Reason 101 - Pillar 4: Consciousness

The first three principles are concerned with reality, as in "the external world," the world distinct from our awareness.  We’ll specify consciousness as the name for this general attribute of our awareness—including sensory-perceptual and conceptual faculties.

The principle of consciousness is the critical-path pillar toward rationality.  That’s because reason, the subject of our presentation, is the attribute of consciousness we are advocating… as the correct way to process conceptual data.  The field of philosophy that deals with consciousness, specifically as it knows things, is called epistemology.

To proceed from existence to consciousness, we observe that the act of grasping the above metaphysical axioms implies that a subject (you or I) exists with some facility able to so grasp them.  In other words, the process of stating the axioms of existence, identity, and causality, requires consciousness—which is also axiomatic (an axiom is a "root truth").

It is, therefore I think.

The nature of consciousness at this level is conceptual.

Concepts ‘R’ Us

A shorthand description of a concept is the mental construct denoted in language by a regular noun.  The mental construct appears in our minds as an integrated unit, and it corresponds to a definition by genus and species.  For example, let’s define the concept radio as "electronic device that conveys audible words and music."

The process of gathering knowledge consists of creating, modifying, and organizing concepts to accurately represent reality without contradiction.  It’s a volitional, self-generated, dynamic process—nothing automatic about it, no "revealed wisdom."  For instance, just now I realize my palmOneÒ organizer is also an "electronic device that conveys audible words and music" (though that is not the organizer’s main purpose).

In order to stay clear on my concepts, to keep the muddle out of my body of knowledge, I return to the concept radio and redefine it as "electronic device that transforms broadcast signals into audible words and music," and I might add, "usually for news or entertainment purposes."  Better yet.

From the above simple example, we can see that in a complex world, with concepts of physics, mathematics, consciousness, commerce, medicine, and so on, humanity needs exactitude in conceptual language to stay in focus and control.  Further, clear writing —according to celebrated IQ luminary, Marilyn vos Savant, writing is man’s greatest invention—becomes indispensable to the ability to hold and transfer such knowledge.

So that’s my two cents on an extremely large subject, and my point here is to stress the peculiar nature of human consciousness as having this conceptual ability.  The proper exercise of this ability also happens to be the point of this column, as well as the mission of the RTF site, because that, ladies and gentlemen, is reason.(10)

Consider that any attempt to interpret reality without the forgoing reasoning process puts us at a serious disadvantage in the ongoing solution to the problem(s) of life.  In the simple radio example, if we did not use principles of efficient thinking, we might put a PDA (personal digital assistant) in our disaster kits in order to hear emergency radio broadcasts.

Several principles have been developed to promote efficient thinking.(11)  These rules are important, especially if you have "accepted reason into your heart as your personal savior."  If not, then principles of efficient thinking—efficient consciousness—will be of lower value.

Let me emphasize that our conceptual consciousness is volitional.  A matter of free will, to think or not to think, to make the effort of performing mental connections or just drifting along… taking the easy way out.  Ya gotta wanna.  (Note, without free will, without being able to independently evaluate truth and error, one can’t claim knowledge… one had to believe what one believes, including the doctrine that man is simply a souped-up robot.)

Briefly, three major issues of consciousness:

The Primacy and Objectivity of Existence

One of the most damaging notions in philosophy is what is known as "the primacy of consciousness" fallacy.  On the street, you’ll hear people claim your reality and their reality are different.  The primacy of consciousness was articulated most famously in the statement by René Descartes, "I think, therefore, I am."

The primacy person unhealthily inverts the perceived and the perceiver, the known and the knower.  In effect, this person holds one’s consciousness alters reality and that wishing does make it so.  And he smuggles this unhealthy view into the observation that we often perceive the same thing differently, therefore, no standard of truth exists.

"I just took a tour of the country, Mr. President, and I see thousands of people arrested and detained without charges, without access to legal counsel, and held incommunicado."

"Well, you think that’s what you saw, Joe, but in my world it didn’t happen.  Your reality is yours and mine is mine.  There is no absolute truth (except maybe for Jesus).  And I have a mandate to spend my political capital."

The main problem in logic with the primacy of consciousness argument, in all its variations, is there can be no consciousness without the absolute of existence.  Objective existence is the only thing that makes consciousness possible.

The Validity of the Senses

We’re resting our case for reason and reality on the axiom that our senses provide reliable information.  People who do not want to be troubled by the sometimes harsh facts of reality will argue another version of the world as illusion, that the senses are unreliable.  The most common example is the pencil in the water paradox.

"When you put a pencil in a glass of water, the pencil appears bent.  Thus our senses are not reliable because we know the pencil is straight."

This paradox is easy to resolve, because it is another clear case of the stolen concept.  How did you know the pencil was straight after all?  Sensory evidence.  One cannot deny the validity of sensory evidence while at the same time using it in one’s assertion.  On a practical level, we understand the mechanics of light waves and how these waves are refracted in different media.  Which is the explanation of the bent pencil.

Most arguments against the validity of the senses are variations of the stolen concept.

Sometimes it can be difficult to know whether you’re in a real world.  Consider the movie, The Matrix (1999), where the majority of humanity is born plugged into a dream world by machines that have taken over.  This dream world is the only reality they’ve been allowed, and undoubtedly could be made to seem so on any introspection they might be permitted.

What’s important to see in the Matrix argument is such beings are not free and independent consciousnesses.  They have been forcibly prevented from sensing the world in a normal fashion.  The prospect that such beings could exist is no more an argument against the universal of the validity of the senses, or against the validity of your senses, than witnessing a druggie taking a magic carpet ride.

The best source for sense validation is David Kelley’s, The Evidence of the Senses.(12)

Note  -  On a practical level, the above fallacies produce social conflict.  When reality becomes arbitrary, then the man with the most guns has the last sayso in resolving disagreements.

Rising Above Faith

As we stated earlier, faith is the antithesis of reason.

The more common and ordinary interruption of the reasoning process happens, sadly, through religion and faith.  The mind is put at a serious disadvantage.  Faith, in this context, means acceptance of ideas without rational demonstration.  Most of us have grown up believing, in all the big questions of life, faith is better than reason.

In the selection of friends, or picking a life partner, or choosing a career, or deciding what kind of human being you want to be, or whether this war or that war is blessed by God, we’re told "Don’t question, believe."  "God knows what’s best for you.  Say Amen and throw some cash in the plate."

Faith is a short circuit destroying the mind.

— Ayn Rand

In addition to the above, we need to rise above other doubts about the ability of our minds to actually know the material world.  Please refer to The Objectivist Center for resources that suitably handle virtually every intellectual assault upon man qua rational being.

Next, we need to deal with probably the most prevalent fallacy of philosophy.  That is, CSB (comprehensive supernatural being), the concept of God.  I spend an entire pillar of reason on the CSB/God issue, because it’s such a widespread handicap to human progress., Reason 101

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  1. Rand, Ayn. Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, monograph, first published in The Objectivist, July 1966.  —Rand spends most of the short work outlining her theory of concepts, this piece is a phenomenal illustration of exactitude in language. back to text
  2. ref. Principles of Efficient Thinking, a solid lecture series by Barbara Branden.  Barbara’s course is a time-tested value, and helps in the practical application of reason. back to text
  3. Kelley, David. The Evidence of the Senses, Louisiana State University Press, 1986. back to text