Wednesday, September 01, 2010

Objectivism & "Metaphysics," Part 7

Rand’s axioms: one exists possessing consciousness. While no sensible person would deny that physiologically normal individuals "possess" consciousness, it is questionable whether such a fact deserves to be embalmed as an Objectivist axiom. Remember that these axioms are, according to Rand, "fundamentally given and directly perceived." Now it must be admitted that consciousness, however obvious its existence may seem to the intelligent observer, is neither given nor directly perceived. All that is "given" is the solipsism of the present moment, out of which no knowledge (including axiomatic knowledge) can ever arise. Knowledge, whether axiomatic or otherwise, requires (among other assumptions) trust in memory and belief that what is given (i.e., some datum or "essence") can serve as a description or symbol of real things or events taking place in a substantive world existing in space and time. Consciousness, far from being given or directly perceived, is only recognized through an act of inference. Since (as even Rand admits) consciousness cannot be conscious merely of itself, direct perception of consciousness is an incoherent notion.




David Hume's "attack" on personal identity is relevant to this issue. In his A Treatise of Human Nature, Hume wrote:

There are some philosophers, who imagine we are every moment intimately conscious of what we call our SELF; that we feel its existence and its continuance in existence; and are certain, beyond the evidence of a demonstration, both of its perfect identity and simplicity. The strongest sensation, the most violent passion, say they, instead of distracting us from this view, only fix it the more intensely, and make us consider their influence on self either by their pain or pleasure. To attempt a farther proof of this were to weaken its evidence; since no proof can be deriv'd from any fact, of which we are so intimately conscious; nor is there any thing, of which we can be certain, if we doubt of this.

Unluckily all these positive assertions are contrary to that very experience, which is pleaded for them, nor have we any idea of self, after the manner it is here explain'd. For from what impression [i.e., perception] cou'd this idea be deriv'd? ... [S]elf or person is not any one impression, but that to which our several impressions and ideas are suppos'd to have a reference. If any impression gives rise to the idea of self, that
impression must continue invariably the same, thro' the whole course of our lives; since self is suppos'd to exist after that manner. But there is no impression constant and invariable. Pain and pleasure, grief and joy, passions and sensations succeed each other, and never all exist at the same time. It cannot, therefore, be from any of these impressions, or from any other, that the idea of self is deriv'd; and consequently there is no such idea.


What Hume says of the self (or "personal identity") is easily transferable to consciousness: these are not realities that can be directly perceived or fundamentally given. They are, rather, inferred from the very process of perceiving. The inference by which intelligence identifies consciousness is so obvious and inescapable that it may seem as if it were given through direct perception. But it clearly isn't.

Another problem with the Objectivist axiom of consciousness is the vagueness of the term itself, especially within Objectivist writings. Rand tended to use it in several different senses, and it is not always clear, in each of her usages of the term, which sense she means. It would seem that, in this axiom, Rand is using consciousness in the sense of raw sentience. Consciousness, in this sense, is merely the light of awareness. Generally speaking, however, she seems to identify consciousness with intellect or mind. At other times, she identifies it with the self or the will, describing it as "the faculty of awareness" and as "an active process." She even goes so far as identify consciousness with knowledge: if "no knowledge of any kind is possible to man," she opined, then "man is not conscious."

As we shall note in later posts, Rand's tendency to play fast and loose with the term consciousness enables her to equivocate her way to precisely the sort of metaphysical conclusions she desires to reach. While the notion of consciousness may seem "inescapable" (at least via inference) to a foundationalist mindset, only consciousness as raw, passive sentience would be "inescapable" in this sense. After all, surely even Rand would not declare that intellect or knowledge are "axiomatic"! This being so, it is not clear how inferences against idealism or traditional monotheism can be justified using this axiom. But more of this anon.

13 comments:

Rey said...

"Since (as even Rand admits) consciousness cannot be conscious merely of itself, direct perception of consciousness is an incoherent notion."

Reminds of the Zen koan, "Who is the I that sees the I?"

Xtra Laj said...

"...direct perception of consciousness is an incoherent notion."

In fact, it is a real question whether direct perception of anything is a coherent notion. All experience, including direct perception, is shot through with interpretation. At best, all that can be said that is that it means something to be aware or that there is some process for it that might occur even without obvious conscious effort. But any description or interpretation of any part of that awareness is so suffused with intelligence that I am not clear on what about it is "direct".

