There are some ideas that seem so obvious that they should not have to be explained or repeated. For example, it is obvious that whatever consciousness is, it must be something specific. That is self-evident, right? That’s the law of identity, a basic axiom of metaphysics. The obviousness of the law of identity applying just as strongly to consciousness as it does to every other entity is why I was surprised to find that the title of the next section of Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand was: ‘Consciousness as Possessing Identity.’ Peikoff already covered that in chapter one, didn’t he? But the fact that consciousness must be something in particular, it turns out, is an extremely important principle to epistemology. Peikoff states that Objectivism “stands alone in accepting the fact’s full meaning and implications” (OPAR, 49). In this section, Peikoff argues that identity is a necessary precondition of consciousness and that the implications of that fact must be accepted before a reality-based epistemology can be developed. He reinforces his point by rebutting Kant-style “attacks on cognition” that stem from the groundless premise that consciousness, if it is to be considered valid, should not possess identity.
Now, I am no expert on Immanuel Kant, so most of what I say here is based on a second-hand understanding of him. For the sake of this blog post, I am assuming that Peikoff is correct and that philosophers inspired by Kant do make such insinuations about human cognition. Further study on my part is obviously necessary. But for now, please take this as my best understanding of Peikoff’s understanding of Kant.
Peikoff’s argument goes basically like this:
Human consciousness operates in a certain, limited way and achieves awareness via a particular means. All consciousness has a specific form. As Peikoff puts it, “It is something that has to grasp its objects somehow” (49). In other words, consciousness possesses identity.
Philosophers inspired by Kant have made the following (implicit) argument for centuries: The fact that man’s cognitive faculties achieve awareness via a particular, limited avenue means that people are cut off from true reality. Human cognition, because it has a specific identity, is invalid. The means of cognitionnegate the validity of cognition.
Kant and his followers are wrong. His ideas are rooted in an incorrect belief about the nature of reality and consciousness. All Kant-inspired doubts about the validity of human cognition are groundless and should be thrown out.
The fact that consciousness possesses identity must be embraced as a vital cornerstone of epistemology. You cannot know that you know something without first knowing that you know something by a specific means. If you don’t understand that consciousness has to have a particular nature and that having a nature does not make cognition invalid, you cannot define what knowledge is or ascertain the proper method for achieving it.
To expand on Peikoff’s argument above, Immanuel Kant was an extremely influential German philosopher who, among other things, argued that the world in itself is different from the world as it appears to the human mind. People do not have access to true reality, Kant claimed. Rather, what we perceive as reality is just phenomena created by the structure of our consciousness. If we had a different type of conceptual apparatus than we do, the world would seem much different. Because people are limited to perceiving and thinking in a uniquely human way, what we observe and conclude is not true reality—it is merely reality as it seems to us (49).
The Kantian view elevates the unknown and the inaccessible above the identifiable. Kant’s problem, according to Peikoff, is that rather than starting with reality, Kant begins by wanting consciousness to be something other than it is. Kant seems to wish that consciousness was a formless, automatic conduit between humans and some supreme, mystical knowledge of reality. But because consciousness is not the god-like conduit he wants, Kant demotes human cognition to the status of grasping only “the world as experienced” rather than actual reality. True knowledge, in Kant’s view, is comprised of what we could know if we were not as we are. Kant’s theory of cognition seems to imply that to be tied to an identity means to be invalid.
But identity is the essence of existence. To advocate for an idea of consciousness that is totally removed from a specific form is to advocate for something that can never exist. Kant’s criticisms of human cognition are based on a fantasy of non-existent nothingness. Peikoff puts it this way:
What sort of consciousness can perceive reality, in the Kantian, anti-identity approach? The answer is: a consciousness not limited by any means of cognition; a consciousness which perceives no-how; a consciousness which is not of this kind as against that; a consciousness which is nothing in particular, i.e., which is nothing, i.e., which does not exist. This is the ideal of the Kantian argument and the standard it uses to measure cognitive validity: the standard is not human consciousness or even an invented consciousness claimed to be superior to man’s, but a zero, a vacuum, a nullity—a non-anything (50).
Perceiving reality by a particular, limited means does not make what you are perceiving not-reality. There is no “reality as it really is”—no noumenal world. The nature of human consciousness is not a prison; rather, it is the starting point from which all standards of knowledge must develop. Any epistemology that does not rely on consciousness as necessarily possessing identity is not an epistemology based in reality. Peikoff writes that “every process of knowledge involves two crucial elements: the object of cognition and the means of cognition—or: What do I know? and How do I know it” (51). The what would be some aspect of reality, and the how would be some type of consciousness and form of cognition. Kant, because he is a mystic driven toward an imaginary reality and a non-existent consciousness, sets up these two elements as being at odds with each other. But Objectivism, which seeks reality for reality’s sake, holds that there is no conflict between the two.
Questions and Concerns:
Why does Kant think that the noumenal world exists? If no one can access the noumenal world (things in themselves) by any means, then what evidence does Kant have for the noumenon?
How can the essential invalidity of the idea of the “noumenal world” be most clearly demonstrated?
Is it possible to know the world apart from our forms of perception? Does sense data (color, texture, sound, smell, and taste) actually exist out there in the universe, or are sensory qualities in the mind and therefore unreal? Leonard Peikoff answers these questions in the second section of Chapter 2 of Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand. In this section, Peikoff describes how two dominant philosophical traditions have historically defined the metaphysical status of sensory qualities incorrectly. He then explains the correct philosophical approach to thinking about sense experience.
One tradition that has dominated the stage of the philosophy of sense perception, according to Peikoff, is the idea that sensory qualities (such as redness, blueness, roundness, softness, sourness, loudness, brightness, etc.) exist within objects independent of perception. Peikoff never gives this tradition a specific name other than to refer to it as the tradition in which sensory qualities are “in the object” (OPAR, 44). One specific theory that is compatible with this “in the object” tradition is the theory of naïve realism, for example. Naïve realists hold that the characteristics of objects perceived via the senses are sensory independent, meaning that objects retain their sensory properties even when they are not being perceived. For philosophers of the “in the object” tradition, sense perception thus directly reveals reality as it actually is, separate from humans and consciousness. The color red, for example, is an irreducible and fundamental characteristic of a Red Delicious apple, according to the theory, and the apple’s redness exists in the apple whether someone is looking at it or not. By observing the characteristics of objects as they appear to us via the senses, humans are thus able to directly perceive the ultimate building blocks of reality—pure, untainted, and primary. This is the “in the object” tradition.
