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So, I understand Direct Realism to be the idea that our experience (mental activity/sense experience) gives us exact information about matter as it truly is. In other words, objects that exist in the world have the properties that they appear to us to have. This understanding puts me at odds with the common arguments against it.

The argument from illusion for example:

Premise 1: there is a stick halfway in a transparent jar that appears to bend due to refraction.

Premise 2: If direct realism is true, things are as they are and their properties are real.

Conclusion: The refracted stick really is bent or direct realism must be false.

My question is, can't I count on the real properties of water and light to explain the behavior of reality? Sure I am seeing an illusion, but why am I not seeing a real illusion? Why can't my senses directly tell me that I am seeing an illusion and thus avoid this argument altogether?

Same issue with the time-lag argument:

Premise 1: Light takes time to travel from the sun to the earth. (The properties of light and of our eyes tell us that there is a delay, however small, between the light closest to the sun and the light closest to the Earth).

Premise 2: Because of the delay, the objects when we perceive them are in their past state compared to the state they are currently in. The sun then, is temporally ahead of whenever I perceive it

Premise 3: If direct realism is true, things are as they are and their properties are real.

Conclusion: The state of the sun is never as I directly perceive it and thus, direct realism is false.

Again, why can't I count on the real properties of light, eyesight, and matter to explain that I am really viewing the sun as it is? The sun, by definition, must obey the properties of light-time delay. If I were further away from the sun, the properties of the sun remain real and the time delay is longer. If I were closer to the sun, the time delay is shorter. I am viewing the sun with the understanding that light-time delay is essential to the sun - it is what makes it the sun. I maintain that I am viewing reality directly as it is.

If anyone can help me understand this, I'd really appreciate it.

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    "Direct realism" is a somewhat poorly defined term. I think any reasonable person would agree that what you think you are seeing is not necessarily what you are in fact seeing; we can both imagine many circumstances where you could be mistaken, due to a misreading of the situation, mistaken identity, a trick of the light or shadow, an animal's natural camouflage, and so forth. If you consider that compatible with direct realism, then we must have a different definition of what the term means.
    – causative
    Jun 21, 2023 at 21:44
  • Cat or crow? Twig or moth? Our first impression is often mistaken.
    – causative
    Jun 21, 2023 at 21:47
  • Direct realism is thoroughly defined by Searle. He has a whole book on it called What Is This Think Called Perception. Here's a philosophical review. He explores a series of arguments around direct realism.
    – J D
    Jun 21, 2023 at 23:01
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    Direct realism is false because we are only dreaming together about the nature of reality. Jun 22, 2023 at 1:33
  • "Why can't my senses directly tell me that I am seeing an illusion?" Maybe they can, but we know from experience that often they don't. "I am viewing the sun with the understanding that light-time delay is essential to the sun" is not direct realism, it is representational realism. We are viewing a representation, and the "understanding" of optics, which is a theory of that representation, tells us what it really is. "With understanding", you can, perhaps, still retain some very limited fragment of direct realism concerning "immediate" perception, but not much of it.
    – Conifold
    Jun 22, 2023 at 8:39

2 Answers 2

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You are right: those arguments are not decisive against direct realism, but they don't have to be. They only have to weaken the position and force its defenders to find ways around the weakness.

One form of direct realism has it that all of the properties that we see in matter are real properties of the matter itself. The bent-stick argument works against this position, and forces the direct realist to retreat to a position where not all of the properties that we see are properties of the object itself--some of the properties involve the relationship between the object, the situation, and our visual apparatus.

As you note, this does not make direct realism completely untenable, but it does force the direct realist to now try to distinguish between real properties and apparent properties, and that effort is going to make further trouble for him.

The argument about the sun contains the same attack on real properties but also includes an attack on the idea that the objects that we perceive are all real objects. After all, the object that we perceive might no longer exist by the time that we perceive it, so it is no longer a real object.

This requires the direct realist to retreat to a position where not all of the objects that we perceive exist when we perceive them. He then has to come up with some way to determine which of the objects that we perceive are real.

Philosophical arguments are seldom of the one-and-done variety. You don't defeat an entire position with one argument, rather you show weakness in a position that the people who hold the position then must adjust to. But adjusting to such a weakness makes the position more complex and generally creates more weaknesses which can then be attacked in turn.

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  • 'Real' seems to be not the best word in the vocabulary. 'Useful' is usually better. "By their fruits ye shall know them."
    – Scott Rowe
    Jul 22, 2023 at 0:52
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The arguments fail for a simple reason, best revealed by asking the question, how do you know the stick is not bent? and how do you know that we can only be aware of the past?.

Hint: Did we not commit a peritrope fallacy?

"[...] going to the Devil, for help against Devil [...]" Reverend Samuel Parris (Salem Witch Trials)

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