|[This essay is based on two posts originally sent to
We all make choices. We choose one flavor of ice cream over
another, and we choose to live rather than to die.
But not everything is open to our choice. We can't choose to fly to
the moon by flapping our arms. We can't choose that our next door
neighbor be always friendly and helpful to us. We can't even choose
our own characters in any easy and obvious way: a Caspar Milquetoast
cannot, by mere "will-power," choose to be a valiant hero--or vice
We can choose some things, but not others. So, which things are
open to our choice, and which things are not? What is the principle
that tells us which is which? Precisely how far does our power of
Ayn Rand observed that existence is identity, that to be is to be
something, that things are what they are, that A is A. Things
exist and are what they are independent of consciousness; roughly
speaking, our power of choice stops where identity begins. Everything
we deal with, including ourselves, is what it is, and we can't choose
that it be what it isn't, or that it do what it can't.
I hope you're inclined at this point to shriek something like,
"Great Poseidon's pitchfork, man! Then what the hell's left for us to
choose?!" That would show that you got the point! The law of identity
drastically limits the possibilities for free choice.
It is Ayn Rand's great achievement to have recognized that the law
of identity leaves precisely one basic choice open to us: to be
conscious of things--or not. Each thing is what it is; our basic
choice is to be conscious of it--or not. She summed this up in the
dictum that "man is a being of volitional consciousness."
This may seem like pretty thin gruel, but it isn't: it is
fundamental. The choice of awareness or non-awareness is fundamental
to us in the same way that conditional branch instructions are
fundamental to computers. Each branch instruction is simple, trivial
even; but when they are combined in multitudes, in clever ways, they
produce the wondrous versatility and power of computers. Similarly,
the way we string together our choices to be aware or not will
determine the course of our thinking and so of our lives.
Based on all this, the simplest case of choice we can imagine is to
be faced with one thing and to decide whether to "pay attention" to it
or not. It's doubtful whether we are ever reduced to such a state.
In fact, we're always faced with a whole raft of things
simultaneously, and we cannot pay attention to them all
simultaneously. Why can't we? Because our consciousness
possesses identity; it is limited; we can't attend to everything at
once. We can only deal perceptually with at most 5 or 6 units at a
time. This is the principle known to students of Ayn Rand as the "crow
Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, Ch. 7)
So the choice becomes, "Which of these things should I pay
attention to, if any?" Observe that this choice actually involves
several of the more fundamental choices. It is first, the choice
to pay attention to anything at all, or not. Having chosen to pay
attention at all, there remains the choice to pay attention to this
one thing (or a few things), and not to pay attention to all
This latter complex of simpler choices is what I call "focus." To
focus is to pay attention to one or a few things out of a multitude.
Notice that focus involves both deliberate awareness--and deliberate
unawareness. To devote your attention to one thing is to
withdraw it from others. (This may be a salutary reminder for those
who carelessly think that any form of deliberate unawareness of
anything is an irrational neglect of facts. Nope!)
So! What shall we focus on? The answer is obvious, we should focus
on whatever is important.
That's what important means! The important is that which deserves
your attention. You probably knew that already, of course. But now you
know also that your choices of what to focus on--of what is
important--are made up directly of your most fundamental choices (to
be aware or not), and that they are at the root of all your other
choices. Your choices of importance will drive the entire course
of your life!
And that is to say that importance deserves your attention! You
should think about importance. You should devise standards of
importance and methods to discover what is important.
In every minute and issue, you should ask "What is important?"
And you should arrive at answers to those questions!
Importance is important!
To focus is to pay attention to one thing (or a few things) out of
a multitude, and it is close to the root of your power of choice. Your
judgments of importance guide your focus, and so they determine what
you will come to know and what you will not come to know--and so they
will guide the entire course of your life. You should think about
importance and devise standards of importance.
I took my own advice, and looked for the most important criterion
of importance. Jackpot! I found an answer! I devised a simple little
trick that could have kept men's thinking on track, and so have
prevented the worst of history's philosophical disasters. (Big talk?
