Objectivist Epistemology

by Isaac

Two years ago — in August of 2015 — I read a book that changed the direction of my life.

I was living in Chiang Mai, in northern Thailand, at the time. I had about six months worth of savings in the bank and was taking some time out to recover my sanity and decide on my future life direction. I rented a cheap studio apartment and spent my days riding around on a motorised scooter and sitting in hipster cafes (alongside Western digital nomads and Thai graphic designers), reading up on philosophy, history and finance, in between endless games of Civ IV.

At the time I’d also been diving deep into a range of different philosophies and worldviews. I’d first read Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged a year earlier, and loved it.

(I think it’s good to first read Ayn Rand in your mid-20s. I notice many people who first read her as a teenager, initially become fanatically obsessed with her ideas, and then become disillusioned a few years later, ascribing their earlier obsession to immaturity and youthful ignorance. I read Atlas just before I turned twenty-five, and was surprised at the philosophical and emotional depth contained within. But my thoughts on that book are a topic for another post).

However, I was still skeptical of Ayn Rand’s philosophical system. I wanted to integrate the insights I’d gained from different belief systems and worldviews, but how would one go about that? I didn’t think it likely that I was the lone genius who would be able to solve all the riddles of philosophy. Still, I was surprised that after long centuries of human thought, we were nowhere close to a consensus. (For a while I was enamoured with the idea that the collective intelligence of humanity would somehow converge on the right answer, as different belief systems were tried and tested in the crucible of history).

This was my state of mind when I discovered a whole stack of Ayn Rand’s non-fiction in a hippy bookstore near Chiang Mai’s old city walls. I bought Philosophy: Who Needs It, a collection of her essays, and Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, her only real non-fiction book.

Now, I’d been planning to read ITOE for a while, so I don’t want to turn this story about serendipitous twists of fate. Had I not discovered the book in that particular shop in that particular time, I’d probably have simply bought it on Kindle. But it was a fitting place to discover such a book, since within its pages I found enlightenment. In its pages, Ayn Rand, widely held to be the shallowest, most evil, most brutal philosopher of the 20th century, seeks to uncover eternal truths about the nature of human consciousness.

I think she succeeds. Here’s the first few paragraph of chapter one, “Cognition and Measurement”, so you can judge for yourself:

Consciousness, as a state of awareness, is not a passive state, but an active process that consists of two essentials: differentiation and integration.

Although, chronologically, man’s consciousness develops in three stages: the stage of sensations, the perceptual, the conceptual — epistemologically, the base of all of man’s knowledge is the perceptual stage.

Sensations, as such, are not retained in man’s memory, nor is man able to experience a pure isolated sensation. As far as can be ascertained, an infant’s sensory experience is an undifferentiated chaos. Discriminated awareness begins on the level of percepts.

A percept is a group of sensations automatically retained and integrated by the brain of a living organism. It is in the form of percepts that man grasps the evidence of his senses and apprehends reality.

There’s a lot going on just in these few paragraphs. Ayn Rand is an extremely careful and deliberate writer. You can look at every word and ask “why is this particular word used here?” In particular, you can ask “why does she not use this near-synonym, or why does she differentiate these two words?”, because she is very careful about delineating concepts.

Likewise with sentence structure. It’s from Ayn Rand I learned about the power and beauty of grammar. Words refer to concepts, the basic elements of human thought; grammar, by teaching us the proper ways of joining words into sentences, therefore teaches us the proper ways of relating concepts and structuring our thinking.

Consciousness, as a state of awareness, is not a passive state, but an active process that consists of two essentials: differentiation and integration.

This sentence alone integrates many observations.

“Consciousness, as a state of awareness” — the “as a state of awareness” implies that there are other ways of looking at consciousness — for example, as a faculty possessed by living beings. Right now, we’re considering it as a particular condition awareness can be in. “Consciousness” is a slippery term that has caused endless confusion in philosophy (and in mysticism, and religion), but “awareness” is pretty straightforward. Other “states of awareness” might include “drowsy” or “delirious”, so by “consciousness” I take Ayn Rand to here mean “the state of awareness where the agent is fully aware of reality”.

“Consciousness, as a state of awareness, is not a passive state, but an active process” — hang on, “consciousness as a state is not a state” — is Ayn Rand contradicting the law of identity right out of the gate? No, she’s simply saying it’s not a passive state. Because of her careful use of language, we know the implication is that “process” and “state” aren’t mutually exclusive. In this case, “a state of awareness” can be “an active process”.

