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Is direct realism a sound theory of perception?

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Voting Style: Open Point System: 7 Point
Started: 4/21/2015 Category: Philosophy
Updated: 1 year ago Status: Post Voting Period
Viewed: 478 times Debate No: 73900
Debate Rounds (4)
Comments (3)
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The structure of this debate will be criticisms and responses for rounds 1-3. In round 4, for and against will make a conclusion for why their side is stronger. Against will not be expected to give an alternative theory of perception.

I will begin by stating the direct realist's theory of perception:

The immediate objects of perception are mind independent.


This theory is as "sound" as boat made from stone.

Besides the number of processes an "image" of, or the perception of an image of, an "object" must go through before we can comprehend it, disqualifies it from being a truly direct process in any conceivable sense.

There are large inaccuracies between our perception of an object and the objects truest form.

I also submit a new argument, (at least I think it's new) that if direct perception was indeed a reality than the creativity and subjectivity associated with creating and enjoying art would not be possible. Furthermore the vast array of experiences being so specific and different for each individual, solidifies that fact.

I assert the burden of proof on your part is high, and I applaud you for taking on such a deep and intriguing topic. I hope my ignorance to the matter still provides you and any possible readers/voters with some entertainment.
Debate Round No. 1


I see that my opponent as outlined 3 criticisms of direct realism and I will attempt to respond to them. My opponent is very welcome to add additional arguments instead of having to stick to the 3 that were initially presented.

I will respond to my opponent's arguments in the order they were presented.

1. I will agree that sensory information must be interpreted in the brain to form our perceptions. This is because our brain is only able to compute a certain form of information which is not raw sensory information. The raw sensory information needs to be processed into forms of information that the brain can use to create perceptions. However this doesn't show that we do not directly perceive the world. For example, Sam only speaks English and wants to talk to Jane who only speaks Spanish. Sam has a friend, Sarah, who speaks both Spanish and English who acts as an interpreter to convey the information from Sam to Jane. Although the languages are different, they are about the same thing. The same goes on in the brain. Although all the sensory information is processed, the processed information is still about the same thing - the external world.

In addition to this point, let's assume that the processed information is not about the same thing as the sensory information and is therefore not exactly the same as the external world. If they were not exactly the same, then we would be hopeless at navigating the world. However the fact that we've survived (we can interact with the world very well) for thousands of years shows little doubt in my mind that the processed information is about the same thing as the sensory information.

2. I can see where my opponent is heading with "There are large inaccuracies between our perception of an object and the objects truest form". However, at the moment this is only a statement and hasn't been explained to lend itself as a criticism of direct realism.

3. I rather like this argument. It is similar to the 'argument from perceptual variation' which is an argument often used against direct realism. My opposition seems to be saying that if direct realism is true, then every single person would perceive the same appearance of objects and hence make the exact same (artistic) descriptions of these objects. When we do in fact have vast possible artistic descriptions of any object. As we can see this contradicts with the conclusion that the direct realist theory of perception leads to, according to my opponent.

There is a flaw in believing that direct realism believes that people see the same appearance of an object. As well as directly perceiving an object's properties in itself, we also directly perceive relational properties that the object has in relation to our selves. Take for example a table that is rectangular. If perceived at a particular angle it can appear to have the shape of a parallelogram. The table therefore has a particular property of 'being rectangular' and 'looking rectangular'. As a result the subjectivity of our perceptions is a result of perceiving different relational properties. This is because we perceive from different perspective and hence see different relational properties.

I seem to have concentrated on your third argument as it is similar to one of the most recognisable arguments against direct realism.


I must start with this statement because it is the most blatant of misconceptions "If they were not exactly the same, then we would be hopeless at navigating the world. However the fact that we've survived (we can interact with the world very well) for thousands of years shows little doubt in my mind that the processed information is about the same thing as the sensory information."

