Here we go again...
Seriously, I should start charging a fee! The most recent effort that I’ve seen comes from none other than Francois Tremblay, himself a valiant blogger on a wide variety of philosophical matters (including anti-theism). Earlier this month, while I was out traveling on business, Francois left a comment on my blog Normativity and the Primacy of Existence in which he stated:
I've written a refutation of Bahnsen Burner's position on this issue, which you might find interesting. https://francoistremblay.wordpress.com/2015/05/05/is-existence-really-primary-in-the-way-objectivism-states/
So after settling back into my typically chaotic routine after visiting some clients in faraway places, I thumbed through my inbox and saw Francois’ comment. Never one to be surprised by Francois’ offerings (not because they’re not surprising, but because, in somewhat Pavlovian manner, I’ve learned not to allow myself to be surprised by them), I thought to myself “here we go again…” as I warmed up for another binge of rapid-fire face-palming (if you thought I was doing something else to wear out my palm, you were wrong).
The Correspondence Theory of Truth
In a post titled The experiential theory of truth, Francois suggests that the correspondence theory of truth is “just nonsense” and opines that “it’s hard… to understand how anyone could fall for it,” apparently because “[w]e cannot measure whether a proposition corresponds to a fact, because propositions are nothing at all like facts.” We should keep in mind that the term “the correspondence theory of truth” may lead thinkers to suppose that there’s just one unitary theory of truth denoted by it, while in fact there’s a family of such theories. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy surveys a number of these theories.
Generally speaking, the correspondence theory of truth has historically been contrasted with the so-called coherence theory of truth (cf. Reese, Dictionary of Philosophy and Religion, s.v., Epistemology’ 2-5). Where correspondence theories found truth on the basis of a relation between ideas and reality, coherence theories hold that truth is a relation between ideas. (Curiously, Reese’s own treatment of the matter characterizes ideas as irreducible products or deliverances of the senses. I don’t think Reese is alone on this. It is a position which I reject.)
What’s at stake in all this is the question of what serves as the basis and standard of truth. If not facts which we discover and identify in the world we perceive, then what? Applying the primacy of existence to the question would mean taking facts which we discover by looking outward as the standard of truth, where concepts are the truth-bearers and truth involves a relation with what concepts denote. The opposite of this would involve looking inward for some alternative to facts as the basis of truth.
According to Francois, however, none of this should factor into consideration. Rather, he apparently thinks that propositions and facts need to be very similar to each other in some unstated way in order to measure correspondence between them, and since they aren’t, the correspondence theory fails. Now even though I do not see where Francois explains what a fact is, I’m sure he could cite many examples to support his contention here. For example, a red octagonal sign with some symbols stamped on it spelling out a single word is, one could argue, radically different from applying the brakes to a moving vehicle upon reaching it. Where’s the correspondence? But notice that anyone reading this can probably figure out what I mean by “a red octagonal sign with some symbols stamped on it spelling out a single word.” And yet there’s supposedly no correspondence here?
Francois states that the reason “we think there is a correspondence [between propositions and the facts to which they refer] is an artefact of writing both down.” I certainly know how to write down a proposition, but I don’t know how to write down a fact, and yet Francois’ contention here assumes that facts can be written down. Of course, I have never understood the correspondence theory to require (or arise from) the practice of writing facts down next to the propositions which correspond to them.
Perhaps Francois would prefer that we adopt a pictographic form of writing, such as one in which a house is represented by a combination of strokes consisting of a rectangle with a triangle on top of it to resemble its roof. We could do this for flowers and automobiles as well. But when it comes to abstractions such as ‘justice’, ‘illumination’ or ‘policy’, how would we represent those? Call me old fashioned, but I’m quite content to stick with English!
