Tuesday, May 24, 2016

The Perceptual Level as Given

One of the questions that philosophy asks is, “what information does the mind start with, what is ‘given’ with regard to our consciousness”? To answer this question, let’s briefly survey the levels of information that the mind deals with from the Objectivist perspective. As this principle sort of encapsulates the Objectivist view of perception, I’ll elaborate on some aspects of perception that I covered in previous essays. After giving this overview, I’ll discuss this principle’s relation to the previous intuitive inductions I’ve written about. The conclusion will discuss some overall lessons to be learned about epistemology from the Objectivist principles about perception that have been explained.

(Rand’s Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology will be cited as IOE, her The Virtue of Selfishness will be cited as VOS and Peikoff’s Objectivism: the Philosophy of Ayn Rand will be cited as OPAR.)

The Levels of Consciousness

From what has been learned about consciousness, it has three distinct stages: the sensory/sensation level, the perceptual level, and the conceptual level.

A sensation is a type of awareness,
produced by the automatic reaction of a sense organ to a stimulus from the outside world; it lasts for the duration of the immediate moment, as long as the stimulus lasts and no longer. Sensations are an automatic response, an automatic form of knowledge, which a consciousness can neither seek nor evade. (“The Objectivist Ethics,” VOS, 18)
Sensations are senses of hot, cold, heavy, lightweight, putrid, tangy, and bright (among many others). They are the individual sensations that form the building blocks of our experiences, and some of them are the only kinds of knowledge that some types of organisms ever possess. I mean that there are types of organisms who only experience sensations, such as jelly fish. Sensations are also irreducible: they are the simplest conscious units that cannot be analyzed further. They transmit information to the given organism about some object(s) in the immediate environment, without the awareness of the whole entity or thing(s) causing the stimulus.

The next stage is perception. Rand states that it “is a group of sensations automatically retained and integrated by the brain of a living organism, which gives it the ability to be aware, not of single stimuli, but of entities, of things.” (ibid., p. 19) This is one of the few occasions where I disagree with one of her definitions. Instead, I prefer philosopher Harry Binswanger’s version:
"Perception" is the direct awareness of reality, in the form of spatially arrayed entities, that results from the automatic neural processing of actively acquired sensory inputs. (It is taken as understood that the awareness is ongoing, not momentary or episodic, and that perception is ‘metaphysically given,’ and hence inerrant.) (Binswanger, How We Know, p. 86)
Many animals and all humans perceive objects in their environments, while it seems that animals with neural nets or primitive brains only have sensations. Perception allows an organism to gain awareness of the perceptual environment around them, and animals can make certain perceptual associations such as memories of past perceptions and can even experience imaginations. The scientific conclusion is that humans begin at this level, and our next stage of consciousness works together with it.

Rand defines perception as an integration of various retained sensations. Our more advanced scientific theories of perception shows the flaws in that sort of definition, as well as Rand’s belief that infants experience a brief sensation stage during which their brains integrate the sensations into perceptions. It should be noted that the definition of “perception” and what infants experience are really scientific questions and not issues that philosophy can technically answer, so I don’t see this minor issue as impacting Objectivism as a philosophy. Rand acknowledged this, stating: “The knowledge of sensations as components of percepts is not direct, it is acquired by man much later: it is a scientific, conceptual discovery.” (IOE, p. 5) Hence, it really has no bearing on Objectivism as a philosophy if a part of her definition of “perception” is incorrect.

The essence of the Objectivist view is that perception is an awareness of entities, it is automatic (i.e., not volitional), it cannot be in error, and that it is the epistemically given, the basis for all knowledge and the first items of knowledge for us and many kinds of animals. Rand thought that the brain integrates a combined set of retained sensations. Binswanger holds that sensory inputs are neuronally-processed into an awareness of entities in the form of inseparable sensory qualities of those objects, and hence there are no retained sensations or even sensations as components of perception at all. Either way, the issue of how we perceive should be left up to science to answer. Philosophy should merely tell us what is perceived (entities arrayed in space) and in what forms (the sensory qualities).

