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OPAR, Chapter Two
Sense Perception and Volition
by Will Thomas

Date: 31 Oct 1992
Forum: Moderated Discussion of Objectivist Philosophy
Copyright: Will Thomas

The second chapter of OPAR treats two somewhat distinct topics: namely sense perception and volition. I will treat these separately in the review as well. For each, I summarize Peikoff's presentation before moving on to more extensive critical comments.


Sense Perception Summary:

Peikoff begins, in model Objectivist fashion, by explaining the need for Epistemology. "Epistemology is the science that tells a fallible, conceptual consciousness what rules to follow in order to gain knowledge of an independent reality." (p. 38) He goes on to explain that concepts are derived from experience, meaning that the mind is *tabula rasa* at birth: that is, it has no concepts in it at birth (This is not a claim that we have no "genetic programming," by the way. It merely points out that genes transmit no concepts).

So, we are supposing that Man can derive knowledge from experience, and can choose a proper method of doing so. The purpose of the chapter is to validate these two suppositions in order to prepare for a discussion of concepts in Chapter Three.

"The validity of the senses is an is a precondition of any proof." (p.39) This follows since "proof consists in reducing an idea back to ... the data of the senses," which are themselves given. Our senses "condense a complex body of information" (p. 41) into percepts of entities as entities. They do so ineluctably and mechanically, without interpretation. This is why they can be taken as the given. The senses condense and integrate the data of the external world, but conceptualization identifies them. As Peikoff states, in perception "We do not become aware of WHAT the objects [of perception] are, but merely THAT they are." (p. 40)

Peikoff goes on to summarize Rand's theory of perception in a form. The form of perception (e.g. the perception of light wavelengths as colors) depends on the identity of the object of perception and the identity of the sense apparatus being employed. This is analogous to the role frame of reference plays in physics. The way an object appears in the result of its causal properties, and these can be inferred from any particular sensory perspective. Thus "differences pertaining to form of the initial data have no ultimate consequences." (p.42-3) Any conceptual consciousness can identify the properties of any external object.

In should be noted that Peikoff approaches Philosophy as a science. He is seeking to explain the way things are, not to score debating points. His primary responsibility is positive: to present an accurate theory, and he clearly would view criticism that posits no alternative theory to be unworthy of debate. In this he would largely be correct.

This half of the chapter ends by pointing out that sensory qualities are as real as anything, and that they underpin all our knowledge, including the scientific explanation of the sensory qualities themselves. This is point is fundamental to understanding the entire Objectivist approach to knowledge: even mathematics is first learned, through perception, at the blackboard (and was invented by abstracting from perceptible characteristics of quantity and measurement). All our knowledge (even the validation of deductive logic) is inductive and starts with perception.

Peikoff zestfully outlines the absurdity of the alternative positions. "One does not subvert the reality of something by explaining it." (p. 45) He explains that consciousness, being something, has identity. "It is limited, finite, lawful." (p. 48) There are no "things in themselves," separate from the properties we can perceive, because there are no properties which are not causal, so there are no properties that we cannot perceive (at least indirectly).

Sense Perception Criticism:

By and large, Peikoff has accurately outlined the Objectivist theory of sense perception. However, there is much more to be said about perception, and many ways in which Peikoff's presentation could be improved. Peikoff's language is abstract in the best and worst senses of the word. He summarizes broad points in essentials. On the other hand, he ignores many finer points that a serious student of philosophy would wonder about, makes erroneous claims and fails to cite sources of more detailed information.

The last lapse is the most destructive. Rand does not discuss perception at any length in her writings, and Peikoff's discussion here is rather sketchy. A much more detailed presentation of Rand's theory exists (namely, David Kelley's_Evidence of the Senses_), but one wouldn't know it from reading Peikoff. Neither would one know where to find evidence on most of his scientific claims, such as those I dispute below. Peikoff need not have written a book for scholars, but if his aim was to open the door to the study of Objectivism, he has fallen short. By leaving out bibliographic references, he has left his readers without much idea of where to proceed next in their studies.

On page 38, Peikoff states:

[Animals] do not need cognitive guidance, because their knowledge is sensory or perceptual in nature. Human knowledge, however, though based on sensory perception, is conceptual in nature, and on the conceptual level consciousness displays a new feature: it is not automatic or infallible; it can err, distort, depart from reality.

