Saturday, April 28, 2018

Existence and Perception

Fundamental principles are the most critical part of philosophy to get right since all inferences, deductions and applications of its principles depend on their truth, their defensibility, and their suitability as fundamentals. Unfortunately it is philosophy’s fundamentals that are often the most misunderstood or even the least developed, either because they have not been securely identified, their truth is taken for granted and therefore deemed unworthy of deeper attention, or they have been disfigured through filters foreign to that philosophy.

I suspect that one reason why Objectivism’s fundamentals are so frequently and persistently misconstrued, is the very fact that Objectivism actually has clearly stated fundamentals, affirmed in terms of conceptually irreducible primaries, while other philosophies typically have at best vague handling of fundamentals and essentially zero regard for conceptual irreducibility. For example, consider the question: What is the fundamental starting point of post-modernism? Or Dialectical Materialism? Or Existentialism? Or Hinduism? Or Christianity? Or Scientology? Etc. Are they truly fundamental, or do they take certain unstated premises for granted? Do their stated foundations consist in identifying general facts that are directly available to any thinker, or do they rest in authoritarian pronouncements, secret canons, or elements of stories passed down by prior generations? 

From what I’ve seen, Objectivism is quite unique in its emphasis on and treatment of fundamentals; it is a philosophy developed in deliberate adherence to its foundational premises in the interest of informing a logically integrated whole. Given Objectivism’s attention to fundamentals and other philosophies’ apparent inattention to or at any rate poor treatment of fundamentals, thinkers who have for whatever reason not explored Objectivism very closely will be prone to missing the importance of conceptually irreducible fundamentals.

With these points in mind, I want to explore in this post an interesting question which was posed in the comments of my previous post as it provides an opportunity to make clarifications which may benefit those who are not very familiar with Objectivism. The question is as follows:
It appears that a fundamental tenet of Objectivism is that "Existence exists", and it seems that this "existence" means existence outside of consciousness. Thus there are things (in some sense) that are outside of consciousness that then enter into relationship with consciousness. It further appears that the basis of this tenet is "perceptual self-evidence". Assuming this understanding is sufficiently correct, here is my question:  
How does one go from perceptual consciousness to knowing that what is perceived is outside consciousness? For example, in a dream I perceive objects that appear to be things outside consciousness, but after I awake I don't usually say these objects (within consciousness) were actually things (outside consciousness). I can apply reasoning in my waking state to justify why the objects of dreams are not things while the objects of my waking state are things, but the tenet appears to be asserted based on "perceptual self-evidence" rather than on reasoning.
Before diving into the commenter’s question, I first want to make a few clarifying points about the axiom of existence, its function in Objectivism, and its scope of meaning. It should be very clear that the axioms, including the axiom of existence, are indeed fundamental tenets of Objectivism. There is no question about this.

What the axioms mean should also be clear, but as I indicate above, it is common for thinkers first encountering Objectivism to interpret what Objectivism teaches through non-Objectivist filters. This is understandable as naturally tries to understand something by integrating new information into the sum of what is already familiar. There are hazards, however, when attempting to do this with rudimentary concepts that have not been grasped in terms of their structural significance, concepts that thinkers tend to take entirely for granted given that their truth is obvious and indisputable and consequently treated as insignificant or at any rate mundane and less than profound. Simply pointing out that there is a reality seems on the face of it to be so unnecessary as to go without saying, when in fact this fundamental recognition is central to an understanding of reality and lies at the base of all knowledge.

Now a minor, but important correction is due at this point: the axiom ‘existence exists’ does not make a statement only about things that exist outside of consciousness. Since the concept ‘existence’ includes everything that exists, the axiom ‘existence exists’ explicitly affirms that everything which actually does exist, exists. Thus, the axiom of existence explicitly affirms the existence of every particular existent, no matter what it might be, whether or not anyone knows that it exists (for a person’s knowing that something exists is not a condition upon which the fact that it exists depends). That includes consciousness as well as everything else that exists, because consciousness does in fact exist.

In regard to the question how we know that what we are perceiving is something that exists outside our minds, the short answer to this question is likely more straightforward that one might anticipate: we know that what we perceive exists outside our consciousness by grasping what it means to perceive something. Perception is an autonomic response initiated by external stimuli acting on the senses. By its very nature then, if one is perceiving something, he is perceiving something that exists outside of his consciousness. When I perceive a tree, for example, the light reflected from its branches and leaves bombard my retina, and my optic nerves register the stimuli and produce an experience we call vision, an experience that gives me awareness of the tree as a distinct entity. This cannot happen without the tree existing and without a light source illuminating it. A brain cannot supply these things, nor can a mind conjure and place them in reality outside ourselves.

So what does it mean to grasp this about perception? This can be a very involved question depending on what factors need to be considered. For example, in the case of the commenter’s question, it is necessary to distinguish the various types of conscious activity denoted in that question. The question contrasted perceiving against dreaming. So what distinguishes perception from dreaming? Perhaps the question can evolve into asking how one knows he’s perceiving and not dreaming?

