Natural Realism And The Contact Theory Of Perception – Part III

Read part I and part II.

The Indian philosophy of perception- the contact theory or Direct Realism intimately links to the tenets of embodiment and liberation that form an inseparable part of the Indian tradition. This is hardly a theme in the Western tradition of philosophy. The main problem with the stimulus-response theory of perception is, in effect, the problem of consciousness. It is impossible to perceive an object without there being consciousness of the object. All the problems of Representationalism and the stimulus-response theory of perception translate into the problem of consciousness. As a logical consequence of assuming a stimulus-response model of perception, consciousness would logically belong to the sphere of noumena which is a delusional non-existent realm, as we have seen earlier. Contact theory overcomes the logical conundrums of representation systems.

Principles of Contact Theory or Direct Realism

The first principle is that the self is a primary substance with consciousness as its essential attribute. This primary subject has the subjective notion of ‘self-awareness’. An empirical criterion cannot verify the existence of a substance- incognizable by its nature. In Indian tradition, the knowledge of the existence of the self comes from Sabda-pramana; so, there is no necessity to look for another proof. Sabda pramana is knowledge conferred by verbal authority. In the Indian tradition, the Veda is held to be the highest source of knowledge and any knowledge that derives out of the Veda is treated as unquestionable and as an impersonal truth.

Once the self, having the attribute of consciousness, becomes a distinct substance it paves the way for resolving the two perplexing problems in establishing a coherent ontology (reality) of the world. First, it explains how it may be possible to perceive real objects on recognition that consciousness is a ‘revealer’ of objects, that is, that the self is effulgent and of the nature of conscious light; and that just as light reveals objects by its mere presence so does consciousness. In the Indian tradition, this self-effulgence is ‘jnana-shakti’. It is not the eye that sees but the Consciousness behind the eye- the self, that sees. Secondly, it explains the correlations between brain-processes and our perceptions of the world without logical conundrums when Consciousness appears in us as embodied consciousness.

The second principle of Direct Realism of Indian philosophy is that among the various causes that operate to produce an effect, only one of them is the primary cause. Thus, there the two kinds of entities involved in perception- the self and the physical organs of the body, in their respective roles as primary cause and occasioning cause. The physical processes of the body do not cause transformations in the percept. When thus considered, it solves a bewildering problem since Aristotle: How would it be possible for us to perceive objects in their true natures when an intervening physical medium in the form of the body along with its sense organs, brain, etc. should be present between the objects and our sensorium?

The third principle clear in all Indian traditions is that all objects are namable and knowable. This leads to the dissolution of artificial reality-divide, in the form of the divide between primary qualities and secondary qualities, or between the phenomenal and the noumenal.

Entities are fundamentally of two kinds: sentient purusha and inert prakriti. This fourth principle clears the confusion with respect to the meanings of the three terms used in philosophical discourse: ‘soul’, ‘mind’ and ‘matter’. The sentient purusha is the soul; prakriti has two forms-mind and matter.

The fifth principle is that mind and matter is the same thing appearing in two different conditions or two different modes of presentations. This explains the correspondences between concepts appearing in the mind and objects appearing in the physical world in a lucid manner without resorting to reduction of one to the other.

The sixth principle is that the object that appears in the mind is a universal while the object appearing in the world is an individual object. Most importantly, there is non-difference of the individual object from the universal. This maintains the reference of a word under all conditions. The word eternally connects to its object both in its manifest and unmanifest state. For, when we refer to Devadatta, for example, what exists in the mind as the referent of the name ‘Devadatta’ is the universal Devadattahood; and it is for this reason that even though Devadatta changes in time from being a child to a youth to a toothless old man, the name would not fail to refer to the same person.

Objects of the world are mind-independent because their existence is not determined by the individual self and because they are public and not private. An independent object manifests in the world independently of the individual being’s powers of determinations and that it should be available for perception and interaction by other individual beings. The criterion provides the condition for distinguishing a valid perception from an illusion or hallucination.

The Perceptual Process

At the most primal level, perception is by the removal of the covering of maya over the individual self. In Advaita Vedanta, the covering of maya over the self is avidya or nescience. The removal of the nescience to allow the conscious light of the self to reveal external objects constitutes perception. In the Indian tradition, perception is an active process in which the Self, as the Inner Controller, drives the senses towards their objects in accordance with the individual’s adrshta. On the removal of nescience, the self’s conscious light streams out to the object and envelopes it.

