The wiki on Direct and Indirect Realism seems to claim that indirect realism is part of natural science. The wiki defines indirect realism as follows:

indirect or representative realism [is] the philosophical position that our conscious experience is not of the real world itself but of an internal representation, a miniature virtual-reality replica of the world.

It links indirect realism to natural science in the following manner:

Indirect realism is broadly equivalent to the accepted view of perception in natural science that states that we do not and cannot perceive the external world as it really is but know only our ideas and interpretations of the way the world is.

And the above claim links to a footnote that supports it as follows:

Hearing (or audition) is the ability to perceive (create ideas of) sound by detecting vibrations. The sound waves of language cannot perceive directly. They are only heard, interpreted and understood because the physical waves were transformed into ideas (Mental representation of sound wages) by our brains.

This all seems reasonable, but I'm inclined to think that natural science would assume direct realism, the belief that our conscious experience is of the real world, instead. And I'm also confused by why there's scientific realism if natural science assumes indirect realism, unless scientific realism is a form of indirect realism.

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    Indirect realism does not mean that we do not interact with reality directly, only that these interactions do not directly provide representations of it, conscious perception is mediated (and we know how in detail in the case of vision, for example). Direct realism has severe problems with explaining illusions and misperceptions, nor does it fit well with theoretical construction in science, which favors staged experiments and largely treats direct perceptions as superficial. But indirect realism is not the only option, scientific anti-realism is another.
    – Conifold
    Apr 14, 2019 at 9:13

2 Answers 2


Indirect realism is the view that our contact with reality is mediated ("filtered") through our sense organs and/or cognitive faculties. We do not experience reality "as it is, out there". This isn't assumed by science per se, but it is probably supported by science. Colors for example, do not inhere in mind-independent objects, but in our perceptions of objects. Wavelengths of light get filtered through our eyes which get filtered through our nervous system/brain which give us the sensation of color. Some people, due to defects/differences of their eyes/nervous system/brain do not perceive a given range of wavelengths of light in the same way we do. Xanthopsia, a side effect of jaundice can make things appear yellow (thought those things are not really yellow). Color blindness makes certain colors look different than they would to someone who isn't color blind.

Scientific realism is the view that our best scientific theories accurately descibe mind-independent reality. The posits of these theories, such as electrons, really do exist out there in the world beyond our perception. You could consistently be a scientific realist and an indirect realist. You could also consistently be a scientific anti-realist, and an indirect realist by adopting a skeptical attitude about knowledge of the world beyond our experience. For example, you could say that our perception of the world is mediated, but that our best scientific theories are merely mathematical tools to make predictions, and there is no reason to believe that these theoretical posits exist anywhere outside the theory.

This all seems reasonable, but I'm inclined to think that natural science would assume direct realism, the belief that our conscious experience is of the real world, instead. And I'm also confused by why there's scientific realism if natural science assume indirect realism, unless scientific realism is a form of indirect realism.

Indirect realism doesn't necessarily say that our experiences aren't about the real world (depending on what you mean by "about"). It just says our experience of the real world are mediated representations. But the representations can be about the same real object, even if the representations themselves are different. The color-blind guy and the non-color-blind guy could both have experiences "about" the same real object, but their differing sensory and cognitive apparatuses make the experiences appear different to each of them.

  • Nice answer. I'd want to say that indirect realism is not a 'view' but just the way things are.
    – user20253
    Apr 13, 2019 at 11:10
  • @PeterJ, can you provide some reasons for why you'd argue that it's just the way things are. I'm very interested in compelling reasons. I can make a separate question if that's a good idea. Apr 13, 2019 at 22:03
  • @user3776022 - I meant that all perceptions of the external world are indirect. You say this in your first two sentences. All we ever are know is the contents of our consciousness. The idea of the external world is never more than that. This is what makes the film The Matrix possible. The external world is an explanatory theory. We may have direct knowledge but not of the external world. The evidence of our physical senses is always indirect such that we never have a direct experience of the external world. This is why realism is empirically unprovable. , .
    – user20253
    Apr 14, 2019 at 9:09
  • @PeterJ, but how have we come to the point where we take indirect realism over direct realism? That indirect realism supersedes realism isn't as self-evident to me as it seems to be to others such as a yourself, and I want to know which compelling reasons there are. Apr 14, 2019 at 12:25
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    @user3776022 I think that the best reasons are from empirical evidence. We know that by damaging or altering our sensory/cognitive faculties, we change our perception of the world. Even though the objects in the world might remain the same, our representations of it can change by this damaging/altering of our faculties. This indicates that our faculties contribute to the representations, and not that the representations are of the bare world. Apr 14, 2019 at 13:48

To my mind, any kind of "scientific realism" is completely bogus. As several posters have pointed out, reality as we experience it is entirely a construction of our minds based on synthesizing our sensory input and then, in a sense, "projecting" this construction back out onto the world (so to speak) and experiencing it as the world. Given this obvious fact, scientific realism (so-called) is actually a kind of secondary (and entirely abstract) construction based on top of our initial sensory construction. This is why I have no brief for so-called scientific realism. It ain't....

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