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by Luke Setzer

Epistemology is the branch of philosophy that studies man's relationship with his mind and his methods of knowing. Since ancient times, philosophers have noted that humans have distinguished themselves from other animals through their development of complete languages, mathematics, art, and other conceptual tools. Many religions have claimed that "higher" or "divine" sources plant concepts mystically into the human mind. More recently, advocates of a pseudo-science called "hard determinism" have argued that consciousness itself is simply a biological illusion. Novelist-philosopher Ayn Rand rejected these and other theories in favor of a unique mathematical approach to concept-formation.

Rand recognized that any proper treatment of epistemology must build upon a solid view of metaphysics. Rand reduced her metaphysics to three basic axioms: existence, consciousness, and identity. All human cognition implicitly assumes that "There is (existence)--something (identity)--of which I am aware (consciousness)." Any attempt to deny the self-evidence of any of these three axioms automatically requires the implicit acceptance of all three axioms.

Rand identified sense-perception as the corollary (self-evident implication) of consciousness. In other words, because the senses are a conscious entity's means of awareness, without the senses, there could be no awareness and thus no consciousness. She dismissed the "sensation" skeptics by pointing out that human brains automatically integrate raw sensations into concrete percepts, thus making the perceptual level the philosophical given. She also recognized volition as an axiomatic component of any consciousness capable of forming concepts. She noted that the primary choice facing any volitional creature is the choice to focus or not, and that this choice is a first cause within a mind, not an effect of preceding causes. Together, sense-perception and volition form the natural bridge between metaphysics and epistemology.

Rand defined a concept as "an intellectual abstraction drawn from two or more percepts." Her philosophy recognized that concept-formation is the first step in inductive reasoning, and demonstrated that concepts form algebraically within the human mind through a process she called "measurement-omission." The Conceptual Common Denominator (CCD) between two or more entities is the commensurable (commonly measurable) attribute between those entities. For example, tables and chairs have the commensurable attribute of shape, while tables and red objects have the incommensurable attributes of shape and color. In turn, the CCD of shape allows a differentiation between chairs and tables and an integration of all tables into a single concept called "table." The human mind abstracts first-level concepts from concretes by omitting the measurements of their CCDs, and abstracts higher-level concepts from lower-level ones through this same mathematical process. When forming concepts, the CCDs must be fundamental, which means they must be responsible for all or most of the units' remaining distinctive characteristics. Attempting to form the concept "encirclist" from Jesus (because of his halo) and cigars (because of their tax bands) fails because these "encircling" attributes are not essential attributes of Jesus and cigars. (A psychotic in a mental ward formed this "encirclist" concept and thus demonstrated his own defective induction skills.)

Effective reasoning, man's basic means of survival, requires objectivity, which is simply a specific kind of relationship between external existence and internal concepts. For Ayn Rand, the laws of nature ultimately dictate the rules of reasoning. She conveyed this idea by paraphrasing Francis Bacon: "Nature, to be apprehended, must be obeyed." According to Rand scholar Leonard Peikoff, sound reasoning "begins with facts (sensory data); …organizes these data in accordance with facts (the mathematical relationships among concretes); and…is guided at each step by rules that rest on the fundamental fact (the law of identity). The rules [of reasoning] require that each cognition be reduced back to the facts [with which] one started." Metaphorically, this is like making a map accurately reflect a territory without the map being the territory. Today's popular three-dimensional puzzles, with each piece fitting into a specific location and hierarchy within the much larger structure, effectively illustrate this knowledge-building model. As a person gathers sensory information over his lifetime, he must assimilate that data into larger puzzle pieces called "concepts." He must then assemble those concepts into still wider concepts, all while maintaining each piece within its proper context and hierarchy.

Rand's many years of work in fiction and nonfiction laid out a complete system of thought that derived ethics from epistemology and metaphysics, politics from ethics, and aesthetics from all the lower branches, primarily metaphysics. She is the first philosopher to provide a complete epistemology that explains the link between external reality and internal concepts via measurement-omission. Rand did a splendid job of creating a powerful model of conscious methods of mental operation. Unfortunately, she did not live long enough to delve deeply into the subconscious functions of the brain and how those functions interact dynamically with conscious reasoning, a process she termed "psycho-epistemology." Fortunately, developments in neural science and brain research have begun to provide both psychologists and philosophers with a coherent view of the mind. The developers of Neuro-Linguistic Programming implicitly accept almost all of Rand's axioms and theorems, although they do not explicitly identify her as an influence on their work.

