OPAR 2.1: The Validity of Sense Perception

Short Summary:

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?

Level of Difficulty: Low

Mystery Number: 90

Works Cited:

1. Peikoff, Leonard. Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand (New York: Dutton, 1991). New York: Meridian, 1993.

This cute dog never questions the validity of his senses. Why should you?

OPAR 1.1: Rand’s Three Axioms

[Edit 8/5/17: The more I think about the axioms, the more I think that this post should be rewritten. But I am not going to rewrite it, not at least until I have progressed much further in this project. Please consider this post my imperfect first attempt at grasping the axioms rather than a finished product.]

I thought that this first post was going to be simple and straightforward. Axioms, after all, are supposed to be the self-evident starting points for all knowledge, the most primary and provable facts in the universe upon which all philosophy rests. This should be easy, I said to myself at the end of April as I grabbed my copy of Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand and sat down to bang out this blog post. Cake! Rand’s axioms are just three simple facts that require no logic or abstraction in order to be proven, right? Two and a half months later, it turns out that I was wrong—not wrong about the axioms being primary and self-evident—but wrong about how easy they would be to understand.

Rand’s axioms are unusual and complex. Grasping their full implications is no piece of cake, I discovered. But since the whole purpose for undertaking this blog series is to better understand Rand’s philosophy, I suppose tackling this first section of Peikoff’s book couldn’t have turned out better.

An axiom, according to Ayn Rand, is a fundamental fact that cannot not be true (Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, 55). By fundamental, I mean that the thing cannot be reduced any more than it has already been reduced. If it is possible to break down a fact or idea into component parts, then that fact or idea is not an axiom. For example, take the fact that the sky is blue. The sky is blue depends upon three component concepts: the concept of sky, the concept of is-ness, and the concept of blue-ness. These three component concepts raise the questions, “Well, what is the sky?” and, “What is blueness?” and, “What does it mean to be something?” And in order to answer those questions, you have to get even more fundamental and ask: “What are the unique characteristics that distinguish the sky from other entities?” and, “What is color?” Thus, one reason why the sky is blue would not be considered an axiomatic concept by Rand’s definition is that it can be reduced into component concepts.

Epistemologically, all concepts are built out of other, more fundamental concepts, which are built from other, more fundamental concepts, etc. To look for axioms, you would step down through the concepts like a person climbing down a ladder until you hit the bottom, meaning that you cannot reduce any further. Axioms are the ocean floor of knowledge. In, Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, Rand writes: “An axiomatic concept is the identification of a primary fact of reality, which cannot be analyzed, i.e., reduced to other facts or broken into component parts. It is implicit in all facts and in all knowledge. It is the fundamentally given and directly perceived or experienced, which requires no proof or explanation, but on which all proofs and explanations rest” (55).

To reiterate, Rand’s definition of axioms is that they are:

  • Fundamental and primary (not able to be reduced into component parts).
  • Implicit in all knowledge.
  • Directly perceived.
  • All possible proofs and explanations rest on them.

According to Rand’s criteria then, a second reason why the sky is blue would not be considered axiomatic is that it is not a fact that is universally depended upon. There are lots of ideas out there in the world that have nothing to do with the sky being blue and do not depend on the sky being blue at all. In order to be an axiom, a concept must be an implicit building block underlying all ideas that exist.

But is it possible for any fact or idea to meet these criteria? According to Rand, yes. Rand’s three axioms are:

  1. Existence exists.
  2. Consciousness exists.
  3. A thing is itself (identity exists).

But frankly, my explanation here is a backwards way of arriving at the axioms. As fundamental building blocks, one is really not supposed to arrive at the axioms by pondering or abstracting or reducing or walking down a conceptual ladder. What I have presented here so far is a method for reaching the axioms as concepts after the fact rather than arriving at the direct knowledge of the axioms as perceptual facts. It is totally possible to come to know the axioms backwards, by reducing concepts into their component parts until you find the bottom, but really, all people with consciousness have already accepted the axioms (implicitly) by going in the opposite direction—by starting as a baby or as a brand new consciousness waking up to existence. From a baby’s perspective, the axioms are directly perceivable, the first (implicit) pieces of knowledge that one can know. What makes this a bit confusing and complex, though, is that there are two different methods of dealing with the axioms: sense perception and conceptual abstraction. Sense perception is how you directly know and validate the axioms, yet conceptual abstraction is how you philosophically explain and “prove” them verbally. These two methods are so different that it can make things a little confusing—or at least, it did for me.

