Friday, November 25, 2016

Here we go again...

I swear, if I had a dime for every time a thinker came along and tried to disprove the primacy of existence, I’d well be on my way to a very rich man ‘bout now!

Seriously, I should start charging a fee! The most recent effort that I’ve seen comes from none other than Francois Tremblay, himself a valiant blogger on a wide variety of philosophical matters (including anti-theism). Earlier this month, while I was out traveling on business, Francois left a comment on my blog Normativity and the Primacy of Existence in which he stated:
I've written a refutation of Bahnsen Burner's position on this issue, which you might find interesting.
Now, I haven’t been a regular reader of Francois’ writings since back in the days of Goosing the Antithesis, a blog which Francois shared with Zachary Moore and Aaron Kinney, and whose last post dates back to January of 2009. So, with probably a couple exceptions here and there, I have not kept up on the direction that Francois’ thinking has traveled in the now going on eight years since. So on any given Sunday, I wouldn’t be able to say what Francois thinks about anything.

So after settling back into my typically chaotic routine after visiting some clients in faraway places, I thumbed through my inbox and saw Francois’ comment. Never one to be surprised by Francois’ offerings (not because they’re not surprising, but because, in somewhat Pavlovian manner, I’ve learned not to allow myself to be surprised by them), I thought to myself “here we go again…” as I warmed up for another binge of rapid-fire face-palming (if you thought I was doing something else to wear out my palm, you were wrong).
In a blog entry titled “Is existence really primary in the way Objectivism states?” Francois demonstrates some awareness of what Objectivism teaches and characterizes the primacy of existence as one numbering among a set of principles that are “seductive” to people “raised in the Western intellectual tradition.” In this entry I will examine Francois’ statements about the primacy of existence. But first I will examine his case against the correspondence theory of truth since he cites this at the beginning of his case against the primacy of existence.

The Correspondence Theory of Truth

In a post titled The experiential theory of truth, Francois suggests that the correspondence theory of truth is “just nonsense” and opines that “it’s hard… to understand how anyone could fall for it,” apparently because “[w]e cannot measure whether a proposition corresponds to a fact, because propositions are nothing at all like facts.” We should keep in mind that the term “the correspondence theory of truth” may lead thinkers to suppose that there’s just one unitary theory of truth denoted by it, while in fact there’s a family of such theories. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy surveys a number of these theories.

Generally speaking, the correspondence theory of truth has historically been contrasted with the so-called coherence theory of truth (cf. Reese, Dictionary of Philosophy and Religion, s.v., Epistemology’ 2-5). Where correspondence theories found truth on the basis of a relation between ideas and reality, coherence theories hold that truth is a relation between ideas. (Curiously, Reese’s own treatment of the matter characterizes ideas as irreducible products or deliverances of the senses. I don’t think Reese is alone on this. It is a position which I reject.)

What’s at stake in all this is the question of what serves as the basis and standard of truth. If not facts which we discover and identify in the world we perceive, then what? Applying the primacy of existence to the question would mean taking facts which we discover by looking outward as the standard of truth, where concepts are the truth-bearers and truth involves a relation with what concepts denote. The opposite of this would involve looking inward for some alternative to facts as the basis of truth.

According to Francois, however, none of this should factor into consideration. Rather, he apparently thinks that propositions and facts need to be very similar to each other in some unstated way in order to measure correspondence between them, and since they aren’t, the correspondence theory fails. Now even though I do not see where Francois explains what a fact is, I’m sure he could cite many examples to support his contention here. For example, a red octagonal sign with some symbols stamped on it spelling out a single word is, one could argue, radically different from applying the brakes to a moving vehicle upon reaching it. Where’s the correspondence? But notice that anyone reading this can probably figure out what I mean by “a red octagonal sign with some symbols stamped on it spelling out a single word.” And yet there’s supposedly no correspondence here?

Francois states that the reason “we think there is a correspondence [between propositions and the facts to which they refer] is an artefact of writing both down.” I certainly know how to write down a proposition, but I don’t know how to write down a fact, and yet Francois’ contention here assumes that facts can be written down. Of course, I have never understood the correspondence theory to require (or arise from) the practice of writing facts down next to the propositions which correspond to them.

Perhaps Francois would prefer that we adopt a pictographic form of writing, such as one in which a house is represented by a combination of strokes consisting of a rectangle with a triangle on top of it to resemble its roof. We could do this for flowers and automobiles as well. But when it comes to abstractions such as ‘justice’, ‘illumination’ or ‘policy’, how would we represent those? Call me old fashioned, but I’m quite content to stick with English!

He says that “the proposition ‘snow is white’ looks the same as the fact that snow is white if you write them down,” but if that were the case, I’d suppose learning to read a foreign language would be much easier than it in fact is: one would merely need to write down a fact (however that is done) and write the corresponding proposition in the foreign script adjacent to it, and the two should “look the same.” In fact, however, that this is simply not the case only speaks to the power of the correspondence theory given its conceptual basis: the symbols “snow is white” don’t at all look like white snow, and yet anyone who understands the English language will know what they mean. Language, as Rand explained,
is a code of visual-auditory symbols that serves the psycho-epistemological function of converting concepts into the mental equivalent of concretes. Language is the exclusive domain and tool of concepts. Every word we use (with the exception of proper names) is a symbol that denotes a concept, i.e., that stands for an unlimited number of concretes of a certain kind. (Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, p. 10)
So to deny the correspondence between the proposition “snow is white” and white snow is to deny the conceptual basis of language. We may as well return to grunting.

