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2017-01-09
Direct realism
Can someone explain to me how to make sense of direct realism, more precisely : how can one claim that to perceive is to have direct access to the object itself if we grant that perceiving is the end product of a certain pattern of neurons firing ?

I can understand direct realism on aristotelian grounds where an objective form leaves the object and penetrates the intellect, but if firing neurons are involved, aren't we obliged to say that the brain reconstructs the "thing in itself" ? (I understand also the problems involved with the theory of sense-data and the motivations that originate from physicalism : my question is purely regarding the constraints imposed by basic neurological ideas).

2017-01-16
Direct realism
Reply to Xavier Gary
Re:  Direct Realism  -  Paul Coates

I don't think we can make sense of Direct Realism, understood as something like Naive Realism or a version of the Disjunctive View of perception, according to which the perception of external objects is unmediated. I have argued for this view in my book, The Metaphysics of Perception: Wilfrid Sellars, Perceptual Consciousness and Critical Realism (Routledge, 2007), and in a recent paper 'Projection Revelation and the Function of Perception' in Phenomenal Qualities, ed. P. Coates and S. Coleman (OUP 2015). Direct Realism is unable to provide a positive coherent statement of what it is to perceive some particular object. We need to accept some version of a causal theory of perception in order to make sense of the scientific discoveries about the nature of objects and their interrelation with our sense-organs in perception.  
But this does not mean we have to subscribe to a version of the sense-data theory. As Sellars (and Grice) argued, we can allow that seeing a bird on a tree is an experience with two components: seeing is cognitively direct, in the sense that our classification of what we see is spontaneous and not inferred from any cognitive state, while it is also mediated by a non-conceptual sensory state involving, say, phenomenal colours and shapes. So physical objects are not unobservable. Sense-data are not the objects of perception; but by changing our attentional set, inner sensory states can become the objects of our introspective acts.

Paul Coates


2017-01-16
Direct realism
Reply to Xavier Gary
There is nothing to explain there. Like most older philosophical theories of perception, it is nonsensical, because it is pre-scientific.

2017-01-16
Direct realism
Reply to Xavier Gary
Gary, interesting question.   I have recently being following up on Buddhist philosophical studies - the comment I believe which is relevant is that their are two realisms: the apparent one which we perceive and an unseen one (as Kant commented that we don't see things as they are in themselves).   The unseen is at the quantum level that continues to be poorly understood.  See
Engaging Buddhism: Why It Matters to Philosophy Jay L. Garfield. He has also made a contribution to the most recent issue of the Journal of Consciousness Studies.

2017-01-18
Direct realism
Reply to Xavier Gary
I'll try to give a McDowellian answer to your question, as I interpret him.
It is of course correct that neuronal mechanisms provide a scientific explanation of how our perceiving is enabled. But that explanation belongs, in Sellarsian/McDowellian terms, in the realm of laws; that is it employs only non-normative causal concepts, those which figure in the formulation of physical laws.

However our perceiving as such belongs in the space of reasons, in which different explanatory concepts apply. Most notably, perception and perceptual reports are subject to normative constraints of correctness or otherwise. According to McDowell, when we perceive correctly we perceive facts - true thinkables. When you see the white cup on the table, you see that there is a white cup on the table.

Further, in a case where you're somehow fooled - hallucination, illusion, etc - and there isn't a white cup there, then even though everything is neurologically and indeed psychologically the same as in the genuine case you are not actually having that perception, according to McD. Whether or not you're having a veridical perception, that is, depends on how the world is as well as on how things are in your head.

So on this account direct realism in the philosophical sense is about the way we interact with the world at the conceptual level - that of the space of reasons. This is not incompatible with part of this process being enabled by neurological mechanisms.

Alan McKay

2017-01-18
Direct realism
Reply to Xavier Gary
Good question. I'm not sure how the underlying neural patterns would be relevant in this debate. For the direct realist, perception is constituted in part by the things in the world themselves rather than representations of the things. Perhaps one of the motivations for direct realism is the idea that a representation of something does not require the presence of an actual instance of that thing, but genuine perception does require the presence of an actual instance of the thing. I can't see a blue bird if there is no blue bird before me--I can only seem to see one. When I see a blue bird, the bird is literally part of my perceptual experience. We can say all that without having to say anything about the underlying hardware. The causal processes which could give rise to such a relation between perceiver and world are many and varied. 

One final thought. If the fact that perceptual experiences include neural patterns in their causal history is a reason to doubt direct realism about perception, it is also a reason to doubt that we have direct access to anything at all, e.g. our own mental states. After all, "inner" processes like introspection also involve patterns of neural activation. 

I'll be interested to see what others have to say about this issue. 

2017-01-18
Direct realism
Reply to Xavier Gary
Hi Gary,
I think this issue turns on two senses of the way we use the term "objective". In most cases, the term is meant as simply a "stand in" for something that is not subjective in the relevant sense. This common sense usage, I think, lies so deep within our conceptual scheme that it never occurs to most theorists to question it.

However, an object can be "objective" insofar as it is simply "there to be experienced" (McDowell 1989), as a independent aspect of external reality. In other words, an perception of an object is indeed the "end product of a certain pattern of neurons firing" - but that doesn't mean that does not mean that that "pattern of firing" is not responding to some objective aspect of external reality.

Jim

2017-01-18
Direct realism
Reply to Xavier Gary
One way to make sense of direct realism is to place its claims in the context of human life as we ordinarily understand it, and see what they entail.
If all participants in this forum were attending a public lecture, and the speaker held up his hand for silence, we can all agree that, as (sighted) persons about to listen to a talk, we in fact were witness to a shared event, namely the speaker's hand-raising.  This would be evidenced by our responding appropriately and settling down.  This fact remains true whatever our individual visual experiences as witnesses, and whatever physical micro events occur.   This is all direct realism really seems to amount to: that as persons sharing a world with each other we in fact witness and partake in the same events and circumstances.  

Perhaps "shared realism" would be a less misleading term; no noumena required!


2017-02-16
Direct realism
Reply to Xavier Gary
Direct realism seems to be incomprehensible. I would go with the view that what we call objects are conceptual imputations. But then I find all views incomprehensible except that endorsed by Buddhism and the Perennial philosophy.