Perception: A Mistake at the Heart of Objectivist Epistemology
Is Objectivism a closed or open system? The entire controversy over this question, which generates a lot of heat, but not so much light, seems a bit silly to me. I personally regard Objectivism to be the specific contribution to philosophy made by Ayn Rand, nothing more, and nothing less.
The argument that philosophy is not a closed field is certainly correct but with regard to Objectivism, is irrelevant. Objectivism is not philosophy, it is a philosophy, it is not even a complete philosophy, it is only a contribution to the field. It is a major contribution and probably the single most important contribution since Aristotle, but it is a specific contribution made by a single individual who gave her contribution a name, Objectivism.
Is Objectivism open to analysis and criticism? Of course it is, as any contribution to philosophy is; because philosophy is open-ended; specific contributions to it are not, else they could not be identified. If just anything related to Ayn Rand's contribution to philosophy, with this taken out, and this added in, and this other aspect changed, are all called Objectivism, the word Objectivism ceases to identify anything.
But this is strictly a personal view and not worth debating, because the debate is not going to change anything. What people call things is not something any debate will alter. People call things what they like; accuracy is seldom the determining factor of what they will like. Just as they call all copiers, "Xerox," and all tissues, "Kleenex," the ignorant will call anything remotely philosophical and related to Ayn Rand, "Objectivism."
There is another reason the debate does not interest me. I believe it is time for Objectivism to be made obsolete. Ayn Rand's Objectivism was developed over a number of years (The Fountainhead, 1943, Atlas Shrugged, 1957, The Virtue of Selfishness, 1961); but the essentials of Objectivism are over 50 years old.
In all that time, despite the arguments and debates, there has not been a major contribution to philosophy. What have the philosophers been doing all that time? Well, mostly they have been arguing about who the true guardians of Objectivism are, and over non-essentials, like libertarianism, feminism, and homosexuality.
There has been some very interesting and important research done, mostly of historical interest, but no new philosophical principles have been developed. If you talk to serious Objectivists, one comes to the astonishing conclusion, most Objectivists do not really believe there is any more ground, at least any significant ground, in the field of philosophy that needs to be covered.
This is hardly an Objective conclusion. Ayn Rand herself did not believe her philosophy answered all the questions, and even identified areas that needed more work. One such area was aesthetics, for example, and one particular aspect for which she admitted there is no good philosophical theory, is music.
To date, Objectivism is the most complete and correct philosophy in history. Any new philosophy must begin where Objectivism ends. Even if the material is completely new, Objectivism must be acknowledged and how the new material is integrated with that philosophy must be addressed.
Objectivism does not answer all the questions, however, or even identify them all. All of Objectivist metaphysics, for example, consists of the axioms, the primacy of existence, and the entity verses event theory of cause; there is no Objectivist ontology at all. The discussion of the nature of life consists of a simple definition without any additional but sorely needed development. The nature of consciousness actually contains mistakes. Objectivist epistemology is the greatest advance in that field in history, yet it also contains mistakes and is not extensively developed. (Only the first 130 pages of Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology is actually Ayn Rand's epistemology.) The most fully developed aspect of the philosophy is the ethics, but it also is very briefly developed and leaves lots of unanswered questions. Objectivist politics is only partially correct, and Objectivist aesthetics addresses only an application of the field, art. The essential questions of aesthetics, "what is beauty?" is not addressed at all.
My point is not to repudiate Objectivism, or to minimize the importance or significance of the advancements in philosophy and the integration of philosophical principles Objectivism achieved. The amount of ground covered and the incredible insights achieved by Ayn Rand are phenomenal. If one is to know only one philosophy, there is no other choice.
In spite of Objectivism's contributions to the field of philosophy, however, it is not the end of philosophy, only the latest and greatest development in the field. As far as it has taken us, we still have further to go than we have thus far come. The problem is most Objectivists think we have arrived, when we should actually be starting on our way again.
It is this personal view that has prompted this article. Whenever I express it, I am challenged to present examples of what I mean. I have been badgered into promising to prove my point. Here is my proof.
Mistakes and Shortcomings
I have chosen as my proof the example I most frequently use, the Objectivist mistake about the nature of perception, which is partly the result of Objectivism's lack of a formal ontology. I have chosen it because it illustrates both of my contentions, that there are mistakes in Objectivism and Objectivism is incomplete.
The mistakes are significant and weaken some of Objectivism's more important contributions to philosophy. The incompleteness of Objectivism is a major cause of those mistakes.
In this case, both the mistakes and the incompleteness contributing to it are quite simple, almost obvious, but not quite, because Ayn Rand, Leonard Peikoff, and David Kelley all failed to see them. Their importance to other aspects of philosophy is not so simple. Both are very significant to epistemology, for example, but that aspect does not fit the scope of this article.
