An introduction to the basis of philosophy.

All philosophical systems are based upon information supplied by the senses. That information, in the first instance, always arrives as impressions of concrete things or events - either internal or external (concrete in this sense applies as much to light and heat as it does to tables and earth). For each of us, the first stage of consciousness involves absorbing sufficient of these "concrete" impressions to allow us to form concepts. {NOTE - the mechanics of the human brain is such that certain concepts form much easier than others - in a sense, the brain can be said to be "pre-wired" with certain simple concepts.}

The development of concepts allows the development of language - transmission of concepts by use of commonly agreed symbols (Note - common here may refer to as little as two people - if the meanings of the symbols are not commonly agreed, then it is mis-communication, not communication, which is taking place - this is very common, and can be interesting, but can also be dangerous).

Once language is in place, then it is usually transmission of concepts through language which dominates the conceptual learning process, rather than acquisition of concepts by direct intuition from experience, though both processes play a role (see appendix on Intuition).

As a philosophical justification of this process it is necessary to make very few "assumptions" ;

they are :-

1/ Existence exists; that is, there is a real world outside of us, which our senses receive input from.

2/ Our senses are more or less valid reporters of what is out there (at least within the limits of experiences which are common-place).

Using these assumptions, and these alone, it is possible, {through a process of inspection, production of a theory (or explanation for that which has been observed), and testing of that theory in a new situation (a process commonly called the scientific method)}, to develop levels of understanding of the existence in which we exist. This understanding gives us better and better predictive powers, or at least a better understanding of where prediction is possible, and the level of probability associated with such predictions as we make.

I know that pararaph above is a mouthful - but it does need to be very exact. It can be stated more simply, but if any doubt or misunderstanding arises from the simpler statements below, refer back to the one above.

What that means is :- you can learn about the world by looking, listening, and trying things out for yourself. What it also means is that the trying things out for yourself is an essential part of the learning and understanding process. If you simply accept whatever you hear, then you are likely to run into problems - make the effort to test things every now and then.

What it does not do, is make any statement about the nature and predictability of the reality in which we exist. It doesn't assume that reality is always predictable, or that causality always exists. It simply states the only logical mechanism by which we can, reliably and consistently, come to an accurate understanding of those things in existence who's nature allows them to be understood (anything which does not obey any sort of causal or statistical rule cannot , by definition, be understood). (I believe we can understand the vast majority of events, perhaps even all of them, but I can't "prove" that in any absolute sense, and make no claim to do so.)

I am a "student of life". I am 43 years old, spent four years at university studying biological and physical systems (majors in biochemistry and marine biology), and have spent many years as a practicing commercial fisherman, and the last 12 years as manager and chief programmer for a computer software company. This is simply by way of background to where my understanding of the nature of man and reality has come. {written in 1999}

I cannot hope to convey to you, my reader, even a small portion of the chain of evidence which has lead me to accept the concepts I am putting forward here as truths (beyond any reasonable doubt), but I can hope to convey the concepts themselves, and point to the evidence which supports them, should you be inclined to follow it.

Objectivism

The statements by Ayn Rand and Leonard Peikoff in "Introduction to OBJECTIVIST EPISTEMOLOGY" (second edition) show a philosophy (an understanding of existence) which is very similar to my own in some aspects, but fundamentally (though subtly) different in other aspects.

This work assumes you have at least read and understood the above work.

The work is divided into 8 chapters.

1/ Cognition and measurement;
2/ Concept formation;
3/ Abstraction from Abstractions;
4/ Concepts of Consciousness;
5/ Definitions;
6/ Axiomatic concepts;
7/ The cognitive role of concepts;
8/ Consciousness and Identity.

Of these 1,2,3,7, and to a degree, 8 are extremely well done given that they were derived without a knowledge of the mechanics of brain function, and are remarkably close to how it actually works - but are sufficiently different that the difference is worth noting.