The last known stage of consciousness which humans have exclusively reached is known as “conception” or the conceptual level. (I’ll note that this level is the most advanced form of consciousness that is known to exist, and that it seems that we are the only ones that possess it, not that we’re the only ones that can reach it.) Since the more specific details about concepts and this level of consciousness will be discussed in future essays, I’ll give Rand’s basic definition of concepts. A concept is a, “mental integration of two or more units which are isolated by a process of abstraction and united by a specific definition.” (The Romantic Manifesto, p. 17) In her theory, the “units” of a given concept can be perceptual concrete things, unobservable things we’ve discovered through scientific research or individual abstract concepts which are united into an even more abstract concept.

Concepts are distinct from the previous two stages of consciousness principally because they are (1) volitionally formed, (2) capable of being formed and used without an immediate stimulus from the surrounding environment, (3) formed by a process of abstraction, and (4) can contain unlimited amounts of knowledge about an unlimited number of referents within each concept. (There are many other differences, but they will be discussed in future essays.)

While Objectivism clearly distinguishes between these stages, there are major philosophers throughout history whom rejected or downplayed at least one stage of consciousness. Most of these philosophers fit into two epistemological camps: the modern empiricists, who on the issue of perception were “sensualists,” and the rationalists, whether ancient or modern. My next essay will delve into the heart of this sensualist view of perception. (Before I tackle the rationalist school, I will first show the inductions about concept-formation in future posts.)

The Objectivist View of Perception

Now we can answer what we start with in terms of awareness. The Objectivist answer is that the mind begins tabula rasa, a “blank slate.” Francis Bacon called it the “empty floor,” and John Locke called it the “empty tablet.” No sensations, perceptions, memories, imaginations, notions, ideas, concepts.

As Rand states it, “[…][m]an is born with an emotional mechanism, just as he is born with a cognitive mechanism; but, at birth, both are ‘tabula rasa.’ It is man’s cognitive faculty, his mind, that determines the content of both.” (VOS, p. 28) She states it again with an analogy:
At birth, a child’s mind is tabula rasa; he has the potential of awareness—the mechanism of a human consciousness—but no content. Speaking metaphorically, he has a camera with an extremely sensitive, unexposed film (his conscious mind), and an extremely complex computer waiting to be programmed (his subconscious). Both are blank. He knows nothing of the external world[…] (Return of the Primitive: The Anti-Industrial Revolution, p. 54)
The physical and mental structure and capability of having perceptions and conceptions is present at least at birth. As was stressed in the previous principle, consciousness possesses identity, and this includes the perceptual and conceptual levels of consciousness. It might be the case that the baby is born with a mind that is tabula rasa, or perhaps that he or she has reached some forms of knowledge even when inside of the womb but later has no recollection of the fact.

The philosophical point is that at whatever point the mind comes into being, it has no content. Metaphysically, the mind begins tabula rasa. Epistemologically, every process to gain some form of knowledge begins with the perceptual level of consciousness.

Consciousness must always process some stimulus from the environment in order to have its first sensations/perceptions. And for us, these first perceptions are the precondition for our other conscious states to gain any content. Metaphysically, there’s no content initially, only the structure and potential to have perceptions and conceptions. Epistemologically, the perceptual awareness of entities is what is given as our initial and primary content. This means that memories, imaginations, and even conceptions depend on first having perceptions, some content from and interaction with the external world.

This perceptual interaction can be analyzed into the aspects of awareness we know as “sensory qualities,” such as brightness, smoothness, volume, and spiciness. As perception is the direct awareness of entities in the Objectivist view: this means that the direct object of perception is the external object-as-it-is-being-perceived-by-the-subject. The objects are the “what” of perception, and the sensory qualities that we analyze perception into are the “how.” This means that the sensory qualities are real; they are actual aspects of our unitary perceptual experiences, of any perceptual relationship.

