The SEP discussion on the Problem of Perception notes that Sense-Datum Theory is criticized, and apparently rejected by most philosophers. https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/perception-problem/ The reasons given appear at first review to me to be nonsense from a scientific POV. The first given is a critique of the uncertainty about our perceptions at comes from indirect realism:

Some of these objections are objections specifically to the indirect realist version of the sense-datum theory: for example, the claim that the theory gives rise to an unacceptable “veil of perception” between the mind and the world. The idea is that the sense-data “interpose” themselves between perceivers and the mind-independent objects which we normally take ourselves to be perceiving, and therefore leaves our perceptual, cognitive and epistemic access to the world deeply problematic if not impossible.

The second is an objection to treating experiences as data:

The objection is that the Phenomenal Principle is fallacious. It is not built into the meaning of “something appears F to one” that “one is aware of an F thing”.

The third is a rejection of sense-datum based on "naturalism":

Naturalism (or physicalism) says that the world is entirely physical in its nature: everything there is supervenes on the physical, and is governed by physical law. Many sense-datum theorists are committed to the claim that non-ordinary sense-data are mind-dependent: objects whose existence depends on the existence of states of mind.

For the first, science operates through the veil of ignorance. We do not directly perceive electron valences, or the valence structure that creates the periodic table in chemistry. We do not directly perceive ecological niches, or population dynamics, or societal norms, or energy conservation, or -- basically EVERYTHING that the sciences work with. The first objection -- is a rejection of science!!!

The second -- I don't even understand. Treating observations as data is not, and cannot be a fallacy! This is just empiricism!

The third -- once more comes across as nonsense. A central discovery of the science of neurology -- is that our brains do a MASSIVE amount of processing, and our perceptions -- are NOT direct, but instead are only occasional, highly selective, filtered, and pre-processed https://www.amazon.com/Incognito-Secret-Lives-David-Eagleman/dp/0307389928 And infant and child development studies show our worldviews is an incremental construct https://opentextbc.ca/introductiontopsychology/chapter/6-2-infancy-and-childhood-exploring-and-learning/

For a second reference, the IEP discussion on the objects of perception spells out that anti-dualism is the primary reason to reject sense-datum theory: https://www.iep.utm.edu/perc-obj/

i. Dualism

Many see a problem with respect to the metaphysics of sense data. Sense data are seen as inner objects, objects that among other things are colored. Such entities, however, are incompatible with a materialist view of the mind. When I look at the coffee cup there is not a material candidate for the yellow object at which I am looking. Crudely: there is nothing in the brain that is yellow. Sense data, then, do not seem to be acceptable on a materialist account of the mind, and thus, the yellow object that I am now perceiving must be located not in the material world but in the immaterial mind. Indirect realism is committed to a dualist picture within which there is an ontology of non-physical objects alongside that of the physical.

This appears to be philosophers rejecting the scientific method and worldview relative to perception for a series of pretty clearly invalid reasons, -- because it supports a conclusion (dualism) that most philosophers dislike.

Am I missing something, either are these objections more forceful, or is there a better set of reasons to reject sense-datum theory? And is this rejection NOT a rejection of the methods and assumptions common to the rest of science?

  • 3
    I think most of it is just due to mixing the colloquial and the philosophical meanings of "sense data". Treating observations as the former is standard, but imagining that there is some conception free "sensory language" in which observations can be tidily and viewpoint neutrally encoded is what is called "the myth of the given". The "phenomenal principle" confuses seeing red apples with seeing apples as red. The first objection (to "reification of the mental" fallacy) is also standard among the science friendly, Dennett even came up with a catchy name for this naive view, Cartesian theater.
    – Conifold
    May 21 '20 at 0:42
  • @Conofold thanks, I will try to reply by point: Per how our brains work, we detect RGY in our cones, our brains sort this raw sensory input into patterns, they cull it down to critical features, and then if it fits into a recognizable pattern (red apple) then that concept and image is provided to our awareness. If no good category fits, then a less digested pixelated set of colors is provided to us, which includes red but not apple, to let our awareness try to sort it consciously. Yes, this can be treated as a sensory language.
    – Dcleve
    May 21 '20 at 3:02
  • This is not a fallacy, it is just the application of indirect realism -- the standard tool of science. It is not a myth, and there are no "givens" in science, but the raw data of experience would need massive justification to put aside, which Sellars did not provide. The idea that we see apples, rather than perceive them in a mental construct, is easily demonstrated false by imagining an apple, right now. Dennett rejecting all of these central features of science, because it contradicts his dogma of materialism -- is his being anti-science.
    – Dcleve
    May 21 '20 at 3:09
  • 1
    The idea that our brains do a lot of processing to render the content of perception is compatible with a dizzyingly wide array of philosophical views about the nature of perception, so there's no sense in which rejecting sense-datum theory automatically commits one to any view about neuroscience or scientific method. If anything sense-datum theory is old-fashioned and unscientific. Do you know of any neuroscientists who hold that when we seem to see a red apple we are actually perceiving a mental construct that itself has the property of being red? I don't. May 21 '20 at 4:11
  • @transitionsynthesis, but neuroscientists agree that something is being fed to the brain through the sense-organs right? and this interaction between the stuff being fed and the brain leads to our sensation? May 21 '20 at 4:59

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