Axiom #1 posits that something is. That box across the room is. The wind that is making me feel cold right now exists. Those pillows are. I open my eyes and see a wild blur of shapes and colors, and all of that is. Something exists.

The first axiom is self-evident in that it is verifiable just by opening your eyes, hearing a noise, smelling or tasting something, or touching an object. It does not matter what you see, hear, smell, taste, or touch; in some way, shape, or form, you perceive that something is. The first axiom is not an idea, really. It is an experience of fact accessible even to the tiniest baby. To experience something—anything—is to know (implicitly) that something exists.

Peikoff writes, “The concept of ‘existence’ is the widest of all concepts. It subsumes everything—every entity, action, attribute, relationship (including every state of consciousness)—everything which is, was, or will be. The concept does not specify that a physical world exists. As the first concept at the base of knowledge, it covers only what is known, implicitly or not explicitly, by the gamut of the human race, from the newborn baby or the lowest savage on through the greatest scientist and the most erudite sage. All of these know equally the fundamental fact that there is something, something as against nothing” (Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand, 5).

The first axiom, then, states that existence, the widest possible concept that subsumes everything of which we could ever possibly be aware, exists.

But how could I, the person who tasted a blueberry or felt the wind against my face, have apprehended that existence exists if I do not possess some sort of capacity for perceiving existence? Inherent in the statement, “Existence exists” is the fact that I, the perceiver of existence, possess consciousness. It is impossible to perceive anything without having some sort of mental awareness. If you open your eyes to the universe and acknowledge that there is something out there, what you have also acknowledged is that there is something—of which you are aware. One cannot know that existence exists without first having consciousness, without possessing the capacity to perceive in the first place.

Axiom #2 could also be summed up as: My perception of something exists. Peikoff includes this crucial passage from Atlas Shrugged in explanation of the second axiom:

“If nothing exists, there can be no consciousness: a consciousness with nothing to be conscious of is a contradiction in terms. A consciousness conscious of nothing but itself is a contradiction in terms: before it could identify itself as consciousness, it had to be conscious of something. If that which you claim to perceive does not exist, what you possess is not consciousness. Whatever the degree of your knowledge, these two—existence and consciousness—are axioms you cannot escape, these two are the irreducible primaries implied in any action you undertake, in any part of your knowledge and in its sum, from the first ray of light you perceive at the start of your life to the widest erudition you might acquire at its end. 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” (Atlas Shrugged, 942).

I find the second axiom slightly more difficult to grasp than the first but still fairly straightforward. It is easy to understand that if I suddenly feel something hard and round hit me in the face, that I must be aware of something that exists.

I had the most trouble with Rand’s third axiom: identity. “To be is to be something,” writes Peikoff (OPAR, 7). If you perceive something, you are, after all, perceiving a specific set of features and characteristics. Things have identities. Existence is not just a giant blank space. Or, even if existence were to be a giant blank space, it would still be a “giant blank space,” which would be its identity.

Identity in a Randian sense does not mean what it meant to Plato (this, I think, is where much of my confusion with axiom #3 comes from). Identify is not some predetermined “form” that floats down from another dimension and implants itself in our minds, like a gift from the supernatural gods. For Rand, identity is simply: a thing’s characteristics. So, if you open your eyes and see a bolt of lightning, you are seeing a bright flashy thing that fills the sky and then disappears and makes a loud noise. Lightning’s identity would then be: a bright flashy thing that fills the sky and then disappears and makes a loud noise. That experience of perceiving lightning, in addition to implying existence and consciousness, also implies identity because to perceive is to perceive something. To perceive something is to perceive a specific set of features and characteristics. Lightning has different characteristics than a lobster or a scream. A is A. A thing is itself.

