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Russell W. Shurts

Philosophy and the Tsunami

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To me, philosophy is the most important thing in the world because it is the engine driving everything that happens. It is each person’s philosophy that acts as the guiding light for every thought, every decision and every action that person takes. Because it is so important I believe it is wise for everyone to understand what philosophical options are available to them.

The Indian Ocean tsunami disaster, because of the enormity of its devastation of life and property, provides an excellent context for examining how various philosophies explain such a terrible thing.

Discussing entire philosophies, however, is beyond the scope of this essay, so I intend to narrow the focus to the most fundamental branch of philosophy; metaphysics. Metaphysics is the branch of philosophy that deals with the fundamental understanding of reality. Specifically I want to examine and compare the basic metaphysical approaches of the two primary political persuasions in the United States today along with the metaphysical approach of Objectivism, the philosophy of Ayn Rand.

The two primary political persuasions in the United States today are best represented by the two major political parties, the Democrats and the Republicans. Other ways of identifying them are the Liberals and the Conservatives, or the Left and the Right. Again, because philosophy is the driving force behind all ideas humans hold, it must also be the driving force behind these two major political persuasions. When someone aligns himself with a political viewpoint, he is doing so because he fundamentally agrees with the underlying philosophy that political viewpoint represents.

There are four other branches (epistemology, ethics, politics and esthetics) besides metaphysics that make up an entire philosophy, but it is metaphysics that is MOST fundamental, because it is metaphysics where philosophy begins. In order to function in reality one must first decide, if only tentatively, what one believes makes up the reality one lives in and is a part of. With that as a basic backdrop let’s examine the metaphysical premises underlying the Conservatives, the Liberals and the Objectivists.

It is no coincidence that the current head of the Republican Party identifies himself as an evangelical Christian. Christianity, like any religion, is a philosophy. Christianity has an answer for the basic questions each of the five branches of philosophy asks. For metaphysics, the Christian answer to what makes up reality is God. If one accepts the Christian religion consistently, one believes an omnipotent God created the universe, has controlled it since creation and, with one exception, continues to be responsible for everything in it as I write these words. That one exception is the free will of human beings, and it is this free will that allows humans to choose the actions they will take with their own lives. One proviso on this, though, is the fact that each human being will eventually be responsible to God for those actions taken using his free will.

I am not saying the Republican Party is the Christian political party of the United States; only that even those Republican Conservatives who do not consider themselves religious still primarily accept and use the Christian philosophy to support the positions they take.

A metaphysics that believes reality was created by and is controlled by God believes God is controlling everything at this very second. This is the base of the Conservative philosophy in this country.

Though many Liberals consider themselves Christians, their basic metaphysics is different than the Conservatives because they believe reality is ephemeral, that it is created in each person’s mind. The reason it is so difficult to ever win an argument with a committed Liberal is because they truly do not believe in facts. If my view of reality is simply made up in my mind, and your view of reality is simply made up in your mind, then there are NO objective facts of reality on which we can agree or disagree. There is only your ‘version’ of what is, and my ‘version’ of what is. It is precisely this kind of philosophy that can allow the former head of the Democratic Party to say, “It depends on what is, is.” Such a person believes that ‘is,’ i.e. reality, depends solely on what one’s mind thinks it is.

A metaphysics that believes reality is created in each person’s own mind, in the end believes in nothing. This is the base of the Liberal philosophy in this country.

The metaphysics of Ayn Rand’s philosophy of Objectivism is best described by the simple phrase, “Existence exists.” An Objectivist believes reality is simply here. There is no creator of reality, be it God or human. The chair I am sitting in does not cease to exist if I suddenly die, nor can it be instantly changed into a burning bush by God. For an Objectivist, human consciousness simply perceives and attempts to understand reality. It does not, and more importantly, cannot change reality.

A metaphysics that believes reality simply exists makes human beings the master of that reality whenever they understand and obey its fundamental nature.

Given these three distinctive metaphysical approaches, let’s now apply each of them to the tsunami disaster.

For Conservatives, the tsunami that apparently has killed approximately 300,000 human beings at last count is literally an act of God. A metaphysics that believes God is controlling everything at this instant has to believe that God was responsible for creating the tsunami in the Indian Ocean. To deny this fact is to deny that God is in control of reality.