He says that “the proposition ‘snow is white’ looks the same as the fact that snow is white if you write them down,” but if that were the case, I’d suppose learning to read a foreign language would be much easier than it in fact is: one would merely need to write down a fact (however that is done) and write the corresponding proposition in the foreign script adjacent to it, and the two should “look the same.” In fact, however, that this is simply not the case only speaks to the power of the correspondence theory given its conceptual basis: the symbols “snow is white” don’t at all look like white snow, and yet anyone who understands the English language will know what they mean. Language, as Rand explained,
is a code of visual-auditory symbols that serves the psycho-epistemological function of converting concepts into the mental equivalent of concretes. Language is the exclusive domain and tool of concepts. Every word we use (with the exception of proper names) is a symbol that denotes a concept, i.e., that stands for an unlimited number of concretes of a certain kind. (Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, p. 10)
In the same blog entry, Francois gives another example:
Suppose you write the sentence “I am angry.” Does that mean your anger is literally now located on the page as well? No, obviously not. Whatever you write, you can’t convert a fact into a sentence. Likewise, the sentence “show is white” does not contain any snow or whiteness, let alone a relation between the two (what would that even look like?).
Suppose we applied Francois’ approach to criticize music notation. Using this approach, we could dismiss music notation as “just nonsense” or “absolutely false” because notes written down on a staff don’t sound like music. Indeed, if I write some notes down on a piece of manuscript paper, I don’t hear a symphony! So, accordingly, to assume that music notation has any value is to fall prey to a “something seductive” because of our upbringing “in the Western intellectual tradition.” On the contrary, I consider myself unspeakably fortunate for having grown up in the Western intellectual tradition!
Of course, if the correspondence theory of truth is “absolutely false,” then Francois’ own statements – e.g., “Americans do not believe in democracy” or “I’ve been saying for a long time that your conception of human nature is fundamental to your political views and what policies you promote” – have no correspondence to anything in reality. Even when Francois states “I’ve always respected Bahnsen Burner’s work,” he’s not providing anything that corresponds to reality, which is a real shame because if in fact he intended his statement to correspond to his own evaluation of my work, I’d be delighted, even humbled. But none of it corresponds to anything in reality on Francois’ view. To what does it correspond? Who knows! Perhaps to nothing, if Francois’ protestations against the correspondence theory of truth (and the primacy of existence) are true! Indeed, to what does “the correspondence theory of truth” correspond? We now have a mystery, and this is only compounded when we ask: What if any value do propositions have? It’s like a re-run of an early 1980’s situation comedy: it may be quaint and give a few chuckles, but gladly we’ve moved on. (But WKRP in Cincinnati really was funny!)
So given these elementary deficiencies, I find Francois’ criticisms of the correspondence theory of truth rather unpersuasive. But I wanted to make a few additional points here.
It must be kept in mind that propositions are not irreducible, but in fact are composed of concepts. Propositions themselves are not merely successions of concepts, but complex integrations refining a whole context of those concepts which comprise them. So an exploration into the validity of the correspondence theory of truth must begin with a proper understanding of concepts. Thus, instead of focusing initially on propositions, even simple ones such as “snow is white,” let us ask first if the concept ‘snow’ corresponds to anything which we can discover and observe in the world. If it is acknowledged that the concept ‘snow’ denotes something in reality, how can we then turn around and deny any correspondence between the concept ‘snow’ and something in reality?
We form concepts from perceptual input, which means (among other things) that our concepts are genetically tied to the input from which they are formed and which they denote, whether they are entities, attributes of entities, actions, etc. Just as perception provides the form in which we have direct awareness of objects present to our senses, concepts provide the form in which we identify those things which we perceive. Both perception and conceptualization, then, are expressly object-oriented activities of cognition. So already there’s correspondence involved at the fundamental level, a correspondence that ripples up from the most primitive level of awareness. The correspondence theory of truth, then, is essentially a logical extension of the subject-object relationship into the realm of epistemology, specifically the conceptual realm. Given this, why would this basic correspondence not also be available when different concepts are integrated into propositions?
