Physics tells us that we don’t apprehend the world as it really is; instead, we experience the effect it has on us. Coming at us from things is electromagnetic radiation, waves that span a gamut of frequencies. Some of these wavelengths enable us to see. Pressure waves allow us to hear. Molecules and chemistry let us taste and smell. When we touch something, we sense the resistance or pliancy of its force relative to ours. Somehow, the synthesis of all this sensory information results in conscious experience. The process is so complex that scientist’s don’t yet know how, exactly, nature manages it.
The information lets us know whether the thing is soft or hard, sweet or bitter, white or red. The hardness of the chair, the sweetness of the pie, the redness of the tablecloth, however, would seem to arise only when subject and object interact. The question here is to what extent these qualia, as philosophers call them, reflect the properties of the thing itself and to what extent only how we perceive them as being. We are talking, after all, about experienced properties of the thing. Are experienced properties an essential part of what we call the world, or is the world something that doesn’t need to be inhabited by a perspective, that doesn’t need to be experienced?
Obviously, the image our brain forms of a thing doesn’t perfectly describe it. The information a thing emits is filtered by our sense organs, which, as it turns out, are by no means receptive to all the information bombarding us. And not only don’t our sense organs collect all the information available, the data is collected from a determinate location as well as at a given moment in time. All this makes our image of reality highly subjective. Since we rely on that which conveys information about the thing, we can’t claim that we know the thing directly. We can only form a perceptual (or conceptual) image of it from the information we posses. The image may be more or less adequate for certain purposes, like survival, but it is far from an exact replica.
The information by no means represents the thing as a whole, for instance. We don’t perceive the thing from all angles simultaneously. Neither do we perceive it from inside and outside at once. We sense it according to our own dimensions, which means we can’t access its molecular structure without the aid of instruments, not to speak of the subatomic realm. Neither can human beings perceive the universe as a whole, as if from an altogether higher dimension, or everything that occurs in it, as if they were omniscient. But, while the image might not at all be a perfect representation, it does still convey information about the external thing. As long as the external thing is real, the information we receive gives us access to it. And if we equate reality with the thing, then we do have access to reality. But again it is always mediated.
Our knowledge of the world is imperfect, has to be synthesized from the information fed into our separate sense organs, and for those very reasons has to be supplemented. Supplementation can occur simply by changing our location relative to the object, or by picking it up, turning it around in our hands, examining it. It can occur through shared intelligence gathered from different people, or by speculating about the thing, gossiping about it together, envisioning it. It can happen through research, data, logic, models, statistics, philosophy, history, doctrines, literature—to name but a few ways we supplement our incomplete knowledge of the world. We have to make surmises, inferences, guesses of all sorts about the universe.
We will call the effect a thing has on us the image of the thing, as opposed to the thing itself. At times, however, it will be convenient to call the image a representation. The image of the thing captured on the retina by the rods and cones is conveyed through neurons as electrical signals called action potentials that send chemicals called neurotransmitters to the receptors of other brain cells. Now we need to ask in what sense is it still an image if the information is being communicated synaptically across the brain in a kind of relay race involving neurotransmitters and electricity? In some form or other, however, it is still some form of encoded representation of the retinal image, and even a more or less serviceable one, since the output has to allow us to deal with the world effectively. For convenience, however, we’ll usually call it an image, after the image on the retina, although the word is problematic when it comes to the other senses (and for other reasons).
Hence our sensory experience of the world is based on the illusion that the image is outside. Recall that outside our body is the thing itself. Inside our body is the information we gather through our sense organs. This means that the intentional object depends on the image, just as the image depends on the thing. This third-order effect is a being conscious of the external thing through the illusion of an external object, an object that is in fact just my internal representation of the thing based on information that does not convey a perfect likeness of it. This is why, strictly speaking, in philosophy, the object is the intentional content. Neither the thing as it is in itself nor the image nor any of its representations in the brain is the intentional object. Note also that the thing outside doesn’t depend on either the image or the object except for its expression. But without expression, what is the senseless, inanimate thing? To matter at all as something, it needs to become an object.
We have to emphasize that the final output isn’t the image but the effect of consciously being in the world among external objects. Being in the world is the effect. Reductionists want to cut off the process at the representation stage in the brain, which is ridiculous. They get stuck on the image, that is, the representation in the brain, and never step back out into the world. The image is not consciously experienced as an image, much less as an internal one.