The idea that our ability to thrive in the world is thanks to direct realism is truly a non sequitur. The proper way of looking at this is, we have thrived in this world given whatever means of perception exist. For all we know whatever mode of perception that does exist, has held us back dramatically. Compared to a more convenient one specifically designed to allow a species to thrive. You are going from the notion, we have thrived, to, so Direct Realism is true. There is not one single reason to think that with or without direct realism we would not adapt to interact and thrive. Furthermore there are many species who have thrived for longer than we have, and have no mode of perception like we are discussing, such as bacteria. It is quite easy for any reasonable person to conclude in whatever way we do perceive the world direct realism is not remotely necessary.

I was trying to be more abstract in my third argument than you gave me credit for, you quickly pivoted to a common defense for direct realism, but it was for the wrong attack. Without it's properties an object does not exist. I assert that if object are exactly what they are as we see them, mind independent, it's properties would also be accepted universally. The "mind independent" notion is really more constricting than direct realists allow themselves to believe. But you and I can look at the same object and assign it vastly different properties. I assert without that ability creativity would not exist. If everyone perceived things directly in such a universal way, this law would extend itself into all aspects of perception and all humans would have the same experiences. To you and I, the objects are not the same. Direct realism cannot be correct.

A more straight forward example would be, and I don't recommend us trying it because it could cause permanent damage to our eyes but nevertheless. Imagine I am on a space ship flying towards the sun, you are sitting at your desk looking out the window. We both stare directly at the sun at the exact same moment. You report that you can see the a sun spot on the sun, but from my view one does not exist. How can we be looking at the same object at the same time and see something different. It is because you are looking at an "older" version of the sun. Not the "younger" version I myself see. This means that direct realism is a fallacy. I use the example of great distance to simply the " time lag" argument, but even an inch away you can never say you are truly viewing any object in it's current form thus direct realism is false.

There is an obvious problem, hallucinations. The mere fact that they exist directly refutes the validity of Direct Realism. I don't think I need to go in to much detail there.

We have all walked up to a large building, as we near the building it appears to grow and then stops at a certain distance. Direct Realist would have you believe the building is in fact growing. Because the object of awareness, what we see (the building) is the physical object, nothing more nothing less. Without that the theory falls apart. Perhaps the Direct Realist lobby also sells "miracle grow-concrete" to contracting companies and developers so they keep telling us what we see is really happening to keep the money rolling in. Maybe, maybe not, but I assert my hypothesis as to their reasons for believing are more reasonable than the theory as a whole.

It is a non disputable fact that we can see things that do not exist (hallucinations), we can see things in a way that is different from the way they exist (illusions), and finally that we are unable to ever see anything as it actually exist (time-lag). Why can't light be faster?

I will lay this out in clear mathematical/logical form.

1. If direct realism is true, than the object of awareness (OA) = the mind independent, external, physical object (PO). [Direct Realism Thesis]

2. If OA=PO, then everything true of PO is true of OA and everything true of OA is true of PO. [Leibniz's Law]

3. it is not the case that everything true of PO is true of OA and everything true OA is true of PO

4. Thus, Direct Realism is false.
Debate Round No. 2


We could each argue which theory of perception is "a more convenient one specifically designed to allow a species to thrive". However from either side, mine and yours, we will do nothing but speculate. As a result arguing further this point will be fruitless.

Furthermore, for you to conclude that "direct realism is not remotely necessary", it is necessary for you to present an alternative theory of perception. I take it that my burden of proof is high, however this does not mean that you have no burden of proof at all. Otherwise, if you conclude that direct realism -the most simple theory of perception- is not necessary ,without providing some other theory of perception, we are left with no theory of perception at all.

Your "more abstract" argument rests on the premise that direct realists believe that ALL the properties of objects are "accepted universally". However, this is not entirely true. Direct realists do believe we accept universally the properties that an object has in itself when we perceive them in normal conditions, which we all directly perceive. Not however, the relational properties one perceives. For example, a rectangular table has the property of 'being rectangular' in itself and we can perceive this by looking at it from directly above. This same table has the relational property between itself and the observer of 'looking like a parallelogram' that we directly perceive when standing at another angle in relation to the table. It is here where the subjectivity arises, where we perceive different relational properties. As a result we still perceive the table and its properties directly, it is just that we don't perceive the same relational properties as we can't look through another person's eyes from their perspective.

