Is Perception Direct, Indirect, or Neither?

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08/02/20 Philosophy Reference this

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In the epistemology of perception there are three main positions an individual can take, these are indirect realism, direct realism and idealism. For this essay my interest is in the question of whether perception is indirect or direct, therefore I will not to refer to idealism, and other ideas which deny the existence of a mind-independent world. I will begin by presenting indirect realism and Locke’s account of this. I will argue that the main problem with indirect realism is the fact that it leads to scepticism and therefore no real knowledge of the nature of the external world. In order to overcome these problems, I will argue in favour of direct realism, focusing on Reid. I will also provide objections to direct realism, and attempt to offer solutions to these, showing how perception is direct.

Indirect realism is the belief that we are directly aware of mind-dependent sense-data and this represents the external world. Therefore, we perceive sense-data immediately and indirectly perceive mind-independent physical objects through this sense-data. My main objection to indirect realism, is that it leads to scepticism about the nature of the external world and from this we cannot have any real knowledge.

Scepticism results from indirect realism because if we are to accept this view, then all we are aware of and know about is sense-data. This means I cannot have immediate access to the external world and ‘reality’. We are led to the question of, if I cannot have access to the external world, how can I determine how accurate the representation of it is in my mind? Thus, it seems that we have no way of determining whether our sense-data is an accurate representation of the real external world.

We can present this objection through the cinema analogy. Imagine that you have been locked in a cinema your whole life. Inside the cinema films are always on, they tell you about the outside world, however you are not able to check if these films are accurate representations. In fact, the films are accurate, and you never doubt this. Is it fair to say that, through these films, you know what the world outside the cinema is like?

Those who follow indirect realism, would say that we are like the character in the analogy. We are trapped inside a cinema with no real way of discovering whether the images presented are genuine representations of the external world. This is a weakness of indirect realism, as it highlights how because we have no real way to discover whether the images presented to us (through sense-data) are genuine representations, we become sceptical of the external world and are unable to have true knowledge.

As an indirect realist Locke argues that we can know what the external world is like, even though we perceive it through ideas (sense-data). Locke defines sense-data as ideas and says that an idea is ‘that term […] for whatsoever is the object of the understanding when a man thinks’ (Huemer, 202: 32). An idea is whatever is in your mind when you are thinking about a certain thing. For Locke some of our ideas represent qualities which are in the objects we perceive, although some ideas are not in the object we perceive but instead in us. For example, when we look at a box the cube shape we perceive is in the box, however when we pick up a cold ice cube, the coldness is not in the ice cube but in us.

Regarding my main criticism against indirect realism, Locke provides four main arguments which he believes show that we can be sure that external objects exist and therefore we can be sure that our ideas accurately represent the external world.

Firstly, anyone without a specific sense (e.g. of sight) does not have the ideas which belong to that sense (e.g. seeing). Secondly, in some cases, you cannot avoid having certain ideas in your mind. Locke uses the example of looking towards the sun, you are unable to avoid the ideas which the sun produces. However, when your eyes are shut, you can recall in your mind the idea of light, which formally existed in your memory; showing that in some ways we can control what we remember. This shows that there is a difference between the ideas produced by memory and those which force themselves upon you (those you cannot avoid having). For Locke this is reason to believe that perceptual ideas do come from the external world.

Thirdly, ‘many of those ideas are produced in us with pain, which afterwards we remember with the least offence.’ (Huemer, 202: 35). Highlighting how when we physically touch hot objects they hurt us. Whereas, when we remember touching something hot, the idea of heat does not cause pain. Showing us that there is a difference between the idea when it appears as a result of an external cause and when it appears as a result of us recollecting it.

Finally, ‘our senses, in many cases bear witness to the truth of each other’s report, concerning the existence of sensible things without us.’ (Huemer, 202: 35). This emphasizes the point that our senses validate each other. For example, if you see an object from one angle, then move, you will see it from a different angle and it will consequently look different. If you see a fire, you are able to touch it, giving us reason to think there are real objects in the external world causing our sensations.

Even though it can be seen that Locke provides four strong arguments for the existence of external objects, this was not a necessary step for him to take. There is no need to argue for the existence of the external objects because we already perceive the existence of these objects, we are instantly aware of their existence and therefore do not need to be convinced of it. Therefore, perception is direct, we are directly aware of external objects. This argument against Locke and indirect realism is similar to that argued by Reid.

