Beyond Immediate Experience: From Percept to Object

In my article The Consequences of Immediate Experience, I dealt with perception. Because the subject was immediate experience, the discussion was strictly about the fact of perceiving and its logical consequences. Now it is time to venture beyond immediate experience, into the epistemology of the world around us. The problem of how to achieve this involves a very simple question: how do we get from a mere percept to a real object?

I must make my terminology very clear. My operational definition of an object is something whose reality and existence does not depend on the perceiver, something that exists whether a given subject perceives it or not. My distinction between percept and object is strictly epistemological, not metaphysical. It does not claim that a given percept cannot be the object, as opposed to a necessarily separate and imperfect representation of the object. Nor am I claiming that they are one and the same. A percept is anything that in my immediate experience I perceive to exist (for theologians, I use the term “exist” loosely enough to include God). If it does exist then it is an object. Thus I do not mean object in the conventional physical sense. When I see a chair, it is necessarily a percept to me. If this percept is or for all intents and purposes accurately reflects something that exists independently of me, then I am perceiving a real object. If not, then it is an illusion and I probably need a CAT scan.

In our attempt to bridge the gap between percept and object, we must distinguish between three deceptively similar problems. The first problem is that of validity, namely the validity of the senses through which we perceive. I have addressed this problem in a previous article. The answer is that because we necessarily presuppose the validity of our senses in any investigation of them, because we use those senses in empirical studies, the question of their validity is logically out of bounds to such studies. We cannot empirically validate or invalidate our senses, and so we are perpetually and inescapably bound to the mere assumption of their validity. The same goes for our use of reason.

The second problem is establishing as a fact that a given percept is a real object, using an argument to prove its existence. My main point about perception in The Consequences of Immediate Experience was that we simply can’t. Despite the perpetual assumption of our senses’ validity, the fact that we perceive objects cannot be used as a real argument that they exist. The world of perception, our immediate experience, is surrounded by a deductive chasm, like a castle with a moat but no bridge. In order to understand why we should take our perceptions seriously, we must understand that the reason for doing so is not limited to the establishment of fact.

This is the third problem: what is the reason for believing in objects? The difference between this and the last problem might be difficult to grasp, especially for those with a traditional “rationalist” mentality. First of all, the two are conceptually distinct. This is illustrated by the notion of pragmatism. There might be a ‘practical’ reason to believe something, a benefit. But this has nothing to do with the question of the actual truth of what is believed. It is a reason for belief of sorts, but not an argument that the belief is correct. The distinction itself is not controversial. What the rationalist bitterly objects to is the idea that a valid reason to believe something, is anything other than an argument for its truth. For them, they are two ways of saying the same thing. I have long regarded this view as unconvincing and arbitrary, and I get the impression that if I asked a rationalist ‘why’ it’s the case, the response would be a useless rhetorical question about believing in fairies with as much deductive value as a spontaneous “hallelujah!” And the fact that it doesn’t work at the lower levels of inquiry I explore here seems like a pretty effective refutation.

It is the third problem by which we can bridge the gap between percept and object. That is, our percepts give us a reason to believe in the objects they point to. As an argument for the existence of objects, it doesn’t work for shit, but it nonetheless makes belief in objects a reasonable choice. The reason is this: percepts are pointers to objects. They actually tell us that the objects are there. The fact that they could be false pointers is not itself an argument for outright dismissal. To take the suggestions of our percepts at face value is hardly an arbitrary default position. To experience a percept is to experience something as a real object, and in this respect immediate experience is evidently connected with the world beyond it. Presuming that world is there of course!

This has important implications for theism. Whereas in the framework of the modern secular worldview the default position regarding the experience of God is that it is illusory, in the framework of fundamental epistemology the default position is that it is authentic. The rejection of the modern secular worldview does not assure the theist that the God he experiences is real, because the baby of philosophical skepticism does not go out with the bathwater of scientism. What it does is move the default position from negative to positive. What this means is that while the experience of God is not an argument that God is real, it nevertheless provides a valid reason to believe that It is. By the same token, it also gives the atheist who hasn’t experienced God a perfectly valid reason not to believe in It. In other words, the old cliche “I don’t believe in God because He hasn’t shown Himself to me” is not terribly far off the mark.

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