and the entity ontology (as opposed to a matter ontology) as the description of the Objectivist view of cause embodied in the nature of entities rather than events. This is not meant to minimize the importance or accuracy of the those principles, but to emphasize, by themselves, they do not constitute a thoroughgoing metaphysics and do not begin to answer the questions metaphysics must answer. The rest of Ayn Rand's philosophy rests on these assumed metaphysical principles. It is the task of this metaphysics to move them form the place of assumption to the place of certainty.

Structure and Nature of Metaphysic

Metaphysics is the philosophical study of existence; it answers the questions, "what is there and what is its nature?" But metaphysics cannot be fully understood if we do not know what knowledge is or how we know the principles of metaphysics are true.

Epistemology is the study of knowledge; it answers the questions, "what is knowledge and how do we acquire it." But epistemology cannot be fully understood without reference to what knowledge is about, which is "what is," and that is what metaphysics describes.

The problem is where to begin. We cannot study metaphysics and epistemology simultaneously. While investigating one branch we have to assume some things from the other. This is not very important, so long as we do not forget that at the end, what we say about one branch must not contradict what we have said about the other.

I agree with Ayn Rand that epistemology is the most important branch of philosophy. It is in fact, the essence of philosophy itself, and the ultimate reason for it. But I do not begin there, I begin with metaphysics, not because it is the most important, but the basic branch of philosophy, and the one on which all the others rest.

To understand knowledge itself we must understand what it is we know about. What is, logically precedes what is known, because it is the, "what is," that is "the known," and the knower just happens to be one of the things that comprises "what is." Existence precedes everything else, and our understanding of it precedes all other knowledge, including all other branches of philosophy.

The Task of Metaphysics

Metaphysics answers the question, "what is existence and what is its nature."

A sound epistemology asserts knowledge must be both non-contradictory and integrated into a hierarchical form. For the purposes of this metaphysics that assertion is assumed. I do not mean there is no basis for the assumption, but that the basis is one of the things we must discover.

The conviction that all knowledge is related and integrable into a hierarchical system, if true (and it is), means that which is known, in all its parts and aspects, must also be interrelated and integrated. If the interrelationships of knowledge are to be anything more than mental constructs, that which is known must exhibit an inter relational nature that justifies the corresponding conceptual structure. It is the task of metaphysics not only to describe the nature of existence but also to discover and describe the relational and hierarchical structure of existence.

Existence and Reality

Metaphysics is sometimes regarded as the study of reality. In that sense it answers the question, "what is real and what is the nature of the real and how is it distinguished from what is not real?"

The question in this form began with the original skeptics, the sophists, but became a serious part of philosophy by the influence of Plato, who introduced that subtle form of mysticism that has plagued philosophy ever since. That particular mystic idea is that what seems real and obvious is in some sense an illusion, while reality is something quite different and ultimately unknowable or knowable only by some means other than reasoning from the evidence. This is the view held by all mystics and championed by Kant.

This metaphysics dismisses all such mystical notions, but the distinction between reality and existence is still an important one, because, misunderstood, it produces much confusion in philosophy, particularly with regard to the meaning of truth.

Reality Verses Existence

In one sense reality and existence refer to the same thing. The meaning of a concept is its referents. The meaning of the word, (actually the concept the word represents) dogs, for example, is every (or any) actual dog that did, does, or will ever exist. In that sense, the words "reality" and "existence" mean the same thing; because they both refer to, "everything that is." But they are not the same concept. They identify the same thing; but, the intention or purpose of that identification is different.

(This fact is important to epistemology. Existence and reality are not the only words that have the same meaning, with regard to referents, but different meanings, with regard to intention or connotation.)

The essential difference in these two words is this:

existence refers to all that there is, without explicit reference to the nature of what is or the manner in which it exists;

reality also refers to all that there is, but explicitly includes in its meaning, the nature or mode of existence.

This distinction is extremely important and requires additional explanation, but before we do that, there is some confusion about the meaning of existence itself that must be dealt with.

Existence, a Thing and a Quality

Objectivism regards existence as an, "axiomatic concept." The axiom is sometime stated, "existence exists," but it might just as well have been stated, "existence is," or, "there is existence." These statements are propositions, and Ayn Rand explicitly states the "axiomatic concepts" are not propositional; so these statements are not, themselves, axioms; they are true, because the concept existence itself is axiomatic.

These statements are also a bit misleading. The Objectivists do not make explicit what existence is, and these statements all suggest it is a thing or an entity. The word existence, however, is actually used for two different interdependent concepts, a quality, and everything with that quality.

Existence, as a "quality," just as "redness" or "roundness" are qualities. The interesting thing about existence is, unlike "red" which is a quality of very few things, "existence" is a quality of everything that is. As a quality, "existence" means "is."

Existence, as a "thing," is a collective noun, like, "society," and includes everything with the quality, "existence," or "everything that is." Used in this collective way, the word existence has the same intention as the word society has. Just as there is no such thing as society without people, there is no such thing as existence without existents, and just as a society includes all the people that comprise it, existence includes all the existents that comprise it, which is all the existents there are.

This is why we talk about "existence" as though it were a thing, because, unlike other qualities, such as "redness," which require there to be some existent things that have those qualities, the quality, "existence," for anything that has it, means that it is. That is why we can wave our arm, indicating the entire world, the heavens, the universe, and say, "this is existence," which is to say, "everything that is, is." If everything had the quality red we could say everything is red, but, while we cannot say that about redness, we can and must say it about existence.

Existence, Known and Unknown

Existence is independent of anyone's conscious or knowledge of it. Existence (the thing, not the adjective) is everything that is, even if none or only some of those existents are known, perceived, or even suspected of being.