The trick is simple, but it requires some background; please bear
What, at root, is important? What deserves your focus? Obviously,
reality. (For the benefit of those who have succumbed to modern
maunderings about reality, I'll add that by reality I mean you and
everything around you: the world you perceive by means of your senses:
you and everything you can see, hear, taste, touch and smell.)
I can hear it now: Focus on reality? But reality is all there is!
There isn't anything else! This is advice?! It doesn't exclude
Yes it is advice! It excludes, just to name a few: pixies,
nixies, sprites, elves, unicorns, gods, vampires and bogeymen! Men
have wasted vast amounts of their precious leisure trying to learn
about just such unreal fantasies, when they could have been learning
This waste is possible because we can have names and images for
things which don't exist. Such empty names invite our focus,
but they lead us to dead ends in our thought.
To see what I mean by a dead end in our thought, try to think about
unicorns. What is a unicorn's body temperature? What is the tensile
strength of unicorn hair? What are the precise shapes of unicorn
bones? Are unicorns more closely related to horses or to deer? You see
the problem: there is no way to find out any of these things; there is
just no place to go and look! There is nothing to study! Dead end!
Unicorns don't exist!
How can we avoid this kind of dead end? Well, that's the point of
the onus of proof principle: the onus of proof lies on him who asserts
that something exists. If you have perceptual evidence for the thing
spoken of, you can at least think about the evidence. But if there is
no evidence that the thing exists, you've no business thinking about
it; thinking about it will only waste your leisure by leading you to a
dead end in your thought. Absent evidence, the thing proposed is just
an empty name.
You may think I'm wasting your leisure with talk of unicorns,
merely belaboring the obvious; of course unicorns don't exist!
OK, wise guy: do holes exist? Does darkness exist?
Take a few seconds to ponder this very carefully; your fate as a
thinker, and the fate of the world may depend on you getting the right
answer. Think very carefully.
The right answer is that holes and darkness do not exist,
except in a manner of speaking. They are words to name certain kinds
of absence--a certain lack of matter, or lack of light. In the case of
a hole, what exists is the entity which lacks (certain kinds
of) matter in certain places. In the case of darkness, what exists
is a certain region which lacks light. Apart from the entity or
the region, holes and darkness do not exist!
Therefore, holes and darkness are unimportant! They do not deserve
your focus. They are handy catch-all terms, but that's all. There are
sciences of matter and light, but there never can be sciences of holes
and darkness. They are dead ends in your thinking. They are voids!
Specifically, they are epistemological voids. A hole is a
place where you'd expect to sense something, but where you don't
sense anything. Darkness is a condition in which (given light) you
could see something, but you don't see anything. Terms like
"hole" and "darkness" name gaps in your knowledge, holes
in your head! To focus on them is to abort your further thinking, to
end up thinking about nothing.
Do these holes in your head exist? Well, only in a manner of
speaking. Are they important? Well, only in a manner of speaking! You
have to learn how to spot them in order to avoid focusing on
them, to keep your thinking focused on existence.
The holes in your head, the gaps in your knowledge, are revealed by
negations in your definitions of them, they are negative terms:
non-identity is non-existence. A unicorn is like a horse, but is
not a horse. A hole is a place without matter. Darkness is
the absence of light. These negations are red flags of warning
not to treat such terms as important, not to focus on them except
incidentally and in a manner of speaking.
So here's one part of the trick I promised: shun negative
terms; do not let them become the focus of your thought.
Negative terms lead your thinking down blind alleys to dead ends. They
are signposts on the road to what Rand called the universe of non-A.
Negative terms are unimportant! The world's worst evils could all have
been avoided had men practiced this simple little trick!
Think I'm exaggerating? Is a world beyond reality important, i.e.,
a world that is not reality? Answer yes, and plunge the world
into centuries of mystical blight. Is weakness (lack of power)
important? Answer yes, and end up a pessimist. Is ignorance (lack of
knowledge) important? Answer yes, and end up a skeptic. Is aimless
disinterestedness (lack of purpose) important? Answer yes, and end up
a nihilist. Is the absence of force in human affairs important? Answer
yes, and end up an anarchist or a pacifist.