In this process, the mind assumes the form of the target object of cognition during a conceptual act. The form that the mind assumes in presenting an object to cognition is a vrtti. The mind forms a vrtti both when it constructs an object purely as a mental phenomenon as well as when it contacts an external object and envelopes it and assumes the form of the object. Perception is thus a composite process in which the self, the mind and the sense organs together participate to establish a contact with the object. The Nyaya text Tarka Samgraha explains it as follows: The self (atman) contacts with the mind (manas), the mind with the organ (indriya), and the organ with the object (visaya), and then perceptual knowledge takes place. This is a direct perception of the object and its quality too.

In Indian tradition, the attributes perceived of objects, such as color, taste are not subjective qualities but are objective qualities inhering in the objects themselves. This is in sharp contrast to the viewpoint of Contemporary Western tradition wherein they are subjective phenomenal qualities. In the Indian theory of perception, there is no transformation of the object in the process of presentation. Once the mind and sense organs contact the object and assume the form of the object by forming a vrtti, there would be conjunction of the mind, the sense organ, and the object at the very location of the object. There would be nothing in between the self and the object to hinder the conscious luminosity of the self from revealing the object in its true form.

The contingency of the mind and sense organs as distorting filters arise only when they have a defect hindering it from assuming the form of the object. When such defects of the sense organs or the mind are absent, there would be nothing present in between the self and the object that can prevent the perception from revealing the object in a transparent and true manner. The perception of an object is in the actual spatial location where it exists.

In the case of touch, taste and smell, the (subtle) organs do not move out of the body, so the perception takes place at the location of the physical sense organs themselves when the objects come into contact with the physical sense organs of the gross body; whereas in the case of visual and auditory perceptions, the indriyas move out of the physical body to make contact with the object in external space.

While there are minor variations between the darshanas about the technicalities of perception, all the darshanas hold that perception takes place due to the contact of the (subtle) sense organs with the object. There is uniformity regarding perception being direct and revealing the object in its actual form through the contact of the consciousness with the object through the instrumentality of the sense organs and mind. Such contact is instantaneous since the consciousness that appears within the body is the same Consciousness that exists without the limiting adjuncts of the body and which is in conjunction with all objects. Hence, perception is nothing more than the removal of the covering of maya over the individual consciousness to reveal the conjunction that already exists with the object.

Physical Body

The gross physical body does not figure in the contact theory of perception, at least when the perception is free from defects. The exclusion of the gross body from the perceptual process may seem like an omission, but it is in fact the greatest strength of the theory; for, it is due to the absence of the involvement of the physical body that the perception is capable of revealing the object in its true form.

The embodiment of the self comes about not through a physical process but through a cognitive condition. The cognitive condition which brings about the persistent notion of embodiment also presents in the cognitive field a causal nexus between the bodily functions. This gives an appearance of the self as affected by the body processes. The Self however is unchanging and immutable; for it is a pure witness. The self’s affections resulting from bodily functions are a simulacrum; they are not causal connections between the self and the body but a cognitive conditioning that sees a parallelism between the bodily functions and the affections of the embodied self. What appear to be affections of the self are affections of the inner layers of the body, that is, of the constituents of the subtle body. The latter, because of their proximity to the conscious self, display the properties of being conscious. This is just as the light reflected off an object makes it partake of the properties of light and appear lit.

A misapprehension in perception is primarily due to an adverse state of the individual being’s adrshta. This reflects either as a defect in the instruments of perception or in the generation of a situation preventing unhindered perception. The former appears as an internal defect of the perceptual instrument and the latter as an external defect in the form of unsuitable environmental conditions.

The defect of the physical organ is thus not the direct cause of the defective perception but is a simulacrum, a bestowed cause merely. The body is the seat of experience through which an individual being experiences the fruits of its past karma. There is a correlation between the processes in the physical body and our perceptions of the world but these correlations are not direct causal connections. They are reflections of an unseen cause and are not prime causes by themselves.

