Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Sensory Qualities as Real

If Objectivism had been created earlier in history, perhaps a mere mention of the validity of the senses combined with the consciousness axiom would have sufficed. However, this is not the case: centuries, even millennia of philosophical debates have clouded and casted doubts on the issue of sense-perception. Several problems and purported solutions were advanced long before Objectivism was formed, and merit responses or clarification. This principle, the validity and metaphysical status of sensory qualities, is one such issue that will be tackled in the foregoing.

The Metaphysical Status of Sensory Qualities

Philosophy acknowledges that perception is an activity that people engage in. Epistemology generally holds that an “object” is “that which a cognitive subject perceives, knows, is aware of, describes, refers to, etc.”[1] A perception is understood to be a type of enduring awareness of an object.

The issue is: are the sensory forms of perception (e.g. color, sounds, tastes) an intrinsic aspect of our own mental creations, an intrinsic aspect of external objects apart from our means of perception, or do they stand in some other relationship with the perceivable object and the perceiving subject? Metaphysically, are the perceptual forms/sensory qualities characteristics of the independent world, or merely of the perceiver’s mind, or of something else?

The precise role and validity of sensory qualities has tormented philosophy for nearly all of its history. Arguments and examples were presented against the senses which eventually led to skepticism about the infallibility, and then later the validity, of perception. The doubts and uncertainties culminated with views such as the rejection of an independent, external world (George Berkeley), and the rejection of our ability to perceive (and conceive about) such a world even if it does exist (Immanuel Kant).[2]

The various positions on this issue present a problem in giving a definition of the concept “sensory quality.” The reasons for the difficulty will be mentioned shortly. For now, we’ll begin with this definition: “a specific form of awareness of an object by a perceiving subject, how one is aware, as distinguished from the perceived object, what one is aware of.”

The Assumption of the Diaphanous Model of Perception

Before discussing the positions on sensory qualities, I’ll state a hidden assumption that has received little attention, but nevertheless has influenced the debate on the forms of perception from the start. Philosophers who have written about it have termed it the “Diaphanous Model” or “Revelatory Standard” of perception.[3]

This diaphanous model or revelatory standard is the view that direct perceptual awareness presents the object’s appearance to the subject solely by means of the nature of the object.

“The diaphanous model is the view that direct awareness must be passive and transparent, a revelation of its object in which there is no possible distinction between the way the object is and the way it appears.”[4] Perception in this model is a featureless, modeless window which presents the objects of perception as they “really are,” which means: as they are without any processing by any means of perception. The nature of the objects is all that matters when considering the ways that objects appear—the nature of the perceptual awareness (like the brain or sensory organs) is and must be revelatory, with no specific nature of its own.

Only the object can causally affect the nature of one’s perceptual awareness. The way that the object appears can only differ when the object itself varies, and if the object varies in some way then the appearance of the object to a subject must in turn vary.

An important implication of this assumption is that sensory qualities or appearances are necessarily intrinsic, inherent qualities of the objects perceived. In other words, whatever the perceived object is, whether it’s an external object or a mental image or something else, its intrinsic features determine the nature of the perceptual awareness. This is clear from the fact that this assumption holds that the perceptual awareness itself has no identity (and must not have one): it is a featureless window. Thus the object must compose the nature of the appearance with the mind just being a transparent window which “reveals” the object.

With this background assumption now brought to the forefront, we can properly understand several historical views which accept the revelatory standard but still reach radically different conclusions.

Historical Positions on Sensory Qualities

Unfortunately, the assumption of the diaphanous model permeates the background of this entire issue and affects nearly every position which rises to answer the questions of perception. The three main traditional views on this issue can be stated as “Realism,” “Representationalism,” and “Idealism.”

Perceptual Realism/Realism

Perceptual Realism is the view that the perceiver is aware of mind-independent, external objects. The types of realism differ as to what exactly the perceiver is directly aware of, and as to what components are involved for an episode of perception to occur.

Naïve Realism

Naïve Realism is known in philosophy as the “common sense” view, the view that the philosophically immature (or the philosophically trained but foolish) believe. It holds that a subject directly perceives external objects, and that it is impossible for a perception to be incorrect or flawed; the sense qualities can never be in error, they only present objects in the external world to us.

Naïve realism implicitly accepts the diaphanous model of perception. Perhaps the diaphanous model assumption gave rise to the naïve realist view, or early naïve realists erected the assumption implicitly in the defense of their theory. Either way, this position adopts the assumption’s premise that the external object is the only causally relevant element in perceptual awareness.

