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Prescriptions for a Rationalist

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Rationalists of OOF,

(recovered rationalists, that is)

What did you start doing differently? Or what made things click? Or what did you decide to accept that you really didn't want to?

Since discovering the Fountainhead during COVID, I've become all but fluent in Objectivism-as-a-system-of-thought. I keep getting the sense that I'm so close to hitting on the core of what I'm doing to keep myself from being happier and more productive, but every time I think I've found something fundamental, I find I'm still far from the bottom floor. I don't feel as though I'm making progress, even in small ways. I make plans, but they turn out half-baked. I give myself "standing orders", but they evaporate soon after. I focus on values, but they seem either too meager or too grandiose (that or they just fail to motivate). I discover that I've refused to acknowledge my limitations, but I question whether I can face them without losing hope. I learn that I've failed to introspect, but then Piekoff tells me that my mistake is in looking inwards rather than outwards. I try to start with perception, but I don't get further than classifying objects. I try to grasp the self-evident, but I can't convince myself of its self-evidency.

I think a big part of my problem is skepticism about induction, but I don't know what to do about it. On the more immediate level, I can't see any third option outside of repression and whim-worship.

I'm not asking specifically for answers to any of these questions (although, I welcome them), but I'd like to give you all some idea of where I stand. If any of this sounds like your backstory, I'd love to know, at the very least, what you found encouraging.

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Have you read Peikoff's Understanding Objectivism? (This is a book based on a lecture course.)

Peikoff described himself as having a "rationalistic" understanding of Objectivism for over a decade (I don't remember the exact number of years) before finally correcting that error. Understanding Objectivism has a lot of specific information about how to correct it. (He says he hopes to help other people correct the error more quickly.)

(One important thing Peikoff says is that you shouldn't judge yourself as morally bad merely because some of your emotions are wrong. It's your actions, not your emotions, that make you good or bad. If you intercepted a bad emotion and didn't act on it in any significant way, good for you. You can train your emotions over time.)

4 hours ago, HowardRoarkSpaceDetective said:

I think a big part of my problem is skepticism about induction

My theory is that emotions and generalizations come out of the same mechanism in the brain. (I think it's self-evident by introspection that emotions and generalizations come "out of the same place," as it were, but it is not self-evident that it is a "mechanism in the brain.")

This leads some people to think (wrongly) that induction is the same as emotionalism, and that reasoning has to consist only of deduction in order to be valid.

Because emotions and generalizations come out of the brain, they both have to be validated; they are not automatically correct or automatically incorrect; they have to be checked ultimately against reality.

It is very common to check generalizations against other generalizations, but then you are only checking your brain's mechanism against itself, and this is a mistake if you assume the correctness of generalizations that aren't actually correct. You should be able to trace everything all the way to reality. With Objectivist principles, that is possible, but it will take practice.

Most educated people are well familiar with deduction, with how to form and validate a deductive argument, and with various fallacies of deduction. They are not so familiar with induction, which is susceptible to its own fallacies (such as evasion of inconvenient facts in order to prop up false generalizations).

There is also a lot of information about induction in Induction in Physics and Philosophy (by David Harriman, who worked with Leonard Peikoff to develop the book and a lecture series on the subject. Leonard Peikoff delivered the lecture series.)

Edited by necrovore
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On 6/1/2024 at 5:33 PM, necrovore said:

Have you read Peikoff's Understanding Objectivism?

I actually have. It was at a time when I was just starting to understand the term "intrinsicism". I tried to go back recently and listen to the lectures, but I was having too much trouble following his examples. I couldn't make heads or tails of the kinds of though processes he was describing. I'm not sure how to explain it. I've been having more luck with the Objectivism Through Induction lectures, although I'm finding that I can't get past simple concepts like "house" or "food". When he starts talking about inducing the axioms, it gets so abstract I start to wonder how it's even possible for them to be self-evident.

I did start on Induction in Physics and Philosophy but that also baffled me.

On 6/1/2024 at 5:33 PM, necrovore said:

My theory is that emotions and generalizations come out of the same mechanism in the brain.

What do you mean by this?