The second dominant tradition rejects this intrinsic view of sensory qualities. According to the second tradition, sensory characteristics are not “in the object” at all, but rather, are “in the mind” and are therefore subjective, according to Peikoff (44). The “in the mind” tradition defines sensory traits essentially as mental effects created by the sense organs that reveal an “unreal” world that differs greatly from the underlying scientific reality of the universe. In this view, redness does not exist fundamentally and independently in an apple at all. The property of redness exists only in the mind, and the true properties of the apple are atoms or electrons or whatever you want to call them. The real apple, in this theory, is nothing like it appears to us via the senses. Peikoff uses the “two-tables problem” to illustrate this view. There are two tables: “the table of daily life, which is brown, rectangular, solid, and motionless, and the table of science, which, it is said, is largely empty space, inhabited by some colorless, racing particles, and/or charges, rays, waves, or whatnot” (45). Which table is more primary and fundamental: the table revealed to us by the senses, or the one revealed by science? The science table, obviously. According to the theory, then, sense organs get it wrong, and sensory qualities are unreal. The senses fool us into essentializing the table as being brown, rectangular, and solid; when really, the table is made up of non-brown, non-rectangular, non-solid tiny particles racing around in space. Because the senses make reality appear differently to us than it actually is, sensory qualities are therefore subjective and unreal (46). This is the “in the mind” tradition.
Neither the “in the object” tradition nor the “in the mind” tradition succeed at correctly defining the metaphysical status of sensory qualities, argues Peikoff. Both traditions get it wrong. Peikoff writes that philosophers make a mistake in pitting the two traditions against each other as a false dilemma (46). Philosophers seem to think that sensory qualities must either exist intrinsically within objects, or, if they do not, then sensory properties must be rejected as deceptive, unreal effects in the mind entirely removed from metaphysical reality. But Objectivism posits a third alternative when it comes to the metaphysical status of sensory qualities. Sensory qualities are neither “in the object” nor “in the mind.” According to Objectivism, they exist somewhere in between. Sensory traits are the natural result of the interaction between an object and the sensory apparatus, according to Objectivism, and are therefore “not object alone or perceiver alone, but object-as-perceived” (46). In the Objectivist theory, the redness of a Red Delicious apple is a characteristic not just of the apple nor just of human consciousness doing brain stuff. The redness of the apple is the result of an interaction between the apple and human eyes. When acted upon by a Red Delicious apple, human eyes produce redness as a result. Sensory qualities are neither “in” this nor “in” that. They are the result of a marriage between both entities and therefore cannot be identified exclusively with either (46).
Peikoff goes on to further explain the Objectivist theory through an illustration. One day in the future, let’s say that physics finally succeeds at obtaining omniscience about matter. Scientists discover that at the deepest, most irreducible level, the universe is made out of “puffs of meta-energy,” a deliberately vague and fake scientific term (45). These puffs turn out to be remarkably different from everything scientists thought they knew about the building blocks of the universe. In this illustration, the three-dimensional, colorful world of shape and sound revealed by the senses turns out to be not primary reality, but just an effect of the puffs acting and interacting in different ways on our means of perception (45). What would that mean? If we were to discover that the world is much different in actuality than it appears to us, what would that prove philosophically? Peikoff says it would prove nothing.
Just because something is an effect does not mean that it is unreal. Puffs interacting with our senses, which would also be made up of puffs, would still be a metaphysically given fact, subject to the laws of identity and causality. The laws guiding the actions and characteristics of the puffs would still exist in reality independent of human consciousness. Our experience of sensing the world would not be primary but would still be real. Peikoff writes, “If an existent is an effect of the puffs in certain combinations, by that very fact it must be real, a real product of the ingredients that make up reality. Man’s consciousness did not create the ingredients, in the present hypothesis, or the necessity of their interaction, or the result: the solid, three-dimensional objects we perceive. If the elements of reality themselves combine inevitably to produce such objects, then these objects have an impregnable metaphysical foundation: by the nature of their genesis, they are inherent in and expressive of the essence of existence” (45-46). The way that objects appear to us, for example, as a four-legged table or as a wispy cloud in the sky, are in themselves an expression of the character of the universe. The manner in which we experience objects via the senses is not a creation of our consciousness or our sense organs, but an expression of the nature of reality.
It’s like the philosophers of old, the ones who came up with the two leading (incorrect) philosophies of sense perception, just reallllllllllly wanted the senses to directly reveal actual, primary, independent reality to man. It’s like they wanted the sense organs to be some sort of automatic transmitter of the Platonic world of the forms, like they wanted the senses to convey Platonic “realness” without error and without any extra thought being required. The “in the object” philosophers created a theory where that was the case and where the senses could be trusted. Then, the “in the mind” philosophers came by and said, No, the senses can’t and don’t transmit the primary characteristics of reality to us automatically. Therefore, since that is what the senses are supposed to do, the senses suck! They fail at everything and are not to be trusted! But no matter how much a person wishes that reality be handed to us “pure,” that is just not what consciousness does. Consciousness, “is not a faculty of reproduction, but of perception. Its function is not to create and then study an inner world that duplicates the outer world. Its function is directly to look outward, to perceive that which exists—and to do so by a certain means” (47).
Sensory qualities like color, texture, sound, taste, and smell, are unequivocally, metaphysically real even though they are effects rather than primaries. Do our senses allow us to grasp the primary nature of reality directly, in a manner that is independent of our sense organs? No. But, if we start with the data provided by the senses and abstract away from there, we can start to do science and discover more and more about the fundamental nature of the universe in which we live. The senses may not make us gods, but sensory qualities are undeniably real. They are the ultimate and only starting point to understanding all that is.
Questions and Concerns:
I honestly don’t think I have any. This makes near total sense to me.
As the starting point of all consciousness and all cognition, sense perception is necessarily valid. The validity of the senses is an axiom and is outside the boundaries of proof. Arguments made against the validity of the senses typically misconstrue the role of the senses and incorrectly blame sense perception for failures of reasoning. Regardless of their form or limitations, the senses convey facts of reality and are therefore valid.