The closest thing to metaphysics in Objectivism is the chapter entitled "Reality" in Leonard Peikoff's Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand. The only metaphysics there, however, beyond a reiteration of the axiomatic concepts: existence, identity, and consciousness, are a re-emphasis of the primacy of existence, the suggested entity-ontology (as opposed to a matter-ontology), and the Objectivist view of cause embodied in the nature of entities or existents rather than events. I do not mean to minimize the importance or accuracy of the those principles, but do emphasize, by themselves, they do not constitute a thoroughgoing metaphysics and do not begin to answer the questions metaphysics must answer.
One of the most important of those questions is, what do we mean by an existent's identity. A is A is fine, but what exactly is A? A thing certainly is what it is, but what is a thing anyway? What do we man by a thing's identity? While the answer to this question is frequently alluded to throughout Objectivism, and at least once actually stated, it is never made explicit. It could only be made explicit as an aspect of ontology, because what we mean by a thing's identity is its ontological nature. Since there is no ontology in Objectivism (you will look in vain for a book entitle, Introduction to Objectivist Ontology), the answer to this question is not supplied by Objectivism.
As we shall see, this leaves a gaping hole in Objectivism's theory of consciousness and its description of the nature of perception. To see that, we must examine what the Objectivist view of perception is.
The Mistaken Objectivist View of Perception
While Objectivism is mistaken about the nature of perception, it does not get it all wrong. The fact perception is our only mode of consciousness and that all our knowledge is ultimately about that we are directly conscious of is correct. In light of the mistakes she made reaching those conclusions, the fact that she reached them is little short of amazing.
The essential mistake in the Objectivist view is this: "As far as can be ascertained, an infant's sensory experience is an undifferentiated chaos. Discriminated awareness begins on the level of percepts." [Ayn Rand, Introduction to Objectivism Epistemology, Page 5]
From the beginning Ayn Rand, and others reiterating her views, are not careful about their terminology. There is, therefore, some unnecessary confusion about their precise meaning. For example, Ayn Rand also says, "When we speak of 'direct perception' or 'direct awareness,' we mean the perceptual level. Percepts, not sensation, are the given, the self-evident. The knowledge of sensations as components of percepts is not direct, it is acquired by man much later; it is a scientific, conceptual discovery." [Ayn Rand, Introduction to Objectivism Epistemology, Page 5]
While she does not make it explicit here, (but does elsewhere), it is apparent we are not conscious of sensations, as sensations, at all. This must be the case if their very existence is not discovered until "much later" and is a "conceptual discovery." The only consciousness we have, then, is perceptual consciousness. On this, the Objectivists are absolutely correct. But it contradicts the statement, "an infant's sensory experience is an undifferentiated chaos." [Emphasis mine.] If perception is the only consciousness we have, there is no "sensory experience."
This is undoubtedly a simple and, in itself, an unimportant mistake, because she also says, "A percept is a group of sensations automatically retained and integrated by the brain of a living organism. It is in the form of percepts that man grasps the evidence of his senses and apprehends reality. [Ayn Rand, Introduction to Objectivism Epistemology, Page 5]
Apparently, what she means is the, "perceptual field," is a chaos, because the sensations are not yet, "retained and integrated," into percepts, because we are not conscious of the sensations themselves. If there is no consciousness of sensations at all and percepts have not yet been formed, the question of what is perceived is not addressed beyond the expression, "undifferentiated chaos." As we shall show, this is a mistake, a mistake shared by both Peikoff and Kelley as well.
Dr. Peikoff's description is more elaborate and explicit, but means the very same thing.
"The most primitive conscious organisms appear to possess only the capacity of sensation. The conscious life of such organisms is the experience of isolated, fleeting data—fleeting because the organisms are bombarded by a flux of stimuli. These creatures confront a kaleidoscopic succession of new worlds, each swept away by the next as the stimuli involved fade or change. Since such consciousness do not retain their mental contents, they can hardly detect relationships among them. To such mentalities, the universe is, in William James's apt description, a 'blooming, buzzing confusion.'"
This much of his description, though colorful, is probably not true of even the animals, but he goes on to apply it to humans as well.
"Human infants start their lives in this state and remain in it for perhaps a matter of months; but no one reading these words suffers such a state now. When you the reader look, say, at a table—not think of it, but merely turn your eyes toward it and look—you enjoy a different form of awareness from that of the infant. You do not encounter an isolated, ephemeral color patch or a play of fleeting sensation, but an enduring thing, an object, an entity. This is true even though the stimulus reaching your eyes is the very one that would reach an infant's." [Leonard Peikoff, Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand, Page 52]
The Mystic Process Bringing Order from Chaos
There are two related but specific assertions in this Objectivist view of perception. The first is that human consciousness begins as an "undifferentiated chaos," or, "blooming, buzzing confusion." The second is that some process produces order out of this initial confusion by some means. What means? In the famous words of Ayn Rand, the answer to that question is, "blank out!"