Anonymous said...

I can perceive my own consciousness (thank you, M. DeCarte), but all I can perceive of other humans is that they (often) behave as if they have a consciousness similar to mine. So perhaps one might need an axiom to say that everyone else also has a consciousness.

It still seems kind of weak, though. As I read these "Metaphysics" threads, I keep finding myself wondering if Rand ever addressed any of the classic puzzles of consciousness - you know, the brain-in-a-bottle, or the malicious demon, or (yes) the solipsist notion that those other human-shaped things don't really have any internal consciousness.

gregnyquist said...

"In fact, it is a real question whether direct perception of anything is a coherent notion."

If by "coherent notion" we mean, "consistent with facts," this is true. From the viewpoint of experimental psychology, perception is a very complex phenomena in which the brain engages in a great of deal of "interpretation" and even goes as so far as, for example, fill in the visual blind spot which exists but of which we are not aware.

Rand, of course, simply means by direct that it is experienced as direct: it is "automatic." Even from this point of view, however, it is obviuos that consciousness is not "directly" perceived in either ourselves or in others, since there is no perception, direct or otherwise, of consciousness. Consciousness, not being a tangible object, cannot be perceived like a horse or a rock. We infer consciousness in ourselves (it is infered from the very act of perception, so to speak) and in others (which is a bit more complicated of an inference).


It could be said, and sometimes is said, that we experience the images of sense directly, but perceive objects in reality indirectly, through the veil of those images of sense. In this sense, "direct perception" would be merely the experience of sense data.

gregnyquist said...

"I can perceive my own consciousness"

Oh really? And what does your consciousness look like? Does it have a specific color or shape? A texture or a smell? Does it emit particular noises?

When you say you "perceive" your consciousness, I suspect you are using the word perceive in a metaphoric sense, as sometimes people say "I see your point" when they really mean "I understand your point."

"but all I can perceive of other humans is that they (often) behave as if they have a consciousness similar to mine. So perhaps one might need an axiom to say that everyone else also has a consciousness."

That's a good point and will be the subject of my next post.

Rey said...

"I can perceive my own consciousness."

And with what are you perceiving your consciousness?

Andrew Priest said...

"Oh really? And what does your consciousness look like? Does it have a specific color or shape? A texture or a smell? Does it emit particular noises?"

I don't mean to counter your point about consciousness exactly, but your statement made the hamster wheel go. Consider blind sight. Here we can have a person who is blind due to neurological damage, and yet is obviously receiving visual information. Since they can not consciously see, how could they answer your questions except in the negative? Yet if they don't perceive something, how can they know more about what's in front of them than chance would allow? They hardly could be inferring it.

There are other senses that seem rather vague. One would be our sense of the relative location of our limbs. It doesn't really feel like anything to know exactly the position my hand is in even when I'm not looking at it. I just know. I suppose a person could claim consciousness is like that.

As an aside, consciousness can be used to mean more than one thing. It could mean being sentient, having access to internal mental states and sensory data, etc. But it also can refer to qualia. I don't think it would be correct to say we perceive qualia. Rather, qualia is experience itself and thus we just have it. Likewise, it doesn't depend on memory or any other faculty and isn't subject to such skepticism. Any deception of qualia would necessarily be qualia.

Anonymous said...

Andrew Priest wrote:
Consider blind sight. Here we can have a
person who is blind due to neurological damage, and yet is obviously receiving visual information. Since they can not consciously see, how could they answer
your questions except in the negative? Yet if they don't perceive something, how can they know more about what's in front of them than chance would allow?

I'm not quite sure what this means, but since I'm blind, I figured I'd tackle it. Here's what I get out of it. If you're blind you can't see, but you have to perceive things because otherwise, how would you know about the universe? I'm not sure what point this is making because it seems trivially obvious, and the answer seems to be implicit in the part Andrew quotes.

In other words, does your consciousness have a particular smell, sound, texture? These are all perceptions that do not involve seeing, and indeed, they are the very perceptions I use to explore the universe. Well, that and the telepathy, but don't tell anybody, that's supposed to be a secret!

I don't think Western culture's obsession with sight as metaphor can really tell us much, philosophically speaking. Well, it probably can, but really only if you're willing to explore that metaphor and alternatives, but that's not really what we're talking about here. But in case it becomes relevant, feel free to pester me with questions.

