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Tsuru

Objectivism And Hallucinations

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Hiya. I'm not exactly an Objectivist - though I admire Rand's writings quite a bit (Absolutely love The Fountainhead - I've read it 5 times through, and have read about 95% of her other fiction and nonfiction). I'm pretty much in agreement with her on politics/economics/basic ethics (ie: non initiation of force) --- with a few minor exceptions, and metaphysics/epistemology to a slightly lesser degree. I find some of her ideas about art, sex, gender, and the emotional sphere of life to be dubious or downright absurd though, and the general bitter/accusatory/condemning tone of her later works is rather obnoxious. Anyways, I'm looking forward to some good discussions. :fool:

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So here is my question!:

How does one address the subject of hallucinations in relation to objectivist metaphysics (ie: objective reality)? Being that the brain can produce sensory perceptions that are strikingly false (ie: due to mental illness, certain drugs, excessive physical/psychological stress, chemical imbalance or certain poisonings, ect), how does one reconcile this with the position that the senses can firmly be used as the basic foundation of knowledge?

I dimly recall reading some article by Peikoff about the question of determing dreams from reality - in which his answer was "We have a word for dream, so obviously there is a clear distinction and we know it." This answer could just as easily be given on the question of how one would determine hallucinations from real sensory input - however it's pretty much a cop-out, as it doesn't actually answer the question of how one knows, and how one can say with philosophical confidence that their sensory perceptions are accurate enough to make knowledge claims with in spite of this.

The position that others' perceptions can determine the truth/falseness of your own perceptions (ie: they do not see or hear what you doe) is the common solution, however this obviously does not satisfy Objectivist epistemology - since the source of knowledge is your perceptions, and yours alone.

The more logical solution is that one can test questionable sensory experience in relation to all of your past sensory experience (and the concepts/rules abstracted from them) - and that if they contradict, the questionable perception is false. But this leads to problems regarding the nature of knowledge as well: if you are using past perceptions as the measuring stick to determine false, artificial perceptions, how do you test the certainty of those?

Another common Objectivist answer to this problem would be the "lifeboat" answer - that just as men do not live on lifeboats or deserted islands and one can't base ethics on this, so most do men not live with mental illness. Unfortunately, 1 out of 100 people are schizophrenic, and around another 1 or 2 in 100 have another form of psychotic ideation or some form of mental illness that features hallucinations as an occasional symptom. This is not including people with striking physiological brain problems or stresses, or those who have metal poisoning, ect - in total these numbers probably are greater in sum than the number of Objectivists in the populace, so the issue is definitely far more prevalent than "lifeboat" scenarios and is worth addressing.

Quite the tricksy issue!

Edited by Tsuru

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Think of the premises your question assumes; I'll list some of them.

1) There are hallucinations

2) Chemicals can affect brain function.

3) There are chemicals

4) There are brains.

5) There are perceptions.

6) Brain function can affect the way one experiences one's perceptions.

7) etc.

How is it possible to know any of these premises without knowing that your perceptions are accurate?

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When you ask "how can we seperate hallucinations/dreams from reality?", there 2 closely related, yet subtelty different, questions that you could be asking. The first, which I will call the 'scientific' question is something like "How can I tell, as a matter of fact, whether I am dreaming/hallucinating in any particular case?". And I think this can generally be answered via empirical investigation alone.

For instance, although dreams tend to be very vivid, they are normally not very detailed. For example, you generally cant really read a large amount of text in dreams, or concentrate on reading a book without large breaks in continuity. I've heard of people who say that they can tell when theyre dreaming by trying to read their watch - if they find that the face looks funny of they have trouble focusing on it, then they can often tell theyre asleep. Another classic technique is to pinch yourself - often this will even wake you up. When I was a kid I remember having various things I tried to do in order to wake up from nightmares and so on. In any case, I think its very rare that people who are dreaming ask themselves 'am I awake?' and get the answer wrong - normally you dont even think about asking yourself that in a dream, and on the few occassions you do, you can often work it out.

