Reconciling Direct Realism?

Sometimes I sit in class and think about the nature of perception and reality. That sounds cliche, but I often find myself wondering whether I am really perceiving the professor as they give a lecture. What am I looking at? Am I merely perceiving representations, or ideas, in my head, or am I really looking at the external world? How can I reconcile the fact that visual information from the environment must be filtered through my nervous system before it is perceived with the sensation that I am directly looking at the world. On one hand, the representational theory of perception makes sense because it seems like there is always going to be this “gap” between my perception and reality, mediated through my sensory organs. On the other hand, it makes evolutionary sense that animals would develop a direct perceptual system in order to save cognitive resources. “Perception is cheap, representation is expensive.”

So what am I looking at when I perceive the world? Ideas in my head or real objects? James Gibson proposed a solution that he thought solved these dualistic paradoxes when he came up with the concept of the ambient optic array. Light is bouncing all around the environment, reflecting information about surfaces and textures, eventually settling into invariant “visual angles”. It is the information in this ambient optic array that we perceive. We don’t perceive the world. We don’t perceive representations in our head, projected onto a Cartesian theater. We directly pickup information from the invariant visual angles of light in the ambient optic array.

This is a mind/body/world system. It embedded and embodied. It is confusing to talk about sense-data stimulating the retina, and the brain “perceiving” this data, as if it was projected onto our cortex and the mind just mysteriously “reads” the data. This leads to conceptual muddles such as mind/body dualism and the representational theory of perception. Gibson thought it made more sense to talk about a ecologically embedded perceptual system picking up information directly from the environment. The distinction between this information pickup and the representational theory of perception is subtle. The difference lies in the fact that with the representational theory there is this impossible divide between between “internal” world of the mind and the “external” physical world. Somehow information crosses this metaphysical gap. Gibson thought it was much more parsimonious and evolutionarily sound to talk about perception in terms of direct pickup by a holistic agent in the environment. The information in the ambient optic array is structurally isomorphic to the firings of the nervous system, which is embedded in a whole body, capable of moving about in the world. By utilizing this ecological approach to perception, Gibson was able to drop the conceptual muddle of a “mind” perceiving ideas driven by the sense organs, but rather, a Self perceiving the environment through invariant structures in the light reflected in the environment. This is why the phenomenology of perception always puts the environment “out there”, in the world, as opposed to “inside” the internal chambers of the mind.

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Filed under Philosophy, Psychology

9 responses to “Reconciling Direct Realism?

  1. Hi Gary,

    In my thinking about those things, I’ve concluded two things:

    1.There is nothing problematic in saying that ‘we can see the tree’. Whatever is included in the process, like photons bouncing off the tree, the sensory organs registering them, the processing going on in the brain, and EVEN if there is sense-data or something, those would be just parts of the “seeing the tree”. So, I think there is no important distinction there to draw between ‘direct’ and ‘indirect’ realism, and that both can happily agree that “we see the tree (directly)”. (Basically to say that what we see is sense-datum or representation, is to misuse the word ‘see’.)

    2.So where would be the distinction between the direct realism and indirect one? How to pin down what is direct realism them? I’ve been thinking about it, and I think it is this… Direct realism denies (or should deny) that there is such thing as phenomenal experience. It should say that using ‘experience’ in such sense is nothing but product of philosophers’ theory, and that in proper sense ‘experience’ is used to refer to the events in the world, in which we take part, in which we are aware of those events (or parts of them), and from which we are affected somehow, or from which we learn something.

    So, basically I think that the direct realism vs. representationalism issue can’t be framed in the terms of ‘direct’ or ‘indirect’ seeing something, but if those accept or deny that such thing as ‘phenomenal experience’ (or ‘conscious experience’) exist.

  2. To address your first point, I agree there is nothing problematic about saying “we can see the tree”, but that doesn’t address whether or not we can *perceive* the tree. Seeing is one thing, a linguistic construct, but I feel like perception is another thing altogether. Perception gets at another question: is the perceptual world out there or inside the mind?That is what indirect vs direct realism really gets at. Trying to cross the subjective divide.