There are (albeit waking) ways to test whether one is dreaming or perceiving, of course, such as enlisting other sense modalities to confirm whether the experience in question involves a concrete object or the fleeting ether of a dream. Of course, many thinkers, in particular those who have sought to undermine man’s confidence in his conceptual faculties, have pursued this line of questioning even further, insisting that their students construct satisfying answers to questions such as “How do you know you’re not dreaming now?” Typically those who are demanding that thinkers “prove” to them that they’re not merely dreaming, are unlikely to allow any line of reasoning persuade them.

Such pre-occupations are part of a go-nowhere game that inevitably results from a fallacy identified by Ayn Rand as the prior certainty of consciousness. This is
the belief that the existence of an external world is not self-evident, but must be proved by deduction from the contents of one’s consciousness—which means: the concept of consciousness as some faculty other than the faculty of perception—which means: the indiscriminate contents of one’s consciousness as the irreducible primary and absolute, to which reality has to conform. What followed was the grotesquely tragic spectacle of philosophers struggling to prove the existence of an external world by staring, with the Witch Doctor’s blind, inward stare, at the random twists of their conceptions—then of perceptions—then of sensations. (For the New Intellectual, p. 28.)
Mind you, I don’t gather that this is the direction that the commenter was intending to take his line of questioning, but I think it’s important to head wrong turns like this off at the pass, as they are all too common in modern (and especially post-modern) philosophy.

There is a relevant parallel between dreaming and imagination to point out here. The questioner acknowledges that upon waking from a dream, that one would not say that the things experienced in the dream actually exist outside one’s mind. Similarly with imagination – what we imagine, even if it closely resembles things we find in the world around us (e.g., I can imagine Mt. Fuji), does not actually exist outside one’s mind as well (the Mt. Fuji that I imagine is distinct from the real Mt. Fuji; the Mt. Fuji that I imagine is not real, no matter how faithfully I try to conform my imagining to what I might know about the real Mt. Fuji).

But unlike what I imagine, my dreaming life tends to play a wild game of “catch me if you can” with my memory. I can be enjoying a wonderful dream, full of impressions, its own emotional fragrances and even its own set of simulated physics – curiously inconsistent as they may be, only to have it all completely lost forever when I’m startled back to reality by the unforgiving alarm clock. Then again, dreaming shares something in common with perception, namely the lack of the role of volition: I cannot choose what I perceive when I look out at the world just as I cannot choose what to dream about.

In regard to its interaction with memory, perception does not behave the same way as dreams do for me. Rather, much of what I perceive, whether I like it or not (think of those TMI moments with some of your more candid co-workers, for example), seems to lock itself in my memory and make itself available for later recall, often in crystal-clear fashion. In fact, there are many dreams I’ve had that I’d rather be able to recall as lucidly than some things I’ve actually observed and handled.

To move forward in understanding how we grasp what it means to perceive, ask yourself this: where did you get the concept ‘consciousness’? Even more granularly, where did you get the distinction between “outside of consciousness” and “inside consciousness”? Is this distinction available at the first instance of perceiving something? I would say no because only after a subject has perceived something is consciousness even available for that subject to identify as something real, and even then, only after a very sophisticated chain of conceptualization (something we started in our early years as children). Anyone reading this has traveled far and wide from that point in his own development, so it’s very easy to take awareness of one’s own consciousness for granted. But that can lead us into a trap, namely that of missing the hierarchical nature of concepts of consciousness and their dependence on more primitive factors, such as sensing, perceiving, distinguishing between various types of conscious activity, and the formation of the most basic concepts, beginning with the axioms, and the whole causality behind making such distinctions.

Once one matures to the point that he recognizes at some level that there are distinctions between different types of conscious activity, he has the inputs he needs to identify those different types of conscious activity. Just as he recognizes that there are differences between sitting and walking and between running and sleeping, he recognizes that perceiving something is distinct from thinking about something, that dreaming is distinct from listening to someone speak, that imagining is distinct from recalling something from memory. Granted, much of this requires great care as it is very possible for the blurring of distinctions between different types of conscious activity to give an impression of overlap or a pervasive sense of fog.

When determining what kind of conscious activity one is experiencing, it is important to identify the causal nature of that experience. Is the cause of the conscious experience one’s own eyes? Then perception must be involved at some rudimentary level. Is the cause of the conscious activity the volitional re-arranging of things one has stored in his memory? Then he’s likely imagining. Is it not even possible to direct one’s own consciousness to seek for causes of his experience? Well, he might be a spectator to his own dreaming.