(A process is an ongoing activity or series of actions. In Ayn Rand’s view, consciousness is a faculty that, like any faculty of a living organism, serves the organism’s survival as a self-sustaining process. So “consciousness” is like “metabolism” — it’s an ongoing activity an organism performs to remain alive. Or, it’s one sub-process that helps maintain the broader process that is the organism’s life).

“an active process that consists of two essentials: differentiation and integration” — Ayn Rand is all about thinking in essentials. What are the essentials of the process that is consciousness? “Differentiation and integration”. Splitting and lumping. Consciousness — any consciousness, human or animal — is an active process that constantly separates things, then recombines them.

It’s no coincidence that Ayn Rand uses mathematical terms here, as she believes that there is a deep relationship between cognition and mathematics. “Integration”, in particular, is a fundamental concept in ITOE, and in her philosophy as a whole.

That’s just the first sentence. Let’s look at the second:

Although, chronologically, man’s consciousness develops in three stages: the stage of sensations, the perceptual, the conceptual — epistemologically, the base of all of man’s knowledge is the perceptual stage.

“chronologically, man’s consciousness develops in three stages: the stage of sensations, the perceptual, the conceptual” — this was really big for me when I read it. I’d been studying Buddhism in depth, and though Buddhism is heavily focused on breaking down consciousness to a more basic level, I hadn’t encountered a clear breakdown of these three stages. Many Buddhist writings seemed to imply that there were two stages, though the different schools seemed to identify them differently, e.g. sensations vs. combined perception and concepts (in Vipasanna), or concepts vs. combined sensations & perceptions (in Zen). (This is a topic for another post, however).

“Although chronologically, …, epistemologically, …” — again, note the careful sentence structure. This careful balancing of her sentences allows Ayn Rand to convey the complex organisation of her ideas to the reader.

“epistemologically, the base of all of man’s knowledge is the perceptual stage” — this is another of Ayn Rand’s big philosophical ideas. Perceptual observation is the basis of all knowledge. At the perceptual level our minds have already performed some automatic integrations on raw sensory data. This touches on a major debate in Western philosophy, between rationalists and empiricists. Rand in some sense can be said to be closer to the empiricists, though she seeks to carve out a third position. (Roughly, where perceptual observation is the base, but conceptual cognition is the essential next step).

Then the next two paragraphs expand on the nature of sensations and percepts:

Sensations, as such, are not retained in man’s memory, nor is man able to experience a pure isolated sensation. As far as can be ascertained, an infant’s sensory experience is an undifferentiated chaos. Discriminated awareness begins on the level of percepts.

A percept is a group of sensations automatically retained and integrated by the brain of a living organism. It is in the form of percepts that man grasps the evidence of his senses and apprehends reality.

Differentiation and integration appear again: the sensory level is “undifferentiated chaos” the perceptual level is built on “automatically retained and integrated” sensations. “It is in the form of percepts that man grasps the evidence of his senses and apprehends reality.” Perception is how we apprehend reality. This might sound innocuous, but it sets the stage for Ayn Rand’s fundamental conflict with Immanuel Kant, who held that perception ultimately only gives us a world of representations, and not access to true reality.

I’ve spent a lot of time examining one page, to show how much depth there is to these ideas. From these first few paragraphs, Ayn Rand then builds out the foundations of her theory of knowledge. She explains how the human mind integrate percepts into concepts, how concepts relate to reality, how we form higher-level concepts through abstraction from abstractions, how we form concepts of consciousness itself, the role of axioms in cognition, and how the properties of consciousness determine the correct methods of human cognition. It’s a ground-breaking, mind-expanding book.

For me, reading ITOE in Chiang Mai, I felt like arriving on dry land after having nearly drowned in the ocean. I finally saw how it was possible to gain a certain foundation for one’s knowledge. Once I understood this basis, I was able to go back to Ayn Rand’s other writings, and see how the system fit together. I also realised that she’d gone much further than other philosophers. It was as though she was Mendeleev, having developed the philosophical equivalent of the periodic table, when the others were still at the level of alchemists, groping around in a foggy realm of mystery.

By changing my thinking, ITOE changed my life. To illustrate its importance, I split my adult life into three phases: university, from 2007-2012, the crazy years, from 2012-2015, when I was all over the place, and the rational phase, from 2015 to the present, after I integrated Ayn Rand’s philosophy into my decision-making, re-analysed my fundamental beliefs, and set about identifying my deepest values and purpose in life.

Needless to say, I highly recommend grabbing a copy.