A rant about perception

by Neil Rickert

I follow the blog “Notes from Two Scientific Psychologists“. The authors are perceptual psychologists. In the a recent post they attempt to explain the distinction between whether perception is direct or indirect. This post is by Andrew, though both of the blog authors agree that perception is direct.

I happen to agree that perception is direct. But I disagree with a lot of what Andrew says in his post. Hence my comments may look like something of a rant.

I’ll be quoting from Andrew’s blog post. The wordpress software formats quotes in a distinctive way, so I think the reader will be able to tell when I am quoting.

Andrew begins with this:

All theories of perception begin with the fact that we experience a rich, detailed world full of things we can and can’t do, should and shouldn’t do. Specifically, we experience a behaviourally relevant world.

I can fully agree with that statement. So at least we begin with agreement.

Indirect perception

Andrew then gives his characterization of indirect perception:

Indirect theories begin with the assumption that the world does not present itself to us in behaviourally relevant terms, and that we therefore need at least one mediating layer between us and the world in order to transform the way the world presents itself into the way we experience the world.

I can agree with the first part — that the world does not present itself to us in behaviorally relevant terms. But my disagreement starts after that, so I don’t think I can be considered an indirect perceptionist. A view that some proponents of indirect perception use, is that the world presents itself as an image on the retina, and that we are really looking at the retinal image. But I very much disagree with that view.

Andrew then goes on to describe how indirect perceptionists invoke the idea of representations:

But across all of these, the core idea of a representation is that it takes the way the world presents itself to us, and processes that information into a re-presentation of the world in behaviourally relevant terms. We then behave as a function of the re-presentation.

I am quite skeptical of that way of looking at perception.

Direct perception

Moving on to direct perception, Andrew says:

Direct theories of perception instead begin with the assumption that the world does present itself in behaviourally relevant terms, and so we do not need any mediating layer to invent this for us. Instead, we need a mechanism for successfully engaging with that presentation.

Again, he has the world presenting itself to us.

I disagree with Andrew on both points. Either way, direct or indirect, he has the world presenting itself to us. My radical alternative is that the world does not present itself to us at all. It does not present itself to us in any way. It is the function of the perceptual system, to present the world to us. This isn’t something that the world does for us.

The way the world is

There’s a central misunderstanding here, that affects how people tend to think of perception. It is widely believed that there is a certain way that the world is, and that the function of perception is to be true to that way that the world is.

I am unable to find any basis for this widespread belief. There isn’t any way that the world is.

I am a realist to the extent that I believe there is a human independent world and that our experience is of that world. And there is a way — or there are ways — that we experience that world. But I don’t see how there could be a way that the world is.

Yes, we describe the world. Or, more accurately, we describe our experiences in the world. Our descriptions use the word “is”:

  • the cat is on the mat;
  • the grass is green;
  • it is a cloudy day.

All of those descriptions express relations between categories. Or, if you prefer, they express relations between things.

The world does not come to us that way. The world is undifferentiated stuff. It is up to us to discriminate between parts of the world, and to divide the world into parts (or categories or things). We categorize the world. Or, perhaps I should say that we thingify the world. The world does not categorize itself. The world does not tell us what counts as a thing. That’s up to us. And it is mainly up to our perceptual systems.

I see perception as fundamentally creative. Perception creates our experience. George Berkeley was right about the centrality of perception, though I disagree with his idealism.

Direct vs. indirect

So what do I see as the distinction between direct and indirect perception?

As I see it, perception is direct if we categorize the world into categories that are important to us. Perception is indirect if we first categorize some other way, such as into pixels, and then recategorize into human relevant categories.

3 Responses to “A rant about perception”

  1. I’m curious to know what you mean when you say that you are a realist. Often when people make that claim, it is an expression of where they stand on truth.
    The correspondence crowd has the strongest claim I think, in that, for them there is a way that the world is, as you say, and we somehow receive more or less accurate reports of it.
    I think some in the sciences fall into that category, but I think most are actually coherentists. Your previous example of the Newtonian equation F = MA taken as definitional of the factors fits the bill. Frankly, I can see the point for those who take that position. What can we say about mass otherwise that is not just a statement about how we categorize experience as well?
    I don’t see many people in the deflationary camp, but I think there are some. They tend to call themselves naïve realists. They often go on to speak as if the world is some way secondarily, which is just what the correspondence folks claim.
    Not all do though, and those who resist respond to questions about their position on realism with the infamous incredulous stare. Do you feel like you are close to one of those categories, or do you mean something else when you say that you’re a realist?

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