Reid explains three elements he believes to be present in every perception. Firstly, ‘It is impossible to perceive an object without having some notion or conception of that which we perceive.’ (Huemer, 202: 51); this means that we cannot perceive something which we had no prior knowledge of. For example, you cannot perceive a horse without having some sort of image or idea of a horse to begin with. Reid’s second point is that we must have a strong and ‘irresistible conviction’ (Huemer, 202: 52) and this must always be present for us to be certain that we perceive something.

Reid discusses cases where this ‘irresistible conviction’ is not necessarily present and therefore we doubt whether we perceive an object or not. An example of this are stars which begin to shine as the light of the sun begins to disappear or when a ship begins to appear in the distance. This conviction or belief must be immediate and not the effect of reasoning, ‘we ask no argument for the existence of the object, but that we perceive it; perception commands our belief upon its own authority’ (Huemer, 2002: 53).

Here it can be noted that it is Reid’s third point which separates him from Locke. Unlike Locke, Reid believes that we are immediately convinced that objects exist, and no amount of reasoning will make us more convinced. Therefore, because we are immediately convinced of the existence of these objects, we can be sure that these represent the nature of the external world and that this provides us with true knowledge.

There are eight main arguments against direct realism, I will focus on the argument from hallucination as this is viewed as one of the most powerful argument against direct realism.

Consider a drunk man who “sees” flying pigs, it is argued that, he is ‘immediately’ aware of something. However, no physical flying pigs are present. Since the drunk man is immediately aware of something, that, that he is immediately aware of must be something other than an external physical object (as no flying pigs are physically present). However, there is no or no significant difference between the objects we are aware of in hallucination or in veridical perception.

Those who are in favour of the argument from hallucination, argue that given this inability to distinguish between objects in hallucination or in veridical perception, we have reason to believe that, because objects of hallucination are not external physical objects, then objects of our immediate awareness are similarly not external physical objects. Consequently, this leads to direct realism being proved as false.

Le Morvan sets out a response to the argument from hallucination. Le Morvan states ‘The argument from hallucination may […] be the most powerful argument against direct realism, but it fails to refute it.’ (Le Morvan, 2004: 227). Le Morvan asks us to imagine that sense-data is the object of immediate awareness in hallucination; this however does not mean that we must ‘accept that they are also the objects of immediate awareness in (veridical) perception.’ (Le Morvan, 2004: 227).

A supporter of this argument states ‘that if x and y are phenomenally indistinguishable, x and y are ontologically indistinguishable.’ (Le Morvan, 2004: 227). Le Morvan asks ‘why suppose that phenomenology is such a reliable guide to ontology?’ (Le Morvan, 2004: 227). Phenomenology can be seen to not be a reliable guide to ontology, Le Morvan highlights counter-examples to this point. For example, ‘Could not a papier mâché rock appear phenomenally indistinguishable from a real rock?’ (Le Morvan, 2004: 227).

Another point is that even if (for example) an animal-like sense-datum appears as phenomenally indistinguishable from a real animal, this does not provide us with a convincing reason to believe that the objects of hallucination are the same as those in veridical perception.

Le Morvan makes a second point, asking us to suppose that the drunk man is immediately aware of something, and no physical flying pigs appear to him. If no physical flying pig appear (point one), but the drunk is immediately aware of something (point two), we do not need to conclude from this that, sense-data are the objects of immediate awareness in hallucinations (point three). Le Morvan states that this ‘neither follows deductively from [point one] and [point two], nor is it the only (viable) explanation’ (Le Morvan, 2004: 227). Therefore, the argument from hallucination fails to disprove direct realism.

To conclude, I believe that perception is not indirect, as this causes us to be sceptical of the external world (we cannot be sure if external objects exist) and does not allow us to have real knowledge, all we are aware of and know is sense-data. As an indirect realist Locke puts forward four arguments which explain how we can be sure that external objects do exist. However, I believe and follow Reid’s line of thinking, that this was an unnecessary step for Locke, we do not need to prove the existence of external objects because we are immediately aware of their existence and no amount of reasoning will convince us more. Therefore, perception is direct because we are directly and immediately aware of external objects.

The argument from hallucination provides an attack against direct realism, however it fails, this is because even if an object of hallucination appears phenomenally indistinguishable from those in veridical perception, it does not mean that they are the same. There are counter-examples which prove this point wrong (e.g. papier mâché example). Also, it does not follow deductively that just because something is perceived in the case of hallucinations, that this must be sense-data. Consequently, this attack fails, and we can be still left with the belief that perception is direct, we are directly aware of external objects. 

Bibliography –

  • Huemer, Michael, 2002, Epistemology: Contemporary Readings, London: Routledge
  • Le Morvan, Pierre, 2004, Arguments Against Direct Realism and How to Counter Them, The American Philosophical Quarterly 41(3)
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