What Kant tried to identify as "pure practical reason", and what Rand identifies as the "rational faculty", is in fact neither. Both Rand and Kant have attempted to idealise the practical results of a "mechanical" process. What I call the ability to "intuit" (or "intuition"), is a "mechanical by-product" of the storage and retrieval of information as an interference pattern, rather than storage and retrieval as a simple image. Interference patterns (holographs when produced by light) have some very interesting properties - which are detailed in the appendix on LASER holography.

Rand gives chapter 2 to "concept formation" and on page 14 states :-

" Similarity is grasped perceptually; in observing it, man is not and does not have to be aware of the fact that it involves a matter of measurement. It is the task of philosophy and science to identify that fact."

This is not, strictly speaking, necessarily true. What is involved when man grasps similarity is an artifact of the process of storing and retrieving of information as an interference pattern. This process may be thought of, in logical terms, as an act of measurement - but it is not. It is simply the by-product of treating perceptions as their interference pattern, rather than simply as their image. We are not normally aware of how we treat our perceptions, simply that we have them. It is the scientific method which has lead to the discovery of the mechanics of the processes involved (not philosophy) [See Holography / Intuition for explanation.].

There are several minor errors between there and page 66, but it is on page 66, in chapter 7 "The cognitive role of concepts" that a major error occurs. It is clear on this page that Rand carries with her some remnants of the theory of forms, carried from Plato, to Aristotle, and on to many philosophers since. There is no ground in reality for such a theory - but it was a way to try and explain the effects of treating information as an interference pattern, without any knowledge of the process.

She quite accurately describes the attributes of the process of concept formation, then goes on with the following paragraph :-

" The same principle directs the accumulation and transmission of mankind's knowledge. From a savage's knowledge of man, which was not much greater than a child's, to the present level, when roughly half the sciences (the humanities) are devoted to the study of man, the concept "man" has not changed: it refers to the same kind of entities. What has changed, and grown is the knowledge of these entities. The definition of concepts may change with the changes in the designation of essential characteristics, and conceptual reclassification may occur with the growth of knowledge, but these changes are made possible by and do not alter the fact that a concept subsumes all the characteristics of its referents, including the yet to be discovered."

This statement appears dangerous in several aspects.

Granted, that a concept may have many "unknowns" and "yet to be discovered"s associated with it; but a concept within a specific human mind is also a concrete. For each individual it will have a specific meaning, and more or less stable boundaries of definition. These can change over time, and can be widely different from individual to individual. To illustrate what I mean, let us take the concept "man".

The meaning of the concept "man" has varied widely over history, and still does so even today. For some groups the term "man" applies only to their specific "clan", all those individuals of the species homo who are not of their clan are less than "man". In recent history we have had many examples of that. It is still very common in the thoughts of ordinary people, that other people who have different skin colour, belief systems, or heritage, are somehow less than "man" - and are therefore exempt from the moral constraints necessary when dealing with men.

Many of Rand's followers show a similar narrowing of the definition of "man" with respect to intellectual capacity - in that to be "man", one must be "rational". The concept is far from clear, and far from definitive. It certainly does not mean the same thing to all people, though there are areas of overlap for most people.

For me, the definition of "man" is a simple matter - it applies only to members of the species homo, and is basically a genetic definition. It has little or nothing to do with sentience or rationality. Most "men" are sentient at some time(s), most are at least potentially capable of rational thought. But being a "man" does guarantee either sentience or rationality - Aristotle and Rand both ignored reality when they tried to include "rational" as part of the human definition - or they were confused between the ability to intuitively make associations (the by-product of storage as an interference pattern) and the ability to consciously test and integrate an intuition or observation into a coherent body of understanding (rationality).

Concepts, in any given mind, are always based upon concretes of experience (either of external or internal perceptions - internal being imagination, dreams, fantasy, abstracts etc). For communication to be possible between one mind and another, there must be a high degree of overlap between the form of the concepts held by the minds involved.

So when Rand says "From a savage's knowledge of man, which was not much greater than a child's, to the present level, when roughly half the sciences (the humanities) are devoted to the study of man, the concept "man" has not changed: it refers to the same kind of entities. What has changed, and grown is the knowledge of these entities. " I have to disagree. The concept of man has changed a great deal. The class of individuals involved in the definition has, and still does, vary a great deal, from individual to individual - anyone who believes differently is going to be in for a big shock when they attempt to communicate their concepts to others.

