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The Retreat of ReasonA dilemma in the philosophy of life$

Ingmar Persson

Print publication date: 2005

Print ISBN-13: 9780199276905

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: February 2006

DOI: 10.1093/0199276900.001.0001

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The Retreat of Reason
Oxford University Press

MANY have thought that, prior to philosophical reflection and scientific investigation, the universal belief about perception is a direct realism, that is, roughly, the doctrine that in normal perception the world presents itself to us as it is independently of our perception. Many have also thought that, when we begin to examine critically the phenomenon of perception, we shall be converted to the belief that reality never appears to us as it is independently of us: we perceive things as being continuously extended in space, as being coloured, hot or cold, where there are in reality arrangements of particles with none of these features. On this view, perception of the physical world is an indirect or mediate affair that consists in the world causing us to be in perceptual states the direct or internal objects of which fundamentally differ from the real, physical ones.

I shall refer to this doctrine as indirect realism and take it to be made up of two claims, one about the nature of perception and the other about the physical reality that exists independently of perception:

  1. (1) perceiving a physical thing consists in being caused by it to be in a state of directly perceiving some (other) object, and

  2. (2) the latter object, internal to the act of perception, differs radically from the physical thing which causes the perception.

Different forms of indirect realism differ on how radically these two objects differ. One may even conceive a version of indirect realism according to which the perceptual contents faithfully copy the physical realities causally responsible for them. But surely, whatever credibility accrues to the move of distinguishing an internal object of perception from the external object derives in large part from arguments to the effect that how things are independently of perception differ widely from how they are perceived to be. I think that the most plausible form of indirect realism is a so-called scientific realism on which the best description we have of physical objects, as they are independent of perception, is the one supplied by contemporary physics because it is in terms of such a description that we should in the end causally explain our perception. According to this form of indirect realism, the difference between appearance and reality will be very radical, indeed, for physical objects will lack secondary qualities and the primary qualities with which they (p.473) are equipped will be very dissimilar from those of the objects of direct perception. Roughly, what to us appears to be solid things will in reality be swarms of particles.

In opposition to indirect realism, direct realism denies (1) and (2). If thoughtfully developed, it will not deny that perception of a physical object is essentially a causal process, for, intuitively, this is a very plausible claim. It must, however, reject the view that this causal process involves the direct perception of some objects distinct from the physical ones, since otherwise the perception of the latter will be indirect or mediate; in other words, it must affirm the directness of perception of physical things. As this duplication of perceptual objects is disallowed, the possibility of them being radically different naturally does not arise.

There are two options open to direct realists who want to hold on to the causal element. They can claim that (a) the state caused, though perceptual in nature, does not have an internal object—this is what, for example, the so-called adverbial analysis of perceptual experience is up to—or, more radically, they can assert that (b) this state is not a distinctively perceptual or sensory state, but one of thinking or believing. For if it is conceded that the state is sui generis perceptual and object-oriented then, since perceiving something physical comprises being causally affected by it, and since causes and effects must be entirely distinct and not overlap, such an object internal to the state cannot be identical to (the part of) the physical object that does the causing. Hence, it would follow that perceiving something physical must be an indirect relation that consists in the physical object causing this state with a distinct object—and this is the thesis of indirect realism. Therefore, direct realists must deny that perception of a physical object involves being caused by it to have an object-directed perceptual experience.

Direct realism is not only our pre-reflective belief; nowadays it is also the view of many philosophers. In fact, in many philosophical quarters indirect realism is considered outmoded, and either strategy (a) or (b) is endorsed. As I have made clear elsewhere (1985a), I believe both of these strategies to be untenable. Instead, my sympathy lies with a variant of the form of indirect realism just outlined, though this is not the place to argue the point. But let us assume that indirect realism has been established, and explore what attitudinal modifications a switch from direct realism to it would force upon rationalists. It is convenient to start by asking what attitudinal effects indirect realism harbours in virtue of the fact that it implies (2) (as specified by scientific realism) and then move on to what it harbours in virtue of the fact that it implies (1).

Indirect Realism and Replaceability

If it is brought home to us that, as entities existing independently of perception, we are swarms of elementary particles whose members are constantly renewed, I think we could more readily acknowledge the truth of two theses about our identity across time for which I have argued in Part IV. The first is that we are fuzzy beings whose diachronic identity is indeterminate. This strikes us as implausible as long as we trust everyday perception and proprioception which present us, that is, our bodies, as sharply delimited from our surroundings and as persisting relatively unchanged. But this air of implausibility vanishes if we come to accept that this is a mere appearance and that in reality we are configurations whose members incessantly change. It is natural to think that there is no sharp boundary between one such configuration and another, neighbouring one, and that the transtemporal identity of such a configuration, whose members are constantly renewed, is a vague matter. Against this background, it no longer seems far-fetched to compare us, as Parfit has done (1984: 213–14, 242–3) to macroscopic collectives like clubs and nations and to claim that our identity is just as loose and conventional as theirs.