And now for a transition from metaphysics to epistemology.
Metaphysics, which has been the subject of the first five posts in this series, is essentially just the identification of the fact of existence along with the corollaries of that fact (according to Objectivism). Weirdly, the word metaphysics has a confusing etymology and does not accurately connote its subject matter. As the fundamental branch of philosophy, metaphysics is said to have arisen from Aristotle, who never once actually used the term himself. Rather, Aristotle referred to his writings on metaphysical subjects as first philosophy, focusing on three key subjects: being as such, first causes, and “that which does not change.” The term metaphysics emerged after Aristotle died, when his editor labeled his writings on first philosophy with the words, “Ta meta ta phusika,” or, “the after the physicals.” This label was either meant to indicate that the works were supposed to be read after Aristotle’s works on physics/nature, or that the books had been placed on the shelf after Aristotle’s writings on physics/nature. Regardless, centuries later, a group of Latin scholars misinterpreted Aristotle’s editor’s label as meaning, “the science of the world beyond nature.” This label managed to stick and went on to spark widespread misinterpretation of the term metaphysics. Many believe that the subject of metaphysics denotes the philosophical study of the immaterial, and this mistaken interpretation of the term remains popular to this day. But first philosophy, as originally studied by Aristotle, never should have been labeled as “the philosophical study of that which is beyond nature.” Metaphysics, for Aristotle and many others, is the philosophical identification of the fact of existence and its corollaries.
Epistemology, the subject upon which these next twenty-two blog posts will be focused, is named much more aptly than metaphysics. Epistemology is the branch of philosophy that studies the nature and means of knowledge. The word derives from two Greek words: episteme, meaning, “knowledge,” and logos, meaning, “reasoned discourse” or the scientific study of a particular subject. Commonly, the word knowledge is understood to mean an awareness or understanding of facts, which are verifiable actualities of reality.
The field of epistemology is based on the premise that not every random idea counts as knowledge and that human beings can acquire knowledge only if very specific processes are followed. Epistemology studies questions such as: what is the proper method for acquiring knowledge? Where does knowledge come from, and how can it be verified? Are some truths of existence unknowable? What does it mean to say that someone knows, or fails to know, something? In this wild and complex universe, how can anyone claim that any truth is a verifiable fact of reality? Is it possible to be one-hundred percent certain of any fact? If so, what are the limits of certainty?
In the second chapter of Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand, Leonard Peikoff moves on from metaphysics to what he calls “the anteroom of epistemology” (OPAR, 39), a discussion of sense perception and volition. Before diving in, however, Peikoff lays out three facts upon which Objectivist epistemology is based. These facts are: 1) knowledge is knowledge of reality, 2) existence has primacy over consciousness, and 3) human consciousness, being conceptual in nature, is fallible and requires a method (37-38). Objectivist epistemology is based on the premise that a method of cognition must be discovered in order for a fallible human consciousness to validate conclusions and distinguish truth from falsehood. Because there can be no knowledge of reality apart from sense experience, and because conceptual understanding is volitional rather than automatic, a study of sense perception and volition are necessary prerequisites to any study of knowledge itself, writes Peikoff (38-39). And so, here we find ourselves in chapter two of OPAR. Peikoff begins his chapter on pre-epistemology at the beginning, at the starting point of all consciousness and all cognition: with sense perception.
Is sense perception valid?
According to Objectivism, sense perception is necessarily valid. Peikoff opens his discussion by claiming that the validity of the senses lies outside the boundaries of the burden of proof. Proof is the reduction of an idea back to the evidence of the senses. You cannot reduce the data provided by the senses any further than to itself. Because the evidence of the senses is a precondition of any proof, its validity cannot be justified in the same way you would prove, for example, that it is wrong to murder someone or that climate change is real. Sensory data is relied upon for all cognition and all concepts, and thus, the validity of the senses has to be justified in some way other than through reducing to antecedent knowledge.
Because the validity of the senses lies outside the boundaries of proof and is the foundation of all knowledge, the validity of the senses is an axiom (not its own independent axiom, but rather, a corollary of Rand’s axiom of consciousness). It is only because we have senses that we know we are conscious—we see, hear, smell, taste, or touch something that exists. Consciousness is an awareness of that which is. If we are aware of that which is, then our means of awareness are a means of awareness. Peikoff seems to be arguing that if our senses do, in fact, make us aware of something that exists, then they are valid (correct, effective, relevant, meaningful, or sound). If the senses are not valid (i.e., are not an effective means of being aware of that which exists), then consciousness cannot be said to exist. Peikoff writes, “One cannot affirm consciousness while denying its primary form, which makes all others possible” (39). In other words, one cannot claim to be conscious (aware of existence) while also claiming that one’s means of awareness do not provide an awareness of existence. If consciousness exists, then the senses are necessarily valid.
Since knowledge, for Objectivism, is knowledge of reality, denying the validity of the senses means denying all cognition. Peikoff writes, “If the senses are not valid, neither are any concepts” (39). This includes the concept being used to attack the senses, the concept that the senses are invalid. Sense data, according to Objectivism, is the foundation of all knowledge and all concepts. Therefore, one cannot use concepts, which derive from sensory data, to disprove the validity of sensory data.
Rather than focus his justification on trying to prove a fact that is self-evident, axiomatic, and un-provable, Peikoff’s discussion of the validity of the senses focuses instead on disproving the opposition. Peikoff writes, “the purpose of philosophical discussion of the senses is not to derive their validity from any kind of antecedent knowledge, but to define their exact function in human cognition and thereby to sweep away the objections raised against them by a long line of philosophers. The purpose is not to argue for the testimony of our eyes and ears, but to remove the groundless doubts about these organs that have accumulated through the centuries” (39). He does this by defining sensory experience, refuting several arguments made against the validity of the senses by other philosophers, and defining the precise function of the senses.
