Panentheism.  Revisionism.  Anarchocapitalism.


David Ray Griffin

[link to CV]


Essays by Me

Essays by Others

Matter, Consciousness, and the Fallacy of Misplaced Concreteness

David Ray Griffin

II. Overcoming Misplaced Concreteness with Regard to Both Matter and Mind


C. The Status of Sensory Perception in Human Experience


The assumption that sensory perception is a primary element in our experience follows from the equation, false from Whitehead’s perspective, of primacy in consciousness with genetic primacy in experience.  Sensory perception is a derivative form of perception, resulting from an integration that occurs in a late phase of experience.  It thus tends to get clearly illuminated by consciousness.  That sensory perception gets lit up clearly follows not from the fact that our perceptual experience begins with sensory perception but from the fact that it does not.  

Sensory perception, in Whitehead’s analysis, is derivative from two simpler modes of perception.  The first of these is called “perception in the mode of causal efficacy.”  Perception in this mode has already been discussed, because it is simply physical prehension described in the language of perception.

It is through perception in the mode of causal efficacy that we know most of those things that we inevitably presuppose in practice, which I have called hard-core commonsense notions.  Modern philosophy has had difficulty explaining how we knew them, thereby relegating them to the category of “practice,” “faith,” “a priori forms of intuition,” or even “dispensable common sense,” because it has not recognized this more primal mode of perception underlying sense perception.  It is through this more basic mode of perception, for example, that I have the category “other actualities besides myself” and know that there is an external world beyond my own experience, because I directly prehend other things, such as my bodily actualities.  This is the basic reason why we are all realists in practice: “Common sense is inflexibly objectivist.  We perceive other things which are in the world of actualities in the same sense as we are.  Also our emotions are directed towards other things, including of course our bodily organs” (PR, 158).  

This same mode of perception is, likewise, the basis for our knowledge of the reality of causation as real influence; this point is implicit in calling it “perception in the mode of causal efficacy.”  In prehending my body, for example, I prehend some of its parts as causally efficacious for my own experience.  This applies not only to various pleasures and pains but also to external sensory perception itself.  In opposition to Hume’s claim that “impressions” arise in the soul “from unknown causes,” Whitehead points out that Hume reveals elsewhere “his real conviction—everybody’s real conviction—that visual sensations arise ‘by the eyes.’ The causes are not a bit ‘unknown,’ and among them there is usually to be found the efficacy of the eyes [although sometimes it may be alcohol]. . . . The reason for the existence of oculists and prohibitionists is that various causes are known” (PR, 171).  “The notion of causation arose,” Whitehead adds, “because mankind lives amid experiences in the mode of causal efficacy” (PR, 175).

It is through this mode of perception that we also know about the past and therefore the reality of time. I mentioned earlier that memory is an example of a physical prehension, because the present occasion of experience prehends prior experiences. This explains why we are not in practice afflicted by Santayana’s “solipsism of the present moment.”  This prehension of our own past occasions of experience also provides an explanation for our sense of self-identity through time—which needs an explanation in any philosophy such as that of Buddhism, Hume, and Whitehead in which the notion of a soul or mind as a numerically self-identical substance through time is denied (AI, 184, 186, 220f.; MT, 117f., 160ff.) .

Perception in the mode of causal efficacy, which is a nonsensory mode of perception more basic than sensory, also serves to explain another assumption presupposed in the mind-body problem: our close sense of identification with our bodies. In a statement expressing a fact so obvious as to be seldom noticed, Whitehead says,

Nothing is more astonishing in the history of philosophic thought than the naive way in which our association with our human bodies is assumed. . . . [The body] is in fact merely one among other natural objects. And yet, the unity of “body and mind” is the obvious complex which constitutes the one human being. . . . [O]ur feeling of bodily unity is a primary experience.  It is an experience so habitual and so completely a matter of course that we rarely mention it.  No one ever says, Here am I, and I have brought my body with me.  (MT, 114)

Whitehead’s explanation: “There is . . . every reason to believe that our sense of unity with the body has the same original as our sense of unity with our immediate past of personal experience.  It is another case of nonsensuous perception” (MT, 189).  This sense of unity arises from what I in the previous chapter called “basic perception,” in which one prehends one’s own brain and through it the remainder of one’s body.

I might add here that although Whitehead’s method is certainly based on what can be called “introspection” in a broad sense, he is critical of introspection as it has typically been practiced by philosophers.

The attitude of introspection . . . lifts the clear-cut data of sensation into primacy, and cloaks the vague compulsions and derivations which form the main stuff of experience.  In particular it rules out that intimate sense of derivation from the body, which is the reason for our instinctive identification of our bodies with ourselves.  (AI, 226)

The reason the top-down approach has not gotten very far in overcoming the gap between mind and body is that it has usually started too far up, with the superficialities of human experience rather than with its essential ingredients.  It has started with what makes our minds human, not with what makes them actual.  I move now toward that higher level of superficialities.  

The second mode of perception, derivative from the first, is called “perception in the mode of presentational immediacy.”  It is thus named because in this mode the data are immediately present, in themselves telling no tales of their origin.  Taken by themselves, sense data, such as those constituting the yellow round shape before me, arise, in Hume’s words, from “unknown causes.”  In fact, when they are considered in isolation, we should not even call them sense data, because this term implies that we do know that they are derived from the senses.  If this kind of perception were our only mode of perception, as Hume’s theory held, then we would not even have the idea of causal influence: “Hume’s polemic respecting causation is,” Whitehead says, “one prolonged, convincing argument that pure presentational immediacy does not disclose any causal influence” (PR, 123).  Pure presentational immediacy also does not disclose other actualities, a past, time, or much of anything else.  Insofar as it gets reduced to visual data, as it often does (MT, 168), it gives us nothing but space, shapes, and colors.  Given the modern tendency to equate perception with perception in this mode of presentational immediacy, it is no wonder that modern philosophy has had epistemological problems (such problems, in fact, that many philosophers Want to give up the whole epistemological enterprise).  