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I’m struggling to understand what the problem is, and what it has to with induction (or how it relates to rationalism). It seems (based on the fact that you say so) that you are skeptical about induction: I take it that this is an emotional reaction of some sort (otherwise, how do you know that you are skeptical?), and the appropriate step would be introspection in an effort to find something in reason to causes you doubt the validity of induction. Do you similarly feel skeptical about perception (and if so, what are the reasons for that feeling)?

I myself cannot imagine directly making the transition from the concepts “house” and “food” to “Existence exists”. How did you even get to “house” and “food”? What was your exact process in coming to terms with those concepts? My opinion is that passively listening to lectures is not a good strategy, at least for me, because reasoning is not a passive activity like digestion is. A tangible text has the advantage that you can focus on the exact words and you can rapidly move from one clause to another, evaluating how they relate. ITOE as a printed book is thus an excellent foundation, OPAR is likewise an excellent tool that builds on the ITOE foundation, but understanding them requires “chewing” on the statements contained there. The suggested remedy is to be explicit in the logical process of getting from things that you do not doubt, to things that you are uncertani of.

It seems to me that the primary problem is that you feel that induction is not a valid means of gaining knowledge. Why do you feel that, if that’s what you feel? And if you don’t feel skeptical about induction, does that mean you changed your mind relative to the first post?

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Peikoff says in OPAR:

Quote

We begin as philosophers where we began as babies, at the only place there is to begin: by looking at the world.

So I guess you could consider a toddler, just beginning to learn to speak, and what they understand.

What children understand is not wrong, it just lacks depth (which naturally comes later).

The concepts of "house" and "food" are available to three-year-olds, so you've probably already figured them out. By now of course you know more than you did then, but you need to have some confidence that you wouldn't have screwed up what houses and food are.

A young child might not know what "self-evident" means, but they actually deal mostly with the self-evident, because they are just beginning to develop their ability to learn or infer what is not self-evident.

Young children have feelings, and they also have the ability to start forming concepts, and they start forming concepts without understanding what they are doing, in much the same way that a child already has to be speaking English before they can learn what "nouns" and "verbs" are. This is what I mean when I say that concept formation is in our brains.

The philosophical purpose is to understand in greater depth what these processes are doing. (And how they can go wrong and how to prevent this.)

Unfortunately people can pick up incorrect philosophical ideas such as the mind-body dichotomy or the reason-emotion dichotomy, and a person can get so used to these ideas, and using them and accepting their implications, that they are hard to get away from. That's where rationalism comes from (and whim worship, too). Talking people into believing that their emotional mechanism is wrong is like talking them into believing that their (perfectly healthy) left arm is wrong and that it needs to be cut off or something. No. Although particular emotions can be wrong, that is learned (like a bad habit) and it can be un-learned. The emotional mechanism is not wrong.

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On 6/1/2024 at 8:30 PM, HowardRoarkSpaceDetective said:

I think a big part of my problem is skepticism about induction

If I understand your post correctly, you want to learn Objectivism directly from observation, rather than from Ayn Rand or Leonard Peikoff. But alas, you doubt the inductive method, along with anything that comes out of it.

Can induction be proved? Let's see. We could prove induction by means of an inductive proof; but that would beg the question. Maybe proving induction through logic is better. However, logic is merely the application of a certain fact extracted from observation, i.e. the observation that existential facts are in harmony (the principle of non-contradiction).

We are then left with the bare fact of observation itself. Even here, we have options. One option is to step outside of observation, to see if there's any mind-independent objects to which my observation corresponds. But insofar as I observe those mind-independent objects, I have not stepped outside of observation at all. I cannot leave my own mind.

Another option. Since I am conscious of myself, I am conscious of what I do. If I think a thought, that thought does not appear to me as "perceptually given", but rather as something I thought. But if I was not self-conscious, it would be the opposite: all of my thoughts (including the thought "I") would appear as "perceptually given", as merely an instance of "existence exists."

(The former is called Realism, the latter Idealism.)

