Philosophy of Perception: Naïve Realism vs. Representationalism vs. Direct Transformative Process Realism

Painting of a beautiful woman in a garden - Shows the richness of perceptionWithin epistemology, which is the branch of philosophy that studies human knowledge, one of the most fundamental topics is the nature of perception. Philosophers from the Ancient Greeks to the present have offered various theories of what perception is and how it occurs. Because it is a topic so fundamental to human knowledge, specialized natural science can’t answer the basics about it. Science relies on perceptual observations of reality. Thus science itself relies on the idea that perception allows us to be aware of an external reality. If perception does not give us awareness of external reality, then scientific study of the external world is not possible: We would always, at best, be inspecting the contents of our own minds.

Thus, it is the job of philosophy to answer the most basic question: Does perception give us an awareness of reality, and if so, at the most basic level, how?

In this essay, I’ll explain three different theories of perception. To the question of whether perception gives us an awareness of reality, all three of them attempt to answer, “Yes.” Where they disagree is on the “how,” or the basic nature of perception. The three basic theories are naïve realism, representative realism, and Direct Transformative Process Realism (DTPR.) (“Representative realism” here is a synonym for representationalism. Note that these theories are all variants of “realism” in perception. Theories that answer “No” to the question of whether we can observe mind-independent reality would be variants of “idealism.”)

Philosophers sometimes use “naïve realism” as a synonym for “direct realism,” and there are many different theories that could be called “direct realist.” But here I will take “naïve realism” to be one specific sort of direct realist theory: the sort of approach to perception exemplified by the Ancient Greek philosopher, Aristotle. Representationalism too has quite a few variants, but they all share a common thread. I will focus largely on the version of representationalism associated with the English philosopher, John Locke. Direct Transformative Process Realism (DTPR) is my term for the theory of perception put forward by Ayn Rand and Objectivist intellectuals after her. It’s a form of direct realism that is very different from Aristotle’s approach. I’ll explain this term in more detail when I explain this theory later in this essay.

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The Primacy of Existence Principle in Objectivist Thought: Some Clarification

Barred spiral galaxy in space. Represents science and philosophy.In a recent reddit comment, I offered some clarification of how the Primacy of Existence Principle flows directly from Ayn Rand’s axioms. A reddit acquaintance found the principle, as expressed in Leonard Peikoff’s book, Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand, confusing and seemingly unjustified from the axioms. He wondered whether it was potentially possible for some non-human consciousness (“God”) to contradict the Primacy of Existence and have control over physical reality, or for the nature of certain things to be such as to obey consciousness in ways that would contradict the Primacy of Existence. So I made the following comment in response:

I think there are two senses in which one can talk about “consciousness”: what I’ll call “fundamental” and “expanded.” In the fundamental sense, consciousness means strictly the faculty of perceiving or grasping that which exists. In this sense, emotions, wishes, acts of will, the control of one’s body are not part of consciousness. Speaking in the expanded sense, consciousness includes perception of reality and all of those other things, like emotions, will, and bodily control.

My understanding of the Consciousness Axiom, “Consciousness perceives existence,” is that it uses consciousness in the fundamental sense. It is axiomatic that the fundamental function of consciousness is the grasping of existence; i.e. the awareness of some object. If it does not perceive some object, it is not consciousness.

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Why Definitions Must Be Justified by Evidence

An amazing Earth with rising sun and water. Philosophy tells us what we can know by reasoning about the origin of water.Are definitions a matter of arbitrary social convention?

Well let’s find out if it makes sense to say that they are. Let’s imagine that Adam’s culture defines “space pixie” as “one of the living creatures that has wings, and whose species is solely responsible for bringing water to Earth.”

If definitions are arbitrary matters of social convention, then Adam can reason like this:

  • Premise 1: If there is water on Earth, it was brought by space pixies.
  • Premise 2: There is water on Earth.
  • Conclusion 1: Therefore, (only) space pixies brought water to Earth.
  • Premise 3: All things that bring water must exist at the time it is brought.
  • Conclusion 2: Therefore, space pixies must have existed.

