Wednesday, August 08, 2012

Ayn Rand & Epistemology 9

Necessary validity of the senses. Objectivism has a rather strange doctrine which could be summed up as "the senses never err." Percepts are "the given, the self-evident." [IOTE, 5] The validity of the senses is "axiomatic." Those that attempt to deny this validity commit the "fallacy of the stolen concept." As Peikoff explains:

The validity of the senses is not an independent axiom; it is a corollary of the fact of consciousness.... If man is conscious of that which is, then his means of awareness are means of awareness, i.e., are valid. One cannot affirm consciousness while denying its primary form, which makes all the others possible. Just as any attack on consciousness negates itself, so does any attack on the senses. If the senses are not valid, neither are any concepts, including the ones used in the attack. [OPAR, ch. 2]

This is a very poor argument. Indeed, most of Rand's "stolen concept" arguments, particularly those relating to epistemology, are very poor. All "attacks" on the senses are ultimately attacks against the view that knowledge refers to something "out there," in "reality." Such attacks cannot be regarded as claims of knowledge; rather, they are radical denials of all knowledge. Although such denials are not true, they are not self-contradictory. But even if they were self-contradictory, it would not help Rand's case. Merely because someone makes a bad argument against x does not prove that x is "necessarily valid." Bad arguments against the validity of the senses cannot be used to establish the validity of the senses!

More to the point, this entire obsession with "validity" which haunts Objectivism is fatuous and tiresome. Imagine if someone declared: Delivery of mail by the post office is necessarily valid. It is an axiom, because any attempt to deny it presupposes it. Now such an assertion would be regarded as palpable absurd. No sensible person would ever say such a thing, because it is a foolish way to think about the issue. What we want to know is not whether delivery of the mail is "valid," but whether it is reliable. The same is true about the senses. It's not validity we seek, but reliability. Using this approach clears up a great many difficulties.

Doesn't the issue of validity solve the issue of reliability? If the senses are "valid," mustn't they ipso facto be reliable as well? But approaching the issue from this vantage point merely creates confusion. It casts the debate between two unpalatable extremes: those who affirm the validity of the senses in all instances on the one side, and those who deny the validity of the sense in all instances on the other. Neither position is all that credible.

The whole issue over the reliability of the senses arose precisely because it was found that some perceptions are not entirely veridical, but are misleading: the bent stick in the water, the railroad lines that appear to be joining in the distance, the circle that appears as an elipse, etc. Claiming that the senses are valid doesn't clear up these issues: it just pushes them further off. These anamolies must be explained; and if they can't be explained in relation to the senses, they must be explained on some other ground. Objectivism achieves the necessary validity of the senses by defining the senses as necessarily valid. But this achieves, at best, a phyric victory. Randall Dipert, in a review of Kelley's Evidence of the Senses, explains the problem with the Objectivist view:

What is the "realist theory of perception" that [Kelley] defends? This is more difficult to say than one would hope, for Kelley oddly is not given to single clear statements of his main positions; he is at his best on the attack. Saying, "Perception is always of existence reality" comes close. So, interestingly, does saying, "Perceptual judgments are never mistaken." This last assertion is of course especially curious, and requires us to turn to Kelley's analyses of "illusions" such as a circle that appears as an ellipse or, still better, a stick half-submerged in water that "appears" bent. In both the case of seeing the stick out of water and then half submerged, I think Kelley wants to say, we perceive the stick. Otherwise, it is not a case of perception at all. Kelley goes on: "The normal look of the stick and the refracted look are simply two different forms in which one can perceive the same external attribute." This external attribute is "the" shape of the stick. Perception now is not just of a stick, but rather of a stick in relation to a background — i.e., whether it is all exposed in air, or half-submerged in water. Perception then is of a relational fact: the stick exposed, or the stick half in water (or, in the case of a circle, of the relational fact formed by the circle and the angle it is being viewed at). Mistaken "perceptual" judgments are then falsely abbreviated judgments about a necessarily veridical percept; "there is no such thing as a nonveridical percept."