What is sensory experience? Peikoff writes that “sensory experience is a form of awareness produced by physical entities (the external stimuli) acting on physical instrumentalities (the sense organs), which respond automatically, as a link in a causally determined chain. Obeying inexorable natural laws, the organs transmit a message to the nervous system and the brain” (39-40). Sensation is different from other forms of awareness like introspection or conceptualization because sensation is totally automatic. There is no choice, creativity, or volition involved in the experience of sensing. Rather, our sense organs merely react when acted upon by the external stimuli of the universe. Just like every other entity, our sense organs are subject to the law of causality and can only act and react according to what their physical characteristics allow. Peikoff writes that “such organs have no power of choice, no power to invent, distort, or deceive. They do not respond to a zero, only to a something, something real, some existential object which acts on them.” (40). If a sense organ reacts to a stimulation and transmits a message to the brain, it is because something exists out there that is acting on the senses. The senses are not proactive; they do not edit or create. The senses are reactive. They are messengers of the actions of external stimuli. All that the senses do is make us aware that some sort of things exist. They do not communicate what exactly the things are (that is the job of reason), but merely that they are (40).
Contrary to what philosophers have claimed, many mistakes that are blamed upon the senses are a result of human conceptual error and are not the fault of the senses themselves. For example, “If a boy sees a jolly bearded man in a red suit and infers that Santa Claus has come down from the North Pole, his senses have made no error; it is his conclusion that is mistaken” (40). The boy’s senses are not at fault; they correctly transmitted the smiling face, the large beard, and the red suit. The mistake was made when the boy extrapolated from sense data to an incorrect conclusion. His reasoning failed him—not his senses. Another example can be found in the famous story of the blind men and the elephant. In this story, a group of blind men each put a hand on a different part of an elephant. One man touches the elephant’s tusk, another touches the elephant’s leg, another its trunk, another its side. Based on sensory data, each man concludes that the elephant is something different. The first blind man concludes that the elephant is a spear, the second concludes it is a tree trunk, the third a snake, and the fourth a wall. In this story, as in the story of the boy thinking he sees Santa Claus, it is not each blind man’s sense of touch that fails him, but rather his conclusion. In this way, many supposed failures of the senses are in fact just failures of reasoning.
Neither do so-called sensory illusions disprove the validity of the senses. Peikoff writes, “A so-called sensory illusion, such as a stick in water appearing bent, is not a perceptual error. In Ayn Rand’s view, it is a testament to the reliability of the senses” (40). In the case of the stick and the water, the senses are simply responding to the full-context of facts, including the fact that light travels more slowly through water than it travels through air, which is what causes the stick to appear bent. The senses do not censor their message to the brain in order to make the universe easier for the human mind to understand; all they do is transmit all of the data automatically and without distortion or edits. This is why Rand and Peikoff claim that a stick appearing bent in water is actually evidence of the reliability of the senses rather than of their failure. Peikoff writes, “If a casual observer were to conclude that the stick actually bends in water, such a snap judgment would be a failure on the conceptual level, a failure of thought, not of perception. To criticize the senses for it is tantamount to criticizing them for their power, for their ability to give us evidence not of isolated fragments, but of total” (40). By defining the specific role that sensory data plays in the cognitive process, Peikoff refutes this common argument made against the validity of the senses.
What is the precise function of the senses? According to Peikoff, the role of the senses is essentially to synopsize an enormous amount of data about the universe into a digestible summary comprised of a few simple sensations received by our conscious mind. Each sensation is the tiny tip of an enormous iceberg. The sensations we experience are condensed clues about complex stuff that exists in reality. For example, “we perceive a bunch of roses…as red, cool, fragrant, and yielding to the touch. Such sensations are not causeless. They are produced by a complex body of physico-chemical facts, including the lengths of the light waves the roses reflect and absorb, the thermal conductivity of the petals, the chemical makeup of their molecules, and the type of bonding between them; these facts in turn reflect the underlying atomic structures, their electronic and nuclear features, and many other aspects. Our sensations do not, of course, identify any of these facts, but they do constitute our first form of grasping them and our first lead to their later scientific discovery” (41). Essentially, the function of the senses is to provide a starting point for the cognitive process. Once we have some initial evidence, we can organize it, compare, and classify in order to develop further knowledge and move up to the conceptual level, where scientific theories and formulations are possible.
Peikoff ends his discussion of the validity of the senses by explaining the role that sensory form plays in sense perception. The type of sense organs we possess prescribes the manner in which we perceive objects—with a smell, a taste, a color, etc. If our senses were of a different type, for example, if we didn’t have eyes and ears and instead had fleebobs and zigleeduds, we would presumably perceive reality in an entirely different way.
Does sensory form distort or control reality? Do the sense organs confine a person to his own universe, totally unique from the universe of other beings possessing different sense organs? Peikoff argues no. The form of one’s senses has absolutely no impact on an individual’s ability to accurately perceive reality. Difference in sensory form is a difference in form only; not content (42). If the role of the senses is to give a conscious mind a starting point from which to gain knowledge of the universe, then as long as a person can grasp similarities and differences between entities that exist, the type of sensory experience that is used to gather the data is irrelevant. This is why philosophers who attack the senses on the basis of form are wrong, according to Objectivism. Peikoff writes, “Species with different sense organs gain from perception different kinds (and/or amounts) of evidence. But assuming that a species has organs capable of the requisite range of discrimination and the mind to interpret what it perceives, such differences in sensory evidence are merely different starting points leading to the same ultimate conclusions” (43). No form of perception is any more or less valid than our own. Every type of sense organ condenses information on a certain scale, perceives some aspects of reality more directly than others, and is incapable of immediately perceiving other facts that are too large or too small to be registered. But no matter how big or small a being’s sense organs are, there is still only one universe. It does not matter from which data you start. All sensory data offers clues about the same fundamental reality.
What it comes down to is that the facts that the senses convey are indeed facts, no matter how limited in scale or form. The data transmitted by the senses leads to all further knowledge. The validity of the senses is axiomatic, self-evident, and unassailable. Can any honest philosopher, after considering Peikoff’s arguments, find sincere cause to doubt or deride the validity of sense perception?
Questions and Concerns:
Why have so many philosophers unfairly denigrated the senses and cast doubt on their reliability? If the validity of the senses is so self-evident, why the barrage of criticism from philosophers of all creeds?
Leonard Peikoff wraps up the first chapter of Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand by applying the principles of Objectivist metaphysics to two historically popular yet diametrically opposed views on reality: idealism and materialism. Idealism, promoted by figures such as Plato, Augustine, and Hegel, is the view that reality is driven by some form of consciousness and that the unseen world is higher and more important than the seen world. By contrast, materialism, upheld by philosophers such as Marx and Skinner, is the view that nothing exists beyond the physical world of measurable matter. For the materialist, true reality is physical rather than spiritual, and consciousness is nothing more than matter acting in a scientifically measurable and predictable way. Objectivist metaphysics is neither idealist nor materialist. In Rand’s view, idealism and materialism are both fundamentally flawed positions that reject the basic axioms and therefore oppose reality.