At any point in time, in any given mind, a concept has a finite form (though it may encompass a class with infinite boundaries).

On page 69 Rand goes on to say :-

"Concepts represent a system of mental filing and cross filing, so complex that the largest electronic computer is a child's toy by comparison. This system serves as the context, the frame of reference, by means of which man grasps and classifies ( and studies further) every aspect of reality. Language is the physical (visual-auditory) implementation of this system.

Concepts and, therefore, language are primarily a tool of cognition - not of communication, as is usually assumed. ...."

There is both truth and falsehood in this statement - the falsehood comes from a misclassification, due to lack of understanding of what is going on. The "system of filing and cross filing" would be complex if it were done as normal sequential files are held, but because it is done as an interference pattern, it is extremely simple. The storage and recall mechanisms used when dealing with interference patterns are far more powerful than those associated with simple images. The "system" is not the "frame of reference" - it is what we are. There is an inseparable identity. We are the sum of our understanding, and our physical being - both contribute components to what we are at any given instant.

Language is much more than the "physical implementation of this system" - it is the key aspect which makes the system function. The linkage of groups of percepts and concepts to a single concrete symbol (word - defined by sight, sound, touch or whatever) is the key which enables a rational consciousness. Reason, without language, is a meaningless concept. The two are intimately linked.

It is true that a concept can be formed without words. But without words a concept cannot be communicated, and without communication the consciousness of a man would be little different from that of a dog or a chimpanzee. In modern society, most of what we know is learned through the use of words. Few people invent new concepts, most people just deal with those concepts provided by others, and all of us spend most of our time dealing with other people's concepts.

Concepts are a tool of cognition, but only through communication. We are the result of the inseparable linkage of those two processes - neither can claim supremacy over the other.

Having spent most of this work criticising Rand - I will spend a little on praising her reworking of Ockham's Razor found on page 72 :-

"The requirements of cognition determine the objective criteria of conceptualisation. They can be summed up best in the form of an epistemological "razor": concepts are not to be multiplied beyond necessity - the corollary of which is : nor are they to be integrated in disregard of necessity."

This is excellent work !

Back to criticism - page 74 she states :-

" If it should be asked, at this point: Who, then, is to keep order in the organisation of man's conceptual vocabulary, suggest the changes or expansions of definitions, formulate the principles of cognition and the criteria of science, protect the objectivity of methods and of communications within and among the special sciences, and provide the guidelines for the integration of mankind's knowledge ? - the answer is : philosophy. These, precisely, are the tasks of epistemology. The highest responsibility of philosophers is to serve as the guardians and integrators of human knowledge."

The mixture of definitions and meanings here is too murky to sort out easily. For me to agree with her, would require a modification of the definition of philosopher to the point where it would exclude most who claim the title. The point of philosophy, as classically understood, is to do no more than to establish that existence exists. All else, including a knowledge of the form of knowledge itself, comes from existence. Science, in so far as it is the study of existence, is the source of all else.

It is the responsibility, not only of philosophers, but of all people, to guard and integrate human knowledge.  An alternate formulation being that we are all philosophers.

There is no single human mind capable of holding all human knowledge, and no mind capable of performing all possible integration on the knowledge that it does hold. Each of us is charged with the responsibility to do the best we can with what we've got - in the full knowledge that some will do better than others (this is reality we are talking about - remember).

I agree with Rand, that we need to do a lot more with what we've got. But I believe it is totally misleading to almost everyone to call this the task of "philosophy" - it is the task of "rationality" - it is "rationality".


In chapter 8 "Consciousness and Identity" Rand is so intent on criticising paths which diverge from her own, that she is guilty of missing some essential truths; she is also, still, clearly tied to a platonic concept of forms (which one must abandon in favour of reality).