The role of the physical body is to serve as a seat of experience for the self to takes its place in the theater of the universe as an actor. It is also to experience the fruits of its past karma as well as to perform karma with the window of free will. The state of equipoise is a state wherein the body is transparent to perception. Thus, bringing the body back to a state of equipoise through surgery, etc., would also constitute a recovery of the transparency. Those philosophers and scientists that take a physicalist view of the universe tend to see these correlations as constituting a causal chain in the perceptual process and thereby lend themselves for entrapment in the quagmire of representationalism with all its attendant problems. Indian philosophy is clear in that the correlations are not part of a direct causal chain of the perceptual process; they are simulacrums displaying a parallelism with the effect due to the operation of a deeper cause.

But Advaita Says Nothing is Real

There are some proponents of Advaita Vedanta opposing Direct Realism. Chittaranjan Naik says that the locution of jagan-mithya that arises in Advaita Vedanta is always in coordination with the locution of brahma-sathya so that the complete expression is brahma-sathya jagan mithya. Advaita Vedanta is Para Vidya; its subject matter is Brahman and not the world. In Advaita therefore jagan-mithya is not an isolated proposition but always in coordination with brahma-sathya.

But when the world has a discussion within a specific context that excludes Brahman, then, in such a context, the world is sathya. This is because the world is no other than Brahman and to deny the sathya of the world when the context of the discussion has excluded Brahman from the discussion reduces to a kind of Nihilism. It is for this reason alone that when Shankaracharya goes about refuting Vijnanavada and other Idealist schools of Buddhism that deny the existence of Brahman, he takes the position that the world is real. This is a vital point often overlooked by modern proponents of Advaita Vedanta, so this note of explanation is not only necessary and important. The principles of Advaita Vedanta mentioned above is a response to Idealist philosophies in a similar manner that Shankaracharya has responded to the Bauddhas.

Replies to Objections to Direct Perception

The author now lists the objections to Direct Perception and gives his replies in a logical manner. Given a long and complex causal series from the object to the brain, physical objects or events cannot be immediate or direct objects of perception. This is the important objection to Direct perception. The author says that the physical body does not really participate in the perceptual process but belongs to the realm of the perceived world. Regarding the observed processes, such as complex series of physiological processes in the eye and the brain, they are processes that may display correlations with our perceptions of objects. Moreover, the descriptions of the physical processes are theory-laden descriptions arising out of the symbolic framework of science. We have no compulsive reason to believe that the descriptions offered by science conform faithfully to the actual physical processes that occur. And finally, the ‘observed’ processes are simulacrums, being the outer reflections of the individual being’s adrshta. The adrshta is the primary determining factor that determines how the individual being perceives the objects of the external world.

The second argument comes from the most important time-lag phenomenon. We perceive physical objects when light reflected or emitted from them enters our visual system. Light travels at a finite velocity, and so there is always some time interval between the reflection or emission of light from a physical object or event and the light’s reaching our eyes. In the case of a distant star, the time interval may be so considerable that, by the time the light reaches our eyes, the star may no longer exist. If something no longer exists, we cannot now perceive it, let alone directly perceive it. Since we perceive something, the object of perception must be something other than physical objects or events. Hence, the conclusion is that Direct Realism is false. We do not directly perceive physical objects and events.

In reply, the author says that all the premises are theory-laden with the assumptions of the theoretical framework of science, namely that (i) light travels with respect to an observer, and (ii) we perceive objects because of a stimulus-response process. The arguments therefore suffer from the fault of stating propositions that are in the question. The putative time lag between the occurrence of an event in space and its observation by a human observer is a myth. No such time-lag exists. The time lags that have been observed in the scientific experiments carried out so far are the time intervals for light to travel from one observed object, namely the source of light, to another observed object, namely the object illuminated by the source of light, and not for light to travel from the object to the observer. The author suggests an experiment called ‘The Simultaneity Experiment’ for a more detailed analysis of the phenomenon. The Simultaneity Experiment paper proposes a new experiment to validate whether there truly exists a time interval for light to travel with respect to a human observer.

