As popularly used, the word perception refers to two different things:
1. The first is defined as the way in which something is regarded, understood, interpreted, evaluated, or believed to be. Examples are, "he perceives the situation to be dangerous," and, "the importance depends on one's perception," and, "old age may be perceived either negatively or positively." Some dictionaries include words like, "insight," or, "intuition," in their definitions. This is the more common use of the word today. As a concept it is very confused and very misleading.
2. The second meaning pertains to one's direct awareness of the physical world by seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, and feeling it externally as well as experiencing it internally, by what is called interoception, (Dr. Binswanger only recognizes this aspect of perception once, on page 76, and uses the term "proprioception" to identify it), which includes balance, nausea, hunger, thirst, suffocation, fatigue, internal pain and pleasure, temperature, the biological "desires" and the emotions.
It is perception in the second sense with which philosophy is concerned. Perception in this sense is consciousness, and it is our conscious perception of the world that must be understood.
Perception and Knowledge
Knowledge begins with consciousness. I do not mean that consciousness is itself knowledge, but, if we are to know anything, we must first be conscious of it. It is not enough just to be conscious, however, if it is to be capable of providing us knowledge. If our consciousness is not totally reliable and valid, no certain knowledge is possible.
The validity of human consciousness, or perception, has been under continual assault throughout the history of philosophy. The first concerted assault was Plato's assertion that our consciousness is like shadows on a cave wall, implying that our perception of the world is a very imperfect representation of what actually exists. Hume's assault on consciousness, though it influenced the entire future of philosophy, was a mere sophism. It was Kant, who was influenced by Hume, who introduced to philosophy, the most damaging concept of human perception.
Kant introduced the idea that what the senses made available to consciousness required some "structuring" process performed by the mind to turn it into meaningful percepts. Kant's theory confuses concepts with percepts, but it remains in virtually all philosophy to this day in one form or another.
All the various philosophical descriptions of the nature of perception assert that between our direct contact with what we perceive and our conscious perception there is an intervening process performed by the mind, the brain, or the neurological system that somehow turns "sensory input" into conscious perception. This view is maintained even by those philosophers who attempt to defend the validity of perception. This mistaken view makes the question of the validity of consciousness impossible to know, because there can never be any assurance the assumed intervening "process" provides percepts that are valid representations of what is being perceived.
Perception, the Nature of Human Consciousness
Human consciousness is sometimes described as having three levels or aspects designated as sensation, perception, and conception. This view supposes that we are first conscious of sensations, by which is meant either, "data" provided by the sensory nervous system, what are mistakenly called the "five senses," or, what are really perceptual qualities like particular colors and shapes seen, particular sounds heard, or particular scents smelled. Perception is considered the next level of consciousness, that is, consciousness of things or percepts of them, by means of the senses. In this view, the highest level of consciousness is conception—conception is consciousness of ideas which are derived from (are about) what is perceived. As plausible as this view might seem, it is hopelessly muddled.
There are not three levels of consciousness, there is only consciousness. The only consciousness human beings (or any conscious animals) have is perception. All we consciously experience are percepts. The confusion begins with the concept of the senses, because the word refers to many completely different things, all incorrect. The most common use of the word refers to what are called the "five senses," but there are considerably more than five.
The other meaning of senses refers to the information or data provided by the external and internal sensory nerves. Technically, this cannot be addressed by philosophy at all. The study of the sensory nervous system is part of the study of the entire neurological system and is a branch of science under the category of physiology. There is no direct consciousness of anything like "sensation." What the neurological system does can only be known conceptually, that is scientifically.
[NOTE: The words sense, senses, and sensation, ought to be extirpated from philosophy. Please see the last section, "Sensation," A Senseless Concept."]
There is no such thing as a "conceptual level of consciousness" either. The nature of concepts is properly the subject of epistemology. The confusion of a possible conceptual consciousness is because concepts consist of two components, a perceptual part (a word, heard when spoken, or seen when written) and a definition (a proposition which isolates what a concept identifies). The definition is purely epistemological, not perceptual. It is words that make it possible for us to be conscious of concepts, because words can be perceived. Please see the chapter, "Concepts." Our consciousness of concepts is by means of perceivable words, and that consciousness is perception.
The Best Mistaken View of Perception
While most philosophers continue to accept, in some form, the view that human perception is, at best, only a poor representation of the reality it perceives, there are a few modern philosophers who have attempted to establish the validity of perception. Unfortunately, they have uncritically accepted the view that some process or mechanism is required to turn sensory data into percepts, and their attempt to work around that fallacy results in other incorrect views of perception.
One such attempt to verify the validity of perception is the Objectivist hypothesis originally formulated by Ayn Rand.
While Objectivism is mistaken about the nature of perception, it does not get it all wrong. The fact perception is our only mode of consciousness and that all our knowledge is ultimately about that of which we are directly conscious (as well as the fact we are conscious) is correct. Ayn Rand wrote:
"When we speak of 'direct perception' or 'direct awareness,' we mean the perceptual level. Percepts, not sensations, are the given, the self-evident. The knowledge of sensations as components of percepts is not direct, it is acquired by man much later; it is a scientific, conceptual discovery." [Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, Page 5]
Unfortunately, this is immediately contradicted:
"As far as can be ascertained, an infant's sensory experience is an undifferentiated chaos. Discriminated awareness begins on the level of percepts." [Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, Page 5]
If the only direct conscious "experience" we have is perception, there is no such thing as "sensory experience" for babies or anyone else. The explicit view of these Objectivists is that we are only conscious of percepts, but this confusion between the terms senses and percepts exists throughout Objectivist literature. There is a reason for this confusion; it is the tacit assumption of the view Kant introduced, that something must turn sensations into percepts. This is Rand's description of that supposed process:
"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. [Ayn Rand, Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, Page 5] [Emphasis mine.]
