How Things Really Look


How Things Really Look


I wish to defend the legitimacy of a metaphysical concept that I have not seen discussed before: the concept of what might be called objective appearance. We are familiar with the concept of subjective appearance—the ways things appear to specific organisms with specific sensory faculties. These vary from case to case and may involve distortions, errors, and biases; perceptual illusions fall into the class of subjective appearances. Appearances in this sense are supposed to contrast with objective reality: there is only one objective reality, but there are many ways it can subjectively appear to organisms. Some appearances can be wildly inaccurate; others close to fully veridical. The same physical stimulus can elicit widely divergent types of appearance in different creatures, e.g. bats and humans. There is thus a question as to whether appearance matches reality: does reality appear to us as it really is or only as our contingent sensibility paints it (to use Hume’s metaphor)? This can be a matter of degree: appearances can approximate more or less closely to objective reality. It makes sense to say that one appearance is more veridical than another. But does it make sense to speak of how things objectively appear, i.e. how they appear when perceived as they objectively are? Is there such a thing as ideal appearance—the kind that gets things exactly right? We might picture God as enjoying such appearances: when things appear to God’s mind they appear exactly as they objectively are without any distortion, error, or specific viewpoint. His is a view from nowhere: things appear to God purely in their objective nature. When God sees an object it appears to him as it really is in itself sans any sensory specificity. Thus we arrive at the idea of how things really look: there is the way things look to imperfect terrestrial organisms such as ourselves and the way they look to a being that sees things as they objectively are. We can ask what difference there might be between how things actually look and the way they really look (say to a being like God—though we can drop this heuristic). The way an object really looks is the way it looks to a being that sees it purely as it objectively is—the way it looks in its own being, as it were.

            This is a commonsense idea, at least in its origins. If you see something in the dark you can ask what it looks like when properly illuminated. If you see someone in heavy makeup you can wonder what he or she really looks like without makeup. If you are subject to the Muller-Lyer illusion you can form the idea of what the lines would look like to someone not subject to that illusion (whether or not such a being exists). This is the concept of an ideal perceiver, analogous to the concept of an ideal observer in ethics: an ideal perceiver sees things according to how they really look not how they happen to look in particular circumstances. So there are subjective appearances of the kind ordinary perceivers experience and there are appearances of the kind that an ideal perceiver would experience. It is true that things really look a certain way to given perceivers even when the appearance is subjective, but there is also the notion of how things look to perceivers that see them as they really are.      [1] There is how something looks to me now and there is how it really looks when we exclude all subjective intrusions. This gives rise to philosophical questions such as: “How would the world look if it were seen as it really is?” That is, how would an idealized perceiver experience the world? Would such a perceiver see the world as colored, as Euclidian, as containing discrete objects? How would an ideal perceiver see space? How would such a perceiver see the physical world as described by Einstein? How would the quantum world look? How does the world really look when all subjectivity is subtracted leaving only the naked object? We even have questions like, “What would people look like if we could see into their souls, a la Dorian Grey?” That is, we have the idea of how things would look if we could see them just as they are in themselves. Maybe we never have such experiences, but we can conceive of them—we can apply our concept of vision in such a way as to allow for their possibility. We can conceive, that is, of objective visual appearances: how things would look if the mask were removed, so to speak.      [2]

            We can even ask this kind of question about colors: what does red really look like when you remove its specific appearance to humans? Maybe it looks the way it looks when the perceiver has taken LSD—brighter, deeper, sharper, and more resonant. We ordinarily see colors through our limited visual system (rods and cones, the optic nerve, the occipital cortex), but maybe other perceivers would see them differently, more accurately. An ideal perceiver of color confronted with our perception of color might assure us that there is a lot more to red than we think given our limited perspective on it. This would be the analogue of a dog telling us that there is a lot more to the scent of freshly mown grass than we suppose. The way things really smell far exceeds our contingent olfactory resources, as the way red really looks transcends our impoverished sense of sight. Similarly, the way the world of physical objects really looks is far removed from the way it looks to us, given the truth of relativity and quantum theory. If you could see the world as it really is, you might see far more dimensions to space—that’s what the world really looks like if you have the sense to see it right. There is the way pond water looks to the human eye and there is the way it really looks when you have eyes that can see the microorganisms swimming in it. If there were people with eyes this acute, they would assure us that the way we see things is not the way they really look—any more than actors on a movie screen really look the way they do when so presented.