Francois cites the work of George Lakoff and Mark Johnson who (according to Francois) “absolutely destroy objectivist epistemology” and apparently prove that “even simple sentences like ‘the sky is blue’ are absolute gibberish if we interpret them using correspondence theory.” Lakoff, whose name presumably rhymes with a favorite adolescent pastime, is himself a professor at UC Berkeley, presiding no doubt over yet another generation of tender snowflakes, and also a member of Fundación IDEAS, a political think tank in service to the Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party. Francois summarizes the conclusion that the sentence “the sky is blue” is “absolute gibberish” as follows:
not only is color not a property of surfaces, but there’s no surface called “the sky” that can be said to be blue. So “the sky is blue” must be false.
David Kelley, in his book The Evidence of the Senses, defines perceptual form as “those aspects of the way an object appears which are determined by the manner in which our senses respond to the object in the particular conditions at hand” (p. 86). Having rejected the diaphanous model of consciousness (which treats awareness as lacking positive identity and perception as a “veil” between perceiver and object) and all the false expectations it generates, Kelley rightly points out that “[c]olors are the way atomic structure looks to us” (Ibid., p. 110). So even the sky, which is filled with particles consisting of atomic structures, will have a certain look to it, a certain appearance, a form in which we perceive it, given the conditions. Kelley offers the following summary:
Color is not in the mind in any sense. From the standpoint of the subject, color is not in or a feature of his perceptual awareness. The physical facts show that color is a relational property of objects, arising from an interaction between them and our visual systems. As with other relational properties, there is no reason to locate them at all. And our rejection of the diaphanous model removes any philosophical reason for viewing color as subjective. (Ibid.)
Speaking of Lakoff and Johnson, Francois writes:
They also point out that scientific theories themselves are heavily metaphorical, and are therefore incompatible with correspondence theory. Just to take two examples, biological evolution (“common descent,” “tree of life”) and General Relativity (“curved spacetime,” “time dimension”) make heavy use of metaphors to make testable predictions about reality. How can something both be absolutely false (i.e. not correspond to reality) and make testable, reliable predictions about reality?
To be sure, metaphors are not conceptually irreducible, but in fact make use of and therefore presuppose a broad collection of concepts in order to draw analogies from among them. In fact, metaphors are made possible by conceptual operations, in particular measurement-omission, which avails the use of distant concepts in conjunction given the elasticity that measurement-omission gives to conceptualization. And while metaphors are very useful especially in initial efforts to acquire new knowledge, they are not the primary means of understanding in the fullest sense in most cases. They surely are not a substitute for concepts, and explicit understanding of even difficult concepts requires us to cut past metaphorical expressions in order to articulate the real kernel of truth they may contain, or even question their suitability (Lakoff himself does this!).
Perhaps we can ask: Is the statement “scientific theories themselves are heavily metaphorical” itself “heavily metaphorical”? If so, what would it mean in the final analysis? To what does the notion “scientific theories” correspond? If we reject the correspondence theory of truth, does this not sever any and all correspondence between the notion “scientific theories” and anything that it might refer to? If not, then at least some version of the correspondence theory seems to be in play here, even in attempts to deny it. Indeed, the very question “What are you talking about?” itself assumes correspondence between communication and some set of objects. If Jones says “I had breakfast with Smith yesterday” and this were true, Smith could very well say “Yes, this happened, and Jones’ statement corresponding to what happened is true.”
What’s curious is that the examples which Francois has raised in framing his case against the correspondence theory involve the sensory quality of color – e.g., snow is white, the sky is blue, the ball is red. But sensory qualities are involved only a small subset of truth claims; our entire conversation does not consist exclusively of remarking what color things are. Rather, Francois has seized on this subset of truth claims because they are the only kind he can attack. And given the points I raised above about color, it should be clear that such attacks are a philosophical dead end.
But consider other examples of truth statements:
I was born in California.
This is a two-story house.
The front door is locked.
Jane is president of our homeowners’ association.
We bought tickets to Amsterdam.
Jim came to work late yesterday.
