[This subject is treated at great length in Modes of the Finite, Part 1, Section 3.]

5.1. The Kantian problem

In one sense, it's a good thing that this book isn't a history of epistemology, because then this chapter would have to be enormously long.

The heart of the modern epistemological question was formulated best (if not most clearly) by Immanuel Kant, who proceeded to give a brilliant but erroneous explanation of knowledge, in which it appeared that the "objects" we think are "out there" are actually creations of our own mind; we don't and can't know anything about a world "outside" our consciousness.

I am not going to give a detailed description of Kant's theory, because it is very complex, but, as I said, erroneous. He did, however, see the problem; and as I show what it is and show what I think is its solution, I will point out what I think he overlooked. Those who want a detailed critique of Kant and idealism in general will have to look elsewhere; I am trying here to give a brief theory of how we know what the world really is like.

In any case, the problem of "objective" knowledge is this:

If our knowledge of the world "outside" our minds is based solely on our subjective reaction to it, then how can we ever say anything about reality as it is independently of our reaction?

It would seem that we can't; all we can talk about is our reactions, classifying them and arranging them, and so on. But if we can't get outside our heads to find out what the world is "really like" instead of merely how we react to it, then we can never know how faithful these reactions are (if at all); and so we can't say anything about the world itself, but only about our reaction to it.

This, carried to an extreme, you will recall, was what led to the position of absolute relativism. Who are you to say that your reactions are "more faithful" than mine; and so if something is true for you, it's true just for you.

But we can still avoid absolute relativism and keep this "not knowing the world as it is" if we say that absolute knowledge can deal with the necessary characteristics of consciousness itself, independently of what it is supposed to be "reporting" about some world "out there." So Kant and those who agree with him are not exactly relativists.

DEFINITION: IDEALISM is a position which holds that the object of knowledge is always inside the mind, not outside of it. This position asserts that we just think that there are things "out there" which we know; actually, the "things" are mental constructs of one sort or another (depending on the particular idealistic explanation).

DEFINITION: SOLIPSISM is the position which holds that there is nothing except myself and my own consciousness. It is the extreme of idealism, where all the other people you see are just, as it were, figments of your own imagination, and aren't "out there" at all. Jean-Paul Sartre, the existentialist, could be called a solipsist (or perhaps a disappointed solipsist, because he sort of admits that there are other people, but, as he says, "hell is other people.")

But you don't have to be a solipsist to be an idealist. For instance, we may all (as Kant says) "construct" objects in the same way because our minds are all alike; or we may all do so (as Hegel says) because we are all "aspects" of One Great Mind--and so there are, in a sense, many of us, and we have absolute and not relative knowledge. But the knowledge isn't "about" any "world" other than itself.

Kant supposed that there was something "out there," but we couldn't know anything about it; those who came after him said if you couldn't know anything about it, how could you even know that there was something? They assumed that Kant had let ordinary thinking fool him into admitting a "totally unknown" something--which if totally unknown can't be admitted even to exist (especially since for Kant our minds stamp certain "pictures" with the property "existing".

5.2. Minds

Let's first of all try to settle whether Kant is right in one of his assumptions.

Are there a lot of us, each with his own mind, or are we all parts of One Great Mind? One of the things that Kant didn't have that we do is a clear version of the Principle of Causality (he used it, but he called it "the conditions for the possibility of experience," and didn't realize that this was true causality).

First, note the following:

We know that we sometimes lose consciousness, because when we wake up, the sudden discrepancies in our experience are an effect whose cause is our loss of consciousness.

That is, you go to sleep and the clock says 11 p.m.; an instant later (as far as your "stream of consciousness" is concerned), the sky is light and the clock is ringing and says 7 a.m. The radio is telling you that things happened during these eight hours that, subjectively, didn't exist at all for you.

The effect has two possible explanations. (a) Either your subjective experience is correct, and the radio announcer, the clock, the sky, and the world in general are in a conspiracy to fool you that those hours actually went by, or (b) you lost consciousness and the world turned on its axis in a normal fashion.