            The metaphysical point of all this is that we need to replace the appearance- reality distinction with a threefold distinction between subjective appearance, objective appearance, and reality. Subjective appearances are not the only kind; we need the category of objective appearances, whether there are any such items in actual reality or not. But we also need to distinguish objective appearances from reality itself: although objective appearances represent nothing but reality, they are not the same thing as reality. Objects and their properties are never the same as conscious representations of them: here as elsewhere we need to respect the act-object distinction. So we need a robust division between these three items; total reality has a place for all three, none reducible to the others. Centrally, we need to acknowledge a double level of appearance—actual and ideal, subjective and objective, relative and absolute. This bears on the question of idealism: is reality to be identified with subjective appearance or objective appearance? In effect, Berkeley’s idealism is of the latter kind, since reality for him consists in ideas in the mind of God, which are not to be regarded as in any way biased, erroneous, limited, or subjectively tinged. Or it might be maintained that reality consists in a realm of ideal appearances in the mind of no actual conscious being but existing as potentialities (a kind of Platonic idealism). Reality, according to this conception of idealism, isn’t a motley collection of all the subjective appearances enjoyed by actual biological creatures but a far more streamlined and unified set of ideal appearances. We might call this “ideal idealism” or “objective idealism”. It certainly has advantages over the subjective type of idealism, which is wide open to charges of excessive plurality or stipulated favoritism. In any case, we have a new metaphysical option once we accept the category of objective appearances. We also have a new imaginative option: we can try to imagine how the world  would appear if it appeared as it is really constituted. We already do this, to some extent, but we could adopt it as an intellectual project: don’t just tell us how things really are; tell us how they would look if we could see them as they really are. We could call this “real phenomenology”: the phenomenology of reality as such—how reality would present itself to an ideal consciousness. This is the study of objective appearance: not a form of empirical psychology but a philosophical study of a certain ideal subject matter. It is an investigation of how things really look—rarified, no doubt, difficult, certainly, but not outside the realm of possibility.      [3] I would like to read a work of physical phenomenology that describes what electrons look like, or fields of force, or curved space-time: that is, what their objective appearance consists in under idealized conditions. This would enable me to link these things with the world I normally perceive—or explain what kind of alien sense perception would be necessary to perceive them. Think of it as a kind of conceptual empiricism: finding a link between reality and sense perception—though this is not empiricism of the classical type. Some enterprising theorist might even try to resurrect the empiricist view of concepts by proposing that concepts are equivalent to ideal sensory appearances not actual ones. Like possible worlds, objective appearances give us new theoretical entities to play with, opening up new theoretical options. We might even manage to elicit some of those “incredulous stares” of which David Lewis was so fond (I prefer to call them “stupefied frowns”). Do we dare to quantify over these entities? Sure, go right ahead and quantify over them, there’s no harm in that, quantification being a enjoyable diversion; but more seriously we should suppose that reality contains not just objective things and their subjective appearances to sentient beings but also objective appearances that are written into the very nature of things. Reality itself consists of how things are and how things (ideally) look. Even before perceiving beings came along things looked a certain way—ideally, objectively. Eyes just picked up on that fact. Reality can’t avoid appearing a certain way, even if there is no one to appear to. If that sounds paradoxical, consider the fact that square things have a square-like appearance no matter how, or whether, actual perceivers perceive them. That is just how the concept of appearance works.      [4]


      [1] Color blindness provides a good example: we say that the color blind fail to see things as they really appear, since they really appear to have colors. Of course, compared to other perceivers normal human color vision might be similarly limited with respect to how things really appear. We might not be sensitive to the full appearance of things (obviously that is true of the reality of things).

      [2] When things look blurry that is not part of how things really look, since things in themselves are not (generally) blurry, this being a feature of a specific sensory apparatus. Objective appearances would not be blurry appearances.

      [3] I don’t rule out the possibility that we can’t know what certain things look like, even though they do look a certain way; we might be imaginatively limited in this regard. Still, we can make a concerted effort to come to know how things look to ideal perceivers.

      [4] I am well aware that this is an especially thorny area, conceptually speaking. We need to recognize and then hang onto certain basic distinctions, and fight against the propensity of language to confuse and bamboozle us. The concept of appearance is by no means simple and straightforward.

5 replies
  1. Free Logic
    Free Logic says:

    I tried to grasp the distinction between objective appearance and reality. The only way I could do it was to equate the former with God’s absolutely complete and correct conception of reality. Doesn’t the ability to perceive reality absolutely objectively presupposes the ability (or abilities) to also perceive it as any and every real (actual and possible) perceiving creature? Including, reflectively, God’s own? And the concept of reality as having the objective appearance (independent of and “above” all perceptions-as) is supporting this kind of understanding the three distinctions. And infinity kept creeping into my thinking as I couldn’t see how a finite mind could form the objective appearance. If you have the time and the patience further clarifications are welcome.

      • Free Logic
        Free Logic says:

        I understand the points you reiterated. It would help if you indicate how your conception differs from Nagel’s as expressed in “The View From Nowhere”. I’m not asking for detailed answer but at fundamental level — above the level of the post and without any arguments. For a concrete example of what would help, here is how Nagel explains how his (broadly realist) conception differs from Strawson’s (broadly Kantian): “My disagreement with Strawson… is with the way he interprets the idea that we are embedded in a world larger than we can conceive…” p.104, VFN

  2. Jesús Requena
    Jesús Requena says:

    When I was a child I sometimes wondered (later I learned that many others have) whether other people saw colors the same way I did. For example someone might perceive blue the same way I perceived red, and vice versa. Then I imagined a “red” sky, sea and a “blue” tomato….it was a weird and utterly fascinnating world. I concluded that perhaps that is why some people did not like tomatos…Many years later I read Nagel’s paper and realized that things were even more complicated…


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