In the same blog entry, Francois gives another example:
Suppose you write the sentence “I am angry.” Does that mean your anger is literally now located on the page as well? No, obviously not. Whatever you write, you can’t convert a fact into a sentence. Likewise, the sentence “show is white” does not contain any snow or whiteness, let alone a relation between the two (what would that even look like?).
The frustration which Francois expresses here seems to stem from an extraordinary case of concrete-bound thinking. No version of the correspondence theory that I’ve ever investigated has ever suggested that its philosophical propriety is premised on the notion that identifying a fact in written form actually makes that fact “located on the page” or “convert[s]” the fact into a sentence. The correspondence theory does not find its grounding in the assumption that the sentence “snow is white” itself contains snow or is white. These are nothing more than rudimentary category confusions. In fact, Francois’ criticisms of the correspondence theory essentially fault the theory on the basis that propositions and the facts to which they correspond are incomparable things. But he’s trying to attack the correspondence theory of truth, not the comparative theory of truth (supposing there were one). In other words, he’s attacking the correspondence theory for something it doesn’t affirm in the first place.

Suppose we applied Francois’ approach to criticize music notation. Using this approach, we could dismiss music notation as “just nonsense” or “absolutely false” because notes written down on a staff don’t sound like music. Indeed, if I write some notes down on a piece of manuscript paper, I don’t hear a symphony! So, accordingly, to assume that music notation has any value is to fall prey to a “something seductive” because of our upbringing “in the Western intellectual tradition.” On the contrary, I consider myself unspeakably fortunate for having grown up in the Western intellectual tradition!

Of course, if the correspondence theory of truth is “absolutely false,” then Francois’ own statements – e.g., “Americans do not believe in democracy” or “I’ve been saying for a long time that your conception of human nature is fundamental to your political views and what policies you promote” – have no correspondence to anything in reality. Even when Francois states “I’ve always respected Bahnsen Burner’s work,” he’s not providing anything that corresponds to reality, which is a real shame because if in fact he intended his statement to correspond to his own evaluation of my work, I’d be delighted, even humbled. But none of it corresponds to anything in reality on Francois’ view. To what does it correspond? Who knows! Perhaps to nothing, if Francois’ protestations against the correspondence theory of truth (and the primacy of existence) are true! Indeed, to what does “the correspondence theory of truth” correspond? We now have a mystery, and this is only compounded when we ask: What if any value do propositions have? It’s like a re-run of an early 1980’s situation comedy: it may be quaint and give a few chuckles, but gladly we’ve moved on. (But WKRP in Cincinnati really was funny!)

So given these elementary deficiencies, I find Francois’ criticisms of the correspondence theory of truth rather unpersuasive. But I wanted to make a few additional points here.

It must be kept in mind that propositions are not irreducible, but in fact are composed of concepts. Propositions themselves are not merely successions of concepts, but complex integrations refining a whole context of those concepts which comprise them. So an exploration into the validity of the correspondence theory of truth must begin with a proper understanding of concepts. Thus, instead of focusing initially on propositions, even simple ones such as “snow is white,” let us ask first if the concept ‘snow’ corresponds to anything which we can discover and observe in the world. If it is acknowledged that the concept ‘snow’ denotes something in reality, how can we then turn around and deny any correspondence between the concept ‘snow’ and something in reality?

We form concepts from perceptual input, which means (among other things) that our concepts are genetically tied to the input from which they are formed and which they denote, whether they are entities, attributes of entities, actions, etc. Just as perception provides the form in which we have direct awareness of objects present to our senses, concepts provide the form in which we identify those things which we perceive. Both perception and conceptualization, then, are expressly object-oriented activities of cognition. So already there’s correspondence involved at the fundamental level, a correspondence that ripples up from the most primitive level of awareness. The correspondence theory of truth, then, is essentially a logical extension of the subject-object relationship into the realm of epistemology, specifically the conceptual realm. Given this, why would this basic correspondence not also be available when different concepts are integrated into propositions?

Francois cites the work of George Lakoff and Mark Johnson who (according to Francois) “absolutely destroy objectivist epistemology” and apparently prove that “even simple sentences like ‘the sky is blue’ are absolute gibberish if we interpret them using correspondence theory.” Lakoff, whose name presumably rhymes with a favorite adolescent pastime, is himself a professor at UC Berkeley, presiding no doubt over yet another generation of tender snowflakes, and also a member of Fundación IDEAS, a political think tank in service to the Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party. Francois summarizes the conclusion that the sentence “the sky is blue” is “absolute gibberish” as follows:
not only is color not a property of surfaces, but there’s no surface called “the sky” that can be said to be blue. So “the sky is blue” must be false.
This argument seems to pull the rug out from underneath itself: if color is not a property of surfaces and the sky is not a surface to begin with, where’s the problem? But in fact, color is a form in which we perceive objects, and conceptualization is the form in which we identify objects. Perception and conceptualization are actions of consciousness in reference to some object(s).

