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IOE, Chapter Four
Concepts of Consciousness
by Jimmy (Jimbo) Wales

Date: 17 Feb 1992
Forum: Moderated Discussion of Objectivist Philosophy
Copyright: Jimmy (Jimbo) Wales

In chapter four we meet some of the most difficult material in the whole of Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology.[1] If you did not fully grasp the concepts introduced in the previous chapters, then you will find this chapter to be practically impossible to understand fully. And even if you did fully grasp the previous material, you may find that the material in this chapter requires a far greater amount of 'chewing' than did previous chapters.

Rand begins by defining consciousness as "the faculty of awareness-- the faculty of perceiving that which exists." (Rand, 1990, 29). As is common with Rand's definitions, every word in the definition is crucially important. Rand notes again, as she did at the outset of the book, that consciousness is not a passive state, but is instead an active _process_.

We know that the human brain functions much like a massively-parallel computer. It is thus possible for the human brain to carry on many activities on many levels simultaneously. "On the lower levels of awareness, a complex neurological process is required... that process is automatic and non-volitional... On the higher, conceptual level, the process is psychological, conscious and volitional. In either case, awareness is achieved and maintained by continuous action." (Rand, 1990, 29).

Note carefully what Rand says here. Rand uses (as is common) the word 'conscious' in a slightly different manner than would be strictly indicated by her concept of 'consciousness'. We often speak of a thought or decision as being 'conscious' in the sense: part of our primary stream of thoughts. But Rand's concept of 'consciousness' is much broader, and includes many levels of cognitive process, some of which we may not be aware of 'consciously'.

The lower levels of consciousness, of which we are not usually aware, allow us to experience sensations and integrate these sensations into percepts. The higher level of consciousness, the conceptual level, we do the sort of thinking which is impossible to lower animals.

There are two basic types of processes of cognition identified by Rand. "Extrospection is... a process of apprehending some existent(s) of the external world... Introspection is... a process of apprehending one's own psychological actions in regard to some existent(s) of the external world." (Rand, 1990, 29).

Notice that in either case, introspection or extrospection, there exists an explicit link to one's awareness of the outside world. Extrospection deals with the outside world directly, while introspection deals with one's own "psychological actions in regard to some existent(s) of the outside world." (Rand, 1990, 29).

Every state, aspect or function of man's consciousness has two fundamental attributes: content and action. "The content is some aspect of the external world... and is measurable by the various methods of measurement applicable to the external world." (Rand, 1990, 31). For example, I can _evaluate_ a person, a book or a dog. The content differs, while the action remains the same.

The action of a state, aspect or function of consciousness will vary depending upon the exact nature of that process. Rand gives several examples of actions of consciousness. A man who sees a woman walking down the street may take several actions of consciousness: perception, evaluation, emotion, thought, reminiscence, imagination. [2]

The various concepts of consciousness may be differentiated by the type of action taken. The distinguishing characteristics are retained while the particular content and intensity (which I will cover soon) are omitted. Some example distinguishing characteristics of some concepts of consciousness:

emotion - an automatic response proceeding from an evaluation of an existent (Rand, 1990, 32)
knowledge - a mental grasp of fact(s) of reality, reached either by perceptual observation or by a process of reason based on perceptual observation. (Rand, 1990, 35)
logic - the art of non-contradictory identification (Rand, 1990, 36)
love - an emotion proceeding from the evaluation of an existent as a positive value and a source of pleasure (Rand, 1990, 34)
thought - a purposefully directed process of cognition (Rand, 1990, 32)

Within each type of concept of consciousness, we can measure the intensity of the action involved. There does not exist an exact method of measuring the intensity of various psychological processes, but just as it was not necessary to understand the exact nature of light-waves to distinguish colors, it is not necessary to have exact measurements to form concepts of consciousness.