The mistake begins with the view of perception itself, as something chaotic from the beginning. Here is another Objectivist, Leonard Peikoff providing a more elaborate description of this supposed "chaos:"
"The most primitive conscious organisms appear to possess only the capacity of sensation. The conscious life of such organisms is the experience of isolated, fleeting data—fleeting because the organisms are bombarded by a flux of stimuli. These creatures confront a kaleidoscopic succession of new worlds, each swept away by the next as the stimuli involved fade or change. Since such consciousness do not retain their mental contents, they can hardly detect relationships among them. To such mentalities, the universe is, in William James's apt description, a 'blooming, buzzing confusion.'"
This much of his description, though colorful, is not true even of the animals, as we shall see, but he goes on to apply it to humans as well.
"Human infants start their lives in this state and remain in it for perhaps a matter of months; but no one reading these words suffers such a state now. When you the reader look, say, at a table—not think of it, but merely turn your eyes toward it and look—you enjoy a different form of awareness from that of the infant. You do not encounter an isolated, ephemeral color patch or a play of fleeting sensation, but an enduring thing, an object, an entity. This is true even though the stimulus reaching your eyes is the very one that would reach an infant's." [Leonard Peikoff, Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand, Page 52]
Process Bringing Order from Chaos
There are two related but specific assertions in this Objectivist view of perception. The first is that human consciousness begins as an "undifferentiated chaos," or, "blooming, buzzing confusion." The second is that some process produces order out of this initial confusion by some means referred to as an automatic process of the brain.
The word used to "describe" this organizing process is "integration." Ayn Rand was the first to use it and all Objectivists have followed Rand's lead in this. Here are more examples from Ayn Rand, and Dr. Peikoff. I have emphasized the pertinent words.
"A 'perception' is a group of sensations automatically retained and integrated by the brain of a living organism, which gives it the ability to be aware, not of single stimuli, but of entities, of things."
[The Virtue of Selfishness, Page 19.]
"The integration of sensations into percepts, as I have indicated, is performed by the brain automatically."
[Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand, Page 54]
There is one other assertion made by Objectivists regarding perception that must be pointed out, as in this example from Rand:
"The lower of the conscious species possess only the faculty of sensation, .... A sensation is produced by the automatic reaction of a sense organ to a stimulus from the outside world; it lasts for the duration of the immediate moment, as long as the stimulus lasts and no longer ... The higher organisms possess a much more potent form of consciousness: they possess the faculty of retaining sensations, which is the faculty of perception. A 'perception' is a group of sensations automatically retained and integrated by the brain of a living organism, which gives it the ability to be aware, not of single stimuli, but of entities, of things."
[The Virtue of Selfishness, Page 18-19.]
There are a number of difficulties with this description. Both sensation and perception are only attributed to, "stimulus from the outside world," which excludes from both sensations and perception the whole world of consciousness of one's internal states and the emotions. It implies that "sensation" is an inferior kind of consciousness to "perception," but consciousness, even in the lower species, if they have it, is perception. Nothing is able to be aware of "single stimuli." These are minor mistakes, however, compared to the assertion that, "The higher organisms ... possess the faculty of retaining sensations, which is the faculty of perception. A 'perception' is a group of sensations automatically retained and integrated by the brain of a living organism, which gives it the ability to be aware ... of things."
The significance of this assertion is that it points out a mistake in the view of what perception itself is. Perception is consciousness of whatever is at the moment being presented to consciousness by the neurological system. Nothing is "retained" in consciousness. Whatever one is seeing at the moment will instantly change the moment one moves their eyes to look at something else. If our perception "retained" percepts it would be a constant jumble of past and present percepts. In another passage it speaks of "retaining sensations in memory," which is just as confusing, because we do not remember anything we have not been conscious of and we are not conscious of sensations, and it is specifically "sensations" that are spoken of as being retained.
This confused view of the nature of perception is the direct result of trying to assert the validity of conscious perception on the basis of a false premise—the premise that sensory data is chaotic and meaningless and must be processed in some way to become meaningful percepts, which process is carried out automatically by the brain.
There are two problems with the Objectivist view of perception. First, it contradicts the evidence. Second, it introduces the same a priori problem as Kant's views.
We are indebted to Dr. David Kelley for providing the following interesting quote:
"Developmental psychologists are finding that the process of perceptual learning consists not in discovering which sensations to put together into the perception of whole objects, but in discriminating finer differences among the entities which the child can pick out as wholes from the beginning." [Emphasis mine.]
---David Kelley, The Evidence of the Senses, Pages 51.
(Kelley makes reference here to: Eleanor J. Gibson and Elizabeth S. Selke, Handbook of Child Psychology, Pages 25-36.)
This seems obvious. Where the idea came from that a child's perceptual field is some kind of jumbled chaos is really curious, because from the moment a child opens its eyes it apparently sees, "things," and follows those that move with its eyes, turns toward sounds, and intentionally grasps objects it feels. How the child could do those things before he is conscious of them, which he could not be if they were hidden in a disintegrated chaos, would be a mystery. As we shall see, there is no mystery at all, and a child's perceptual field is exactly like an adult's.
