Perception, Belief, and Knowledge


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Critical Belief

Rand wrote that the higher animals “possess the faculty of retaining sensations, which is the faculty of perception. A ‘perception’ is a group of sensations automatically retained and integrated by the brain of a living organism, which gives it the ability to be aware, not of single stimuli, but of entities, of things. An animal is guided, not by immediate sensations, but by percepts. Its actions are not single, discrete responses to single, separate stimuli, but are directed by an integrated awareness of the perceptual reality confronting it. It is able to grasp the perceptual concretes immediately present, and it is able to form automatic perceptual associations” (OE, 1961, 19).

Nathaniel Branden maintained that higher animals can engage in perceptual abstractions (Mortimer Adler’s term), which is recognition of a number of sensible particulars as of the same kind. The animal does not have the further, human conceptual power, which entails “identifying explicitly of what the kind consists” (Psy of S-E 1969, 30).

Leonard Peikoff remarked that perceptual similarities are seen by animals, but humans go beyond that. We isolate similar concretes and form concepts standing for an unlimited number of concretes (Phil of Obj, Lecture 4, 1976).

David Kelley wrote that in judging of an object, which one is perceiving, that it is a such-and-such, one “classifies the object on the basis of similarities that have been explicitly isolated and named” (ES, 1986, 219).

Rand wrote that “an animal has no critical faculty; he has no control over the function of his brain and no power to question its content. To an animal, whatever strikes his awareness is an absolute that corresponds to reality—or rather, it is a distinction he is incapable of making: reality to him is whatever he senses or feels” (FNI, 1961, 17). She remarked orally that “an animal does not have the capacity to isolate critically the fact that there is something and he is conscious of it” (ITOE, c.1970, 246). An animal lacks the human ability “to apply introspection to the processes of one’s own consciousness and check them” (256).

In the preceding statements, notice these phrases especially: identifying explicitly /// isolate similar concretes /// explicitly isolated /// isolate critically the fact that there is something.

In their Scientific American article “The Biological Basis of Learning and Individuality” (Sep 1992), Kandel and Hawkins distinguish between two kinds of learning found in animals with nervous systems. Higher animals, including humans, learn in both ways. One kind of learning is called implicit, the other is called explicit.

Habituation, sensitization, and classical conditioning are forms of what is called implicit learning. Such learning “is slow and accumulates through repetition over many trials. It often [viz., classical conditioning] involves association of sequential stimuli and permits storage of information about predictive relations between events” (80). In contrast, “explicit learning is fast and may take place after only one training trial. It often involves association of simultaneous stimuli and permits storage of information about a single event that happens in a particular time and place; it therefore affords a sense of familiarity about previous events” (80). Explicit learning requires consciousness. Explicit learning evidently occurs only in vertebrates; it requires structures in the temporal lobes.

Within the broad category known as explicit learning, there are degrees of explicitness. In Explaining Behavior, Fred Dretske characterizes those degrees: Consider a rat that has learned through operant, or instrumental, conditioning that to obtain food it should press a bar. The rat could reasonably be said to be guided in its behavior by a belief that is relatively implicit. An implicit belief (explicit, but relatively implicit) is applied in fairly narrow circumstances. A fully explicit belief “can enter into combinations with other beliefs to generate a wide range of different actions” (1988, 118).

Prior to the acquisition of language, our beliefs lie in the more implicit zones of explicit learning and belief. Even at the relatively implicit levels of belief guiding a rat’s operantly conditioned behavior, it is possible to err and correct, although it be in a very local way. Nevertheless, I decline to call such beliefs knowledge. I incline to reserve knowledge for beliefs attaining truth where those beliefs are interconnected within and improvable by a critical consciousness holding them. This lies in the more fully explicit zone of explicit belief, a zone not far from linguistically held beliefs of an intact human mind.

Perceptual Observation

Rand defined knowledge as “a mental grasp of a fact(s) of reality, reached either by perceptual observation or by a process of reason based on perceptual observation” (ITOE 35). One can experience hunger before becoming capable of identifying the feeling as hunger, as requiring food for satisfaction (OE 21). Rand’s language in saying that one can have knowledge through a perceptual observation seems right. The experience of hunger is not an observation, but cognizance that what one is experiencing is hunger is a perceptual observation. And it is a belief. (See also Harold Brown’s Observation and Objectivity, chp. 4.)

The typical infant prior to the acquisition of language: By 5 months, she expects that an object endures while the lights are out; she reaches for objects in the dark. By 6 months, she can discriminate an object in the dark by its sound associated in light; she makes the type of reach appropriate for this object. By 9 months, she shows awareness of her movement in a mirror; she turns to locate reflected objects in real space. By 12 months, she uses mechanical aids to extend her reach.

Suppose it is correct to say that this human infant knows that objects of various sorts endure in the dark; that mirrors show particular objects in real space in front of the mirror; and that some objects are beyond her reach and can be reached with a mechanical aid. Then is it also correct to say that the pre-linguistic infant believes those facts?

I take it that prior to language acquisition any knowledge or beliefs integral to perceptions are held in schematic forms, rather than in conceptual forms. (See here; also Merlin Jetton’s Imagination and Cognition, pp. 69-78.) There seems to be no viable way to pry apart knowledge and belief even in the non-conceptual comprehension of the world. It seems, indeed, that knowledge, whether in observation or in reasoning over observations, entails belief as a part of itself. (See also John Heil’s Perception and Cognition, chps. 5-6; David Kelley’s The Evidence of the Senses, pp. 197-228.)


(Sorry about making this post. I see now that I had already posted this material at OL, though with a different sequence to the presentation.)

Edited by Stephen Boydstun
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I think it's useful to to think of 'knowledge' in different levels, like verbal vs non-verbal knowledge. The rat pressing the bar to get a treat is an example of non-verbal knowledge. In this case I think the term 'expect' would be more appropriate than 'believe'. The rat expects a treat when he presses the bar because it has happened in the past. A human with language might express this knowledge verbally by saying "pressing the bar sends a message to God to give me a treat" and he might believe that. :)

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Instead of discussing "belief," which is a word often associated to conceptual thought, perhaps it is best to discuss "experience." Prior to semantic development, we might suppose that infants experience the existence of things phenomenologically.

In the case of the presence of a ball in the dark, we might suppose that an infant experiences the existence of such an object given an imprint from previous perception, or the infant lacks the experience of the existence of the object in which case it does not exist. Thus, whatever an infant presently experiences within awareness is the "real world" and thus would fit the category of belief esoterically.

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