What is the point here? There is at least the implication of sharp division of the animal kingdom into two clans: human-conceptual- volitional and animal-perceptual-automatic. I dispute that this is an accurate summary of the situation: when I get to volition, my reasons will be made clear. For now, I will say that Peikoff seems to be making a stronger claim than "animals, not being conceptual, can't use conceptual principles." I accept the weaker claim. The stronger claim is that animals do not err, and that their faculties are optimal for promoting their survival. This simply isn't so. If it were, we would have no use for veterinarians.

On page 42, Peikoff states:

Nor will...two men or any other perceiver with an intellect come to different conclusions about the nature of [an] object. In this respect, differences in sensory form do not matter. THEY HAVE NO CONSEQUENCES IN REGARD TO THE CONTENT OF COGNITION. {emphasis added}

Here Peikoff, in his zeal to establish objectivity of knowledge, has confused possibility with actuality. It is one thing to say that conceptual beings CAN all know the same facts, and quite another to claim that they DO all know the same facts. Because all knowledge is derived from experience, the form that experience takes will shape the order in which knowledge is gained. Imagine a rock with a weak radio transmitter inside. A human will identify the item as a rock, while a sapient, walking antenna would identify it as a light source. It would take quite a bit of science by both parties before they could completely agree on the nature of the rock. They can agree, but they do not always do so.

On the next page, Peikoff rephrases his claim correctly: "...the initial data have no ULTIMATE consequences." The one word "ultimate" makes a big difference in meaning, especially since Peikoff intends for his statements to be taken literally. Clear, one's perceptual context does have consequences for one's knowledge, but does not ultimately constrain that knowledge.

On page 52, Peikoff states:

Human infants start their lives in this state ["a blooming, buzzing confusion"]...but no one reading these words suffers such a state now.

The reason you see an entity is that you have experienced many kinds of sensations from similar objects in the past, and your brain has retained and ~integrated~ them: it has put them together to form an indivisible whole.

Does Peikoff mean that our senses experience similar sensations several times and then start gluing them together? I hope not. It makes far more sense (and better accords with the scientific evidence) to think of the perceptual apparatus as programmed (by natural selection) to discriminate entities in a sensory environment like ours.

Here is David Kelley's comment on the same issue:

Sensationalists have often replied [to the theory of perception as the given] with a developmental claim: infants do experience the world in the form of sensations, as a "blooming, buzzing confusion," and must learn to integrate sensations into percepts; but these integrative processes have become so automatic that we are no longer aware of them. Now even if infants were limited to sensations, this would not mean that perceptual development is a matter of automatizing computational processes. It might involve some purely physiological maturation that results in the ability to perceive entities. But infants do not in fact seem to experience sensations. A baby will track a moving object with his eyes, in a jerky way, virtually from birth, indicating some discrimination of the object as a unit. (Kelley, pp. 50-51)
(And Kelley does provide citations)

Human development is not central to understanding adult epistemology, but it is not unimportant either. Here and elsewhere, Peikoff's developmental accounts are unreliable, probably because he has been distant from the data for too long. Even as he imported, in Chapter One, some flavor of the coherence theory of truth to Objectivism in quoting "the True is the Whole," Peikoff here has subtly subscribed to a kind of Sensationalism: he accepts that "sensations" (isolated stimuli) are part of the content of experience. Kelley questions whether this is ever so, pointing out that it is hard to say when one ever experiences a point of sensation that is spatially and temporally isolated (for example, it is only with an advanced knowledge of Physics that we think of the light striking our eyes as arriving in discrete realizations rather than a continuous flow).

First in my litany of complaints and last in elucidation is the charge that Peikoff has dodged the tough questions. He sometimes has. For example, he argues that perception discriminates entities qua entities. Now this is easy to see for visual perception, but what does he make of sound or smell? We do not experience these as spatters of isolated sensation, but on the other hand it is not always obvious what object is being discriminated. In hearing footsteps, we attend to the object making the noise; in listening to music, we attend to the form of the noise itself. Peikoff does not address these issues even in passing.

