Stanford Encyclopedia : Perception
Wikipedia : Direct and Indirect Realism
On various philosophy forums I've participated on, there have been arguments between those who call themselves 'direct realists' and those who call themselves 'indirect realists'. The question is apparently about perception. Do we experience reality directly, or do we experience it indirectly?
When I was first initiated to the conversation, I immediately took the indirect side -- There is a ball, photons bounce off the ball, the frequency of those photons is changed by some properties of the ball, the photons hit my retina activating light-sensitive cells, those cells send signals to my brain communicating that they were activated, the signals make it to the visual cortex and...you know...some stuff happens, and I experience the sight of a ball.
So, my first thought in the conversation about Indirect vs Direct realism was that there was a lot of stuff in between the ball and my experience of it, so, it must be indirect.
But then I found that direct realists don't actually disagree about any part of that sequence of events I described above. For them as well, at least the few that have bothered to respond, photons bounce off a ball, interact with our retinas, send signals to the brain, etc. The physical process is apparently the same for both sides of the debate.
And when two sides vehemently disagree on something, and then when the question is broken down into easy, answerable questions you find that they actually agree on every relevant question, that tends to be a pretty good hint that it's a wrong question.
So, is this a wrong question? Is this just a debate about definitions? Is it a semantic argument, or is there a meaningful difference between Direct and Indirect Realism? In the paraphrased words of Eliezer, "Is there any way-the-world-could-be—any state of affairs—that corresponds to Direct Realism being true, or Indirect Realism being true?"
You should link to an article that explains in more detail what direct and indirect realism are. Like, say, to Wikipedia or the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
You're absolutely right. Done.
Aristotle's model: (Mind) <- (medium of transmission) <- (sensible world)
naive realism: (Mind) <- (world)
As we advance in understanding, we find that the medium is more world: (Mind) <- [ (medium) <- (sensible objects) world] - Is this model more like Aristotle's model, or is it more like the naive realism model?
Bonus model: [(mind) <- (medium) <- (sensible objects) world]
Shouldn't you ask those people debating indirect vs. direct realism?
Actually, Eliezer's question likely won't help, because the answers would likely turn on more structural commitments of their models of the world.
Ask the I's and D's what they'd do differently if someone convinced them to switch sides, and what they do differently now. Action is where the rubber meets the road, not truth.
I tend to think this is the wrong question.
Here's roughly what happens: there are various signals (light, air waves, particulates in the air) that humans have the capacity to detect and translate into neural states which can then be acted on. This is useful because the generation, presence, and redirection of these signals is affected by other objects in the world. So a human can not only detect objects that generate these signals, it can also detect how other objects around it are affected by these signals, granting information that the human brain can then act upon.
All of this is occurring in reality: the brain's neural firings, the signals and their detection, the objects that generate and are affected by the signals. There is no "outside reality" that the human is looking in from.
If you break it down into other questions, you get sensible answers:
"Does the human brain have the capacity to gain information from the ball without a medium?" No.
"Is the human brain's information about the ball physically co-located with some area of the brain itself?" Sure.
"Is the signal detected by the sense-organs co-located with some area of the brain itself?" Potentially at certain points of interaction, but not for its entire history, no.
"What about the neural activity?" That's co-located with the brain.
"So are you trying to say you are only 'Directly acquainted' with the signal at the point where it interacts with your sense-organ?" I don't think calling it 'directly acquainted' picks out any particular property. If you are asking if it is co-located with some portion of my brain, the answer is no. If you are asking if it is causing a physical reaction in some sensory organ, the answer is yes.
'Breaking it down into other questions' is exactly what needed to be done. I agree. And once it is broken down, the question is dissolved.
Thanks for poking at the formicary of philosophy -- the concepts of reality, existence, justification, truth, and belief.
My primary tool for dissolving questions is to ask "From what perspective?". From what perspective do the claims hold? From what perspective are the claims made?
The descriptions of both direct and indirect realism identify the concepts of an external reality and its interpretation by human senses and mind. Manfred in his comment provides some models from this perspective.
When I ask the question "From what perspective?", I see that these descriptions are from a third person perspective, a human perspective, and so these descriptions are from substantially the same context that that our first person experience of reality comes from. My answer to this question also came from a human perspective, and so is also from substantially the same context... and so forth in a seemingly pointless regression of justification.