We experience the thing as an object only by way of the image. The object is what I experience both the thing and the image as. Now, if the output isn’t an internal image that remains stuck in the brain but a being in the world, then my conscious relation to the coded representation of the world in my brain also has to be mediated. It must be mediated since, in naive experience, we aren’t conscious of the neurophysiology. Our learning about it comes precisely through the mediation of science. But keep in mind that even a scientist’s relation to nature is mediated. When it is being studied by the scientist even with a high-powered tool, what is being perceived is never the thing but already the thing objectified in some way for our perception and understanding of it. Therefore, not only do thing and image need to be distinguished, they both need to be distinguished from the experience of being among subjectively constituted objects. Leaving virtual reality and other technologically mediated experience aside, we live among objects, not among images or representations. We live among real things viewed as objects, but wherein the object is taken as the real thing.
In naive experience, human beings don’t distinguish between the image and the object, any more than they distinguish between the thing and its image. While the object results from the image, it is notably unlike the image in that it is experienced as the external thing. This makes sense since the image is, after all, of the external thing. But it is not the external thing itself. Hence we are conscious of an object which, in naive experience, we take to be the real thing. And because we perceive the object not as an image but as if it were the actual thing, it becomes the source of naive realism—the belief that things really are as we perceive them, which is precisely the view contested by physics.
The object is given only through aspects, that is, various changes of size, shape, color, texture, loudness, and so on. As we saw, these experienced properties aren’t properties of the thing as such but are relative to us, to how our organism interacts with it. Unlike the thing, the object has an intrinsic reference not only to my body, but, as an intentional object, to my consciously lived life. Once we know the mechanics, it makes no sense to speak of the object as something independent of me. It is, after all, physically part of me since the information that produced it has been processed by my organism. It is also communally available to other subjects. It always has a place relative to me—to us—not only geometrically but meaningfully, a place relative to all the other things we come across as meaningful objects. They often have emotional significance. This significance is actually part of the object in how it gets constituted for me. I apprehend my shoe precisely as my shoe. It is not a mere thing bereft of significance. It serves a real purpose in my life. Since it is an object that is there for me, nature has an inherent purpose. The sun (as object) lights my way during the day; the moon does so at night. The rain (as object) helps us grow our crops. Finally, we form ideas about the object, and we do so by way of the supplementation already discussed.
Thus we have identified four distinct phenomena (or four stages of a single one, depending on whether we approach the problem holistically or not): 1) the actual thing outside my body; 2) the image of the thing on my retina (or cochlea, skin, tongue, olfactory epithelium), including the encoded information propagated across the nervous system; 3) the perceived object of which we are conscious and which we perceive to be outside us even though objectively we know it can’t be since it is based on the image which in turn is based only on the limited information the external thing emitted (and of the emitted information only what our organism was able to pick up through our limited sense organs); and finally 4) the idea or ideas we form of the object by supplementing it. Of course, by using words like “my” and “our,” I have been presupposing a fifth phenomenon, the holistic phenomenon, the self through which the group is disclosed.
Finally, let’s ask whether the thing, the image, and the object are all of them real in their own way. This is an ontological question. Let’s approach it carefully.
The living organism encodes the image as a result of the effect the external thing has on it, which creates a motion that propagates through its system. If matter and energy are real, and if the external thing is made of them, then the external thing’s physicality can scarcely be doubted. And if the thing is real, presumably so is the physical effect it has on us.
The thing is straightforwardly outside the body, the image straightforwardly inside the body. But, now, what about the subjectively constituted object—where is it? Shall we say it is inside? That would be to mistake the object for the image. We perceive the object as outside, as the real thing. That is what we actually experience. What ontological status does this experience have? If we doubt the reality of the qualia, it seems we must doubt the reality of the qualitative object: the redness of the apple we perceive, the softness of the grass.
Determining the ontological status of the object requires that we work out the nature of the subject and of subjectivity. Partly, this means working out what value we are to place in so-called naive experience. What kind of being is this? Of course, the observer can be objectified by another observer. But within the first person act of perceiving, the perceiver is not the object, not even like it. How do we maintain both the symmetry and asymmetry of the relation? We aren’t dealing merely with two physical bodies standing next to each other, but with a being who consciously experiences the other as something there for it. It is a psychological event. The difference between how I experience myself experiencing the other and how I experience the other is tremendous.