The tsunami disaster poses even more difficult philosophical problems for Liberals, because if there is no objective reality, only what each person thinks it is, then how did this disaster happen? Did a bunch of evil people dream up this massive ocean wave so that 300,000 people in Indonesia and Sri Lanka would die? No Liberal commentator I know of would be so specific, but I have heard Liberal commentators put forth the theory that it was western civilization that was responsible for the disaster. Since there are no such things as ‘facts,’ then this theory holds as much water for the Liberal mind as any other; more, in fact, because it blames what Liberals consider the worst thing to ever happen in world history, western civilization. A metaphysics that believes reality is created in each person’s own mind, can literally believe that anything was responsible for the tsunami. To deny this statement is to acknowledge the existence of objective, verifiable facts that are independent of each person’s own ‘version’ of reality.

Contrary to each of the two major political persuasions in the country, Ayn Rand’s philosophy, Objectivism, does not believe a consciousness, be it God or human, created the tsunami. Earthquakes, such as the one that created this wave, are a fact of reality. They exist as a natural part of the planet we live on. They do not possess consciousness nor are they controlled by a consciousness. As such they are ‘indifferent’ to the living things they affect. Earthquakes and tsunamis simply are. A metaphysics that believes reality simply exists understands that earthquakes and tsunamis are normal planetary occurrences. As such their nature can be understood and planned for.

I can see now that many of you are saying you don’t believe in any of the three metaphysical approaches I have put forth in this essay. That is certainly possible, as there are likely as many philosophies available to choose from as there are human minds, but I am asking you to examine the most basic underlying premise associated with each of these three metaphysics. If you look hard you will see that each of them has a ‘Primacy of’ premise to it. What I mean by a ‘Primacy of’ premise is that in deciding about the origins and continuing existence of reality one must first choose what came first, i.e. what is primary. If you consider this question for a million years you will never find more than two ‘Primacy of’ possibilities from which to choose. The first of the two possibilities, and the one explicitly accepted by the vast majority of the population is the ‘Primacy of Consciousness.” The second, explicitly accepted only by Objectivists, is the ‘Primacy of Existence.’

Republicans and Democrats each accept the Primacy of Consciousness as their answer to the ‘Primacy of’ question. They differ as to whose consciousness is responsible for reality, but each believes that a consciousness came before reality and continues to control that reality today. Furthermore I don’t care what philosophy it is you believe in; it must have a ‘Primacy of’ premise at its base that informs you, in every waking moment, where the reality you exist in came from and how it works. And if you take a moment to think about that premise you will find that it will either be the Primacy of Consciousness or the Primacy of Existence. There will be no third alternative.

Because I believe understanding the consequences of one’s philosophy is of utmost importance in determining what kind of life a person is going to lead, I would like to conclude this essay by showing the human consequences of these three metaphysics when it comes to dealing with natural disasters such as the tsunami.

The metaphysics Conservatives believe in has been, with a few minor exceptions, the metaphysics most human beings have believed in since they first walked upright. Because this is so, it is not too surprising that the history of human beings on this planet has, for the most part, been one of unending misery. All religions place the creation and control of reality in the consciousness of God, and, human beings, believing this, have always believed that it was God, and God alone, who could alleviate their torment. People looking for answers and help from an omnipotent being they cannot see, cannot communicate with and cannot understand have wasted their lives and their abilities in attempts to influence this being instead of dealing with the actual reality they live in. As such, throughout most of human history there was little progress made in dealing with the very fearsome effects that reality can have on people.

The metaphysics Liberals believe in, however, is even less conducive to assisting humans in dealing with reality. If reality is all in your head, then it is completely variable and therefore subject to changing at a moment’s notice. How can one plan for earthquakes and tsunamis if they are figments of the imagination? Strangely enough, this metaphysics is the base of modern philosophy; the philosophy that sophisticated intellectuals began replacing religion with about 150 years ago.

The metaphysics Objectivists believe in encourages human beings to use their conceptual ability to understand such things as earthquakes and tsunamis. Once the mechanics of these natural phenomena are understood, people can build warning devices to protect themselves from their lethal effects.

What I have just described is precisely the difference between what happened in the Indian Ocean, a place surrounded by people who still primarily believe in religion, and what would happen in the Pacific Ocean, a place surrounded by the descendants of the philosophers of the Enlightenment, the last philosophical period in human history where a Primacy of Existence metaphysics predominated. Should a similar earthquake and tsunami happen in the Pacific Ocean the damage and loss of life would be minimal, because the people living on the coasts would be warned of the danger well in advance.

Objectivism is only the latest philosophy in human history that has the Primacy of Existence at its base. It is no accident that western civilization began in ancient Greece, because it was Aristotle, the greatest of the ancient Greek philosophers, who first proposed the Primacy of Existence in his philosophy.

In conclusion, the progress of the human species from inception to the present can be measured entirely by how much or how little a Primacy of Existence metaphysical philosophy has been accepted; THAT is how much impact philosophy has on the lives of men.

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