David Kelley, in his book The Evidence of the Senses, defines perceptual form as “those aspects of the way an object appears which are determined by the manner in which our senses respond to the object in the particular conditions at hand” (p. 86). Having rejected the diaphanous model of consciousness (which treats awareness as lacking positive identity and perception as a “veil” between perceiver and object) and all the false expectations it generates, Kelley rightly points out that “[c]olors are the way atomic structure looks to us” (Ibid., p. 110). So even the sky, which is filled with particles consisting of atomic structures, will have a certain look to it, a certain appearance, a form in which we perceive it, given the conditions. Kelley offers the following summary:
Color is not in the mind in any sense. From the standpoint of the subject, color is not in or a feature of his perceptual awareness. The physical facts show that color is a relational property of objects, arising from an interaction between them and our visual systems. As with other relational properties, there is no reason to locate them at all. And our rejection of the diaphanous model removes any philosophical reason for viewing color as subjective. (Ibid.)
So if “colors are the way atomic structures look to us” and the sky is filled with particles consisting of atomic structures, then we should perceive colors when beholding the sky given the presence of light reflecting off of those structures. And in fact we do! And clearly I can conceptualize this (as I just have!), so why would statements expressing this conceptualization (such as the one I just gave!) have no meaning on the correspondence theory?

Speaking of Lakoff and Johnson, Francois writes:
They also point out that scientific theories themselves are heavily metaphorical, and are therefore incompatible with correspondence theory. Just to take two examples, biological evolution (“common descent,” “tree of life”) and General Relativity (“curved spacetime,” “time dimension”) make heavy use of metaphors to make testable predictions about reality. How can something both be absolutely false (i.e. not correspond to reality) and make testable, reliable predictions about reality?
For one, I don’t know why one would conclude that metaphorical expressions would be “incompatible with correspondence theory.” But I’m willing to grant that if a thinker takes the time to produce arguments (however faulty) to the effect that the statement “the sky is blue” is “absolute gibberish,” he may very well be inventive enough to turn any pretzel into a variety of logic. Perhaps since the statement “I enjoyed dinner this evening” is not metaphorical, it too must be “absolute gibberish”?

To be sure, metaphors are not conceptually irreducible, but in fact make use of and therefore presuppose a broad collection of concepts in order to draw analogies from among them. In fact, metaphors are made possible by conceptual operations, in particular measurement-omission, which avails the use of distant concepts in conjunction given the elasticity that measurement-omission gives to conceptualization. And while metaphors are very useful especially in initial efforts to acquire new knowledge, they are not the primary means of understanding in the fullest sense in most cases. They surely are not a substitute for concepts, and explicit understanding of even difficult concepts requires us to cut past metaphorical expressions in order to articulate the real kernel of truth they may contain, or even question their suitability (Lakoff himself does this!).

Perhaps we can ask: Is the statement “scientific theories themselves are heavily metaphorical” itself “heavily metaphorical”? If so, what would it mean in the final analysis? To what does the notion “scientific theories” correspond? If we reject the correspondence theory of truth, does this not sever any and all correspondence between the notion “scientific theories” and anything that it might refer to? If not, then at least some version of the correspondence theory seems to be in play here, even in attempts to deny it. Indeed, the very question “What are you talking about?” itself assumes correspondence between communication and some set of objects. If Jones says “I had breakfast with Smith yesterday” and this were true, Smith could very well say “Yes, this happened, and Jones’ statement corresponding to what happened is true.”

What’s curious is that the examples which Francois has raised in framing his case against the correspondence theory involve the sensory quality of color – e.g., snow is white, the sky is blue, the ball is red. But sensory qualities are involved only a small subset of truth claims; our entire conversation does not consist exclusively of remarking what color things are. Rather, Francois has seized on this subset of truth claims because they are the only kind he can attack. And given the points I raised above about color, it should be clear that such attacks are a philosophical dead end.

But consider other examples of truth statements:
I was born in California.  
This is a two-story house.  
The front door is locked.  
Jane is president of our homeowners’ association.  
We bought tickets to Amsterdam.  
Jim came to work late yesterday.
These are not statements which can be reduced to mere qualia (e.g., “this looks green to me”), nor are they “heavily metaphorical,” but they clearly denote things that we discover in the world. Moreover, they denote conditions in reality that cannot be said to be the result of perception. For example, my perceiving did not cause me to be born in California, nor did my perceiving cause the house to have a second storey. Nor did any other conscious activity make these things a reality. Even in the case of purchasing tickets to Amsterdam, this cannot have been the result exclusively of conscious activity; some physical action must have taken place in order for this state of affairs to come to pass. I certainly cannot wish tickets to Amsterdam into my pocket! Nor can I simply perceive tickets to Amsterdam into my possession. So even if volition is involved, such as the choice to lock a door or to elect Jane to the position of president of our HOA, volition alone is not exclusively responsible for these outcomes, and even then they were not due to the volition of an observer who comes along after the fact and discovers them to be the case.

