Friday, September 03, 2010

Objectivism & "Metaphysics," Part 8

Rand’s axioms: Consciousness and the discovery of other minds. When Rand declared "one exists possessing consciousness, consciousness being the faculty of perceiving that which exists," she believed she was stating an axiomatic truth "fundamentally given and directly perceived." But note the use of the pronoun one, which is intentionally vague. Note that she doesn't say "I exist possessing consciousness." By saying "one exists possessing consciousness," she is making the tacit assumption that everyone exists possessing conscious. But how does she know (in the axiomatic sense of the term) that other people are conscious? Even if (assuming, per impossible, that one's own consciousness is perceived directly) surely we don't perceive the consciousness of other people directly. If so, how can the consciousness of other people, of which we have no direct experience, be regarded as axiomatic? Even if I were to wave my previous objections to Rand's "axiomatic knowledge" and her foundationalist pretensions, I still don't see how Rand can justify the belief that other people's consciousness is axiomatic. Even if it were so for each individual, this knowledge would remain exclusively personal. Each individual might regard his own consciousness as "axiomatic," but he could only accept the consciousness of others on purely non-foundationalist grounds. Such knowledge remains conjectural, even on Objectivist premises.

This issue reinforces the view that objective knowledge (i.e., knowledge that is true absolutely, whether anyone recognizes it or not) is conjectural right from the start. Anything that is "fundamentally given and directly perceived" is only given and perceived by an individual. How does that individual know that such knowledge is "fundamentally given and directly perceived" by others? While the reports of other people may constitute evidence for a given claim of knowledge, it is not clear how the validity of an axiom can depend merely on such reports. The testimony of others is like memory: although often reliable, it can hardly be regarded as infallible or as the foundation of "self-evidence." While there exists compelling reasons to believe that at least some knowledge deserves to be regarded as "objective" and reliable, these reasons don't measure up to the standards required of Rand's axioms.

The discovery of other minds, far from being axiomatic, probably results, as does most of our knowledge, from trial and error, experimentation and pragmatic tests. Contrary to Rand's ex cathedra assertions, the mind is not a blank slate. Interpretative predispositions exist right from the start. It seems likely that one of these predispositions is a tendency to regard events in the world as the outcome of some purpose or intention. The default position for the human mind may very well turn out to be some form of animism, so that our first tendency is to look for intention, will, mind, and consciousness in the objects around us. Only later, after much groping and error, do we begin distinguishing between the animate and the inanimate, the conscious and the unconsciousness. These discoveries are explorative and empirical right from the beginning. Knowledge does not arise (as Rand's axioms appear to) by analyzing "given" existents. A particular "given" existent is merely a piece of datum, blank and staring. Nothing of any significance can be deduced or proved or "validated" from such a datum. Knowledge arises when, instead of staring at our datum, we regard such representations as symbols of an outlying reality the constituents of which can be investigated, tested, analyzed and discovered. As Santayana puts it, "only by exploring the flux of nature, by experience or testimony, ... [can] I judge whether my original description, granting my terms and circumstances, was a fair description of what actually lies there." Even though many of Rand's metaphysical assertions are true, her reasons for them (i.e., her explanation of how they are known and justified) are false. No statement about matters of fact, regardless how obvious or irrefragible it may seem to the intellect, is ever "justified" by either "direct" observation (since observation of fact is never direct) or through the analysis, logical or otherwise, of mental data (and all data are mental). Factual knowledge (which means significant, relevant knowledge) is not only conjectural, but empirical as well; indeed, it is conjectural because it is empirical. It is not through logical analysis, but through empirical practice and experimentation, that we learn which conjectures are reliable and can be used as guides to action and which are suspect and will only lead us astray.


Neil Parille said...

Somewhat off-topic, but there is another Objectischism* brewing --

If you go to the reviews on Amazon, you can see that Gotthelf and Binswanger have quickly jumped to Harriman and Peikoff's defense.

-Neil Parille

gregnyquist said...

"Somewhat off-topic..."

Actually, this is very close to being on topic, since I was originally going to conclude this series of the Objectivist metaphysics by mentioning Harriman. Harriman's attacks on quantum mechanics (and possibly relativity?) are inspired by the Objectivist metaphysics. They represent the dangerous fruit of trying to determine matters of fact by moral, rhetorical, logical and, I suspect in Harriman's case, aesthetic constructs.

Anonymous said...

I think Rand would say that the cash value of consciousness' being axiomatic is that it is implicit in the very act of communication. Unless you are a solipsist of the moment, you'd have to accept it if you're "doing philosophy" at all (i.e. discussing things with people)

Rey said...

"I think Rand would say..."

She's dead, so what do you say?