In my opinion, just as you can't "cure" egoistic tendencies unless you're first convinced that egoism is bad, you can't "cure" rationalism unless you first believe that induction is valid. So I say, forget about "recovering", and focus on proving or disproving induction. The Rand-Peikoff theory might be perfectly correct, or horrendously short-sighted. It's up to you to figure out.

Edited by KyaryPamyu
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3 hours ago, DavidOdden said:

I’m struggling to understand what the problem is, and what it has to with induction (or how it relates to rationalism).

I guess what I'm saying is that I don't feel as though I have the foundation on which to start building. I feel like I have to latch onto Rand's words just to think. I don't know how to link any of it to reality, which is frustrating because I know many people who could give a rip about philosophy and appear to be pretty tied to reality. If I try to express what I'm thinking, I'm liable to get dizzy.

3 hours ago, DavidOdden said:

Why do you feel that, if that’s what you feel?

I wish I knew. All I know is that when I hear that certainty is contextual, it sounds to me a lot like saying, "This is the truth... maybe." It sounds, from what the experts say, that my problem really centers on the desire for omniscience, or in other words, frustration with having limits. I have a similar problem with regard to values. I have trouble imagining how I could ever be satisfied with life while knowing I'll die. I'm not looking for an answer to that quandary at the moment; I'm familiar with the "indestructible robot" argument, but it's never moved me.

4 hours ago, necrovore said:

A young child might not know what "self-evident" means, but they actually deal mostly with the self-evident, because they are just beginning to develop their ability to learn or infer what is not self-evident.

I think I'm having trouble grasping what it means to "know" something, even the self-evident. I hear that perception is valid, and I think, "If you say so." The idea that "if I am conscious, I must be conscious of something" feels like begging the question, and the idea that "nothing is the intellect that was not first in the senses" makes no sense to me. And I could go about parsing those ideas, but I don't know how to be sure that I've understood them. I've "understood" plenty of things in the past.

1 hour ago, KyaryPamyu said:

But if I was not self-conscious, it would be the opposite: all of my thoughts (including the thought "I") would appear as "perceptually given", as merely an instance of "existence exists."

I sympathize more with this point of view.

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As far as what it means to 'know something' , maybe it isn't really a question , or that it isn't the kind of question that has a truly universally communicable explicit definition or discursive explanation. As an example , look at your keyboard , you see the keyboard yes? You 'know' you see the keyboard, yes ? Now explain to me 'how' you know that you know it. Language is objective but meaning is subjective, it's okay to feel you know it. Lacking the ability to formalize a meaning isn't necessarily a lacking of meaning.

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1 hour ago, HowardRoarkSpaceDetective said:

It sounds, from what the experts say, that my problem really centers on the desire for omniscience, or in other words, frustration with having limits.

It sounds to me like your problem centers around the relationship between evidence and truth, which is itself a bit of an abstraction. I expect that you don’t have totally crazy ideas, but let’s test that. With your eyes open, put your right hand in front of your face and determine whether the following proposition is true: “I see my right hand”. I assume you feel that the proposition is true, and that you find this very strongly to be true. Next, watch a moving car approaching an intersection and, 100 ft before the intersection decide whether the following proposition is true: “That car will turn right”. Notice that I set this up so that different circumstances could lead you to different evaluations. I expect that your will not feel very strongly that the proposition is true (or false).

Your feeling of certainty about your hand versus uncertainty about the car is about alternative propositions. To be concrete, let’s say that the car is in the right-hand lane, they signal for a right turn, and they start to slow down. This is good evidence that the proposition is true, but it doesn’t require much mulling-over to see that there are still possibilities for stopping and not turning, going straight through, and even turning left. Another “possibility” is that a black hole will develop into which the car will vanish. That is a crazy alternative, in contrast to the reasonable alternatives which I’ve given. I am directing your attention to Peikoff’s evidentiary continuum and the difference between claims that are possible, probable versus certain (plus, arbitrary which is totally of the scale). Reasonable people do not entertain unreasonable propositions, which is to say propositions that enjoy no factual support an serve merely as conjectures designed to defeat knowledge. If you do seriously consider the possibility that you don’t see your hand, you have a very serious problem.