Consciousness and knowledge, themselves, cannot exist independently of the one who is conscious or has the knowledge, of course, but it is not necessary for anyone else to be aware of that consciousness or knowledge for them to exist.

Existence, Past, Present, and Future

Furthermore, existence (the thing) is all that is, "right now," at the present moment. There are things that exist today that never existed before in history, and there are things that existed ten years ago, a thousand years ago, and millennia ago, that no longer exist. There are things that will exist tomorrow, next year, and eons into the future, that do no exist yet.

It is sometimes said, existence is everything that is, ever was, or ever will be. If it is existence the quality that is meant, it is true, that everything that was in the past existed then and everything that will be in the future will exist then, but existence as a quality only pertains to what is, not to what was or will be. This distinction is very important to both logic and epistemology and the mistake has led to some of the most absurd logical errors.

Exists How? (Mode)

Existence means everything that is, without regard to the manner in which it exists. By, "manner in which it exists," I mean, the mode of existence.

Mode is a very important concept, identified and explained by classical logic, but mostly neglected by modern philosophers. Originally, the concept pertained to epistemology, but is based on the nature of existents themselves, which classical logic implicitly assumes. Modes are also very important to the concept reality, as we shall see.

In speaking of things past and future, I noted that they may not exist today; but, if they are things of the recent past that no longer exist, if we remember them, our memories of them do exist today; if they are things of the ancient past, our historical records of them exist today. Memories and history, however, do not exist in the same way you and I and the people, things, and events of today's news exist.

Frequently, in everyday language, existence is used in a narrower sense meaning physical existence, natural existence, or just nature. (A similar everyday usage of reality will also be noted.) This common meaning of existence means everything of which we are, or can be, directly perceive. The strict naturalist or physicalist believes that physical existence is all there is. If the strict physicalist were correct, physical existence and existence itself would be the same thing. The narrow meaning of existence is obviously wrong, else you and I and the people, things, and events of todays news would be all that exists; memories and history, for example, simply would not exist.

There is much more than physical existence. In addition to memories and history, there are dreams, imagination, and hallucinations. Someone somewhere, right now, is hallucinating, and that hallucination exists. History is just one branch of knowledge, but all our other knowledge also exists, including our knowledge of the sciences, technology, mathematics and philosophy, of which a lot more, I hope, will exist by the time we finish this series. Every fictional character, place, or event that we write about, read about, or think about, exists so long as they are in somebody's mind or memory; but they are not material existents, they are psychological existents; but they are all real existents. They all exist, but all have different modes of existence.

Of course, fictional characters exist, but are they real?


Of the two concepts, existence and reality, existence is the broader term. I reiterate, everything that is, no matter what its nature or mode of existence, is included in the concept existence.

Reality includes everything that is, as well. It includes everything that is, but not in the same way existence does, as an unspecified collection of things, without regard to their nature, relationships, or mode of existence.

Reality includes every entity, every event, every quality, and every idea there is, but includes them as specific things with a specific nature and specific relationships to other things. Reality always specifies the mode of existence. It includes fictional things as fictions, hallucinations as hallucinations, historical things as historical things, and material things as material things. Reality does not include fictions (such as Santa Claus) as material or historical facts. It does include the fact that Santa Claus is a common fiction used for the enjoyment of children at the Christmas season.

After reading Grimm's, "Billy Goats Gruff," to my grandson I quickly assured him, "trolls are not real." This is how we speak in everyday language.

The everyday concept of reality is derived from the fact we are conscious and are able to differentiate those things we are directly conscious of (perceptually) from all that we are conscious of "indirectly," as memories, imagination, dreams, or hallucinations. When we say this is real but that is only imaginary, we mean this is part of the world we have identified with those things we perceive directly, the physical, but that only exists as a mental construct created from material derived from memory. In everyday language, the real only includes the physical mode of existence.

This is the primitive concept of reality. It is the one most people mean when they use the word real, and for most purposes, it is adequate. In philosophy, however, this is not adequate and not quite correct. As fictional characters, trolls really do exist, it is as physical existents, trolls do not "really" exist.

For philosophical purposes, the primitive concept of reality must be expanded to include all things we are conscious of, differentiating the primitive concept of reality as "physical reality" from the broader concept of reality, that includes all existents, both physical and non-physical. Reality includes everything included in the concept existence, but is more restrictive. Things exist no matter what their nature is; things are real only if the nature of their existence is made explicit and they "really" have that nature.

The Rest of Metaphysics

The rest of metaphysics includes an expansion of the concepts already introduced, and the most important aspect of metaphysics, the nature of material existence, ontology The next section will conclude the discussion of overall metaphysics, and answer the question, "what is the really real existence?"

Ontology is a very large subject, but much more interesting then metaphysics proper, of which it is a subset. It is more interesting because it is less abstract, because it is concerned with what stuff really is. What is mind and what is matter? How is volition possible if everything is determined? If everything is not determined, how can we be certain anything we know will not just up and change tomorrow?

—Reginald Firehammer (9/8/04)


  1. Metaphysics is the philosophical study of existence; it answers the questions, "what is there and what is its nature?"
  2. Existence refers to all that there is, without explicit reference its nature or the manner (mode) in which it exists.
  3. Reality also refers to all that there is, but explicitly includes in its meaning, the nature or mode of existence.
  4. Things that exist, exist, no matter what their nature is; things are real only if the nature of their existence is made explicit and they "really" have that nature.
  5. As a quality, "existence" means "is." (If a thing has "existence," it is.)
  6. As a thing, "existence" means "everything that is."