From this it seems reasonable to claim that we have an anthropocentric perspective of reality, and every evaluation of our perspective on reality is also substantially anthropocentric.
(But you might say "We can build tools of math and science that provide perspectives that are independent of the human mind." To which I would respond that these tools were designed by humans, relate to reality as described from a human perspective, and produce results that are translated into the terms of human experience and understanding so that we can comprehend them.)
From this perspective neither direct nor indirect realism describe a universally objective situation, they are actually subjective anthropocentric descriptions. As such we should be able to identify contexts where these descriptions of realism are valid, are invalid, or are even meaningless.
What remains is a question of pragmatics, not of truth; is one of these perspectives on realism more useful than competing perspectives, for the context of current concern?
Indirect realism may have some use value but its formulation strikes me as dishonest, as only primary sensory experience can be confirmed to exist by the experience itself. All other facts about the world are subject to uncertainty.
IMO, it is extremely naive to think that brains are so perfect that primary sensory experience is not subject to uncertainty
The explanation one chooses to attribute to sensory experience is subject to uncertainty, but the experience itself is certain to exist.
From what perspective is it certain to exist? When you identify 'the experience', this identification is an explanation from a particular perspective. By your argument it is subject to uncertainty.
I only see the certainty you refer to when I adopt a perspective that assumes there is no uncertainty in its own basis. For example if you establish as an axiom that 'primary sensory experience can be confirmed to exist by the experience itself'.
Otherwise I need a method to identify 'primary sensory experience', a method to identify 'the experience' related to it, and a method to verify that the former can be confirmed to exist by the latter. These methods have their own basis of implementation; which introduce uncertainty if left unexamined.
This sounds to me like Kripkenstein's Error. You might just as well despair that you also need a method to verify and confirm each of those methods, and a method-confirmation confirmation method... etc, etc. You're arguing as though experience is outside and separate to the self, in which case each experience has to be interpreted in order to be understand, and then of course the experience of this interpretation must in turn be interpreted...
Surely this infinite regress constitutes a reductio ad absurdum. The sensible conclusion that Wittgenstein came to and Kripke ignored is that experience does not require identification or interpretation. There is no homunculus in your mind that experiences your thoughts/sensations/experiences and interprets them for you, rather those mental experiences are, collectively, your mind.
When we say that we can't doubt our own sensations, we're tautologising. It isn't the case that we might have been able to doubt them, but on balance they seem doubtless - rather, we cannot talk of doubt or being applied to our experiences, since doubt and certainty are themselves experiences.
Wittgenstein gives as an example the statement "every rod has a length". On the surface this seems like a claim that could be denied, because it is of a similar form to other deniable claims, for example "every shape has a corner". Looking closer, however, we see that the idea of length is tied up inextricably in our definition of a rod: a rod without length wouldn't be a rod at all. So when we say, "every rod has a length" or "I am certain of my experiences", we're not offering our conversational partner some contingent fact, rather we are defining our terms for them.
Thanks for your excellent response to this Argency. I am using one philosophical perspective to challenge another--which can be a bit tricky--so I hope that you will put up with any misinterpretation on my part.
I'm challenging the claim that 'experience itself is certain to exist' by pointing out that than an identification of existence requires a basis of identification, which at some level of evaluation comes with inherent uncertainty. I'm making an argument against the claimed certainty, and for accepting uncertainty; I'm not making an argument for 'reductio ad absurdum'.
I don't intend to give that impression so I will provide another description. When I consider my own experience I am performing an identification; I am interpreting my own condition from a particular basis. Very roughly speaking, this basis is substantially the same as the basis engaged in the 'experience' I'm identifying. The identification of 'self' and 'experience' from the perspective of this basis only captures some limited aspects of what is actually going on. The rest is left unexamined and provides a source of uncertainty to any claim that I might make. There is no avoiding dependence on perspective, even within our own minds.
It is not evident to me that this entanglement of contexts creates the necessary conditions to support a claim such as 'experience is the only thing that is certain to exist'. If anything, I would generally argue that the lack of independence between the perspectives reduces certainty--which perhaps is related to the value of the outside view.
