OPAR 2.2: The Status of Sensory Qualities

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.

Level of Difficulty: Low

Mystery Number: 95

Works Cited:

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

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OPAR 1.3: The Primacy of Existence Versus the Primacy of Consciousness

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.

Level of Difficulty: Medium

Mystery Number: 80

Works Cited:

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

2. Rand, Ayn. Philosophy: Who Needs It. New York: Signet, 1984.