She starts out the first few pages quite well, but on page 78 states :-

" As reporters, linguistic analysts were accurate : Wittgenstein's theory that a concept refers to a conglomeration of things vaguely tied together by "family resemblance" is a perfect description of the state of a mind out of focus."

In this she may sometimes be correct (in a simple sense), but she misses the truth of Wittgenstein's work - his description is a near perfect description of how storage and retrieval of information as an interference pattern works. There is a mode in which "family resemblance" is very easily found. It is a simple mechanical procedure (see appendix on LASER holography). I can see where Rand hates the idea, but it is a remarkably accurate description of how all minds work.

Two paragraphs on, her statement

"... one must begin by grasping why concepts and definitions cannot and may not be arbitrary"

is too true - but I believe she misses some of the significance of the statement.

Further down she displays a confusion between the processes of reason and those of intuition. She has lumped them together (integrated in disregard of necessity) which is not surprising given the state of knowledge at the time. But that state cannot be allowed to continue.

Intuition is the ability of a mind to extract form and relationship from it's contents where no such form or relationship previously existed. It is a simple mechanical function - very powerful, but essentially logical and simple: in the same way as projection of movies onto a screen from a projector and film reel is a simple mechanical process.

Reason is something different. Reason is the conscious application of the results of intuition to the existing body of relationships. The testing, checking, modification of relationships, which should follow an intuition.

Reason is a thinking process.

Reason can be taught.

Intuition is a mechanical process of brain which is either present or absent. If present, it can be trained, refined, and honed as a tool, but it cannot be taught. It is present in most brains. Even many animals.

On page 79 she continues to try and justify philosophy as the master of science - she says:-

" It is the task of epistemology to provide the answer to the "How?" - which then enables the special sciences to provide the answers to the "What?".

To a point this is true. To the point that epistemology must establish "existence" then it is true. But once existence is established - all else is a matter for the application of the scientific method. Once we have a reality to deal with - then let us deal with it - and stop wasting time and effort.


In summary


In summary - I found Rand's work to be very informative, and mostly true. It is the work of a very powerful and very rational mind. But it does suffer from some serious flaws.

1/ It attempts, in trying to place philosophy above science, to place man above reality - we don't belong there.

2/ It still carries with it the remnants of a platonic theory of forms.

3/ It attempts to provide an explanation of humanity, without adequate reference to the reality of being a member of the species homo - in this day and age it takes a thorough knowledge of physics, history, mathematics, chemistry, logic, biochemistry, algorithmics, and a fair dose of reality - to come to terms with what it is to be human.

Otherwise - well done. Well worth a read.


Notes on Appendix

In Ayn Rand's opening remarks (page 136) she makes the following statement :-

"... The only other issue left open in the Foreword is the question of the validity of sensory data. I indicated that any argument against the validity of sensory data commits what we call the fallacy of the "stolen concept" by relying on the validity of the senses in the attempt to deny them. And I assume that everyone here, if he is in any agreement with us at all, does accept the fact that sensory data are valid."

There are a heap of problems in that statement. On one level it has to be correct. Sensory data is our only source of knowledge of reality. But the truth of the concept lies in the use of the term "sensory data" as opposed to the term "sensory datum".
The reality is that any specific individual observation contains a degree of unreliability. As we build a set of observations which are in agreement, so we build up the degree to which we trust those observations. In day to day reality, we trust our senses to a very high degree in most circumstances, partly because we have a large experience base to work from, and partly because the senses work very well in the sort of environment in which they have evolved. As we get into less "usual" circumstances, so we tend to be less trusting in our senses - again, partly because they don't work as well, and partly because we lack the experience base to allow us to accurately interpret the information which they supply.

This is not using the evidence of the senses to deny the evidence of the senses. This is using reality, and the evidence of the senses, to accurately establish the reliability of those senses in specific environments. It is little more than common sense, but something that many philosophers (Rand included) have a lot of trouble with. It's not at all difficult for practical scientists to deal with, because they are used to dealing with errors in measurement systems all the time - it's just philosophers, who tend to get wound up with their own infallibility, who have problems with the concept.