These progressions are all written up in the history of thought.
The process is easy to see once you know what to look for; it is
usually dragged out over centuries and millennia. You can read up on
it whenever you like. These focuses do lead to these results!
The first part of my simple little trick would have prevented all
that. But there's more!
Observe that the first part of the trick is through and through
negative! It tells you what not to do with negative
terms! It tells you not to focus on them. It warns of bad
consequences of such a focus, of reaching dead ends in your
thought. So the first part of the rule is telling us that it is
itself unimportant! Pause on that a moment: a rule which could
have strangled some of the world's worst errors in their cradles,
which could have abolished centuries of stagnation before they got
started, is unimportant?! Compared to what, for crying
Compared to the second part of the trick: Focus on
positive terms, and make up new ones to focus on, if necessary.
Positive terms are integrations of positive evidence; they point to
something which exists! Positive terms quite literally give you
something to think about; they guide your focus to what exists, so
they can lead you to new evidence and to new discoveries. Positive
terms are important!
It's very common to hit upon a terrifically important concept in
negative terms: freedom is not slavery; leisure is time off work;
diplomacy is not giving offense; virtue is not annoying Granny. Don't
leave it in negative terms! Re-formulate your discovery as a
positive! In some cases this is extremely easy to do, but in other
cases the positive terms you need will not yet have been created.
If your discovery seems hopelessly negative, yet you are convinced
of its importance, recognize that you are on the threshold of even
greater discovery! Examine the wider positive context that makes your
discovery meaningful at all, and name its positive features. Define
those positives; think about those positives; research those
positives. Somewhere among them you will find the existents
which will explain the importance of your original discovery, and
which will explain much else besides!
I call this two part trick focusing on existence.
The terms philosophers use have typically guided men's focus for
centuries. Bacon said that knowledge is power, and the world leapt
forward. Knowledge and power exist. Bacon's observation riveted
men's focus on knowledge and power. They looked about them for
examples of knowledge and power. Therefore they made new discoveries
about knowledge and power. We owe modern science and technology to
this influence of Bacon on men's thinking.
Suppose, instead, that Bacon had presented his thought in negative
terms. He could, for instance, have said that impotence is ignorance,
which is just the contrapositive of knowledge is power. Contraposition
is a valid logical operation. If it is true that knowledge is
power, then formal logic teaches that it is equally true that
non-power is non-knowledge--i.e., that impotence is ignorance. Another
act of contraposition recovers the original premise: knowledge is
power. From the usual viewpoint of formal logic, there is nothing to
choose between the formulations.
But oh! the difference in men's thinking! If Bacon had said that
impotence is ignorance, and if no one had thought to put it into
positive terms, he'd have riveted men's focus on impotence and
ignorance. But impotence and ignorance do not exist, except in
a manner of speaking. With that focus, men would have attempted
theories of impotence and ignorance. Artists would have composed works
to display impotence and ignorance. Men would have searched the world
for examples of impotence and ignorance. And do you know the sum total
of what they'd have found and accomplished? Jack squat!
Men's focus would have been drawn away from existence,
away from knowledge and power, away from the very facts
that make impotence and ignorance possible even to grasp. Impotence
and ignorance would have come to be regarded as impenetrable
mysteries, perhaps even holy mysteries. If Bacon had said that
impotence is ignorance, and if no one had thought to correct that
focus, we might very well be living in caves by now!
Of course, once you've mastered the little trick of focusing on
existence, you'll be independent of the vagaries of philosophers;
you'll be guiding your own focus, and be well on the route to becoming
a philosopher in your own right! For the trick of focusing on
existence will lead you to discover deep new importance in old
concepts, and to discover deep new concepts: whole areas of
reality which have never yet been named! When you name them, you
enable yourself and others to focus on them, to think about them, to
make new discoveries.
Philosophy is not complete; the best is yet to come!
PS: Just after completing this
piece, I recognized that a crucial element of my trick, that negative
terms imply non-existence, is just the contrapositive of Ayn Rand's
formulation that existence is identity: i.e., non-identity is
non-existence. So I added it in.