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The aim of this chapter will include; an attempt to establish the nature of the controversy between direct and indirect realism right from the period of John Locke who had established the foundations for the debate. The rationalists had come to lay a foundation of our knowledge on supposedly certain and indubitable foundations in reasoning, Locke too, in his empiricism began to occupy a position referred to as ‘indirect realism’ due to his argument that objects of experience cannot be directly perceived. But before then, an attempt shall be made to account for the nature of the argument of the realists as against the position of the anti-realists’ divide in epistemology. Going back to the period of the British empiricists with our main point of focus on Locke, and Berkeley. Having mentioned earlier that there is a divide between direct and indirect realists, the difference boiling largely out of how one perceives what one perceives, it will be considerate to account therefore for the nature of the debate between the both of them and the attempts of the direct realists to escape the two arguments (arguments from illusion and hallucination) rendered against it by the indirect realists.
1.1 Contemporary Realist Arguments
The problem of perception is one that has been in the mind of several philosophies ever since the period before Socrates, where we see philosophers like Democritus and Leucippus who claimed that physical objects are really composed of tiny indivisible particles referred to as atoms. The problem which is popularly referred to as ‘the problem of perception’ has been given a new formulation. Epistemologists concerned with the problem of perception seek to enquire how we come to perceive the contents of the external world. Before going any further, I shall try to define what perception itself entails.
Perception is the process by which we, through any of our five senses- eyes, ears, tongue, nose and skin, gain knowledge of the external world. It is due to this kind of definition that one is bound to think that it is something pertaining to empiricism alone. It is indeed a valid assertion, since it seems to lay emphasis upon the senses and the kind of connection they have with the world in the bid to acquire knowledge. We should note that in the light of the above definition, there is a distinction between what exists in the world, and what we perceive as existing. According to this conception, there are several theories. These theories of perception try to answer the question of what and how we can know through sense experience and they include: realism and anti-realism.
1.2 Realism vs. Anti-Realism
The argument of the realists is entailed in their conception that objects of the world exist independent of the mind. For the realists, every physical thing we perceive would exist even if we were not around to perceive them, it could therefore be said that for the realists, perception is mind-independent. That is there does not have to be a mind before the existence of a physical object could be ascertained. This implies that the relation between perceiver and the perceived is not of a dependent form. For the anti-realists however, perception is mind-dependent. This means that everything that exists only exists because there is a mind perceiving them. It may look like they are saying that perception is a temporal thing because the implication will be that what is not being at the moment perceived by some mind cannot be claimed to exist until otherwise perceived.
We should note that the above outline of the divide between realists and anti-realists is that of an old tradition as we shall come to see in the work of John Locke. It is not the case that their doctrines have changed, but we shall attempt to account for possible modifications in the various positions. Our next contention thus, shall be to try to articulate the positions of contemporary realists in the problem of perception.
As already outlined above, realism is that epistemological position in the problem of perception that holds that what we perceive in the external world is independent of our perceptive faculties. For the realists, perception is mind independent so that the external world is a permanent fixate that our senses only come to apprehend whenever we attempt to perceive. Realists claim that physical objects exist as things that are independent of our minds and of our perceptions of them. A realist believes that there is a world (the “material” world) that exists independently of whether or not any conscious mind experiences it. A realist believes that if all the minds (mental beings) stopped existing tomorrow, there would still be a world out there, just one that no one was conscious of.
An example of a realist is John Locke, whose philosophy of perception helped define the lines of indirect realism today. Another is David Hume who is credited with the saying below:
…this very table, which we see white, and which we feel hard, is believed to exist, independent of our perception, and to be something external to our minds, which perceives it.
1.3 Direct Vs. Indirect Realism
Our main aim in this section is to discuss contemporary views on realism, but this will not be possible if the several views are not themselves divided into two other schools, the direct/naïve realists, and the indirect/sophisticated realists.