The naïve realist then implicitly holds that the subject does not causally affect the perception of the external object; his means of awareness have no identity. Thus, the subject experiences a “pure,” unfiltered awareness of the world; reality simply is how it appears to be. If the subject causally affected the perceptual episode, it would distort the perception, but this is not the case.[5] The result is that the external object is what causes the perception and the subject’s mind is just a featureless window that receives or “reveals” the external object.

Sensory qualities on this view are intrinsic qualities of the object, with no contribution from our sense organs, brain, nervous system, or mind.

Direct Realism/Presentationalism

“‘Direct’ means: without conceptual processing, including inference and the special forms of automatic inference involved in taking one thing as a symbol, sign, or representation of another thing.”[6]

Direct realism is the view that external, mind-independent objects are the direct objects of awareness. The exact process of how the subject perceives the direct object differs amongst the versions of this theory. This view is also known as presentationalism because the direct object is “presented” to the subject, as the name “direct” suggests. This is in contrast to the representationalist view that something mental, an image or representation, is what is presented directly to the mind, not the external object. Naïve realism is the most basic version of this view, but more nuanced versions exist, including the Objectivist version which will be discussed below. (Notable examples are Aristotle in one interpretation, John Searle’s account, Charlesworth, Le Morvan, and Brewer.)

Sensory qualities differ in various ways, depending on which version of the theory one considers. The qualities may be intrinsic qualities of the object, or they may be a relationship between the subject’s means of awareness and the external objects.

Indirect Realism/Representationalism

Indirect realism, or Representationalism, is a reaction to the supposed failure of naïve realism and direct realism to explain various proposed problems for perception. The representationalists argue that direct and naïve realism cannot handle the existence of conflicting appearances (e.g. a straight stick appearing bent in water), illusions, hallucinations, and other cases of perceptual relativity. Indirect realists propose a new candidate to serve as the direct object of the subject’s perception. Perception is an interaction between the perceiver and the external object which results in a mental image, copy, or representation. These representations could purportedly handle the objections of hallucinations and perceptual relativity and the like because the copies could fail or succeed in mirroring the external objects. “It is the view that we are directly aware only of internal sense contents, from which we must infer external objects.”[7]

Due to this, the theory is still realist because the ultimate objects of perception are mind-independent, external objects. But it is indirect because the copy/representation produced in the perceptual process is the direct object of perception, while the external objects are only indirectly perceived by the copy successfully mirroring whatever external object it represents. This implies that the perception of representations is taken for granted as axiomatic, but the awareness of external objects is inferential, requiring some form of proof. However, our awareness of this representation or copy is non-causal, insofar as there is not a second set of sense organs which interacts with the mental copy and thus provide our awareness of it. The mind has no causal influence in how the external object produces a copy of the object, thus reproducing the object faithfully (or so they hold).

The overarching argument for representationalism amounts to: “Direct awareness is diaphanous; the perception of physical objects is not diaphanous; therefore perception is not direct.”[8] Indirect realism accepts the diaphanous model for the awareness of its mental copies and representations. This is because it accepts the model’s idea that perception should be diaphanous, and thus the perception of the inner mental representations themselves is featureless. The indirect realists believe that their position is wiser, because experience (e.g. perceptual relativity, illusions, hallucinations) has shown that the “direct realist” model doesn’t hold for the awareness of external objects, as the naïve and direct realists mistakenly believe.

Noted historical representationalists are René Descartes, John Locke, and David Hume.

Sensory qualities are intrinsic properties of the copies or representations that are directly perceived, and exist independently of our perception of them (to the extent that this is possible).


Like representationalism, the idealist position essentially is a reaction to the perceived failure of direct realism to be proven valid on the diaphanous model. Through different arguments historically, idealism also showed the deficiencies in indirect realism by showing that their inference of mind-independent, external objects is unwarranted or unprovable. Here is an extended example of this pattern (i.e. dismantling direct and then indirect realism) from an arch idealist, George Berkeley:

If we thoroughly examine this belief in things existing independently of the mind it will, perhaps, be found to depend basically on the doctrine of abstract ideas. For can there be a more delicate and precise strain of abstraction than to distinguish the existence of perceptible things from their being perceived, so as to conceive them existing unperceived? Light and colours, heat and cold, extension and shapes, in a word the things we see and feel—what are they but so many sensations, notions, ideas, or sense impressions? And can any of these be separated, even in thought, from perception?[…]
This line of reasoning leads to a seminal conclusion by Berkeley:

Some truths are so close to the mind, and so obvious, that as soon as you open your eyes you will see them. Here is an important truth of that kind: 
All the choir of heaven and furniture of the earth, in a word all those bodies that compose the mighty structure of the world, have no existence outside a mind; for them to exist is for them to be perceived or known; consequently so long as they aren’t actually perceived by (i.e. don’t exist in the mind of) myself or any other created spirit, they must either have no existence at all or else exist in the mind of some eternal spirit; because it makes no sense—and involves all the absurdity of abstraction—to attribute to any such thing an existence independent of a spirit.
To be convinced of this, you need only to reflect and try to separate in your own thoughts the existence of a perceptible thing from its being perceived—·you’ll find that you can’t.

From what I have said it follows that the only substances are spirits—things that perceive[…][9]
After presenting what was much later referred to as the “Master Argument,” he turns to the representationalist theory:

‘But’, you say, ‘though the ideas don’t exist outside the mind, still there may be things like them of which they are copies or resemblances, and these things may exist outside the mind in an unthinking substance.’ I answer that the only thing an idea can resemble is another idea; a colour or shape can’t be like anything but another colour or shape. Attend a little to your own thoughts and you will find that you can’t conceive of any likeness except between your ideas. Also: tell me about those supposed originals or external things of which our ideas are the pictures or representations—are they perceivable or not? If they are, then they are ideas, and I have won the argument; but if you say they are not, I appeal to anyone whether it makes sense to assert that a colour is like something that is invisible; that hard or soft is like something intangible; and similarly for the other qualities.[10]
The end result is that idealism does away with any kind of real, external world (or in Kant’s case, affirms the external, “noumenal” world but denies our ability to actually know anything about it).

Perception is an interaction of some sort between the perceiver and the mind which produces sense data or some form of idea, which is the direct object of perception. Sensory qualities are the intrinsic qualities of the sense-data that we are aware of; there are no external objects that exist or are known, and no representations because there’s nothing to represent. All we are really aware of are ideas or mental items/appearances, phenomena.

Well-known metaphysical idealists include George Berkeley, Immanuel Kant, and G.W.F. Hegel.

Objectivist View as a Form of Direct Realism

The Objectivist view begins with the insights gleamed from its metaphysics and other previous identifications. Things exist and possess identities that are independent of our consciousness. Our consciousness exists and has its own nature as well, and even its own nature is outside of its power to change. (This point will be developed further in the next essay, “Consciousness as Possessing Identity.”) The primary form of consciousness is sensory perception. The senses are valid, and we have a general scientific account of how this is the case: perceptual experience is produced by physical entities acting on our physical sense organs, which then interact with our nervous system and brain and leads to our awareness of objects through our sensory forms.

Objectivism holds that we must distinguish the form of perception from the object of perception: the “how” of perception from the “what.” Making this distinction dismisses the diaphanous model/revelatory standard of perception from the outset. Acknowledging that the senses necessarily have a nature of their own, it rejects the notion that the means of perception must be featureless/diaphanous to provide perceptual awareness of external objects.

The fundamental problem with the opposing theories is that it is a category mistake to suppose that perception only involves the intrinsic qualities of one element, e.g. the external object or elements of the subject’s mind. A form of perception, a sensory quality, must be a relationship between perceiver and object, not merely the intrinsic qualities of one without the other.

Rather than renovating previous theories, Objectivism advances a new model of perception that is a version of direct realism. Perception is an interaction, a relationship between the sensory systems of a living thing and the qualities of the external objects in the environment that produces a direct awareness of those objects, including (some of) their characteristics. Due to this relationship, the direct object of perception is the external object-as-it-is-being-perceived-by-the-subject.[11] One can see the leaves on a tree due to the relationship between the visual organs and the external objects and light that act on them; if one closes both eyes, the awareness of the tree and its leaves (and the outside world) disappears, because the relationship hinges upon the interaction of the eyes with the light of the environment.

As philosopher Onkar Ghate notes, the fact that perception is a relationship means that the awareness can be affected by changes in either aspect of the relation: the external object and the means of perception operating under certain conditions.[12] If a person is at an observation deck and a rocket ship takes off and propels rapidly through the air into space, the size, shape, color, and even sounds of the rocket will change accordingly. Changes to the object will affect the nature of the perceptual awareness of that object. And if a person squints while looking at a desk, the appearance of the desk will be dramatically different from how it looks when that person does not squint. A change in the state of the perceptual system (e.g. looking at something with open eyes vs. with squinted eyes) will cause a corresponding change in the perceptual awareness of objects.[13]

The fact that the state of the perceptual system affects the perceptual awareness can be readily understood using what has been termed the “common sensibles,” characteristics of objects that can be sensed in more than one form, namely sight and touch. A person can directly perceive the shape of a rock by looking at it from a short distance away and by grasping it. The rock hasn’t changed in any relevant sense, and so the difference between seeing the shape of a rock and feeling the shape of it is caused by the dissimilar sensory systems at work.