Even tautologies require a perspective to provide them meaning. It sounds to me that you follow a particular path of evaluation which is something like this (although you might choose different words):
You recognize the pattern and reduce this to the claim, 'I can be certain that I'm existing'. The problem is that other chains of evaluation would provide different results, even 'I can't be certain that I'm existing.' This is not a good conclusion, but it is probably a fine axiom.
I have no problems with axioms. If you wish to claim as an axiom something like 'experience itself is certain to exist', then I will accept your axiom and evaluate your arguments relative to it. But if instead you claim that 'experience itself is certain to exist' is a conclusion, then I will argue as I have been, that your claim depends upon the unexamined aspects of the perspective that generated it rendering your claim of 'certainty' inherently uncertain.
These definitions are actually contingent upon your perspective. It is generally fair for your conversational partner to ask you to describe the basis of your definitions so he can better model your understanding of them.
Hey, thanks yourself for responding in such depth. I didn't mean to imply that I was agreeing completely with ShiftedShapes, or disagreeing completely with you. I'm afraid my last post was a little rushed because I had to leave for work, so there are a few errors and I wasn't as clear as I would have liked. I definitely agree with your points about the importance of perspective - I think the perspective we should consider here is that of the human condition: what Heidegger would have called Dasein.
In that case, I think the uncertainty that stems from differing perspectives is tangential to the problem at hand. ShiftedShapes said:
It sounds like all three of us agree with the first part of that statement, since the content of experience is contingent on dasein. I want to make the case, though, that experience itself is neither "certain to exist", nor "uncertain to exist". I think that "experience itself" is fundamental to dasein, and that therefore cannot be subject to either certainty nor uncertainty. I think the existence of experience is what Wittgenstein would have called a hinge proposition: one of the propositions which constitute the frame of our perspective, which we use to form the question of whether or not a given proposition is certain or not.
As you rightly point out, there is a close parallel here to axiomatic logic. That said, I'm not suggesting that "experience exists" is merely an axiom, because although axioms do help to define the frame of a system, they're still sometimes contingent and so we can sometimes still talk of their certainty or uncertainty. Famously, Euclid's fifth axiom, the Parallel Postulate, can either be affirmed or denied to create different geometries. It's important to note, though, that an axiom of any particular system can't be proven from within that system, any more than Baron Munchausen could pick himself up by his own bootlaces. If "experience itself" really is a fundamental element of dasein, then, we can think of it as an axiom of the human condition. Since we can only observe from within the human condition, this places the question of the existence of experience beyond proof or disproof, beyond contingency, and therefore beyond certainty or uncertainty.
I also believe that there are many things that we would agree on; my arguments are just an indication that I currently find certain aspects of this topic interesting to argue about--mind expanding. :)
I am happy to hold my arguments against certainty for shiftedShapes--however I will now make similar arguments against your claim that '"experience itself" is fundamental to dasein'.
The identification of a fundamental nature of Dasein requires a perspective and so is contingent on that perspective, and presumably on the limited access that perspective has to the thing it identifies as Dasein.
I will offer a competing view. Dasein is only fundamentally 'blue hat'. It feels obviously 'blue hat' to me; without 'blue hat' it would not be Dasein; nothing else about it is essential.
Presumably neither of our claims change the actual nature of what we are attempting to refer to when we say Dasein. Dasein and our conceptions of it are concepts generated by and within... well, by and within our Dasein in some limited sense.
The problem with both of our claims is then sense in which we are attempting to establish a description as a matter-of-fact. We are implying a universal perspective from which our claims can be understood to be true. Such a perspective seems inaccessible to me, so I will treat this kind of attribution as an error, perhaps as a 'not even wrong'.
So I agree that experience itself is neither "certain to exist", nor "uncertain to exist", but in the same mode I would add that "experience itself" (or "blue hat") is neither "fundamental to Dasein" nor "non-fundamental to Dasein". At least I would make this assessment when there appears to be an implied universal perspective involved.
If you were to say that there is a perspective from within the human condition, from which "experience itself" appears to be a fundamental element of Dasein. I would not argue, it is an ontology we can work with as long as it seems useful. If you were say that this perspective was primary, complete, unquestionable, fundamental, or certain then I am currently tempted to question the basis of your claim, the perspective from which your claim is made, or from which it holds.
Ah, here is where our opinions diverge sharply. I should mention quickly that I have edited my above post slightly - I had accidentally left out a few words at the beginning of the first paragraph. I don't think it changes the thrust of my argument at all.
