“The experiment was an attempt to discover the ability of birds to deal with numbers. When crows were gathered in a clearing in some woods, one man entered the clearing and walked on into the woods. As soon as he appeared, the crows hid in the treetops; they would not come out until the man returned and left the area. Then three men entered; again the crows hid. This time only two of the men left, and the crows did not come out; they knew that one still remained. But when five men came and then four left, the crows came out, apparently confident that the danger was now over. These birds, it seems, could discriminate and deal with only three units; beyond that, the units blurred or merged in their consciousness. The crow arithmetic, in effect, would be: 1, 2, 3, many.”
— Leonard Peikoff, “O.P.A.R.”, page 105.
(The “crow epistemology”, as Ayn Rand called it informally, is the principle that underlies the fundamental utility of concepts: to integrate a group of concretes into a single mental whole — a device to achieve unit-economy.)
An animal knows only a handful of perceptual concretes, and acts on them automatically. A man, by contrast, goes beyond his observations, he generalizes and identifies natural laws, he hypothesizes causal factors, and he projects alternative courses of action and long-range consequences. Man, in sum, is a conceptual being. That’s the theory, at least; in practice, we see animals all around.
“The drifter does not integrate his mental contents; the evader disintegrates them, by struggling to disconnect a given item from everything that would give it clarity or significance in his own mind. In the one case, the individual is immersed in fog by default; he chooses not to raise his level of awareness. In the other case, he expends energy to create a fog; he lowers his level of awareness.”
— Leonard Peikoff, “O.P.A.R.”, page 61.
(“The Fog Warning”, by Winslow Homer, 1885, depicts a fisherman spotting his mother ship on the horizon, ahead of ominous clouds approaching. Like him, we must work hard to achieve security; all it takes is that we do nothing to be swallowed up by the fog of evasion.)
Man’s distinct capacity is his conceptual faculty, the ability to focus, integrate, think. But all that depends on his volition. He may, instead, let himself “go out of focus, relax his concentration, drop his purpose, and lapse into a state of blur and drift”. That’s evasion, and as far as I know, everybody does it — routinely — with less or greater frequency. I fit into the second group.
“No type of sense perception can register everything. ‘A is A’ — and any perceptual apparatus is limited. By virtue of being able directly to discriminate one aspect of reality, a consciousness cannot discriminate some other aspect that would require a different kind of sense organs. Whatever facts the senses do register, however, are facts. And these facts are what lead a mind eventually to the rest of its knowledge.”
— Leonard Peikoff, “O.P.A.R.”, pages 43-44.
(A pencil or a stick appears bent in water. The ancient assumed, therefore, that the senses are invalid. The problem is when the modern keep repeating the same thing.)
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.
“Realism […] becomes a synonym for mindless conformity. In this view, it is ‘unrealistic’ to […] reject racism when Hitler is in power… This approach leads to the sanctioning of the status quo, however debased, and thus turns its advocates into pawns and accessories of evil.”
— Leonard Peikoff, “O.P.A.R.”, page 26.
(German women in Czechoslovak Sudetenland joyfully greeting Hitler after the first of a series of absurd invasions that led to World War II. They had submitted their own individual’s perception of reality to that of the group, and, by doing so, willingly blinded themselves. As Pascal warns in Pensées : “We run heedlessly into the abyss after putting something in front of us to stop us seeing it.”)
Almost every protagonist in a story has an antagonist, something or someone who will try to prevent her from achieving her goals. It is normal to imagine some kind of “bad guy”, and Ayn Rand actually seems at times to see the world’s problems as the fruit of machiavellian machinations of Kant and his successors. But in her saner moments, she exactly pinpoints the true evil, an impersonal force that plagues humanity, the arch-enemy of Objectivism: evasion.
SUMMARY: This is a series of posts that summarize and comment each chapter of the book “Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand” (O.P.A.R., for short). This book was written by Leonard Peikoff, heir and greatest disciple of Ayn Rand, and may be regarded as the book she would have written had she not been so attached to fiction. As we have “Atlas Shrugged” and “The Fountainhead,” we forgive her.