Epistemology is the science that tells a fallible, conceptual consciousness how to gain knowledge of an independent reality. This implies a volitional process operating on valid data. Therefore, before studying epistemology per se, Objectivism must establish two facts: that the senses are valid, and that man is free to think or not.
The validity of the senses is an axiom, therefore, like consciousness itself, it is a fact outside the province of proof — it is self-evident. The persistent fallacy across history that the senses are invalid because a stick appears bent in water or because we dream and hallucinate is just that: a fallacy. Within the range of their capacity, the senses give us evidence of the full context of reality—including the fact that light refracts through water and causes the stick to appear bent. And a dream is simply a mind contemplating its own content rather than the external reality, a phenomenon made possible only after a mind acquires a certain amount of sensory material. This is not only not sense perception at all, but a testament that we know what is valid and what is not.
Our senses tell us only that something is, but what it is must be learned by our mind. Conceptualization, therefore, involves an interpretation that may not conform to reality. We can, for instance, think about unreal things, and we can err. But our senses sum up automatically all that is real.
Another pervading fallacy in philosophy is the dichotomy between primary and secondary qualities. The first would be “in the object”, like shape; the second, “in the mind”, like color. But, according to Objectivism, qualities are in neither place: they are the product of an interaction between objects and man’s mind. Man perceives reality directly by means of its effects on his sensory organs. The fact that the so-called “secondary qualities” can vary from person to person only attests to the fact that both their sense organs and their consciousness have identity, just as any other entity. Both senses and consciousness are valid for the same reason that “A is A” – they just are not omniscient.
But on the conceptual level, man’s consciousness is not automatic like in the perceptual level; it is an active process and as such demands volition. Man’s basic freedom of choice is to set his conceptual faculty in motion or not, to focus or not — to think or not. Higher-level thoughts and actions of a volitional consciousness are then “caused by choice”, they are not necessitated like determinism preaches. “Man chooses the causes that shape his actions.” Man’s free will, just like the validity of the senses, can’t be proved. The concept of volition is itself one of the roots of the concept of proof. To ask for the proof of free will is to presuppose its reality.
So, man is free to form concepts out of valid sensory data. But how does he do it? We will learn the answer in the next O.P.A.R. chapter.