But if you’re perceiving, there should be no question that when you’re perceiving, you’re perceiving something that exists in the world, something “out there” as opposed to something inside our consciousness, like a memory, a thought, a fantasy, a dream, etc. I suspect that questions like this arise precisely because the axioms have not been deliberately grasped, and there’s a long line of philosophers who have failed in precisely this whose efforts to grope their own way out of their self-imposed darkness has helped to muddy up the waters (perhaps to make them appear deep, as the saying goes).

According to Objectivist epistemology, we perceive (long!) before we develop our conceptual faculty, which means: perceptual awareness is fundamental to identification, inference, argument, conclusions and other types of conceptual activity. The axioms formally identify in the most general terms those rudimentary facts that are present in every act of consciousness, for every act of consciousness involves: (a) an object of awareness (consciousness of what?), (b) a conscious subject, and (c) the distinctions between oneself as a subject and the objects of his awareness as well as those between any objects he perceives. Hence we have the axiomatic concepts of existence, consciousness, and identity.

Given the epistemological priority of perception, the mind has no content before perceiving. And without any content in the mind, there’s nothing to integrate into open-ended classes, i.e., concepts. Thus there’s no such thing as “innate knowledge” if by “knowledge” we really mean the conceptual level of consciousness. Perceiving therefore comes before higher-level activities of consciousness, such as generalizing, inferring, deducing, etc. We need to gather content abut reality into our minds somehow, before we can process it into knowledge of reality, and the primary means of doing so is by perceiving.

In a dream, you aren’t actually perceiving the objects that inform your dream experience – you’re dreaming them. I had a dream just last night that involved WWII fighter planes. I dreamt about them, and even dreamed that I was flying one over Los Angeles harbor. While in the dream it feels like a real (or at least surreal) experience, I was not actually perceiving either the fighter planes or Los Angeles harbor. So it’s important to keep this distinction in mind: perception, dreaming, remembering, imagining, etc., are in fact different types of activity of our consciousness, some more understood than others, but very real experiences all the same.

Something else to keep in mind, which if not recognized can lead to blurring some of the distinctions between these operations of consciousness, is the role of volition, or lack thereof, as alluded to above. In both sensation and perception, volition plays an extremely limited role, and then only in directing our senses, and only to a very limited degree. I can choose to look at my desktop, or away out the window; but when I do look at my desktop, I cannot choose to see something that’s not there in place of what is actually there. I can choose to look in my wallet, but I cannot choose to find a million dollars in it when in fact there are only four dollar bills in it. I can choose to look away at the gash on my knee, but I cannot choose not to feel the pain it is causing.

Similarly with dreaming, at least in my experience, I cannot choose to dream about WWII fighter planes or about tall blonde bombshells in skimpy bikinis, regardless of how desirable or undesirable they can be! As with perception, my dream experience puts me in the role of both a participant but also passive spectator – I’m there and involved, but I’m only observing the events I’m involved in as they unfold around me, without any ability to control what I’m witnessing. So there is at some level an analogy between perceiving and dreaming, but also some critical distinctions. Similar distinctions and parallels come into play when exploring memory and imagination.

So how does one go from perceiving things to knowing that those things that are perceived are “outside consciousness”? Objectivism distinguishes between what Rand called implicit knowledge and explicit knowledge. It could be argued that this knowledge is implicit and simply needs to be made explicit. A rudimentary example of implicit knowledge would be what psychologists have called “object permanence.” This is the stage in the development of a child’s conscious experience at which the child understands, or takes for granted if you will, that an object continues to exist even when the object is no longer being immediately perceived. When a child pushes a ball away from himself and the ball rolls under a sofa, for example, the child can no longer see the ball, but he implicitly recognizes that the ball still exists and that it can be found by looking under the sofa. My cat does the same thing with his mouse-shaped stuffy.

By contrast, explicit knowledge is identification of things or phenomena we observe in a focused and deliberate manner. It is the fruit of an act of full awareness applied to some specific area of examination, and involves conceptualization. My cat implicitly recognizes that his toy still exists (at least for a short period) after he swats it under the sofa, but he hasn’t formed the concept ‘existence’. In Objectivism, the axioms (existence, consciousness and identity) are explicitly formed concepts which, roughly speaking, ground our knowledge by keeping all conceptualization in contact with reality.

Perception is by its very nature awareness of objects outside our consciousness. We don’t perceive our own consciousness, nor do we perceive the contents of our consciousness when we introspect. I can look down and perceive my hand because light reflects off it and strikes my retina; I can reach over and touch it with my other hand as well. But when it comes to awareness of our own conscious activity, consciousness turned inward on itself, that is not perception. My consciousness does not look blue or feel solid or taste like blueberries. Distinguishing the various kinds of conscious activity we perform requires introspection, which is itself a special kind of conscious activity. It is a skill which needs to be developed through deliberate practice, just as a violinist needs to develop his skills on his instrument through deliberate practice.

by Dawson Bethrick


Unknown said...
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Unknown said...

Hi Dawson. Nice blog.

Cross posted to

Ydemoc said...

Hey Dawson,

Thanks for producing yet another insightful entry.