Naïve realism

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For the psychological theory called "naïve realism", see naïve realism (psychology)
Naïve realism argues we perceive the world directly

Naïve realism, also known as direct realism or common sense realism, is a philosophy of mind rooted in a theory of perception that claims that the senses provide us with direct awareness of the external world. In contrast, some forms of idealism assert that no world exists apart from mind-dependent ideas and some forms of skepticism say we cannot trust our senses.

The realist view is that we perceive objects as they really are. They are composed of matter, occupy space and have properties, such as size, shape, texture, smell, taste and colour, that are usually perceived correctly. Objects obey the laws of physics and retain all their properties whether or not there is anyone to observe them.[1]

Naïve realism is known as direct as against indirect or representative realism when its arguments are developed to counter the latter position, also known as epistemological dualism;[2] that our conscious experience is not of the real world but of an internal representation of the world.


The naïve realist theory may be characterized as the acceptance of the following five beliefs:

  1. Some statements about these objects can be known to be true through sense-experience.

  1. By means of our senses, we perceive the world directly, and pretty much as it is. In the main, our claims to have knowledge of it are justified."[3]

In the area of visual perception in psychology, the leading direct realist theorist was J. J. Gibson. Other psychologists were heavily influenced by this approach, including William Mace, Claire Michaels,[4] Edward Reed,[5] Robert Shaw, and Michael Turvey. More recently, Carol Fowler has promoted a direct realist approach to speech perception.

Naïve and scientific realism

Naïve realism is distinct from scientific realism, which states that the universe contains just those properties that feature in a scientific description of it, not properties like colour per se but merely objects that reflect certain wavelengths owing to their microscopic surface texture. This lack of supervenience of experience on the physical world means that naïve realism is not a physical theory.[6]

An example of a scientific realist is John Locke, who held the world only contains the primary qualities that feature in a corpuscularian scientific account of the world (see corpuscular theory), and that other properties were entirely subjective, depending for their existence upon some perceiver who can observe the objects."[1]

Realism and quantum physics

Realism in physics refers to the fact that any physical system must have definite properties whether measured/observed or not. Physics up to the 19th century was always implicitly and sometimes explicitly taken to be based on philosophical realism.

Scientific realism in classical physics has remained compatible with the naïve realism of everyday thinking on the whole but there is no known, consistent way to visualize the world underlying quantum theory in terms of ideas of the everyday world. "The general conclusion is that in quantum theory naïve realism, although necessary at the level of observations, fails at the microscopic level."[7] Experiments such as the Stern–Gerlach experiment and quantum phenomena such as complementarity lead quantum physicists to conclude that "[w]e have no satisfactory reason for ascribing objective existence to physical quantities as distinguished from the numbers obtained when we make the measurements which we correlate with them. There is no real reason for supposing that a particle has at every moment a definite, but unknown, position which may be revealed by a measurement of the right kind... On the contrary, we get into a maze of contradiction as soon as we inject into quantum mechanics such concepts as carried over from the language and philosophy of our ancestors... It would be more exact if we spoke of 'making measurements' of this, that, or the other type instead of saying that we measure this, that, or the other 'physical quantity'."[8] It is no longer possible to adhere to both the principle of locality (that distant objects cannot affect local objects), and counterfactual definiteness, a form of ontological realism implicit in classical physics. Some interpretations of quantum mechanics hold that a system lacks an actualized property until it is measured, which implies that quantum systems exhibit a non-local behaviour. Bell's theorem proved that every quantum theory must either violate local realism or counterfactual definiteness. This has given rise to a contentious debate of the interpretation of quantum mechanics. Although locality and 'realism' in the sense of counterfactual definiteness, are jointly false, it is possible to retain one of them. The majority of working physicists discard counterfactual definiteness in favor of locality, since non-locality is held to be contrary to relativity. The implications of this stance are rarely discussed outside of the microscopic domain but the thought experiment of Schrödinger's cat illustrates the difficulties presented. As quantum mechanics is applied to larger and larger objects even a one-ton bar, proposed to detect gravity waves, must be analysed quantum mechanically, while in cosmology a wavefunction for the whole universe is written to study the Big Bang. It is difficult to accept the quantum world as somehow not physically real, so "Quantum mechanics forces us to abandon naïve realism",[9] though it can also be argued that the counterfactual definiteness 'realism' of physics is a much more specific notion than general philosophical realism.[10]

" '[W]e have to give up the idea of realism to a far greater extent than most physicists believe today.' (Anton Zeilinger)... By realism, he means the idea that objects have specific features and properties — that a ball is red, that a book contains the works of Shakespeare, or that an electron has a particular spin... for objects governed by the laws of quantum mechanics, like photons and electrons, it may make no sense to think of them as having well defined characteristics. Instead, what we see may depend on how we look."[11]

Virtual reality and realism

"Virtual realism"[12] is closely related to the above theories.

