The scientific and manifest images

by Neil Rickert

As a followup to my previous post, I’ll note that Dan Kaufman has posted a second round in his proposals for metaphysics:

As background, I’ll note that I am sitting at my desk.  According to the manifest image, my desktop is solid wood.  According to the scientific image, my desktop is mostly empty space surrounding a sparse array of atoms.

The scientific image is how physics sees the world.  The manifest image is closer to how we see the world.  But sciences vary.  Biologists are concerned about individual organisms.  And those belong in the manifest image, rather than in the scientific image.  Likewise, most of the concerns of psychology fit better with the manifest image.

In my view, philosophy (by which I mean academic philosophy) is mainly oriented toward the scientific image.  And, in my opinion, it should be more oriented toward the manifest image.  I think that’s also how Dan Kaufman sees it, but perhaps I am misreading him.  Please go read his post to see what he says.

Where I come in

A little background about myself.  I started studying learning (or how humans learn) in the 1980s.  And I quickly found myself disagreeing with philosophers.  I imagined myself to be a solitary animal or organism on some planet, with little or know innate knowledge of the planet.  And I had to work out ways of learning about that planet.

I quickly recognized that I needed input.  So I needed to understand perception and how perception works.  Much of my thinking was an attempt to understand how perception could possibly work.  My ideas are much influenced by that experience.  I won’t try to describe all of my thinking from that time.  But it did lead me toward my current view.


We notice behavioral oddities of the people around us.  We describe some of those as mannerisms.  These behavioral oddities fit in the manifest image, but the receive scant attention in the scientific image.

As I studied the problem of perception, it became clear that how we recognize people, and distinguish between different people, must depend on such things as behavioral oddities.  So our perceptual systems are focused on aspects of the manifest image.  This should not be surprising, of course, since it is the manifest image that perception presents to us.

The two best known theories of perception of those of J.J. Gibson and of David Marr.

It seems to me that if you tried to design a perceptual system based on Marr’s theory, that perceptual system would be oriented toward the scientific image.  If you were, instead, to base it on Gibson’s theory you might come close to the manifest image.

My own view of perception turns out to be somewhat along the lines of Gibson’s theory.  But perhaps it is even further from the scientific image than was Gibson’s.  For example, Gibson talks about picking up information from the optical array.  But both “information” and “optical array” are terms that fit the scientific image but are not really part of the manifest image.

Decision making

We make many decisions in our lives.  And that decision making is important to us.  Those who deny free will are implicitly or explicitly denying that we actually make decisions.  According to the free will deniers, decisions are forced on us.

One way that we make decisions, is with the use of logic and truth.  Another way is when we make what we call “pragmatic decisions.”

For the scientific image, the use of logic and truth seems to be the primary way of making decisions.  However, logic and truth are supposed to be the same for everybody.  So we should all make the same decision in the same circumstances.  And that’s roughly the argument (or one of the arguments) against free will.

When we are dealing with the manifest image, then there are parts of that image that are not readily describable in words.  We cannot use logic and truth unless we can apply language.  So pragmatic decision making is far more important when our concerns are related to the manifest image.

Artificial Intelligence (AI)

It seems to me that AI is very much oriented toward the scientific image.  That’s part of why it seems so artificial.  Any attempt at AI perception is likely to be based on Marr’s theory of vision.  Possibly the accident where a self-driving Uber vehicle killed a pedestrian, is partly due to the limitations of the scientific image (persons are not really part of that image).

Part of the issue here, is that AI depends on logic and truth for its decision making.  And, as we have already seen, that is the decision method for the scientific image.  AI does not have a natural way of making pragmatic decisions.


I see mechanism as playing a role in both ways of looking at the world.  But it is not the same role.

Most scientific laws are mechanical laws.  As an example, Newton’s laws are mechanical.  A good part of theoretical science is engaged in exploring these mechanisms.

We could, perhaps, say that science is concerned with grand  mechanisms.  These are a “one size fits all” kind of mechanism that we can all study and use when doing science or when studying science.

Marr’s theory of perception is a mechanical theory.  It does propose what I am calling a “grand mechanism”, a geometric way of doing perception.  And that fits well with what we expect for the scientific image.

Gibson’s theory of perception is also mechanical.  Gibson talks of tranducers that pick out part of the environment.  But these are not grand mechanisms.  These are small mechanisms that might belong to one person’s perceptual system.  Our brains presumable construct these transducer mechanisms as part of perceptual learning.  But the mechanisms that my perceptual system uses might be different from the mechanisms that your perceptual system uses.  It is not “one size fits all”.

This is part of the difficulty of the Chalmers “hard problem” of consciousness.  The “hard problem” calls for a grand mechanism — a “one size fits all” kind of explanation.  And it is unlikely that consciousness has that kind of explanation.


It seems to me that philosophy (i.e. academic philosophy) is too much oriented toward the scientific image.  It puts too much emphasis on truth and logic, and too little on the role of pragmatic decision making.  It is concerned too much with grand mechanisms (or “one size fits all” mechanisms), and does not sufficiently consider the possibility of small mechanisms especially tailored for individuals and for unusual situations.



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