(p.474) The second thesis is that our identity is no more important than any other mechanism that equally reliably preserves resemblances in perceived respects valued, for example a foolproof decomposition–replication process. Intuitively, we are prone to invest greater trust and importance in identity as its appearance of qualitative continuity suggests some sort of solid immutability. Of course, this inclination will be extinguished if we take to heart the view that in reality we are swarms whose members change without interruption. The difference between these members being successively replaced and their being replaced at one go is less dramatic than the difference we feel between ordinary survival and decomposition with replication.

So far I have examined the attitudinal impact of a conversion to (a scientific version of) (2). By supporting these two claims about the indeterminacy of identity and about it being important only as a guarantee of similarity, the conversion helps undermine the doctrine that identity in itself is important. The intrinsic unimportance of identity is further underlined by a conversion to (1). I should like to put forward the hypothesis that the attachment to particular items—not just other conscious beings, but inanimate things, too—which makes us reluctant to have them replaced even by perfect replicas, is instinctively or spontaneously formed whenever, over a longer period of time, one takes oneself to be directly perceiving a thing and, in some manner, it serves one well. In other words, I take seeing and/or tactually feeling a material thing, as conceived by direct realism, as a necessary condition of becoming attached to it in a way which makes one tend to resist having it replaced.

One could become attached in this fashion to the most humble object, say, a radiator, if for years one sees and handles it, and it functions well. But if one experiences only the effects of a source of heat, as I experience the heating system of my flat, one would not mind if it were exchanged for a different one as long as the effect is qualitatively the same, as I would not mind the exchange of the heating system of my flat if my flat will be just as warm and the bill not higher. This indicates that forming an attachment to a particular thing presupposes that one assumes oneself to be directly perceiving the thing itself. Perceiving a mere effect of it is not any as good; if it makes one attached to anything, it is in the first instance only to the effect. (Having often heard a voice on the telephone, and having begun to like the sound of it, one may find, upon encountering its owner, how far this is from liking the appearance of the latter.)

In other words, what one instinctively becomes non-transferably attached to are objects of which one has frequently had direct experience. Consequently, if perceiving a material object is directly experiencing only an effect of it, as (1) maintains, what one grows immediately attached to, if anything, will be the effect. The attachment to the cause would be derivative from it: it would be attachment to the cause because it produces this kind of effect. Any relevantly similar cause that has this kind of effect would do; so, the numerical identity of the cause would be a matter of indifference.

It would be fallacious to argue that the cause must be identical because it is essential that the effect be numerically the same. For, on indirect realism, even when numerically the same material object is perceived on two occasions, what it causes in the way of experiential content would be numerically distinct, just as it would be if two numerically distinct, but indistinguishable, material objects had been perceived. Hence, if indirect realism were internalized, the mechanism that makes one grow non-transferably attached to a thing if it is directly perceived often enough would become virtually inoperative, since no individual thing is directly perceived ‘often enough’. Under these conditions, the attachment generated by immediate perception would probably rather be to a kind of thing.

Note that I did not say that any cause that has the same type of perceptible effect will do; the qualification ‘relevantly similar’ is indispensable. Consider the following example: if indirect (p.475) realism were true, would one be indifferent to whether one's perceptual experience was caused by the sort of entities physics posits or was produced by a team of skilful neurologists who have implanted electrodes in one's brain? As Peter Unger (1990: 298 ff.) has forcefully argued, in the ordinary frame of mind one would definitely prefer the former: facing a choice between being placed in an “experience inducer” which generates hallucinatory experiences and going on perceiving the world (as one believes one does), one would opt for the latter—even though the former stretch of experiences would be much more pleasant.

I do not think that this preference hinges on our propensity to be direct realists: even if perception of the physical world involves the mediation of sensory impressions the contents of which do not match their causes, there are still some points of resemblance—in respect of spatial arrangement—which would be absent were the impressions produced by the manipulation of the team of neurologists. In other words, these causes would not be similar to each other because one of them bears a greater resemblance to the effect, and this might be held to provide a reason for preferring the causation which brings along this resemblance. Also, the fact that causation in one case involves intentional agency might be seen as a relevant difference (for better or worse).

