Naïve realism

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Naive realism argues we perceive the world directly Naive realism.jpg
Naïve realism argues we perceive the world directly

In philosophy of mind, naïve realism, also known as direct realism, common sense realism or perceptual realism, is the idea that the senses provide us with direct awareness of objects as they really are. Objects obey the laws of physics and retain all their properties whether or not there is anyone to observe them. [1] They are composed of matter, occupy space and have properties, such as size, shape, texture, smell, taste and colour, that are usually perceived correctly.

Philosophy of mind Branch of philosophy concerned with the nature of the mind

Philosophy of mind is a branch of philosophy that studies the ontology and nature of the mind and its relationship with the body. The mind–body problem is a paradigm issue in philosophy of mind, although other issues are addressed, such as the hard problem of consciousness, and the nature of particular mental states. Aspects of the mind that are studied include mental events, mental functions, mental properties, consciousness, the ontology of the mind, the nature of thought, and the relationship of the mind to the body.

Awareness is the ability to directly know and perceive, to feel, or to be cognizant of events. More broadly, it is the state of being conscious of something. Another definition describes it as a state wherein a subject is aware of some information when that information is directly available to bring to bear in the direction of a wide range of behavioral processes. The concept is often synonymous to consciousness and is also understood as being consciousness itself.

Object (philosophy) Technical term in modern philosophy often used in contrast to the term subject

An object is a technical term in modern philosophy often used in contrast to the term subject. A subject is an observer and an object is a thing observed. For modern philosophers like Descartes, consciousness is a state of cognition that includes the subject—which can never be doubted as only it can be the one who doubts—and some object(S) that may be considered as not having real or full existence or value independent of the subject who observes it. Metaphysical frameworks also differ in whether they consider objects existing independently of their properties and, if so, in what way.


In contrast, some forms of idealism claim that no world exists apart from mind-dependent ideas, and some forms of skepticism say we cannot trust our senses. Naïve realism is known as direct as against indirect or representational realism when its arguments are developed to counter the latter position, also known as epistemological dualism; [2] that our conscious experience is not of the real world but of an internal representation of the world.

Idealism philosophical view that reality is immaterial

In philosophy, idealism is the group of metaphysical philosophies which assert that reality, or reality as humans can know it, is fundamentally mental, mentally constructed, or otherwise immaterial. Epistemologically, idealism manifests as a skepticism about the possibility of knowing any mind-independent thing. In contrast to materialism, idealism asserts the primacy of consciousness as the origin and prerequisite of material phenomena. According to this view, consciousness exists before and is the pre-condition of material existence. Consciousness creates and determines the material and not vice versa. Idealism believes consciousness and mind to be the origin of the material world and aims to explain the existing world according to these principles.

Skepticism or scepticism is generally a questioning attitude or doubt towards one or more items of putative knowledge or belief or dogma. It is often directed at domains, such as the supernatural, morality, theism, or knowledge. Formally, skepticism as a topic occurs in the context of philosophy, particularly epistemology, although it can be applied to any topic such as politics, religion, and pseudoscience.

Direct and indirect realism debate regarding corrospondence between experiences of the world and its reality

The question of direct or naïve realism, as opposed to indirect or representational realism, arises in the philosophy of perception and of mind out of the debate over the nature of conscious experience; the epistemological question of whether the world we see around us is the real world itself or merely an internal perceptual copy of that world generated by neural processes in our brain.


For a history of direct realist theories, see Direct and indirect realism § History .


The naïve realist theory may be characterized as the acceptance of the following five beliefs:

Belief is the attitude that something is the case or true. In epistemology, philosophers use the term "belief" to refer to personal attitudes associated with true or false ideas and concepts. However, "belief" does not require active introspection and circumspection. For example, few ponder whether the sun will rise, just assume it will. Since "belief" is an important aspect of mundane life, according to Eric Schwitzgebel in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, a related question asks: "how a physical organism can have beliefs?"

