Friday, March 16, 2012

Awareness: Direct vs. Indirect

We're reading Michael Huemer's wonderful book Skepticism and Veil of Perception in my Metaphysics and Epistemology course. I'm not convinced by his response to skepticism, but he does a marvelous job in developing his argument. Yesterday in class we were discussing a distinction he makes between direct awareness and indirect awareness. He notes that, " are indirectly aware of x if you are aware of x, but your awareness of x is based on your awareness of something else. You are directly aware of x if you are aware of x, and your awareness is not based on your awareness of anything else." This is pretty clear. But what are some examples of being directly aware? Huemer goes on to claim that perception is a case of direct awareness. He thinks that when I see the pen on my desk, I am directly aware of (some parts or aspects) of the external world. Let's set this issue aside.

What are some cases-besides perception-that are instances of direct awareness? A hackneyed example might be pain. Suppose I experience a throbbing pain in my ankle and I say, "My ankle hurts." How would I justify this claim? What reasons do I have for believing that my ankle hurts? It seems to me that it is the experience of the pain. Now, is my awareness of the pain based on my awareness of something else? In other words, am I directly aware of my pain? A number of my students thought this was not direct, but we couldn't come to any consensus on what this awareness could be based upon. Some said that it was my neurophysiology that my awareness of the pain is based upon. But this is to use "based upon" in a different sense than how we're using it here. Huemer is talking about epistemology, not metaphysics. So, for example, some of my beliefs are based upon other beliefs. I believe that Saul isn't home and this is based on the fact that he didn't answer his door. So what, if anything, do I base my belief that I'm in pain upon? I don't see my neurophysiology as a reason in the relevant sense (i.e., some belief that I have that explains why I come to the conclusion that my ankle hurts). Indeed, it seems to me that this is an example of being directly aware.

I'm hoping that readers of this blog will provide some additional examples of direct awareness. Of course, you're welcome to discuss the pain example I just gave too.


Anonymous said...

The issue of "direct awareness" is a fascinating one in regard to mounting a response to skepticism.

Is the idea simply that, in opposition to the skeptic who thinks that we have to make an inference to the existence of the external world by saying that we are "directly aware" of ONLY our own mental states, we can counter by asserting that we are "directly aware" of the external world? This is to say that, if the distinction between "directly aware" and "indirectly aware" is explicated in terms of what we directly aprehend in the external world and what in the external world we make inferences to, then the notion of "direct awareness" of our own mental states lacks any clear sense.

And there is something to this, as the notion of being directly aware of my pain, for example, although we might be inclined (when thinking philosophically) to say such a thing, does seem odd. What is the difference between "being aware of being in pain" and "being in pain"? Have I really said anything more by using the expression "directly aware"?

This harkens back to Bertrand Russell who thought that we are only "directly aware" of something he called "sense data." In response, philosophers have challenged the notion of "being directly aware of sense data" as some kind of philosophical fiction (and confusion). No ordinary person would say such a thing!

Are you aware that it is raining? When would such a question be asked? (Perhaps when you are getting ready to leave the house and I notice that you don't take your umbrella.) When would I ask, "Are you directly aware that it is raining"? (This might mean, "Have you seen the rain for yourself, or have you just simply to the weather report?" The point is that if you want to know about the meaning a certain expressions, don't just think about it, but LOOK at how the expression is used in ordinary language.

Well, enough rambling for one blog.

Kelly D said...

Alright so my comment is going to be more of a question. I feel like maybe I'm thinking about this too abstractly and perhaps you could set my thinking straight! This particular sentence: "You are directly aware of x if you are aware of x, and your awareness is not based on your awareness of anything else." confuses me. You go on to say that Huemer says perception is direct awareness with the example of seeing and identifying a pen on your desk. Isn't your overall awareness and ability to identify the pen based on deducing information to conclude that it is indeed a pen. I mean we are all pretty familiar with pens at this point in our lives so its a learned reaction to quickly identify a pen - it happens in our brain so fast you might say its a reflex at this point. So is there ever really an instance where you are not identifying things by use of comparison (perhaps so quickly in your frame of perception that it doesn't even seem like you are comparing anymore - brains are amazing!). This would lead me to think that by definition of indirect awareness: "You are indirectly aware of x if you are aware of x, but your awareness of x is based on your awareness of something else" that no one could ever REALLY be directly aware of anything.

