On Perceiving Ordinary Objects
(formerly submitted at the University of Toronto, 2016)
In this article, I will attempt to explain Moore’s argument on the merits of perspectival variation and how it affects the way we perceive ordinary objects in the physical world. I will then offer a personal example of Moore’s approach before providing evidence which supports my favourable viewing of this argument.
In G.E Moore’s paper, “Sense Data,” an argument is made pertaining to how we as human beings perceive external world objects. Moore believes that the way in which an agent, A, perceives one object, Y, can vary from the way another agent, B, perceives that same object, Y. To be clear, this does not mean that A’s act of perceiving Y is any different, nor that A is perceiving an object which is different from B. What does follow is that both A and B are seeing the same object and sharing the same basic experience. What Moore means is that the way in which we perceive objects — our distinct interpretations of the data we derive from our senses — diverges from that of others. To articulate this concept, Moore utilizes precise terminologies, of which I will attempt to interpret. The first term, sense-data, plays a key role in Moore’s argument. If we use an example of an ordinary world object, like an envelope, our sense-data would be correlated to where we are in the world while perceiving that envelope, along with several other sensorial, contextual and physical factors. Upon viewing this envelope, Moore would argue that we are forming an image of it in our minds; compiling “sense-datum;” a collection of mental images which have direct correlation to the object we are perceiving. To the non-philosopher, this “sense-datum” would appear to be the object itself; in actuality, Moore would remark that we are missing a step; a causal connection to a mental image of said object in our minds, stirred awake by the direct awareness of what we are perceiving. According to Moore, this sense-data possesses three features, all of which appear to capture the notion that external world objects are thusly mind-dependent.
The first feature of sense-data, Moore believes, holds that it may only exist while perceived; if I were to look at a person who is in the same room as myself, the sense-datum I’d extract from their face would exist for only as long as I’d be able to directly perceive them (it is important to note that when I use the term “perceive” when speaking of sense-data, I am using it in the context of direct awareness; there is a mind-dependent connection between the external world object and the subject’s awareness of it). Moore uses an envelope as an example to confirm this feature: “I look at it, and I again see a sense-datum, a patch of a whitish colour. But now I immediately turn away my eyes, and I no longer see that sense-datum: my seeing of it has ceased to exist. (Moore, 31)”
Second, Moore believes that no two persons can perceive the same sense-datum; it is primitive. This, of course, could be argued against (for how could it not be possible for two individuals to perceive the exact same shade of white?), but we currently have no way of knowing the sense-datum content of others, and must consequently abandon such objections. In a compelling argument, Moore provides an example of how to think about primitive sense-data:
These colours may have been whitish; but each was probably at least slightly different from all the rest, according to the way in which the light fell upon the paper, relatively to the different positions you are sitting in; and again according to differences in the strength of your eye-sight, or your distance from the paper. And so too, with regard to the size of the patch of colour which you saw: differences in the strength of your eyes and in your distance from the envelope probably made slight differences in the size of the patch of colour, which you saw. And so again with regard to the shape. Those of you on that side of the room will have seen a rhomboidal figure, white those in front of me will have seen a figure more nearly rectangular. (32–33)
Third, one person’s sense-data are spatially isolated from those of anyone else’s, as no two people can stand in the exact same slice of space, with eyes held the exact same angle, and so on, at one time. If I were in the back of a crowded concert hall, for instance, my perception of the colour of the singer’s eyes would be vastly different from that of the lead guitarist’s, whose view of the singer exhibits a clear example of perspectival variation when compared to my own. Sense-data is not only on some level subjective, but it is uniquely so — dependent not only on our inner faculties, how we directly perceive ordinary objects is also impacted by external circumstances and events. These three features comprise what is known as Moore’s “accepted view,” and they seem to intuitively connect sense-data with the concept of perspectival variation.
Before I attempt to clarify perspectival variation further, I would like to illustrate how, in fact, sense-datum fits in with our daily interactions with objects of the world. Propose we are looking at a table from a specific position; we are seated at this table and have just finished dinner. As we, the subject, gaze at this external world object, its presence causes our minds to engage in a direct awareness of its sense-datum. We aren’t seeing the table directly, but having a perceptual experience due to properties and context alike. Our perception of what we believe to be “that table” is an amalgamation of factors and perspectives that are wholly unique to us. Just like the patterns in a human iris, no two sets of sense-datum are alike. This scenario is a more detailed explanation of Moore’s argument from perspectival variation; for when we view an object from various angles, lenses and mediums, the object is bound to change shape in our eyes.
Further, say we rise from this table, done with our meal, and walk to the kitchen. While washing dishes we look up and perceive the same exact table, yet with a distinctly different set of sense-datum. The colour is slightly darker, the shape seems smaller and the grooves in the wood are less detailed, more minute in scale. Why? Perspectival variation — Where we are in the world — our external influences — directly impact what kind of sense-datum we are directly aware of, even if the object we are having sense-datum about hasn’t changed itself.
It is due to such compelling evidence, coupled with a strong sense of intuition, that I endorse Moore’s case for perspectival variation. An interesting concept which helped in this decision was found in Moore’s illustration of how exactly sense-data is perceived. It is not that we as humans merely see objects differently from one another, but we can also imagine our sensorial faculties compiling our sense-datum differently, as well. While referencing the envelope and the way in which we “see” it, Moore claims it would be “conceivable that this whitish colour is really on the surface of the material envelope. Whereas it does not seem to me that my seeing of it is in that place. My seeing of it is in another place — somewhere within my body. Here, then, are two reasons for distinguishing between the sense-data which I see, and my seeing of them. (31)” The process itself of seeing an object — both in the seeing of the sense-data and the very “thing” it is caused by — is rather murky. It would thusly makes sense to assume that individuals could come to different sensorial conclusions about objects which are identical, except in being perceived in different locations by different sets of sensorial faculties.
It is not only in theory, but in life, that I find Moore’s argument to be favourable; a simple game of “telephone” conducted by kindergarten-aged children can convince us of this. And, although Moore did not mention this prospect in his paper, I would propose that we consider our mental experiences with respect to our perceiving of sense-datum, addressing how our minds interpret the objects we see. A strong past memory could affect the way in which we perceive present sense-datum, or perhaps also the way in which this sense-datum is compiled. It is my belief that, given this likelihood and previous examples, we should side in favour of Moore’s argument for perspectival variation and the ways in which humans are capable of perceiving ordinary objects in very extraordinary ways.
Harrison, Stephanie, and Frank Tong. “Decoding Reveals the Contents of Visual Working Memory in Early Visual Areas.” CNS.NYU (2009): n. pag. Web. 15 July 2016.
Moore, G. E. (1953) Sense-data. In his Some Main Problems of Philosophy (London: George Allen & Unwin, Ch. II, pp. 28–40). Pagination here follows that reference. Also reprinted in Thomas Baldwin (ed): G. E. Moore Selected Writings (London: Routledge, 1993), pp. 45–58.