Metaphysics—Part 2

The Categorical Hierarchy of Existence

We already know existence includes everything that exists, rocks, trees, songs, memories, dinosaurs, the phoenix, and dreams. Reality includes the same things, but distinguishes the mode of existence. Rocks, trees, and buildings are physical existents; memories, as we are conscious of them, exist only psychologically; songs, if actually sung and heard, are physical existents (events), but songs, the concept of words and music written but not sung or played, have only psychological existence when read or thought, but the sheet music has physical existence; dinosaurs exist as facts of history (because they once existed physically), the phoenix never existed physically but is a fact of history, the fact being it is a fiction of ancient Egyptian myth, and dreams only exist psychologically.

There is a hierarchy of existence, and each kind or mode of existence is dependent on previous modes. Physical existence is the primary form or mode of existence. All other existence is dependent on and related to physical existence in a specific way which is illustrated in the following outline.

Categorical Hierarchy of Metaphysical Modes of Existence

[Note: This is not meant to be a comprehensive or formal scheme of all existence. It is doubtful such a scheme is even possible. The purpose of this table is to illustrate the principles of mode and hierarchy only. There is no need to study or remember the table.]

1. Physical (Entities)
2. Life (organisms)
3. Consciousness (perception)
4. Volition (knowledge, concepts)
5. Creation (metaphysical, psychological)

_________________ _ _________________

Phenomena of life (non-human):

2. Artifacts (wood, nests, webs, holes)
2. Events (migration, waste deposits)

_________________ _ _________________

Phenomena of direct perception:

3. Percepts (external)

3. Percepts (internal, "feelings")
—Emotions (physiological response to content of consciousness)

_________________ _ _________________

Phenomena of indirect perception

4. Concepts (language)

_________________ _ _________________

Phenomena of indirect perception

4. Automatic memory/recall
4. Dreams
4. Hallucinations

_________________ _ _________________

Phenomena of conception:

4. Concepts of the physical
4. Concepts of concepts (abstract concepts)
4. Created concepts (synthetic concepts)

_________________ _ _________________

Phenomena of creation

5. Production (productive work, services) 5. Imagination
5. Invention
5. Fiction
5. Superstition

[NOTE: Physical existence itself is hierarchical in nature. A large part of ontology is describing the nature of that hierarchy. That hierarchy is extremely important because it serves as the intellectual foundation of physical sciences and is the basis of similar hierarchies in epistemology and logic. This metaphysical hierarchy serves partly as a foundation for the ontological one.]

The Meaning of the Hierarchy

The hierarchy demonstrates three metaphysical facts pertaining to all existence.

  1. Existential Mode—demonstrates the mode of existence of all existents, and the existential relationship of each mode of existence to all others. Mode pertains to the kind of existence an existent has, for example, physical existents vs. mental existents (phenomena of consciousness).

  2. Metaphysical Dependence—demonstrates the hierarchical dependence of the various categories of existents. For example, there must be physical entities for there to be living entities (organisms) and there must be physical, living, conscious, volitional entities for there to be concepts.

  3. Possible Attributes—demonstrates the distinction between kinds of existents which cannot have the same attributes. For example, dreams do not have the attributes of external perception, and "life" cannot have attributes attributed to physical existence—that is, life cannot be discovered by any means used to discover physical existents; it cannot be weighed, measured, or tested for any other physical property.

[Note: Please note that physically only entities exist. Their attributes also exist but only as attributes of physical entities. Events exist, as well as colors, and weight, and relationships. But these things only exists as attributes of entities: events are the actions of entities, colors are the colors of entities, weight only exists as the weight of entities, and relationships are only between entities. None of these have independent existence, but they exist and may rightly be spoken of as existents—never as entities.]

The Five Categories

The five categories of existence are not hard philosophical rules or principles, but simply a method of differentiating the kinds of existents there are in order to understand their mode of existence, and their relationship they have to each other.

Each of the categories is designated by an attribute or class of attributes that differentiates those entities from the previous category. Each of the first four categories includes all the attributes of the previous categories. Those categories also subsume other kinds of existents only possible relative to existents within or above that category, such as, "Phenomena of direct perception," which are possible only to conscious and volitional beings.

The fifth category is pseudo-category, dependent on the previous four, because the concept of creation is only possible to volitional beings, but necessary because humanly created existents are a unique class of existents.

Life, for Example

For example, organisms are physical entities with all the attributes of the physical with the additional attributes associated with life. The attributes of life are unique in the sense they cannot be defined or described in terms of the physical attributes, nor can they be derived from the physical attributes.