My reply to this maneuver is as follows. This is all well and good. You may indeed define for your own purposes, the perceived (the percept) as that which cannot be mistaken. The perception of a stick is "what is common to all appearances of the stick" — at least those in which it is distinguished at all from its background, to avoid (perhaps in an ad hoc way) anything appearing like the stick in suitably bad lighting, etc. But then it is our (abbreviated) perceptual judgment that can be mistaken. Whatever harm — whatever lack of certainty, unreliability, etc., that perceptual relativity formerly injected into your agenda — is now caused by the unreliability of perceptual judgments: how do we know they are correct, reliable, etc. In fact, Kelley comes dangerously close to, if not actually succeeding at, trivializing his entire enterprise. He writes: "Perception should not be defined, then, in terms of a genus that includes hallucinations and the like, as if these were phenomena on a par with perceiving. It should be defined as a type of awareness of external objects, to be contrasted with other types of awareness."  But then, when is one certain that one is perceiving an object, and not in another type of awareness?

Kelley's point is, of course, not a new one. It is that perception is a "success" word, like seeing and hearing. One does not say one saw a lake that was not there; one says one appeared to see the lake. But co-opting the word 'perception' for veridical awareness of a certain type (apparently just "when the awareness is a unitary product of physiological causes"), does not give us an interestingly realistic theory of perception. It gives us a theory of perception that is "realist" by definition. The main difficulty for such a tautologous realist is then to decide when he is really perceiving an object, and when he is in one of the other states of awareness. How does he test whether he is perceiving the object? He must determine that his awareness is physiologically caused by an external object. This itself requires perception -- never mind the problem of ascertaining that the object is "external," consider only the problem of determining when one's own awareness is "physiologically caused."

To sum up: Objectivism establishes the "necessary validity" of the senses merely by pushing the issues of perceptual reliability further up the cognitive chain. The senses may be "necessarily valid," but what the senses tell us about the external world is still subject to misinterpretation and error. Sense knowledge, it turns out, is only valid if one's awareness is physiologically caused by external objects. But how does one know whether one's percepts are in fact caused by external objects? How, for that matter, does one know whether one has misinterpreted the "evidence" of the senses and gotten things horribly wrong? The Objectivist "validation" of the senses validates no claim of knowledge. It's another one of Rand's bad arguments in which we find her substituting empty tautological slogans for reasoned, evidence-based discourse.


Echo Chamber Escapee said...

Greg - This is developing into an excellent series.

More to the point, this entire obsession with "validity" which haunts Objectivism is fatuous and tiresome.

Indeed. And one of the most tiresome things is that Objectivism gets very slippery on what "validity of the senses" means. In some places, it seems to equate to the fairly reasonable position that the senses are capable of telling us something about what is "out there." But then this gets turned into the notion that sense-perception is incapable of error, which leads to all sorts of verbal contortions about bent sticks and parallel railroad tracks.


I think it has to do with Rand's larger obsession with certainty. If it turns out that the senses can give us wrong information about reality, if what she takes as the starting point of cognition isn't certain, then her whole effort to "prove" such abstract conclusions as "laissez-faire capitalism is the only moral social system" from sense data is futile.

Rey said...

Why is it Objectivists "split" tend to split everything into two and only untenable positions ... one's senses are 100% valid or 100% unreliable; perfect knowledge of everything is 100% possible or there's no such thing as knowledge; a work of is 100% life-affirming or 100% anti-life; etc. It seems to be more than a rhetorical strategy to me ... more like psychology compulsion ...

Rey said...

Man... I need to work on my proofreading. I must 100% illiterate.

Echo Chamber Escapee said...

@Rey: Why is it Objectivists "split" tend to split everything into two and only untenable positions ...

Because that way they can apply the Law of the Excluded Middle and prove all their conclusions using Logic! Never mind that there's a world of difference between "not 100% reliable" and "100% not reliable."

gregnyquist said...

Why is it Objectivists tend to split everything into two and only untenable positions

It's a debating tactic. You give one really unpalatable position, and then claim that the only alternative is the less unpalatable position you hold. This is sometimes referred to as "polarization." Not coincidentally, Rand regarded polarization to be an "anti-concept."

Rey said...

Chicken-egg question: Does excluding the middle lead to polarized thinking, or does polarized thinking express itself as excluding the middle?

gregnyquist said...

