On the Validity of the Senses
I am cheering the day you abandon this blog to renounce your current autonomous and fallible reasoning as faulty, and worship the God you know exists. That is worth celebrating.
you insinuate that “my reasoning is faulty,” but you cite no example from my writings as evidence to support this. Is this because you have no example to support this? Or, is it because you think there is so much evidence that it should be self-apparent to anyone reading your comment?
Well, you tell me, is it viciously circular to employ your senses and reasoning to validate your senses and reasoning?
But before doing so, I have to pause here as I wonder what exactly D.A.N. thinks is the apologetic value of such questions. A question as such is not an argument, and in my experience with presuppositionalists (a long list now), they typically do not give much care to considering suitable responses to questions of this type. It seems to be one of those “Duh, I donno! Must be God did it!” forms of apologetic interrogation. As such, it represents the apologist’s anxious need to keep the focus off of what his worldview teaches (and fails to teach) and on the non-believer. Tactically, then, this line of question is offensive in nature: it seeks to put the non-believer on the defensive.
However, I must admit that I’m wildly curious as to how the bible itself addresses this question. When Christian apologists ask questions of this sort, they imply that their worldview can answer it. But if Christianity does answer such questions, where might we find these answers? Where, for instance, does the bible give any insight or instruction on circularity, validation of one’s reasoning, proper construction of argument, the validity of the senses, etc.? I’ve scoured my bibles for just this kind of information, and I have found nothing in its many pages which can be identified as informatively treating any of these topics. Indeed, note what we get when the apologists’ other favorite question – “How do you know?” – is turned on what their worldview claims: presuppositionalist John Frame answers this question by saying “We know without knowing how we know.”
As for D.A.N.’s question to me, I’m sure he realizes that “vicious circularity” is a fallacy that occurs in some poorly formed deductive proofs. But since not all forms of validation are of the deductive proof variety, but may in fact consist of simply pointing to the facts which assure that something is the case, not all forms of validation are susceptible to the problem that apparently worries him (at least in the context of the present area of inquiry). Of course, if D.A.N. thinks I’ve produced a deductive proof for validating my senses and reasoning which fallaciously employs my senses and reasoning in doing so somewhere in my writings, I invite him locate it and point it out to me. It may be the case that he has misunderstood something. Otherwise, it appears that he’s trying to fabricate something “faulty” for the sake of making good on an insinuation for which he still has not produced any supporting evidence.
But allow me to present some points from my worldview’s perspective for D.A.N. to consider on this matter. I will constrain the focus of my discussion on the senses in particular; we need clarity and understanding in this area before discussing the validity of reasoning, since perception comes before reasoning.
So let me first point out that, on my view of the senses, there is nothing that I must do volitionally in order to validate my senses. That is because the activity and operation of my senses are automatic and pre-volitional. Asking whether or not one’s senses are valid is like asking whether or not one’s digestion is valid: if your stomach is digesting food, how could it be deemed invalid? Even if one gets a stomach ache, this itself is due to the “validity” of digestion: you ate too much, or a combination of foods, or spoiled food, which in turn results in discomfort. Usually the discomfort passes, which is yet another fact we can point to which assures us of the validity of digestion. But either way, the organs associated with digestion are functioning according to their causal characteristics, which is just another way of saying that digestion is “valid.” Similarly with the senses: my senses are the means by which I have awareness of objects existing in my surroundings. If I have any awareness of any object(s), this itself is a fact I can point to which assures me that my senses are valid.
More to the point, we do not have to prove the validity of the senses. Peikoff explains why (Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand, p. 39; italics original):
The validity of the senses is an axiom. Like the fact of consciousness, the axiom is outside the province of proof because it is precondition of any proof.
Proof consists in reducing an idea back to the data provided by the senses. These data themselves, the foundation of all subsequent knowledge, precede any process of inference. They are the primaries of cognition, the unchallengeable, the self-evident.
Attempts to undermine the validity of the senses often rely on examples of what are styled as ‘sensory illusions’. But this only demonstrates an error in the skeptic’s thinking rather than serving as a successful basis on which to declare the senses invalid. Again I quote Peikoff (Ibid., p. 40):
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. The senses do not censor their response; they do not react to a single attribute (such as shape) in a vacuum, as though it were unconnected to anything else; they cannot decide to ignore part of the stimulus. Within the range of their capacity, the senses give us evidence of everything physically operative, they respond to the full context of the facts – including, in the present instance, the fact that light travels through water at a different rate than through air, which is what causes the stick to appear bent. It is the task not of the senses but of the mind to analyze the evidence and identify the causes at work (which may require the discovery of complex scientific knowledge). If a casual observer were to conclude that the stick 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 a total.