Francois cites Lakoff’s own theory of truth which, according to Francois, essentially holds “that truth is a match between our understanding of a proposition and our understanding of a situation.” So even on this view, truth involves correspondence, in this case between two categories of understanding. This is reminiscent of Kant’s coherency theory of truth which styles truth as a relation between ideas. But even here, there seems to be correspondence assumed, however covertly, between the understanding in question and that which is understood, but this has been ignored. Understanding is not a philosophical primary, nor is our possession of understanding causeless. We develop understanding on the basis of input from the world around us and our selective deliberation on that input. Indeed, wouldn’t “understanding of a situation” require correspondence in some form between the subject of consciousness who has achieved such understanding and the objects involved in the situation so understood?
It’s not clear how any of this reaches escape velocity needed to break away from at least some version of the correspondence theory of truth.
The Primacy of Existence
In his critique of the primacy of existence (again, in this blog entry), Francois cites statements of my own (from my response to youtuber whose misunderstanding of the primacy of existence was legendary) and goes on to make a series of statements which are themselves in dire need of correction.
When I observe a ball, I observe it as being a ball, but the concept of ball does not exist in nature. There is no Platonic ideal of “ball” floating around for us to perceive: we have a prototype of “ball” but it exists solely in our minds and is not independent of my perception of balls.
Now, an Objectivist may reply that, regardless of the identification of the ball as a ball, something exists which I am perceiving, and that something is independent of my perception. As I already said, I agree with that statement: I do not deny that there is such a thing as external objects.
Philosophers throughout history have been tripped up by this fundamental recognition not only through their own efforts to evade it, but also by booby-trapping certain issues of epistemological import, such as qualia, which have troubled thinkers for centuries, and rather unnecessarily. Such efforts stem from a failure to grasp Rand’s powerful statement: “Existence is Identity. Consciousness is Identification” (“Galt’s Speech,” For the New Intellectual, p. 124).
But even when it comes to perception, Objectivism is very clear: “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 Objectivist Ethics,” The Virtue of Selfishness, p. 19). Perception, then, is a physical action of a living organism which is caused by the interaction of sensory activity with external stimuli. This means that perception is an objective phenomenon: it results in awareness; it is not caused by awareness.
Moreover, as we saw above, perceiving a ball as an object that is red (or any color) does not cause the ball to have those surface characteristics which cause it to absorb one set of light rays and reflect others any more than perceiving it causes the object to have a spherical shape. Nor does perception cause the senses to react to light rays of one side of the spectrum in a certain way and to those of another side of the spectrum in another way. Rather, perception is a result of the interaction between the senses and the stimuli, just as the form in which we perceive objects (e.g., red as opposed to blue or white). Our experience of objects in a certain form (e.g., a ball that is red) is not causeless, nor is it a consequence of volition: I cannot choose to see a red ball when in fact the ball reflects light rays that interact with my senses in such a way that produce my perception of the ball in the form of blue.
Now here are two important points that I think Francois has missed in all this, namely (i) the senses and their activity are clearly not a product of perception (perception would not be possible without the senses doing their thing in the first place), and (ii) the stimuli which act on the senses are clearly not a product of perception (similarly, perception would not be possible without those stimuli doing their thing). These facts only confirm the primacy of existence and completely demolish attacks on the primacy of existence which springboard from a faulty understanding of perceptual form.
While Francois “[does] not deny that there is such a thing as external objects,” it is clear from what he has written that what he does not agree with are the views that (i) those external objects exist independently of conscious activity, and/or (ii) their identity is what it is independent of conscious activity. Either (i) or (ii) represents a concession to the primacy of consciousness metaphysics and either constitutes a denial of Rand’s two-fold dictum that “Existence is Identity” and “Consciousness is Identification.” So naturally, if Francois rejects either (i) or (ii) here, we should not be surprised to find him rejecting the primacy of existence as Objectivism informs it. At least he’s open about this.
In Francois’ next paragraph, I have itemized each statement for instructive purposes:
[A] The problem is that this statement alone leads us nowhere. [B] Without knowing that the ball is a ball, I can have no concept of perceiving a ball, or of what properties it can or cannot have. [C] Its nature as a ball is the result of identification and prior concept-formation, and is therefore not independent.