The intensity of a process will be measured differently depending upon the particular type of action involved. For example "the intensity of the emotion of joy in response to certain facts varies according to the importance of these facts in one's hierarchy of values." (Rand, 1990, 31) Peikoff gives another example: "Thought processes... vary in the scope of the material they encompass, and (a related issue) in the length of the conceptual chain required to deal with such material." (Peikoff, 1991, 94) In any case, "the intensity of a psychological process is the automatically summed up result of many factors: of its scope, its clarity, its cognitive and motivational context, the degree of mental energy or effort required, etc." (Rand, 1990, 31)

The terms 'scope' and 'hierarchy' thus represent more precise methods of measurement. 'Scope' applies to 'thought' in general; 'hierarchy' applies to evaluation vis a vis a code of values.

Take as an example the concept 'love', which has as its distinguishing characteristic "an emotion proceeding from the evaluation of an existent as a positive value and as a source of pleasure." The concept of 'love' then subsumes a vast range of values and thus may vary widely in intensity. On the lower levels of intensity, we have 'liking'. On the highest levels, we have 'romantic love'. "Romantic love, in the full sense of the term, is an emotion possible only to the man (or woman) of unbreached self-esteem: it is his response to his own highest values in the person of another- an integrated response of mind and body, of love and sexual desire." (Rand, 1968) [3] Thus we have Rand's answer to the question "Can you measure love?"... "And how!" (Rand, 1990, 17).

"The formation of introspective concepts follows the same principles as the formation of extrospective concepts." (Rand, 1990, 31). Thus all the usual processes covered in chapter 2 are applicable. The process of concept-formation is always and everywhere a process of differentiation and integration, whether the concepts being formed are first-level extrospective concepts or high-level introspective concepts. The units which are integrated in the formation of introspective concepts are specific instances of a particular psychological process.

It is important to avoid the error that man can introspect infallibly. Just as in the formation of extrospective concepts humans are capable of error in the formation of introspective concepts. Indeed, in the dialogues in the appendix of IOE Rand makes this point very emphatically. "If men identified introspectively their inner states one tenth as accurately as they identify objective reality, we would be a race of ideal giants. I ascribe ninety-five percent or more of all psychological trouble and personal tragedies to the fact that in the realm of introspection we are on the level where savages were (or lower) in regard to extrospection. Men are not only not taught to introspect, they are actively discouraged from engaging in introspection, and yet their lives depend on it." (Rand, 1990, 227)

How do we measure the intensity of a process? In regard to the processes of cognition, we measure the scope of the content. We answer the questions: what is the scope of the factual material involved? what is the length of the conceptual chain required to deal with that material? (Rand, 1990, 32).

But in regard to concepts involving evaluation, we must use a different type of measurement: 'teleological measurement'. "Measurement is the identification of a relationship... teleological measurement deals, not with cardinal, but with _ordinal_ numbers- and the standard serves to establish a graded relationship of means to end." (Rand, 1990, 33).

A simple example of teleological measurement is that which is directly studied by economists. What principles guide a person's activities in the sphere of trade? How does he spend his money? A person's wealth is a limited quantity. In spending his money, a man weighs the value of _this_ purchase over _that_ purchase... and against every other possible purchase of which he can think.<4> In a broader arena of 'spiritual' values, the limited quantity is _time_, and all potential values must be weighed against the value of _this_ use of time over _that_ use of time... and against every other possible use of time of which he can think.

Some concepts of consciousness refer to the _products_ of psychological processes. The concept "knowledge" has as its referents specific instances of grasping of facts by perceptual observation or rational thought. To form the concept knowledge, we retain the distinguishing characteristic(s) and omit the particular intensity of the process which led to the products. It is important to note that the _content_ of knowledge is the specific (metaphysical) facts and that this _content_ of knowledge is not the same thing as the epistemological referents of the concept.

The concepts of method constitute one type of concept of consciousness. The fundamental concept of method is logic. "Concepts of method are formed by retaining the distinguishing characteristics of the purposive course of action and of its goal, while omitting the particular measurements." (Rand, 1990, 36). Concepts of method are the link to concepts which integrate both concepts of consciousness and existential concepts.