The same idea qualifies for your example of experiencing pain and what I said in class about some children being pampered more than others when they are injured. I've seen 5 year old children experience pretty similar knee scuffing injuries but have polar opposite responses to those injuries. In my mind I see it as sort of an "unconscious mind" response so to speak (but that may be opening a whole other can of worms!). They remember that the last time they had this sort of injury mom made a huge deal about it and sort of predisposed that child to how they would react to future injuries. Almost like setting a bar for how that child should react to the pain - no matter the actual degree of pain (whatever that is!)Does this make sense? What am I missing Jesse!

Jesse Steinberg said...


I see what you mean about the pen example, but maybe we should hold off on discussing Huemer's view until we get through the relevant chapters. Your example of the children have different reactions to pain is interesting. But does it show that we are only ever indirectly aware of pain? I wonder if your example simply shows that people sometimes have very different reactions to similar/identical stimuli. What does this show about awareness exactly? With all this in mind, consider a distinction between pain and pain-behavior. The pain is the experience that one has and the pain-behavior might include things like crying, wincing, saying "ouch," etc.

We might wonder how child X comes to know that she is in pain and compare this to child Y and how she comes to know that she is in pain. Do you think this is different when X and Y behave differently in response to the injury?

Kelly D said...


Hmm, perhaps my problem is how closely I am associating reactions to the idea of awareness. I feel like they go hand in hand. Almost like your reaction is equivalent to your awareness. Could you have one without the other?

I guess I just think there are way too many confounding variables associated with perception to ever truly be directly aware of stimuli. But this assumption may be me just getting off focus and relying too heavily on neurological studies (yet again!).

Drew said...

I guess my question is not going to be as lengthy as it should, but what about blind individuals? These folk do not really have a sense of their surroundings by sight(besides their other heightened senses). Therefore, when blind individuals read braille or decipher something not by sight, would that not be awareness?

Anonymous said...

Argument #1 (the argument for skepticism)

1) You are directly aware of your own subjective experiences (mental states

2) You are indirectly aware of the existence of external objects (to which you think that your subjective experiences refer)
3) You can only infer the existence of external objects from subjective experiences of which you are directly aware

4) You can never directly check to verify that your inference to the existence of external objects from subjective experiences of which you are directly aware is correct (justified)

Argument against #1

Argument #2

1) You can only be directly aware of something if there is a sense in which you can be indirectly aware of that something

2) It makes no sense to say that you are indirectly aware of your own subjective experiences

3) It is therefore senseless to claim that you are directly aware of your own subjective experiences (and thus, the first premise of Argument #1 is false or meaningless)

Anonymous said...

In the discussion so far, it seems that most contributors are comfortable with saying that a person can be “directly aware of being in pain.” I find this expression puzzling. Perhaps the temptation to say is has something to do with there being no way that sense can be made of being “indirectly aware of being in pain.” (Certainly, seeing an EEG of your brain with areas in the pain registration center lighting up would not be a case of being indirectly aware of being in pain. To be aware of being in pain is nothing more than to feel pain. What difference is there between: 1) I feel pain; 2) I am aware of being in pain; and 3) I am directly aware of being in pain?

Now in what sorts of cases do we say that we are indirectly aware as opposed to directly aware? Well, on first blush, it seems that cases of perception allow for this distinction. If I see your reflection in a mirror, I guess we would say that I don’t see you directly, but rather that I see you indirectly. I am directly aware of the image in the mirror and infer that you are being reflected in it. Hearing is another example. If I hear you talking over a telephone, do I hear you directly or only indirectly (as your voice is transmitted across the country to my office in California)? Actually, this latter case is a little strange. If you made a threat to me over the phone, and I testified in court about the threat – I might be tempted to say that I directly heard you threaten me. That is, if I knew it was you; that you said things in the conversation that only you could know; etc. Would the attorney for the defense be able to argue that I did not directly hear you threaten me?

What this suggests is that in ordinary language, we do talk about directly seeing things, hearing things, smelling things, tasting things, and touching things. This language, one might say, conceptually involves there being an external world that is the direct object of experiences. If so, then the skeptic has to say that ordinary language is mistaken in this regard. But, the difficulty is that when they try to say what they mean, they use ordinary concepts that aren’t used in the way they want.

My two cents on the matter.

Anonymous said...

Can we be directly aware of anything? A object is not light or a tactile sensation. The inability to penetrate an object's surface with one's hand, or solidity, belies the notion that both are, in reality, all but nothing. Regarding sensation, what are we directly aware of?