Clearly, explanation (a) is madness; and so (b) must be the cause. This effect in our waking lives, then, is the cause that explains how we can be conscious of being unconscious; we are conscious, not of being unconscious, but of having been unconscious, because it is the only reasonable explanation of the discrepancy in time after we wake up.

To tie this in with the preceding chapters, we are physically certain that we have lost consciousness, because explanation (a) is possible, (i.e. not self-contradictory), even though it would be insanity to accept it as true. @ Note that once you leave the realm of consciousness of your own consciousness, you leave the realm of absolute certainty. From here on in, we could be wrong. But one of the things to keep in mind from now on is that we mustn't let theories get in the way of sanity.

Once having accepted as a fact that we do indeed lose consciousness every now and then, the following fact emerges:

Each person's consciousness is actually many separated states of consciousness. The same consciousness goes out of existence and comes back into existence.

That is, you can remember what went on in yesterday's consciousness about as well as you can remember what happened this morning after you woke up; but you can't "remember" what is going on or went on in my consciousness at all. As far as your "stream of consciousness" is concerned, there was no (subjective) break between yesterday's consciousness and today's. How could there be? If you were subjectively aware of the discontinuity, then you would be conscious of being unconscious. So as far as your subjective awareness is concerned, the last moment before you fall asleep flows right into the first waking moment. You are objectively aware of the discontinuity by the effect I mentioned above.

Hence, one and the same consciousness goes into and out of existence; that is, it stops, and the same consciousness starts up again hours later from where it left off. But if the consciousness has stopped being consciousness, how can it come into existence again?

There must be something which exists throughout the unconscious periods and unifies all the periods of consciousness into one single "stream of consciousness."

DEFINITION: The MIND is what accounts for the unity of a single consciousness.

5.2.1. Subjectivity

So Descartes was right when he said, "I think, therefore I am."

At least he was right in this sense: there has to be a mind in addition to the consciousness itself, or it is impossible to account for how the consciousness can stop and the same consciousness can start up again. So David Hume, who denied that there is a mind "behind" consciousness, didn't notice this characteristic of stopping and starting, and so he was wrong again; and so was John Dewey, who followed Hume in this. Consciousness as nothing but a "stream of consciousness" is a contradiction.

But it must also be the case that

Each of us has his own mind, different from others'.

The reason for this is that if we were all parts of One Great Mind, as Hegel thought, then all our consciousnesses would be merged into the One Consciousness--in which case, the experiences you have would be available to me, just as my experiences yesterday are available to me. But this is not the case. Our minds, perhaps, are similar, as Kant thought; but this similarity does not make them the same one, or even "parts" or "aspects" of the same one.

Hence, the mind has two functions: it unifies my consciousness into one single consciousness; and it separates my consciousness from anyone else's.

DEFINITION: SUBJECTIVITY is the uniqueness in a person's experience that is due to the fact that his mind is different from anyone else's.

Note that Descartes made a mistake, however, when he said that "I" am the same as "my mind." He confused the cause as a fact with what I call the "causer," or the concrete object that contains the cause. Remember when I was talking about the cue ball hitting the other one and making it move, I said that it was only the momentum of the cue ball that was relevant to the effect; the other properties could be anything at all.

Descartes thought that because the mind explains how my consciousness is "mine," then the mind is all there really is to "me"; and so he concluded that "I" have a body which is another thing (sort of like clothes) that I possess, but isn't the same as "me." For various reasons, this makes a mess of human experience. I am not something inside my body which "has" a body; I am the whole thing--and one aspect of myself is my mind. In other words, I do all sorts of things besides unify my consciousness; and so I am more than just a mind; I am in fact a body, which body (among other things) is also a mind.

But to pursue this (and to give the evidence establishing it) would lead us far afield into the philosophy of man. Suffice it to say that it doesn't follow that if the mind is the source of subjectivity, the "subject" is merely a mind.

5.3. Objects

So now already we know that there is something besides consciousness itself.

