Sense data  

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In the philosophy of perception, the theory of sense data was a popular view held the early 20th century by philosophers such as Bertrand Russell, C. D. Broad, H. H. Price, A.J. Ayer and G.E. Moore, among others. Sense data are supposedly mind-dependent objects that we are aware of in perception, whose existence and properties are known directly to us, and about which we can be mistaken as it is a posteriori knowledge. Sense data are supposed representation of 'real' objects in the world outside the mind, about whose existence and properties we often can be mistaken.


Sense data theories have been criticised by philosophers such as J.L. Austin and Wilfrid Sellars (Sellars diagnosing in them The Myth of the Given), and more recently by Kevin O'Regan, Alva Noë and Daniel Dennett. Much of the early criticism may arise from a claim about sense data that was held by philosophers such as A. J. Ayer. This was that sense data really do have the properties they appear to have. Thus, in this account of sense data, the sense data that are responsible for the experience of a red tomato really "are red".

In one sense this is ridiculous, since there is nothing red in a brain to act as a sense datum. However, in another sense it is perfectly consistent—in the sense that the data "are red" when experienced directly, even though the physical processes of perception may not appear red if they were experienced in a contrived and inappropriately indirect way, such as by examining the brain of the experiencer with scientific instruments.

On some theories, the tomato itself is not red except in the eyes of a red-seeing being. Thus when one says that a neural state is or is not 'red' without referring the judgement of redness to the owner of the neurons concerned, there is an assumption that things can have innate appearances without reference to perceivers—which is implicitly denied by the sense data theory. Thus the criticism that sense data cannot really be red is made from a position of presupposition inconsistent with a theory of sense data—so it is bound to seem to make the theory seem wrong. More recent opposition to the existence of sense data appears to be simply regression to naïve realism.

By objectifying and partially externalising a Subject's basic experiences of the world as 'sense-data', positing their necessity for perception and higher order thinking and installing them permanently between the perceiving Subject and the 'real world', sense-data theories tend towards Solipsism. Attempts to repair this must avoid both obscurantism and over-dependence on psychology (and therefore empiricism, and potentially circularity).

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