The Objectivist position is that the field of epistemology must state that we begin with the perceptual level, with the level of discriminated awareness of entities (i.e. the awareness of distinct, different entities, things). The perceptual level is what is “given” in experience. “Direct experience” or “direct awareness” means our perceptions. This means that the awareness of entities is an epistemologically basic, primary fact, a fact presupposed by all other knowledge. The fact of perceptual awareness of distinct entities is regarded as self-evident, as one of the bases of all cognition and is thus an incontestable fact. Rand remarks, “[d]iscriminated awareness begins on the level of percepts […] Percepts, not sensations, are the given, the self-evident.” (IOE, p. 5)

The Intuitive Inductions of Perception

If consciousness is conscious, then the senses as the primary form of consciousness must be valid. Just as “the Validity of the Senses” was a self-evident implication of the consciousness axiom, there are several axiomatic corollaries of the fact that the senses are valid.

If the senses are valid, then the sensory forms in which we experience our perceptual environment must be valid as well. The senses give us an awareness of external objects. We experience this as a unified whole, which can be analyzed as various sensory qualities. This means that the forms or sensory qualities are real, that they are genuine aspects of the perceptual relationship between the object and the subject, including their respective natures. This is how the principle “Sensory Qualities as Real” is one of the corollaries of the senses being valid.

The senses are a valid means of awareness, a valid form of consciousness. Any consciousness is limited; it can only be aware of reality in certain ways, using certain means. A given consciousness can neither utilize every possible means of being conscious, nor can it be aware by using no means at all. The reality of how the senses are valid gives us the information needed to claim that every consciousness possesses identity, a certain nature using certain physical instruments to reach awareness in certain forms. In this way, “Consciousness as Possessing Identity” can be conveyed as another corollary of the senses’ validity.

The principle “The Perceptual Level as Given” applies to all beings who are aware at the level of perception, but it has a special meaning for us. The other animals who perceive can also reach derivative mental states like remembering and imagining to various degrees. However, they never go beyond the perceptual level, and so that is what they are given and the full extent of their knowledge. The conceptual level is a marked advance over the perceptual, and so for us perceptions act as the base of our knowledge, upon which we can build higher and more abstract, conceptual knowledge.

In essence, “The Perceptual Level as Given” is the principle that the senses are valid, as applied to human beings. The senses being the primary means of consciousness and being valid, when considered from the aspect of human perception, simply means that the perception of entities is what is given to us as the foundation and start of all of our knowledge. All other mental states and knowledge—all volitional acts, memories, imaginations, emotions, concepts, propositions, theories, etc.—depend on the self-evident base we are given: the perceptual level.

Conclusion: the Objectivist Lessons for Any Epistemology

In articulating these principles about the senses, I briefly mentioned some admonitions that Objectivism gives other theories of epistemology, past, present and future. These remarks concern what views any valid theory of epistemology should hold at its base. Seeing as this is the final topic strictly about perception, I thought it would be fruitful to reiterate those warnings here.

The Senses as Valid

The Objectivist view is that the senses are our first and primary means of awareness, of gaining information about reality. The other faculties that we possess depend on this primary means of consciousness. This means that the validity of our memories and emotions, and the content of our imaginations, depends on the senses being valid, i.e., that we have some initial means of being conscious. Most crucially for the program of epistemology, our concepts, all of our ideas are derived ultimately from the data we gain from the senses. (OPAR, p. 39)

Epistemology shows us how we gain knowledge, which amounts to showing us how we use the intellect to rise above our perceptions to validly form concepts and reach logical conclusions. The warning here is to not dismiss or reject the senses, as they are the cognitive beginning of human knowledge. (ibid.) Casting aside the senses is tantamount to asserting that we are not conscious, since the senses give us our basic means of being conscious. Attacks on the idea of consciousness are self-refuting because the objector himself must be conscious to even raise the objection. Since concepts are based ultimately on the data of the senses, opposing the senses destroys the cognitive base of one’s knowledge and everything built off of it, including the terms used to attack the senses. Opposing the senses amounts to the rejection of the axioms of philosophy, and can only end in the destruction of the objector’s philosophy.