Reality exists. Our ideas of what reality is, are, more or less, close approximations to that reality.

Moving on to the content of her discussions. She demonstrates a faulty understanding of the function of the human mind (as already explained) in several places (pages,141 {twice},150, 220, 225, 228 and many others) but that is understandable. However, stemming from this misunderstanding, she makes a major and fundamental error in her analysis of "the role of words", page 163 onward.

On page 164 she says -

"But as far as the process of concept-formation is concerned, the word is the result of the process".

In the first instance this is sometimes true - but it is not how most of us learn. Most of us derive the concept, from holographic manipulation of contexts associated with words. The meaning of the word becomes clear from the context(s) in which the word is used. This is how brain functions. It is true, that someone had to come up with the word in the first instance, but often such things are done by mistake.
Let me explain that.
Often a new concept is formed, because communication fails. The concept formed by the mind of the recipient is not that intended by the speaker, and so the listener now has a different concept associated with the word than the speaker. This can lead to a lot of confusion in the short term, but, given time and adequate explanation, the meaning of both concepts can be sorted out and adequately communicated.

Sometimes the concept does come before a word is associated with it, but in real human experience, this is very definitely the exception, not the rule.

The word, in most cases does not complete the process of concept formation, it initiates it, and is the major vector involved (as already explained). Her own example (of Helen Keller page 173) is adequate demonstration of the role of words in concept formation. The symbol, "the word", was required before concept formation was possible - in direct contradiction of Rand's earlier claims of how the process worked. I know this may not seem right, but if you think about it, use a little common sense, you'll see it is right.

On page 181, Prof D on understanding, it should be noted that there are at least three different types of memory at work in the human brain, short, medium, and long term. The rest of the dilemma posed is solved by holographic processing - the amount of information presented is finite and quite manageable, though it comes from a truly enormous base - it really is a magical little process.

On page 196, one of my major arguments with objectivism is clarified - Rand quite blatantly re-defines the word "absolute" to mean "standard", which is, in my opinion, the cheat's way out. Absolute is absolute - it is the n'th degree - it is not whatever arbitrary standard you happen to choose to adopt, though arbitrary standards are necessary for most measurement. Her argument is cute, but false.

Page 227 - re mistakes in self awareness - this is a field which is beautifully covered by Richard Dawkins in "The Selfish Gene". Dawkins demonstrates the mathematical necessity for self deception in any evolved system.

Page 228 Rand states -

"I know what my mind is doing when I identify ....."

- but she doesn't. She has little or no concepts of the mechanics of what is taking place, only a rude understanding of some of the logic necessary for any operation of that class of activity.

Page 235 Rand is again confused about the meaning of "definition" when she states -

"Any subdivision within a given science is proper provided it is not substituted for the basic philosophical definition which is valid for all men in all stages of knowledge"

- she is, once again, slipping back into Platonic "forms". There is no such thing. Concepts are always concretes. They may be shared where there is sufficient commonality of experience, but are never entirely identical. She has left reality for some sort of idealised paradise (again) - [ too formal me-thinks].

Page 273 - epistemological primaries - a nonsense. Such are relative, and contextually sensitive. She seems very mixed up with idealised forms at this point. Just get back to reality - what is is, what works works!

Page 293 -

"A philosopher can tell you without ever entering a laboratory that that is not possible."

Rand is out of step. Now she is claiming that philosophy can determine reality - she is breaking her own fundamental rule - Reality is what it is, and we can only discover it. To claim that any system of thought can, without ever testing, rule out some attribute of reality, is committing the most fundamental epistemological error. No philosopher has any right to tell anyone what they can or cannot observe - but they [philosophers] can help to instruct them [people who observe] on the best ways of interpreting those observations.

On this point Rand is further out of line than anywhere else. She has absolutely no basis in reality to make such a claim, except a tradition amongst philosophers to attempt to place themselves above reality.

Please send any comments or criticisms to: Ted@fishnet.co.nz

If you are interested in where this line of thought has taken me in respect of the future of humanity, check out Solnx.org.