Nathaniel Branden’s Case against Theism Examined:
God and Pure Consciousness
by James Kiefer
Unpublished dot-matrix printout dated June 28, 1980 *
[Editor’s notes are in blue. Readers who prefer to ignore the links in the text, which go to the bottom of the page, and follow the notes on a separate page, may open a separate page with the references here.]

I promised at the beginning of this paper [“Objectivism and Theism”] that, after presenting the positive case for theism on Objectivist grounds, I would examine Dr. [Nathaniel] Branden’s arguments and state where, in my judgement, he goes astray. To this task I now turn.

God and Pure Consciousness

Next, Dr. Branden attacks the assertion that God is pure spirit, or pure consciousness.

He says that “mystics” have no definition for “spirit” except that it is not matter, i.e., not anything we know. To this I object on several grounds. I have never heard anyone define spirit, or mind, or consciousness simply as that which is not matter. Usually, mind and matter are both defined in terms of what they do. Reaching for the nearest dictionary, [01] I read that

MMmatter = (3) whatever occupies space;
MMmind = (1) that which thinks, feels, and wills, exercises perception, judgement, reflections, etc., as in a human or other conscious being

This seems straightforward. Dr. Branden and I are agreed that there are physical actions, such as neural processes in the brain, and mental actions, such as thinking, and that they are radically different. Very well, let us define physical entities, or bodies, as things that have physical properties and do physical acts, such as moving from place to place, repelling or attracting other pieces of matter, reflecting or absorbing or transmitting light, carrying an electric charge, and so on. Similarly, let us define mental entities, or minds, as those things which have mental properties and do mental acts, such as believing, desiring, remembering, deducing, perceiving, deciding, and so on.

Dr. Branden, in his very next paragraph tells us that the nature of an entity is understood in terms of what it does. He should therefore have no objection to our defining spirit in those terms.

One critic maintains that, although the mind does mental things, as opposed to physical ones, it is still a material entity. But surely this is not Dr. Branden’s view. Miss Rand has denounced

MM... the pure Attila-ism of Marx, who proclaimed that the mind does not exist, that everything is matter.... [02]
From this I infer that the Objectivist position is that minds exist, and that they are not material entities — that although brain activity may accompany human thought, it is not the brain that thinks. [03]

In summary, then, when theists say that God is mind, or spirit, or consciousness, they mean that he has knowledge and will. When they say that he is pure spirit, they mean that he does not occupy space, have weight, conduct electricity, and so on. This seems to me to be perfectly meaningful and consistent.

Dr. Branden seems to suggest that since we are acquainted with consciousness only in conscious organisms, we shall be guilty of the fallacy of context-dropping if we speak of conscious entities that are not organisms.

I wonder how far he would carry this.

Suppose that our radio telescopes begin to pick up signals of extra-terrestial origin that seem to be messages, and it is suggested that they come from rational beings. Or suppose that explorers find on another planet a species that appears to be rational. To this, someone replies: “Nonsense. Our only experience of rationality is as a faculty possessed by a human entity, a member of Homo sapiens, a terrestial, featherless biped with brad, flat nails. To suggest, therefore, that any other kind of entity could be rational is to commit the fallacy of context-dropping.” Is he right?

Or again, imagine two Swedes talking in an isolated part of Sweden. One says: “I have heard that in distant lands there are rational beings looking quite different from us.” The other replies: “Pay to attention to such rumors. Rationality means the faculty of self-conscious, volitional awareness possessed by a specific, blond, living entity, having a specific sensory means of awareness, such as blue eyes, pale pink ears, and the like. Any suggestion that some other kind of entity might be rational is an instance of the fallacy of context-dropping.” Is the second speaker right?

Or again, a friend of the Wright brothers gives them a lesson in logic. He says: “Flying means moving through the air by flapping one’s wings. By wings are meant parts of the body (in vertebrates, the forelimbs) especially adapted for that purpose. But neither the forelimbs nor any other part of a man’s body is so adapted — no part of man’s body can be called his wings. Therefore, to speak of man’s flying is to commit the fallacy of context-dropping.” Is he right?