There is more evidence. While the exact nature of an animals consciousness is only inferred from its behavior, we assume the nature of the higher animal's perceptual characteristics are similar to a human's, though inferior in some respects, and superior in others. It is quite obvious that whatever and however the animals perceive, they perceive as soon as their perceptual equipment is fully operational (the kittens eyes open, for example). The example of a kitten is a good one, because they are able to walk and run (without bumping into things), find their mother's milk, jump on and climb things and chase each other within days of their birth. They could not do that if they did not clearly perceive things or if their consciousness was a "blooming, buzzing confusion."
How is it that these less sophisticated creatures can clearly perceive all they need to perceive, just by opening their eyes, but a human child, it is assumed, must develop the ability to perceive by some tortuous process, taking months, such as this described by Dr. Peikoff:
"In order to move from the stage of sensation to that of perception, we first have to discriminate certain sensory qualities, separate them out of the initial chaos. Then our brain integrates these qualities into entities, thereby enabling us to grasp, in one frame of consciousness, a complex body of data that was given to us at the outset as a series of discrete units across a span of time." [Leonard Peikoff, Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand, Page 72]
"The reason you see an entity is that you have experienced many kinds of sensations from similar objects in the past, and your brain has retained and integrated them: it has put them together to form an indivisible whole. As a result, a complex past mental content of yours is implicit and operative in your present visual awareness. In the act of looking at a table now, you are aware of its solidity—of the fact that, unlike brown water, it will bar your path if you try to walk through it; of its texture—unlike sandpaper, it will feel smooth to your fingertips ...." [Leonard Peikoff, Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand, Pages 52-53]
The fact is, the animals do not go through all this elaborate processing to develop the faculty of perception. It is obvious, perception is possible without it; why would human perception require this very complex process when an animal's perception does not? Up to the perceptual level, and with the exception of some specifics, (most animals do not see color but their senses of vision, hearing and smell are frequently superior to the human versions), perception is the attribute of consciousness shared by the "animal" part of man with all other animals, as the "rational animal." It is the rationality part they do not share with the animals.
To assert something without evidence or to accept something as true without a rational argument is a kind of mysticism. This is exactly what the Objectivist view of perception is. It asserts there is a process performed automatically by the brain that converts sensory data into percepts. What is that process? No answer. How do they know there is such a process? No answer. How is the brain able to perform it? No answer!
Not only is there no evidential or logical reason to suppose there is such a process, and therefore no reason to assume it, assuming it introduces two very serious philosophical problems.
1. The first is a kind of "a priorism." For the brain or neurological system to be able to process sense data into percepts, the brain would have to be programmed to recognize which sensory data belonged to objects and which to background, which data belonged to which objects, how to organize and configure that data to represent those objects, which further implies it could recognize objects from sense data that is not yet organized into percepts.
2. The second is that it makes the validity of perception impossible to know. Any "process" that lies between consciousness of existents and the means to that consciousness, would have to be incapable of error or distortion. The "integrating process" Objectivists claim is performed by the brain lies between the source of the sensory data and perceptual consciousness itself. The Objectivists do not describe how that process works and have no reason to suppose that what it would present to consciousness is a correct representation of what is being perceived.
Consciousness of Existents is Consciousness of Their Qualities
The Objectivist description of consciousness is essentially an attempt to counter the fallacious descriptions of consciousness, such as Kant's or the sensationalists.
The sensationalist view of consciousness assumes we can only be conscious of individual "sensations" (really percepts, such as specific colors and particular sounds) which we somehow learn to configure or integrate into objects and entities. This sounds suspiciously like the Objectivist description of perception. The only difference is that the sensationalist regard the process that converts "sensations" into "percepts" one that takes place at the "cognitive" level, that is, conceptually. All the Objectivists have really done is to move the process back to the physiological level, that is, the brain, and make it "automatic."
The sensationalists are partly correct. All we can be conscious of is those percepts of color, sound, taste, etc. that both the sensationalists and Objectivists wrongly call "sensations." The mistake both the sensationalists and Objectivists make is the assumption that something must be done with these perceptual qualities in order for "entities" to be perceived.
Perception and the Neurological System
It is not within the province of philosophy to discover or describe how the physical neurological system works. That is a matter of science. It is within the province of philosophy to describe what it must do if perception is to be valid. The following is a general statement of the function of a neurological system that provides valid perception.
The neurological system, which includes the sense organs, both internal and external, as well as the entire nervous system and brain, is the means of providing to consciousness all those qualities and attributes of reality that can be perceived in their exact total context, including the state and nature of the perceiver.
This system makes available to consciousness everything pertinent to the organism that is in any way physically related to it. The "system" presents to consciousness the light that is reaching the eyes, how and where anything is touching the organism, the sound that is reaching the ears, the chemicals in the air it is breathing, and those in whatever substances it puts into its mouth, as well as its internal physiological states; and it does this continuously. The level of sophistication of the perceptual system is determined by the sophistication of the organism. The so-called perceptual qualities are how the organism is aware of that which is being presented to it by the neurological system.
Obviously, that which is presented to consciousness for which the eyes are the source are the percepts of color, intensity, and the behavior of the eyes themselves perceived as stereoscopic phenomena (depth perception) and focus (distance); that which is presented to consciousness for which the ears are the source are the percepts of sound and direction; that which is presented to consciousness for which the sensory nerves are the source are the percepts of touch, temperature, and pressure; that which is presented to the consciousness for which the olfactory nerves or taste buds are the source are the percepts of scent and taste, that which is present to the consciousness for which the internal senses are the source include everything from our sense of balance to hunger, as well as our emotions.