I think hallucinations will be largely the same. I cant speak for everyone else, but whenever I've been in a hallucinogenic state and actually asked myself whether everything is 'normal', I'm generally aware that I'm experiencing a state of altered consciousness. Hallucinations just arent 'real' in the same way life is real - when you hallucinate something its not like youre seeing a fully focused 'normal' object, as if you imagine a tree in front of you that isnt really there - you are normally acutely aware that there is something 'different' going on in your mind. Now I dont know if this is the same for all hallucinations - perhaps 'stronger' drugs than I've tried or serious mental illness would produce effects where the distinction was less obviously blurred. But I have a suspicion that theres always going to be a fundmental difference between the real world and hallucinations, and I would guess that someone who experienced these states a lot could train their mind to the point where they could distinguish between them, just like some people claim to be able to teach themselves to lucid dream.

I recall reading something by Daniel Dennett where he mentioned that there was evidence to suggest that the brain just didnt have the power to generate ultra realistic hallucinations/dreams which is why they tend to be more vivid and abstract than detailed and realistic, although I dont know if this is actually true. But in any case, I would imagine that as we learn more about the brain and the mind, we will gain more understanding of how dreams, hallucinations and other 'altered states of consicousness'.

I doubt that any of this would answer the second question though - the 'philosophical' Cartesian one that asks "but what if it's ALL a dream?". And this is largely because its been deliberately constructed to be unanswerable. I think Peikoff's reply is fine (he wasnt the first person to come up with it, but that doesnt matter) - the fact that we even have the concepts of 'dreams' and 'hallucinations' shows that we are capable of recognising the distinction, at least in an abstract general sense - the concept of 'dream' only has meaning because there is a distinction made between dream-states and awake-states. And as for telling the difference between these in particular cases, the scientific approach above should suffice. I admit that it does feel like there is an indefinable 'something' getting left out here and that the real question is being dodged rather than being answered, but this is often the case when misguided questions are rejected rather than being directly answered.

Edited by Hal

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Hi Tsuru,

welcome to the forum.

I agree they are a bit tricky. I think it is important to make a distinction between reality being objective and the infallibility of our senses. As an example, think of the appearance of a stick under water. Visually it appears to bend. More careful analysis(touching it while it is in the water) would reveal that it does not actually bend. Several centuries of good science later and we realize that water refacts the light due to a difference of density between it and the air. So all along, the reality was objective, our knowledge about it that we derived from our senses was never incorrect, only incomplete.

So if I were to make an objective statement about reality in this circumstance I would initially say "the stick appears to bend when under water", which would be correct. Later I would say "the stick does not bend under water but it visually appears to do so", which would also be correct. Much, much later I would say, "The stick appears to bend under water due to the refraction of light caused by the increased density of water" which would be correct.

The problem only comes when you deduce or induce incorrectly due to a lack of knowledge or poor perception. If I were to say that "the stick bends in the water" for example. The same is true of someone who is neurotic or near sighted or whatever. The fact is objective regardless of how they view it. This is why the scientific method was of such paramount importance. It systemetizes the way in which sensory data is accumulated and then understood. Additionally, any new experiment announced is quickly repeated by others usually 1000's of times. This increases the likelihood of our understanding being closer to the objective truth. Hope that helps.

Best Regards,

Gordon

I think its very rare that people who are dreaming ask themselves 'am I awake?' and get the answer wrong

This has always been an annoyance to me. Maybe half a dozen times in my life I have been having perfectly enjoyable dreams and asked myself in the dream if it was one or not. to my chagrin I always knew that it was and would wake up that moment. It always has the feel of losing an out of print victor hugo novel 73 pages before the end. Very frustrating.

Think of the premises your question assumes; I'll list some of them.

...

How is it possible to know any of these premises without knowing that your perceptions are accurate?

As I understand it, Lazlo is closest to the objectivist answer to the question. Conciousness is considered an axiom and the validity of the senses is a necessary corollary. So as an axiomatic concept, you cannot deny it's existence without using it.

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I would relate it to what you might call "tactile hallucination"numbness. We have compunds that can numb the sense of touch, or your arm can fall asleep from being in a position for too long, etc. The fact that, during these episodes, your sense of touch is no longer an effective window into tactile reality doesn't negate the ultimate validity of touch. Generally (and this applies to actual hallucination as well, as others have mentioned) numbness comes with other effects, or for a known cause ie. recieving novacaine, or wearing an ice pack. It has to be judged within the totality of one's conceptual knowledge, and in such cases it's rarely hard to make an accurate distinction. And while there are people whose mental illness is so severe that such episodes are both frequent and virtually impossible to distinguish from reality, I doubt very much that it is 2 or 3 out of a hundred as you suggested. For those who are afflicted, though, it's much the same as people who are born without the ability to feel pain or to smell. All three are instances of extraordinary sensory limitation...but they are just that- extraordinary.