Idealist philosophers hold that the unseen spiritual dimension is the one true reality. By definition, “spiritual” really just means “of or pertaining to consciousness,” and true reality for the idealist is always some form of consciousness—whether that’s the Christian God, Plato’s World of the Forms, or Hegel’s Ideas (OPAR, 32) to name a few examples. Spirit is always the primary metaphysical factor, and the only way to access the spiritual dimension is through some form of thought or belief, which exists in consciousness. Spirit/mind comes first, and out of spirit/mind a physical world emerges. All versions of idealism share the belief in some form of the supernatural, which means “that which is above or beyond nature.” In order to be above or beyond nature, though, an entity would have to be above and beyond the physical world of entities governed by natural law. Since everything that exists in this universe is part of nature, the supernatural realm would have to be a form of existence beyond actual existence. In other words, it would have to be an entity beyond entities and identities and rational metaphysics. Idealism then, according to Rand and Peikoff, rests on a belief in consciousness without existence. This is why, according to Rand and Peikoff, idealism represents a rejection of the basic axioms of philosophy.
Materialism is the polar opposite of idealism. Materialists believe that reality is fundamentally physical in nature and that nothing exists beyond the material world. For the materialist, physical matter is the primary metaphysical factor, and consciousness is just matter organized in an intricate way, operating according to mechanistic laws. Peikoff writes that, “The idealists invented the false alternative of consciousness versus science. The materialists simply take over this false alternative, then promote the other side of it. This amounts to rejecting arbitrarily the possibility of a naturalistic view of consciousness” (33). Where the idealists took consciousness and turned it into a mystical, all-powerful, otherworldly force above and beyond nature, the materialists reject this view and throw the baby out with the bathwater. Instead of taking into account all of the aspects of consciousness—including the aspects that can be known only through direct experience and cannot be seen with a microscope or PET scan—the materialists rationalistically reduce consciousness to nothing or almost nothing.
In varying ways, the materialists claim that consciousness either doesn’t exist, is useless, or is merely a sequence of predictable squirtings and brain processes. All of these reductions leave out the role that empirical observation and focused reasoning play in human consciousness. Some materialists refer to consciousness as a “muddled” notion and claim that the old-fashioned idea of consciousness will eventually fade away entirely and be replaced with more apt neurophysiological terms as science progresses. Other materialists claim that there are no such things as qualia, which are individual instances of subjective conscious experience. Peikoff writes that for the materialist, “Man…is essentially a body without a mind. His conclusions, accordingly, reflect not the objective methodology of reason and logic, but the blind operation of physical factors, such as atomic dances in the cerebrum, glandular squirtings, S-R conditioning, or the tools of production moving in that weird, waltzlike contortion known as the dialectic process” (33). Since materialist philosophers, using a plethora of different approaches, reduce consciousness to blind material processes, materialism essentially wipes consciousness in its full form out of existence, according to Peikoff. In this way, materialists believe in a world of existence without consciousness and like the idealists, reject the basic axioms of philosophy. The materialists apparently do not realize that consciousness is just as fundamental as the thing of which consciousness is conscious: existence.
In spite of the fact that materialists deny the existence of a spiritual world, Peikoff classifies both idealism and materialism as mystical in nature because both schools of thought rest on the idea that knowledge of reality is gained automatically rather than volitionally. For the idealist, knowledge is gained automatically through mental connection with supernatural sources. For the materialist, knowledge is gained automatically through glandular squirtings in the cerebrum, Pavlovian conditioning, or absorption from social environs. In both views, knowledge is not gained through a focused effort on empirical observation and logical reasoning. Rather, knowledge is automatically placed in the mind from some outside source or process.
In addition to being mystical in essence, idealism and materialism also both belong to the ontological category of monism. A monist belief system is one that reduces everything in the universe back to one basic substance or principle, and both idealism and materialism insist that true reality (and man) has only one true essence. For the idealist, reality is essentially made of mind or spirit. For the materialist, reality is made of matter or physical processes. While Objectivism rejects the monism of idealism and materialism, Rand’s philosophy should not therefore be considered dualist. Peikoff writes that, “a philosophy that rejects the monism of idealism and materialism does not thereby become ‘dualist.’ This term is associated with a Platonic or Cartesian metaphysics; it suggests the belief in two realities, in the mind-body opposition, and in the soul’s independence of the body—all of which Ayn Rand denies” (35).
If it is not dualist, then should Objectivism be considered materialist, empiricist, existentialist, or anything else? According to Peikoff, no. Peikoff writes that “all of the conventional positions are fundamentally flawed…In this situation, a new term is required, one which at least has the virtue of not calling up irrelevant associations” (36). Instead of the typical titles, Objectivist metaphysics (and Objectivism in general) can best be summed up as “Objectivist.
Questions and Concerns:
I think a deeper dive into materialist philosophy is in order. What do the various materialists have to say for themselves?
Has a materialist philosopher ever written a response to Rand’s critique of materialism? If so, how did that person rebut her?
Would the average materialist agree with the statement, “consciousness doesn’t exist”? If not, why? How might a materialist explain her position in her own words?
What does it mean to be absolute? Generally speaking, an absolute is an unalterable certainty—a fact that is universally valid and is not conditioned by other facts nor reined in by parameters. In English, the word absolute derives from the Middle French word “absolut,” from the Latin “absolutus,” a past participle of “absolvo,” meaning “to set free, end, and complete.” Something that is absolute cannot be changed nor tempered; it submits to no higher authority or law than itself. In the culminating principle of Objectivist metaphysics, Ayn Rand employs the concepts of absoluteness and changeability to differentiate between two different types of observable facts: the metaphysically given and the man-made. Peikoff, in his account of this final metaphysical principle in OPAR, states that while man-made facts are products of human choice and therefore do not have to be, no alternative to a metaphysically given fact is possible or imaginable (OPAR, 23). In other words, the metaphysically given is absolute.