I have spoken of feelings here because that is not people usually talk, but Objectivism is about what is, and not what you feel. When you read OPAR “Reason”, notice what thing is “certain” – the proposition, not the person. A true proposition is one that correctly states an aspect of reality (a fact), and truth is not determined by the quality of the evidence for it – which is why propositions are either true or false, and not undecided. The evidentiary scale is a tool for making a judgment as to truth. I find that many people do not properly distinguish between truth and evidence, which leads to theories of “truth” whereby a well-supported false claim is “true”. No being has direct infallible access to truth, we always approach truth via knowledge judgments.

My suggestion is to take a few moments to scrutinize real things that you know, and to more explicitly say what your basis is for “knowing” this, and for dismissing alternatives. Cases like the hand in front of the face, and then things that are slightly less self evident. The central question should be, what is the evidence for and against the proposition, and what are the alternatives and their (counter)evidence. Omniscience is not required, what is required is that in making these judgments, you integrate everything that you know – you don’t have to take into consideration everything that I know. You can and should, of course, ask about things that I know if you suspect that there is a specific fact that I know and that would be relevant to your judgment.

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3 hours ago, tadmjones said:

Language is objective but meaning is subjective, it's okay to feel you know it. Lacking the ability to formalize a meaning isn't necessarily a lacking of meaning.

It isn't a lacking of meaning, but it isn't an indicator of knowing, either, right? I've felt like I've known things before that I don't know now. I just don't understand how one can say "I know the truth" while also saying "I might be wrong".

2 hours ago, DavidOdden said:

If you do seriously consider the possibility that you don’t see your hand, you have a very serious problem.

Perhaps I'm just hesitant to take anything for granted.

One of my biggest concerns is that I'm only making my situation worse by trying to get something out of conversations like these. Like I said, they aren't necessary for most people.

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3 minutes ago, tadmjones said:

Perhaps we are not using ‘know’ and ‘knowing’ in the same sense. I would say not being able to recall a past known thing a function/ problem of memory.

I would agree with that, however, I didn't intend to imply anything about memory. I was more so talking about that idea that "know" appears to be stronger than "guess" but both still involve the possibility that new evidence may overturn past conclusions.

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Well that’s not something that can be avoided, lol. 
 

Maybe do consider ‘meditating’ on any impact negative emotional responses to the idea of uncertainty could have on focusing your intellect toward becoming certain , contextually, about any specific ‘knowledge’.

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52 minutes ago, HowardRoarkSpaceDetective said:

Could you explain that a little more?

Basically in the vein of what DO had to say. Facts and knowledge about specific facts can be certain, certainty is a relationship between facts and understanding (knowledge + integration) not an attribute of a person.

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3 hours ago, tadmjones said:

certainty is a relationship between facts and understanding (knowledge + integration) not an attribute of a person

I wasn't really sure why he mentioned this distinction in the first place. What am I missing?

Also, for what it's worth, @DavidOdden, I've noticed that the more intensely I focus on the question of perception's validity, the less convinced I am of it. Once I move on to mundane activities like folding laundry or walking down the stairs, the doubt mostly disappears. The whole question gets moved down to the level of sensation, it seems. Likewise, I never feel as though I "know" something unless there's an accompanying feeling of conviction that occurs with it. I get the impression from Rand that that conviction is an effect of knowledge but not evidence for it. I'm curious to know, however, whether that feeling of conviction always occurs in cases of valid knowledge. I've often been stopped in a process of thought when I've noticed that a perfectly logical argument doesn't move me. A case in point would be any conversation regarding the validity of perception. I can't argue with it, but it doesn't make me feel anything either. This leaves me feeling like accepting the self-evident is a matter either of faith or of something akin holding onto a ledge for dear life - in other words, painful but necessary. Piekoff does say something in Understanding Objectivism about "banishing" an improper context in one's thinking - similar to trying to write with one's non-dominant hand, I imagine. Is this applicable to the self-evident? Does the self-evident need to be automatized?