In each of these instances, the speaker is guilty, in Miss Rand’s terms of

MM... a fallacy which may be termed “the fallacy of the frozen abstraction” and which consists of substituting some one particular concrete for the wider abstract class to which it belongs. [04]

Dr. Branden says, in effect, that every intellect he knows of functions through a brain, and he objects to the assertion that there is an intellect that does not. His situation is that of a man hearing for the first time about black swans. Now to ask a man to revise his concept of swans simply on the speculation that there might be such a thing as a black swan is irrational, but to ask him to revise it on the basis of solid evidence of a black swan is the height of rationality. Our concepts, as Dr. Branden has reminded us at the beginning of Lecture Four, must always be held subject to revision in light of further evidence. If Dr. Branden wishes to complain that there is no evidence for the existence of God, well and good. That complaint should come in a paragraph labeled “The burden of proof is on the theist,” not in one labeled “‘Pure spirit’ is a meaningless phrase,” but however it is labeled, it is a straightforward and legitimate challenge, and Part One of this paper [“Objectivism and Theism”] is a reply to it. If on the other hand, his complaint is that the new data (black swans or an unembodied intellect) do not fit his conceptual framework, I remind him that a rational man expands his conceptual framework with the growth of his knowledge. [05]

Dr. Branden says that to speak of a consciousness apart from a conscious material entity is to drop the context in which the concept of consciousness was formed. This sounds to me as if Dr. Branden has momentarily forgotten how the concept of consciousness is formed. He is treating the concept of consciousness as if we abstracted it from our observations of many conscious entities. In fact, we do not. A man experiences consciousness in himself, and then infers its existence in others by observing their physical behavior. [06]

A man does not form the notion of consciousness by contrasting instances of consciousness with instances of unconsciousness — consciousness is an axiomatic concept. [07] He does contrast conscious entities with unconscious ones — man with stones, for example — but only after he possesses the concept of consciousness. The question, “What does it mean to be conscious?” precedes the question, “What sorts of things have the faculty of consciousness?” Even if we have no knowledge of conscious entities that are not composed largely of carbon compounds, it is not an instance of context-dropping to speak of a completely different kind of conscious entity, for the concept of consciousness was not formed in the context of an observed set of conscious entities.

When we take the idea of consciousness, of awareness, and consider it apart from any notion of a conscious entity that is material or has a material vehicle of thought or sensory means of awareness, we are guilty of context-dropping if, and only if, the concept of consciousness was originally formed in, and logically depends on, the notion of that sort of entity. But is that the basis of the concept of consciousness? Not according to John Galt:

MMWe, the men of the mind, are now on strike against you in the name of a single axiom ... that existence exists.
MMExistence exists, and the act of grasping that statement implies two corollary axioms: that something exists which one perceives and that one exists possessing consciousness, consciousness being the faculty of perceiving that which exists....
MMWhatever the degree of your knowledge, these two — existence and consciousness — are axioms you cannot escape, these two are the irreducible primaries.... Whether you know the shape of a pebble or the structure of a solar system, the axioms remain the same; that it exists and that you know it. [08]
MMThe fundamental axiom tells us that some entity if aware of something. It does not identify for us the nature (material or otherwise) of the conscious entity, or the means (sensory or otherwise) of its means of awareness. Consider, for example, Dagny’s experience when she became conscious of the fact that Cherryl was in danger.
MMPrompted by a sudden, causeless certainty, Dagny said sharply, “Cherryl, I don’t want you to go home tonight.” [09]
Now I assume that Dagny’s certainty was not in fact either causeless or clairvoyant, but based on subtle clues in her brother’s behavior and other observed facts from which she had made unconscious deductions. In calling is causeless, Miss Rand presents it to us from Dagny’s point of view, in that Dagny was aware of Cherryl’s danger without being able to indicate her own sensory means of awareness — not merely unaware what the means were, but unaware (save by inference) that they were sensory means at all.

??? [probably Karsten Ohnstad], in his autobiography, The World at My Fingertips, describes the discovery, after being blinded in his teens, that he could tell when he was approaching a wall, even though he had no idea how he did it. It is a faculty common among the blind, and can be acquired by most sighted persons willing to walk around with their eyes shut for a while. It is echo analysis, but it does not feel like hearing. It feels like a change in air pressure on the skin of the face, and was identified as a sonar phenomenon only after researchers discovered that the faculty disappeared when the perceiver’s ears were covered.