Francois cites Lakoff’s own theory of truth which, according to Francois, essentially holds “that truth is a match between our understanding of a proposition and our understanding of a situation.” So even on this view, truth involves correspondence, in this case between two categories of understanding. This is reminiscent of Kant’s coherency theory of truth which styles truth as a relation between ideas. But even here, there seems to be correspondence assumed, however covertly, between the understanding in question and that which is understood, but this has been ignored. Understanding is not a philosophical primary, nor is our possession of understanding causeless. We develop understanding on the basis of input from the world around us and our selective deliberation on that input. Indeed, wouldn’t “understanding of a situation” require correspondence in some form between the subject of consciousness who has achieved such understanding and the objects involved in the situation so understood?

It’s not clear how any of this reaches escape velocity needed to break away from at least some version of the correspondence theory of truth.

The Primacy of Existence

In his critique of the primacy of existence (again, in this blog entry), Francois cites statements of my own (from my response to youtuber whose misunderstanding of the primacy of existence was legendary) and goes on to make a series of statements which are themselves in dire need of correction.

Francois writes:
When I observe a ball, I observe it as being a ball, but the concept of ball does not exist in nature. There is no Platonic ideal of “ball” floating around for us to perceive: we have a prototype of “ball” but it exists solely in our minds and is not independent of my perception of balls.
In spite of Francois’ statement to the contrary, it’s hard to distinguish the notion that “we have a prototype of ‘ball’” which “exists solely in our minds” from a warmed-over Platonism, a view which characterizes the concretes that we find in the world as “exemplifications” of an “ideal” (or “prototype”) which is ultimately subjective, meaning: reality is essentially a projection of mental constructs. There’s certainly no evidence to support such a view (and I’m certainly not aware of any “prototype” of “ball” in my mind), and even to affirm that this is the case is to commit the fallacy of the stolen concept: it performatively makes use of the primacy of existence while actively denying it in the same breath. So that’s a non-starter.

Francois continues:
Now, an Objectivist may reply that, regardless of the identification of the ball as a ball, something exists which I am perceiving, and that something is independent of my perception. As I already said, I agree with that statement: I do not deny that there is such a thing as external objects.
It’s very simple: Objectivism holds that the objects which we perceive exist and are what they are independent of our conscious activity, including perception. The task of consciousness is not to create existence and to assign identity to the things that exist, but to perceive and identify the things we perceive. And we identify them by means of concepts, and these concepts, given that they are formed on the basis of the nature of the things we find in the world, correspond, however loosely or generally, to things that exist. Concepts are certainly not “prototypes” of the objects they denote; concepts do not come before the things they denote, nor do the things they denote depend on the concepts which denote them.

Philosophers throughout history have been tripped up by this fundamental recognition not only through their own efforts to evade it, but also by booby-trapping certain issues of epistemological import, such as qualia, which have troubled thinkers for centuries, and rather unnecessarily. Such efforts stem from a failure to grasp Rand’s powerful statement: “Existence is Identity. Consciousness is Identification” (“Galt’s Speech,” For the New Intellectual, p. 124).

But even when it comes to perception, Objectivism is very clear: “A ‘perception’ is a group of sensations automatically retained and integrated by the brain of a living organism, which gives it the ability to be aware, not of single stimuli, but of entities, of things” (“The Objectivist Ethics,” The Virtue of Selfishness, p. 19). Perception, then, is a physical action of a living organism which is caused by the interaction of sensory activity with external stimuli. This means that perception is an objective phenomenon: it results in awareness; it is not caused by awareness.

Moreover, as we saw above, perceiving a ball as an object that is red (or any color) does not cause the ball to have those surface characteristics which cause it to absorb one set of light rays and reflect others any more than perceiving it causes the object to have a spherical shape. Nor does perception cause the senses to react to light rays of one side of the spectrum in a certain way and to those of another side of the spectrum in another way. Rather, perception is a result of the interaction between the senses and the stimuli, just as the form in which we perceive objects (e.g., red as opposed to blue or white). Our experience of objects in a certain form (e.g., a ball that is red) is not causeless, nor is it a consequence of volition: I cannot choose to see a red ball when in fact the ball reflects light rays that interact with my senses in such a way that produce my perception of the ball in the form of blue.

Now here are two important points that I think Francois has missed in all this, namely (i) the senses and their activity are clearly not a product of perception (perception would not be possible without the senses doing their thing in the first place), and (ii) the stimuli which act on the senses are clearly not a product of perception (similarly, perception would not be possible without those stimuli doing their thing). These facts only confirm the primacy of existence and completely demolish attacks on the primacy of existence which springboard from a faulty understanding of perceptual form.

While Francois “[does] not deny that there is such a thing as external objects,” it is clear from what he has written that what he does not agree with are the views that (i) those external objects exist independently of conscious activity, and/or (ii) their identity is what it is independent of conscious activity. Either (i) or (ii) represents a concession to the primacy of consciousness metaphysics and either constitutes a denial of Rand’s two-fold dictum that “Existence is Identity” and “Consciousness is Identification.” So naturally, if Francois rejects either (i) or (ii) here, we should not be surprised to find him rejecting the primacy of existence as Objectivism informs it. At least he’s open about this.