Besides, does it ever dawn on the skeptic that he had to rely on his perception even to know that there was a stick in the first place? How did the skeptic know, without relying on his senses, that there was a stick and that it was dunked in some water? Indeed, to say that the stick appears bent when it is in water, and thus criticize the senses on this basis, assumes knowledge of the fact that the stick is straight to begin with. But how did the skeptic know this if his senses are invalid? Blank out.
Moreover, as NAL, a visitor to my blog, pointed out in a 30 March comment replying to D.A.N. on my blog:
It is not circular to use your sense of touch to validate your sense of sight.
Yet another fact that we can point to is that my senses would have to be valid in order for me even to raise and/or consider the question whether or not they are valid. I would need to be aware of things in a most fundamental manner long before I could ever get to the level of forming and entertaining questions. And the fundamental means of awareness are the senses, which, from what we saw above, are self-validating in a non-circular way. In terms of the knowledge hierarchy, then, sensory perception comes at the very beginning of the cognitive process. If my senses were not valid, I could not have awareness of anything concrete, let alone abstract issues, such as questions about the validity of the senses. Skeptical efforts to undermine one’s confidence in his senses, then, always commit the fallacy of the stolen concept: such efforts implicitly assume the validity of what they are seeking to deny or dispute. Concepts are formed ultimately on the basis of perceptual input. Thus, in order to formulate an argument concluding that the senses are invalid, one would need to use concepts to inform that argument, and yet the arguer would not have been able to form those concepts in the first place without perception. As Peikoff rightly puts it (Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand, p. 39):
If the senses are not valid, neither are any concepts, including the ones used in the attack.
In sum, then, we need to perceive in order to identify, and since knowledge is at root identification of what is and integration of identifications into a non-contradictory sum, knowledge without perception would be impossible. Moreover, we identify objects by means of concepts, and conceptual integration is a volitional activity – we do it by choice, and we must select the objects or attributes of objects to be identified and integrated into the concepts that we form. When skeptics claim that the senses are invalid, or in some way seek to undermine our confidence in perceptual experience, they very typically point to so-called “illusions” such as the example Peikoff discusses above. But it should be clear upon closer examination that what is happening here is that the individual does in fact perceive something (in fact, he perceives a huge context of information), thus validating the senses, but subsequently he misidentifies what he has perceived.
Consider the point which George H. Smith makes in a would-be dialogue with a skeptic that he includes in his book Atheism: The Case Against God, where he writes (p. 155):
”I would like to emphasize a major source of confusion in your argument against sense perception. To speak of our senses ‘deceiving’ us is, at best, a sloppy metaphor. Philosophically, it is nonsense. Our senses are simply physical organs with no will of their own. To say that they ‘deceive’ us makes no more sense than to claim that our hearts and lungs ‘deceive’ us. Sense organs respond to physical stimuli from the external world; they have no capacity to deceive or misrepresent. They simply transmit sensations according to their physiological characteristics, which our brains then automatically integrate into percepts. We may misinterpret the basic data given to us, but there can be no question about the validity of the data per se. For example, a man may see what he believes to be a lake in the middle of a desert, whereas what he actually sees is only a reflection of light waves off the sand, or, in other words, a mirage. The man is mistaken in his identification of the sensory evidence – he has not properly interpreted the data given to him – but his senses have not somehow ‘deceived’ him. The light waves that reach his eyes actually do exist, but the man’s interpretation as to the causal origin of these waves is mistaken.”
To recap, note the following points:
- the validity of the senses is axiomatic
- we do not need to establish the validity of the senses by means of deductive proof
- the senses are self-validating in a non-circular way
- skeptical attacks on the validity of the senses commit the fallacy of the stolen concept
- efforts by skeptics to cite examples of “faulty” perception ignore the distinction between perception and identification
Now, in my reply to D.A.N., I had also written:
To form the conclusion that my “reasoning is faulty” (you make it sound like I couldn’t draw a connection between flipping a switch to the ‘on’ position and the generation of light from the lamp to which that switch is attached), I’d think that you’d be able to cite at least a few examples.
Do you have an ontological basis for being 'light-switching flippers'? ~bit.ly/assmorals
As for his question specifically, I do not understand what it is asking. D.A.N. provided a link, which may explain its relevance, but I do not recognize the address, and given his admission that he has visited prostitutes earlier in life, I’m weary of clicking on it. So if he has something intelligent to offer here, I invite him to do so in a direct manner which attends to the matters that are already part of the discussion.
by Dawson Bethrick