Francois’ statement [B] itself is not very clear. It implies an ordinal sequence in epistemology which may be generally true; i.e., we form the concept of perceiving things after we have perceived things and after we’ve identified a number of first-level objects, like balls, trees, buildings, etc., things that are immediately available to us in perception. We don’t perceive perception itself, but obviously we are able to have awareness of the fact that we are perceiving (hence the axiom of consciousness), and we do identify this fact explicitly only after we’ve been exercising our cognitive faculties. That said, I don’t think the ordinal sequence itself is bound to the specific level that Francois seems to be suggesting here. I can have the concept of perceiving objects (a general recognition) before identifying a variety of specific things present in my awareness (such as a particular ball). Similarly with properties as such: why would I need to know that the ball is a ball before I can know that whatever properties it does or can have must be actual properties and not self-contradictory properties? Again, general factors are in play here which seem to be excluded for no reason other than that they may simply not have been considered. Beyond this, statement [B] seems rather muddled, and as with [A] I don’t see that Francois has produced an argument for it.
This brings us to statement [C], which is simply affirms the primacy of consciousness without any argument whatsoever. Statement [C] clearly does not follow from either statement [A] or statement [B]; nor does it follow from both statements [A] and [B] jointly.
Take a look at statement [C] again:
Its nature as a ball is the result of identification and prior concept-formation, and is therefore not independent.
So I’m afraid Francois’ not scoring any positive points so far.
Now onto the properties. If I say “the ball is red,” what am I really saying? As any Objectivist could tell you, the way we see colors is the result of an interaction between the object and our senses: there is no actual redness out there independent of our senses. While they know this, they don’t seem to understand how it completely demolishes the idea that properties of objects are what they are independently of perception.
As I’ve stated, perception gives us awareness of objects in a certain form dictated not only by our senses (whose activity is not volitionally regulated) but also by the nature of the stimuli (which are also not volitionally regulated by the subject of awareness). So how does it follow from the fact that we perceive things in a certain form that the properties which an object possesses are not what they are independent of perception? This in fact doesn’t follow. What we have here is a massive non sequitur.
An object’s surface (its “properties” or attributes) absorbs some light rays while reflecting others, thus resulting in our experience of colors, and this fact does not at all imply that the nature of an entity or its attributes depend on conscious activity. Moreover, since the activity of the senses is not volitionally regulated (if it were, there’d be no need for pain medications), perception is just as physiological as other bodily actions, such as respiration, digestion, hair growth (or in my case, hair loss). It is a physical action and as such it depends on the nature of the entity performing the action. And last I checked, I did not choose to exist as a human being, nor can I choose to be something other than a human being. Generally speaking, I am what I am independent of anyone’s conscious activity, including my own. So on all levels, our perception of color is in total keeping with the primacy of existence, and frankly I’d think Francois would get this.
Remember that the PoE entails that an observed ball “has the nature, characteristics, attributes, etc., that it has- independent of my act of perceiving it.” This implies that our mental abilities, such as perception, must not construct the nature or properties of the ball in any way. But this is clearly incorrect.
Francois quotes from one of the workshop transcripts in the Appendix section of the second edition of Rand’s Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology (pp. 279-280). These workshops were unscripted verbal exchanges between various philosophy professors and Ayn Rand, and as such, while they contain many fascinating and even penetrating insights into epistemological matters, they must be understood in their proper context. And though Rand’s choice of words here is slightly unfortunate, I don’t see how any charitable interpretation could take her to be affirming what Francois seems to have gotten from this. Here is the exchange in context, with the question from the professor initiating the inquiry:
Prof. C:I have a question about the primary-secondary quality distinction. A quality like bitterness is not an attribute of an object, but it is caused by an attribute. At least I would be tempted to say that.
AR:I would not accept the distinction of primary and secondary qualities, because it leads you into enormous pitfalls. It is not a valid distinction.
We perceive light vibrations as color. Therefore you would say the color is not in the object. The object absorbs certain parts of the spectrum and reflects the others, and we perceive that fact of reality by means of the structure of the eye. But then ask yourself: don’t we perceive all attributes by our means of perception—including length? Everything we perceive is the result of our processing, which is not arbitrary or subjective.