In Francois’ next paragraph, I have itemized each statement for instructive purposes:
[A] The problem is that this statement alone leads us nowhere. [B] Without knowing that the ball is a ball, I can have no concept of perceiving a ball, or of what properties it can or cannot have. [C] Its nature as a ball is the result of identification and prior concept-formation, and is therefore not independent.
It is not clear which statement specifically Francois has in mind in [A]; presumably the statement in question which “alone leads us nowhere” is the recognition that “there is such a thing as external objects.” Stating that this recognition “alone leads us nowhere” is not an argument, and so far as I can see Francois has not presented an argument to support the contention that “this statement alone leads us nowhere.” Nor has he explained why it would be problematic if it’s in fact the case that “this statement alone leads us nowhere,” yet clearly he thinks this is a problem. Regardless, our minds are not straitjacketed to a single statement or recognition; we are perfectly capable of making many recognitions. So even if we agree with statement [A] here, we are free to follow its implications in conjunction with other recognitions.

Francois’ statement [B] itself is not very clear. It implies an ordinal sequence in epistemology which may be generally true; i.e., we form the concept of perceiving things after we have perceived things and after we’ve identified a number of first-level objects, like balls, trees, buildings, etc., things that are immediately available to us in perception. We don’t perceive perception itself, but obviously we are able to have awareness of the fact that we are perceiving (hence the axiom of consciousness), and we do identify this fact explicitly only after we’ve been exercising our cognitive faculties. That said, I don’t think the ordinal sequence itself is bound to the specific level that Francois seems to be suggesting here. I can have the concept of perceiving objects (a general recognition) before identifying a variety of specific things present in my awareness (such as a particular ball). Similarly with properties as such: why would I need to know that the ball is a ball before I can know that whatever properties it does or can have must be actual properties and not self-contradictory properties? Again, general factors are in play here which seem to be excluded for no reason other than that they may simply not have been considered. Beyond this, statement [B] seems rather muddled, and as with [A] I don’t see that Francois has produced an argument for it.

This brings us to statement [C], which is simply affirms the primacy of consciousness without any argument whatsoever. Statement [C] clearly does not follow from either statement [A] or statement [B]; nor does it follow from both statements [A] and [B] jointly.

Take a look at statement [C] again:
Its nature as a ball is the result of identification and prior concept-formation, and is therefore not independent.
On this view, an object, regardless of it being an external object, has no identity independent of identification, which means: no identity independent of conscious activity (since identification is a type of conscious activity). Obviously if someone accepts the view expressed in statement [C], he’s going to think the primacy of existence is false, not recognizing that such a statement would commit the fallacy of the stolen concept (it would be assuming the primacy of existence in the very act of denying it). Statement [C] is essentially saying that an object does not have the identity it has until someone comes along and assigns an identity to it. On this view, the object has no identity before someone has identified it. Identification, then, would not be an epistemological exercise, but rather a metaphysical force, like magic. So while lip service may be paid to the primacy of existence by affirming that the object is in fact external to consciousness, this concession is immediately rescinded when it is subsequently affirmed that whatever the object happens to be depends on conscious activity. And since identification is a volitional activity (we choose to identify or ignore things we perceive), the identity of an object depends ultimately on internal conscious states – what we prefer, wish, hope, imagine, etc. And just like that we’ve traveled far down the road to mysticism.

So I’m afraid Francois’ not scoring any positive points so far.

Francois continues:
Now onto the properties. If I say “the ball is red,” what am I really saying? As any Objectivist could tell you, the way we see colors is the result of an interaction between the object and our senses: there is no actual redness out there independent of our senses. While they know this, they don’t seem to understand how it completely demolishes the idea that properties of objects are what they are independently of perception.
As pointed out earlier, Francois treats only statements about color, and I have addressed this. Objects have other properties as well, such as shape, mass, composition, texture, etc., but Francois ignores these facts. Even more insidious, it’s a fundamental mistake to equate “dependence on the senses” with “dependence on consciousness” – the two are obviously not the same. The activity of the senses is not guided by conscious direction; rather, the activity of the senses results in awareness. Francois clearly has the cart before the horse here, and I suspect this is doing the lion’s share in confusing him.

As I’ve stated, perception gives us awareness of objects in a certain form dictated not only by our senses (whose activity is not volitionally regulated) but also by the nature of the stimuli (which are also not volitionally regulated by the subject of awareness). So how does it follow from the fact that we perceive things in a certain form that the properties which an object possesses are not what they are independent of perception? This in fact doesn’t follow. What we have here is a massive non sequitur.

An object’s surface (its “properties” or attributes) absorbs some light rays while reflecting others, thus resulting in our experience of colors, and this fact does not at all imply that the nature of an entity or its attributes depend on conscious activity. Moreover, since the activity of the senses is not volitionally regulated (if it were, there’d be no need for pain medications), perception is just as physiological as other bodily actions, such as respiration, digestion, hair growth (or in my case, hair loss). It is a physical action and as such it depends on the nature of the entity performing the action. And last I checked, I did not choose to exist as a human being, nor can I choose to be something other than a human being. Generally speaking, I am what I am independent of anyone’s conscious activity, including my own. So on all levels, our perception of color is in total keeping with the primacy of existence, and frankly I’d think Francois would get this.