The precise ontological nature of life will be described in detail in the "Life" section of the ontology.

The remainder of this outline of "Categorical Hierarchy of Metaphysical Modes of Existence, is described below.

Phenomena of Life

Phenomena of life includes every organism that exists as well as everything that exists as the result the existence of living organisms. These latter things would include sea shells, leaves, tree bark, and any kind of animal "spore." It would also include fossils, coral beds, and guano, for example.

Artifacts are those entities or substances that living things produce externally, such as beaver dams, bird nests, and wasps nests. Some artifacts include some combination of organic production such as bee hives and spider webs.

Animal artifacts are differentiated from human creations because they do not require the conceptual level of reason.

Phenomena of life also include events like mass migrations, plagues, infestations, hunting, grazing, reproducing, and the myriad other things living organisms do.

Phenomena of Direct Perception

Phenomena of direct perception are every quality that we directly perceive as well as the entities and events we recognize and identify (conceptually) by means of those perceptual qualities. Those qualities include such things as color, temperature, pressure, sound, scent and taste. Please see the article on Perception for a complete description of perceptual qualities.

I have already explained what I mean by external and internal percepts under "Categories of Existents" in the previous section as well as the difference between the biological/physiological feelings and emotions in the article Feelings.

Direct perception is the link between all other non-physical existents and physical existence. It is the original source of all the material of memory and the ultimate source of all knowledge. Everything else in the the metaphysical hierarchy depends on direct perception.

Phenomena of Indirect Perception—Voluntary

Voluntary indirect perception pertains only to man, and no other creature. It is the voluntary nature of these aspects of human consciousness which constitute volition.

Indirect Perception is all of consciousness that is not direct perception but created from "material" stored in memory. Everything from nostalgia, when intentional, to words and concepts intentionally recalled from memory belong to this category.

By, "material stored in memory," I mean percepts or perceptual qualities derived from direct percepts, such as those I described under Dreams and Words, where I also explained that even our consciousness of concepts is perceptual in nature and that it is language (words) that make that perception possible.

[NOTE: The original or primitive content of memory is derived entirely from direct perception. After the development of concepts, conception becomes the major source for the content of memory.]

Dreams are involuntary and will be discussed under Phenomena of Indirect Perception—Involuntary.

Phenomena of Indirect Perception—Involuntary

Two aspects of human nature are volitional, overt behavior and memory. Overt behavior is entirely volitional in human beings, all a human being does must be done by conscious choice. Memory, however, is not entirely volitional. In the earliest developmental stages of consciousness, all of memory is entirely or mostly automatic, very much like animal memory. The volitional control of memory must be learned, but even when that volitional control of memory is fully developed, aspects of memory remain automatic. It is, in fact, control of that automatic function of memory that is the volitional control of memory.

The automatic function of memory is similar to the function of the emotions. Remember, it is the physiological brain that is responsible for memory. Whatever is currently in our consciousness summons from memory stored perceptual data (percepts or perceptual qualities) that become part of what is now being perceived, which summons more stored perceptual data form memory which replaces the former or is "added to it," in a more or less continuous fashion.

Almost anything can illicit an involuntary memory, such a certain scents, and something we see that reminds us of something previously see. It is learning how this "recall" system works that enables us to develop the voluntary use of memory.

Volitional Programming of Memory

The details of those functions are properly the subject of psychology and epistemology. The important aspect to metaphysics is that the memory function is to some extent consciously controlled. Percepts and perceptual data recalled from memory is presented to consciousness tentatively, to be held in consciousness one must give conscious assent or attention to those memory percepts. If ignored or rejected, they disappear. Ayn Rand called that process of assent and rejection, "focus," and as far as I know, this is the only place the meaning of conscious focus is explained.

In this way, the process of conscious memory control is developed through a process of habitualization and association. When we see a certain object, for example, memory will present everything that seems associated with that percept that we have stored in memory, including the word for that object, if we have learned it, for example. If we always or usually attend to a particular memory percept (the word or some other percept) it become more strongly associated with the percept of the object and other memory percepts which are rejected become less well associated or cease to be connected at all.

This very cursory explanation of automatic memory is at this point only meant to demonstrate that memory is not some mysterious kind of non-material existent for which metaphysics cannot account.

Phenomena of Conception

Conception technically belongs to the field of epistemology, and that is where it will be discussed fully. For the purposes of metaphysics it is only necessary to point out that concepts are volitionally formed and exits only as mental constructs and can have no existence apart from consciousness.