Another angle on this problem involves repression. There is a wide gulf between what I believe and what I feel. For example, I was watching a TV show the other day, and a boy asks his mother why they have to eat their meals together, and she replies that it's so that they can talk and enjoy each other's company. So he says, "Okay, what do you want to talk about?" and they proceed to have a conversation about school. This seemed so contrived to me, and I could never take that kind of situation seriously. At the same time, I frequently talk to people just for the sake of talking. I love to talk. I do it in excess. But if I only ever did what I could consciously justify, that would entail putting forth a heroic effort in order to be a man of few words. By the same token, I'm skeptical of most of my automatized functions. This may even be why I have no physical coordination.

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12 hours ago, HowardRoarkSpaceDetective said:

I've noticed that the more intensely I focus on the question of perception's validity, the less convinced I am of it. Once I move on to mundane activities like folding laundry or walking down the stairs, the doubt mostly disappears. The whole question gets moved down to the level of sensation, it seems. Likewise, I never feel as though I "know" something unless there's an accompanying feeling of conviction that occurs with it. I get the impression from Rand that that conviction is an effect of knowledge but not evidence for it. I'm curious to know, however, whether that feeling of conviction always occurs in cases of valid knowledge.

There is no necessary, automatic feeling of conviction or disbelief resulting from any intellectual process. Although happiness is, theoretically, that state of consciousness which proceeds from the achievement of one’s values, this is a psychological ideal and not an unavoidable physical reaction. It is possible to feel convinced without the logical preconditions for certainty, just as one can feel doubtful in the face of overwhelming evidence pointing to certainty. I do understand that a person can be presented with solid evidence for a proposition and yet not feel that the proposition is true. I think the reason is that the person has yet to resolve actual reasonable doubts which they are not aware of. Subconscious reasoning is a real thing and can be a hindrance, if you cannot elevate it to the level of an explicit logical dialogue.

Rand addresses this problem in “Philosophical detection”, but she does not offer a concrete therapy allowing you to rewrite you code for feelings. My opinion is that the best primary step is to identify the objective facts, and to see that reason should tell you that some thing is true. People who treat emotional reaction as their primary source of knowledge about the world have no means of overcoming the feeling that maybe they do not know, after all, there are two contradictory credos that govern society: the credo of ignorance (you can never know anything) and the credo of faith (you just have to accept, without reason, that certain things are true). Objectivism rejects those two premises, which should enable you to logically detect reliance on one of these false doctrines.

If you generally act on the basis that ordinary perception is valid and you only have doubts when you focus reductively on abstractions like “can one actually see?”, then I would say that this is a type of rationalism where you are granting epistemological nihilism a place that it has not earned. My only suggestion by way of remedy is to look for such feelings as they arise and concretely analyze the false premise. A common one is the difference between actual direct perception, versus inference based on direct perception. This distinction is discussed in a lot of Objectivist and related Direct Realist treatments of knowledge; it is also fodder for epistemologies that deny the possibility of true knowledge, because one can misidentify something that is perceived. Although the sense organs “do what they do” and do not fail (though they may not work the way you would like them to), inferences about things that you have sensed are always cognitive inferences subject to errors in reasoning.

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On 6/5/2024 at 1:09 PM, DavidOdden said:

I think the reason is that the person has yet to resolve actual reasonable doubts which they are not aware of. 

Putting this in hierarchical terms, I imagine this has something to do with trying to deal with concepts one hasn't "reached" yet. The problem I run into often, which I think I referenced in my original post, is that I'll encounter something that contradicts my view and I'll have no clue what to do with it. Then I hold on to my original view because I can't justify either view and therefore must default to the one I feel better about.

On 6/5/2024 at 1:09 PM, DavidOdden said:

Subconscious reasoning is a real thing and can be a hindrance, if you cannot elevate it to the level of an explicit logical dialogue.

I've realized recently how hard this is for me. This skill is usually relegated to the realm of psychotherapy, and I know I danced around it through much of my childhood, not ever having the concepts needed to understand it. "Catholic guilt" is one consequence of it.

On 6/5/2024 at 1:09 PM, DavidOdden said:

Rand addresses this problem in “Philosophical detection”, but she does not offer a concrete therapy allowing you to rewrite you code for feelings.