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Think of the premises your question assumes; I'll list some of them.

1) There are hallucinations

2) Chemicals can affect brain function.

3) There are chemicals

4) There are brains.

5) There are perceptions.

6) Brain function can affect the way one experiences one's perceptions.

7) etc.

How is it possible to know any of these premises without knowing that your perceptions are accurate?

Yes - I agree completely. I'm interested in how someone can philosophically understand and explain experiencing hallucinations given these premises. Moderately intelligent people who are only hallucinatory (meaning, not also delusional) usually "know" that the experiences are not real, but would be hard pressed to go about giving specific philosophical proof for this assertion.

I've never had much respect for this question's cousins (ie: what if everything we experience is a delusion created by god, or what if we are a brain in a scientists lab being given experiences, ect): as they appeal to [more or less] mystic metaphysics while relying on conclusions based on sensory experience - but the thing that makes this particular question interesting and meaningful is that it is based entirely in a material framework: ie, hallucinations can and do happen, and people have them.

So to simply say that this question is negated due to it being based in material terms is evading the question:

IF one has sensory experiences that are not real (ie, not repeatable, not synchronized with other senses, not aligned with conceptual rules ascertained by previous sensory observation, ect), how does one reconcile this with the rest of your knowledge? In essence the experience is an attack on the basis of knowledge. It creates a troublesome "logical loop" so to speak.

Edit: as far as the 2 or 3 out of 100 figure, that was only in reference to the likely percent of people who have or will experience a hallucination(s) in their lifetime: meaning that the numbers are large enough that the issue and implications on knowledge hallucinations have cannot entirely be dismissed as merely negligable "rarity," so to speak. You're definitely right that those numbers don't reflect severely ill persons.

Edited by Tsuru

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Yes - I agree completely. I'm interested in how someone can philosophically understand and explain experiencing hallucinations given these premises. Moderately intelligent people who are only hallucinatory (meaning, not also delusional) usually "know" that the experiences are not real, but would be hard pressed to go about giving specific philosophical proof for this assertion.

I've never had much respect for this question's cousins (ie: what if everything we experience is a delusion created by god, or what if we are a brain in a scientists lab being given experiences, ect): as they appeal to [more or less] mystic metaphysics while relying on conclusions based on sensory experience - but the thing that makes this particular question interesting and meaningful is that it is based entirely in a material framework: ie, hallucinations can and do happen, and people have them.

What sort of explanation do you want? Drugs are ingested, the chemicals interact with our brains in ways which are becoming more understood, and this produces changes in conscious experience in a way which we currently know very little about, but about which future science can hopefully enlighten us. If youre not interested in the Cartesian question and accept at least a basic materialism (our consciousness depends on, and is affected by, reactions in our brain) then I dont think there are any purely philosophical questions left here.

IF one has sensory experiences that are not real (ie, not repeatable, not synchronized with other senses, ect), how does one reconcile this with the rest of your knowledge? In essence the experience is an attack on the basis of knowledge. It creates a troublesome "logical loop" so to speak.
I suppose it depends on the person, and type of experience involved. For instance, some people claim to learn things about themselves during lsd trips that profoundly affects their outlook even after the drug has worn off, whereas others just take it because they think its fun and enjoy experiencing freaky things, even though they attach no real significance to them. A hallucination that just involves seeing trails follow your hand when you wave it through the air is likely to be interpreted very differently from one where you experience talking to the ghost of a dead relative and decide to be more loving towards your close family as a result. I dont really think theres any general principles here - its too context dependent.

edit: A lot of this is probably related to familiarity also. Someone who has had regular experience with hallucinations may well attach less significance to things he encounters on them than someone who is experiencing it for the first time. When you know that strange things are to be expected youre probably less likely to treat them as being 'real' (compare how adults react to nightmares with how young children react). There are also relations to a person's basic belief system and epistemological outlook - someone who believes in supernatural entities may well interpret his hallucinations as bringing him into contact with another world, whereas someone who is a strong materialist may react to the exact same thing by saying "this is just the drugs, its not real". Along the same lines, someone who takes hallucinogenic drugs today will probably be more inclined to interpret his experiences as being unreal and caused by the drugs since he has grown up in a fairly scientific/naturalist culture, whereas someone taking hallucinogens 1000 years ago would probably have been more likely to interpret the things he saw as being real, since less was known about (eg) how drugs worked, and supernatural beliefs were more widespread.

