Perceptions as Representations

Sense-perception has always been an interest of the philosophers. A prominent problem is the problem of perception, which is created by the ideas of illusion and hallucination: if it is possible to have this sort of error, how can perception be what we understand it to be?

When we reflect on the causal facts of perception, it leads to a problem. It’s not clear how perception can yield knowledge of the existence of physical things, considering that any perceptual experience can be caused without an external object stimulating our senses.

Representational Theory of Perception

René Descartes’ representational theory of perception states that our conscious experiences do not reflect the reality of things, rather, we merely see a miniature virtual reality replica of that world in a mental or internal representation.

In other words, we only discern our ideas or interpretations of objects in the world, due to a barrier between the mind and the existing world that prevents first-hand knowledge of anything beyond it.

This theory holds that our ideas come from our sensory perceptions of a real, material, external world, but that the direct object of perception is only a sensory perception that represents the external object. We have no immediate or direct access to things in the world, only to the world of our ideas.

In addition, ideas must be understood broadly to include all the contents of the mind, including perceptions, images, memories, concepts, beliefs, intentions, and decisions. These ideas serve as mental representations of things other than themselves. Much of what these ideas represent, they represent as “out there” or “external” to the mind containing them. It is in principle possible for ideas to represent these things correctly, but they may also be false and misleading.

Do We Get Knowledge From Our Senses?

Descartes, being a skeptic, doubts the possibility of being certain that our knowledge of things actually resemble, in any significant way, the objects to which they are supposed to correspond, since we only have knowledge of the representations of our perceptions. Using sensory perceptions is the only way we learn about the world, because we can’t get information from any other source.

Although our senses are fundamental, they’re not perfect. Sometimes they can delude us. This is evident when we cannot tell whether we are dreaming or not. When we’re dreaming, we have no correct sense of time or substance. We cannot tell whether we’re awake or in a dream. If our senses give us a reason to doubt them once, then we can’t trust or depend on them to provide us with knowledge.

Moreover, there’s nothing about our experiences that assure us that the content we’re learning is factual. We’re habituated to think that every physical object thing we see reflects its true nature, when in fact, we’re only seeing our mental representations of these objects.

Therefore, we can’t depend on our experiences for true knowledge either. This acts as a barrier that prevents us from constructing a solid foundation for our knowledge. Because what we know are just mental representations of things, they are beliefs that we hold true to ourselves. In other words, they are subjective and can be wrong.

Knowledge, on the other hand, requires some sort of certainty. To know something, is to know it with certainty and/or it itself certain. Without a firm foundation, the information we acquire will always be beliefs, rather than knowledge. This prevents us from having an objective view about the world, which could be problematic due to our inability to be certain about the actual reality of things. At the end of the day, we hold responsibility for our beliefs.

7 replies on “Perceptions as Representations”

I read it and it’s true! Perception is only one out of many point of perspective that an object has… 7 billion of us seeing 7 billion different world, in a way is unpredictable but also a way in which nature likes to work. I remember a quote that is from Assassin Creed : ” Nothing is true, everything is permitted.” … It strongly emphasis on the society that we built is on perceptions and not on facts.

Liked by 1 person

Well said and presented.

This thread correlates with the Simulated Universe theory. Even the trees, rocks, coffee and apple pie before me could be a simulation upon which my perception builds a second level simulation. In this way, even knowledge cannot be considered an absolute. There is no knowledge, there is only interpretation.

Such (true) theories appear to be entertaining—for a while—but as they can invoke no change in behavior, are easily brushed aside. The feel of this Frisbee, its color, its flight are all just my brain building a simulated visualization over top of what—I’ll never know. But who cares. Catch! If even the Frisbee is a computer simulacrum, does it matter in the face of the fact that it’s fun to throw and catch?

I love pontificating such notions, too. Yet, how can such information become actionable? Or can it? Should I use the fact that my sensory world is me layering a fantastical veil over what might actually be there? If so, how?

Great topic.


“There is no knowledge, there is only interpretation”. I love this! But at the end of the day, all we are left with is the information we get from our senses. We have to start somewhere and build upon them, don’t we?

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Reblogged this on denkendank and commented:
The main flaw I see with this argument is that rejection ALL perception of the external world as a source of fact due to ONE slip-up is extreme and unwarranted. Trusting things more often than not turns out correct. Descartes must be looking for 100% solidity in truth, which may never be possible. But just because we can’t have 100%, doesn’t mean it’s better to have 0% than 99%.


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