We each of us have a mind; and the mind explains why your consciousness is "private" to you and mine private to me.

[The fact that my mind is something different from consciousness has to be true even on the solipsistic assumption that there aren't any other people around with minds; and the fact that I know that there has to be something other than just my consciousness (my mind) knocks the props out from under solipsism (which would make sense only on the assumption that you couldn't ever know anything other than your consciousness itself). So we might as well assume that there are other minds provisionally and see if we can prove it.]

Still, granted that there are other people with their own minds, each of our experiences is "locked up" inside us. The way we let people know what is going on in our minds is not by "projecting" our thoughts into others, but by producing some visible or audible symbol of our thoughts, which the other person can then interpret. This is language, which we will take up in the not-too-distant future. The point here is that language exists because our minds make our consciousness private and exclusively our own.

Having found subjectivity and its source, let us approach objectivity. First, is consciousness and the mind all there is, and is idealism true, or is there a real world "out there" which our consciousness reacts to?

[NOTE: The following argument is not perfectly rigorous and, while more persuasive perhaps than the strictly cogent one, has a couple of places where it could be refuted. For the valid argument, see Modes of the Finite, Part 1, Section 3 (cf. link at the beginning of this chapter).]

If there was not a "real world" different from our consciousness and our mind, it would be impossible to account for our classifying our experiences into two categories: imaginary and perceptive.

Ordinarily, when we say that we are dealing with "something imaginary," we realize that we "made it up." That is, since consciousness is aware of itself, imaginary-type consciousness is aware that this particular act of consciousness was spontaneously produced by the mind; that is, that it was not the result of the mind's reacting to anything, but was just the mind playing games by itself.

Thus, when you imagine a unicorn, you know in that very act that you are not reacting to something "outside" you, but are just putting together stored images into a new combination (the image of a horse with the image of a horn). And so you say that as far as you know, unicorns don't exist.

On the other hand, when you are looking at this page, the type of consciousness you are having is different. (a) It tends to be more vivid. (b) It is not under your control (you can't make the words appear different, the way you can give the unicorn white or brown or purple fur). (c) You recognize that your mind is not the sole cause of the experience; because your mind recognizes itself as reacting-to something.

Now if everything were in fact due solely to the mind, then everything would in fact be imaginary; but then (a) why wouldn't every experience recognize itself as spontaneously produced, and (b) why would we have this ineradicable conviction that at times we are not making things up but are reacting to something "outside" us?

So if you are an idealist, you have to deny two very important aspects of our experience. First, you have to deny that there are in fact two distinct classes of experience, when it is impossible to escape the conviction that we have two. Secondly, you would have to say that the immediate experience of perceptive-consciousness is a delusion. But in this case, what is immediately present to itself is mistaken about itself--and how could it be? There's nothing "between" it and itself to cause the mistake.

Therefore, our perceptive consciousness in fact is a reaction to something other than either the consciousness or our minds.

There is a real world.

"Big deal!" you say. You would be surprised to hear how many brilliant people have seriously held that there isn't one, because they didn't see the simple argument we gave above.

DEFINITION: EXISTENCE or REALITY is whatever causes a mind to react.

DEFINITION: The OBJECT of an act of consciousness is what that act is reacting to. That is, the object of consciousness is some reality or some existence.

Not all acts of consciousness have objects.

Imaginary-type consciousness has no object. The unicorn which you imagine is not "something"; it is simply the form of the act of imagining. In imagining a unicorn, you don't "produce" a little "unicorn-picture" inside your head, which you then mentally "look at." For various complicated reasons, this theory does not make sense.

No, the "unicorn" appears as a little "picture" because the act of imagining is aware of itself, and hence knows itself; and so the act as known by itself is the "pseudo-object" or "image." But the image is not different from the act of imagining; it is the way you are imagining. That is why you know that the unicorn doesn't exist, and why you say that "there is no unicorn." There isn't even a unicorn "in your mind"; there is only the particular act of consciousness called "this type of imagining." The "unicorn," if you will, is not really a noun; it is a verb.