This argument is deductively valid: If the premises are true, then the conclusions must also be true.

Furthermore, this argument is sound (has true premises and is valid–irrefutably correct) given the stated definition of “space pixie.” If definitions are arbitrary cultural inventions, then Premise 1 is “analytic”–that is, it is true purely by definition: One need only examine the definition of “space pixie” to find that Premise 1 is true. Premise 2 is an empirical truth, obvious to anyone who observes Earth and holds the common definition of “water.” Premise 3 simply states an indubitable fact: that things that act in reality must also exist.

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QuickPoint 5: Any Claim to a Probability is Also a Claim to a Certainty

Are you saying you're certain that that's the probability distribution?

Are you saying you’re certain that that’s the probability distribution?

Whenever anyone says that some statement’s truth is probable, whether they give a numerical percentage or not, they are making a definite knowledge claim: that the statement’s truth is probable. Whether the probability is measured by a percentage, or relative to some other statement(s), the person is claiming that that is the probability’s measure.

In other words, the person claiming a probability is claiming a certainty about the probability, itself.

If such a person claims that his estimate of the probability is based on another probability, then the question becomes, “What is the prior probability based on?” The failure to provide at least one certainty at the foundation of one’s estimate of such probabilities leads to an infinite regress, or to a baseless circle–neither of which is rationally tenable.

Thus, for any claim of probability to be based in reason, it must be founded on at least one absolute certainty. And so a claim about the probability of any statement’s truth implies at least one claim to certain knowledge.


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The Formal Refutation of Determinism and The Validation of Free Will (Libertarian Volition)


Determinism is the doctrine that all events, including human choices, are the necessary results of prior events, and that no human decision could have been different than it was.

Objectivism holds that determinism, specifically with respect to human conceptual consciousness, is self-refuting, because it makes conceptual knowledge of any kind impossible. Since this includes the premise of determinism itself, such determinism is incoherent. This self-refutation of determinism extends not only to so-called “hard determinism,” but to compatibilism, as well. In fact, it extends to any theory that does not recognize a fundamental choice made by the individual that determines conceptual beliefs.

(The only way to self-consistently hold determinism is to hold that conceptual beliefs are completely infallible, and that there is no such thing as a false belief. And then there would be no need to argue for determinism or even to assert it: everyone would agree on every issue with which they had experience.)

Thus, a libertarian theory of free will is the only type that is tenable. The rest of this post will explain how and why this is so. First, for intuitive simplicity, I will make use of a very apt analogy for human minds, beliefs, and truth. Then I will present a formal reductio ad absurdum of physical-mental determinism in both an unabbreviated and an abbreviated form. Then I will briefly describe the Objectivist theory of free will (volition) and its consistency with the Objectivist view of causality and the laws of physics. Continue reading

The Scope of Evidence Pertinent to a Proposition Corresponds to the Scope of the Proposition

General evidence can prove generalizations. Specific evidence is required for specific propositions. The scope of sensory data that can tie a statement to reality (serve as evidence) varies with the scope of the statement.

If I make the statement, “All men have heads,” then the scope of potential, direct evidence for this statement (and counterexamples) is all men. I can observe a few random men and have a sensory basis to at least hypothesize that “All men have heads,” is true. (Exactly when I can logically say that a generalization is proven, is the subject of the epistemology of induction. While the principles of general induction are not yet fully known, the philosophy of Objectivism and the principles of modern science/technology show that induction works. I recommend Dr. Peikoff’s course, Objectivism Through Induction.)