Edited by Hal

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I'm interested in how someone can philosophically understand and explain experiencing hallucinations given these premises.
The philosophical issue is simple, I think. Your sense organs include both brain-external transducers like eyes and ears, and an aspect of the brain that receives those electrochemical signals. The mind copes with those signals; but those signals can be corrupted because of a chemical inteference. So it sort of seems that you're flying, even though you aren't. A detailed understanding of how dopamine uptake, inter alios, is what you need to understand how hallucinations come about, but this is a scientific question, not a philosophical one. The only philosophical point that I can see that relates to hallucinations is that the physical world is not materialized directly in the mind: it is transduced by a mechanism that has a physical nature, and obeys the law of causality. Things much less dramatic than hallucinations whill show that -- try to distinguish dark brown, purple, dark read and black in the dark.

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Hallucinations and dreams can certainly be vivid enough that while one is experiencing them they can seem to be real.

But the reverse is not true. except perhaps under highly unusual circumstances. When one is fully awake one knows that one is not dreaming or hallucinating. It is precisely the experience of being awake - and fully in touch with reality - that enables us to distinguish that state from dreams or hallucinations. One *awakes* from a dream. One *realizes* that something we just experienced was an hallucination, i.e. was *not real*.

It is clearly wakefulness and alertness which are the standard and not vice versa. However vivid a dream or an hallucination, we can distinguish it from reality. We certainly wouldn't say that the dream or hallucination was real whereas our state of full alertness now is really a dream or an hallucination.

Our ability to make this distinction is self-evident. You can't really argue it without simply repeating it and the attempt to deny it is self-refuting - you must assume it while you are questioning or denying it.

Incidentally, while dreams and hallucinations are not real, i.e. they are entirely in our heads, illusions are real. Don't let anyone tell you that illusions are proof of the invalidity of the senses. When we perceive an illusion, we are perceiving something real. That stick does in fact look bent in water. It has to because of the refraction of light. That perception gives us important information about the physical world.

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...The 'scientific' question is something like "How can I tell, as a matter of fact, whether I am dreaming/hallucinating in any particular case?". And I think this can generally be answered via empirical investigation alone.
A detailed understanding of how dopamine uptake, inter alios, is what you need to understand how hallucinations come about, but this is a scientific question, not a philosophical one.
But what if a questionable stimulus is not accompanied by any discernable chemical abnormalities? Is it then "real?" And if a person does have chemical abnormalities, how would it be determined which of the things she is conscious of is chemical-induced (i.e. not real) and which aren't? I think this would still be more than a mere scientific question.

The position that others' perceptions can determine the truth/falseness of your own perceptions (ie: they do not see or hear what you doe) is the common solution...
and bad solution, agreed.
...Just as men do not live on lifeboats or deserted islands and one can't base ethics on this, so most do men not live with mental illness.
That would seem to be another cop-out.
The more logical solution is that one can test questionable sensory experience in relation to all of your past sensory experience (and the concepts/rules abstracted from them) - and that if they contradict, the questionable perception is false. But this leads to problems regarding the nature of knowledge as well: if you are using past perceptions as the measuring stick to determine false, artificial perceptions, how do you test the certainty of those?
I don't think that's so much of a problem. I think you'd take an "innocent until proven guilty" stance - that a perception is taken to be valid until it is evidenced to be otherwise. To the extent that a person does have an extensive body of past (and current) perceptions/knowledge that doesn't contradict itself, compatibility with this body serves as (contextually) good evidence of whether any subsequent perceptions are real or merely internal stimuli.

To the extent that a suspected hallucination was not repeatable would give more evidence suggesting that it was not real.