Many concepts of consciousness do not have direct perceptual referents. For example, the concept of 'marriage' cannot be formed simply by observing the behavior of a couple. The formation of the concept 'marriage' requires an understanding of a number of concepts of consciousness. Rand gives as examples 'contractual agreement', 'morality', and 'law'. (Rand, 1990, p. 37)

Rand then gives a brief digression about the science of grammar, and demonstrates how the rules of grammar are not 'arbitrary' but are derived from the facts of reality. She uses the specific example of conjunctions which are used to note relationships among thoughts.

Finally, Rand concludes with a comment about the idea that the units involved in concepts of consciousness cannot be measured. "Measurement requires an appropriate standard, and... one does not measure length in pounds, or weight in inches." (Rand, 1990, p. 38). To measure concepts of consciousness, we must use an appropriate standard of measure.

If someone were to claim that 'Love exists, but one cannot measure it'... then we now have sufficient intellectual ammunition to prove that claim invalid. If love were 'immeasurable' then it would bear no relation to anything else in the universe and it would subsequently be impossible to know that it exists. No claim to knowledge about the immeasurable is valid.

Rand's claim about the existence of immeasurables can be interpreted two ways. It is important to interpret her correctly. What does she mean by 'immeasurable'? If she means simply 'immeasurable by humans' then her claim is a claim to a particular sort of omniscience which would require the existence-status of objects to depend upon consciousness. If it is impossible for anything to exist which is not measurable by humans, then it is a requirement for existence that an object be potentially observable by humans.

Clearly, her meaning is something different. When she speaks of something being 'immeasurable' she speaks of an object which would (supposedly) have no attributes or aspects or anything. Such a 'thing' would be a 'no-thing', i.e. a 'nothing', a blank, a zero.


[1] I found this essay particularly difficult, and could not have completed it without the help of several friends. I wish to single out David Ross and Bill Wells for particularly helpful discussions. And and all errors are of course still my own responsibility.

[2] On the popular television show Star Trek: The New Generation the character Data is a sort of 'super-human' android. Although he has superior intelligence, he is unable to experience _emotion_. He _is_, however, able to _evaluate_. Data might say "I sometimes avoid expressing my thoughts to humans because I have difficultly with the peculiarities of human mannerisms and expressions." But he would not say "I am afraid to express myself because I am often misunderstood."

[3] As quoted in The Ayn Rand Lexicon. I include this quote at the slight risk of irrelevance as a form of appropriately symbolic thanks to my wife for giving me The Ayn Rand Lexicon for St. Valentine's Day. How appropriate that my first official use of the gift is a quote about the nature of romantic love!

[4] Modern economics has quite a bit to say about the precise sort of preferences which can indeed be represented by a single-valued 'utility' function. In other words, what sorts of preferences over a set of goods (or outcomes) can be represented by a utility function? It turns out that preferences can be represented by an _ordinal_ (not _cardinal_) utility function if we assume that people meet certain very minimal 'axioms of choice'. (Reflexivity, transitivity, and the like...). Note one key difference between the approach of economic science and the approach of ethics. Ethics is the science which tells us what methods we ought to use to make rational choices. Economics must deal with the choices made by humans (rational or otherwise) to examine the nature of the exchange process.

I have never seen an examination of the 'axioms' of choice from an Objectivist viewpoint. There is some controversy among economists about whether or not the 'axioms' needed to derived utility theory (and in particular, the stronger 'axioms' needed to derive a subset of utility theory called 'expected utility') are actually rational. The question which comes to my mind: If I am rational, in the Objectivist sense, then do I make decisions according to a Von Neumann- Morgenstern utility function (i.e. according to expected utility)?

Rand once indicated an approach which can most easily be interpreted as a non-expected utility approach. (Rand, 1982, 112-113). 1986).


Leonard Peikoff, Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand, (Penguin Books, 1991).

Ayn Rand, The Ayn Rand Lexicon: Objectivism From A to Z, Edited by Harry Binswanger, (NAL books, 1986).

Ayn Rand, Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, (Penguin Books, 1990).

Ayn Rand, Philosophy: Who Needs It, (NAL books, 1982).

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