The word used to "describe" this organizing process is "integration." (Ayn Rand was particularly enamored of this word, which she usually used correctly. In her philosophy, however, it sometimes takes on an almost mystic quality, capable to achievements never explained. Meaning, "organizing in a way that is non-contradictory," the word is precise and correct; meaning, "making one thing out of another," it is ambiguous and misleading. Ayn Rand uses the word, sometimes with one meaning, sometimes with the other. It is with the wrong meaning she uses it in the case of perception.)
All Objectivists have followed Ayn Rand's lead in this explanation of perception. Here are more examples from Ayn Rand, Dr. Kelley, and Dr. Peikoff. I have emphasized the pertinent words.
"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
---Ayn Rand The Virtue of Selfishness, Page 19.
"Perception is thus the awareness of entities as such, and the
discrimination of objects requires a great deal of integration on
the part of our sensory apparatus."
---David Kelley, The Evidence of the Senses, Page 47.
"Perception is our normal mode of experience. It is the normal result
of using our senses, and the basis for our ordinary judgments about the
objects around us. ... Further, the perceptual awareness of entities is
direct. Entities are given as such. The perceptual integration
necessary to achieve this awareness is physiological."
---David Kelley, The Evidence of the Senses, Pages 49.
"The integration of sensations into percepts, as I have
indicated, is performed by the brain automatically."
---Leonard Peikoff, Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand, Page 54
There are two problems with the Objectivist view of perception. The first is it contradicts the evidence. The second is it introduces the same a priori problem that Kant and the sensationalists do.
We are indebted to Dr. Kelley for providing the following interesting
quote: "Developmental psychologists are finding that the process of
perceptual learning consists not in discovering which sensations to put
together into the perception of whole objects, but in discriminating finer
differences among the entities which the child can pick out as wholes
from the beginning." [Emphasis mine.]
---David Kelley, The Evidence of the Senses, Pages 51.
(Kelley makes reference here to: Eleanor J. Gibson and Elizabeth S. Selke, Handbook of Child Psychology, Pages 25-36.)
This seems obvious. Where the idea came from that a child's perceptual field is some kind of jumbled chaos is really curious, because from the moment a child opens its eyes it apparently sees, "things," and follows those that move with its eyes, turns toward sounds, and intentionally grasps objects it feels. How the child could do those things before he is consciousness of them, which he could not be if they were hidden in a disintegrated chaos, would be a mystery. As we shall see, there is no mystery at all, and a child's perceptual field is exactly like an adults.
There is more evidence. While the exact nature of an animals consciousness is only inferred from its behavior, we assume the nature of the higher animal's perceptual characteristics are similar to a human's, though inferior in some respects, and superior in others. It is quite obvious that whatever and however the animals perceive, they perceive as soon as their perceptual equipment is fully operational (the kittens eyes open, for example). The example of a kitten is a good one, because they are able to walk (without bumping into things), find their mother's milk, jump, climb, and chase things within days of their birth.
How is it that these less sophisticated creatures can clearly perceive all they need to perceive, just by opening their eyes, but a human child, it is assumed, must develop the ability to perceive by some torturous process such as this described by Peikoff:
"In order to move from the stage of sensation to that of perception, we first have to discriminate certain sensory qualities, separate them out of the initial chaos. Then our brain integrates these qualities into entities, thereby enabling us to grasp, in one frame of consciousness, a complex body of data that was given to us at the outset as a series of discrete units across a span of time." [Leonard Peikoff, Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand, Page 72)
"The reason you see an entity is that you have experienced many kinds of sensations from similar objects in the past, and your brain has retained and integrated them: it has put them together to form an indivisible whole. As a result, a complex past mental content of yours is implicit and operative in your present visual awareness. In the act of looking at a table now, your are aware of its solidity—of the fact that, unlike brown water, it will bar your path if you try to walk through it; of its texture—unlike sandpaper, it will feel smooth to your fingertips ...." [Leonard Peikoff, Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand, Pages 52-53]
The fact is, the animals do not go through all this elaborate processing to develop the faculty of perception. It is obvious, perception is possible without it; why would human perception require this very complex process when an animal's perception does not? Up to the perceptual level, and with the exception of some specifics, (most animals do not see color but their senses of vision, hearing and taste are frequently superior to the human version), perception is the quality of consciousness shared by the "animal" part of man with all other animals, as the "rational animal." It is the rationality part they do not share with the animals.
Dr. Kelley provides even more details of how this integrating/developing process of the perceptual faculty occurs, which I will address in detail. At this point, I want to examine the problem with the idea itself.
Suggesting the brain or neurological system somehow integrates sensations or sensory data into percepts of entities entails two mistakes:
1. The brain or neurological system would have to have some kind of "insight" into what sensory information or data is part of an entity and what is background and furthermore how that sensory information must to be "integrated" or organized to correctly represent the entities and background.