To summarize this argument about the effect of indirect realism on our attitudes to particulars other than ourselves: the main point I have attempted to make is that, to the extent that we adjust to the truth of (1), internalize the doctrine that what we directly perceive is not the physical object itself but something different from it, the instinctive repulsion we feel at the idea of transferring our attitudes to a perfect replica, or a relevantly similar thing, will be corroded, for it rests on our unreflective direct realism. But the argument can also be read as making a distinct though related point: it amplifies the case, laid out in Part IV, against the cognitive rationality of non-transferable attitudes to particulars other than oneself: if all that we directly perceive are effects of physical things, and these will be numerically distinct on different occasions of observation, irrespective of whether the physical cause is the same or just similar, the numerical identity of the cause will be unimportant from the point of view of cognitive rationality.

Loss of Contact and Loneliness

This is one attitudinal modification which conversion to (1) brings in its wake, but there are others. To facilitate a discussion of them, let us make, with respect to the five perceptual avenues we are ordinarily recognized to have to the external world, two distinctions that cut across each other. First, we divide them into those that provide us with what, pre-theoretically, we take to be perceptions of the material things themselves—namely, the visual and tactile modalities—and those that supply us with perceptions of a class of phenomena that are effects of the former things, namely the auditory, olfactory, and gustatory modalities. For sounds, smells, and tastes are conceived as being caused by the operations of objects seen and tactually felt, and the latter alone are proper material things or bodies.

Secondly, as presaged in Chapter 2, we can divide the sensory avenues into, on the one hand, those along which we can perceive things at a distance, somewhere ‘out there’ in a perceptual space that extends outwards from our bodies, which we perceive from the inside and, on the other hand, those along which we necessarily perceive them as being in contact with our bodies. The visual and auditory modalities belong to the former category: I see a tree twenty yards away and hear the birdsong as coming from it. In contrast, what I tactually feel, I feel with some part of my body, on a surface of it, the smell I experience, I experience in my nostrils, the taste I experience, I experience in my mouth. So the tactile, olfactory, and gustatory sense-modalities are of the latter kind.

(p.476) Now, when one feels lonely and desires the presence of another, it offers some satisfaction and comfort to perceive an effect of the other—as when, after a period of separation, we again hear the voice of somebody dear and exclaim, ‘How nice to hear your voice!’ Generally, it would be more satisfactory to perceive the being itself, at least if it is pretty close, which the sense of sight permits one to do, but most satisfactory of all it would be also to perceive oneself as being in contact with it, and this is something that only the sense of touch can be thought to supply. If, however, indirect realism is true, not even the sense of touch allows one to be in perceptual contact with another being, to perceive an actual contact between two bodies, one's own and that of another, two bodies which exist independently of perception with the properties one perceives them to have. Like hearing (or tasting or smelling), the tactile sense, on the indirect construal, allows one to savour only effects of the other being. Consequently, the consolation that the sense of touch could really offer in moments of loneliness and isolation would rather be on a level with that lower degree which hearing signs of company is commonly thought to provide.

Next, consider the state of feeling love and affection for another and wanting to express it. These feelings can be expressed at distance, by producing an effect that the other will experience, for example verbally, by saying something nice. But again, it is more fulfilling to express it by seeing and being in tactile contact with that being, by embraces, caresses, etc. But if indirect realism is true, this more satisfactory expression is denied us: that which we pre-reflectively assume to be directly seeing and feeling contact with what is really (the surface of) the body of the other, in which its mind is embodied, is just experiencing effects of it (or the particles composing it). The closeness to another that we take ourselves to experience particularly in touching it, as long as we believe in direct realism, would be lost.

Certainly, even on indirect realism, there will be, if not proper contact, some closeness or mingling at the level of elementary particles, between the swarms of particles composing oneself and the other, respectively. It seems, however, clear that this form of nearness is inadequate because the entities involved are so far removed from what we take ourselves to be. What we desire is to see and, especially, to feel a contact with another body which is really as we perceive it to be (our own body also really being what it is perceived to be, of course). The following analogy might help to bring out the point: suppose that your body and the body of another are actually in touch, but that you do not see and feel this contact. Instead neurologists, who have implanted electrodes in your brains, feed you with tactile and visual impression of another type of contact with that being. When informed of the true state of affairs, you would not consider yourself to have been together in a fashion that breaks isolation or allows the expression of affection. Of course, the analogy is somewhat crude, but it demonstrates that actual physical closeness in conjunction with non-matching impressions of contact do not suffice to fulfil our need for bodily contact.