5.4. Objective knowledge

So there is something-or-other "out there"; and once again Kant was on the right track.

But it's one thing to say that there's something-or-other that we're reacting to, and another (as I said at the beginning of this chapter) to say that we can say anything about it as it exists "out there." Kant, you will recall, denied this possibility.

The clue that he was mistaken is this: If we can't really know anything about the world "out there," and all our knowledge is an arrangement of our reactions to it, then how could we say that things aren't always what they seem? That is, when we see the sun as red at sunset, how can we say that it only looks red, but hasn't really changed color, and is still yellowish white? If "what it is" means "how I react to it," then it's really red at sunset.

Again, science is constantly telling us that things aren't the way we perceive them, and making experiments that confirm this. Put one hand in ice water and then both hands in lukewarm water; it will feel hotter with one hand than the other. Taste sugar after you have just sucked on a lemon and see how sweet it tastes. Smell something for six hours and then see if you can smell it. See how solid the page in front of you is; put water on top of it and watch the water leak through the holes you can't see--and so on. But science bases itself on observation, and so, based on observation, it must be possible to get at the way things are as opposed to our reactions to (or observations of) them.

It took a long time for people to get themselves loose from the idea that the way we perceive things is somehow the way they "really" are. Galileo (around 1500) held that colors, sounds, tastes, odors, and what we touch are not as we perceive them; but he thought that size, shape, motion and what in general can be measured was perceived as it actually was. That was why he thought that true science ("knowledge") involved measurement. There are still plenty of scientists who keep to this naive view.

But our old friend David Hume (who didn't like either causality, induction, or minds) showed that our perception of sizes and shapes and so on was no more a "copy" of what was "out there" than our perception of color. It is now known that there are, if anything, more optical illusions dealing with this type of perception than there are with those of the five senses themselves.

But how could you know that the perception is not "like" the reality unless you know what the reality is? This is the other half of the effect.

5.4.1. Toward a solution

Let me first set up the effect in a graphic way.

Then, with a little "thought experiment" I can show how a solution is possible.

You go into a room and turn on the light. The energy from the bulb hits the paint on the walls, exciting some of the electrons. Let us represent this excited state of the molecules by [!]. The electrons fall back to normal, and radiate out electromagnetic radiation of a certain wave length. Call this transformed radiation [@]. This hits the eye, and focuses on the retina, where a chemical change takes place in the cones (cells). Call this new state [#]. This in turn produces nerve-impulses (electro-chemical discharges) which travel up the nerve-cells to the visual centers of the brain. Represent the nerve-energy by [$]. Finally, in the visual centers, this nerve-energy gets translated into the consciousness we have of "seeing green." Call this [%].

Now I don't know about you, but my consciousness of "seeing green" doesn't have the form of electro-chemical discharges, still less of electromagnetic radiation, let alone of electrons falling back into "ground-states" (which is what the color actually is). So the [%], which is the "message received" is nothing at all like the [@], which was the "message sent" by the wall.

And this is sight, supposedly the "most objective" of the senses.

So it seems that Kant was right; there doesn't seem to be any hope that we can say anything at all about [@], because the only way we can be in contact with it is through that long chain of transformations [! -> @ -> # -> $ -> %].

On the other hand, you go into another room, and turn on the light. This time, the pink paint-molecules get excited [^], radiate pink light[&], which causes a different change in the cones [*], and this gets transformed into a new nerve-pattern [+], which results in "seeing pink" [=]. Now we have the causal chain [^ -> & -> * -> + -> =]; and again we can say nothing at all about [&], which was the color of the wall (its reaction to the light).

We can't?

Yes we can too. If I go into one room and turn on the light, and what happens in me is [%], and I go into another and turn on the light and what happens is [=], then since I have the same mind both times, what causes the difference must be a difference in the colors.

And this can be confirmed by going into the first room again and turning on the light. Again I get [%]; and in fact every time I go into that room, I get the same reaction; and every time I go into the other one, I get the [=] reaction--until one of them gets painted blue, in which case, a different causal chain is set up, and now I consistently get [#] as a reaction.

