One of my philosophical correspondents, Spano, has written as follows:
Let’s begin with the claim that “to be aware of objects in the world, I must form a representation of them “inside,”in my brain or in my mind.” What does this mean? It means that to be aware of objects in the world, I must receive information about them through my senses. This information must be passed to the brain, and in the brain it is synthesized with previous ideas and information which have been stored in the brain. The outcome of this process is a representation. …..
. . . .
If we agree that there is a distinction between the representation and the thing represented, then obviously the direct object of perception is the representation and not the thing represented. If the thing represented were directly perceived, there would be no need for a representation, and the word “representation” would never have come up in attempts (such as Locke’s) to explain the origin, nature, and limits of knowledge. The word would apply only to such things as paintings, drawings, and narrative descriptions. But ever since Locke the word has applied to the direct objects of perceptual experience.
You ask, “How do you experience a representation?” First you have to decide what you want to experience a representation of. Let’s say you want to experience a representation of your hand. Then all you have to do is look at your hand. In your act of looking – according to the Cartesian, Newtonian, Lockean ideas of the 17th century - you will inevitably experience a representation. You couldn’t experience anything else
It would be too lengthy a dissertation to bring out all the problems found in Spano’s remarks. On past occasions I have argued some of these points at length, but will not bore you with repetition of all points of disagreement with Spano. I’ll limit my remarks to what follows:
1) Consider the phrase: ”…to be aware of objects in the world, I must form a representation of them “inside,”in my brain or in my mind.” The purported locations of the ‘representations’ are not at all equivalent or even in similar categories. “In the brain” is clear enough a locations and would be a clear reply to the question “Where is X located?” But “in the mind” is completely metaphorical and does not at all state an unambiguous location. ”In my mind” simply means in my thoughts or alternatively, something about which I think. A lover who writes of his beloved, “I have you in my mind,” does not claim that the beloved inhabits his brain, rather than where ever she happens to be. He merely states that he has her in his thoughts or is thinking of her. “She is in my mind” does not at all answer the question “Where is she?” To think it does is tantamount to a category error.
2) So I shall understand Spano’s statement on the location of representations to be that they are in the brain and I shall take his remarks as a metaphorical description of the bodily processes (sense faculty sensitive to some aspect of the environment, production of a chemical-electrical signal which is then passed to the proper region of brain, brain processing the signal to yield some information about the environment, etc.). He thinks that “the outcome of this process is a representation.” And then he proceeds to talk about problems related to these ‘representations.’ Since they are representations in an individual’s brain, how can we even compare one with another in someone else’s brain? How can we ever verify that anyone of them represents objective fact? and such. Spano is not explicit, but his remarks surely suggest that for him the representation internal to the brain is not just the “outcome of the perceptual process” but is the object that we perceive. (One cannot avoid the humorous image of the perceiving subject also located somewhere within the brain reading a screen which displays the information or signals coming in from the external world.) As an alternative model, I suggest that the perceptual process — described by the relevant sciences — explains how we are perceptually aware of features of our environment, not how we become aware of an internal representation. It is the processes (bodily, nervous system processes) which make possible our perception of objective reality.
3) Spano’s argument for the distinction between representation and thing represented is curious. He seems to believe that because our distinction between representation and thing that is represented is a functional one, then we have grounds for the causal theory of perception which implies that we directly perceive representations:
If we agree that there is a distinction between the representation and the thing represented, then obviously the direct object of perception is the representation and not the thing represented. If the thing represented were directly perceived, there would be no need for a representation…
But …. Why would we agree to this? As Spano admits, the distinction between representation and thing represented comes about in a variety of ways. It does not have to arise from a specific epistemology or theory of perception. As soon as early humans started to depict things (e.g., animal images) on the cave walls, the conditions were present for distinguishing between representation and thing represented. This has nothing to do with classical empiricism, the theory of ideas, or subsequent ‘theories’ such as sense-datum theories. There is no problem whatsoever in taking the position that we directly perceive things in the objective world and understanding how the concept of representation arose.
4) Finally, we have Spano’s explanation of what happens when you hold out your hand and look at it. You experience a representation of your hand, and nothing else. Does this mean that we don’t see our hand, but only a representation of our hand? Here Spano hedges some between presenting this as his view of things or only the Cartesian, Newtonian, Lockean ideas of the 17th century. Regardless, he offered this as a clarification of what he meant by an “experience of a representation.” We can infer that Spano must subscribe in some way to that view. And regardless of whether this is an idea of the 17th century only or Spano’s view of things, it is a very strange, implausible view of things. We know what seeing a representation of one’s hand would be; it would be to see a photograph, or video recording, or drawing of one’s hand. And even an elementary school child can distinguish between the real hand and the representation of the hand. But that same school child would laugh at the suggestion that his little hand, as he picks up his toys, is not a real hand but only a representation.. (?) To think that when a person holds up his hand and sees it he sees only a representation of the hand is false on the face of it, even suggestive of an absurdity. I suppose that if you (Spano) held up your hand in front of your eyes and “experience the representation” and I were to stick a sharp pin in your ‘representation’ of your hand, you would not feel a pain in your hand, but only what …? A representations of a pain in the representation of your hand. Sorry, but this is simply absurd.