Does excluding the middle lead to polarized thinking, or does polarized thinking express itself as excluding the middle?

Mostly the latter. Or, rather, polarized thinking is a product of being aggressively argumentative, which, according to biographical sources, describes Rand in her early years.

fp said...

Greg: I am not a philosopher but I never questioned the validity or reliability of the senses. What is your philosophic viewpoint of them?

gregnyquist said...

Greg: I am not a philosopher but I never questioned the validity or reliability of the senses. What is your philosophic viewpoint of them?

I regard the senses as largely reliable, but not "valid." The senses are like a very trustworthy friend who once in a while makes a mistake. If this trustworthy friend makes mistake about something, you're not going to suddenly conclude, "He's a liar; I can't trust him any more." The same applies to the senses. One mistake does not instantly render them "invalid" and untrustworthy.

Validity is a false ideal. Arguments can be valid or invalid. Everything else, cognitively speaking, merely has degrees of reliability; and measured by that standards the senses, although not perfect, have about as high a degree of reliability as any cognitive tool at our disposal.

Bryan M. White said...

There are actually oodles of interesting videos and articles and whatnot all over the web showing experiments that expose some of the cracks and loopholes in how we process sensory information.

In addition to the classic "optical illusions" that most of us are familiar with, I saw a recent video where it showed a guy saying "Ba ... ba ... ba" over and over. Then they switched the visual to show the guy making an "F" movement with his mouth and you could no hear him saying "fa ... fa ... fa." However, if you play the video and keep your eyes closed, you can hear that he says "Ba" the whole time.

Of course, people tend to focus on the fact that this demonstrates how easily our senses can be tricked, and they tend to miss the fact that it also shows that have ways at our disposal of seeing through these illusions, getting around them to the truth. Our ears might be fooled by the Doppler effect, our eyes might be fooled by mirages, but our scientists and our brains are on top of it.

QuantumHaecceity said...

This blog entry is a perfect example of what Greg Perkins calls the low grade criticism of this website

And why I say it completely misses the mark in its attempt to destroy Objectivism intellectually.

"Although such denials are not true, they are not self-contradictory."

Nyquist claims to not understand why any attack on the senses is a fallacy of the stolen concept.

But this should be very obvious for anyone with a rudimentary level of intelligence

If a person says the Sun doesn't shine light, because the senses deceive us, how did they come to know the Sun does not shine light, if not by the use of the senses? This is why it's a stolen concept fallacy.

The conceptual integration that would lead to such a conclusion, depends on the very thing it is trying to undermine or negate, to arrive at said conclusion. Namely the senses. Making such an attack self-contradictory.

Nyquist tells us that Objectivism establishes the necessary validity of the senses merely by pushing the issues of perceptual reliability further up the cognitive chain, but that is false, as Dr. Peikoff devotes a chapter to why the senses are necessarily valid.

Which means he/Objectivism doesnt just push the issue further up.

"but what the senses tell us about the external world is still subject to misinterpretation and error"

The above is classic low grade, erroneous criticism, since Dr. Peikoff already acknowledges that very thing in OPAR.

To wit:

"The task of [man’s] senses, writes Ayn Rand, “is to give him the evidence of existence, but the task of identifying it belongs to his reason, his senses tell
him only that something is, but what it is must be learned by his mind.”

And again:

"Within the range of their capacity, the senses give us
evidence of everything physically operative, they respond to the full context of the facts
—including, in the present instance, the fact that light travels through water at a different
rate than through air, which is what causes the stick to appear bent. It is the task not of
the senses but of the mind to analyze the evidence and identify the causes at work."

Also, the word valid is simply used to mean the senses are a sound or effective or justified way to know reality.

Either Greg Nyquist is obtuse, or plays obtuse in order to facilitate his trashing of Objectivism, so as to discourage as many people as he can to not espouse it.

Like his retarded over-complication of what the word is means in existence is identity.

This site is basically total garbage. A hate site masquerading as intellectual critique.

And again, why the hell he couldnt simply have done one of these in a day:

Rather than illogically cannibalize his book sales and waste his time attacking a worldview for 9 years is again extremely bizarre and irrational to me. Such a posting would have taken him a day, and be done with it.

9 years of this!!?