If, on the other hand, I make the statement that “Julius Oglethorpe III lives at 10 Warkworth Terrace in Cambridge, England,” then I can’t gain a basis for hypothesizing that statement (let alone proving it) by observing a few random men. I need evidence that pertains to the specific statement at hand. To hypothesize, I need to see effects of the fact that Julius Oglethorpe III exists, or the fact that 10 Warkworth Terrace exists. To prove this statement, I need to see a set of facts that all evidence shows can only come from the fact that a man with this name lives at this address.

In both cases, the evidence that warrants the hypothesis or conclusion reduces to sensory data. But the evidence for the specific statement is much more specific than that for the general statement.

[Note: This short article was derived from a longer comment I made at “The Christian Egoist” blog: D’Souza vs. Bernstein: Is Either Good for Mankind?]


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Values Are Relational, But Not Subjective

There are many people in the world who will say that values are subjective. You may or may not be one of them. For many, the reasoning behind this stance is that they see that different people value different things, and they think that if values were objective, then everyone would value the same things. So they conclude that all values are the opposite of objective, which is subjective.

This article will give evidence and argument that this view is mistaken; that this reasoning is based on a confusion about what it means for values to be objective.

First, let’s consider a simple physical situation: Two men are standing on opposite sides of a pole, as shown in Case 1 of the figure below. We are looking down on them, and they are both facing upward. For Person A, the pole is on the right. For Person B, the pole is on the left. Does this mean that the position of the pole is subjective? No. Both men can look objectively at the relationship of the pole to each one. If they specify whose relationship to the pole they are talking about, they can both agree on the fact of the relationship.

Relational and Objective Values Diagram

When Person A observes that the pole is on his right, Person B can observe that Person A is correct: relative to Person A, the pole is objectively on the right. They can also both agree that, relative to Person B, the pole is objectively on the left. The position of the pole is objective, but its physical relationship with Person A is different than with Person B. Continue reading

The Social Metaphysics of Communism: MiG Pilot

MiG_PilotThe book, MiG Pilot, is the true story of a Soviet pilot who defected to the United States in 1976. As a MiG-25 pilot, Lieutenant Viktor Belenko was among the most elite officers of the Soviet military. Like all Soviet military men of the period, he was thoroughly indoctrinated in Communist ideals and fed misinformation about the West his whole life. Yet through many years of observation and logical thinking, he came to see that there was something deeply wrong with the USSR. The rampant drunkenness, dishonesty and economic stagnation he witnessed eventually drove him to fly his MiG-25 to Japan, seeking asylum in the United States–the very heart of the “Dark Forces” he had been taught to fear.

The following incident is from Lt. Belenko’s time as a MiG-25 pilot stationed at Chuguyevka in Southern Siberia. Belenko’s thoughts at the time are represented in {green braces.} Again, I stress that this book is nonfiction; as in, this actually happened:
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The Axioms of Objectivism

Barred spiral galaxy in space. Represents science and philosophy.An axiom is a statement that provides the basic foundation for other knowledge. It is a statement that cannot be proved by reference to any more basic statements, because it provides the most basic conceptual foundation of all proofs. A genuine axiom must be self-evident, because a statement that cannot be proved in any manner, yet is not self-evident, is simply an arbitrary assertion. And arbitrary assertions don’t constitute knowledge, but are just groundless fantasies or imaginings.

The philosophy of Objectivism has three axioms that it holds are implicit in any claim to knowledge of any sort. They are as follows:

“Existence exists.”

“Consciousness perceives existence.”

“An existent is itself.” (Often referred to as “A is A,” or the Law of Identity.)

These three metaphysical axioms form the fundamental base of Objectivism. A corollary of the Law of Identity is the Law of Causality, which states that an entity acts as itself.

“Existence exists.”

This first axiom states, in effect, “There is something, as opposed to nothing.” That something exists is perceptually self-evident, and is presupposed by every statement, action or thought. What does it mean to “exist?” The concept of existence is not reducible to any more fundamental terms. The term does not have a conceptual definition. (Any attempted definition must employ the concept of existence, and is thus circular.) The only way one can “define” existence is ostensively–that is by pointing out instances of “existence,” which are particular existents.

