Friday, January 15, 2016

Consciousness as Possessing Identity

My previous essay on sensory qualities indicated that past philosophies generated doubts about the validity of the senses. As would be expected, historically there have been criticisms levied against all of the standard forms of gaining knowledge: perception, as we’ve already seen, but also the conceptual faculty/faculty of reason, and the art of logic. The principle that consciousness has identity gives a general answer to these kinds of criticisms. It also highlights what should be regarded as the proper starting point for an epistemology.

The Attack on the Senses

The essential criticisms of the senses were produced by the preSocratic Sophists, and the Pyrrhonian skeptics. The more well-known of the sophists were Protagoras of Abdera (c. 490–c. 420 BC) and Gorgias (c. 485–c. 380 BC), and the most well-known of the skeptics were Pyrrho of Elis (c. 360 BC–c. 270 BC) and Sextus Empiricus (c. 160–210 CE).

Protagoras, Gorgias, and the other Sophists advanced arguably the most important objections to the senses of all time. (Certain parts of these criticisms were discussed in the essay on sensory qualities.)

A part of the sky looks blue to a man with normal vision, but looks a certain shade of gray to a color-blind man. A rose gives off a fragrant smell normally, but may give off a different scent or may be overwhelmed by smelling a strong, foul stench. A lukewarm bucket of water will feel warmer to a cold hand, but colder to a warm hand.

These examples show that the nature of a given sense perception depends on the object being perceived and the sensory apparatus being used to perceive it. Illustrations like these were supposed to point to a fundamental criticism of the senses. Their overarching conclusion was that we can only know the reality that appears to our senses; if the senses differ, the appearance differs. We do not perceive reality but merely its effects on our particular senses at a certain time. In fact, no man or animal perceives reality directly.

Further, they believed that the effects differ from individual to individual, from species to species, and from time to time (one perceptual experience to another). There is no way to know the world objectively. There’s no way to know how the world “really is.”

In short, we all live in our own private, subjective worlds. That’s the message of Protagoras’ dictum: "Of all things the measure is man, of the things that are, that they are, and of things that are not, that they are not."[1] So their conclusion is that all that we can experience is our own subjective world; the effects that the world has on each of us individually. “Reality” is a pointless concept.

The Pyrrhonian Skeptics expounded upon the central argument from Protagoras and the other Sophists. Perceptions vary among different species; for instance, a bat’s sense of hearing is radically different from a human’s both in intensity and range. The perceptions can vary with the bodily conditions of a person (certain illnesses can make you see spots or gradually reduce your vision’s acuity). The various senses can conflict (e.g. a cavity in your tooth can appear to be small, but actually feels big when felt by your tongue). Things always appear in a context (e.g. a rock surrounded by grass), and so we can never know the true nature of the thing by itself, only how it appears in the context available to the given perception.

Their conclusion was broadly the same as the Sophists, as they were following in their philosophical footsteps. A perception is never an awareness of a thing as it really is, it’s just how it appears to us. Our perceptions are affected by many types of external factors other than the identity of the object itself. Due to this, we can never determine real perceptions from false ones. We cannot compare the object to our experience objectively; we’re locked in our own subjective worlds.

The Assault on the Conceptual Faculty/Reason

Immanuel Kant (1724–1804) made the quintessential criticism of the faculty of reason. He presents his “Copernican Revolution” in the Critique of Pure Reason (CPR) which argues that our minds structure reality through certain important concepts.

Kant held that conceptual rules are necessary for us to perceive anything in the (phenomenal) world. (See for instance the “Analytic of Principles” of the CPR.) In his view, the human mind necessarily uses categories (i.e. special innate concepts) to structure our perceptual experience. We can only experience reality through our human mental constitution and powers, which allows us to perceive and conceive of the phenomenal world. The result is that we are cutoff from reality itself, the noumenal world (or “things in themselves”), as these objects (and the world) exist out of relation to any consciousness.