2. It separates consciousness of existents from the means of that consciousness, the data supplied by the neurological system. The "integrating" process would have to lie between the source of the sensory data and perceptual consciousness itself. Both of these are aspects of the Kantian mistake the Objectivist view of perception is suppose to correct. If something lies between consciousness and what we are conscious of and it must process the data derived from what is perceived into the percepts we are actually conscious of, there is no assurance that process is correct, or the resulting percepts are actually like what is being perceived.
There is certainly a process the physical aspect of an organism must perform in order for there to be perception, but that process is not cognitive or integrative. It is the process or gathering and presenting that which can be perceived to consciousness. What it gathers and what it presents is what can be perceived. While this is getting ahead a little, all that can be perceived are the qualities of an entity. Those qualities are all that can physically be made available to the sense organs and includes an entity's shape, color, configuration, and arrangement of parts as well as its behavior, texture, weight, temperature, and relationships to other entities, including the perceiver. Since an entity is its qualities, if these qualities are made available to consciousness, it is the entity itself that consciousness is conscious of. To perceive an entity's qualities is to perceive the entity. An entity is nothing else but whatever its qualities are.
There are mistakes from the very beginning of the Objectivist understanding of perception. For example, this very early Rand description is extremely ambiguous. "The lower of the conscious species possess only the faculty of sensation, .... A sensation is produced by the automatic reaction of a sense organ to a stimulus from the outside world; it lasts for the duration of the immediate moment, as long as the stimulus lasts and no longer ... The higher organisms posses a much more potent form of consciousness: they possess the faculty of retaining sensations, which is the faculty of perception. 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." ---Ayn Rand The Virtue of Selfishness, Page 18-19.
There are a number of difficulties with this description:
- Both sensation and perception are only attributed to "stimulus from
the outside world."
This may only have been an oversight, because it otherwise excludes from both sensations and perception the whole world of consciousness of ones internal states and the emotions. This is only a problem if by "outside world" is meant "outside" consciousness itself. There is nothing to suggest this is what is meant, however, and all subsequent Objectivist discussions never correct this view.
- It distinguishes between sensation and perception as different kinds
There is however, only one mode of consciousness, perception, as Ayn Rand explicitly states elsewhere.
- Since perception "gives it the ability to be aware, not of single
stimuli, but of entities, of things," it is implied sensation is
the ability to only be aware of single stimuli.
While the nature of very simple conscious animals can only be inferred, if they are conscious they can only be conscious perceptually, and unless they have only one sense organ or are only able to be aware of what one sense organ at a time is doing, they must be conscious of all the percepts their nature makes possible simultaneously. There is no such thing as consciousness of a single independent sensation or stimuli.
- It states that a sensation "lasts ... as long as the stimulus lasts
and no longer, implying that perception, since it "retains" sensation is
not so restricted.
There is only perception (so there cannot be a difference in the way we are conscious of sensations and perceptions), and percepts last only as long as that which is being perceived is being observed. Perceptions of sight, for example, last only as long as what is being perceived is looked at. The moment one looks away, that particular visual perception goes away and is replaced by what ever new thing is being looked at. There is no "retaining" of percepts except at the physiological level (like retinal fatigue images and the temperature differences caused by the change in temperature of the skin). The only other "retaining" of percepts is in the form of memory, never direct consciousness.
- It states that perception is a group of sensations retained and
integrated by the brain.
Percepts are direct perceptions of entities, and no special integration is required by the brain or any other organ. Why this is true and how it "works," is what I explain.
Before I can explain how perception works, however, I must provide the basis for that explanation which is missing in Objectivism. The missing fundamentals are the principles of ontology, because it is ontology that describes that essential nature of existence, which is what we perceive, that is, what we are directly conscious of.
What is needed is a thoroughgoing ontology, but for purposes of this article, I only discuss the foundation of ontology, the three corollaries of the axiom of identity.
Three Corollaries of the Axiom of Identity
Metaphysically, existence consists of existents. Ontologically, existence consists of physical existents, or entities. Other things that are sometimes called existents, qualities, events, or relationships, are all aspects of entities. Qualities are qualities of entities, events are the behavior of entities, and relationships are between entities; there are no other qualities, events, or relationships, ontologically. So far this is all correctly explicated within the corpus of Objectivism. If "existence exists," (A is A), and every thing that exists has an identity, that is, "a thing is what it is," the entities of which material existence consists must all have identities. It is the nature of those identities that ontology must describe. That is what is missing from Objectivism.
There are three corollaries to the axiom of identity which determine what the identity of any existent is. Those corollaries are: the necessity of qualities, the necessity of difference, and the necessity of relationships.
By qualities we mean any of an existent's attributes, characteristics, or properties, including relationships. Anything that exists must have some qualities. It is not possible for anything to be that has no qualities whatsoever. Anything that exists must have some nature. A things qualities are that things nature. The full description of the nature of any existent is all its qualities. A full description of the nature of an existent is its identity.