In Peikoff’s words, “Existence and identity are indivisible; either implies the other. If something exists, then something exists; and if there is a something, then there is a something. The fundamental fact cannot be broken in two” (OPAR, 7). In this sense, existence and identity are really just two aspects of the same thing. Existence is identity. To be is to be something. Can you imagine a thing that exists that is not something? To exist is to have characteristics. Every attribute we perceive is simply an aspect of existence, an identifiable thing. Itself.

To make any statement about anything ever is to assume these three axioms: existence, consciousness, and identity. All three can be summed up in the statement, “There is something of which I am aware” (OPAR, 7).

There is something of which I am aware:” Existence.

“There is something of which I am aware:” Consciousness.

“There is something of which I am aware:” Identity.

The tricky thing about axioms is that in order to explain them, you have to take something that is purely perceptual (raw data or a raw impression upon the senses) and turn that empirical something into a statement, which is conceptual. Axioms in their observed form are not concepts; they are “perceptual self-evidencies,” according to Peikoff (OPAR, 8). You can be as dumb as a sheep and still implicitly grasp the axioms. All you have to do is look. At anything. The statement, “There is something of which I am aware” is an explicit encapsulation of the axioms, but the actual axioms can be grasped without words, concepts, or anything else having been understood prior. But when you state the axioms in words, you have to use ideas and concepts to explain and validate them. The phrase, “existence exists” is a conceptualization of a percept, but it is not the percept itself. “Consciousness exists” is a conceptualization of a percept, but that statement is not the percept itself. “A is A” is a conceptualization of a percept, but it is not the same thing as perceiving the actual characteristics of a thing. So, a person comes to know the axioms by sense perception, but establishes the axioms’ connection to reality and validates their authenticity via reasoning and conceptualization. Peikoff says that it is important to philosophically validate the axioms because it is easy to ignore or not understand them in explicit terms (even while a person might accept them implicitly and rely on them for every thought, question, and statement), which can cause serious philosophical problems down the road (OPAR, 8-9).

Looking at reality is also how the axioms are “proven,” although Rand and Peikoff would say that there is no proving the axioms, as “proof is the derivation of a conclusion from antecedent knowledge, and nothing is antecedent to axioms” (OPAR, 8). In other words, one cannot prove the axioms in the same way that one can prove that Crater Lake is in Oregon. To prove the presence of Crater Lake, one would start by lining up preexisting facts about geology and location to determine whether those facts point toward a particular lake existing in a particular spot. But there are no facts that precede “existence,” “consciousness,” and “identity.” Rather than rely on antecedent knowledge as proof of the axioms, Rand calls on sense perception. Look at reality. Do it. Just look at reality. There you go. There is nothing else to be said about the axioms other than the fact that when you see something, you know that something exists and that you are aware of it. There is no evidence of this being true beyond the fact that you are perceiving a thing. That is Rand’s proof of the axioms.

Everyone who has ever had anything to say about anything has presupposed and relied upon the axioms. According to Peikoff, “the axioms are invulnerable” (OPAR, 10). Any challenge or objection to the axioms is actually a reaffirmation of them, no matter what. Rand writes, “An axiom is a proposition that defeats its opponents by the fact that they have to accept it and use it in the process of any attempt to deny it” (Atlas Shrugged, 965). This is another way to “prove” the axioms’ validity; just get into a conversation with someone and watch them struggle to articulate something, anything at all, without relying in some way on the fact that existence exists, that they possess consciousness, and that things have identities.

