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Direct Realism IV: Validity of The Senses

    The validity of the senses is not subject to proof, because it is a prerequisite to the very concept of "proof' - to prove an idea is to reduce it to perceptual observation. It is an axiomatic truth, as one must implicitly assume the validity of the senses in any attempt attempt to deny it. To claim that the senses are invalid is to use knowledge ultimately based on one's own sensory experience to reject the very basis of that knowledge.

    Although the validity of our senses is axiomatic, it still can, and should be explained. The traditional intrinsicist/religious attempt at validating the senses consists of positing some sort of supernatural cause to it. Aristotle's idea that we can perceive reality because we have some sort of divine metaphysical essence, exemplifies the most rational forms this approach can take. Leibniz, on the other hand, shows how irrational this premise can get with his idea that the senses do not have to be valid, but the Christian god makes them so simply because he is good.

    There are two fundamental problems with the intrinsicist approach. The first one is that it bases sense validity on faith and supernatural ideas, pitting the very starting point of rational thought against the secular conclusions that come from it. The second is that it essentially dismisses the very issue of validating the senses - to say that the senses are valid "because God said so" is not to discuss the validity of the senses, but to put an end to any rational discussion about it.

    As our culture developed, our intellectual discussion turned to the undeniable difference between our perception of an object, and the object being perceived. Facing that difference, subjectivists like David Hume and Immanuel Kant had the same answer, which roughly amounts to "since perception and existence are always different, it is impossible to use perception to know reality, however similar they might be". This split philosophers between modern theologians, who attempt to breathe new life into traditional mysticism; those who took that premise to its logical conclusion, and rejected reality altogether; and those who attempted to justify some sort of knowledge on those premises, and inevitably failed.

    Part of Ayn Rand's genius was acknowledging the difference between perception and existence, while fully rejecting the subjectivist answer. Her reasoning can best be summed up as "Since perception and existence are always somewhat similar, however different they might be, perception provides a direct link to reality - the only one we have". To perceive is to perceive by specific means - to retain and automatically integrate automatic interactions between our sense organs and existents.

    The difference between direct perception and reality is the very reason we need concepts. The direct perception of a dog will only provide me with itself, and no other information. Integrating direct perception into conceptual knowledge requires establishing the relationship between the percept and its two causes: the entity and the means of awareness. I will talk about this process in a little more depth tomorrow.

  -  June 3rd, 2020

    Yesterday, I talked about the validity of the senses, and the revolutionary nature of Rand's approach to it. Over the next few days, I will expand on the subject by talking about a very common theory of mind among Objectivists: Harry Binswanger's "Direct Realism". I will explain why it is wrong, and how it contradicts, not only Rand's ideas, but the very aspect that made them revolutionary in the first place.

    Direct Realism treats the issue of relating percept to object as the result of an incorrect conceptualization of perception itself. According to Binswanger, the notion of a "content of perception", defined by both an external object and the nature of our senses, is wrong. To him, the proper conceptualization is that of an external object, and the form by which we perceive it. Perception is valid because only the form, and not the object, depends on our nature. To assume that there is a "content of perception" would be to assume the existence of a mental entity, which is a contradiction in terms.

    The problem with this view is that it violates the hierarchy of knowledge. The very idea of "an external object" identifies an independent existent, that causes our perception, yet is distinct from it. It does not presuppose two distinct entities, but two distinct existents - one physical and one mental - with a specific relationship to one another. To explain the validity of the senses is to explain the nature of that relationship.

    To say that perception is valid because it is, by definition, the perception of an object is not to explain it, but to dismiss the discussion entirely. In that sense, it is closer to the intrinsicist "because god" approach than to Rand's, who acknowledged the distinction, and saw it as an aspect of knowledge rather than a reason to reject it. This rather general difference gives rise to a very specific problem: Binswanger's claim that mental phenomena like dreams and hallucinations are not forms of perception, because they are not forms of perceiving entities.

    Perception is valid because it is caused both by the nature of our perceptual mechanism and of the objects that interact with it. Our conceptual faculty allows us to integrate those perceptions, differentiate between their internal and external causes, and thus gain knowledge about both. My own childhood provides a good example: I still remember the exact moment when I identified that "some things seem smaller because they are far". Differentiating between the internal cause (the nature of vision), and external causes (size and distance) of my perceptions allowed me to understand that my movement towards an object does not cause its actual growth.

    Dreams and hallucinations are automatic interactions between our sense organs and objective existents, just like "normal perception" - and are just as valid, for the same reason. It is not the hallucination of a dragon itself which is invalid, but the conceptual belief that this perception is caused by an actual dragon, and not by the abnormal nature of one's perceptual mechanism. The same is true of dreams - and explaining their relationship to reality is one of the trickiest questions in psychology.

Binswanger's Direct Realism dismisses the issue of explaining the relationship between perception and reality altogether. I base it on the causal relationship between perception, object and our perceptual mechanism. Because it is caused by both, perception is always analogous to both - which is why I call this approach "Analog Realism". I will delve deeper into the differences between the two theories tomorrow, when I talk about sensations.

  -  June 4th, 2020