“Metaphysical” means, “pertaining to the fundamental nature of reality;” and “given,” in the philosophical sense, means, “not requiring proof or explanation.” With the term metaphysically-given, then, Rand and Peikoff are referring to things like our solar system, the law of gravity, death, mountain ranges, thunderstorms, planetary motion, sea turtles, mold, etc. The metaphysically-given is every characteristic, feature, and fact inherent in existence that is untouched by human action. Man-made things, by contrast, are “objects, institutions, practices, or rules of conduct that are of human origin” (OPAR, 23). In other words, man-made facts are entities brought about by human action and choice. This would include things like nuclear reactors, birth certificates, the institution of marriage, public schools, toothbrushes, space ships, the U.S. Constitution, plastic, or a landscaped backyard.
For Rand and Peikoff, metaphysically given facts are inescapable and unalterable because of the laws of identity and causality. According to the law of identity, every entity is comprised of a certain set of characteristics and only those characteristics. According to the law of causality, in any given set of circumstances, entities can act only in the one way that is expressive of the characteristics which they possess. Metaphysically given facts have to be exactly as they are because—except for where choice is involved—entities’ specific characteristics allow for only one possible outcome in a given set of circumstances. For example, a rock, when kicked by a mountain goat at 10,000 feet, will tumble down a mountain. Due to the nature of gravity and the characteristics of rocks and air, that is the only thing the rock can do in those circumstances. Peikoff writes, “If such a fact is, then, within the relevant circumstances, it is immutable, inescapable, absolute. ‘Absolute’ in this context means necessitated by the nature of existence and therefore, unchangeable by human (or any other) agency” (24). Because it is the nature of gravity to pull objects toward other objects, and because it is the nature of rocks to have a certain density and weight and to fall downward when dropped, and because a particular slope on a particular day did not have any trees growing on it or boulders blocking the path, the tumbling rock is necessary. That fact cannot be escaped.
Man-made facts, like metaphysically given facts, are also subject to the laws of identity and causality, but they are not unquestionable metaphysical truths, unchangeable and universally necessary. Man-made facts, according to Rand and Peikoff, are products of human choice and therefore do not have to be. Any choice could have been made differently. Peikoff writes that, “Man-made facts, of course, also have identity; they too have causes; and once they exist, they exist, whether or not any particular man decides to recognize them. In their case, however, the ultimate cause, as we will see in the next chapter, is an act(s) of human choice; and even though the power of choice is an aspect of human identity, any choice by its nature could have been otherwise. No man-made fact, therefore, is necessary; none had to be” (24-25). It is in man’s nature to have to make choices. The act of making a choice is inescapable for human beings—but the particular choice that is made is chosen rather necessary.
In addition to choice, people also have the power of creativity. The word “creativity,” though, is almost not the right word. People don’t actually create things according to Rand—they arrange entities into new configurations. People take metaphysically given things (like a rock or a sharp piece of bone), and position the things in such a way as to bring into existence a combination or integration of natural elements that had not existed before (Rand, 34). Millions of years ago, the cave man, for example, took a rock and a sharp piece of bone and moved them against each other in such a way that the rock “became” a wheel. (That might not be the actual sequence of events that occurred when the wheel was invented, but you get the idea.) Creativity is really just human beings initiating a set of circumstances under which certain objects will react in a particular way (as dictated by their natures) to achieve a desired result. Those who would be creative can only succeed by paying attention to the nature of the metaphysically given. “Man’s creativity, therefore,” writes Peikoff, “is not defiance of the absolutism of reality, but the opposite. In order to succeed, his actions must conform to the metaphysically given” (OPAR, 25). In order to be productive and creative, human beings must conform to the natural laws of the universe.
Peikoff writes that to confuse the metaphysically given and the man-made is to “court a series of disastrous errors” (26). Metaphysically given facts should be accepted without evaluation, while man-made facts should always be judged. Man-made facts can be true or false, right or wrong, but metaphysically given facts cannot. Metaphysically given facts just are and must be. There is nothing to evaluate about them. This distinction is extremely important to Objectivism, branching into every area of philosophy and human life.
When it comes to man-made facts, people often make the mistake of thinking that tradition or the consensus of the times is “reality” that cannot be changed. This might take the form of someone treating man-made institutions and practices as though they were permanent and immortal, refusing to even consider that an entity such as the public school system might not actually be good for children and does not have to exist. The error lies in thinking that because human beings have created and committed to a particular man-made thing, that thing must be eternal, unchangeable, and necessary. False. No matter how many millions or billions of people commit to a particular behavior or practice, and no matter how many years the behavior or practice has remained popular, no entity brought into existence by an act of human choice had to be. If the thing did not have to be, the universe does not require that it continue to be. Man-made things can be changed.
Another error is made in regarding the metaphysically given as alterable and imagining alternatives to aspects of reality that are absolute and unchangeable. For example, one might try to imagine a perfect world without death and suffering, condemning actual reality because life involves struggle and eventual death. Because life involves pain, some might say, life is terrible, and we should instead yearn for a better world in another dimension. Because life ends in death, life is meaningless. Peikoff writes that “this amounts not merely to evading reality, but to declaring war on it” (26). The historical root of this error of trying to rewrite reality comes from religion, from the idea that the world was created by a supernatural consciousness who could have created things differently but just chose to make the world this way. Other worlds were (and maybe still are) always possible because the ultimate “creator” of reality is a supernatural being who can alter natural law whenever he pleases. In making this error, people set their desires above actual reality and refuse to accept what actually is. Unfortunately, one cannot make peace with the universe if one cannot recognize the necessity and absoluteness of that which is.
Peikoff succinctly sums up the final principle of Objectivist metaphysics in the statement: “Nothing is possible except what is actual” (28)—metaphysically speaking, of course. Similarly, nothing is changeable except that which has been brought about by human choice. It is man’s responsibility to conform to the universe—it is not the universe’s responsibility to conform to us. A recognition of the critical difference between the metaphysical and the man-made is necessary for successful human action. To fail to accept the difference between the metaphysical and the man-made is to invite internal philosophical turmoil as well as external conflict with reality. By accepting the absoluteness of the world for what it is, and by working with the natural laws of existence rather than against them, human beings can achieve harmony with the universe.