Francois states:
Remember that the PoE entails that an observed ball “has the nature, characteristics, attributes, etc., that it has- independent of my act of perceiving it.” This implies that our mental abilities, such as perception, must not construct the nature or properties of the ball in any way. But this is clearly incorrect.
So how does my perceiving construct the features of a ball’s surface such that it reflects those light rays which result in some color instead of another when those light rays come in contact with my senses? From what would my perceiving construct these features? Where’s the science that demonstrates that my perceiving of an object produces (“constructs”) the surface features which absorb some light rays and reflects others? Essentially, Francois is asserting that perception creates atomic structures in the objects we perceive. But he only offers his own series of confusions as “proof” of this, and these confusions are rather easy to untangle and correct (even I can do it!).

Francois quotes from one of the workshop transcripts in the Appendix section of the second edition of Rand’s Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology (pp. 279-280). These workshops were unscripted verbal exchanges between various philosophy professors and Ayn Rand, and as such, while they contain many fascinating and even penetrating insights into epistemological matters, they must be understood in their proper context. And though Rand’s choice of words here is slightly unfortunate, I don’t see how any charitable interpretation could take her to be affirming what Francois seems to have gotten from this. Here is the exchange in context, with the question from the professor initiating the inquiry:
Prof. C:I have a question about the primary-secondary quality distinction. A quality like bitterness is not an attribute of an object, but it is caused by an attribute. At least I would be tempted to say that.  
AR:I would not accept the distinction of primary and secondary qualities, because it leads you into enormous pitfalls. It is not a valid distinction.  
We perceive light vibrations as color. Therefore you would say the color is not in the object. The object absorbs certain parts of the spectrum and reflects the others, and we perceive that fact of reality by means of the structure of the eye. But then ask yourself: don’t we perceive all attributes by our means of perception—including length? Everything we perceive is the result of our processing, which is not arbitrary or subjective.  
The primary-secondary quality distinction is a long philosophical tradition which I deny totally. Because there isn’t a single aspect, including length or spatial extension, which is perceived by us without means of perception. Everything we perceive is perceived by some means.
Notice that Rand does not say – and is not saying – that the nature of the things we perceive are products created by our perception. But this is how Francois is reading this, and given Rand’s arguably poor choice of words and interpreted without reference to the broader point she’s making in the quoted passage (not to mention her metaphysics in general), it wouldn’t be hard to take her to be affirming that the nature of the things which we perceive are such products. Rather, I take her essentially to be saying that the form in which we perceive everything is the result of the processing performed by our sensory systems. That this is what she means is confirmed, in my reading, by the final statement in the quoted passage, namely “Everything we perceive is perceived by some means.” Likewise, the previous statement could easily be replaced with: << Everything we perceive is perceived in some form.>>

Francois write:
If “ball” and “red” are the result of mental processing, then “ball” and “red” do not exist independently of the mind. The mind does more than “perceive and identify” an object: it constructs the object out of perception, including its nature and properties.
By putting “ball” and “red” in quotes here, does Francois have in mind those concepts which we form to identify and integrate what we perceive, or does he have in mind the objects themselves? It is not clear from what he states here; in fact, he may not even be aware that there is a distinction between the two. And how does perception construct its own objects? Perception of what? If perception provides us awareness of objects that exist independently of perception, then clearly the objects that we perceive are not constructed by means of perception and thus must exist independent of perception and any other conscious activity. The alternative to this, which Francois is affirming (whether he realizes it or not), is that we perceive in a vacuum (i.e., perceive nothing) and that act of perceiving nothing involves constructing objects which can be perceived. Now that is “just nonsense” to use Francois’ own expression. And again, I believe we’ve observed now the series of errors which results in such confused reversals.

Francois quotes a statement of mine summarizing the primacy of consciousness:
On this view, the objects of consciousness depend on the activity of consciousness for their existence, their identity, or at any rate conform to conscious activity in some way.
Francois responds:
This view seems to be the correct one, insofar as the objects of consciousness do depend on the activity of consciousness for their nature and identity.
Notice again that Francois has equated “activity of the senses” with “activity of consciousness” and thus “dependence on the senses” (which function only to produce the form in which we perceive an object; the senses do not “construct” the objects we perceive) with “dependence on consciousness.” This subtle yet damning series of equivocations are likely the root cause of his confusions. The activity of the senses, like the activity of the stomach, is physiological. The activity of the senses is not a type of conscious activity; rather, the activity of the senses results in awareness, which means: the activity of the senses must happen before one has awareness of the objects which act on the senses. Again, the senses do not construct the atomic structure of the objects we perceive. The mistakes here are epidemic!

Francois quotes some more of me:
Epistemologically, the primacy of consciousness means that, just as the objects of consciousness find their source in and conform to the contents of consciousness, knowledge of reality is acquired essentially by looking inward, into one’s feelings, one’s preferences, one’s imaginations, and treating them as though they were factual.
Francois reacts:
I don’t agree that upholding the primacy of consciousness necessarily implies that knowledge of reality is acquired by looking inward, although I know many people act as if this is the case (including the people I lambast in the entries I linked above).
Francois doesn’t “agree”? But if consciousness holds metaphysical primacy, what would “agree” mean and what importance could it possibly have? If consciousness holds metaphysical primacy, then agreeing and disagreeing would ultimately be irrelevant, for there would be no factual basis available for determining which view is true and which view is not true. Indeed, if we abandon the correspondence theory of truth, what would inform any position accepted as the true position? Clearly not something in reality, for rejecting the correspondence theory of truth severs truth from corresponding to anything in reality, namely facts.