Materialism is a form of philosophical monism which holds that matter is the fundamental substance in nature, and that all things, including mental states and consciousness, are results of material interactions. According to philosophical materialism, mind and consciousness are by-products or epiphenomena of material processes without which they cannot exist. This concept directly contrasts with idealism, where mind and consciousness are first-order realities to which matter is subject and material interactions are secondary.

Empirical evidence Knowledge acquired by means of the senses

Empirical evidence is the information received by means of the senses, particularly by observation and documentation of patterns and behavior through experimentation. The term comes from the Greek word for experience, ἐμπειρία (empeiría).

Objectivity is a philosophical concept of being true independently from individual subjectivity caused by perception, emotions, or imagination. A proposition is considered to have objective truth when its truth conditions are met without bias caused by a sentient subject. Scientific objectivity refers to the ability to judge without partiality or external influence, sometimes used synonymously with neutrality.

In the area of visual perception in psychology, the leading direct realist theorist was J. J. Gibson. Other psychologists were heavily influenced by this approach, including William Mace, Claire Michaels, [4] Edward Reed, [5] Robert Shaw, and Michael Turvey. More recently, Carol Fowler has promoted a direct realist approach to speech perception.

Visual perception is the ability to interpret the surrounding environment using light in the visible spectrum reflected by the objects in the environment. This is different from visual acuity, which refers to how clearly a person sees. A person can have problems with visual perceptual processing even if they have 20/20 vision.

Psychology is the science of behavior and mind. Psychology includes the study of conscious and unconscious phenomena, as well as feeling and thought. It is an academic discipline of immense scope. Psychologists seek an understanding of the emergent properties of brains, and all the variety of phenomena linked to those emergent properties, joining this way the broader neuroscientific group of researchers. As a social science it aims to understand individuals and groups by establishing general principles and researching specific cases.

Carol Ann Fowler is an American experimental psychologist. She was a former President and Director of Research at Haskins Laboratories in New Haven, Connecticut from 1992 to 2008. She is also a Professor of Psychology at the University of Connecticut and an Adjunct Professor of Linguistics and Psychology at Yale University. She received her undergraduate degree from Brown University in 1971, her M.A University of Connecticut in 1973 and her Ph.D. in Psychology from the University of Connecticut in 1977.

Among contemporary analytic philosophers who defended direct realism one might refer to, for example, Hilary Putnam, [6] John McDowell, [7] [8] Galen Strawson, [9] John R. Searle, [10] and John L. Pollock. [11]

Searle, for instance, addresses the popular but perhaps mistaken assumption that we can only directly perceive our own subjective experiences, but never objects and states of affairs in the world themselves. According to Searle, it has influenced many thinkers to reject direct realism. But Searle contends that the rejection of direct realism is based on a bad argument: the argument from illusion, which in turn relies on vague assumptions on the nature or existence of "sense data". Various sense data theories were deconstructed in 1962 by the British philosopher J. L. Austin in a book titled Sense and Sensibilia. [12]

Talk of sense data has been replaced by talk of representational perception in a broader sense, and scientific realists typically assume representational perception. But the assumption is philosophical, and arguably little prevents scientific realists from assuming direct perception, as in direct or "naïve" realism. In a blog-post on "Naive realism and color realism" Putnam [13] sums up with the following words: "Being an apple is not a natural kind in physics, but it is in biology, recall. Being complex and of no interest to fundamental physics isn't a failure to be "real". I think green is as real as applehood."

Simon Blackburn has argued that whatever positions they may take in books, articles or lectures, naive realism is the view of "philosophers when they are off-duty." [14]

Naïve and scientific realism or direct and indirect realism

It is not uncommon to think of naïve realism as distinct from scientific realism, which states that the universe contains just those properties that feature in a scientific description of it, not properties like colour per se but merely objects that reflect certain wavelengths owing to their microscopic surface texture. This lack of supervenience of experience on the physical world has influenced many thinkers to reject naïve realism as a physical theory. [15]

One should add, however, that naïve realism does not claim that reality is only what we see, hear, etc. Likewise, scientific realism does not claim that reality is only what can be described by fundamental physics. It follows that the relevant distinction to make is not between naïve and scientific realism but between direct and indirect realism .[ citation needed ]

The direct realist claims that the experience of a sunset, for instance, is the real sunset that we directly experience. The indirect realist claims that our relation to reality is indirect, so the experience of a sunset is a subjective copy of what really is radiation as described by physics. But the direct realist does not deny that the sunset is radiation; the experience has a hierarchical structure, [16] and the radiation is part of what amounts to the direct experience.