To sum up, by ruling out the direct perceptual contact with the body of another mind that the tactile sense-modality would provide if direct realism were true, and making its data analogous to those of the causal senses, like hearing, indirect realism allows one to escape the sense of isolation and to express affection only to the lesser degree that these senses permit. It puts an unbridgeable distance between oneself and others, by letting one directly perceive only effects of others, not these beings themselves. It so to speak confines one to the sphere of one's own sense-impressions, and this is detrimental both to one's desire to reach others and to one's desire to be reached by them.

To have a desire that one has discovered to be unsatisfiable causes one to feel constant frustration, unless one suppresses consciousness of the fact of its being unsatisfiable, which is something that rationalists cannot do. Consequently, to save themselves frustration, they must try to strip themselves of those desires for physical contact that are satisfiable only if direct realism is true. (p.477) These desires, however, will—like the instinctive repulsion towards replication—go away if they take to heart the truth of indirect realism.

Some may think that the surrendering of direct realism will have further attitudinal consequences. They might want to contend that, if direct realism is false, one could not entertain a well-founded belief that there is a world independent of one's perceptual experience, a world that causally sustains this experience. (The current popularity of direct realism probably stems to no small measure from such a view.) If indirect realism thus inexorably led to solipsism, the attitudinal consequences would, of course, be vast. But I believe solipsism to be avoidable, although this is a huge issue that will have to be left aside now.

Let us, however, suppose that the truth of indirect realism has been established. Then we should first notice that in contrast to the topics discussed in Parts III, IV, and V, this would not impose any rational requirement (like that of temporal or personal neutrality) on the satisfactionalist aim. (This is one reason why I have placed the discussion of this topic in an appendix.) Thus, we cannot oppose the attitudinal reform that indirect realism forces upon rationalists with the one it forces upon satisfactionalists whose aim is under a rationality constraint that it imposes. Rather, we have to take the satisfactionalist aim to be independently specified.

It is, however, clear that there is a conflict between the pursuit of satisfactionalism, in any of the ways it has been specified, and trying to be cognitively rational to the extent of having attitudes conforming to the truth of indirect realism. To attain this measure of rationality seems overwhelmingly difficult because of our exceedingly powerful tendency to assume that we directly perceive things as they are independently of us. (Again, this is not a positive belief, but a failure to think of what we immediately perceive as being caused by an independent reality.) If there is a clash between how perception represents physical things and how they are according to our best abstract reasons, the instinct to trust the former is sure to prevail. As we perceive ourselves and our environment as consisting of solid, relatively stable things that are definitely demarcated from, though in contact with, each other, we have a well-nigh ineradicable propensity to believe that this is how things really are, despite evidence to the contrary. It is this irresistible tendency, I have conjectured, which makes the desire for being in touch with others and our practically non-transferable attachment to them fundamental attitudes of ours. And this tendency alone is enough to make it virtually impossible for us to have those attitudes that would be cognitively rational on the assumption that direct realism must be rejected.

Some writers maintain that it is reasonable to have a presumption in favour of views received or accepted by common sense.1 This presumption can be more or less strong. It may be merely to the effect that, if the evidence for and against a received view is equally strong, we should continue to believe in it and act upon it. Or it may be to the effect that we should stick to it until it is conclusively refuted. For such a reason, it may be contended that we should cling to direct realism because the evidence against it does not refute it and may not even make its falsity more likely than its truth. But why should we endorse this presumption in favour of received views? It seems to me that the strongest reason is the satisfactionalist one, that it is costly to give up well-entrenched frames of mind. This is, however, a reason which is not decisive for rationalists. They will follow the thrust of evidence.

Although this is not something I should like assert, I am inclined to believe that there are no further philosophical truths beyond those already reviewed that would put us in the retreat of reason sort of dilemma. Certainly, there are conceivable, sceptical answers to, say, the problem of (p.478) other minds and of induction that could make attitudinal modifications on a grander scale rationally required. But, given that these answers were acceptable, it would not be relatively rational even for satisfactionalists (in contrast to rationalists) to suppress them, since these answers undercut their aims. (If it were not rational to believe in induction even prudentialism would be undercut, whereas the rationality of suspending belief in other minds would only undercut the aim to maximize the satisfaction of other beings than oneself.) This book may, then, have achieved a complete coverage of the philosophical truths that force us to face the dilemma of the retreat of reason, though in many aspects this coverage has been sketchy.


(1) For instance, Haksar (1991: e.g. ch. 4) argues that there is a presumption in favour of the substantial self because it is a presupposition of our practical life. This would seem to amount to a methodological principle of intuitionism.