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On appearance and reality – 1 April 2, 2006

Posted by silentEcho in Philosophy.

I was reading this piece written by Bertrand Russell. It actually forms the first chapter of his 1912 work The Problems Of Philosophy. Russell argues that the real table, if there exists one, is not known to us immediately ( used in the sense of 'directly'). Rather the properties revealed to us are the observer dependent attributes termed as the sense data which are not the same as table but are related to the real table. D.Z. Phillips, a renowned religious philosopher countered Russell's view. Unfortunately I couldn't find that article, titled : What can I know ?, on the net ( which is surprising ) but I will sum it up.

He basically said that we infact do see and sense the real table instead of just the sense data.His whole point was that such a doubt about the real table being perceived or not was a waste of philosophy and that:

" Why should we doubt what seems to be so evident as to not need stating? "

He said that Russell's argument put forward two realms : a realm of the real objects and a realm of the sense data associated with them. For example, a stick appears to be bent when dipped half in water. As per Russell, we have a realm where stick is bent and a realm where it is not. Phillips's point is that being bent and being straight are attributes of the same stick so all we need is the notion of stick and not the demarcation of real objects and the sense data. Now I reproduce last two paragraphs of Phillips's piece ( italics original ).

The unintelligibility involved in the notions of two realms, one of sense-data, and the other of external objects, is a far-reaching one. It may seem as if, irrespective of what we say of the latter, sense can be made of the notion of the mind and its sensory-experiences. After all, according to the sceptic ( here Russell ), this is our necessary starting-point in our search for knowledge. But, logically, this is not the case. If we sever the connection between the notion of experience and our normal surroundings, tthe notion of the mind and its experiences will itself become unintelligible.

Consider the simple instruction, "Think of a harbour." I can not obey it unless I know something about harbours. I must be able to recognize a harbour. Unless I can do this, someone will retort when I describe what I am thinking, "No, that's not a harbour. You're thinking of something else." My thinking, my mental image of a harbour, is not self-authenticating. It is by reference to harbours and our dealings with them that the correctness of my thinking will be assessed. I can obey the instructions, "Think of a triangle," or "Think of the colour 'red,'" only because I have a wider acquaintance with triangles and colours. But the sceptic thinks that we can strip away these wider surroundings and still speak intelligibly of the mind and its ideas. To him, the mind, so conceived, is unproblematic. What is problematic, it is claimed, is how we can ever know that we are in contact with the external world. The reverse is true. If we forget our external surroundings, the notion of the mind and its ideas becomes a meaningless concatenation of sensory data. The intelligibility of private experiences depends on external surroundings that we share.

Now consider the following two statements ( first one is from Russell's article and the second from Phillips's piece ) :

1. "The real table [ that is believed to exist in the normal physical surrounding ] is not immediately known to us at all, but must be an inference from what is immediately known [ namely, sense-data of the table ]."

2. "If we sever the connection between the notion of experience [ that is, sensation of sense-data ] and our normal [ physical ] surroundings, tthe notion of the mind and its experiences will itself become unintelligible."

In this post, I shall give my interpretation of the argument that underlies the statement 2, which is advanced in criticism of the position expressed by statement 1. In the next post I shall present my own judgement on the controversy between the views presented by statements 1 and 2 on the matter of our knowledge of the external physical world.

The statement 1 suggests, in a way, that reality does not exist independent of the observer and vice-versa. Only that statement 1 is a more pragmatic way of suggesting this argument. What statement 2 suggests is that there exists a real table and that we can not know the real table. We can only infer that a real table, independent of our observations, exists which is why we are obtaining the sense-data. This indirect nature of realizing the existence of a real table is what is suggested by the phrase 'not immediately known to us.' Scientifically the statement 1 is in line with the Quantum Hidden Variable Theories, forwarded by the likes of de Broglie, Bohm et cetera where the reality is independent of the observation process but is some how hidden from the observer. The statement 2 is in line with the usual Quantum epistemology. In fact statement 2 suggests a empiricist view point towards the reality, the solipsist belief.

It might not be true to talk about a table independently of the observer. The observation process involves previous experiences and that segregating experience ( apparent world ) and the physical surroundings will create problems like the one sampled by Phillips ( the harbour problem ).

Suppose someone asks a person to "imagine a market." Unless the person has a prior notion of as to what a market is, he will not be able to imagine it ( and describe it correctly ). The kind of seperation that we are led to here will cause the person to not be able to imagine the market. This is because we, by statement 1, are undermining the correspondence between the observed and the real. So unless we regard that our experiences indeed pertain to reality, the notion of two seperate realms ( the mind and the surroundings ) is unintelligible. But when we do regard this, we have already gone past the notion of seperation.

To be concluded



1. ramanathan - May 8, 2006

its indeed a nice insight on ontology…. i was just curious whether u have laid ur hands on penrose or not….any way a good job…

2. wisemoron - May 30, 2006

Hi Ram,
Just issued his “Emperor’s new mind.”
I had read his ideas on the Pilot Wave Ontology before and I must say that the idea is interesting. Thanks for appreciation.


3. On Appearance and Reality - Part 2 « Peeling Onions - June 22, 2007

[…] statement 2 ( please refer to the previous post ) presents a view ( of our knowledge of the external physical world ) which scores over the […]

4. Adelle Scudder - February 5, 2018

However apart from that tweak, at first
encounter most people really feel certain they’ll generalize the proof of
Koenig’s Lemma to indicate that an uncountable tree all of whose levels are countable should have an uncountable department https://math-problem-solver.com/ .

We hope you will join us for this free occasion.

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