This is the first corollary of identity and may be stated: Anything that exists must have some qualities.
To Be Something Else - The Necessity of Difference
Anything that exists must be different in some way from everything else that exists. It is not possible for anything to be the same, in every respect, as something else.
Since it is an entity's qualities that determine what an entity is, if entities are different (which they must be) that difference must be some qualitative difference. No two entities can have exactly the same qualities or they would not be different things. Since, "anything that exists must have some qualities" (corollary 1.) and no two entities can have exactly the same qualities, every existent has some unique quality or combination of qualities.
This is the second corollary of identity and may be stated: Anything that exists must be different in some way from everything else that exists and have some quality or combination of qualities no other existent has.
(NOTE: I consider this corollary to be the most important concept, not only to ontology, but all of metaphysics, and one of most important in all of philosophy. To exist, a thing must be different from everything else that exists. There is one creative power, the power to make different. There more difference there is, the more existence there is. Conversely, the power to make the same, [to blur, meld, blend, obfuscate, cancel, or obliterate differences] is the power to destroy or decrease existence.)
To Exist - The Necessity of Relationship
Since everything that exists must be different from everything else that exists everything that exists also has some relationship to everything else that exists, which at least includes its differences from all other existents.
This may be stated another way. Anything that exists must share some quality or qualities with all other existents. Nothing can be totally unique or totally unrelated to anything.
If anything had qualities that no other existent had, it could have no relationship to any other existent. If a thing has any relationship to any other existent, whatever the relationship is, there is some common quality or characteristic which that relationship represents a variation of.
This is the third corollary of identity and may be stated: Anything that exists must have some relationship to everything else that exists.
The major importance of these corollaries is to ontology. The importance cannot be overemphasized, but does not belong within the scope of this article. In addition to their ontological importance, they are also necessary to our understanding of perception. Since it is entities that must be perceived, if we are to be conscious of them, we must understand the nature of entities and exactly what it is about entities we must be conscious of to perceive them.
Since to exist, an entity must have some qualities which both differentiate that entity from all others and define it relationship to all others, as well as the specific nature of the entity itself, to perceive an entity is to perceive it qualities.
Consciousness of Existents is Consciousness of Their Qualities
The Objectivist description of consciousness is essentially an attempt to counter the fallacious descriptions of consciousness, such as Kant's or the sensationalists, as Kelley describes.
"The major source of opposition to these theses is the doctrine of sensationalism, which maintains that only sensation of individual qualities can be given; that the perceptual awareness of entities is derived from sensations; and that it is derived by means of processes which are cognitive in the sense that they involve the logical synthesis of information given. Thus in its traditional form, sensationalism held that perception involves the interpretation of what is given in sensation—interpreting a field of qualities as a world of objects." [David Kelley, The Evidence of the Senses, Pages 49-50.]
The sensationalist view of consciousness assumes we can only be conscious of individual "sensations" (really percepts, such as specific colors and particular sounds) which we somehow learn to configure or integrate into objects and entities. This sounds suspiciously like the Objectivist description of perception, and Kelley goes to great lengths, we think unsuccessfully, to show how it is different.
The sensationalists are partly correct. All we can be conscious of is those percepts of color, sound, taste, etc. that both the sensationalists and Objectivists wrongly call "sensations." The mistake both the sensationalists and Objectivists make is the assumption that something must be done with these perceptual qualities in order for entities to be perceived.
It is beyond the scope of this article to discuss the actual nature of percepts, qualia, and their relationship the objects of perception, but we must mention in passing that color, sound, and taste, for example, are not "sensations," but "percepts," and are percepts of actual attributes of the entities being perceived.
Ontologically, entities are whatever their qualities are. Some of those qualities are the qualities that can be perceived, like color, temperature, and taste, and those qualities are the aspects of the entities that, to perception, make the entities what they are, and to perceive the entities it is only necessary to perceive those qualities in the exact arrangement or configuration that already exists in the entities.
The exact method by which the stimulation of the various sense organs and action of the neurological system and brain, at the physical level, produce the consciousness of the perceptual qualities is not fully known, nor is it significant philosophically. It is what it does, not how it does it, that is philosophically significant.
Perception and the Neurological System
It is not within the province of philosophy to discover and describe how the physical neurological system works. It is within the province of philosophy to describe what it must do. The neurological system, which we presume consists of the sense organs, internal and external, the entire nervous system and brain, is the means of providing to consciousness all those qualities and attributes of reality that can be perceived in their exact total context, including the state and nature of the perceiver.