These are not presented to consciousness willy-nilly, so-to-speak, but organized by source and in the exact way and order they are derived. The eyes focus the light reaching them into an image, and the light and color components of that image are detected by the rods and cones of the retina, and that detected information is, "transmitted to the brain," (made available to consciousness) where the response of the brain to the action of those nerves is consciously perceived as the percepts of color and light that we call "seeing."
It is not necessary for the system to do anything else, such as integrate the information into entities, for example. Since an entity is whatever its qualities are, if those qualities are perceived in the exact configuration they are in the entities, the entity itself is perceived. To understand that, we need to understand exactly what percepts are and how the perceptual system actually functions, not physiologically, but in principle.
What Are Percepts?
There is another very important mistake in the Objectivist view of perception, expressed by this quote from Rand:
"A 'perception' is a group of sensations automatically retained and integrated by the brain of a living organism, which gives it the ability to be aware, not of single stimuli, but of entities, of things."
---Ayn Rand The Virtue of Selfishness, Page 19.
The mistake is the presumption that perception means "recognition of entities." It is never stated in that way because there is a bit of confusion about what percepts are and the nature of that which is being perceived.
What is being perceived is physical existence. Ontologically that means entities because physical existence consists of entities, but perception of physical existence does not require the recognition of that ontological fact. The recognition that what is being perceived is entities is conceptual, not perceptual. When talking about the nature of perception itself, that is, the experience we call perceiving, it is a mistake to say it is consciousness of, "entities as such."
All that we are directly conscious of are perceptual qualities; that is, visually: hue, saturation, and brightness; audibly: pitch and loudness; tactilely: pressure, temperature, and pain; olfactorily: scent; gustatorially: taste; internally: comfort, nausea, emotions, desire, and vertigo.
It is by means of these perceptual qualities that we perceive entities (because those qualities are the entities), but technically, the only direct percepts we have are the perceptual qualities; the "things" we perceive may be referred to as percepts, but they are percepts of things by means of directly perceived perceptual qualities.
The Function of the Perceptual System
The perceptual system provides immediate awareness of the entire field of perceptual qualities available from all the sense organs at every moment as consciousness. The field of direct perceptual consciousness (as opposed to that derived from memory) is all the perceptual qualities available from all the sense organs in the exact arrangement they are detected.
Perception, in function, is analogous to a television system. A television camera captures everything in its field of view, exactly as it is, without discrimination or organization. If that field includes people, objects, animals, and background, for example, they will all be captured. But they are not captured as individual entities and background. What is actually captured is the color and intensity of the light being reflected from every point in the scene. An object, for example, is not captured as an object, but as a collection of colored points within the whole field of colored points currently being recorded by the camera.
When the image is displayed on a television screen, there is no special, "organization," or "integration," of the electronic data to "separate" and "make visible" entities in the image. The TV merely presents all the captured points of light in the exact order in which they are captured. Those that make up objects, are objects in the image, those that make up people, are people in the image. Nothing special has to be done to make them appear as objects or people or to separate them from the background or from each other.
The captured points of light represent the visible qualities of the objects and entities in the television picture. When the image is viewed, it is only necessary to present the visual qualities, that is, hue, saturation, and brightness of the points of light that were captured. What those points of light are qualities of is irrelevant, so long as they are presented in the same configuration that exists in the scene being captured. Those points of light that represent the visual qualities of each object will be those objects in the TV picture, without any processing or integration, because those objects, visually, are whatever those qualities captured and displayed are.
Perception works in exactly the same way. If the field of perception includes objects, animals, and people, it includes them. It does not include them as objects, animals or people. It simply includes all the perceptual qualities just as they are. Since the objects, animals, and people are whatever their qualities are, and those qualities are what the neurological system makes available to consciousness, those qualities which are an object, when perceived, is perceiving the object, and those qualities which are an animal, when perceived, is perceiving the animal, and those qualities which are a person, when perceived, is perceiving a person. Since all of these, as well as the background are only whatever their qualities are, when those qualities are perceived, it is the existents themselves that are being perceived. There is nothing else to perceive.
There is no necessity for any processing of sensory data, or integrating of that data into entities, or differentiating of those entities from the background or each other. It is only by analysis of what is perceived, after it is perceived, that one learns those objects are already "differentiated from the background" by the qualities they have and one learns to identify the different configurations of perceptual qualities as entities they directly perceive. Perceiving entities is a direct automatic conscious event. Identifying entities is a volition conceptual act.
The Ontological Basis of Perception
It is ontology that provides the principles that might have saved Objectivism from making mistakes in its understanding of the nature of perception. Once it is understood explicitly, that an entity's identity is its qualities (characteristics and attributes), it is obvious, to perceive an entity, it is it's perceivable qualities that must be perceived.
Only those qualities of an entity available to the neurologocial system will be perceived of course, but it is entities, as they are perceived, that are real existents. All other attributes of existents are discovered conceptually, not perceptually.
Entities are whatever their qualities determine they are, and whatever an entity is, determines what its qualities are. To be perceived, it is an entity's qualities that must be perceived, and that is exactly what is perceived. When an entity's qualities are perceived, the entity itself is perceived, because an entity's qualities are what it is.
Objectivists make much of the fact the entities must be differentiated from one another in perception. All existents are differentiated from each other, and according to the second corollary of the axiom of identity, it is each entity's own qualities that different them from each other. If one is perceiving an existent's perceivable qualities the entities are perceived are already differentiated from each other by their own qualities.