And this sort of thing is true for all of us at times, and in particular, for a child first beginning to perceive. He is conscious of sounds, and conscious that he is conscious, long before he knows that his ears have any anything to do with it. As he learns more about himself, he discovers that he has a body and that his means of awareness are sensory, and he learns something about how his sensory apparatus works. (A child soon learns, for example, that his sight depends on his eyes, but it may take him a long time — it took the ancient Greeks a long time — to discover that vision involves something traveling from the object to the eye rather than the other way.) But this follows the realization that he is aware of something. It does not precede it, underlie it, or form the context for it. [10]

Dr. Branden’s analysis, by denying the axiomatic nature of the concept of consciousness, denies the Axiom of Consciousness, and with it the Axiom of Existence, for the two are inseparable.

Dr. Branden asks, “If God is aware, how is he aware? What is his means of awareness?”

But surely the question “How?” is not always a reasonable question. “How does Jones do X?” “By doing Y.” “How does Jones do Y?” “By doing Z.” “How does Jones do Z?” Either we are forced into an infinite regress, or we acknowledge that eventually the answer must be, “He just does, that’s all.”

Why does the earth move about the sun in an elliptical orbit? Because the sun attracts it with a force inversely proportional to the square of the distance. How does the sun attract the earth? (I trust no one will say, “by gravitation.” That answer names the force; it does not explain it.) Before Einstein, most physicists would have said, “It just does.” Now they say, “The presence of the sun distorts the character of the spatio-temporal continuum in its vicinity, so that the path the earth takes is actually a geodesic, which appears to us to be an ellipse.” But this merely raises the question, “How does the sun distort the continuum?” And to this the physicists reply, “It just does.”

Again, physicists will tell you that light travels at about 186,000 miles per second, and if you ask how it travels, what is its means of travel, what carries it, the answer is “Nothing.” (The luminiferous ether is completely out of fashion.)

Thus not every question of the form, “How does so-and-so do such-and-such?” is a reasonable one. I accordingly conclude that if Dr. Branden asks how God knows things, he has no reason for rejecting out of hand the answer, “He just does.”

Let us consider how a man acts. How does Jones move the crate? With a fork lift. How does he move the fork lift? By manipulating the controls. How does he manipulate the controls? By moving his hands. How does he move is hands? By contracting his muscles. How? By stimulating them with electrical impulses from the motor nerves. How? By originating a signal in the motor centers of the brain? How? By deciding to.

(We might be able to put a few more links into the chain, but the last link will always be the same. He did it by deciding to.)

Similarly, how is a man aware? How does he see a crate? Light rays from the crate strike the eye, are focused by the lens upon the retina, and stimulate the optic nerve to send a signal to the visual center of the brain. Well and good. But how does neural activity in the visual center of the brain make the man aware of the crate? If Dr. Branden will not allow us to say that the mere physical existence of the crate directly causes the man’s awareness, why should he say that the mere existence of certain physical states in the brain directly cause awareness, without any intermediate steps?

Dr. Branden says that awareness, in particular, presupposes a sensory means of awareness. I reply that some acts of awareness are not acts of sensory perception. How does Dr. Branden know, for example, that he is an atheist? The natural reply is that he knows by introspection. But how does introspection work? What are the percepts associated with perceiving that one is an atheist? Is Dr. Branden aware of his beliefs by seeing them? What color are they? Can he see them in the dark? Or does he hear, smell, taste. or feel them? Where are they? Do they move?

MMMovements have velocity; but what is the average velocity of one’s ideas on a protective tariff? Movements have direction; would there be any sense in talking of the north-easterly direction of one’s thoughts on the morality of revenge? [10a]
MMIntrospection is precisely an act of non-sensory awareness. If Dr. Branden is aware of things only through his senses, then we must conclude that he can ascertain his own beliefs only by waiting until someone asks him, and then listening to his own reply. If he is curious about his own views, he can ask himself, but of course, he will have no way of knowing that he is curious until he hears himself asking himself! This is behaviorism in spades. It does away with the concept of consciousness altogether. As Miss Rand has pointed out, [11] a man knows by introspection that he is conscious. He then infers consciousness in others by analogy. But if introspection is ruled out, then he has no basis for inferring consciousness in anyone, including himself. Thus, ladies and gentlemen, we see that Dr. Branden’s idea of consciousness is the destruction of the concept of consciousness.