Note that this axiom does not say anything in particular about what exists, or how to find out what, in particular, exists. It does not even specify that a world of physical objects exists. All it says is that something exists.

“Consciousness perceives existence.”

In order to be aware that existence exists (and of any particular existents or facts), one must have consciousness, the faculty of perceiving existence. As with the first axiom, this is perceptually self-evident. In the act of perceiving that which exists, one implicitly confirms that there is something to perceive, and that one is perceiving it. (1) When one reaches the conceptual identification of consciousness, such that one can say explicitly, “Consciousness perceives existence,” this axiom can be stated equivalently in the form of a definition: “Consciousness is that faculty of an entity which perceives existence.” One’s own experience of one’s own consciousness (perception) is the self-evident basis (validation) of that axiomatic definition of consciousness. (2)

Note that this axiom directly implies that existence is, in some sense, independent of consciousness, since existence is the object of consciousness.

“An existent is itself.”

Every thing that exists, exists as something specific, not some indeterminate “nothing in particular.” Whatever an existent is, it is. It is itself and not something else. Something that has certain intrinsic characteristics cannot, at the same time, have the opposite characteristics. Contradictions cannot exist in reality. This, too, is perceptually self-evident. A rock that is very dense and that falls in the earth’s atmosphere, cannot simultaneously be a helium balloon that floats in the earth’s atmosphere. A conscious human being cannot simultaneously be an unconscious plant. (3) (4)

The Law of Causality

The Law of Causality is, in Ayn Rand’s words, “the Law of Identity applied to action.” It is a corollary of the fact that an entity is what it is, that that entity will act (or react) as what it is. (5) Whatever the nature of a particular entity, it is this nature that will determine what action(s) or reaction(s) is/are open to it in a given situation. An entity cannot act in contradiction to its nature.

It should be noted that this formulation of the Law of Causality does not require that an entity respond mechanically to an antecedent action of another entity. It does not require that an entity only be capable of one response in a given situation. Whether a single mechanical response is all that is open to the entity, or a vast range of possible responses/actions, is determined by the specific nature of the entity in question. In fundamental terms, the Law of Causality only links an action to the entity that performs it, not to the actions of other entities. (Put somewhat more technically: By the Law of Causality, not every action taken by an entity must have a set of prior actions that comprise a sufficient condition for it to occur. The only cause of the action that need be present in all cases is the entity that acts.)

If I stand on a rooftop and release a stone over the edge, it falls. This is the only response to the earth’s pull that is open to the stone in that situation: a simple response consistent with its nature as a stone. If I release a helium balloon over the edge, it rises. This is a very different response to the same situation that results from the different nature of the balloon. (The difference, of course, is a difference in the property of density possessed by the object.) If I am on that rooftop, and I attempt to push a man off the edge, he may push back, fight me, pull out a knife, attempt to run away, yell, or resign himself to being pushed off. His nature as a man opens up a vast array of possible responses not open to an inanimate object like a stone, or balloon. (6) (7)

Axioms are Validated Ostensively

Because the axioms are the most fundamental premises possible, they are implicitly presumed, not only in every claim to knowledge of any sort, but also in every attempt at proof. Any attempt to prove them conceptually must, itself, presume them. Thus, the axioms are too fundamental to prove using any other ideas as the basis of proof. The only way to validate them is by directly observing reality and recognizing the self-evidence of the axioms in that perception. This is the process of ostensive validation.