The primary-secondary quality distinction is a long philosophical tradition which I deny totally. Because there isn’t a single aspect, including length or spatial extension, which is perceived by us without means of perception. Everything we perceive is perceived by some means.
If “ball” and “red” are the result of mental processing, then “ball” and “red” do not exist independently of the mind. The mind does more than “perceive and identify” an object: it constructs the object out of perception, including its nature and properties.
Francois quotes a statement of mine summarizing the primacy of consciousness:
On this view, the objects of consciousness depend on the activity of consciousness for their existence, their identity, or at any rate conform to conscious activity in some way.
This view seems to be the correct one, insofar as the objects of consciousness do depend on the activity of consciousness for their nature and identity.
Francois quotes some more of me:
Epistemologically, the primacy of consciousness means that, just as the objects of consciousness find their source in and conform to the contents of consciousness, knowledge of reality is acquired essentially by looking inward, into one’s feelings, one’s preferences, one’s imaginations, and treating them as though they were factual.
I don’t agree that upholding the primacy of consciousness necessarily implies that knowledge of reality is acquired by looking inward, although I know many people act as if this is the case (including the people I lambast in the entries I linked above).
But the point I make in the quoted section should not be difficult to grasp: if reality is a product of conscious activity, or at any rate conforms to conscious activity (again, not the activity of the senses, but rather conscious direction), then no objective standard could be possible. The objects of consciousness in such a case would not have identity independent of conscious activity. The standard of truth would not be independent of consciousness, but rather proceed from the contents of consciousness, which would mean one would need to look inward to discover that standard of truth. And even here, “discover” would be a misnomer. Rather, that standard would be something that the mind creates from whole cloth as it were. Such a position would be inescapable on a consistent application of the primacy of consciousness. But worldviews which grant metaphysical primacy to consciousness are not known for their consistency, but rather for their impact on adherents’ emotions.
Indeed, I don’t believe that knowledge of reality is acquired by looking inward,
Francois goes on:
unless it includes something trivial like “we acquire knowledge by looking at the outcome of the processing of our perceptions.”
But Francois thinks that introspection is problematic. He writes:
I believe that methods which examine external reality, like science, are inherently superior to methods which examine internal reality, like religion, in finding knowledge of reality (this is a problem for Objectivism, since Ayn Rand believed that knowledge about our emotional life can be gained through introspection, and Peikoff claimed that volition could be proven by introspection).
There is a big difference between believing that the objects of consciousness only exist due to consciousness, and believing that the objects of consciousness exist independently of consciousness but that their identity is dependent on consciousness in accordance with natural law. The former denies the internal world/external reality dichotomy, while the latter does not. The former entails that the best way of finding reality is by looking inward, and the latter entails that the best way of finding reality is by looking outward, but without the absolutism and over-reliance on rationality which is typical of Western philosophy.
The question is where we must look for the content of our knowledge. If the objects of our consciousness exist and are what they are independent of consciousness (the axioms of existence and identity) and we possess a means of acquiring awareness of those objects (the axiom of consciousness), then naturally we need to look outward for the content of our knowledge.
If, however, the identity of the objects we find in the world depends on our conscious activity, then clearly we cannot acquire knowledge of that content by looking outward; we would have to look inward for that content, since on such a view that content would have to originate in conscious activity.
While Francois claims that the view that “the objects of consciousness only exist due to consciousness… denies the internal world/external reality dichotomy,” he ignores the fact that “believing that the objects of consciousness exist independently of consciousness but that their identity is dependent on consciousness” only severs identity from existence. But identity is concurrent with existence. Any attempt to argue otherwise collapses into stolen concepts.
Kelley makes the following point:
Consciousness is not metaphysically active. It no more creates its own contents than does the stomach. But it is active epistemologically in processing these contents. What we are aware of is determined by reality – there is nothing else to be aware of – but how we are aware of it is determined by our own means of awareness. How could there be any conflict between these facts? (The Evidence of the Senses, p. 41)
I’m glad these aren’t my problems!
by Dawson Bethrick