An example of a scientific realist is John Locke, who held the world only contains the primary qualities that feature in a corpuscularian scientific account of the world (see corpuscular theory), and that other properties were entirely subjective, depending for their existence upon some perceiver who can observe the objects." [1]

The modern philosopher of science Howard Sankey argues for a form of scientific realism which has commonsense realism as one of its foundations. [17]

Realism and quantum physics

Realism in physics refers to the fact that physical systems must have definite properties when measured or observed. Physics until the nineteenth century was implicitly and sometimes explicitly based on philosophical realism.

Scientific realism in classical physics has remained compatible with the naïve realism of everyday thinking on the whole, but there is no consistent way to visualize the world underlying quantum theory in terms of ideas of the everyday world. "The general conclusion is that in quantum theory naïve realism, although necessary at the level of observations, fails at the microscopic level." [18] Experiments such as the Stern–Gerlach experiment and quantum phenomena such as complementarity lead quantum physicists to conclude that "[w]e have no satisfactory reason for ascribing objective existence to physical quantities as distinguished from the numbers obtained when we make the measurements which we correlate with them. There is no real reason for supposing that a particle has at every moment a definite, but unknown, position which may be revealed by a measurement of the right kind .... On the contrary, we get into a maze of contradiction as soon as we inject into quantum mechanics such concepts as carried over from the language and philosophy of our ancestors .... It would be more exact if we spoke of 'making measurements' of this, that, or the other type instead of saying that we measure this, that, or the other 'physical quantity'." [19] It is no longer possible to adhere to both the principle of locality (that distant objects cannot affect local objects), and counterfactual definiteness, a form of ontological realism implicit in classical physics. Some interpretations of quantum mechanics hold that a system lacks an actualized property until it is measured, which implies that quantum systems exhibit a non-local behavior. Bell's theorem proved that every quantum theory must either violate locality or counterfactual definiteness. This claim has given rise to a contentious debate of the interpretation of quantum mechanics. Although locality and 'realism,' in the sense of counterfactual definiteness, are jointly false, it is possible to retain one of them. The majority of working physicists discard counterfactual definiteness in favor of locality, since non-locality is held to be contrary to relativity. The implications of this stance are rarely discussed outside of the microscopic domain but the thought experiment of Schrödinger's cat illustrates the difficulties presented. As quantum mechanics is applied to larger and larger objects, even a one-ton bar, proposed to detect gravity waves, must be analysed quantum mechanically, while in cosmology a wave function for the whole universe is written to study the Big Bang. It is difficult to accept the quantum world as somehow not physically real, so "Quantum mechanics forces us to abandon naïve realism", [20] though it can also be argued that the counterfactual definiteness 'realism' of physics is a much more specific notion than general philosophical realism. [21]

"'[W]e have to give up the idea of realism to a far greater extent than most physicists believe today.' (Anton Zeilinger) .... By realism, he means the idea that objects have specific features and properties — that a ball is red, that a book contains the works of Shakespeare, or that an electron has a particular spin ... for objects governed by the laws of quantum mechanics, like photons and electrons, it may make no sense to think of them as having well-defined characteristics. Instead, what we see may depend on how we look." [22]

Virtual reality and realism

"Virtual realism" [23] is closely related to the above theories.