Questions and Concerns:
Peikoff mentions that Hume and Kant “searched for a perceptual manifestation labeled ‘necessity.’ Like a metaphysical glue sticking events together or holding facts in place; unable to find it, they proceeded to banish necessity from the world” (24). What did Kant and Hume actually write on this subject? What were their arguments, and how exactly did they “banish necessity” from the world?
The third principle fundamental to Objectivist metaphysics is the principle of the primacy of existence. Another corollary of the Objectivist axioms, the primacy of existence principle states that the universe exists independent of any consciousness and that the function of consciousness is to look outward and perceive reality rather than to create it. Existence, according to the principle, is the primary metaphysical factor with consciousness as its dependent. It seems to me that it would not be necessary for Objectivism to include such a principle within its philosophy if so many philosophers throughout history were not so fiercely committed to its antithesis, the principle of the primacy of consciousness. The primacy of consciousness concept declares the exact opposite: that existence is the product of consciousness (either human consciousness, social consciousness, or supernatural consciousness), that consciousness is independent of reality, and that man can gain superior knowledge of the universe by looking inward or by polling his neighbors. With the primacy of existence principle, Objectivism explicitly refutes this notion, declaring that existence has primacy over consciousness and that things are what they are independent of consciousness.
What I love about the study of metaphysics is that it makes explicit ideas that people rely on as the basis for their personal worldviews without realizing. Metaphysics shines light on fundamental assumptions and beliefs that are hidden deep below the surface, like a spelunker illuminating a pasty white blind cave shrimp for the first time. It strikes me that many, if not most, disagreements throughout all of philosophy stem from a fundamental disagreement over whether existence or consciousness is the more primary factor. Rand writes in Philosophy: Who Needs It, “The basic metaphysical issue that lies at the root of any system of philosophy [is] the primacy of existence or the primacy of consciousness” (32). And yet, in spite of this issue being extraordinarily basic and consequential, it strikes me that if you were to ask the average college-educated person, “Which do you believe in: the primacy of existence or the primacy of consciousness?” the average college-educated person would neither understand what you were asking nor be able to give any sort of meaningful answer even after you defined all of the relevant terms and gave some context. Like the blind cave shrimp, this issue is not something that most people are aware even exists, despite the fact that every person’s worldview implicitly depends upon his or her answer to this question.
The history of philosophy is ripe with manifestations of the primacy of consciousness view. Peikoff writes, “With rare exceptions, Western philosophy … is dominated by attempts to construe existence as a subordinate realm. Three versions of the primacy of consciousness have been prevalent. They are distinguished by their answer to the question: upon whose consciousness is existence dependent?” (OPAR, 21). From Plato to Descartes, Kant, Hegel, and all of Christianity, philosophers have overwhelmingly upheld the primacy of consciousness principle—except for Aristotle (and Rand).
Plato was one of the earliest and most influential philosophers to (implicitly) promote the primacy of consciousness view with his theory of the Forms. According to the most prevalent Plato interpretation, Plato’s theory states that long before human beings ever had bodies, our souls (which, without bodies would just be consciousnesses) existed in the heavenly World of the Forms, where we became directly acquainted with “real knowledge,” the true essence of things, and the blueprints of perfection. But then, we left the World of the Forms and were born in this universe, which is merely an imperfect shadow of that perfect conceptual World. In this physical world, what feels like learning is in fact just remembering our past experiences of direct contact with the Forms. Our memories of the Forms are what teach us about the shadow universe in which we now find ourselves. In this sense, individual consciousness does not directly create or control reality, per say—the Forms do, which are in a sense, a certain kind of consciousness (although they are not divine beings like the Christian God). Because the Forms rule over the reality in which we live, and because the Forms are fundamentally intellectible rather than substantive, consciousness, rather than existence, reigns supreme for Plato.
Plato’s philosophy would later prove highly influential to the development of Christianity, which also promotes the primacy of consciousness principle, although much more explicitly. Both Christianity and Plato can be categorized within the “supernatural” variant of the primacy of consciousness view, which relies on communications—including innate ideas, feelings, and individual revelations—between a Supreme mind and a human mind (21). In Christianity, God is an omniscient, omnipresent, and omnipotent consciousness who created the universe and directly controls the events that occur on earth. According to Christianity, a divine consciousness is the alpha and the omega, the primary factor, the creator and controller of all that is. By praying to God or by thinking certain thoughts, humans can communicate with this divine force and petition that God change reality in one way or another. In this view, events happen not because the universe has certain characteristics and natural laws, but because a divine consciousness directs the motions of the planets and the movement of time and space, forever into eternity. While certain knowledge can be gained from observing the physical world, the highest and best knowledge is gained by turning within—by connecting with God.
According to Rand’s take on Immanuel Kant, it was Kant who secularized the primacy of consciousness view and paved the way for the “social” variant (22-23). For Kant, though, consciousness is not supreme because it is divine; rather, consciousness is all that we have because we are cut off from “real reality” (also known as the noumenal world, or the world of “things in themselves”). Cut off from the highest and most real knowledge of the noumenal world, our consciousness is left to shape the phenomenal world in which we live. Kant referred to the universe as “the world as it is known,” claiming that reality conforms to the knowledge process. Everything we see, hear, taste, smell, or touch is a consciousness-tempered fragment that orders our experience of existence. In this sense, consciousness is the primary metaphysical factor not because it is a mystical force like God or the Forms, but rather because existence is a product of our consciousness. Peikoff claims that the epistemology behind the social variant of the primacy of consciousness view was expanded and developed by Hegel. According to the social variant, since no individual person is competent to create or control the universe, groups are capable instead. These groups might include humankind as a whole or groups based on race, sex, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, nation, etc. In the social variant, groups and consensus are the means to truth. Our individual senses may not be able lead us to real reality, but as a group, if we all think we are seeing the same thing, then we can coerce and override reality (22).
The third variant of the primacy of consciousness view is the personal variant, which holds that a person’s consciousness controls reality, but just for that person. What’s true for me might not be true for you. If you think you are a unicorn, then for you, you are a unicorn. The personal view holds that truth, on an individual level, can be whatever a person rules that it is—for themselves (23). Peikoff did not cite a specific philosopher who promoted this variant; that is something I will have to look into later.
