Over on the ObjectivismOnline forum, somebody posted a question from a conservative about some aspects of Objectivism and asked for assistance answering it. My ‘quick’ answer wound up being a bit longer than I originally intended, so I figured I’d cross-post it here. Here’s the original question, followed by my response:

How does objectivism deal with scientific concepts of events or objects that by their very nature cannot be observed or measured? Also does objectivism compensate for issues concerning the potential inaccuracy of the five senses or is it assumed that the senses and the external data that they gather in for intellect and reason to process are always correct? As you can imagine I don’t accept objectivism as a worthwhile philosophy for my life because it excludes too many avenues of discovery. It puts to many limits on lines of though and inquiry and when taking to its fullest potential it seems to be a child of nihilism something akin to atheistic existentialism. I may have misconceptions or a misunderstanding of the philosophy because I haven’t delved deeply in to it but much of what I read I couldn’t agree with.

I’m just tossing this out in a few minutes between other tasks at work, but here’s my thoughts. First, Objectivism definitely takes the position that the senses as such cannot be in error. We draw a strong distinction between the form and object of perception, and between the perception itself and the conceptual identification of the information given in the percept. Let’s concretize this by examining a standard perceptual illusion — the stick in water. We look at it and it seems bent, but we know that it’s really straight. Aren’t our senses giving us incorrect information? No, they aren’t. We are perceiving the identity of a particular part of existence, viz. a stick in water, and the form in which our senses respond to this identity is the perception of the bent-stick-in-water. The object perceived is the stick-in-water, and the form in which we perceive it integrates together multiple causal aspects — the shape of the stick and the refractive index of the water. Our conceptual identification of the percept (which may be in error) is that the stick appears bent because of the effects of the water in which it is immersed.

Because the senses operate causally, they can respond in only one way to any given situation… the way dictated by their nature and the nature of the object being perceived. Since there is no alternative in how they respond, concepts like “error” do not apply. A perception can no more be mistaken than a chemical reaction or a rock rolling down a hill. For a further discussion of the nature of perception, perceptual form and perceptual judgment, see the first few sections of Chapter 2 of Leonard Peikoff’s Objectivism, or perhaps David Kelley’s The Evidence of the Senses.

As for how Objectivists deal with concepts of events or objects that cannot be observed or measured — it depends on what is meant by “cannot be observed or measured”. Aspects of reality which cannot be observed or measured perceptually must be dealt with by inference, using concepts which are themselves ultimately grounded in perception. We cannot directly perceive atoms, for example, but we know they exist based on a lengthy chain of scientific experiments the results of which are directly perceived. (See David Harriman’s article on “Proof of the Atomic Theory” in the most recent issue of the Objective Standard for a more detailed explication of this.) If, on the other hand, the question is about concepts of events or objects that by their nature cannot be reduced to the perceptual level, then the Objectivist response is that assertions of the existence of such events or objects is arbitrary and illegitimate. On what basis can such events or objects be claimed to exist? By definition we cannot have sensory evidence of them directly, nor can they have any causal connection to anything else that we can perceive and use to infer their existence conceptually. Such things cannot be identified either through the senses or through reason based on the senses, and there are no other legitimate means of obtaining knowledge about reality. Objectivism rejects faith, innate ideas and speculation absent evidence. The only “avenues of discovery” that are epistemologically legitimate are the senses and conceptual inductions and deductions based on the senses. Anything else is just making stuff up, and while that can be fun as entertainment it isn’t a path to knowledge.

I can’t really respond to the questions about Objectivism being a “child of nihilism” or a form of “atheistic existentialism” other than to note that, yes, it is an atheistic philosophy. I don’t find it nihilistic because it takes a very strong value orientation. Life matters, values matter, happiness matters, morality matters. That’s the opposite of any form of nihilism.

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