What this system must do is make available to consciousness everything pertinent to the organism that is in any way physically related to it. The "system" presents to consciousness the light that is reaching the eyes, how and where anything is touching the organism, the sound that is reaching the ears, the chemicals in the air it is breathing, and those in whatever substances it puts into its mouth, as well as its internal physiological states; and it does this continuously. The level of sophistication of the perceptual system is determined by the sophistication of the organism. The so-called perceptual qualities or "qualia" are how the organism is aware of that which is being presented to it by the neurological system.
Obviously, that which is presented to consciousness for which the eyes are the source are the percepts of color, intensity, and the behavior of the eyes themselves perceived as stereoscopic phenomena; that which is presented to consciousness for which the ears are the source are the percepts of sound; that which is presented to consciousness for which the sensory nerves are the source are the percepts of touch, temperature, and pressure; that which is presented to the consciousness for which the olfactory nerves or taste buds are the source are the percepts of scent and taste.
These are not presented to consciousness willy-nilly, so-to-speak, but organized by source and in the exact way and order they are derived. The eyes focus the light reaching them into an image, and the light and color components of that image are detected by the rods and cones of the retina, and that detected information is transmitted to the brain where the response of the brain to the action of those nerves is consciously perceived as the percepts of color and light that we call "seeing."
It is not necessary for the system to do anything else, such as integrate the information into entities, for example. Since an entity is whatever its qualities are, if those qualities are perceived in the exact configuration they are in the entities, the entity itself is perceived. To understand that, we need to understand how the perceptual system functions.
The Function of the Perceptual System
What the perceptual system does is provide immediate awareness of the entire field of perceptual qualities available from all the sense organs at every moment as consciousness. The field of direct perceptual consciousness (as opposed to that derived from memory) is all the perceptual qualities available from all the sense organs in the exact arrangement they are detected.
Perception, in function, is analogous to television. The television camera captures everything in its field of view, exactly as it is, without discrimination or organization. If that field includes people, objects, animals, and background, for example, they will all be captured. But they are not captured as individual entities and background. What is actually captured is the color and intensity of the light being reflected from every point in the scene. An object, for example, is not captured as an object, but as a collection of colored points within the whole field of colored points currently being recorded by the camera.
When the image is displayed on a TV, there is no special, "organization," or "integration," of the electronic data to "separate" and "make visible" entities in the image. The TV merely presents all the captured points of light in the exact order in which they are captured. Those that make up objects, are objects in the image, those that make up people, are people in the image. Nothing special has to be done to make them appear as objects or people or to separate them from the background.
The captured points of light represent the qualities of the objects and entities in the television picture. In this case, it is only visual qualities. When the image is viewed, it is only necessary to present the visual qualities, that is, the characteristics (color, intensity) of the points of light that were captured. What those points of light are qualities of is irrelevant, so long as they are presented in the same configuration that exists in the objects being captured. Those points of light that represent the visual qualities of each object will be those objects in the TV picture, without any processing or integration, because those objects, visually, are whatever those qualities captured and displayed are.
Perception works in exactly the same way. If the field of perception includes objects, animals, and people, it includes them. It does not include them as objects, animals or people. It simply includes all the perceptual qualities just as they are. Since the objects, animals, and people are whatever their qualities are, and those qualities are what the sense organs sense, those qualities which are an object, when perceived, is perceiving the object, and those qualities which are an animal, when perceived, is perceiving the animal, and those qualities which are a person, when perceived, is perceiving a person. Since all of these, as well as the background are only whatever their qualities are, when those qualities are perceived, it is the existents themselves that are being perceived. There is nothing else to perceive.
There is no necessity for any processing of sensory data, or configuration of that data into entities, or differentiation of those entities from the background. It is only by analysis of what is perceived, after it is perceived, that one learns those objects are "differentiated from the background" by the qualities they have.
It is ontology that provides the principle that might have saved Objectivism from making mistakes in its understanding of the nature of perception. Once it is understood explicitly, that an entity's identity is its qualities (characteristics and attributes), it is obvious, to perceive an entity is to perceive it qualities.
Entities are whatever their qualities determine they are, and whatever an entity is, determines what its qualities are. To be perceived, it is an entity's qualities that must be perceived, and that is exactly what is perceived. When an entity's qualities are perceived, the entity itself is perceived, because an entity's qualities are what it is.
More importantly, the ontological insight validates perception. If extents are whatever their qualities are and it is their qualities that are what is perceived, it is actual existents as they actually exist that are being perceived. Perceptually, only the perceivable qualities of existents are available to consciousness, but ontologically, all of an existent's qualities are implied by its perceivable qualities. The validity of this last statement requires a thoroughgoing ontology, however.
Perceiving Things As They Are
The Objectivist description of the consciousness "integrating" sensory information into entities is therefore mistaken. The perceived qualities do not need to be integrated into entities, they already are integrated in the entities. What is perceived is that integration as a configuration of qualities. It is not necessary to mentally "create" entities from perceived qualities because the qualities of those entities are already organized as those entities. To perceive those qualities in that organization is to perceive the entities.