But the point I make in the quoted section should not be difficult to grasp: if reality is a product of conscious activity, or at any rate conforms to conscious activity (again, not the activity of the senses, but rather conscious direction), then no objective standard could be possible. The objects of consciousness in such a case would not have identity independent of conscious activity. The standard of truth would not be independent of consciousness, but rather proceed from the contents of consciousness, which would mean one would need to look inward to discover that standard of truth. And even here, “discover” would be a misnomer. Rather, that standard would be something that the mind creates from whole cloth as it were. Such a position would be inescapable on a consistent application of the primacy of consciousness. But worldviews which grant metaphysical primacy to consciousness are not known for their consistency, but rather for their impact on adherents’ emotions.

Francois continues:
Indeed, I don’t believe that knowledge of reality is acquired by looking inward,
What Francois believes is irrelevant. It is a fact that knowledge of reality is not acquired by looking inward and consulting one’s feelings, preferences, imagination, wishing, temper tantrums, etc. Even “beliefs” are not a source of knowledge of reality.

Francois goes on:
unless it includes something trivial like “we acquire knowledge by looking at the outcome of the processing of our perceptions.”
We must be careful not to conflate looking inward (i.e., taking one’s feelings, preferences, imagination, wishing, etc. as a substitute for factual input from reality) with introspection. Introspection, when properly guided by reason, is in fact a form of looking outward in the sense of viewing one’s own conscious activity as an object to be explored and identified. This is a very delicate activity and requires a precision that can be refined only in the most disciplined devotion to honesty.

But Francois thinks that introspection is problematic. He writes:
I believe that methods which examine external reality, like science, are inherently superior to methods which examine internal reality, like religion, in finding knowledge of reality (this is a problem for Objectivism, since Ayn Rand believed that knowledge about our emotional life can be gained through introspection, and Peikoff claimed that volition could be proven by introspection).
Here Francois provides a link to his own blog entry Debunking the Objectivist support for free will, another fruitless exercise in free-wheeling stolen concepts. (Let him fault me for choosing not to interact with it, thus giving away the game.)

Francois concludes:
There is a big difference between believing that the objects of consciousness only exist due to consciousness, and believing that the objects of consciousness exist independently of consciousness but that their identity is dependent on consciousness in accordance with natural law. The former denies the internal world/external reality dichotomy, while the latter does not. The former entails that the best way of finding reality is by looking inward, and the latter entails that the best way of finding reality is by looking outward, but without the absolutism and over-reliance on rationality which is typical of Western philosophy.
The problem for Francois here is that a difference that is not a difference is no difference. He apparently thinks it is meaningful to affirm the axiom of existence while denying the axiom of identity. Affirming that objects exist independently of consciousness while holding that their identity is dependent upon consciousness is to contradict oneself. Simultaneous appeals to natural law are mere window dressing that would impress only a mannequin.

The question is where we must look for the content of our knowledge. If the objects of our consciousness exist and are what they are independent of consciousness (the axioms of existence and identity) and we possess a means of acquiring awareness of those objects (the axiom of consciousness), then naturally we need to look outward for the content of our knowledge.

If, however, the identity of the objects we find in the world depends on our conscious activity, then clearly we cannot acquire knowledge of that content by looking outward; we would have to look inward for that content, since on such a view that content would have to originate in conscious activity.

While Francois claims that the view that “the objects of consciousness only exist due to consciousness… denies the internal world/external reality dichotomy,” he ignores the fact that “believing that the objects of consciousness exist independently of consciousness but that their identity is dependent on consciousness” only severs identity from existence. But identity is concurrent with existence. Any attempt to argue otherwise collapses into stolen concepts.

Kelley makes the following point:
Consciousness is not metaphysically active. It no more creates its own contents than does the stomach. But it is active epistemologically in processing these contents. What we are aware of is determined by reality – there is nothing else to be aware of – but how we are aware of it is determined by our own means of awareness. How could there be any conflict between these facts? (The Evidence of the Senses, p. 41)
What motivates all this is apparently an aversion to what Francois calls “the absolutism and over-reliance on rationality which is typical of Western philosophy.” In fact, however, most traditions within Western philosophy have arisen through efforts to salvage and preserve one form of mysticism or another. And how does one defend an aversion to “absolutism” without holding at least some truths as absolute? Is it preferable to erect one’s house atop quicksand? Why? And when does reliance on rationality become “over-reliance on rationality”? What exactly is so wrong with “over-reliance on rationality”? Indeed, it’d be refreshing if more people in the West (and elsewhere) embraced rationality. Instead, however, what we see are our institutions of “higher learning” dispensing with rationality and churning out droves of snowflakes.

I’m glad these aren’t my problems!

by Dawson Bethrick


Francois Tremblay said...

I was pleasantly surprised that you decided to write an analysis of my entry. Thank you! I quite enjoyed it. It is written in your inimitable style, as always.

Cheers, my friend.

I don't want tom get into an argument on your comments (I hate when people do that on my own blog), but if you wish, I can post further about the falsity of correspondence theory, which I think is fundamental to the whole argument and where I think you most missed the point.

Ydemoc said...

Thanks again, Dawson, for another great entry! I'm looking forward to reading what Francois posts in reply.


Francois Tremblay said...