I have to tell you, I think you're misapplying this whole "problem of perspective" thing. I agree that it exists, but I don't think it's as far reaching as you're implying: if it were, it would be impossible for anyone to understand anything ever. We are able to understand some things, so, QED...
Reading back, I think you missed my point on this in my first comment, when I was talking about a reductio ad absurdum. Here's the problem I see: I'm walking along one day and I walk past a tree. I say to myself, "What's that over there?" And then I interpret the experience from my perspective as Argency and guess, "It seems to be a tree." But then I run into a problem - what does this experience of "seeming to see a tree" mean? I need some perspective from which to interpret it. And even if I successfully interpret it, what will the interpretation mean, and the interpretation of the interpretation, and so on ad infinitum?
Interpreted meanings are experiences themselves, so if we require our experiences to be interpreted from some perspective in order to be understood, we'll end up with an infinite stack of interpretations and no meaning at the bottom. But we do experience meaning every day - when I walk past a tree I say, "look, a tree!" Any argument that implies otherwise must be absurd.
So we can conclude that not every piece of information requires interpretation from some perspective. Specifically, our own thoughts and experiences (which are actually physical events which happen in our brains) gain meaning by the way they interlock and relate to one another, and need not be interpreted by any homunculus in order to be understood by us, the thinkers. There's no need for a universal perspective (no such thing exists) because we have our own perspective ready-made, and wrapped up in a neat little bundle of meat and bone.
This is why analytic philosophers so often despair while trying to talk to continental philosophers, I think. Sure, there's no absolute, objective, universal meaning, and sure, meaning is entirely dependent on perspective, but we're lucky enough to have a perspective from which to interpret things. Even luckier, each of our perspectives is similar enough that we can use a common language to translate our experiences between our slightly-differing perspectives.
So, ShiftedShapes said that "experience must exist", which is right up there next to "cogito ergo sum". I will agree that without context that assertion is meaningless, and I am willing to allow that maybe there is some mixed up perspective from which experience could be said not to exist. But ShiftedShapes is a human being, and was talking to other human beings, and there is undeniably an implied context here that this statement should be interpreted from within the perspective of thinking beings.
I don't agree with SS either, though, because as I said, the existence of experiences is a hinge proposition of thinking beings. It isn't possible to have a thinking being who doesn't have experiences, so the existence of experiences is something that is part of our perspective, not something that is revealed by our perspective. So, here we can't talk about certainty or uncertainty, correctness or incorrectness, because it isn't possible to prove a system's axioms from within that system. :)
Nothing can be learned or tested except through sensory experience. I include thought as a sensory experience. Thus outside verification is impossible.
This claim also requires a perspective from which it is identified. The implementation of this perspective is a source of uncertainty if left unexamined.
There is no need to talk about outside verification. All verification is done from a perspective--it does not limit my argument to assume a 'sensory experience' interface for that perspective.
I don't see how your response supports your claim that 'experience itself is certain to exist', which is the claim that I am challenging. Would you try to clarify this for me?
Only one perspective is possible: one's own perspective. I can't prove that I experiwnce what I experience to you, but it is self-evident to me. Likewise your experiences must be of manifest reality to you (even if what they represent, if anything, is uncertain to you) unless possibly if you are a NPC.
The map is not the territory. The 'self-evident' nature that you identify is a map; it is an artifact of a process. That process, even though it is you in some sense, has only a perspective limited access to what it is to be you.
Within the walls identified by this process you feel justifiably confident in the existence of your experience, in its 'self-evident' nature. But yet there is no escape from the territory, which includes the as yet unexamined foundational substrates of your perspective.
But even one's own perspective is a dynamic, living and changing perspective; and quite probably it is non-unitary in some ways. We are not locked into the mind we are born with, and the experience that you identify is only a limited and conditional aspect of what goes into the making and modification of the experience of 'what you think you are'.
Have you learned any of this through a means outside of sensory experience?
Without full access to all possible perspectives of my implementation, how would I know for certain?
I can certainly adopt a perspective that describes how all learning proceeds through my sensory experience. But the identification of this pattern from my adopted limited perspective does not actually exclude other possible perspectives.