As much as realism is the school that holds that whatever it is we perceive, its existence is not dependent on the mind, the position of the direct/naïve realists is that objects of perception are directly apprehended, that we have a direct access to the physical objects of the external world. Direct realists claim that we perceive the physical objects themselves. When we perceive the world, it certainly appears to us as it is exactly we directly perceive physical objects that exist independently of our minds. Direct realism claims that the immediate object of perception is the physical object itself. We don’t perceive it in virtue of perceiving something else that ‘mediates’ between our minds and the physical object.
The indirect realists however are also referred to as representative realists. An example of an indirect realist will be John Locke who claims that what we perceive are not the objects but an idea of the object in the world and since an idea is not a physical but a mental thing then it means that what we perceive according to indirect realism is just an intermediary between object and perceiver. This means that they advocate for an intermediary between objects of perception and the perceiver.
The contemporary argument of the representative realists is informed in their critic of the arguments against the direct realists. This is using the arguments from illusion and the argument from hallucination. We shall talk better on this later in this chapter. Bertrand Russell is an example of an indirect realist, another example is G.E Moore.
1.4 The Empiricism of John Locke
With the aim of the continental rationalists being built on the idea of innate ideas, which says that every mind is born with ideas, for them whatever it is we claim to know must have been built upon the certain ideas that was in our minds at birth. This seemed to make sense, since their aim was (Descartes for example) to establish a certain foundation from which all knowledge would emerge, and they thought that the mind would be that certain foundation in contrast to experience, thus the doctrine of innatism.
So, in being an empiricist, the aim of John Locke was to unsettle the previous philosophy before him, rationalism and their doctrine of innatism, Descartes wanted to provide a solid, indubitable foundation for knowledge, however Locke viewed rationalism as resting upon unquestioned assumptions, like the assumption that the mind is born with ideas at birth, and the further assumption that clarity of concepts can give accurate knowledge of reality.
It seemed to him, like he’d successfully showed the inadequacy of the rationalist foundations, so Locke proceeded to assert that the mind was born at birth blank, empty, this is where his concept of tabula rasa originates. Unlike the innatists, whatever it is we eventually come to know is not a function of the mind, but that of experience, from the senses. This eventually exposed the modest and humble beginnings of Locke’s epistemology. This is because unlike Descartes who wanted a deductively certain foundation, Locke agreed that the senses are not certain source of knowledge (as we shall come to see). This eventually rendered him a modest empiricist.
Since Locke had asserted that unlike Descartes, the foundation of his own empiricism is not built on the concept of a blank slate, then it seemed empirical for him to proceed how it is that our sense from the outside world help to imprint ideas in the mind.
Let us then suppose the mind to be, as we say, white paper, void of all characters, without any ideas: —How comes it to be furnished? Whence comes it by that vast store which the busy and boundless fancy of man has painted on it with an almost endless variety? Whence has it all the materials of reason and knowledge? To this I answer, in one word, from EXPERIENCE. In that all our knowledge is founded; and from that it ultimately derives itself.
So, for Locke, experience is the source from which all of our knowledge arises and not the mind. He described the processes according to which the sense derived ideas from the external world as the process of sensation. In sensation the senses gets ideas from the physical objects out there, and through reflection the mind is able to impose its characteristic functions of composition and abstraction on the idea gotten from the external world.
…by reflection then, in the following part of this discourse, I would be understood to mean, that notice which the mind takes of its own operations, and the manner of them, by reason whereof there come to be ideas of these operations in the understanding.
This is the origin of simple and complex ideas in Lockean epistemology; the eyes for instance perceive a simple object of sensation like a man and a horse. But the mind, being able to compose and sometimes abstract the simple ideas gotten from sight is able to form a further idea of a centaur which although has no existence in reality. This process of compounding ideas together is referred to as ‘reflection’, the combination of both processes is what gives us the knowledge that we end up claiming to have, for one without the other is not sufficient considering that even Locke claimed that in sensation, the mind is passive, but in reflection, active.