Do we perceive real things, or just our representations of them?

By | December 17, 2010

First Part: Spanos presents his case challenging the naïve view that we perceive real things as they really are.

I’ll put my questions in the context of a story told by Leonard Mlodinow and Stephen Hawking in “The Grand Design“:

A FEW YEARS AGO the city council of Monza, Italy, barred pet owners from keeping goldfish in curved goldfish bowls. The measure’s sponsor explained the measure in part by saying that it is cruel to keep a fish in a bowl with curved sides because, gazing out, the fish would have a distorted view of reality.

This raises an interesting question. Do the curved sides of the bowl distort the fishes’ view of reality? Would they, under normal circumstances, have an undistorted view of reality? The Mlodinow/Hawking response to this is equally interesting. They chide the sponsors of the measure for assuming that our own view of reality is undistorted.

But how do we know we have the true, undistorted picture of reality? Might not we ourselves also be inside some big goldfish bowl and have our vision distorted by an enormous lens? The goldfish’s picture of reality is different from ours, but can we be sure it is less real?

The point made by Mlodinow and Hawking is that it doesn’t make any practical difference to the fish whether the bowl is curved or straight. In either case they adapt their responses to appearances. What does make a difference is whether their responses work. In order to make their responses work, they do not need a true, undistorted picture of reality. All they need is a reliably consistent picture of reality. And evolution has given them the ability to produce such a picture. Evolution has even given them the ability to adapt their responses to changes in appearances such as would be caused by putting them in a fish bowl with curved sides.

In the light of such considerations, I’m not sure how to interpret what some people claim: namely that there is no distortion of reality taking place. For example, a colleague argued that

“if we (or other creatures) didn’t actually perceive objects (‘things’ to use your term) as they really are, we would not have survived this long in the evolutionary process. Yes, misperceptions (faulty interpretations) often occur but rarely as often as you seem to imply in the above quote. Our perceptions rarely lie to us.”

Spanos continues: Must we assume that we wouldn’t be able to survive without a true, undistorted picture of reality? If fish can survive without it, why can’t we? It’s true that our perceptions rarely lie to us. But what do they tell us? Do they tell us what reality really is, or do they only tell us whether the current situation is one that requires a particular kind of response? Perhaps the lie, if there really is one, is the lie we tell ourselves when we assume that we have a true, undistorted picture of reality.

But it’s not a lie if we only mean that we have a generally true, undistorted picture of empirical reality. (By “empirical reality” I mean “the way things appear to us.”) It’s only a lie if we mean that we have a true, undistorted picture of transcendental reality. Here is Kant’s definition of “transcendental.”

“certain of our cognitions rise completely above the sphere of all possible experience, and by means of conceptions to which there exists in the whole of experience no corresponding object, seem to extend the range of our judgments beyond its bounds. And just in this transcendental or supersensible sphere, where experience affords us neither instruction nor guidance, lie the investigations of reason, which on account of their importance, we consider far preferable to, and as having a far more elevated aim, than all that the understanding can achieve within the realm of sensuous phenomena.”

Prominent among these cognitions that “rise completely above all possible experience” are the concepts of reality and truth. We feel the pressure of these cognitions whenever we are aware of our own fallibility. I don’t think fish have these cognitions, and it is a mystery why we have them.

Second Part: My slightly annoyed reply:

You want for us to accept the proposition that we can talk about a “true, undistorted picture of transcendental reality,” which is different from “empirical reality” and which we don’t experience at all? The true, objective reality is not something we perceive or with which we can interact with it. But is this really what Kant holds? With Kant it is never clear, for he seems to say that “transcendental reality” is the “investigation of reason.” Assuming this is human reason, does he allow that humans have “rational access” to this “transcendental realm?

Moreover, there’s ambiguity in the description of “empirical reality.” On the one hand, Kant seems to admit that reality that we ordinarily, naturally experience (the reality explored by the sciences); we are told that this is “reality as it appears to us.” But reality as it appears to me does not imply that my perception fails to inform me about the real world. For although reality-as-it-appears-to-me might differ a bit from things-as-they- really-are, it can be corrected by scientific investigation, by careful analysis and relevant investigations, by corrective lenses (i.e., eyeglasses), etc.; this gives us a distinction between “reality as it appears to us” and “a corrected version (or reality at a different level of analysis) of reality.” Both are accessible to human experience, insofar as we allow that experience to be ‘extended’ by the instruments of science, rational inquiry and analysis, technology, and so on. This common-sense distinction has nothing to do with the distinction between the world accessible to human inquiry and a ‘transcendental reality.’

At any rate, all this talk of “transcendental reality” distinct from “empirical reality” (the reality investigated by science and experienced by humans) is suspect, to say the least, unless you happen to be a Kantian or believer in transcendence of some kind.

Here’s what Richard Rorty writes concerning this distinction between “empirical reality” and “transcendental reality.”

The antirepresentationalism common to Putnam and Davidson insists, by contrast, that the notion of “theory-independent and language-independent matter-of-factual relationships” begs all the questions at issue. For this notion brings back the very representationalist picture from which we need to escape. With William James, both philosophers refuse to contrast the world with what the world is known as, since such a contrast suggests that we have somehow done what Nagel calls “climbing out of our own minds.” They do not accept the Cartesian-Kantian picture presupposed by the idea of “our minds” or “our language” as an “inside” which can be contrasted to something (perhaps something very different) “outside.” From a Darwinian point of view, there is simply no way to give sense to the idea of our minds or language as systematically out of phase with what lies beyond our skins.

I also have great trouble accepting the claim by some people that they can “climb out of their minds” to the realm of the transcendent (whether this is a philosophical, metaphysical, or mystical claim); hence, I stand with the thinking of Richard Rorty, John Dewey, William James, Hilary Putnam and Donald Davidson on this issue.

The fish-bowl analogy cited by Spanos (gotten from Hawking-Mlodinow book) is interesting, but misleading insofar as it perpetuates the inside-outside model of human experience: we are ‘inside’ looking through a lense (or window, as Spanos suggested in a previous discussion) which distorts the real nature of the ‘outside.’ There is not much of a compelling argument for this model. And the fish-bowl analogy does not offer much of a new insight to this age-old issue.

(But maybe I’m just blind and need those corrective lenses that Dr. Kant provides.)

One thought on “Do we perceive real things, or just our representations of them?

  1. Firooz R. Oskooi

    The perception of reality depends on perceiver's stance on the XYZ of the infinite possibilities of being. Even then it depends on the intelligence,training, experience and the bias of the perciever. Infinite possibilities and our finite minds!


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