Sensory qualities such as color, sound, and taste on this view are relational qualities of the interaction between external objects and a perceptual system. External objects are the direct objects of perception, and its only objects. It is a relationship that cannot be in error: the senses are thus infallible, according to Objectivism. They cannot present the world as being other than what it is, including the state of the subject’s perceptual systems, brain and mind.

Intuitive Validity of Sensory Forms

Although Objectivism articulates a view on sensory forms/qualities, it does not present an argument for this position.

Instead, the validity of sensory forms is seen as a corollary axiom of the senses being valid. Acknowledging the fact of consciousness leads to affirming its primary means, i.e. the validity of the senses. If the senses are valid, then even the forms or kinds of ways that the senses give us perceptual awareness of objects must be valid. The way the world feels, looks, and sounds is valid, it is the way the world is as experienced through our forms of perception, e.g. the sensory qualities of colors, sounds, feelings through touch, tastes and smells.

It should be clearer why the validity of sensory forms is not open to proof. As I said before, a proof traces an idea back to the data given by the senses. The salient point here is that the sensory forms themselves are a part of this “data.” Sensory-perceptual data, when broken down, is “object(s) perceived by a sensory apparatus/nervous system in some kind of sensory form.” Every perception involves a “what” and a “how”; the external objects are the “what,” and the sensory forms/qualities and bodily processing are aspects of the “how.” So as I stated in my previous essay about the senses, “the data of the senses themselves are incontestable; they must be the foundation upon which any successful proof must terminate.”[14]


The metaphysical status of sensory forms is not an easy question to answer. The Objectivist view that most of the other historical positions on sensory qualities have made a category error in advancing their positions only highlights this fact. This sketch of the Objectivist view answers the main question about sensory forms, but many sub-issues must still be addressed. Notable questions include:

1. What is the Objectivist view of the historical “Primary/Secondary Quality Distinction”?

2. Which is the real “table”: the one we experience through sensory forms or the one we know scientifically through its atomic and molecular structure?

3. Does David Hume’s problem with the senses show that the belief in the external world is unjustified?

4. How does Objectivism handle the charges that dreams or hallucinations are experienced as similar to/indistinguishable from perception in important respects?

5. Can illusions or cases of perceptual relativity/conflicting appearances be satisfactorily explained?

Such questions will be addressed in later essays in this series. Hopefully, this essay will help to flesh out some rarely discussed areas concerning the senses.

References and Notes

[1]: Kelley, David. “Response to Seddon.” Reason Papers. Issue 19, Fall 1994. http://www.reasonpapers.com/pdf/19/rp_19_7.pdf
[2]: (In fact, I believe that the historical difficulties in relating sensory perception (and conceptions) to the world have led to the majority of philosophy’s fundamental errors and flawed theories.)
[3]: See Onkar Ghate’s dissertation, “The Argument from Conflicting Appearances,” pp. 30-45. Link in note #5.
[4]: Ibid.
[5]: Ghate, Onkar. “The Argument from Conflicting Appearances.” p. 33. Doctoral dissertation. http://dspace.ucalgary.ca/bitstream/1880/25982/1/34675Ghate.pdf
[6]: Ibid., p. 96.
[7]: Ibid., p. 97.
[8]: Ibid.
[9]: Berkeley, George. Principles of Human Knowledge. First Meditation, paragraphs 5-7. http://users.clas.ufl.edu/belic/courses/intro/readings/18-berkeley-principlesofhumanknowledge.pdf
[10]: Ibid. First Meditation, paragraph 8.
[11]: Ghate, “Perceptual Awareness as Presentational,” Concepts and Their Role in Knowledge: Reflections on Objectivist Epistemology. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press. p. 96.
[12]: Ibid., p. 95
[13]: Ibid.
[14]: Fitts, Roderick. “Pre-Epistemology: The Senses as Necessarily Valid.” Inductive Quest. http://www.inductivequest.blogspot.com/2015/09/pre-epistemology-senses-as-necessarily.html

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