So, those are the axioms. Here are some questions and concerns I imagine people might have about this subject:

  • Did Rand come up with these axioms entirely on her own? Or did she borrow from other philosophers? If she borrowed, which other philosophers explicitly treated existence, consciousness, and identity as axioms?
  • Are there different, competing axioms that other philosophers who disagree with Rand profess? If so, what are those axioms?
  • Are the axioms accessible to animals? Can anyone or anything implicitly grasp the axioms as long as it has a brain? Is there a cut off point (for example, can worms grasp the axioms)?
  • What if reality as we know it turns out to be a computer simulation created by aliens? Would that mean that Rand’s axioms misled us into thinking reality is something that it isn’t?
  • Why do the axioms matter in the first place? Why bother identifying and explaining them at all if they are so self-evident?
  • If the axioms are so self-evident, then why doesn’t everyone agree about them?
  • Can sense perception really be the basis of all knowledge? Philosophers disagree on whether or not the senses can or should be trusted. How can a person build a reliable philosophy using senses that cannot be trusted to perceive reality as it “actually” is?
  • Does the fact that acceptance of the axioms is necessary for all conceptual thought mean that the axioms are true automatically? Couldn’t it be possible that even though we all rely on them, the axioms aren’t necessarily true?
  • Some people say that logic is overrated. There are other ways of thinking and of knowing that do not involve sense perception and logic. Therefore, aren’t the axioms just the result of an epistemological bias toward Western methods of knowing?
  • What if Rand’s axioms are merely the result of the way that language has developed and is used? Just because the axioms are implicit in all language does not necessarily mean that the axioms are real beyond the world of linguistics.

I am not actually going to address any of these questions right now. I’d rather let them simmer.

Existence. Consciousness. Identity. Rand’s axioms are on the one hand the most obvious facts a person could ever understand, so graspable and basic that everyone implicitly accepts them. On the other hand, the axioms of Objectivism are abstract and complex with implications stretching further into the philosophical sunset than the eye can easily see.

Level of Difficulty: High

Mystery Number: 65

Works Cited:

  1. Peikoff, Leonard. Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand (New York: Dutton, 1991). New York: Meridian, 1993.
  2. Rand, Ayn. Atlas Shrugged (New York: Random House, 1957). New York: Signet, 1959.
  3. Rand, Ayn. Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology. Expanded 2nd Edition. Ed. Harry Binswanger and Leonard Peikoff. New York: Meridian, 1990.

Fifty-Three Topics of OPAR

I am going to try something that will likely be difficult and painstaking. You see, last year, I wrote that I was going to use this blog as a means to understand socialism, but then the world changed, and I did not finish the project. I did write one post exploring the definition of socialism, I did write another post about a terrible lecture on socialism I forced myself to watch (twice), I started reading The Communist Manifesto, and I read half of the book, Socialism: An Economic and Sociological Analysis by Ludwig von Mises. But then, the mood in America shifted, and my Facebook news feed that had been dominated for months by adulatory articles championing the wonders of Democratic Socialism began to be overtaken by extreme levels of tribal insanity over Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. The blistering irrationality of the things people were saying in total seriousness about the election was just so extreme that I could not look away. And so, I did not become a godlike expert in Democratic Socialism like I had wanted.

I want something different now. Not that Democratic Socialism isn’t important—it is. And not that I am a flake—I don’t think I am. But rather, there are twelve chapters in the book Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand with fifty-three chapter subheadings in total that I would very much like to write about.

Ayn Rand is the shit, you see. Her major works include three novels, two works of short fiction, a play, and seven works of nonfiction from about 1935 to 1980. Inspired to a great extent by Aristotle, Rand developed her own philosophical system called Objectivism, the essence of which she summed up as, “the concept of man as a heroic being, with his own happiness as the moral purpose of his life, with productive achievement as his noblest activity, and reason as his only absolute” (from the appendix of Atlas Shrugged). An atheist and a laissez-faire capitalist, Rand once said in an interview with Raymond Newman: “Philosophy, since it underlies everything in life, cannot be presented too briefly,” which anyone who has ever read Atlas Shrugged can appreciate.