I'm inclined to think that the feelings follow pretty readily when one's knowledge is integrated. It's become clearer to me over time how much of a correlation there is between my emotions and how knowledgeable I feel about a given situation, or at the very least, how comfortable I feel grappling with certain unknowns. The feeling that follows from facing a difficult question (such as, "Was that my fault?") is just as intense as the feeling that follows from facing an unchangeable situation (such as losing a loved one). Accordingly, the feeling of understanding something clearly can match the feeling of winning the lottery (or exceed it, if you feel guilty about getting lucky).

On 6/5/2024 at 1:09 PM, DavidOdden said:

Although the sense organs “do what they do” and do not fail (though they may not work the way you would like them to)

I had a small breakthrough after my last comment. I questioned whether it can be said that the image we get from perception "resembles" reality. This led me to ask what reality "looks like", and I realized that that's nonsensical. Things are what they are, and appearances are a function of our means of perception. There's a certain intrinsicism that is adjacent to treating perception as a valid that manifests more as perception being unmediated. I think this is the average person's (and animal's) experience, and mine when I'm not overthinking. Of course, this can lead to the idea that any aspect of reality which cannot be revealed by perception must come from the spiritual plane. That zone you refer to, between direct perception and knowledge that is clearly conceptual, is very tricky. For example, I can "see" that there is cream in my coffee. Everyone I know could look at this caramel-colored coffee and immediately determine that it has cream in it. But that's not direct perception at all. In a sense, I do see the cream, just at the same time that I see the coffee. But direct perception won't tell me what makes coffee turn that color. Must be innate or something, some would claim.

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6 hours ago, HowardRoarkSpaceDetective said:

I had a small breakthrough after my last comment. I questioned whether it can be said that the image we get from perception "resembles" reality. This led me to ask what reality "looks like", and I realized that that's nonsensical. Things are what they are, and appearances are a function of our means of perception.

Yes, this is moving in the right direction. There is “technical” scientific confusion over perception coming from the difference between sensing and perceiving. What is the difference? In the case of hearing, we have one or more “sense” organs which convert sound waves into a kind of electrical impulse. Usually, the difference is explained as sensation being “physical” and perception being “psychological”, which suggests that perception is non-physical and thus supernatural. I’m okay with saying that sensation is just the initial transduction to the nervous system, but that utterly precludes the possibility of there being “sense data” (which is okay with me, but people talk as though sense data or qualia exist). The problem is that the external stimulus is processed by the nervous system in many ways, not all of which involve “the mind”. When it gets to the point that you are “aware” of something and can sensibly speak of the content of that awareness, then we are approaching perception. Because of this confusion, I prefer to use verbs and avoid nouns. I see the dog, I perceive the dog, I conclude that it is a dog. I don’t have sense data or percepts. Unfortunately, Rand does adopt the mediated-perception theoretic term “percept” – I don’t know what a percept is for her.

For the sake of clarity, try to frame your thinking in terms of your actions, and not the abstract product your actions. Right now, I see a dog and I do not infer that I see the dog, that would be a crazy way of talking about my relation to the dog. I could say “I perceive the dog”, but that is needlessly more abstract and vague than the self-evident truth that “I see the dog”.

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4 hours ago, DavidOdden said:

The problem is that the external stimulus is processed by the nervous system in many ways, not all of which involve “the mind”.

In reading about perception, I was always perplexed by the way people talked about the world being presented to us in the form of entities. I thought it was enough to say that light rays strike our eyes and we see. Maybe this is a case of that Cartesion homunculus idea. But I still don't understand what happens between the eyes and the conscious mind that distinguishes perception from sensation. It would make sense to me to say that entities are abstracted from sense data in the same way we form concepts.

4 hours ago, DavidOdden said:

For the sake of clarity, try to frame your thinking in terms of your actions, and not the abstract product your actions.