The supposition that whatever is "detected" by the sense organs and provided to conscious must in some way be organized and integrated before entities can be perceived presumes the sense organs and neurological system in some way disorganize, confuse, or rearrange the qualities of things detected, and must then reorganize them in the way they were already organized in the entities to begin with.
The conclusion is that all the qualities of existents are already configured or integrated into the existents they are. To perceive an entity it is only necessary to perceive those qualities in the very configuration in which they are already organized as qualities of the entity. The qualities do not need to be configured or integrated all over again by the brain or any other organ in order to perceive those existents exactly as they exist.
Configuration and Integration
A perceived object is perceived as a configuration of its perceptual qualities. I do not use the word integration for the percepts of entities, because perception is not capable of the kind of analysis required to be aware of integration. Knowledge of integration is only at the conceptual level.
Perception is only capable of perceiving perceptual qualities which are organized within the perceptual field as a configuration of those qualities, even the qualities from different sense organs. (I am not talking about that "mechanical/electrical/chemical" process that provides the perceptual qualities as the result of the stimulation of the sense organs, like the integration of wave forms into complex tones, or individual notes by the organs of the ear.)
The attributes of entities, in the entities themselves, physically, are integrated. The nature of those attributes and relationships between them is complex, and can only be discovered by the objective study of their nature, for example, by the physical sciences. The perceptual qualities are the means by which we perceive those attributes, the means by which we are immediately aware of them, not the means of comprehending and understanding them conceptually.
Criticisms of the Objectivist Misconception of Perception
I previously described the problem of the Objectivist view of perception that attributes to the brain or neurological system some kind of mystic a priori knowledge. If the brain were actually responsible for "integrating" sensory data, or sensations, or even simple percepts, (the terms are frequently interchanged by Objectivists), the brain would require prior "insight" or "knowledge" of which sensory data to integrate into which entities and which sensory data to integrate into background.
When asked how the brain or neurological system came by this knowledge or insight, the usual answer is evolution, meaning, the brain must have evolved in such a way to process this data correctly or the organism would not survive. In fact, it would only need to process the data in such a way that enabled an organism to behave correctly. If perception were actually a distorted representation of reality, our observed behavior of organisms would be distorted in the same way. There is no assurance a process lying between the source of sensory data and perception works correctly, even if the resulting behavior does work correctly. Leonard Peikoff, at least seems to be aware of this difficulty and attempts to get around the problem by suggesting this ability of the brain to integrate sensory data into entities is learned by each individual. But his explanation is problematic.
We previously quoted this: "The reason you see an entity is that you have experienced many kinds of sensations from similar objects in the past, and your brain has retained and integrated them: it has put them together to form an indivisible whole. As a result, a complex past mental content of yours is implicit and operative in your present visual awareness. In the act of looking at a table now, your are aware of its solidity—of the fact that, unlike brown water, it will bar your path if you try to walk through it; of its texture—unlike sandpaper, it will feel smooth to your fingertips ...." [Leonard Peikoff, Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand, Pages 52-53]
This is very confusing. In the first place, the awareness of a table's solidity, its surface texture, or other characteristics of a table that cannot be directly seen, if there is such awareness at all when only seeing a table and not touching it, is purely conceptual. If this awareness is being attributed to the brain, "retaining and integrating them," it makes the development of concepts "automatic" and "physiological," both of which Objectivists flatly and rightly deny. Concept formation is purely volitional, not an automatic function of the brain or anything else.
Then what is the point of mentioning them in relation to past experience of "sensations from similar objects in the past," which the, "brain has retained and integrated?" Since this is a description of how the ability to integrate sensations into percepts of objects is developed, how does the brain "know" to "retain and integrate" sensation from similar objects before it can recognize objects at all?
The whole thing is impossible, of course, and the result of attempting to assert the validity of perception based on the false premise that sensory data requires some kind of special integration.
The mistake itself undercuts the very thing Objectivists invented it to support, the validity of perception. It also leads to other misconceptions about the nature of perception, such as these which Kelley describes. I do not mean to be overly critical of Dr. Kelley, but by providing the most explicit and detailed exposition of the Objectivist theory he is the most vulnerable to analysis. These are his examples:
"To perceive an object is to discriminate it from other objects, to isolate it from its background, to be aware of it as a unit, a distinct whole. Thus the proper object of perception is the entity...." [David Kelley, The Evidence of the Senses, Page 45.]
To perceive anything is to be directly conscious of it, that is, of its qualities, which are that thing. Ontologically, it is an entities qualities that differentiate it from all other things, including its background. At the level of perceptual consciousness, it is an entities perceived qualities that differentiate it from all other perceived things. Perception does not do the differentiating, it is only conscious of what is, that is, an entities perceptual qualities, it is those qualities that do the "differentiating." The fact that an object is distinct and separate from its background is identified conceptually. It is the identification of what is being perceived and its nature.