I dunno, he hasn't said if he thought it was a good idea or not. I don't want to bother if he thinks the issue is done with. Either way, I have no enmity with him and read his blog regularly, so I'm not out to stump him.

Jason mc said...

Ha! Great essay. And to think this was catalysed by a reply to me.

Hello Francois! I've read your writings on atheological topics a long time ago, years back, and I watched one or two of your political YouTube videos.

My own view of the Primacy of Existence concept is... not quite settled. It seems like an extremely useful tool to sweep away a broad range of misbegotten notions. But I am not convinced that it can be established beyond all doubt, to be held as an axiom, rather than a mere inductive generalisation (which may have exceptions).

Here's an 'in the wild' spotting of a similar concept.

I've been recently a bit obsessed with psychology, and I've found one author, Dr George Simon, very insightful. He's a psychotherapist, and also (interestingly enough!) a Christian. Here's an article from him:

He calls the belief that 'thinking makes it so.' a mark of a disturbed character. That's clearly a Primacy of Consciousness sort of mindset.

For my view of perception and truth, I'm much more in agreement with a kind of realism, something pretty close to how Dawson describes Objectivism's positions.

But there seems to be an alternative position, unmentioned alongside these two:

1. "perception provides us awareness of objects that exist independently of perception"
2. "we perceive in a vacuum (i.e., perceive nothing) and that act of perceiving nothing involves constructing objects which can be perceived"

Option 3: we perceive reality, which isn't made up of separate objects. It's really a one whole, but in our perceptions, we grasp only fragments and thus see illusory distinctions and multiplicities. On this view, most ordinary concepts are distortions of reality. (Including the ones that comprise these propositions...)

Something like that seems to be a fixture of Indian philosophy.


Francois Tremblay said...

"Option 3: we perceive reality, which isn't made up of separate objects. It's really a one whole, but in our perceptions, we grasp only fragments and thus see illusory distinctions and multiplicities. On this view, most ordinary concepts are distortions of reality. (Including the ones that comprise these propositions...)"

I don't think I agree with that statement. It seems to make statements about reality that we simply can't make. We can't really talk about reality apart from, and outside of, our perceptions. As such, I am not concerned at all about what "reality really is," whatever that means.

Anonymous said...

Hey, Francois, really enjoy your website and books that you've written on materialism and atheism. They've both been very helpful for me.

Jason mc said...

I'm concerned with what's really real, in the realest sense.

I accept that there exists an immense part of reality which sits outside of our conscious grasp. We're capable of incrementally bringing in pieces of that unknown reality into our knowledge, i.e. learning, discovering.

Everything we know has become known by means of interaction with our conscious faculties, perception included. Then some say this implies some fundamental limitation on our ability to know reality 'as it really is'. Why is reality 'as perceived' judged to be an inferior, counterfeit reality? Why does the real thing need to be untouched by perception? As if consciousness contaminates the world...

Consciousness is part of the world. For in reality we live and move and have our being!

Suppose consciousness actively transforms reality, constructing properties for previously identityless objects. And this construction process is not constrained by anything in the undiscovered reality; it all depends on the conscious knower.

I would want to know, is this a permanent process, or could it be reversed? If scientific knowledge is lost, would the atomic structures of things return to an indeterminate state? If scientific opinion shifts, does reality shift accordingly? Is there an effective way to bend reality to your will, just by convincing other people to think a certain way?

Francois Tremblay said...

Thanks Oreoman 1987! Glad to hear it!

"Then some say this implies some fundamental limitation on our ability to know reality 'as it really is'"

I think talk about "reality as it really is" is mostly just flummery. There is no reality apart from the ability to perceive it, that is to say, causal linkage.

95BSharpshooter said...

I guess some are already imbibing on the recently legalized maryjuwanna.

Jason mc said...

There's the rub. The reality we can discuss, know, and interact with, is indeed causally linked up with our consciousness. Yet I hold that it nevertheless is reality, and we really know it as it really is. For reals.

And the root of the contention is whether consciousness constructs aspects of reality. This may be affirmed, as part of a theory of perception. The theory I hold doesn't.

So, reality outside of our perception, the as yet undiscovered stuff, is real too. We can meaningfully speak about it with a limited degree of certainty; this is the stuff of speculation and hypothesis. Speculations and hypotheses are constructions of consciousness. They attempt to accurately describe some phenomena, given insufficient data for forming certain affirmations. Ultimately, facts of reality can oblige a thinker to accept or reject speculative notions as genuine knowledge.

There's my description of common sense realism as I understand it. I got to it without any drug assistance. All natural gains here!

The Trainer said...


Your writing has revolutionized my thinking over the years and led me into a systemic consideration of objectivism. After years of wending my way through various religious traditions (JWs, Protestantism, Catholicism), the loss of faith and mystical worldview and endless dedication to reading philosophy, objectivism has given me my brain and confidence back.

These days I enjoy engaging professional Catholic philosophers. It sharpens me and is a good exercise in testing my rational acumen. In a recent exchange I was told that Catholicism holds to the primacy of existence since God is existence. Syntactically, the claim makes no sense. It wasn't long before "the ground of being" was trotted out as an explanation also.

Would you have any dialogues that speak to this claim?

Thanks for all your hard work. You're a true value in my life.