If one looks at the world around him he will see directly that there is something of which he is aware. That phrase in bold holds all three of the axioms in it. There is something (existence and identity) of which he is aware (consciousness.) To stress identity: everything he sees appears as some particular thing. (8)

The Rejection of Axioms is Logically Self-Refuting

Since the axioms are assumed in every claim to knowledge of any kind, any argument, any reasoning, and any thought, they are implicit in any attempt to deny their validity. (9)

If someone says, “I do not accept that existence exists” then one can show that that sentence can have no meaning if it is true (note the self-contradictory phrase in the bold italics): “‘I‘? To what are you referring when you say ‘I’? If nothing exists, there is no ‘I’ since there is nothing. ‘Do not accept’? This implies that it is possible to accept something, but that ‘you do not.’ But if nothing exists, then there is nothing to accept or reject. ‘Existence’? Since you say there is no such thing as existence, and this is the broadest possible concept, encompassing everything, you are left with nothing to refer to, at all, and no one to speak to, at all, including me.”

The denial that “consciousness perceives existence” is also self-refuting. To see why, we should recognize that, for each of us, our fundamental, primary experience with consciousness is our own. Your own consciousness is your fundamental standard of what consciousness is. It provides necessary material for the concept, such that before anyone can grasp the idea of consciousness outside of oneself, he must grasp that he is in possession of consciousness. (Indeed, if you did not possess consciousness, you could not form any concepts at all.) (10) Thus, denying that consciousness perceives existence is denying that your own consciousness perceives existence, and effectively stating that everything you perceive, and to which your concepts refer, does not exist. So any statement made by one who denies this axiom becomes meaningless and void, including the denial. “‘Consciousness?’ There is no such thing, if it is not that which perceives existence. ‘Existence?’ You claim to know absolutely nothing of anything that exists.”

The denial of the Law of Identity is self-refuting, as well. If anything can lack an identity, then contradictions can exist, and no knowledge whatsoever is possible. Anything could also be its opposite at any time, such that for any “true” statement, the opposite could simultaneously be “true.” A statement could be both true and false at the same time. In fact, without the absolutism of identity, the very concept of “identity” would be rendered meaningless: No one could ever know that anything is any particular thing, making identification of any sort impossible, including identification of the concepts of “identity,” “self,” and “disbelief.”

“Existence exists” Necessitates Material Permanence

“Existence exists” pertains to the universe as a whole, and the universe as a whole is simply the sum of everything in it. Thus, one can render the axiom as “Existents exist.” That is, one can apply the axiom to every single existent. (11) Matter, in the broadest, philosophical sense, refers to anything that is a physical entity or set of physical entities, without specifying any particular qualities, actions, relationships, or temporal changes. (Thus, philosophically, matter includes not only atomic particles, but also photons and the like.) When entities change, their qualities, actions and relationships can “come into existence” or “go out of existence.” Metaphysically, such changes are not “creations” or “annihilations,” but simply designate that the entities involved are changing. These changes are only “creations” and “annihilations” epistemologically; that is, they are creations or obliterations of instances/situations in which certain objective, human concepts apply. If, however, matter (broadly, i.e. entities qua independent existents) were to be created or obliterated, this would be a metaphysical creation or annihilation, and would violate the axiom that existence exists.

If an entity exists, then it exists in some form, permanently. It can change into something else, by changing its attributes, it can split into its parts, or converge to become part of something else, but it cannot change into nothing. (12) Saying that something changes into nothing literally does not make sense, since “nothing” does not designate a something that an entity can change into. “Nothing” only designates an absence where one is looking for–or considering the possibility of finding–a particular something; “nothingness” does not exist metaphysically, and is only defined in reference to those entities that do exist.

Are the Axioms “A Priori” Truths?

No. The axioms, like all other forms of knowledge, have their origin in sense-perception. The axioms are implicit in every perception and thus are not dependent on any specific observations, but they cannot be known at all apart from any perception; nor can they be regarded simply as features of human cognition, apart from the rest of existence that is being observed, (as Kant regarded such fundamentals.)