Ordinarily, when we ask, “How does A do Z?” we expect the answer to make the deed seem less mysterious, impressive, or outright impossible. “How does the magician pick the right card?” ”By marking the backs.” “How does he get out of the cabinet?” “By a secret panel in the back.” These, if true, are explanations. They answer the question “How?” and thereby make the magic tricks no longer magic. But is there an analogous explanation for consciousness? How does a man see a tulip? Light rays from the sun strike the tulip, are reflected, and enter the man’s eye, where they are focused by the lens on the retina. The rods and cones of the retina are stimulated, and a set of impulses passes up the optic nerve to the visual centers of the brain. And then what? Then the man is visually conscious of the tulip. But consciousness is unlike any physical process whatever. In moving from the physical condition of the tulip to the physical condition of the man’s brain we have gotten not one step closer to consciousness. Saying that the nerves twitching in the visual center of Jones’s brain make him aware of the tulip is, in one sense, no improvement on saying that the tulip swaying in the breezed makes him aware of the tulip. After any such analysis, consciousness is still as impressive, as mysterious, as “magical,” a process as before. In other (perhaps more acceptable) words, it is a logical primary. [12]

But that does not mean that the analysis is useless. When we ask about a man’s sensory means of awareness, we do not mean, “What accounts for his awareness?” (there is no accounting for a logical primary) but rather, “What are the physical conditions necessary for his awareness? Under what circumstances will he be aware of the tulip” [13]

We know that the mere existence of the tulip is not sufficient to ensure that a man will be aware of it. Man is not omniscient; therefore many things exist without his being aware of them. I do not see everything, but I do see things if they are not too small or too far away and they are in front me and the room is lit and there is nothing but air between me and them, and so on. In particular, light rays from the object must reach my eyes without too much scattering, and my eyes and optic nerves and brain must be in working order. But this does not explain how I am aware, nor does anything else. (Awareness is a logical primary.) It answers the question, “When, or under what conditions, will I see something?” If we ask when, or under what conditions God knows about something, the answer is, “Always, and under all conditions.” The question that Dr. Branden was really aiming at is therefore answered, and there is no problem.

[Editor’s notes are in blue. Readers who prefer to ignore the links in the text and follow the notes on a separate page, may open a separate page with the references here.]

* The title refers to Nathaniel Branden’s lecture “The Concept of God,” from his lecture series “The Basic Principles of Objectivism.” That lecture is fully transcribed in his book The Vision of Ayn Rand, chapter 4. Partial and perhaps complete audios seem to be available throughout the Internet. See also R.A. Childs, “The Epistemological Basis of Anarchism,” Note 19.

[01] C.L. Barnhart, ed., The American College Dictionary (Random House, 1970).

[02] A. Rand, FNI [For the New Intellectual], 33. [The reference is to the paperback edition.]

[03] N. Branden, PSE [The Psychology of Self-Esteem], 7 [Bantam paperback edition].
MMA perception and the neural process that mediates it are not identical, nor are a thought and the brain activity that may accompany it. Such an equation is flagrantly anti-empirical and logically absurd.
MMAs one philosopher observes: “[Reductive materialism] maintains that consciousness is a form of brain activity....[The quotation is from James B. Pratt, Matter and Spirit (Macmillan, 1922), pp. 11–12.]

R. [Robert] Efron, reviewing Emotion and Personality, by M. [Magda B.] Arnold, 5/1/14e [January 1966].
MMA patient may be unable to identify an object by the use of his vision if his brain is damaged in region X. This does not necessarily mean that the “function” of region X is to identify objects visually. It could mean only that region X, in association with other regions of the brain, is required for this function.

[04] A. Rand, “Collectivized Ethics,” 2/1/1k-aa [References of this form refer to The Objectivist Newsletter, so that volume 2, number 1 would be January 1963. After volume 4, the name of the publication was The Objectivist. The page numbers for the latter are those of the original format, not those in the bound volume.] and VOS 81 [The Virtue of Selfishness. The reference is to the paperback edition.].