Such problems do not chop at the root of the Objectivist theory. It is axiomatic that the senses are reliable as the foundation of knowledge (there really are no other coherent candidates). But in ignoring these problems, Peikoff opens himself to the charge that the Objectivist theory is simplistic, that it is just a re-hash (perhaps with adornment) of old theories that couldn't account for these problems either. He also makes one wonder how aware of these problems he is.

In sum, Peikoff's summary of the Objectivist theory of perception is accurate as a sketch, but not as a thorough discussion even in terms of essentials. This is a problem, I daresay, with the entire A.R.I. approach to arguing in essentials, and it dates to Ayn Rand's own practice. To argue is essentials is to argue in terms of accurate, well founded generalizations. This means assimilating data, not ignoring it.


Volition Summary:

Volition and Free Will, are, I take it, meant to denote the same state of self-aware, self-directedness. That humans have volition is axiomatic, in the Objectivist view. It is validated in human choice every second of every minute of every day and can be validated introspectively by any normal human. Man is free, Peikoff states, in the following sense: "A course of thought or action is`free,' if it is selected from two or more courses possible under the circumstances." (p. 55)

"Man's basic freedom of choice," Peikoff writes, " to exercise his distinctively human cognitive machinery or not; i.e. to set his conceptual faculty in motion or not. In Ayn Rand's summarizing formula, the choice is: `to think or not to think.'" (p.55) He refines this as "the choice to ~focus~ one's consciousness." He elaborates on the meaning of "focus:"

"Focus (in the conceptual realm) names a quality of purposeful alertness in a man's mental state." (p. 58) But: "focus is not the same thing as thinking; it need not involve problem-solving or the drawing of new conclusions." He contrasts it with a failure to exert mental effort, which is to drift, and with evasion, which is, in Rand's words "the willful suspension of one's consciousness, the refusal to think." (quoted, p. 61) The point is that in exerting the effort to "focus," that is to engage one's conceptual faculty, one is making a primary choice that is antecedent to all choices of actions or ideas.

Evasion, Peikoff argues, requires effort as well. But it is effort that is expended to misunderstand reality, to ignore the truth. Thus it is effort directed against one's only means of guidance, which is the essence of vice in Objectivist terms.

Peikoff proceeds to discuss the issue of the causation of human choices. He points out that in choice, we choose the values, etc. that are the reasons for an action. In this sense, the values cause the action. However, he cautions that this is not necessitation (billiard-ball causation): "In regard to the (higher level) actions of a volitional consciousness,...~`to be caused' does not mean `to be necessitated.'" (p. 64)

He elaborates on this point in discussing the law of causality:

The law of causality affirms a necessary connection between entities and their actions. It does not, however, specify any particular kind of entity or of action. The law does not say that only mechanistic relationships can occur...the law does not say that only choices governed by ideas and values are possible... The law of causality does not inventory the universe. (p. 68)

Peikoff ends this section my discussing "Volition as Axiomatic." And while the claim of self-evidency has already been heard many times in these first pages of the treatise, it does in fact hold, as I have outlined above.

Volition Criticism:

My litany of three holds for this section of the chapter as well. In this case, the best existing discussion of the Objectivist theory of volition is Harry Binswanger's "Volition as Cognitive Self- Regulation" (in Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 50, pp. 154-178, 1991), but is not cited, though Peikoff surely knew that it was going to press before his own type was set. This article is somewhat richer in detail than is Peikoff's discussion, and sets its context much more clearly.

Peikoff takes Determinism, which is something of a straw man, as his foil. Binswanger, on the other hand, takes three alternative formulations of volition to contrast with the Objectivist theory:

1. Choice of actions. Some theories, e.g., Existentialism, hold that free will concerns simply what we do - whether one turns left or right, whether he goes to work...

2. Choice of motives. Another theory holds that we have a separate faculty, called "the will," that determines which of two competing desires is activated...

3. Choice of ideas. According to this theory, although our actions depend upon our beliefs and values,~what~ we believe and value is a matter of direct free-will choice. (Binswanger, pp. 159-160)

Now in this context, it should be clear that the choice to engage one's conceptual faculty is antecedent to undertaking complex actions such as going to work, as it is antecedent to having or weighing motives and is antecedent to forming guiding beliefs. Thus it explains and guides the choice phenomena cited in each of the theories above. This is what gives Rand's argument its strength, but one wouldn't know that from Peikoff's discussion.