That's a good idea. The mind as an active process is one of those ideas that I'd never heard even a shadow of in any discourse anywhere before Objectivism. I still don't think I really understand the idea of conceptualization being volitional. Concepts always seemed automatic to me, and I think most people feel that way. You may be lucky enough to trip over a new concept in your daily life. And "life as movement" makes my insides turn. When I work for many consecutive hours at something - let's say, meeting a deadline for something I've been putting off, or working a double - I often end up feeling more anxious than proud. But that's only distantly related to the issue of perception.

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What did you mean to convey with the coffee example? If everyone would see the caramel colored liquid , how is their perception different from yours , how  does knowing the identity of the contents of the liquid change what everyone can ‘see’?

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11 hours ago, HowardRoarkSpaceDetective said:

In reading about perception, I was always perplexed by the way people talked about the world being presented to us in the form of entities. I thought it was enough to say that light rays strike our eyes and we see. Maybe this is a case of that Cartesion homunculus idea. But I still don't understand what happens between the eyes and the conscious mind that distinguishes perception from sensation. It would make sense to me to say that entities are abstracted from sense data in the same way we form concepts.

Perception is an area where philosophy and science end up at cross purposes, to the detriment of both. It is definitely not a scientific question what it means to say “I see a dog”, it is hardly a philosophical one. It is mostly a linguistic one, which is why you have no grasp of the statement “naona mbwa” or “я вижу собаку”. Yet philosophers advance ideas with scientific content such as that images are displayed on a screen in the mind and are viewed by a tiny person in the brain. A proper philosophical treatment of perception and consciousness just relies on the self-evident facts that any ordinary person can observe. Specialized science then investigates the precise physical mechanism. It is, in that sense, self-evident that seeing involves light and eyes (you can’t see if either of these is missing). There is a similar relation of self-evidence between hearing and the ears, feeling and the skin, or tasting and the tongue. There is a self-evident cause-effect relationship that in English we generalize as “perceiving”.

I would say that, in the realm of philosophy, it is too much to say that light strikes our eyes and we see. Instead, “we see”, and we build on that. At a certain point we go way beyond what is available to philosophy, and requires microscopes and scanning devices to understand the mechanics of seeing. It is plainly false that “the world is presented to us” though that is how some philosophical traditions speak (supernatural viewpoints where God actively presents and we passively receive).

There is merit to the view that entities are cognitively primary, and certainly they are philosophically primary. Any account of actions or attributes has to be stated in terms of entities, but entities can be understood without knowing their attributes or actions. However, I would not say that “entities are abstracted from sense data”. First, an entity simple exists, it is not an abstraction. The entity exists whether or not it is perceived by a consciousness. Abstraction is about a relation between an entity and a consciousness, it isn’t obvious that “abstraction” is correct when talking about human perception. Second, there is some question-begging reification going on here when we talk of “sense data” or “percepts”. So-called “sense data” is (in practice i.e. as observed in the literature) the reification of the various concepts connected to perceiving an object, such as texture, size, shape, color (a package deal of its own)… The idea is that humans would have built-in detectors that measure these things and return a table of shape-color-size values, which are connected by some kind of definitional look-up with a concept like “dog” or “apple”. The concept “data” is a very “conceptual” one, data is a systematic conceptual-based classification of human observations, and there simply cannot be any “sense data” as a built-in part of the brain. The brain can house certain human cognitive faculties, which are abilities to act.

I am deliberately picking on the specific expression, because when people misspeak and describe things incorrectly, they tend to get confused about what actually is. The only ordinary way of talking about the relationship between my eyes and that dog, is for me to say “I see a dog”. In epistemology, we do seek to find more general relations regarding the source of knowledge, so we may talk of perceiving a dog, a scream, heat, or fresh coffee, abstracting away from the specific sensory method. I think it is right and proper to be confused about the difference between sensing and perceiving. They are not fundamentally different. We may use “sense” to talk about weak information, such as an apparent object in the dark that you cannot make out but you can use your visual sensors to determine that there is some entity. If you are directly looking at a plainly visible dog, you don’t say “I sense a dog”, you say “I see a dog” or maybe “I perceive a dog”. Anything beyond talking about the pre-cognitive sense organs qua entities and the cognitive action of perceiving is likely to lead to confusion.