And further confirmation can be got from looking at, say, a wall that is partly green and partly pink. With the same eyes at the same time, I get the reactions [%] and [=]. Now this difference cannot be due to my visual apparatus, because it is the same one, used at the same time.

Hence, even though our reactions are different from the energy that causes them, relations between the reactions are the same relations as the relations between the energies.

That is, when the colors are the same as each other, my reactions (which are not the same as the colors) will be the same as each other; when the colors are different from each other, my reactions will be different from each other, and so on.

5.4.2. Why we can agree

Well yes, we can know relations among things based on relations among our reactions to them.

But who is to say that your reactions are the same as mine, and so how can we agree on how things "really are"?

First of all, let's say that what "really are" must mean is "really related." Kant was right in that we can't know what the "thing-in-itself" "really is" in the sense of what the "outside" energy is. But we can know what it is like, for instance. The green wall really is like grass, because that's the only way you can account for my getting the same reaction to both of them (other things being equal, but let's keep complications out of it for the moment).

With that understood, let's tackle the question of how we can agree on what's "really out there." You might argue that since we appear to have the same types of sense organs, our reactions are probably pretty much the same; but let's take the worst possible case. Let us say that what green looks like to you is totally different from the way it looks to me, and the same goes for pink and so on.

When I see the green wall, you will remember, the causal chain went like this [! -> @ -> # -> $ -> %]. Now the first two parts of this are before the light does anything to my eyes, so they will be the same for both of us. But let us say there is a difference in the chemistry of our retinas, so that the causal sequence for you goes this way [! -> @ -> * -> + -> =].

Let us put them together:

! -> @ -> # -> $ -> %

! -> @ -> * -> + -> =

Your reaction [=] is actually the way I react to pink; but neither you nor I can know this, because you can't get into my head to see how the wall looks to me, and I can't get into yours either.

Now then, when we go into the pink room, my causal chain is [^&*+=], and let us say yours is [^&#$%]. Our retinas have reversed chemistry, so that your reaction now is the same as mine to green; but again neither of us can know this.

Putting them together again:

^ -> & -> * -> + -> =

^ -> & -> # -> $ -> %

Now if we go back into the green room, what will happen? You will get [=] once again, and I will get [%] again. And in the pink room, you will get [%], which is different from the green-room-reaction, and I will get [=], which is also different from my green-room-reaction.

Hence, we will both say that the rooms are different colors; and based on other experiences, we will say that the first color is like that of grass and emeralds and "go" lights, because whenever I see something like that, my reaction is a [%], and whenever you see this sort of thing, your reaction is always a [=]. Similarly, we will agree that the other color is like that of healthy complexions in Caucasians, girls' baby-blankets, and so on; because again, though my reaction to that color is not like your reaction to it, my reaction is the same every time this energy occurs (and is different from the reaction to grass), and so is yours.

There is a case where we would not be able to agree, and it actually happens. Suppose your retina were that of a colorblind person, so that you reacted in the same way to green and red. Then the causal chains would look like this:


! -> @ -> # -> $ -> %

! -> @ -> # -> $ -> %


^ -> & -> * -> + -> =

^ -> & -> # -> $ -> %

In this case, the green room and the pink room would not appear different to you, but they would to me. Hence, you would tend to say that they are "really" the same color, and I would say that they are different colors.

Clearly, one or both of us must be wrong. But which one?

There are two ways of finding the cause of this particular effect. The usual and simplest way is to ask a number of other people. If just about everyone sees the two as different, then the most reasonable explanation of the discrepancy is that the colorblind person has something wrong with his eyes that prevents him from reacting differently to two different wave lengths of energy; and therefore, the majority must be correct and he is mistaken. Science to the rescue

The other way is to set up an instrument which can react to the whatever-it-is that our eyes react to.

This would be something like a spectrometer that reacts differently to different wave lengths of that something called "electromagnetic radiation." Now a spectrometer instrument is not like an eye, so that we can use it as a check to see if our eyes all have some common discrepancy connected with them.

