Any natural phenomenon, i.e., any event which occurs without human participation, is the metaphysically given, and could not have occurred differently or failed to occur; any phenomenon involving human action is the man-made, and could have been different. For example, a flood occurring in an uninhabited land, is the metaphysically given; a dam built to contain the flood water, is the man-made; if the builders miscalculate and the dam breaks, the disaster is metaphysical in its origin, but intensified by man in its consequences. To correct the situation, men must obey nature by studying the causes and potentialities of the flood, then command nature by building better flood controls.
Things of human origin (whether physical or psychological) may be designated as “man-made facts” — as distinguished from the metaphysically given facts. A skyscraper is a man-made fact, a mountain is a metaphysically given fact. One can alter a skyscraper or blow it up (just as one can alter or blow up a mountain), but so long as it exists, one cannot pretend that it is not there or that it is not what it is.
Nature, i.e., the universe as a whole, cannot be created or annihilated . . . it cannot come into or go out of existence. Whether its basic constituent elements are atoms, or subatomic particles, or some yet undiscovered forms of energy, it is not ruled by a consciousness or by will or by chance, but by the law of identity. All the countless forms, motions, combinations and dissolutions of elements within the universe — from a floating speck of dust to the formation of a galaxy to the emergence of life — are caused and determined by the identities of the elements involved. Nature is the metaphysically given — i.e., the nature of nature is outside the power of any volition.
Man’s faculty of volition as such is not a contradiction of nature, but it opens the way for a host of contradictions — when and if men do not grasp the crucial difference between the metaphysically given and any object, institution, procedure, or rule of conduct made by man.
It is the metaphysically given that must be accepted: it cannot be changed. It is the man-made that must never be accepted uncritically: it must be judged, then accepted or rejected and changed when necessary. Man is not omniscient or infallible: he can make innocent errors through lack of knowledge, or he can lie, cheat and fake. The manmade may be a product of genius, perceptiveness, ingenuity — or it may be a product of stupidity, deception, malice, evil. One man may be right and everyone else wrong, or vice versa (or any numerical division in between). Nature does not give man any automatic guarantee of the truth of his judgments (and this is a metaphysically given fact, which must be accepted). Who, then, is to judge? Each man, to the best of his ability and honesty. What is his standard of judgment? The metaphysically given.
The metaphysically given cannot be true or false, it simply is — and man determines the truth or falsehood of his judgments by whether they correspond to or contradict the facts of reality. The metaphysically given cannot be right or wrong — it is the standard of right or wrong, by which a (rational) man judges his goals, his values, his choices. The metaphysically given is, was, will be, and had to be. Nothing made by man had to be: it was made by choice.
A man-made product did not have to exist, but, once made, it does exist. A man’s actions did not have to be performed, but, once performed, they are facts of reality. The same is true of a man’s character: he did not have to make the choices he made, but, once he has formed his character, it is a fact, and it is his personal identity. (Man’s volition gives him great, but not unlimited, latitude to change his character; if he does, the change becomes a fact.)
[One must] distinguish metaphysical facts from man-made facts — i.e., facts which are inherent in the identities of that which exists, from facts which depend upon the exercise of human volition. Because man has free will, no human choice — and no phenomenon which is a product of human choice — is metaphysically necessary. In regard to any man-made fact, it is valid to claim that man has chosen thus, but it was not inherent in the nature of existence for him to have done so; he could have chosen otherwise. For instance, the U.S. did not have to consist of 50 states; men could have subdivided the larger ones, or consolidated the smaller ones, etc.
Choice, however, is not chance. Volition is not an exception to the Law of Causality; it is a type of causation. . . . Further, metaphysical facts are unalterable by man, and limit the alternatives open to his choice. Man can rearrange the materials that exist in reality, but he cannot violate their identity; he cannot escape the laws of nature. “Nature, to be commanded, must be obeyed.”
In regard to nature, “to accept what I cannot change” means to accept the metaphysically given; “to change what I can” means to strive to rearrange the given by acquiring knowledge — as science and technology (e.g., medicine) are doing; “to know the difference” means to know that one cannot rebel against nature and, when no action is possible, one must accept nature serenely. . . . What one must accept is the fact that the minds of other men are not in one’s power, as one’s own mind is not in theirs; one must accept their right to make their own choices, and one must agree or disagree, accept or reject, join or oppose them, as one’s mind dictates. The only means of “changing” men is the same as the means of “changing” nature: knowledge — which, in regard to men, is to be used as a process of persuasion, when and if their minds are active; when they are not, one must leave them to the consequences of their own errors. . . .
To deal with men by force is as impractical as to deal with nature by persuasion.