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