The instrument does indeed react differently to red and green light; and so it must be the case that there is a real difference between them, and the colorblind person has defective vision.

Interestingly enough, however, the instrument reacts to heat as if it were light of a very low frequency. But light seems to us to be a totally different kind of thing from heat; our reaction to heat is qualitatively different from our reaction to light. Are we right or is the instrument?

The instrument is. Why? Because we use our eyes to react to light (and our eyes are insensitive to infrared or ultraviolet); and we use the heat-receptors in our skin to feel heat. So the difference in the reactions must be due to the difference in the receptors and not to the fact that the energy causing the reaction is a different kind of energy in the two cases.

This is why science and its instruments are useful in objective knowledge. It is not that there is something "magical" or "more objective" about measurement. It is that an instrument, precisely because it is not like the human body, but can react to the same sorts of energy that we react to, can be a different relating-mechanism and therefore can give us another check on how the objects "out there" are in fact related.

In any case, objective knowledge is possible for us. We may not know the "thing-in-itself," but we can know (based on reactions) how it is related to other "things-in-themselves" or how parts of it relate to each other.

The way our reactions are related, however, are not always infallible guides to the way the external causes are related; because the external object causes the reaction, generally, through a complicated causal chain; and if there is a discrepancy anywhere along the line, the relation among our reactions may turn out to be different from the relation among what we thought was the cause of them.

Let us, then, examine this more closely, and find out what truth and error are.

Summary of Chapter 5

Immanuel Kant saw most clearly the problem of objective knowledge, although his solution was faulty. The problem is that, if our only contact with the world outside consciousness is consciousness, and consciousness is only a reaction to the thing we know and not a copy of it, how can we ever know what the thing "out there" really is? Idealism says we can't, and that what we call "objects of knowledge" are actually inside our minds, and there is no "real world out there." Solipsism even holds that I am the only thing that exists.

The first thing we can know of that is not the same as our consciousness itself is our mind. We know this because (a) we know that we occasionally lose consciousness (or sudden shifts from night to day would occur), and the same consciousness comes back into existence when we wake up; and (b) because this means that there has to be something that exists while we are unconscious to "tie together" the two conscious periods into one "stream of consciousness."

The mind is what accounts for the unity of a single consciousness. Each of us has his own mind, because each has his own past consciousness available to him, but is closed off from others' consciousness. Subjectivity is the uniqueness in a person's experience because each person's mind is unique.

But we can also know that there are object outside our minds because if not, we would not be able to account for the fact that we have two different types of experience: (a) imaginary, which is recognized as spontaneous and not a reaction-to anything, and (b) perceptive, which is recognized as a reaction to something other than itself. Existence or reality is whatever causes a mind to react, and the object of consciousness is what the mind is reacting to. Imagining has no object; the image is not an object, but the act itself as conscious of its own form.

We certainly must be able to go beyond this and know something about objects, or we would never be able to know that they are not the way they appear--which we do know.

The way we can do this is due to the fact that our senses as receiving instruments are basically consistent. Therefore, when a given energy acts on a sense, a definite response occurs in consciousness; and so even though the response is not the same as the energy, Energy A will always produce Response X and Energy B will always produce Response Y; so that the relations between the responses will parallel relations between the energies.

Even if different people do not have the same subjective responses, as long as each "receiver" is consistent the relations will be the same; and so we do not need to know "how things look" to other people to agree on how things are related. Our objective knowledge, therefore, is a knowledge of the relations between things, not the things-in-themselves.

If a person's senses are defective, he can discover this by finding out that most other people's responses relate differently among themselves from the way his responses relate (he reacts in the same way to what they react differently to). This difference in relations then must be due to a difference in the receivers, not the energy.

Scientific instruments also react to many of the energies our senses react to, and the way their reactions interrelate allow us to check on what aspects of our reactions are due to our senses as receivers as opposed to the energy we are reacting to. Scientific instruments are mainly useful for this reason, not because "measurement" has any special magic connected with it.