More importantly, the ontological insight validates perception. If existents are whatever their qualities are and it is their qualities that are perceived, it is actual existents as they actually exist that are being perceived. Though only the perceivable qualities of existents are available to consciousness directly, ontologically, all of an existent's qualities are implied by its perceivable qualities. It is, after all, by means of existent's perceivable qualities that sciences discover and identifies all their other attributes. [Please see the chapter, "Basic Principles of Ontology," for the principles this paragraph is based on.]
Perceiving Things As They Are
Perceived qualities do not need to be integrated into entities, they already are "integrated" in the entities themselves. What is perceived is that "integration" as a configuration of qualities, just as they are organized in the entity itself. It is not necessary to mentally "create" entities from perceived qualities because the qualities of those entities are already organized as those entities. To perceive those qualities in that organization is to perceive the entities exactly as they exist.
The supposition that whatever is "detected" by the sense organs and provided to conscious must in some way be organized and integrated before entities can be perceived presumes the sense organs and neurological system in some way disorganize, confuse, or rearrange the qualities of things detected, and must then reorganize them in the way they were already organized in the entities to begin with.
The fact is that all the qualities of existents are already configured or "integrated" into the existents they are. To perceive an entity it is only necessary to perceive those qualities in the very configuration in which they are already organized as qualities of the entity. The qualities do not need to be configured or integrated all over again by the brain or any other organ in order to perceive those existents exactly as they exist.
How We Perceive A Red Rubber Ball
The perception of a red rubber ball, in terms of any variety of those who teach that some "process" must be performed on sensory data or perceptual qualities to turn them into percepts of entities would apparently proceed like this: The stimulation of the nerve endings of the eye and tactile senses causes a jumble of disorganized sense data to be transmitted to the brain which somehow is able to discriminate the data that pertains to the red rubber ball from the data belonging to all other things being sensed at the same time, and to somehow organize that data or otherwise produce a "percept" of a red rubber ball.
It is impossible of course. Unless the brain has some way of "knowing" beforehand, which sensory data goes with which other sensory data from which to produce the "percept" of a red rubber ball, there is nothing in "sensory data" itself, such as Dr. Binswanger magic, "patterns in the light," that indicates what is being perceived or what entities it is or is not part of.
Suppose there is a red rubber ball sitting on a white table. Physics and physiology tell us, when we look at the table, the lens of the eye causes a miniature image of the scene to be projected onto the retina where light detecting rods and cones are stimulated to send sensory data to the brain. If we reach out and touch the ball, and squeeze it, the nerve endings in our finger tips and those sensing pressure and muscle control are stimulated to send more sensory data to the brain. Though physiologists, particularly neurologists, have been able to detect and map responses of the brain to this sensory data, science has not yet been able to determine exactly what those responses are doing. In some way, of course, we know they are related to our conscious perception, but perception is not brain activity. Ultimately, from the perspective of philosophy, the exact relationship between that brain activity and our perception does not matter. What does matter is what the resulting perception is.
While we do not, and may never know, exactly how the brain's behavior is "what is presented to consciousness," (if it is), that is perceived, it apparently is at least related to it, because perception can be altered if that brain behavior is altered. What we know is the perception itself. What is not presented to consciousness is percepts of entities, such as a "percept of a red rubber ball." What is presented to consciousness are perceptual qualities in the form of patches of color of various shades, feelings of pressure and a sense of muscle action. There is in this case a round patch of red color someplace on a field of white and grey which is on a field of other colors and shading. There is also a pinkish blob of color that faintly resembles an octopus partly obscuring the round patch of red. When the tentacles of the pink blob move, the shape of the patch of red color changes slightly, and that is accompanied by a feeling of pressure on the fingers and a sense of muscle contraction. The patch of red and the pink blob of course are the red ball and our hand and fingers.
It is possible to actually photograph the image that is projected onto the retina of the eye. If we should do that while looking at our red rubber ball, we would discover it looks exactly like the scene we are looking at (except upside down). If it were possible to photograph our perceptual field of vision while looking at our red rubber ball, we would discover the two photographs (that of the retina and that of our perceptual field of vision) were identical. Both would have a red rubber ball in them presented in the same way. Notice, absolutely no processing was necessary to create an "image" of the entity (red rubber ball) on the retina. All that was required was for the colors, light, and darkness of the scene to be faithfully transmitted to the retina of the eye. Though it is not yet understood how, and except for the fact that it includes the perceptions of sound, touch, taste, smell, and internal "senses," as well as the visual, that is all the neurological system must do: faithfully "transmit" (make available) to consciousness all the perceivable attributes of whatever is made available to the neurological system.
No special processing of any kind is required for entities or things to be perceived or distinguished from their background. Things are perceived in exactly the same manner their background is perceived, which is actually other things. Real things are what they are because of the attributes or qualities they have and are distinguished from other things by those very attributes. Not all the qualities of anything are available to the senses, and thus our consciousness; but those that are we call the perceptual qualities.
In the case of the red rubber ball, the perceptual qualities are its color (visual) and the way it feels (tactile). The roundness of the ball is not a perceptual quality. There is no sensory data for "roundness" transmitted to the brain, because there is no visual means for capturing, "shape," only color and intensity. Technically, and this is very important, shape is not a percept.
This seems, for many a very difficult concept, but once it is grasped, almost all the other problems about perception disappear. In the visual field, all that is directly perceived are colors and intensity. Everything else we think of as perceived (seen) are merely configurations of shades of colors, and by means of these, everything else we perceive is there. For example no shape percepts are presented to our visual consciousness, only patches of color; but those patches of color may have any shape. It is not necessary (or possible) for the neurological system to capture or transmit any information about shape to the brain for the shape of every patch of color in the visual field to be precisely represented and perceived. Every "patch" of color in the entities being seen has a shape, and so long as the points of color are represented just as they are in the entities they will be perceived with the exact shape they have in the entities.