 

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1 hour ago, DavidOdden said:

However, I would not say that “entities are abstracted from sense data”. First, an entity simple exists, it is not an abstraction.

Maybe I should rephrase that. I had the impression that we're confronted, visually, with colors and that sudden changes in color form edges which we then recognize as delimiting certain shapes. From there, we can infer from certain combinations of shapes that some parts of our visual field correspond to objects that are physically distinct from their backgrounds. We gradually automatize the recognition of certain visual cues like variations in lighting or disparities between what our left eye sees and what our right eye sees or how appearances change when our perspective changes relative to an object, e.g., moving our heads. Eventually, we learn that we can reach out and grasp a part of our visual field and move those shapes and colors to a different part of physical reality.

So aren't concepts like "edge" or "shadow" and "depth" implicit in learning how to distinguish objects from their backgrounds? Don't we have to learn them first?

My understanding is that a single variation in the visual field is enough to implicitly gain the concept "existent". Let's say I open my eyes for the first time and see that the left and right sides of my visual field are different colors, the concept of "color" only being possible because I can distinguish the one color from the other. Maybe there is a stark change from one to the other, or maybe there is a gradient. Either way, it's clear that something is causing that difference and that that something must be distinct from the rest of existence. So "existent" requires me to recognize that there are at least two existents: the thing causing the variation as well as anything that isn't that thing. Then, as I perceive more and more variations, I also distinguish more and more existents, all the while abstracting out certain shapes or interfaces that appear more than once. This process would be the beginning of discovering the "what" rather than just the "that". These implicit concepts would then be automatized like any other implicit concept. 

Rand seems to think that this whole process is fundamentally different from the kind of conceptualization that allows us to recognize a group of existents as "cups". But is not possible for "edge" to be thought of as an existent rather than an attribute? Isn't it begging the question to say that I recognize an entity as having attributes when the only reason I know that the attributes belong to the entity is that I learned to recognize entities by first recognizing their attributes?

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6 hours ago, HowardRoarkSpaceDetective said:

So aren't concepts like "edge" or "shadow" and "depth" implicit in learning how to distinguish objects from their backgrounds? Don't we have to learn them first?

There is a substantial difference between the process of discovering facts, and the logical organization of those discoveries. Rand did not develop that point much, since she was focused on the philosophical question of what knowledge is, and not the scientific question of how children acquire knowledge.

Certain concepts are psychologically more fundamental: the units are directly perceivable. Individual being (which are not concepts) can be perceived, e.g. Mommy, Daddy, Billy, Rexx. An infant does not need to acquire high-level concepts such as "background", "foreground", "edge" in order to be able to see and identify people and animals around him. Nor does a child need to first learn the concept "mammal" or "animal" in order to learn the concept "dog". Instead, the child starts with first-order concepts like dog, cat, pig, cow and so on, then learns higher-order concepts – probably "animal". These are scientific questions of child cognitive development, not philosophical issues. At some point the child, who is probably now an adult, knows a number of intermediate concepts like "mammal", "snake", "reptile", but probably not "Canid" or "Caniform". If you have a full conceptual system, then you can ask about logical relations between concepts, for example humans are warm-blooded, but is that part of the definition of human? (It is, rather, a consequence of being a mammal).

One other point to keep in mind is that humans rarely form concepts, they learn concepts that were already formed. The word and reference of "goat", "sheep" and "dog" are already determined for English, the child simply has to properly connect the name and the definition (which it has to learn from context, it isn't told this), to reach the adult standard (and they often fail in small ways, which is why we don't speak Old English any more). Children make myriad mistakes in arriving at definitions (which are generally ostensive, not verbal).

The development of visual or auditory perception is an interesting mystery. One thing to bear in mind is that humans are born prematurely, without fully developed nervous systems. We are "hard wired" for certain things, but the wires don't have all their insulation from birth, myelination continues through infancy, to the point that the infant can physically see and hear more like adults do. How we actually learn concepts as we grow up is one thing, the logical structure of concepts and what it means to be a concept is a different and in my opinion resolved matter.

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