In the research paper The reality of virtual reality it is proposed that, "virtuality is itself a bona fide mode of reality, and that 'virtual reality' must be understood as 'things, agents and events that exist in cyberspace'. These proposals resolve the incoherences found in the ordinary uses of these terms... 'virtual reality', though based on recent information technology, does not refer to mere technological equipment or purely mental entities, or to some fake environment as opposed to the real world, but that it is an ontological mode of existence which leads to an expansion of our ordinary world." [24]

"The emergence of teleoperation and virtual environments has greatly increased interest in "synthetic experience", a mode of experience made possible by both these newer technologies and earlier ones, such as telecommunication and sensory prosthetics... understanding synthetic experience must begin by recognizing the fallacy of naïve realism and with the recognition that the phenomenology of synthetic experience is continuous with that of ordinary experience." [25]

The alleged necessity to recognize a "fallacy of naïve realism" seems, however, unwarranted. One should not be misled by the word "naïve", for a naïve realist normally understands what a picture is: that the depicted face on a photograph, for instance, is not the real face, and that the things seen on a computer-screen are symbols or electronic depictions, and so on. A majority of the population arguably subscribes to naïve common sense notions of reality, without a recognizable loss in capacity to interact in cyberspace.

See also

Related Research Articles

In analytic philosophy, anti-realism is an epistemological position first articulated by British philosopher Michael Dummett. The term was coined as an argument against a form of realism Dummett saw as 'colorless reductionism'.

EPR paradox early and influential critique leveled against quantum mechanics

The Einstein–Podolsky–Rosen paradox is a thought experiment proposed by physicists Albert Einstein, Boris Podolsky and Nathan Rosen (EPR) that they interpreted as indicating that the explanation of physical reality provided by Quantum Mechanics was incomplete. In a 1935 paper titled Can Quantum-Mechanical Description of Physical Reality be Considered Complete?, they attempted to mathematically show that the wave function does not contain complete information about physical reality, and hence the Copenhagen interpretation is unsatisfactory; resolutions of the paradox have important implications for the interpretation of quantum mechanics.

Philosophy of perception

The philosophy of perception is concerned with the nature of perceptual experience and the status of perceptual data, in particular how they relate to beliefs about, or knowledge of, the world. Any explicit account of perception requires a commitment to one of a variety of ontological or metaphysical views. Philosophers distinguish internalist accounts, which assume that perceptions of objects, and knowledge or beliefs about them, are aspects of an individual's mind, and externalist accounts, which state that they constitute real aspects of the world external to the individual. The position of naïve realism—the 'everyday' impression of physical objects constituting what is perceived—is to some extent contradicted by the occurrence of perceptual illusions and hallucinations and the relativity of perceptual experience as well as certain insights in science. Realist conceptions include phenomenalism and direct and indirect realism. Anti-realist conceptions include idealism and skepticism.

In quantum mechanics, counterfactual definiteness (CFD) is the ability to speak "meaningfully" of the definiteness of the results of measurements that have not been performed. The term "counterfactual definiteness" is used in discussions of physics calculations, especially those related to the phenomenon called quantum entanglement and those related to the Bell inequalities. In such discussions "meaningfully" means the ability to treat these unmeasured results on an equal footing with measured results in statistical calculations. It is this aspect of counterfactual definiteness that is of direct relevance to physics and mathematical models of physical systems and not philosophical concerns regarding the meaning of unmeasured results.

Reality is the sum or aggregate of all that is real or existent, as opposed to that which is merely imaginary. The term is also used to refer to the ontological status of things, indicating their existence. In physical terms, reality is the totality of the universe, known and unknown. Philosophical questions about the nature of reality or existence or being are considered under the rubric of ontology, which is a major branch of metaphysics in the Western philosophical tradition. Ontological questions also feature in diverse branches of philosophy, including the philosophy of science, philosophy of religion, philosophy of mathematics, and philosophical logic. These include questions about whether only physical objects are real, whether reality is fundamentally immaterial, whether hypothetical unobservable entities posited by scientific theories exist, whether God exists, whether numbers and other abstract objects exist, and whether possible worlds exist.

An interpretation of quantum mechanics is an attempt to explain how the mathematical theory of quantum mechanics "corresponds" to reality. Although quantum mechanics has held up to rigorous and extremely precise tests in an extraordinarily broad range of experiments, there exist a number of contending schools of thought over their interpretation. These views on interpretation differ on such fundamental questions as whether quantum mechanics is deterministic or random, which elements of quantum mechanics can be considered "real", and what is the nature of measurement, among other matters.