Just as it is not necessary for any information about shape to be part of perceptual qualities for us to perceive shapes, there is no need for any information about entities (except their perceivable qualities) to be provided to consciousness for us to perceive entities. There is no attribute, perceptual or otherwise, "entitiness." All that is necessary is for all the perceivable attributes available to the senses to be presented to consciousness exactly as they are in the entities being perceived.
The Perceptual Qualities
By perceptual qualities is meant those qualities of existents that can be perceived by being seen, heard, felt, smelled, or tasted, or by any direct consciousness of internal states or events. There are two kinds of perceptual qualities: direct and derived (indirect). Techincally, only direct perceptual qualities are "percepts."
For example, the direct visual qualities (percepts) are color (called hue) which can be directly perceived in varying degrees of brightness and saturation (intensity) and stereoscopic difference (perceived by means of the difference in that which the two eyes are responsible for directly perceiving). Everything else that can be perceived visually are configurations of points of color such as shape, size, texture, spatial relations and behavior (motion) derived from the direct visual qualities or percepts. The direct tactile qualities (percepts) are pressure, temperature, pain and the perception of muscle behavior. The indirect tactile qualities are configurations of the direct percepts such as texture, temperature, shape and weight. There is no percept shape, for example, either visually or tactilely. Shape is a perceptual attribute of entities but it is perceived indirectly, as configurations of direct visual and tactile percepts.
Other attributes that are not direct percepts are: position, motion, weight, pressure, or relations (relative positions, temperatures, loudness, acidity, weight) which all can be directly perceived but only as "configurations" of direct perceptual qualities. Since they are not perceived by means of direct perceptual qualities I call them derived perceptual qualities because they are perceived by means of the direct perceptual qualities or percepts, but are not themselves percepts.
Perception Identical For All Conscious Beings
Whether the perceptual field is an animal's, a young child's, or an adult's, when looking at the same scene, the visual fields will be identical. The animal will see objects, and may "recognize" some that it has encountered before or it's instinct provides recognition of as things to fear or things to eat. It will not be able to "identify conceptually" any of them. The child will see all the same objects, but, depending on age, may be able to identify some, such as Mommy and Daddy or his own toys, but things the child has not seen before, though seen in exactly the same way the adult sees them, he will not be able to identify conceptually. The adult will probably be able to conceptually identify everything in his visual field, but there will be nothing in that field that is not identical to what is in the animal's and the child's visual fields.
[NOTE: This is a generalization, of course. Poor eyesight, some animal's inability to see color, etc. will cause differences in the visual field. Those differences are because all perception is contextual, and perceptual equipment is part of that context. It is also true, that what animals perceive is only assumed from their behavior and our knowledge of what human perception is. No one can know what an animal's consciousness actually is.]
Perception Contextually Perfect
There is a common argument meant to cast doubt on the validity of perception called, "perceptual illusion." A frequent example is the so-called "bent stick" illusion. The argument is based on the fact that a straight stick immersed half-way in water looks bent, implying that vision is an unreliable means of perception, because it can be fooled into seeing a straight stick as a bent one. The illustration actually demonstrates the validity of perception, however, not its vulnerability.
If our perception of the real world is to be reliable, it is the physical world as it actually exists we must be conscious of, and that is exactly what our perception of the world is. In the real metaphysical world nothing exists independently. The third ontological principle of identity is: Anything that exists must have some relationship to everything else that exists. [See the chapter, "Basic Principles of Ontology"] Those relationships, together with its state, constitute an existent's metaphysical context.
Almost every argument against the reliability of perception ignores or evades the fact that perception, to be reliable, must perceive existents as they actually are, which includes their total present metaphysical context. A straight stick lying on the ground, and a straight stick immersed in water are not the same metaphysically. If perception perceived these two different metaphysical phenomena in the same way, that would be illusory.
What is held up as evidence of the unreliability of perception just happens to be evidence that perception is not only much richer than any of these critics supposed, but perfect and totally reliable, because perception is always contextual—every percept is an exactly correct representation of what is being perceived in its total metaphysical context. If this were not true, perception could not be the source of knowledge about existence at all.
The metaphysical context of what is being perceived includes every relationship to that which is being perceived, as well as the state of that which is being perceived. If a white piece of paper is being perceived in the context of a red light, the paper appears to be red, which is exactly how it ought to appear in that context. If someone is wearing blue tinted glasses, everything being perceived will be tinted blue, which is exactly how it ought be perceived in that context. If white paper appeared white when illuminated with red light or if things were not tinted blue when one is wearing blue tinted glasses, perception would be deceptive, and that deception would inhibit, if it did not totally prevent, us from learning about the nature of light, for example.
Part of the total metaphysical context of anything that is being perceived is the perceiver. The fact that things appear differently to us depending on perspective has been offered is evidence that perception is unreliable. It is, in fact, more evidence that it is totally reliable. When we view the same thing from different positions, or under different conditions, the metaphysical context is different. If things appeared the same when we are close to them as they do when we are farther away, that would be a perceptual mistake. The wonder of perception is, that it always gets it right and automatically accounts for every metaphysical variation including those variations of which the perceiver is a part.