Rand also said, “If Objectivism could have been presently briefly, I should have done so. Instead, I have written millions of words, and even at that, I cannot say that I have completely finished.” What’s interesting is that apart from John Galt’s 50-page speech in Atlas Shrugged, and apart from the topic-specific explications contained in her nonfiction works, Rand wrote no all-inclusive treatise on her philosophy of Objectivism. She left that task to Dr. Leonard Peikoff, whom she designated as her philosophical heir and best interpreter. In 1991, Peikoff published the book, Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand based largely on a lecture course he gave in 1976 entitled, “The Philosophy of Objectivism.” Those original lectures were attended by Rand, and she stated, “Until or unless I write a comprehensive treatise on my philosophy, Dr. Peikoff’s course is the only authorized presentation of the entire theoretical structure of Objectivism—that is, the only one that I know of my own knowledge to be fully accurate.” Rand never wrote that treatise. In other words, Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand (or OPAR, for short) is the only complete disquisition on Ayn Rand’s philosophy that exists.

What does this have to do with my blog? Well, in the summer and fall of 2014, I read the following Randian works:

  • The Fountainhead 
  • Atlas Shrugged 
  • Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology 
  • For the New Intellectual 

Then, in 2015 and 2016, I read the following works by Peikoff:

  • Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand
  • The Ominous Parallels 
  • Understanding Objectivism: A Guide to Learning Ayn Rand’s Philosophy
  • The DIM Hypothesis: Why the Lights of the West Are Going Out

I also started reading all of the following books last year but have not yet finished them:

  • Philosophy: Who Needs It
  • The Virtue of Selfishness
  • Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal
  • The Romantic Manifesto

I have a problem, though. You see, over the past three years, I read all of this philosophical material a little too quickly without focusing on each conceptual element long enough for the ideas to properly simmer or integrate. I didn’t intellectually “chew” on the content long enough to digest it in the way that ideas should really be digested. I would read a book, say to myself, “That seems probably awesome!” and then immediately go on to another book before coming to any real conclusions about the ideas in the previous book or even allowing the ideas to become 100% clear in my mind. I was like a person who sits down to a delicious 7-course meal, scarfs everything on the table in two minutes, and then cannot remember all of the details about what exactly I ate other than that it agreed with me and was probably delicious.

Peikoff once stated in a lecture on the Objectivist theory of concepts:

The proper teacher therefore, has to take you in stages, let you absorb a certain amount, let you automatize it in your mind, and this then frees you to absorb further material at a later time….And then as your knowledge grows, we revisit the issue in a more complex perspective, go over the same subject again, but from new, more advanced angles. We see new meanings in older points which are eliminated by our new context….It would in short be—a spiral. We go over and over the same issues and topics, again and again, each time from a more complex perspective. That is what we mean by the spiral progression of knowledge.

In other words, knowledge progresses in the shape of a spiral rather than in a straight line. You learn something initially in whatever way you can grasp it, and then, after living a little and learning other things, you return to that original something and consider it from a more complex perspective. And then you do it again. And so on. And then you become a philosophical master of the universe.

The purpose of this new blog project will be to use Peikoff’s notion of the spiral theory of knowledge as inspiration for a re-read and second exploration of the book, Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand. The book has twelve chapters (Reality, Sense Perception and Volition, Concept-Formation, Objectivity, Reason, Man, The Good, Virtue, Happiness, Government, Capitalism, and Art) that are structured hierarchically. Each chapter builds on the chapters that came before. It is a worthy book, one that deserves to be read more than once (not as a wild and starving savage), and it is a book I believe will help me develop a better understanding both of Rand’s philosophy and of my own assessment of Objectivism.

Within each blog post, I plan to address:

  • What idea is covered in the section?
  • How easy or difficult is this particular idea to understand?
  • What questions or concerns might I or other people have about this idea?
  • How integrated is this idea within my own mind? (This last point will be stored in a secret number somewhere within the post.)

In short: fifty-three blog posts on Objectivism are forthcoming. It’s going to be great!