On Naive Realism

by F.

Since I am an arch-nonphilosopher, I really can’t believe I have not one but two degrees in Philosophy and, in fact, was once seriously trying to get a Ph.D. at a bona-fide, real, so-called “top 5” Philosophy Ph.D. program. (Of course, that’s a little like saying you were admitted to one of the top 5 Tiddlywink academies in the world. Woo. Hoo. Someone has to be the best, and if there isn’t much competition, then you may be it.)

I can’t believe it because, not only was I never very good at it, I’m just so not a philosopher. I hate philosophy. I don’t believe that purely deductive reasoning can tell us much if anything about the world. But that’s the way life is: you often end up some random place and wonder, in the words of David Byrne, “How did I get here?” My God, what have I done!

Of course, I know how the story really went. It wasn’t particularly rational, but whose story is? I just acted to maximize my happiness at each decision-point. And somehow got two degrees in this odd subject, which shows you how bad the other alternatives were. Yeah. I had no better option. I could never have succeeded as a philosopher. I just don’t have the brain or temperament for it.

Admission to my Ph.D. program was a mistake—on their part. One of the professors on the admission committee was a notorious drunk. I’m sure he’s responsible for my getting in. “I like this one,” he says, in a plumb of exhaled Jim Beam fumes. It’s staggering that someone else paid for it, too, and for that I thank the taxpayers of California. Instead of that new toilet in a public park somewhere in Northridge, $50,000 (or whatever) of your hard-earrned money went to filling my head with nonsense. Thank you, though. I now have an extra line or two on my resume.

I was reminded of how much a non-philosopher I am when reading Jerry Fodor’s review of Michael Frayn’s book on philosophy the other day in the London Review of Books. Fodor is a classic philosophy prick, but to be fair, Frayn’s book does sound like shit. However, I came across this sentence of Fodor’s, which brought back some bad memories:

The universe would still be just the size it is even if there weren’t astronomers to measure it. And water would still be H2O even if there weren’t chemists to analyse it. And water would still run downhill, and there would still be hills for it to run down, even if none of us were here to take note of its doing so.

Ah, yes, naive realism: the world is mind-independent. I don’t disagree, but this mind-indpendent world is pretty uninteresting, because we don’t have access to it. We only have our perceptions. Among human beings, our perceptions agree, which is what allows you and I to look at the same hamster and say, “It’s hamster-colored.”

The hamster sees things differently. He, could he talk, would have different conversations with his litter-mates. “Where are the alfalfa pellets, Pierre?” “Over there, by the water bottle.” There are a lot of ways to be hooked up to “the world,” but how would you say one is more real than another? They are just different. The bees see one thing, we see another, the hamster another. Yeah, there’s something out there, but what it looks like, really? Fuck, who knows.

There is, after all, only first hand and second hand knowledge. I see a table in front of me, or I ask you if you see a table in front of you. In either case, my brain’s experience is solely perception: perception of the table, or perception of sounds coming out of this hole in your face called a “mouth.” There is no other option. What about an instrument, such as microscope? Same thing: that’s like having sunglasses on. Just changes the perceptual apparatus a bit to allow me to perceive more.

This is nothing new. It’s more or less phenomenalism and has been around a long time. Perception researchers tend to be phenomenalists, and I love perception research, partly because for whatever reason I can often feel my brain assembling perceptual reality. I think this comes from knowing how to draw and enjoying illusions. Everyone loves the Magic Eye illusions. But rather than being some anomaly, illusions and perception are closely linked.

My new favorite book on perception is Rock’s, called, interestingly enough, Perception. First, it’s a beautifully typeset and designed book, originally published by Scientific American. Second, it is focused on visual perception, which works well with the traditional book format. (Books don’t play sounds. Yet.) Also, we are primarily visual creatures, so visual perception is, I think, probably the most interesting to most people. Touch, taste, sound, smell—these are of secondary interest, I think. Not to say that they aren’t interesting. But less so. Also interesting is Donald Hoffman’s book Visual Intelligence, but I like Rock’s writing and voice better.

Both Hoffman and Rock are quasi-phenomenalists: they believe that the brain’s experience of the world is constructive. We make up what we see, hear, taste, smell. It’s quite obviously right, as you can see for yourself by looking at perception research. Color, for instance, is quite clearly constructed by humans: there is no “yellow” other than as created by the mind. (I’ll omit the citations).

It doesn’t follow that we “make up the world,” as Frayn suggests in his book. That’s sort of ridiculous—it’s called Idealism. More likely is that there is something stable and regular out there but we don’t have any mind-indpendent access to it. So we can make inferences which often turn out to be “right” in the sense of “they work.” But we sure can’t ever know what it’s “really like.” Bumble-bee scientists would come up with one theory; hamster scientists another; humans, another. More importantly, it doesn’t matter what it’s like “out there, really.” The whole out-there/in-here picture is another misleading one. There is no “I” inside the brain, looking out at things. (Picture that little alien inside the head of the villain in Men in Black.)

So, as one who hates naive realism—“hates” in the sense that I think it is absolutely ridiculous and so it pains me to think about it—I love reading perceptual psychology, because it just feels so “right.” Subjectively speaking, of course.

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