Here's a video of an interview with Searle:


Watch 3:27 where he says we have direct perceptual access to the real world.

I have difficulty understanding this... Take someone who's blind... or an organism with a different sensory apparatus... or maybe it can see other wavelengths of light. Isn't it obvious that it will have a different perception of the same object? Doesn't that automatically make direct realism impossible? I mean there are countless examples... take someone who wears glasses and his vision becomes clear from blurry.

Plus this intermediate nature of our connection to the world doesn't seem like anything mysterious to me... Suppose you walk away from a tree... you don't think the tree somehow shrank. We believe the tree remained the same size and our distance from it makes it appear smaller. This is the common sense view. Isn't this indirect realism?

Searle seems to be bypassing this natural view of indirect realism, but I don't understand his justification.

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    He only says that we generally represent the world as it really is, not that every single perception is veridical. There are good (pragmatic) reasons to assume this, even if it would be wrong to assume certainty.
    – Philip Klöcking
    Mar 21, 2021 at 20:01
  • @PhilipKlöcking, "we generally represent the world as it really is". How would we know this? Notice that Searle's explanation includes talk of photons and neuron firings which we don't directly perceive. Given that world-model which is based in physics, I can evaluate certain experiences as based in reality or not... But that's far from direct perception of external objects. What did people in ancient times perceive when they saw the sun and had no knowledge of physics, astronomy and believed in a flat world? Mar 21, 2021 at 20:48
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    Because acting on our perceptions works. We cannot know for certain, so what? I do not know whether the sun will rise tomorrow, but I would be dumb to ignore all the good reasons for this assumption and not act like it will do so.
    – Philip Klöcking
    Mar 21, 2021 at 20:51
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    A pragmatic layperson justifies "sun will rise tomorrow" simply based on his or her life experiences and uncritical inductive reasoning (critiqued by David Hume as he famously claimed "Reason is the slave of the passions"). A thinker knows how to decompose and analyze in detail and learned everything about cosmology and firmly believe it may not be always true. I believe Searle passed this stage, and arrived at the seemingly same simple conclusion as a layperson "sun will rise tomorrow" with a deeper understanding level, "direct perceptual access to the real world" doesn't sound radical at all Mar 22, 2021 at 0:41
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    "direct perceptual access" is still a perception in the subjective realm. In your case, his main point is like vipassana or pyrrhonistic "epoche", that he may conceive more without unnecessary subjective judgement compared with ordinary perception. Most ancient people simply unnecessarily assumed earth is center of universe with their familiar analogy of domes to "conceive" (speculate) their objective model. But a wise pyrrhonist perceiving the same sky without above assumption, would not blindly accept ordinary model. Of course even wise as pyrrhonist could not conceive all objective. Mar 22, 2021 at 19:07

2 Answers 2


He simply says that most of the time senses--for what information they do provide--provide useful/accurate information.

In his 2015 book he calls the Argument from Illusion and variations thereof the Bad Argument. He simply says that because someone who experiences a hallucination really sees nothing real, it doesn't at all imply that most people's vision works like that in usual circumstances. So concluding that there's no connection between vision reality in general is a bad argument.

He says/concludes e.g.

I have to say that what bothers me about Phenomenalism and the Representative Theory is not some technical problem that they have, but their sheer preposterousness.

Although Searle doesn't do this as far as I can tell, one can obviously invoke e.g. evolutionary mechanisms: if senses were completely misleading and useless they may not have arisen or survived this long etc. There are such works elsewhere.

(In general I find philosophy works about vision seriously underwhelming. Even when they come to a biologically plausible conclusion, they seldom bring the right arguments.)

Your [counter]argument is that blind people exist. Sure, but most people are not blind. So you can't say itself blindness evolved for some use/purpose in people, as opposed to being an accident/mutation. (That vision is not that useful for moles as opposed to people is another matter--different environmental pressures.) That blind people can still deal with the world with the remaining senses isn't any sort of refutation that blindness is not the norm for people, nor that vision is not plausibly useful as a tool for perceiving reality.

Likewise, the fact that the senses we normally have don't provide complete information like say x-ray vision isn't an argument that those sense we have are always misleading.

Sure, you (and other philosophers) may disagree with this, but that's basically what Searle is saying, although I've improved on his account quite a bit here...

If you want to argue that whole world is a simulation, then sure, the above account only argues that vision is a good adaptive mechanism within that (simulated) domain. But most realists would also deny that the world is a simulation.

  • Thanks for the reply. But I never said there's "no connection between vision and reality". I never said senses were "completely miselading". "x-ray vision isn't an argument that those sense we have are always misleading.". I never said they were "always misleading". My view is indirect realism. It's Locke's view or between Locke and Kant. Why does a tree appear smaller when we walk further away? Why do we see mirages? Why do we see rainbows? These experiences are easily explainable by indirect realism. Direct realism gives no explanation Mar 25, 2021 at 21:56
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    @AmeetSharma: your q never said anything about indirect realism. But you could ask about that separately, e.g.: "what arguments are there in favor of direct but against indirect realism". Frankly one has to be a bit careful what is meant by that last term. Searle has one (the final) chapter in his 2015 in which he drubs lightly on that... but it's easy to drub on Locke etc. because they did not have access to current neuroscience so quite a few of their ideas on "representation" (for some meaning of that) are easily shown wrong. Mar 26, 2021 at 3:23
  • ah you're right. Sorry about that. I was in my mind comparing direct realism which I find very strange, to indirect realism which felt more natural. But I left it out of the question. Mar 26, 2021 at 3:28

Searle referenced here:

Searle has argued that critics like Daniel Dennett, who (he claims) insist that discussing subjectivity is unscientific because science presupposes objectivity, are making a category error. Perhaps the goal of science is to establish and validate statements which are epistemically objective, (i.e., whose truth can be discovered and evaluated by any interested party), but are not necessarily ontologically objective.

Searle thinks there are certain phenomena (including all conscious experiences) that are ontologically subjective, i.e. can only exist as subjective experience. For example, although it might be subjective or objective in the epistemic sense, a doctor's note that a patient suffers from back pain is an ontologically objective claim: it counts as a medical diagnosis only because the existence of back pain is "an objective fact of medical science".[39] The pain itself, however, is ontologically subjective: it is only experienced by the person having it.

So apparently since Searle believes only ontological subjectivity exists for conscious experiences (perception included such as pain referenced above), there's no mystery why he says we have direct perceptual access to the real world. There're mainly 3 schools of thought regarding the philosophy of perception, namely Naïve realism (direct realism), Enactivism, and Representationalism (indirect realism). So Searle's direct realism is the idea that the senses provide us with direct awareness of objects as they really are like a naïve child without reflective doubt for ontological reality, as opposed to commonly hold representation theory employed by many sophisticated philosophers, such as Edmund Husserl and Bertrand Russell. Here's a further comparison of direct and indirect realism.

For me to believe direct realism is very similar to believe some a priori axioms. For example, we never sense or perceive infinitesimal dx directly as an ordinary person, actually it doesn't make any common sense at all. But after learning calculus and practice to apply it over and over again to solve many math problems successfully in a deductive manner, you'll start to firmly believe its existence at least in some ideal ontological form realm, same as the axiomatic belief of numbers, points, lines, etc. At this stage, you can claim you have some direct "perception" every time you see infinitesimal dx compared to when you didn't know any calculus stuffs (assuming you're a realist regarding these concepts like Plato). But personally, I don't subscribe to Searle's theory which sounds uninspiring...


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