    I kind of think you are on to something with your second point, and I think Gibson, amongst others, probably Heidegger, would agree with you. Perception is merely a brain/body/world event. There is no subjective locus of experience for direct realism. There are merely physical events and I suspect it is our language that constructs the narrative for us to talk about “subjectivity” and “phenomenal experience”.

  3. But what is “perceive” if not general term that covers seeing, hearing, feeling by touch and so on? I have feeling that one of the problems that direct realists have in distinguishing their view is actually expressing in what way their view differs from the representationalism, given that representationalist can agree that we see, hear, touch, and in general perceive *the actual thing*. I think that so called ‘transparency of phenomenal experience’ is widely accepted by proponents of representationalism, so given the transparency it is hard for direct realists to even *express* the difference they have in mind.

    That’s why I think that the what direct realist actually negates is the sensibility of phenomenal/conscious/visual or experience taken as something which a)represents the world (veridically or not) and b)which has what it is likeness (qualitative) characteristic to it.

    Also, I want to point is that the issue is not directly related with the issue if one is physicalist or not. I’m inclined for example towards direct realism and denying such thing as phenomenal experience, but I am not physicalist. I think that “I see an apple” is describing a situation to which one can give further physical predicates, but that “seeing an apple” predicate of a situation is not reducible to the physical predicates. That is, I agree that when we give predicate “I am seeing an apple” to a situation, we can also give predicate “photons are bouncing off off the surface of the apple, getting focused by the lenses of my eyes, fall on the retina, etc..”, but I don’t think that those predicates are equivalent. So, just wanted to say that one can be direct realist, and not be physicalist.

  4. gabe

    Direct realism is presumably just the negation of indirect realism; the thesis that we perceive things such as the tree in virtue of perceiving other things. So direct realism is the thesis that we perceive things such as the tree not in virtue of perceiving anything distinct from them.

    I don’t think the sense-datum theorist can claim to be a direct realist; the arguments for sense-data usually establish that we perceive sense-data. Also, the term ‘sense-data’ itself just means ‘what is given to the senses’. Representationalism, however, is consistent with direct realism, as one need not see the representations [it may also be consistent with sense-data views: indirect realist sense-data views used to occasionally be called representational views, because the sense-data themselves represents).

    A view which does oppose representationalism is naive realism; that construes experience as a relational state; one being in which requires one be related to the elements of the sense that one perceive. Representationalism denies this; representations do not require the existence of what they represent. Is that the dispute you’re getting at?

  5. YadaYada

    Rather than “direct pickup” of an optical (electromagnetic) array, which still implies a dualism between the array and its sensor, the theory seems to imply that both are equally embedded in the array. We and our eyes are also part of a monistic array. What is seen is the product of the array and depends on the method of seeing. So what I see is real in a sense, but it is not a tree until I say with conviction that I see what my culture holds to be a tree in the maze of optical signals.

  6. YadaYada, I don’t think that “direct pick up” is philosophically problematic because the dualism between the array and its sensor is merely the dualism between organism and environment. This particular dualism is not problematic because there is no epistemological chasm between internal and external, for there are no representations being perceived, but the invariant structures of the environment themselves. Furthermore, the dualism between organism/perceiver and the environment is necessary for there to be locomotion within the environment and this locomotion allows the perceiver to look around and observe motion and see shapes in their entirety. Gibson discusses the importance of locomotion a lot in his book.

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  8. I believe that John R Searle offers a pretty good critique of indirect realism or “representative” realism in a PDF called “perceptual intentionality”. He shows that there is a fallacy in the argument from hallucination, in that the phrase “aware of” can be used in two different senses. Now, what does thIs mean for Dualism? I really don’t know because I didn’t know he even took this view of perception when he offered his account of dualism. I didn’t think it was a necessary view to hold to affirm dualism. (Specifically dualism interactionism) and I honestly still don’t see the connection. (As to why direct dualism offers any problems to dualism)

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