To question whether the sum of ones past perceptions are real would venture into the related questions that you have no respect for :lol:

Welcome to the forum :dough:

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But what if a questionable stimulus is not accompanied by any discernable chemical abnormalities? Is it then "real?" And if a person does have chemical abnormalities, how would it be determined which of the things she is conscious of is chemical-induced (i.e. not real) and which aren't? I think this would still be more than a mere scientific question.
The way the word "stimulus" is ordinarily used, I would think that refers to the thing out there that you see (or don't see), for instance the squirrel in the corner. So I wonder what a questionable squirrel would be. On the other hand, if you really meant "response", as in a sensation, and specifically you mean an uncaused sensation, then we don't have to worry about them because they don't exist. All sensations are caused, and are most immediately caused by something electrochemical in the brain. You can get the impression of a squirrel in the corner where there isn't one, but that can't happen without some physical cause (although we generally don't know much about the nature of that cause). Of course, not all hallucinations are caused by taking controlled substances.

Are you asking "how do I know that I'm not dreaming right now"? See Fred's reply. If you're going to say "Yeah but how to I know that I'm not dreaming right now?", I suggest truck-therapy. [This is a highly successful technique for eliminating epistemological nihilism. Stand on the freeway in front of a convoy of semis barrelling down the road at 80 mph, to test your theory that you are really dreaming. If you jump out of the way, you will realise that you knew you were awake and in danger, and that you did not take the "It's all a dream" claim at all seriously, so you will be cured. If you don't jump out of the way, you'll be cured as well]

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Also, reverse the question. It's not, "How do I know I'm not dreaming?" but "Do I have any reason to think I'm dreaming?" If you don't have any reason to think that you're dreaming/hallucinating, it's an arbitrary assertion and needs to be thrown out.

This is why delusions can be such a problem: a person experiencing a delusion can literally have no reason to think that they are delusional. (At least the first time it happens.) If they then discover through some kind of outside agency that they are experiencing a delusion, they now have a reason to think that they're delusional. It's not an arbitrary assertion any more and thus they can bring themselves to act on it. ("I need my medication" instead of "aliens are attacking my house!")

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Actually, asking the question "Am I dreaming?" when you are fully awake makes absolutely no sense. Any evidence you would consider as applying to the question presupposes that you are awake to consider it.

There is of course a facetious use of the question, when you experience something highly unusual and unexpected. Hence the expression "pinch me". But that, too, presupposes that you are awake and can tell the difference.

The example Jennifer gives of delusions are a special case because they represent an incidence of abnormality or malfunction. The problem is that someone suffering from the condition cannot sometimes (or even often or all the time depending on the severity of the problem) tell the difference between the real and the unreal. But this is similar to the dream question because we have no difficulty knowing when we are not delusional and it is by that standard that we judge when we are.

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The way the word "stimulus" is ordinarily used, I would think that refers to the thing out there that you see (or don't see), for instance the squirrel in the corner. So I wonder what a questionable squirrel would be.
"Questionable" in the context of the topic - determining whether a particular stimulus/sensation/response/datum of consciousness/whatever is a hallucination or not.

On the other hand, if you really meant "response", as in a sensation, and specifically you mean an uncaused sensation...
Nah, I didn't.

Are you asking "how do I know that I'm not dreaming right now"?
To the extent that Tsuru indicated such questions weren't of interest, that wasn't my point either.

As for truck-therapy... I'm all for separating hallucinations from non-hallucinations via testing the questionable... things, but truck-therapy would only prove something was not a hallucination by one's demise. Might be good for people content to leave such things up to faith, but a poor, though blackly humorous, method for everyone else.

We have no difficulty knowing when we are not delusional and it is by that standard that we judge when we are.
...it doesn't actually answer the question of how one knows...

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Forgive me if I misunderstood, but I believe your basic question was how we could depend on the senses as a source of knowledge when the senses can act improperly due to hallucinations, drug abuse, drunkeness, and the like.

I believe the short answer is that 'normally functioning' senses are the basis of knowledge. You don't take how things smell or taste when you have a severe head cold as their actual taste or smell, but how they do so when you are breathing normally. Because a man happened to have just had an accident and had two broken legs when you met him doesn't mean he can't walk, nor does a car that just blew a rod demonstrate how automobiles normally function. The standard is how senses function in a normal, healthy person who is not impaired by injury, disease (mental or physical), or under the influence of drugs or alcohol.

My question, in return, is that if sense perception is not the path to knowledge, what is? I can't imagine a sensible alternative.

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