Philosophy of physics

In philosophy, philosophy of physics deals with conceptual and interpretational issues in modern physics, and often overlaps with research done by certain kinds of theoretical physicists. Philosophy of physics can be very broadly lumped into three main areas:

In philosophy of science and in epistemology, instrumentalism is a methodological view that ideas are useful instruments, and that the worth of an idea is based on how effective it is in explaining and predicting phenomena. Instrumentalism is a pragmatic philosophy of John Dewey that thought is an instrument for solving practical problems, and that truth is not fixed but changes as problems change. Instrumentalism is the view that scientific theories are useful tools for predicting phenomena instead of true or approximately true descriptions.

Scientific realism is the view that the universe described by science is real regardless of how it may be interpreted.

In physics, the principle of locality states that an object is directly influenced only by its immediate surroundings. A theory which includes the principle of locality is said to be a "local theory". This is an alternative to the older concept of instantaneous "action at a distance". Locality evolved out of the field theories of classical physics. The concept is that for an action at one point to have an influence at another point, something in the space between those points such as a field must mediate the action. To exert an influence, something, such as a wave or particle, must travel through the space between the two points, carrying the influence.

Transcendental idealism epistemology, proposed by Kant, in which space and time are merely formal features of how we perceive objects, not things in themselves that exist independently of us

Transcendental idealism is a doctrine founded by German philosopher Immanuel Kant in the 18th century. Kant's doctrine maintains that human experience of things is similar to the way they appear to us—implying a fundamentally subject-based component, rather than being an activity that directly comprehends the things as they are in themselves. The doctrine is most commonly presented as the idea that time and space are just human perceptions; they are not necessarily real concepts, just a medium through which humans internalize the universe.

In metaphysics, realism about a given object is the view that this object exists in reality independently of our conceptual scheme. In philosophical terms, these objects are ontologically independent of someone's conceptual scheme, perceptions, linguistic practices, beliefs, etc.

Classical Newtonian physics has, formally, been replaced by quantum mechanics on the small scale and relativity on the large scale. Because most humans continue to think in terms of the kind of events we perceive in the human scale of daily life, it became necessary to provide a new philosophical interpretation of classical physics. Classical mechanics worked extremely well within its domain of observation but made inaccurate predictions at very small scale – atomic scale systems – and when objects moved very fast or were very massive. Viewed through the lens of quantum mechanics or relativity, we can now see that classical physics, imported from the world of our everyday experience, includes notions for which there is no actual evidence. For example, one commonly held idea is that there exists one absolute time shared by all observers. Another is the idea that electrons are discrete entities like miniature planets that circle the nucleus in definite orbits.

If a tree falls in a forest

"If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?" is a philosophical thought experiment that raises questions regarding observation and perception.

Structuralism is an active research program in the philosophy of science, which was first developed in the late 1960s and throughout the 1970s by several analytic philosophers.

In the philosophy of perception, critical realism is the theory that some of our sense-data can and do accurately represent external objects, properties, and events, while other of our sense-data do not accurately represent any external objects, properties, and events. Put simply, critical realism highlights a mind-dependent aspect of the world that reaches to understand the mind-independent world.


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  21. "We examine the prevalent use of the phrase “local realism” in the context of Bell’s Theorem and associated experiments, with a focus on the question: what exactly is the ‘realism’ in ‘local realism’ supposed to mean?". Norsen, T.Against 'Realism'
  22. Ball, Philip. (2007). Physicists bid farewell to reality? Quantum mechanics just got even stranger, Nature , April 18, 2007.
  23. Heim, Michael. (2000). Virtual Realism, Oxford University Press US. ISBN   978-0-19-513874-0.
  24. (Requires login) Yoh, Myeung-Sook. (2001). The reality of virtual reality, Virtual Systems and Multimedia. pp. 666-674.
  25. Loomis, Jack. (1993). Understanding Synthetic Experience Must Begin with the Analysis of Ordinary Perceptual Experience, IEEE 1993 Symposium on Research Frontiers in Virtual Reality, 54-57.

Sources and further reading