I dispute, however, that the choice "to think or not to think" is literally (using Peikoff's definitions) the "exact locus of human freedom", as Peikoff states on page 55. This is the fundamental, essential choice for humans, but it is not "choice" per se. Peikoff (and, to be fair, Rand as well) has divided the world into two camps: human-conceptual-volitional and animal-perceptual/sensational- automatized. In this schema, humans have the ability to choose while the conscious non-human animals are merely jostled about by pleasure and pain stimuli. The choice "to think or not to think" is then the only real choice in the world, and "choice" per se arises only in this form. The unthinking human becomes an automaton, just as an animal is supposed to be an automaton.

I don't believe it requires much science to see that this schema is inaccurate. The complex animals are clearly "free" in Peikoff's definition: they select courses of action "from two or more courses possible under the circumstances." They do not, on the other hand, have Free Will: they are not self-conscious and cannot explicitly identify and control their own thinking process. The complex animals, including man, appear to all have a faculty that resides in consciousness which allows them to direct certain simple actions. I expect that these amount to no more than an ability to direct neural impulses, so that this ability could be used to direct a muscular movement or a mental action. I am not endorsing the "Existentialist" position above, but I am saying that the root of volition is an ability of choice which governs a range of actions that includes more than simply mental actions. I am saying that one can choose movements without conceptualizing: babies do.

I don't know if my view is objectionable to Peikoff, but it should be clear that it does not detract from the main points about human volition. Conceptualization is our means of knowing what to do and our best means of furthering our lives. Exerting choice of our mental actions to engage the conceptual faculty and use it properly is the fundamental choice for human beings. When one doesn't do so, one does become more like an animal, but without the other guidance an animal typically develops: one is able to choose in the face of alternatives, but not systematically or purposefully. But even so, one is not an automaton, just as the complex animals are not.

On p. 62, Peikoff states:

To an evader, a feeling of some kind is more important than truth.

According to Objectivism, evasion is the vice that underlies evasion is the vice that underlies all other vices. In the present era, it is leading to the collapse of the world.

These are two examples of what I call "Atlas Shrugged contextualization." The presumption is that people are all just like the characters of Atlas, and the world is going to pot just like the world of Atlas. This is the kind of language of "essentials" that stretches far beyond the facts. It's okay in fiction, not in scholarship. Peikoff's bald assertion of the psychology of "an evader" is made without the slightest indication of sources of further discussion or validation. Having argued that "focus" is not an on-off matter and that there are degrees of awareness, Peikoff flip-flops to discuss the mind of "an evader" as if it were an on-off issue. This ignores the interesting and difficult issue of the psychology of actual evasion and, by contrast, the form that actual rationality does take in the world. This seems to presage Peikoff's view in "Fact and Value" that non-Objectivist adults are at best "unthinking."

The second context-drop is in many ways, worse. Peikoff has trusted us to take his arguments without bibliography and compare our awareness of the facts with his claims. But then what should we make of his analysis over all? It is far from obvious that "the present era" is headed for "collapse." In fact, it is obvious to most people that life is far better now than it was fifty years ago: the world is more peaceful and we are healthier and richer. Russia, Germany and China, which were the slaughterhouses of the 20th century, are all more reasonable and free than they were. This sort of argument will not illuminate much for the unconverted, and it intensifies the myopia of the faithful.

In sum, the section on volition presents Ayn Rand's theory accurately with little elaboration on her own arguments. Indeed, the elocution is very much ersatz Rand. It does address various issues in more detail than Rand did in print (e.g. the causation of human action), but occasionally suffers from a lack of clarity (e.g. the "flip-flop" above) and a tendency to make sweeping, but sometimes ill-founded, generalizations. Finally, he fails at times to make clear the limits of his own knowledge. We do know that Man has volition. We do not know how the brain works, or what the relationship between brain activity and the processes of consciousness is. Peikoff should have stated clearly that, just as the law of causality does not legislate over the universe, so Objectivism does not legislate over the investigations of cognitive science.

This has been an often negative review. I've given my reasons, but have failed to praise Peikoff's work as much as it might deserve. His writing is often lucid and lean. Alas, it is also often too lean: leaving out concretizations, restatements and elaborations that would have enriched the reading experience greatly.

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