Another argument against Direct perception is on the partial character of perception. To perceive a physical object, we must be able to perceive all its parts at once. But we are not able to perceive all a physical object’s parts at once. At best, we can perceive a spatial part of it. The author says that the premise is false because the whole is not the sum of the parts but is a distinct object different from the sum of the parts. Thus, it is not the perception of the totality of all the parts that will amount to perception of the object. Secondly, one perceives an object when the universal (of which the object is a particular) comes into perception. To perceive the object cow, the jati or universal ‘cowness’ is important. The assumption of perception of all parts of the object would lead to an infinite regress. Each part will have more parts to perceive and so on ad infinitum.

In most arguments against direct perception, the opponent or the purva-pakshin fails to appreciate that without universals there will be no recognition of objects, be they attributes or substances. If there is no admission of the universals, it would call for a different name for every individual object. The result would be a dysfunctional language. Universals are a necessary structural element of objects. Only then, it resolves the problem of correct identification regarding both the attribute appearing in one’s immediate awareness as well as the attributes not in one’s immediate awareness.

The Perceptual Illusion Argument against direct perception uses the example of a stick submerged in water as appearing bent. We do not directly perceive the straight stick; but we are aware of it by a prior awareness of a bent stick. Naik calls this argument fallacious because the conclusion does not follow from the premises. The only valid conclusion drawn from the premises is that we do not directly perceive objects in a perceptual illusion. The knowledge of an unbent stick obtains not from perception but from an inference based on the vypati based on past perceptions of such cases. The knowledge of a bent stick being not so is an inferential knowledge and not a perceptual knowledge.

Hallucinations are again an argument against Direct Realism. The author replies by saying that it is wrong to say that the objects perceived in hallucinations are indistinguishable from real objects because the reality or unreality of these objects is verifiable without resorting to complicated arguments. The objects seen in hallucinations appear to be indistinguishable from real objects only to the person seeing the hallucination. But, being unreal objects, they do not possess all the attributes that real objects do. It would be like a person who argues that one may quench one’s thirst by drinking the water seen in a mirage.

The Dubitability Argument argues that when one perceives a physical object, there is much that one can doubt. For instance, when one sees a tomato, one can doubt whether it is a tomato or a cleverly painted piece of wax, whether it is a reflection or a hologram, or whether one is suffering a hallucination. If something is indubitably present to one’s consciousness, it cannot be identical to anything that is not indubitably present to one’s consciousness. There is never a doubt in Direct Realism about the nature of the object. Because, this does not happen, Direct Realism is false. Naik says that this fails to make a distinction between a veridical (true) perception and a non-veridical perception and takes all perceptions to be non-veridical. Consequently, the conclusion drawn is applicable only to objects seen in non-veridical perceptions and not to objects seen in veridical perceptions.

A veridical perception of a tomato, for example, would be only after dispelling all doubts regarding the identity of the object; consequently, there would be no scope to doubt that the object one perceives is a tomato. The conclusion is false for an object seen in a veridical perception and it cannot therefore be used against Direct Realism which holds that only those objects presented faithfully to our sensorium by means of veridical perceptions are to be considered as the objects that actually exist in the external world.

Finally, the Objective Feature Argument says that there is no objective feature of physical objects or events we can be directly aware of; and if Direct Realism is true, we can be directly aware of at least one objective feature of physical objects or events. Hence, Direct Realism is false. The premise suffers from the fault of presenting the proposition for proof as the premises. We can reject this argument without further ado, says Naik.

Experiments to prove the Indian traditional thinking

The author in the second part of the book offers an ingenious experiment called the ‘Simultaneity Experiment’ to address the one major objection of time-lag against direct perception. The author says that the finite velocity of light leads to certain paradoxes like the maximum speed attainable by any object, the shrinking of size of an object, and the stretching of time at speeds approaching that of light. Infinities come into existence when an object reaches the speed of light, even as its ageing slows down. It is a huge paradox to understand that though it takes billions of years for light to travel from a distant star to a measuring telescope; for the particle of light, the travel has been instantaneous. If Consciousness is like light itself, then the immediate perception also may become more understandable.

The author says that the speed of light has always been from the source of light to another object, but it has never measured the speed from the source of light to the sentient observer. A sentient observer would observe the light instantaneously. A nuclear explosion at 44,000 miles or so from Earth, instruments for measuring the speed of light from the event to a space station above Earth, and sentient observers recording the event on their watches on the same station are the paraphernalia for the experiment. The author says that if the Indian thinking is correct, the sentient observer would detect the nuclear explosion much earlier than the instruments used for detecting the event. Present day science may find it difficult to set up such an experiment, but the author throws the gauntlet for any future experiments challenging the present scientific and philosophical paradigms.