"One could not isolate an entity without perceiving (some of) its qualitative differences from the background. Conversely, one could not detect differences among things in respect of their attributes without isolating the things to be compared. These are two sides of the same discriminative capacity." [David Kelley, The Evidence of the Senses, Page 46.]
"Background" is only everything else that exists (in the case of perception, within the perceptual field)—entities already are differentiated from all other entities (background) by their qualities. Perceiving that does not require any mental process to "isolate" entities, they are already isolated by their qualities, which are directly perceived.
At the conceptual level, it is certainly possible to identify the qualities which an entity, as perceived, is comprised of, and having identified them to discover how they are responsible for the differentiation of the entity from other entities. No special function at the perceptual level is required, or possible, however.
"The visual discrimination of an object involves the awareness of its shape, but that in turn requires that its contours be integrated into a single, unitary structure. Perceiving shape by touch requires integrating the input from the different fingers in contact with different areas of the surface. [David Kelley, The Evidence of the Senses, Page 47.]
"Visual discrimination," does not require "that its contours be integrated into a single, unitary structure" because they already are the qualities that are a "unitary structure" are already so integrated in the object itself, and perceiving those qualities is perceiving that "unitary structure". In the same way, "perceiving shape by touch," does not require, "integrating the input from the different fingers," because what is felt by the fingers, if it is shape, is what perceiving shape is. The nerve endings responsible for the sensation of touch only need to respond to the way the surface of whatever is being touched reacts with the skin of the fingers, and the way the muscles that control the fingers are being used, that sensory information when perceived, is perceiving shape.
That reaction is all that needs to be presented to consciousness to be the perception of touch. That "set of touch percepts" which are the result of touching a curved surface are the perception of a curved surface. It is only after having had such a perceptual experience and learning what a curved surface is, and also seeing a curved surface that particular perceptual experience is identified (conceptually) as, "feeling a curved surface."
Furthermore, we are not born knowing (a priori, as it were) that this particular feeling of a thing, and that particular appearance of a thing are the same thing. We must first see a curved shape, and then feel the same shape to discover the shape appearing that way feels this way. But before that we must learn what we see is what we feel with our hands when we see our hands touch what we see, and before that we must learn that those things we see are our hands. All of that is at the conceptual level, and is about what is already perfectly well perceived.
One More Mistake
There is one more mistake with the Objectivist view of consciousness we must clear up. Leonard Peikoff, I noted, makes this assertion about the development of perceptual consciousness:
"The most primitive conscious organisms appear to possess only the capacity of sensation. ... Human infants start their lives in this state and remain in it for perhaps a matter of months; ...." [Leonard Peikoff, Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand, Page 52.]
The nature of perception and the ability to perceive entities, qualities, relationships, and events is identical for all human beings of all ages with a fully developed neurological system, barring physiological or psychological anomalies. So long as that neurological system is capable of presenting to consciousness the perceptual qualities, all of the "things" perceived are already available since it is configurations of perceptual qualities that are entities, qualities, relationships, and events.
My earlier quote form Dr. Kelley indicated developmental psychologists are finding percepts do not consist of "sensations ... put together," and that children perceive objects as, "wholes from the beginning," and only subsequently discoverer, "finer differences among the entities." This, of course, is exactly what would be expected if perception of entities is nothing more than perception of their qualities faithfully represented to consciousness. Since no special integrating process is required to produce percepts of objects, and to perceive their qualities is to perceive the objects, it is much more likely that objects would be noticed and focused on first, and their details and differences noticed, analyzed, and recognized (or identified) later.
The opposite view is really impossible. It would required the reverse process, first of discovering detail, then of putting the detail in the right order to be things. This would require both a way of discovering which details went with which objects, as well as, knowing what order or configuration in which to organize those details. Unless such perceptual details were like a jigsaw puzzle (and could only go together in one way) the chance that perception would ever get it right is impossible.
This is not the end of enquiry into the nature of consciousness, but the beginning. It sweeps away at least two notions that have plagued all attempts to come to a philosophical understanding of the nature of consciousness. It opens the door to that enquiry unencumbered by concepts that cannot be integrated into a correct understanding of that nature.
When that understanding is complete, the question will not be, how can we be certain what we perceive is what actually is, the question will be, is there any reason at all to doubt the validity of consciousness? We shall know, human perceptual consciousness is so complete and perfect, it is the one thing in this world about which doubt is impossible.
Reginald Firehammer is a filosofer and author of the book: The Hijacking of a Philosophy: Homosexuals vs. Ayn Rand's Objectivism. He is the author and host of The Autonomist, an online intellectual journal, and a prominent contributor to the SoloHQ forum. In the future, he intends to produce a comprehensive treatise on ontology, consciousness, and ultimately filosofy itself. Mr. Firehammer can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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