Sensory Qualities as Real

An excerpt from chapter 2 on Sense Perception & Volition from Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand by Leonard Peikoff.

Now let us consider a further issue relating to sensory form and to the validity of the senses: the metaphysical status of sensory qualities themselves.

Since the objects we perceive have a nature independent of us, it must be possible to distinguish between form and object; between the aspects of the perceived world that derive from our form of perception (such as colors, sounds, smells) and the aspects that belong to metaphysical reality itself, apart from us. What then is the status of the formal aspects? If they are not “in the object,” it is often asked, does it follow that they are merely “in the mind” and therefore are subjective and unreal? If so, many philosophers have concluded, the senses must be condemned as deceivers—because the world of colored, sounding, odoriferous objects they reveal is utterly unlike actual reality. This is the problem, a commonplace in introductory philosophy classes, of the so-called “two tables”; the table of daily life, which is brown, rectangular, solid, and motionless; and the table of science, which, it is said, is largely empty space, inhabited by some colorless, racing particles and/or charges, rays, waves, or whatnot.

Ayn Rand’s answer is: we can distinguish form from object, but this does not imply the subjectivity of form or the invalidity of the senses.

The task of identifying the nature of physical objects as they are apart from man’s form of perception does not belong to philosophy, but to physics. There is no philosophic method of discovering the fundamental attributes of matter; there is only the scientist’s method of specialized observation, experimentation, and inductive inference. Whatever such attributes turn out to be, however, they have no philosophic significance, neither in regard to metaphysics nor to epistemology. Let us see why, by supposing for a moment that physics one day reaches its culmination and attains omniscience about matter.

Read the rest in Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand.

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