The fact that our internal states affect our perception of things is presented as more evidence that perception is unreliable. If there is a change to the state of some aspect of the neurological system, our perception will be affected by it. If the circulation in our arm is cut of temporarily, we have the "sensation" of "pins and needles" which itself is the perception of a metaphysical state, but that state will also make the things we feel with our "numb" fingers different than the way they will feel when circulation is restored. To expect something to feel the same in the context of being felt with numb fingers, as well as with fingers that are normally sensitive, ignores the fact that our perception of things is always in their total context.
Perception is never "mistaken." What is perceived is what is perceived—perception makes no judgments. All the mistakes that are made relative to perception are made conceptually and are about what is perceived, and never caused by perception itself. Whenever there is anything questionable about what we perceive, if something seems, "not right," it is not an indication that something is wrong with perception, it is an indication there is some metaphysical fact related to our current perception we are either unaware of or do not understand. It is an indication we need to learn more about what we are perceiving, not that there is anything wrong with perception.
One other argument made against the validity of perception is that learning and experience change the way we perceive things. The word learning is used in a general way to account for all forms of changes resulting from experience, including non-cognitive habituation, development of physical skills and the content of memory, to cognitive conceptual learning. All of these things will affect how one responds to what they perceive, but none of them affect the nature of perception itself. A child that has not learned the alphabet sees a page of letters in exactly the same way an adult does. The letters are just meaningless marks to the child. Learning the alphabet does not change what those letters look like—if it did, the alphabet could never be learned. [Does it not occur to those psychologists who claim that learning changes our perception, since all we learn is based on what we perceive, if what we learn changes what we perceive, it would invalidate what we learned?]
[NOTE:Perception and our knowledge are very closely related. There are occasions when what is being perceived is ambiguous, not to perception itself, but to our cognitive recognition of what is being perceived. In those cases it seems what is being perceived changes with how we understand or think about what is being perceived. The perception itself does not change, however, only how we recognize what is being perceived.
Here is an example:
What seems like a perceptual anomaly here is really because of what we think. The perception itself cannot change. For example, the image is not really a "transparent cube" but a set of two dimensional lines and it is that set of two dimensional lines that is perceived. It is doubtful that an animal would see the image as a cube or that a very young child would either. Adults see the image as a cube because they know what a cube is and how it can be represented as a line drawing. As an image of a cube the drawing is ambiguous. Because of that ambiguity the upper left square may represent either the back of the cube seen from the inside, or the front of the cube seen from the outside. The same ambiguity exists for all other five sides represented in the drawing. It seems as though we can "see" the cube in either of the two ambiguous perspectives, but the apparent seeing is not perceptual, it is fast intellectual interpretation of what is being seen. Just the fact that we think we see a cube is also an intellectual interpretation. What we really see is one square, two triangles and four trapezoids. There is no cube and we do not perceive one.
You may test this by carefully observing the image as it seems to change its perspective. You will notice nothing in the perceived image itself actually changes, only the impression you have of what you are seeing. These kinds of ambiguities almost never occur in our perception of physical entities, although they can. They are almost exclusively phenomena of abstract representations.]
World as Perceived Is the Real World
What we directly perceive is the real world, and that world is exactly as we perceive it. The world as we perceive it is the, ultimate reality.
What I mean by the, "ultimate reality" is that aspect of reality that is primary, the fundamental existence without which there is no other existence. Most philosophers who consider this question assume it is either an ontological issue (what is the ultimate stuff or nature of existence?), a cosmological question (where did everything come from or how did it come to be), or a scientific question (the supposed answer being some GUT—grand unified theory of everything).
The question is neither ontological, cosmological, or scientific, because the ultimate reality is what ontology, cosmology (which is neither science nor philosophy), and the sciences study. The ultimate reality is material existence, the physical characteristics of which we are directly conscious, the world we perceive as we perceive it. Physical existence is all that consciousness can be directly conscious of, and it is that physical existence which is the ultimate reality or primary existence. Though our consciousness, and the life that makes it possible are not themselves physical attributes, without the physical there would be no life or consciousness.
Most people today doubt that the world they directly perceive and live in is the ultimate reality. They have been taught there is something more, "fundamental," like the fundamental particle's of physics, or some ultimate "force," which is the ultimate reality responsible for the world we perceive. Most people doubt the reliability of perception (which they mistakenly refer to as the senses), as well. They are certain perception is subject to distortions, illusions, and deceptions. Almost no one really believes reality is the world we directly perceive or that it is exactly as we perceive it.
Except for some pre-Socratic philosophers, the view that the perceived world is the real world has never been held explicitly and unambiguously by any philosopher since the sophists began to question it and Plato utterly repudiated it, obliterating it from all future philosophical consideration. There is probably not a serious philosopher today who does not consider this view na´ve.
In fact, it is na´ve. It is the view implicitly held by all unsophisticated people, when they are not thinking in terms of their religion. The reality they see and directly experience is reality, for most people, and if philosophers, scientists, and theologians did not come along and give them reasons to doubt it, there would be no reason at all to question that na´ve view.
Reality is the cold hard earth, and soft green grass, the trees, rocks, rivers, oceans, and mountains we see, feel, hear, smell and taste. It is the onions, peppers, and fish we smell frying; it is the heat of the stove we feel; the shiny silverware on the table we see and the clinking of the table being set; it is the softness and texture of skin and clothing we feel. These are reality and the way these things look, and feel, the sounds they make, how they smell and taste are what they really are.