[05] A. Rand, “Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology,” 5/11/5f [November 1966] and Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, 49-50. [The reference here is to the original paperback monograph reprinting the articles from the periodical. The corresponding page in the Expanded Edition is 52.]
MMThus the essence of a concept is determined contextually and may be altered with the growth of man’s knowledge.

A. Rand, “Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, ” 5/10/4b [October 1965] and IOE 42 [Expanded Edition: 43)].
MMAll definitions are contextual, and a primitive definition does not contradict a more advanced one: the latter merely expands the former.

A. Rand, “Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, ” 5/10/6g [October 1965] and IOE 45 [Expanded Edition: 47].
MM<Only when and if some discovery were to make the definition “rational animal” inaccurate (i.e., no longer serving to distinguish man from all other existents) would the question of expanding the definition arise. “Expanding does not mean negating, abrogating, or contradicting....

A. Rand, “Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, ” 5/10/7a [October 1965] and IOE 45–46 [Expanded Edition: 47].
MMRemember that concept-formation is a method of cognition, man’s method, and that concepts represent classifications of observed existents according to their relationships to other observed existents. Since man is not omniscient, a definition cannot be changelessly absolute, because it cannot establish the relationship of a given group of existents to everything else in the universe, including the undiscovered and unknown.

COG [N. Branden, “The Concept of God.” The specific passage occurs in The Vision of Ayn Rand, page 94.]
MMIn order for an idea or concept to be integrated into man’s consciousness and cognitive knowledge, certain conditions are necessary.... the concept must never be closed to further scrutiny or examination....

[06] A. Rand, “Introduction to The Fountainhead,” 7/3/5g [March 1968] and FH ??? [The Fountainhead, 25th-Anniversary Edition, page x {paperback}].
MMIt is important here to remember that the only direct, introspective knowledge of man anyone possesses is of himself.

A. Rand, “Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology,” 5/12/3c [December 1966] and IOE 53 [Expanded Edition: 56].
MMThe units of the concept “consciousness” are every state or process of awareness that one experiences, has ever experienced or ever will experience (as well as similar units, a similar faculty, which one infers in other living entities).

[07] A. Rand, “Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology,” 5/12/4c [December 1966] and IOE 54 [Expanded Edition: 58].
MMSince axiomatic concepts are not formed by differentiating one group of existents from others....

[08] AS [Atlas Shrugged] 942c-j, q-x [hardback] (1015gg-mm, tt-1016g) [paperback].

[09] AS 828s-t (892h-i).

[10] A. Rand, “Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology,” 5/7/3d-e [December 1966] and IOE 11 [Expanded Edition: 5].
MMA percept is a group of sensations automatically retained and integrated by the brain of a living organism. It is in the form of percepts that man grasps the evidence of his senses and apprehends reality. When we speak of “direct perception” or “direct awareness,” we mean the perceptual level. Percepts, not sensations, are the given, the self-evident. The knowledge of sensations as components of percepts is not direct, it is acquired by man much later: it is a scientific conceptual discovery.

[10a] Brand Blanshard, The Nature of Thought (Norwich: Jarrold and Songs Limited), volume 1, p. 337.

[11] See note 6.

[12] A. Rand, “Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology,” 5/12/2f [December 1966] and IOE 52 [Expanded Edition: 55].

See also PSE 6.
MMThe concept of consciousness as a state, the state of awareness, is a primary; it cannot be broken down any further or defined by reference to other concepts; there are no other concepts to which it can be reduced.... One can investigate the structural and functional conditions in an organism that are necessary for the existence of consciousness; one can inquire into the neurophysiological means of consciousness (such as sensory receptors, afferent nerves, etc.); one can differentiate levels of forms of consciousness. But the concept of consciousness as such is an irreducible primary.

[13] R. Efron, reviewing Emotion and Personality, by M. Arnold, 5/1/14e [January 1966].
MMA patient may be unable to identify an object by the use of his vision if his brain is damaged in region X. This does not necessarily mean that the “function“ of region X is to identify objects visually. It could mean only that region X, in association with other regions of the brain, is required for this function.

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