Nonhypothetical Blind Guy

Daniel Barnes said...

Hi Nonhypothetical blind guy,

Thanks for letting me pester you. First of all, were you blind from birth, or through accident?

Anonymous said...

Definitely blind from birth. I was born three months early and you can take your pick of whacky explanations for my blindness, heh. I have what they call light perception, which means I see light, but no shapes, colors, Etc. I do know people who did see and then went blind though. I'm not sure if I can get them to participate here directly, but I can certainly ask them questions and report their answers for comparison.

P.S.

The usual suspects, so as not to leave people in the dark, are RLF, RP (Retinopathy of Prematurity), or simply the strain of being born. RLF involves scar tissue on the retina I think, thought to be caused by an excess of oxygen in an incubator. That was the one I was given until I was about 10 or so, when RP started coming up. Not that this is particularly philosophically relevant, but I didn't want to leave people hanging.

Nonhypothetical Blind Guy

Andrew Priest said...

I'll try and clarify what I mean by blind sight. Visual processing is split up among several parts of the brain. Information is processed in parallel and then combined to become the whole of our visual experience. Sometimes when a person suffers complete, or partial, blindness as a result of brain damage, it leaves some portion of the visual processing system intact. The result is that while the person has no experience of seeing and is not aware of receiving information, there is visual data being processed and made available. At least, that what the research suggests.

My point in bringing it up was to provide a counterexample against the suggestion that perception exists only in the consciously experienced senses. It seems to me at least that in the blind sight example, perception is taking place even if there is no conscious experience of it. The person perceives neither colour nor shape yet nonetheless has knowledge from the sense of sight. If that's not perception, what is it?

PS. There are examples of people who have normal sight and reason, yet lack certain abilities which render some aspect of visual perception lacking. One example is people who lack the ability to recognize faces. A more extreme example is someone who sees normally, but lacks the ability to recognize objects properly. These impairments are known as visual agnosia.

gurugeorge said...

If you're starting with solipsism of the present moment, then a concept like "given" makes no sense. (cf. Wittgenstein, but also Kant before him, contra Berkelyian Idealism)

Anonymous said...

Does it make sense, practically speaking, to say I'm perceiving something if I don't know it, indeed, if I can never know it? It's entirely possible my brain is processing some sort of visual data. For instance, I can tell the difference between sunlight, and light in a room. I've always assumed this is because of things like directionality, difuse quality or lack thereof, and so on. In other words, sunlight is pervasive, light from a flashlight is not.

Let's assume I'm correct. But you also add, that since the rods and cones in my eyes aren't damaged, or at least not all of them, nor is the visual area of my brain, I am also perceiving color. That is, the data you would call color is getting to the visual area of my brain. But I don't perceive it. If you show me a yellow light, a green light, and a blue light, they all look the same to me, yes this one I've tried.

So what does it mean to say Nonhypothetical Blind Guy perceives color, when it's clear that in the usual definition, I most certainly do not perceive any such thing? I have no idea what color is. In fact I started a challenge once, I said I was forming a movement called achromism, and that I refused to believe in colors. I've had no experience of them and all of the arguments for them from others can be countered, essentially, with typical atheist arguments against God. Seriously, try it, it works.

So I think you're delusional. You believe in this thing called "color" which to me clearly does not exist. How do you convince me that I'm wrong and that you're not delusional? I don't think you do, frankly. I don't actually believe this of course, but you get the gist of the philosophical experiment I trust. If I could do more research, e.g. anthropological stuff on cultures with two color terms, I could probably write a book called "The Color Delusion" directly paralleling Dawkins' arguments against religion with very similar arguments against color.

I'm just not sure that it makes any sense to claim I perceive color when I clearly do not. I suppose of course you might be taking the Objectivist line, which as I understand it runs as follows: perception is the correct operation of the senses, period. So just going, there's a sound means I'm perceiving, and the part where I go, "OMG that's "Michael Jackson, turn it off!" is something else entirely, what I've never quite been able to grasp.

But since I can't go, there's a color, or even, (to my knoledge), there's quality X which is really color but I just can't tell that, I'm not even sure the Objectivist theory of the senses works for this one. Maybe it does since I've never entirely understood what it's driving at, and what I do understand I think is pretty nonsensical, but consider me a skeptic.

Nonhypothetical Blind Guy