Concepts, epistemologically, are identifications of existents or classes of existents. The three sub-categories of conception do have metaphysical significance, however. Concepts of the physical are identifications of things directly perceived. These are our first and fundamental concepts and they comprise our foundation knowledge. All other knowledge consists of concepts of concepts derived by a process of abstraction from that foundation knowledge.

Created concepts, technically, are not knowledge, except that they can be known, and can become knowledge if used to create actual existents. Created concepts are formed by a process of synthesis, combining concepts of knowledge (concepts of the physical and abstract concepts) to form new concepts.

Phenomena of Creation

Those most commonly created concepts are concepts of imagination. While the process implies images, because the process is frequently accompanied by mental images, the process itself is purely conceptual. A common form of the process synthesizes qualities or attributes abstracted from perceived entities, like colors, shapes, or parts, to form new concepts, like, "blue moon," or "winged horse," (Pegasus). Metaphysically, the concepts of imagination identify nothing but themselves, or possibly the mental images that accompany them.

Invention and fictionalization are essentially the same process as imagination only usually more complex and involving more abstract concepts. The words are frequently applied to all these processes, as "invented characters," or stories described as "imaginative" and imagined creatures described as "pure fiction."


When created or synthesized concepts are believed to be ontological facts, or "real" in a sense that lies outside the framework of this categorical hierarchy or having a mode of existence not defined by it, those concepts are superstition. The significance of superstition is both epistemological and metaphysical. The metaphysical significance is the objects of superstitious belief are not, "real." Remember, "things are real only if the nature of their existence is made explicit and they "really" have that nature," and a things nature is determined by its mode of existence.

The objects of superstition exist, but they exist only as created concepts; they do not have the mode of existence attributed to them by their synthesis. They exist, but they are not real; superstition consist in believing they are real, that is, believed to actually have physical characteristics or actually being perceivable, such as being seen, for example.

Dreams and Hallucinations

When our memories are not under our conscious control, but consciousness is not completely, "shut off," as when sleeping, the memory functions will continue more or less automatically. Depending on how completely or well we have programmed that memory function, the automatic memory function will have a kind of order or sense the makes it seem almost as though those memory percepts are real. In the case of dreams, waking immediately reveals the true nature of the dream. Hallucinations, however, though similar to dreams being percepts produced from memory perceptual data, are the result of some physiological problem that allow memory partially or completely to be out of volitional control.

Material Existence Comprised of Existents

Material existence is comprised entirely of existents. Or is it?

The view that all of existence consists of all the existents there are is technically called an "entity ontology" in contrast to the opposite view called a "matter ontology." The entity ontology is implied in some philosophies (Locke, for example) and explicitly in others (Rand, for example). Rand said that only entities exist. In that view, "matter," is simply, "all the material entities."

Based on the explicit entity ontology, Objectivism holds an entity view of cause. According to that view, it is an entity's nature and attributes that determine or "cause" its behavior. That is also the basis for the Objectivist argument for volition. They dismiss the "determinism" argument against volition (everything has a cause therefore everything is determined, by simply saying, for volitional beings, volition is the cause of their behavior.

The entity ontology is contradicted by another Objectivist assertion, however, "matter can be neither created or destroyed." But if matter is only entities, that could not be. Entities are created and destroyed all the time. If we try to get around the problem by saying matter can change its form we have adopted a matter ontology, because entities do not change from one kind of entity into another by some kind of transmutation. Some entities simply cease to be. Other entities come into existence that never were before; for example, every human being.

If something can be neither created or destroyed, we must always have the same amount of it. When one thing changes into another, or ceases to be, or a new thing comes into existence, what is it we still have the same amount of. When the lamb becomes lamb stew, what is the thing, of which, there is still the same quantity? It certainly isn't lambs?

There is a solution to this question, but it requires an explicit ontology which is exactly where we are headed in the next section.

—Reginald Firehammer (9/8/04)


  1. There is a hierarchy of existence, and each kind or mode of existence is dependent on previous modes.
  2. Mode pertains to the kind of existence an existent has, for example, physical existents vs. mental existents (e.g. concepts, memories).
  3. There is a hierarchical interdependence of existents. There must be physical existents if there are to be organism. There must be organisms if there is to be consciousness and volition (and therefore mental existents).
  4. No existent in any category can have the attributes of another category. Mental existents cannot have the attributes of physical existents. Life cannot have physical attributes either; it cannot be weighed, measured, or tested for any other physical property.