Again the idea of relational properties can be applied to the phenomena of "You report that you can see the a sun spot on the sun, but from my view one does not exist". However your argument that involves the "time lag" element requires a different explanation from direct realism. What we need to accept is that the very notion of perception will always involve a time lag between the object and the observer. As a result we still directly perceive objects as they are in themselves, but just moments before. As a result direct realism doesn't have to say that we view "any object in it's current form". Your example of "great distance" to add to simply the "time lag" is just adding perceptual variation to the "time lag" argument. As a result, as I've argued before, you can use the notion of relational properties against this perceptual variation addition.

I do have a response for the argument from hallucinations. I will use the disjuntivist theory of percption (a form of direct realism) to show that the argument from hallucination is based on a false premise. Before I do so, I will copy out the argument from hallucination from a philosophy text book right besides me. I must note here that my opponent has failed to outline and explain why hallucinations refute direct realism. The argument from hallucination goes as follows .

1. In a hallucination, we perceive something having some property F.
2. When we perceive something having some property F, then there is something that has this property.
3. We don't perceive a physical object at all (unlike the case of illusion).
4. Therefore, what we perceive must be mental - sense-data.
5. Hallucinations can be experiences that are 'subjectively indistinguishable' from veridical perceptions.
6. Therefore, we see the same thing, namely sense-data, in both hallucinations and veridical perception.
7. Therefore, in all cases, we see sense-data, and not physical objects, immediately.
8. Therefore, direct realism is false.
(This argument is from the text book "Philosophy for AS" by Michael Lacewing).

I will argue, by using the disjunctive theory of perception, that premises 6 and 7 cannot be made from premises 4 and 5. Hallucinations and veridical perception are apart of the same mental state. Therefore the only commonality between hallucinations and veridical perception is that the person cannot tell through introspection that they are not having a veridical perception. As a result when someone is hallucinating they are not really perceiving at all. Therefore, with veridical perception, we can conclude that we are not perceiving the same 'mental' thing (sense-data) as in hallucination. Therefore direct realism has not been refuted.

For my opponent's next argument, it is false to believe a direct realist would believe the building is actually growing. My opponent here is merely stating another form of the 'argument from perceptual variation' (for about the 3rd time now); that the property of size varies depending on where you perceive the building. I again assert the notion of relational properties. The building has the property, which we direct perceive, of perhaps 'looking small' 100m away. The building also has the property of 'looking medium sized' 50m away and 'looking big' 25m away. When we walk towards a building, we are perceiving another relational property of the building. As a result the claim that the "Direct Realist would have you believe the building is in fact growing" is very misleading.

Another reason why this argument is very misleading and should not be found convincing is because this same argument (to show that the primary quality of size shows perceptual variation) is used by the philosopher George Berkeley to demonstrate why INDIRECT realism is false. As a result, if my opponent's argument does work then it can be used to disprove his position that we perceive the world indirectly.

Although I have stated in my original post in round one that my opponent is not expected to give an alternative theory of perception, if their argument requires this alternative theory of perception to be valid then it should be given with the argument.


RandRichter forfeited this round.
Debate Round No. 3


I am unsure of how to continue the debate seeing as my opponent has forfeited the round. It seems unfair for me to conclude the debate seeing as my opponent hasn't replied to my responses of his criticisms.

I think it'll be best simply to go to voting of which side had a more convincing argument.


RandRichter forfeited this round.
Debate Round No. 4
3 comments have been posted on this debate. Showing 1 through 3 records.
Posted by Nac 1 year ago
I'm sorry I didn't see this debate while it was in its voting period.
Posted by 1z3 1 year ago
'looking like a parallelogram'*
Posted by fullofhopkins 1 year ago
I hope someone accepts. I would but I agree with your position.
No votes have been placed for this debate.