In the CPR section “Transcendental Doctrine,” he responds to those who complain that we cannot perceive the true nature of things. To wish for this is to fantasize that we perceive without any means of perception, and that we have a faculty of thought that is radically, fundamentally different from the one that we actually have. And although we desire to know the true nature of things, we are restricted to only know things as they can relate to our consciousness (i.e., our categorical/structural concepts, other empirical concepts and forms of perception), not the things as they are in themselves.[2]

Similarly to the Sophists' and the Skeptics’ views of perception, in Kant’s view the nature and makeup of the rational faculty limits the validity of our concepts. The human mind is structured in a definite way, and so our acquired knowledge is biased or filtered. Our concepts and knowledge are necessarily subjective, so they cannot reach the objects “in themselves.” Unsurprisingly, his general conclusion is that we cannot gain any knowledge concerning the true nature of things (the “noumenal world”), and that we experience the world as it is constructed by our minds.

The Objection to Logic

Most philosophers use (or claim to use) logic in defense of their theories and philosophies. Historically there have been philosophers who rejected the principles of logic and/or drew attention to what they believed to be its inherent limits.

Protagoras’ “man-measure” principle and Kant’s “Copernican Revolution” both applied to logical thinking as much as they applied to perceptions and conceptions. However, there were philosophers influenced by Kant’s thinking who pointed to flaws in the theory and the purpose of logic. I’ll discuss two philosophers in particular to highlight this hostility to logic.

Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900) advocated a view called “perspectivism,” the view that all knowledge is conditioned by the time, place, and type of mind that is gaining or using that knowledge. Further, he advanced the “will to power,” a force or power within us that allows us to impose order, logic, and understanding to the human, phenomenal world. He states in his work The Will to Power that, “[l]ogic (like geometry and arithmetic) applies only to fictitious entities that we have created. Logic is the attempt to comprehend the actual world by means of a scheme of being posited by ourselves; more correctly, to make it formulatable and calculable for us."[3] Knowledge is conditioned by us and factors relating to us, including the human logic that we forced upon the world. “The world seems logical to us because we have made it logical.”[4]

Alfred Jules Ayer (1910–1989) was a Logical Positivist and espoused a “verification” principle to assess the validity and truth of statements, particularly scientific statements. The only valid statements were the ones that were basically “true by definition” (analytic a priori truth) or “true by reference to an empirical fact” (synthetic a posteriori truth). Analytic statements have no relationship to the normal facts of the world as these facts are not necessary; alternatives to these facts are logically possible. With this distinction in mind, he held this belief about logic:
[…]The principles of logic and mathematics are true simply because we never allow them to be anything else. And the reason for this is that we cannot abandon them without contradicting ourselves, without sinning against the rules which govern the use of language, and so making our utterances self-stultifying. In other words, the truths of logic and mathematics are analytic propositions or tautologies.[5]
And on analytic propositions more generally, he remarks:
[…]We saw that the reason why they cannot be confuted in experience is that they do not make any assertion about the empirical world. They simply record our determination to use words in a certain fashion. We cannot deny them without infringing the conventions which are presupposed by our very denial, and so falling into self-contradiction. And this is the sole ground of their necessity.[6]
Nietzsche thought that we somehow packed or jammed logic into the world of appearances through our “Will.” Ayer thought that logic had nothing to do with the world whatsoever: it is just a system of symbol-manipulation that we had created to use a language. Neither regarded logic as a valid means to ensure that one’s thoughts are tracking the actual facts of the world. Both viewed logic as a subjective expression of the human mind. They saw “reality” as a meaningless concept, and so the notion of a human mind using human logic to truly reason about facts was completely unfathomable to them and their brothers in spirit, past and present.

The Overarching Conclusion

Our consciousness is a definite something with specific forms of cognition. These forms of reaching knowledge depend on our human constitution and abilities. There is no way to escape our human nature and gain knowledge of reality by no means in particular. So the conclusion of this sort of argument is that we cannot truly know reality due to our human limits.