In the 1970's, Ayn Rand published Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, which thoroughly detailed her sense-based, reason-oriented epistemology. Around the same time, Richard Bandler and John Grinder (in an unrelated effort) developed the psychology of Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP). This science studies how people subjectively represent objective reality through sensory information, language, and symbols. Both Objectivist epistemology and NLP psychology share surprising similarities, including the assumptions that the human nervous system obtains all information exclusively through its senses, and that beliefs form from that sensory information. Rand, Bandler, and Grinder all pointed out that beliefs do not always reflect reality accurately (since reasoning is volitional and not automatic) and that false beliefs can often cripple a person's effectiveness. Unlike Rand, however, the developers of NLP probed heavily into the subconscious methods by which people internally experience external reality.

The NLP model of the brain treats the brain like a computer that runs different programs at different times. It assumes that the individual has within his or her conscious power the ability to choose which programs will run and even to erase or rewrite programs. Like Objectivism, NLP treats volition (the power of self-directed focus) as an axiom.

NLP synthesizes the techniques of some of the world's most effective therapists into a complete model of human thought and behavior, focusing both on belief systems and states. While Objectivist epistemology focuses almost exclusively on the formation of reality-oriented beliefs and states of reasoning, NLP studies the gamut of beliefs and states. A state is the sum total of a person's experience at any moment in time and has two components: internal representation and physiology. A person's state ultimately drives that person's behavior from moment to moment. The science of NLP empowers the individual to master his or her own states and consequently his or her own behavior patterns, thus assisting that person with producing desired results.

In both NLP and Objectivism, the structure of human experience builds upon the five human senses, or modalities of perceiving the world: visual, auditory, kinesthetic, olfactory, gustatory. Each of these modalities is in turn composed of ingredients called submodalities, such as color and brightness for visual, volume and tempo for auditory, etc. For both Objectivism and NLP, the perceptual level (not the sensational level) results from the brain's automatic integration of sensations (submodalities) into concrete percepts (internal representations). NLP calls a person's overall mental map of his world a "meta-model," while Objectivism calls it a "philosophy."

When dealing with emotional pains of the past, Objectivism relies exclusively on rational dissection of negative past events and their deeper meanings in order to handle negative emotions. NLP uses less rigorous approaches when handling undesirable emotional states and instead often relies upon internal volitional interrupts such as the "scramble." This technique diminishes or even eliminates a person's negative emotions associated with past events by scrambling that person's own internal representational submodalities of those events, i.e., diminishing volume and brightness, etc. Many other NLP procedures accomplish similar feats. NLP techniques rely on the broad range of human subjective experience and not just the rational faculty in order to alter states and behaviors. In the end, though, both NLP and Objectivism recognize that any long-range improvement in a person's behavior must result from a fundamental shift in the belief that causes that behavior in that person.

In NLP, mental syntax is the order in which mental actions occur--in this case, the sequence and content of a person's states when generating a certain behavior. A system for representing another person's mental syntax is available through NLP shorthand:

V Visual (see)
A Auditory (hear)
K Kinesthetic (feel)
O Olfactory (smell)
G Gustatory (taste)

e external (objective reality)
i internal (subjective experience)

d digital (words)
t tonal (tone of sound)

R Remembered
C Constructed

Both Objectivism and NLP recognize the profound impact that beliefs have on a person's emotional states. However, NLP provides one critical concept that has no solid counterpart in Objectivist epistemology other than a brief mention of "association." This validated principle, the "anchor," explains emotional reactions not explained by beliefs (or genetics) alone. An anchor is a sensory stimulus linked to a specific set of states. Anchoring is basic Pavlovian conditioning of the nervous system. Like Pavlov's dogs, human beings can form neural associations between a specific state (such as salivation) and a unique external sensory trigger (such as a ringing bell). Anchoring explains emotional phenomena ranging from phobias to fetishes that occur for no conscious reason. Proper conditioning can collapse negative anchors and make best use of positive anchors. Practitioners of NLP have eliminated lifelong phobias in as little as 45 minutes through counter-anchoring techniques.

In summary, the following table compares the terms in Rand's epistemology with their broader counterparts in NLP psychology:










Internal Representations






Mental Syntax





My primary interest in both of these fields has been to develop and implement my own personal "anti-virus software" to shield my brain from external attackers. These outside malefactors include religious fanatics, business hucksters, and verbal abusers, to name just a few. My lifetime experiences have led me to assemble the common components of both systems into my mind for thorough and ongoing self-analysis and buffering from outside shocks.

I have chosen to run my brain and engineer my life using NLP techniques constrained by the axioms and theorems of Objectivism. I formally call this personal synthesis of Objectivism with NLP Programming and Engineering through Neuro-Linguistic Objectivist Psycho-Epistemology, or PENELOPE. I apply PENELOPE daily to achieve my desired results.

Be sure to read Andrew Breese's exploration of this subject for further insight.


Objectivism 101
Objectivism 101