In the final section, the author also addresses the phenomenon of lightening where there is a lag between the visual and auditory perception of the event from the Indian perspective.


All perception is thus direct and real. Whatever we see or hear is what exists in the outside world in its true and real form. There is no transformation of datum and there are no representations or constructions in our brain. Perception involves a transparency between the self and the object and contact between the two. There is no time-lag in perception clearly. The physical organs are only to enable this transparency and work as seats of experience too. Indian philosophy thus places the Self or Consciousness as a Primary sentient entity (purusha) and Nature as insentient (prakriti). Both mind and matter belong to the realm of prakriti with individual qualities. The Self is ever free, but only appears embodied by an erroneous mental cognition. The erasure of this cognition leads to Self-realization and freedom. A freedom which was always there, but hidden in the layers of the body because of ignorance or maya or avidya. The potential for freedom exists in every individual irrespective of time and place. It is accessible to any person irrespective of sex, religion, caste, creed, ethnicity, culture, or any personal identity. The words of a realized soul look so remarkably similar despite great distances in time and place that one must accept that the Unity reached by a Nisargadatta is no different from that of a Ramakrishna. And the means are only self-effort. The Universe has a purpose; and this is to help the individual attain liberation. It is thus easy to see that the paradigm of Indian philosophy directly challenges western thought and its aligned contemporary science.

The most amazing aspect of Indian arts, sciences, cultures, and philosophies is an intense ‘spiritualization’ of its activities. Every single route, be it music, poetry, science, or philosophy, can be a means to liberation. Philosophy is never a bare intellectual exercise, but deeply embeds, as we have seen, with the principles of embodiment and liberation. This is clearly missing in western thought. As seen earlier, even Grammar can be a route to freedom! The author rues (in personal communication) that most traditional Indian scholars are simply indifferent to outside philosophies. Despite having a deep knowledge, they do not either acknowledge western systems or do not understand them because of unconnected terminologies. Many concepts of western philosophy do not make sense to Indian philosophers, and yet, the latter choose to keep quiet. And this is unfortunate, feels the author, because Indian philosophy can seriously mount a challenge and give answers to many questions plaguing western philosophy. In a vital Constitutional debate, Sanskrit as a medium of instruction across the country lost by a single vote to English when tied at 50-50. It is nice to speculate now how differently our country might have evolved had Sanskrit won. The colonials left, but the ‘colonial consciousness’ persisted in all our departments, especially humanities, as Dr SN Balagangadhara says. The English language played its major part here undoubtedly, as we think, speak, and write in English. The western narratives in philosophy remain unchallenged as we automatically take the latter to be true. Maybe, if the west cannot learn Sanskrit to understand us, our traditional scholars can learn western philosophies to challenge and counter them, says the author.

This book aims to reinstate perception as a valid means of obtaining knowledge regarding the objects of the senses. In the Indian tradition, perception is the Jyeshta pramana, the eldest of the pramanas. Naik says that no philosopher or scholar has so far attempted to re-instate the contact theory of perception in the contemporary world, except fleetingly by Swami Satprakashananda, in his book ‘Methods of Knowledge’. There is a hope of a larger enterprise by Indian scholars for engaging the Siddhantas of the Indian tradition with the ideas and theories of the contemporary world. This author is of the firm conviction that such an enterprise will not only be a precursor to a change in thinking in the sciences but also serve to reinvigorate the Indian tradition. This would also allow it to reclaim its rightful place in the contemporary world. Even more importantly, it will serve as a step taken towards reinstating knowledge of dharma in the context of today’s world. Our philosophies stood silently, serenely, and strongly transcending all other philosophies for centuries as the latter struggled and fought trapped in a maze of inconsistencies and confusions. Perhaps it is time for them to look up and, as a first step, realize that there is an alternative narrative. This treatise deserves a place of pride in the book collection of any person with an inkling of interest in philosophy.

An edit was made to the second paragraph of this article at 5:00 PM, April 5, 2020, at the request of the author of the treatise, Dr. Chittaranjan Naik.

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