It is that reality all intellectual inquiry is about. It is what the sciences study and philosophy attempts to explain. When science tells us those things are not real, that some discovered fundamental particles or forces are real and the world we experience is only an illusion caused by them, the scientist is admitting what he studies is unreal, and all his conclusions are based on an illusion. When the philosopher tells us the physical world is not real, but only an illusion caused by the function of our brains, the philosopher is admitting that he and his brain are not real and that all his conclusions are caused by that which does not really exist.
In our na´vetÚ, we know this world we perceive and directly experience, live in and die in and are part of, is the real world. What sort of "sophistication" ever makes us doubt it? Any science or philosophy that questions the reality of this world we perceive and live in is not sophistication at all, it is only sophistry.
Knowing the World
The world we know is the world we see and directly perceive. Da Vinci said, "to see is to know," but if we take that to mean, seeing is knowing, we will be mistaken. What Da Vinci means is we can trust what we see, that it is reality, but just seeing it does not give us knowledge about it.
All our knowledge is derived from our conscious perception and the fact that we are conscious, but it is not consciousness itself we know, but what we are conscious of. It is by means of concepts or ideas that we have knowledge of and about the world we perceive because it is by means of concepts that we identify the existents we perceive.
"Sensation," A Senseless Concept
The words "sense," "senses," and "sensation" are an endless source of confusion in philosophy, primarily because the words are used to identify several related but different things, some of which do not even exist.
The confusion began with Locke and was certainly helped along by Hume, Berkley, and Descarte and finally finished off by Kant. Locke did not use the word sensations, but "qualities" which included such things as texture, weight, shape, colors, sounds, smells, and taste, which he divided into two classes: primary qualities which are presumably intrinsic in existents (e.g. texture, weight, shape) and secondary qualities which are not intrinsic in existents (e.g. colors, sounds, smells, and tastes) but how our perceptual system perceives aspects of existents caused by the primary qualities.
When an Objectivist philosopher writes about, "a sensation of color," or a "sensation of smell," the word sensation means what Locke meant by a quality. At least that is what we have to assume they mean if such phrases are to have any meaning at all. Objectivists never explicitly say what they mean by such expressions.
The word senses, today, usually refers to what is mistakenly called the five senses: seeing, hearing, feeling, smelling, and tasting. In that sense the word "sense" or "sensation" refers to what is seen (colors) for example, heard (sound) felt (cold) smelled (acridness) and tasted (bitterness) as other examples.
There is another meaning of sensation today, that refers to the sensory nerves of the neurological system, sometimes meaning the events occurring at nerve endings, in other cases whatever is "transmitted" to the brain by the neurological system. In other cases, the events occurring at nerve endings are described as "awareness," in others simply the means to awareness of those events as "conscious sensations."
None of the uses of the words sense, senses, or sensation are correct, and the whole family of such related ideas is hopelessly muddled. All these words should be abandoned by philosophers because their continued use can only produce more confusion.
What we know as philosophers is that the neurological system is the physiological aspect of consciousness which is our direct awareness of existence, which is perception. It is by means of the neurological system that our direct physical contact with reality is made available to our conscious perception. The details of how the neurological system does that is not known, and not something philosophy needs to know; philosophy only has to know that is what it does.
Here are some examples of Dr. Binswanger's confusing use of the term "sensation."
"On the lower levels of awareness, a complex neurological process is required to enable a man to experience a sensation ..." So here he says sensation is experienced, which implies one is conscious of them. How else would they be experienced? [Page 35]
"A 'sensation' as I use that term, is the most primitive form of conscious response, the response to energy impinging on receptors, ...." Certainly he does not mean one consciously responds to energy to produce a sensation, but what then is a "conscious response." Perhaps he only means one is conscious of the, "energy impinging on a receptor." [Page 60]
"A sensation is a conscious response to a stimulation at the receptors, ... it is a sense or feeling." Which is it? Or does he mean they are the same thing? What would a "sense" be? A suspicion or a hint? Is the "conscious response to a stimulation at the receptors of the nerve endings in the ear, the eye, and on the tongue "a sense or feeling?" or is he only referring to some primitive notion of consciousness (which we of course cannot possibly know). [Page 60]
[NOTE: There is the little problem of saying something is, "based on Obectivism," when it contradicts from the beginning what Objectivism says. Both Ayn Rand and Leonard Peikoff, deny human beings can be conscious of sensations.]
"The three-dimensional spatial array given in perception is what fundamentally distinguishes perception from sensation." [Page 61]
Does this mean perception and sensation are the same kind of thing distinguished only by a three-dimensional spatial array (whatever that is)?
There is one physicalist idea of perception that views the neurological system as a data gathering system. The nerve endings are the detectors of whatever is impinging on the organism and that information is transmitted to the brain by means of the neurological system where the brain, like a computer, processes the data to produce conscious perception.
Dr. Binswanger's own view of perception is similar. It is not a physicalist view, which he explicitly rejects, and he calls the data at the nerve endings "sensations" which he pictures as "bits of consciousness" which are not, as might be suspected, assembled into a full perceptual field, but instead, analyzed by the neurological system, then apparently discarded, because the neurological system discovers by its analysis, "patterns in the light" and we suppose other things being perceived like patterns in temperature, and patterns in chemicals and patterns in sound, which patterns the neurological system "detects and exploits" to "discriminate entities from each other." We must assume these discriminated entities are then turned into percepts of entities, though he does not say so; he only says, "thus, the content of ... perception is a world of entities." (Binswanger, Page 60.)
Fortunately, the human perceptual system is both much more simple than this fantastic system imagined by Dr. Binswanger, and totally reliable, because it is direct perception of reality as it actually is.