I'm not arguing that your model of sensory experience is wrong; I actually believe it has great descriptive value. I'm arguing that it is limited by and dependent on the context from which it appears to emerge.
I am arguing against your claims of certainty, in their various forms.
What do you believe to be the case.
I believe that the answer depends on the perspective I adopt. This is the answer that makes sense from my current perspective.
If I model what I understand of your perspective within myself I would say that of course all my learning proceeds from some form of sensory experience, other claims are nonsensical.
With another model: The brain structures related to learning depend on more than just sensory experience, they also depend on the action of our DNA, gene networks, the limits of energy availability along with many other factors.
But why does the answer have to sensical from your perspective?
With another model: There is a process called MUP which is imparts knowledge in any form to the human mind. This is a process that by definition is any possible process not included by 'sensory experience' as defined by shiftedShapes. In other words MUP is any possible process, or perspective on a process that leads to learning beyond your claims about 'sensory experience'. Not being about to think of any examples of MUP does not disprove that MUP exists.
With another model: Blue hat.
And how did you learn about brains, dna, the concept of a process or blue hat?
This one line response seems generally repetitive to your others. It isn't obvious to me that you are making an effort to address my challenge to your claim that 'experience itself is certain to exist'. If you would like to address that please do, otherwise it seems that we are done.
If you attempt to answer my questions honnestly and succinctly I think that you will soon see my point, whereas now we are talking past each other. I appreciate that you have been putting more time into your responses than I have put into mine. Please do not take this as a show of bad faith, likewise I will not adopt the uncharitable interpretation that your responses are drawn-out in an attempt to obfuscate.
If you have a point then lay it out. Set a context, make your claims and challenge mine. Expose your beliefs and accept the risks.
I lay out my claims to you because I want you to challenge them from your perspective. I will not follow your leading questions to your chosen point of philosophical ambush.
There can only be a philosophical ambush if you are more concerned about winning than ascertaining the truth. I have no interest in fighting for its own sake so I will simply wish you well.
I'm having difficulty seeing what you mean. It seems, while awkwardly phrased, a straightforward proposition with much evidence and little counter-evidence behind it. What seems dishonest about its formulation to you?
a lot hinges on what "know" means there. It may be that various intermediaries are involved in perception, but if doesn't follow from that the intermediaries are known instead of the object of perception -- it s a peculiar use of "know". Ordinary language seems ambiguous on the topic - does one watch a football match, or a TV, or a football match on a TV?
Also the scientific picture involves information being transmitted along a chain. so long as the transmission is accurate, the information is more or less the same at each stage, so there is no stage that is more informative than the others.
Thanks for pointing that out; I had interpreted that 'know' in the same sense as the "know" in 'carnal knowledge'.. information derived from maximally-direct contact. The wikipedia description certainly seems somewhat self-referential. I might have committed QED since I'm clearly an 'indirect realist'.
Do you intend to imply that the transmission -is- accurate -> non lossy? Even within the context of executing a single experiment, I'd have to disagree.
All of the evidence that could be produced would just be a subset of one experiences. If a means of transmission is only reliable to a certain limited extent then the media transmitted could approach the limits of that channel's reliability, but never surpass it.
And.. the description implies that is not the case?
What you have said seems like a straightforward consequence of indirect realism.
To put it another way:
If dishonesty is occurring, what, exactly, is being concealed?
The primary nature of first person experience.
Nope, that's exactly what is explicitly claimed.
Direct realism should reference the reality of one's most direct experiences and not a concept that can only be understood indirectly, the "external world," through direct experience.
I assume you mean indirect realism, since that's what that quote is about.
Am I to take it, then, that you would approve of a statement revised to read:
I meant direct
So, right at the beginning of this thread, you meant 'direct'. And you never corrected this misunderstanding, even after I repeatedly talked about indirect realism in my replies?
No when I said indirect I meant that as well. My problem is that they both use "reality" to reference a theoretical construct that arguably none of us have ever experienced.
They do. What else would we use the word 'reality' to mean? I'm not seeing any alternative here (infinite recursion on the concept of 'reality' doesn't count as a solution.)
Just what one experiences, with the external world that we agree upon going by consensus reality. Is that what you were asking.
Actually, error free communication can be established over any channel as long as there is some level of signal (plus some other minor requirements).
But perhaps I'm misunderstanding the point you are making?