Sensory Qualities as Real

This principle means that the aspects of our perceptual awareness which we call “sensory forms” or “sensory qualities” are real, are valid. The senses are unqualifiedly valid, and that necessarily means that the various forms of perceptual awareness are valid as well. This applies as much to the colors, sounds, and smells of our perceptual experience as much as to the ultraviolet perception of many bird species and to the echo-location perception used by various species of bats and dolphins.

Objectivism readily acknowledges that we can distinguish the form in which an object appears to a subject from the object itself. This admission of forms of awareness does not imply that the senses are invalid or subjective. Whatever forms of perceptions exist are the results of a physical interaction between observer and the observed, and it occurs automatically without either the will or the imagination influencing it. The data of the senses and its forms are never in error, and they are constructed by our thoughts or imaginings.

The lesson is that sensory qualities should not be denied or explained away, but accepted without argument. To bemoan the fact that the forms are effects but not primaries is to substitute a wish for the reality of the situation: sensory qualities are the result of an ongoing interaction, and so it must necessarily be an effect. To accuse the senses of invalidity because the sensory forms are “different from” the parts of reality that compose the objects is to again desire a fantasy: to perceive an object “purely,” without any sensory features or qualities, means to perceive by no particular means, which means to not perceive.

To think that a sensory form is an aspect of only the observer’s mind, or only an aspect of the object, is to make a category mistake. If perception is a kind of relationship, an interaction between subject and object, then the sensory forms cannot be an aspect of merely one or the other. All sensory forms are the-object-as-it-is-being-perceived-by-the-subject. Sensory forms then are neither qualities of one entity, the object, nor qualities of one entity, the subject, but are qualities of the relationship between them, an interaction known as “perception.”

Consciousness as Possessing Identity

Objectivism’s view here is that “[i]dentity is not the disqualifier of consciousness, but its precondition.” (OPAR, p. 49) Every theory of epistemology must acknowledge that consciousness is something in particular which carries out certain actions by certain, delimited means. Consciousness has an identity and follows causality, just like everything else that exists in reality.

Any process of knowledge has two aspects: the object of cognition and the means of cognition. As Dr. Peikoff remarks, “[t]he object (which is studied by the special sciences) is always some aspect of reality; there is nothing else to know. The means (which is studied by epistemology) pertains to the kind of consciousness and determines the form of cognition.” (Ibid.) A key lesson for any epistemology is to never tear these elements of cognition asunder.

The skeptics of history cited the fact that the senses operate by some means to show that we don’t experience reality itself, but some subjective world that the senses construct. The mystics of history believed that our human, limited senses and means of cognition were ill-suited to gain true knowledge about the world. But consciousness has a nature and external objects have natures, and they can relate to one another to produce knowledge in spite of the claims of those two camps.

Perceptual Level as Given

Direct awareness or direct experience is the perceptual level of consciousness for us, the awareness of entities and not sensations. The awareness of entities is self-evident, not the result of a logical proof. It is our first form of awareness and the base of all of our cognitions.

The final lesson here is that to prove any item or piece of knowledge, a person must start with the facts of perception. These facts are the base of all other knowledge, and we trace back and validate all other knowledge to these perceptual facts. This includes any and all conceptual knowledge, whether it’s closer to the perceptual level or far more abstract.


Binswanger, Harry. How We Know: Epistemology on an Objectivist FoundationNew York: TOF             Publications, 2014.
Peikoff, Leonard. Objectivism: the Philosophy of Ayn Rand. New York: Meridian, 1993 (1991).
Ayn Rand Lexicon Entry: “Concepts.” http://aynrandlexicon.com/lexicon/concepts.html
Ayn Rand Lexicon Entry: “Tabula Rasa.” http://aynrandlexicon.com/lexicon/tabula_rasa.html
Ayn Rand Lexicon Entry: “Perception.” http://aynrandlexicon.com/lexicon/perception.html

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