These means of perceptual and conceptual knowledge are human, subjective, and so they cannot provide an objective means of knowing the real world. Even further, Leonard Peikoff notes that these kinds of arguments are not limited to only the human form of consciousness:
It is an attack on all consciousness, human, animal, or otherwise. No matter how keen an animal’s senses, the argument indicts them equally: since the animal cannot escape its organs of perception, it, too, must be imprisoned by them and cut off from reality.[7]
Following the logic of these sorts of criticisms, the question becomes: what type of consciousness could perceive reality, given these challenges? The Sophists, Skeptics, Kant, and the others of their mentality all believe that it’s the human identity of the consciousness which invalidates it from knowing reality. And since these critiques indict even animals for their specific means of consciousness, their arguments essentially bashes consciousness for even having an identity.

Their ideal is a consciousness with no limits to its means of cognition. This consciousness gains knowledge by an unspecified process; it perceives by no particular means. In other words, their ideal is a non-existent consciousness, a diaphanous consciousness with no nature or means of its own. That is the implicit ideal of Kant’s argument and the standard by which the validity of any form of consciousness is determined. Peikoff remarks, “the standard is not human consciousness or even an invented consciousness claimed to be superior to man’s, but a zero, a vacuum, a nullity—a non-anything.”[8]

A means or process of gaining knowledge makes objective knowledge impossible, it can only be subjective. (This is actually the most influential argument for metaphysical and epistemological subjectivism that I think can be conceived of.)

The Identity of Consciousness

Objectivism completely rejects this line of reasoning concerning the validity of consciousness. The skeptical/Kantian view that consciousness has a specific nature and is therefore invalid is completely baseless.

The core skeptical claim that we merely perceive reality’s effects on our perceptual faculty is misguided. Their implicit alternative—that we perceive by no specific means—is a fantasy. As we learned in “Sensory Qualities as Real,” we perceive reality directly by means of its effects on our perceptual systems. Likewise, there is no real distinction between reality “as it really is” and reality “as it appears.” The real world is what appears to any form of consciousness through whatever means it has to be conscious.

Concepts and logic are not imposed on the world to construct it, or to make sense of a chaotic world. Entities in reality possess identity and act independently of consciousness (the Primacy of Existence). Concepts and logic are our means of gaining knowledge and reaching valid conclusions beyond the information gained by the senses (as we’ll see in future essays). When formed and used properly, they’re our means of reaching abstract levels of knowledge, and Objectivism emphasizes that it is our human means.

There’s no need for a distinction between the noumenal/“things in themselves” and the phenomenal/“things in relation to consciousness.” The implication is that consciousness as such necessarily warps and twists our knowledge so that it can never connect to the real world.

Objectivism rejects these criticisms of consciousness because it has an entirely opposite approach towards identity. Importantly, Peikoff notes that, “[i]dentity is not the disqualifier of consciousness, but its precondition.”[9] The fact that consciousness has a means or process cannot be used to deny that consciousness is aware of—gains knowledge of—reality. And contrary to the claims of philosophers like Kant, the fact that the object of knowledge is some aspect of reality cannot be used to controvert the fact that we gain such knowledge by a delimited, human process.

Ayn Rand differs from these philosophers because she observes what is necessary for a consciousness to function, and upholds these requirements instead of dismissing them. In her view:
All knowledge is processed knowledge—whether on the sensory, perceptual or conceptual level. An ‘unprocessed’ knowledge would be a knowledge acquired without means of cognition. Consciousness . . . is not a passive state, but an active process. And more: the satisfaction of every need of a living organism requires an act of processing by that organism, be it the need of air, of food or of knowledge.[10]
This perspective on the nature of consciousness is the key to starting a proper epistemology. The Objectivist position is that any valid epistemology must acknowledge and build on the fact that consciousness is something with a definite means of awareness: that it has identity.

Conclusion: Consciousness’ Identity as an Axiomatic Corollary

The laws of identity and causality are universal laws, admitting of no exceptions. Everything in the physical and mental realms obeys these laws. Every consciousness is what it is, and uses specific means that allow it to attain awareness.