Naturally, the explicit identification of the axioms also rests on sense experience, in that the conceptual structure needed to arrive at the concepts “existence,” “consciousness” and “identity” is built on sense-perception, (in which the axioms are implicit.) (13)


(1)  By “implicitly” I mean taken for granted without being specifically identified consciously/conceptually. When someone accepts a premise implicitly, he generally acts as though that premise is true, without telling himself it is true in his conscious mind. See Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, Exp. 2nd Ed. (IOE) pgs. 159-162. Also:

(2) Note that this definition is not the equivalent of the claim that consciousness only passively perceives existence and does nothing else. Consciousness involves a great many activities, such as emotion and imagination. But the perception of existence is the fundamental activity that makes all others possible. Since definitions only consist of the fundamental characteristics of existents that enable them to be distinguished from other types of existents, not all the existents’ characteristics, this is a proper definition in its form. (Though it is not a definition in terms of more fundamental concepts, but an axiomatic/self-evident definition, since “perception” is “that which consciousness does with existence,” thus generating axiomatic circularity.) See

(3)  This metaphysical Law of Identity is what underpins the logical Law of Identity and the Law of Non-Contradiction. Since everything in reality is something in particular, and conceptual consciousness (qua consciousness of reality) is the faculty of identifying that which exists, a consciousness cannot accept, as true, two mutually contradictory statements. Contradictions are strictly a phenomenon of conceptual propositions, not of sense-perception, or of reality.

(4) Please see Chapter 1 of Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand (OPAR) for more on the axioms. This work is the primary source for this post.

(5) Note here that “entity” is slightly more specific than “existent.” See OPAR and/or this: for more on the distinction. Also, see Action, here, is used in the broadest sense. It includes any self-generated action on other entities, any reaction to other entities, and any internal change.

(6) Please see Chapter 1 of OPAR for more on causality.

(7) Of course Ayn Rand did not invent the Laws of Identity and Causality, nor did she claim to have. Plato was the first philosopher recorded to have stated the Law of Identity. Aristotle was the first philosopher known to have explicitly identified the Law of Non-Contradiction and types of causality. Parmenides had an axiom similar to Rand’s first: “Being is.” (Though what Parmenides took away from it is substantially different from Rand’s understanding, since he regarded all change as an illusion.) Ayn Rand’s primary contributions are to identify what, precisely, it means for something to be an axiom, how axioms can be validated, and her systematic and rigorous presentation/application of the axioms she identified as such. Here is an interesting discussion of the relationship of Ayn Rand’s metaphysics to Ancient Greek philosophy: Existence Exists, or the Modern Parmenides. (It should be noted that, according to Objectivism, Aristotle made a deep metaphysical error in postulating a consciousness that was only conscious of itself. Since this idea was confined to a distant, impersonal Prime Mover, it arguably had little impact on his effective philosophy of this world.)

(8) OPAR pg. 5

(9) Though the axioms are presumed as true in some way in every thought and statement, this does not mean that every set of one or more thoughts or statements reflects consistent adherence to the axioms. A statement may be self-contradictory, thus not conforming to the Law of Identity, but each side of the contradiction depends on the acceptance of the axioms (including identity) for whatever meaning it holds to the speaker. Indeed, insofar as the concepts that the person uses have any meaning whatsoever, they depend implicitly on the axioms (consciousness of reality) for that meaning. Otherwise, they would quite literally refer to nothing.

(10) For the Objectivist theory of concepts, see IOE. I also intend to write a future post on this, but certainly not in the kind of detail the book goes into.

(11) If “existing” were an attribute or action, this would not follow, and would be an example of the Fallacy of Division. But, despite the fact that, linguistically, “to exist” is treated as a verb, “existing” is not an action, but a primary fact. This logical step is the same in character as saying that ten equals ten multiplied by one. That is, if a total of ten things exists, then each one of those ten things exists.

(12) See

(13) I intend to write further on the issue of “a priori vs. a posteriori” and “analytic vs. synthetic” knowledge in a future post. For more detail on these issues, see IOE.

[Edited: 5-6-15: Added first paragraph.]


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