In opposition to the primacy of consciousness view and all its variants, Objectivism declares that existence, not consciousness, is the irreducible starting point of metaphysics. Existence exists regardless of whether any consciousness exists, and without existence, consciousness could not be (18). Peikoff sums up the primacy of existence view as, “Things are what they are independent of consciousness” (18). Consciousness has no direct control over what exists. A person’s internal processes do not create or shape the actual world; rather, the universe exists outside of and in spite of consciousness and is totally unaffected by a person’s or a group’s feelings and desires. Peikoff writes, “If existence exists, then it has metaphysical primacy. It is not a derivative or ‘manifestation’ or ‘appearance’ of some true reality at its root, such as God or society or one’s urges. It is reality. As such, its elements are uncreated and eternal, and its laws, immutable” (23). In other words, no mental force caused the world to come into existence, and neither can mental force alter natural law. What is—is.
Consciousness is a secondary phenomenon. According to Objectivist Harry Binswanger, “The fact that consciousness has an object means that consciousness cannot be self-contained. Consciousness is inherently something that points outside of itself, to something else.” Going back to the axioms, the only reason we know that we are conscious is because existence exists, because we perceive something. A consciousness without something to perceive would not be a consciousness. It would be nothing. Rather than create the world, the job of consciousness is to look out and perceive, which is a backseat role. If existence is independent of consciousness, then the only way to know anything about the universe, according to Objectivism, is through extrospection—not through feelings, revelations, groupthink, or personal whims. Integration of sensory data through the use of logic and reason is the only means to knowledge. And if a person wants to change the world, the way to do that is to act according to reality. Nothing other than action can affect the universe.
While the primacy of existence position is not a view that is popular in philosophy, it is one that is absolutely vital to Objectivism. In Peikoff’s words, “[Rand’s] philosophy is the primacy of existence come to full, systematic expression in Western thought for the first time” (23). While I have many chapters yet to go in OPAR, it sounds like what will follow is further development of this fundamental principle. Why this millennia-long obsession with the primacy of consciousness from philosophers all over the globe? I am not sure that I know the answer—yet. Regardless, in spite of the onslaught of contemporary and historical opposition, when it comes to the primacy of existence principle, Objectivism has it right.
Questions and Concerns:
The questions I have about this issue are quite big and are still bubbling. I am not sure I understand my questions well enough to list them just yet.
Every action that occurs in the universe has a cause, according to Objectivism. But an action is not caused by some earlier event or series of events, and nor is it caused by random chance or the whim of a supernatural deity. Rather, every action in the universe is caused by the nature of the entity which acts. This is Objectivism’s law of causality. The law of causality is the law of identity applied to action.
Rand’s law of causality is basically the same thing as the law of identity, just pertaining to things that entities do. “To be is to be something,” writes Peikoff, “and to be something is to act accordingly” (OPAR, 17). In this way, the law of causality is a corollary of the law of identity rather than an axiom itself. It is a self-evident implication of an already established principle (15), flowing naturally out of the axiom which precedes it.
Just as all entities have certain characteristics and not others, so do entities act in certain ways and not others. For example, when thrown at a wall, a ceramic plate will smash into pieces while a rubber ball will bounce back at the thrower. A water balloon will splatter. A feather will probably not make it all the way over to the wall but will flutter around in the air before eventually coming to rest wherever the movement of the air pushes it. The law of causality states that entities will always act in accordance with their natures and in no other way. A feather will not splatter against the wall, spewing water in every direction; nor will a rubber ball shatter into hundreds of ceramic pieces. A plate will never make a good item with which to play Wallball because when thrown, a ceramic plate will always shatter (given that the wall is made out of concrete and that the plate is thrown with force). Within a given set of circumstances, an entity will only act in the one way that its nature allows—the way that expresses its identity. Entities can never act outside of or in contradiction to their natures. The only reason a plate will ever not shatter is if the circumstances change (i.e., if it is thrown into a swimming pool). All actions in the universe are the actions of entities, and the actions of entities are limited by their natures.
What is the significance of the law of causality? If Rand’s cause and effect principle is true, then the universe can never be described as chaotic. Chaos doesn’t exist, and neither does random chance. Everything that happens happens because the entities involved have certain attributes and will always act in certain ways when the circumstances are right. There are no such things as mystical, supernatural, or random occurrences. Rainbows are not placed in the sky by a supernatural deity sending a message to humans about how he will never flood the earth again. Rather, rainbows occur because rain has a specific nature, light has a specific nature, and air has a specific nature. When the circumstances are right (water droplets are floating in the air, the sun is behind you, the clouds are cleared away from the sun, and your viewing angle is 42 degrees) you will see a rainbow. Ta da!
This is natural law. Natural law paves the road for science!
The law of causality is a metaphysical principle rather than an epistemological one. It specifies only that which is; it does not specify what we can know or predict. Just because this law rules the universe does not mean that humans will necessarily be able to predict specific events. “Our ignorance of certain measurements, however, does not affect their reality or the consequent operation of nature” (17), writes Peikoff. Causality is totally independent of our consciousness. Things do, in fact, act in accordance to their natures, whether we are able to predict the movement of subatomic particles or not. So, on the one hand, while the law of causality does not give us knowledge of specific actions or why they happened, neither is it subjective. As Peikoff puts it, “causality—for Objectivism as for Aristotelianism—is a law inherent in being qua being …. It is part of the fabric of reality as such” (17). The universe is made up of entities that have specific identities and act in certain ways and only those ways. This will never change. It just is. After all, “to be is to be something,” and whatever a thing does, it does because of its nature.
Questions and Concerns:
Peikoff says that the concept of entity is “an axiomatic concept, which is presupposed by all subsequent human cognition, although it is not a basic axiom” (12-13). What is the difference between an axiom, a basic axiom,and an axiomatic concept?
It seems like everything that exists (except for axioms) can be reduced to component parts, each of which is an entity. But each entity, whether it’s composed of a billion entities or just two, has a specific nature according to the law of identity. But how would you determine, say, the “nature” of “Amazon.com” or “public schooling” as entities? These entities have millions of moving parts and components and are capable of hundreds, if not thousands or millions of actions. This seems like it may be an epistemological question rather than a metaphysical one, but I am not sure how one would determine the nature of such a huge and complex thing.
But what about human beings? How does the law of causality apply to entities who have free will and the power of choice?
Does Peikoff really think that humans, with their power of choice, can only ever act in one way in a given set of circumstances? Isn’t that rather deterministic? I thought Rand believed in free will.