From The Ayn Rand Lexicon:
Prior Certainty of Consciousness:
Descartes began with the basic epistemological premise of every Witch Doctor (a premise he shared explicitly with Augustine): “the prior certainty of consciousness,” the belief that the existence of an external world is not self-evident, but must be proved by deduction from the contents of one’s consciousness —which means: the concept of consciousness as some faculty other than the faculty of perception—which means: the indiscriminate contents of one’s consciousness as the irreducible primary and absolute, to which reality has to conform. What followed was the grotesquely tragic spectacle of philosophers struggling to prove the existence of an external world by staring, with the Witch Doctor’s blind, inward stare, at the random twists of their conceptions—then of perceptions—then of sensations.
When the medieval Witch Doctor had merely ordered men to doubt the validity of their mind, the philosophers’ rebellion against him consisted of proclaiming that they doubted whether man was conscious at all and whether anything existed for him to be conscious of.
In a recent post I mentioned that I am reading René Descartes’ Discourse on Method and Meditations on First Philosophy. As I was reading, I vaguely remembered a passage from Rand’s For the New Intellectual (which also appears in The Ayn Rand Lexicon) where Rand was critical of Descartes. Now that I am reading Descartes for myself, I decided to go back and look up that criticism to see if I agreed with it.
Well, it seems pretty clear to me that Rand is wrong here. (Gasp!) It seems to me that without consciousness the external world can exist all it wants; I’m certainly not going to know it. Rand does not explain with what faculty she discovers that existence exists, she simply accepts it as a given or “self-evident” but I suspect that Rand herself would tell you that nothing is self-evident (except maybe that if I’m thinking I must exist!) And if in fact Descartes starts from the same point as “every witch doctor” he certainly doesn’t end up there. On the contrary, at least as far as I can see in my readings thus far, he ends up right where Rand begins – Existence Exists. In this regard I think Descartes is clearly more complete.
As far as Rand’s defining consciousness as being solely the perception of an external world, I think Descartes makes it perfectly clear that perception is useless without the faculty of understanding.
…the sense of sight assures us no less of the truth of its objects than do the senses of smell or hearing, whereas neither our imagination nor our senses could ever assure of us anything if our understanding did not intervene.
If perception were all that was involved we would have no means of deducing anything at all and would essentially be unconscious machines.
Now I do expect a disagreement with Rand will bring out either a lot of complaints or a lot of hallelujahs, nevertheless, if you are not familiar with Ayn Rand’s works, I do suggest you read them. (And read them yourself. One thing I’ve discovered when it comes to philosophy is that you cannot rely on anyone else to get it right for you!) Where Rand really makes her mark is in the understanding of ethics, and as far as I know at this point she is really one of the only philosophers that properly defines ethics as being in relation solely to the individual himself. She is so obviously correct on this matter that I am still amazed to see how much more prevalent the opposing view is. So although I find her incomplete in her understanding of epistemology and metaphysics, at least as far as how the axioms that she chooses came to be deduced, she begins her ethics with the right axiom nonetheless and is really unparalleled in this area.
I’ll have more to say on Descartes as I continue my readings. I’ll be sure to link back here, so check the comments for pingbacks.