In the research paper The reality of virtual reality it is proposed that, "virtuality is itself a bona fide mode of reality, and that 'virtual reality' must be understood as 'things, agents and events that exist in cyberspace'. These proposals resolve the incoherences found in the ordinary uses of these terms... 'virtual reality', though based on recent information technology, does not refer to mere technological equipment or purely mental entities, or to some fake environment as opposed to the real world, but that it is an ontological mode of existence which leads to an expansion of our ordinary world."[13]

"The emergence of teleoperation and virtual environments has greatly increased interest in "synthetic experience", a mode of experience made possible by both these newer technologies and earlier ones, such as telecommunication and sensory prosthetics... understanding synthetic experience must begin by recognizing the fallacy of naïve realism and with the recognition that the phenomenology of synthetic experience is continuous with that of ordinary experience."[14]


  1. 1.0 1.1 Naïve Realism, Theory of
  2. Lehar, Steve. Representationalism
  3. Naïve Realism, University of Reading.
  6. Michaels, Claire & Carello, Claudia. (1981). Direct Perception. Prentice-Hall.
  7. Gomatam, Ravi. (2004). Physics and Commonsense - Reassessing the connection in the light of the quantum theory,
  8. Kemble E. C. in Peres Asher, (1993). Quantum Theory: Concepts and Methods, Springer 1993 p. 17 ISBN 978-0-7923-2549-9.
  9. Rosenblum, Bruce & Kuttner, Fred. (2006). Quantum Enigma: Physics Encounters Consciousness, Oxford University Press US. p. 112. ISBN 978-0-19-517559-2.
  10. "We examine the prevalent use of the phrase “local realism” in the context of Bell’s Theorem and associated experiments, with a focus on the question: what exactly is the ‘realism’ in ‘local realism’ supposed to mean?". Norsen, T.Against 'Realism'
  11. Ball, Philip. (2007). Physicists bid farewell to reality? Quantum mechanics just got even stranger, Nature, April 18, 2007.
  12. Heim, Michael. (2000). Virtual Realism, Oxford University Press US. ISBN 978-0-19-513874-0.
  13. (Requires login) Yoh, Myeung-Sook. (2001). The reality of virtual reality, Virtual Systems and Multimedia. pp. 666-674.
  14. Loomis, Jack. (1993). Understanding Synthetic Experience Must Begin with the Analysis of Ordinary Perceptual Experience, IEEE 1993 Symposium on Research Frontiers in Virtual Reality, 54-57.

Sources and further reading

  • Ahlstrom, Sydney E. "The Scottish Philosophy and American Theology," Church History, Vol. 24, No. 3 (Sep., 1955), pp. 257-272 in JSTOR
  • Cuneo, Terence, and René van Woudenberg, eds. The Cambridge companion to Thomas Reid (2004)
  • Gibson, J.J. (1972). A Theory of Direct Visual Perception. In J. Royce, W. Rozenboom (Eds.). The Psychology of Knowing. New York: Gordon & Breach.
  • Graham, Gordon. "Scottish Philosophy in the 19th Century" Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (2009) online
  • Marsden, George M. Fundamentalism and American Culture (2006) excerpt and text search
  • S. A. Grave, "Common Sense", in The Encyclopedia of Philosophy, ed. Paul Edwards (Collier Macmillan, 1967).
  • Peter J. King, One Hundred Philosophers (2004: New York, Barron's Educational Books), ISBN 0-7641-2791-8.
  • Selections from the Scottish Philosophy of Common Sense, ed. by G.A. Johnston (1915) online, essays by Thomas Reid, Adam Ferguson, James Beattie, and Dugald Stewart
  • David Edwards and Steven Wilcox (1982). "Some Gibsonian perspectives on the ways that psychologists use physics" (PDF). Act. Psychologia. 52: 147–163. doi:10.1016/0001-6918(82)90032-4.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • Fowler, C. A. (1986). "An event approach to the study of speech perception from a direct-realist perspective". Journal of Phonetics. 14: 3–28.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • James J. Gibson. The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1987. ISBN 0-89859-959-8
  • Claire F. Michaels and Claudia Carello. Direct Perception. Prentice-Hall. ISBN 978-0-13214-791-0. 1981. Download this book at
  • Edward S. Reed. Encountering the World. Oxford University Press, 2003. ISBN 0-19-507301-0
  • Sophia Rosenfeld. Common Sense: A Political History (Harvard University Press; 2011) 346 pages; traces the paradoxical history of common sense as a political ideal since 1688
  • Shaw, R. E./Turvey, M. T./Mace, W. M. (1982): Ecological psychology. The consequence of a commitment to realism. In: W. Weimer & D. Palermo (Eds.), Cognition and the symbolic processes. Vol. 2, Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc., pp. 159–226.
  • Turvey, M. T., & Carello, C. (1986). "The ecological approach to perceiving-acting a pictorial essay". Acta Psychologica. 63 (1–3): 133–155. doi:10.1016/0001-6918(86)90060-0. PMID 3591430.CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • Nicholas Wolterstorff. Thomas Reid and the Story of Epistemology. Cambridge University Press, 2006. ISBN 0-521-53930-7
  • Nelson, Quee. (2007). The Slightest Philosophy Dog's Ear Publishing. ISBN 978-1-59858-378-6

See also

External links