This principle was implicit in the axioms of identity and consciousness when considered together. Once we acknowledge the facts of consciousness and identity, and of the senses being valid, we’re in a position to appreciate another fact: that consciousness inherently has a nature and has a means of awareness. If the senses are valid, then we have crucial information necessary to understand that consciousness has identity. The human and animal senses have definite identities and work by certain means, as we know, and so we can conclude that this must be the case for all forms of consciousness for all beings.

The fact that consciousness has identity is a corollary axiom of the senses being valid. As such, it is not subject to proof, and like anything axiomatic, it is at the foundation of all proofs. There would be no point in proving anything if consciousness could somehow claim objective knowledge by an ineffable, effortless means. The issue of proof is possible (and necessary) only because consciousness has a nature and its own specific means that must be utilized in order to gain and validate its knowledge.

A type of consciousness with no means in particular of gaining awareness is not a consciousness; such a consciousness would not and could not be conscious. A kind of knowledge that is gained without the benefit of any process or means is not and could not be knowledge. Consciousness only can gain awareness by a certain means, and knowledge can only be gained through certain processes. This is because consciousness possesses identity. The epistemologies of the skeptics and modern philosophers like Kant and Ayer are fundamentally wrong for not reaching this philosophical truth.

References and Notes

[1]: Protagoras, DK 80B1 (Diels-Kranz numbering system, “80” is Protagoras’ author number in this series, “B” means the quote is his exact words or “fragment” of his complete works, and “1”means that this is his first quoted material in this series.
[2]: Kant, Immanuel. Translated by J. M. D. Meiklejohn. Critique of Pure Reason. “Transcendental Doctrine.” New York: The Colonial Press. 1899 (1781/1787) . pp. 177-178, p. 182.
[3]: Nietzsche, Friedrich. The Will to Power. Sect. 516.
[4]: Ibid. Sect. 521.
[5]: Ayer, A. J. Language, Truth, and Logic. Courier Corporation. 1952 (1946). p. 77.
[6]: Ibid. p. 84. He further states:
[…]As Wittgenstein puts it, our justification for holding that the world could not conceivably disobey the laws of logic is simply that we could not say of an unlogical world how it would look. And just as the validity of an analytic proposition is independent of the nature of the external world; so it is independent of the nature of our minds. It is perfectly conceivable that we should have employed different linguistic conventions from those which we actually do employ. But whatever those conventions might be, the tautologies in which we recorded them would always be necessary. For any denial of them would be self-stultifying.
[7]: Peikoff, Leonard. Objectivism: the Philosophy of Ayn Rand. p. 54 of the PDF. Ayn Rand stated similarly in For the New Intellectual’s title essay that:
[H]is argument [the “Copernican Revolution”] amounted to a negation, not only of man’s consciousness, but of any consciousness, of consciousness as such. His argument, in essence, ran as follows: man is limited to a consciousness of a specific nature, which perceives by specific means and no others, therefore, his consciousness is not valid; man is blind, because he has eyes—deaf, because he has ears—deluded, because he has a mind—and the things he perceives do not exist, because he perceives them. [Words in brackets are mine.]
[8]: Ibid.
[9]: Ibid. p. 55. Italics in original.
[10]: Ayn Rand Lexicon entry: “Kant, Immanuel.”,_immanuel.html

1 comment:

  1. I think you are missing an important historical context when discussing induction as it relates to philosophers after the Protestant Reformation (primarily in Germany and England).

    Both German Rationalist (Lutherans) and British Empiricist (Puritans/Nonconformists) rejected the Roman Catholic Scholastic Spiritual Substance vs. Material Substance and/or Substance vs. Accident.

    How this relates to induction is this:

    Spiritual Substance, Substance = Generalizations
    Material Substance, Accident = Particulars

    The Roman Catholic Church still held to the Medieval belief that there is a "divine" pine tree in God's Realm and that there are "accidental" pine trees located on earth.

    Reacting against this notion is what drove much of Locke, Berkeley, Hume, Kant and others.