These problems have arisen because of the false assumption, discussed earlier, that those elements that are primary in consciousness must be primary in the perceptual process.  After the passage in which Whitehead argues that “those elements of our experience which stand out clearly and distinctly in our consciousness are not its basic facts; they are the derivative modifications which arise in the process,” he writes:

For example, consciousness only dimly illuminates the prehensions in the mode of causal efficacy, because these prehensions are primitive elements in our experience.  But prehensions in the mode of presentational immediacy are among those prehensions which we enjoy with the most vivid consciousness.  These prehensions are late derivatives in the concrescence of an experient subject.  (PR, 162)

“Most of the difficulties of philosophy,” Whitehead continues, are due to assuming the opposite: “Experience has been explained in a thoroughly topsy-turvy fashion, the wrong end first” (PR, 162).  

What, then, is sensory perception? It is a synthesis of these two more primitive forms.  It is thus a form of “perception in the mode of symbolic reference,” because data from one of the two former modes (usually presentational immediacy) are used to interpret data arising from the other mode (usually causal efficacy).  To continue the example begun above, I use the yellow round patch that is immediately present to my mind to interpret the feeling of causal efficacy from my body, particularly my eyes.  I say, accordingly, that I am seeing the sun.  I may be wrong about that.  I cannot be wrong about experiencing the yellow shape; and I cannot be wrong about feeling the causal efficacy (although I may be wrong in thinking that it originated from the eyes).  In those two pure modes of perception, there is simple givenness.  But perception in the mode of symbolic reference introduces interpretation and thereby the possibility of error (PR, 168, 172).  

The fact that sensory perception includes perception in the mode of causal efficacy explains why we are all realists about sensory perception.  We do not, as Whitehead says, begin dancing with sense data and then infer a partner (PR, 315f.).  However, the fact that presentational immediacy generally far outweighs causal efficacy in consciousness, especially when one is involved in philosophical introspection, has led most philosophers simply to equate sensory perception with presentational immediacy.  Some of the problems of this equation have already been mentioned.  Another problem—which I touched on in the previous chapter—is the resulting assumption that entities without sensory organs can have no perceptual experience at all.  This assumption lies behind the fact that most philosophers and scientists, even if they will allow some form of experience to most animals, draw the line at the point where there seem to be no sensory organs.  However, if presentational immediacy and therefore sensory perception are derivative forms of perception even in us, then it is not impossible in principle to generalize some kind of perceptual experience to all individuals, however primitive.  This point is the basis for Whitehead’s generalization:

The perceptive mode of presentational immediacy arises in the later, originative, integrative phases of the process of concrescence.  The perceptive mode of causal efficacy is to be traced to the constitution of the datum by reason of which there is a concrete percipient entity.  Thus we must assign the mode of causal efficacy to the fundamental constitution of an occasion so that in germ this mode belongs even to organisms of the lowest grade; while the mode of presentational immediacy requires the more sophistical activity of the later stages of process, so as to belong only to organisms of a relatively high grade.  (PR, 172)

Besides taking as primary a mode of perception that could not possibly be generalized to all levels of the actual world, the “topsy-turvy” interpretation of our experience also ignores, or takes as secondary, those dimensions of our experience that in principle could be generalized.  The fallacious assumption that the notion of causation depends on vivid sense data, I have just argued, rules out the generalizability of perception in the mode of causal efficacy.  Other relevant dimensions of experience are our emotions and purposes.  In fact, just after the “topsy-turvy” sentence quoted above, Whitehead says: “In particular, emotional and purposeful experience have been made to follow upon Hume’s impressions of sensation” (PR, 162).  If we think, instead, of our experience as consisting most fundamentally of emotional, appetitive, and purposive (recall the discussion of “physical purposes”) responses to physical feelings of other things, most basically our body and our own past of a split second ago, then we have elements some faint analogy to which can less implausibly be ascribed all the way down.  

This completes my formulation of Whitehead’s response to the first question, raised at the end of the first point in this section, regarding the plausibility of generalizing any aspect of human experience to the simplest actualities.  Because much skepticism will surely remain, let me recall Whitehead’s challenge:

Any doctrine which refuses to place human experience outside nature, must find in descriptions of human experience factors which also enter into the descriptions of less specialized natural occurrences.  If there be no such factors, then the doctrine of human experience as a fact within nature is mere bluff. . . . We should either admit dualism, . . . or we should point out the identical elements connecting human experience with physical science. (AI, 185)

Assuming that the threat of (ontological) dualism is sufficient to prod even the most skeptical of my antidualist readers into continuing, I will proceed to the second question, which asks what basis there is in experience for thinking of the units of nature as the kind of entities to which primitive emotions, appetites, and purposes could be ascribed.

 Posted August 31, 2007


D. The Spatializing Nature of Sensory Perception’s Presentational Immediacy


Abbreviations of Works Cited

·          AI Alfred North Whitehead, Adventures of Ideas

·          SMW Alfred North Whitehead, Science and the Modern World

·          MBS John R. Searle, Minds, Brains and Science: The 1984 Reith Lectures

·          MR Galen Strawson, Mental Reality

·          MT Alfred North Whitehead, Modes of Thought

·          PCH Lewis Edwin Hahn, ed., The Philosophy of Charles Hartshorne: Library of Living Philosophers XX

·          PR Alfred North Whitehead, Process and Reality: An Essay in Cosmology

·          VN Thomas Nagel, The View from Nowhere


 Return to This Essay's Introduction

Go to David Ray Griffin Page