Transparency in perceptual experience [dissertation]

I am now looking at my computer and so am having a visual experience of it. When I try to introspect and focus on my visual experience itself I am only able to fix on my laptop. My visual experience is thus ‘transparent’ to me. Many philosophers think that this shows us something interesting about the nature of visual experience. I disagree. Instead, I argue that the significance of transparency is epistemic in that it forces us to ask how we are able to think and know about our own visual experiences given that we cannot introspect them. My answer to this question is that our visual experiences are postulates that we introduce in order to explain certain epistemic and behavioral phenomena that we observe in ourselves and others. Visual experience, then, is not something introspectively evident to us; rather, our understanding of it is, even in our own case, theoretical. [Available by request. Full dissertation abstract here.]

Transparency and Opacity [under review]

We are able to think of ourselves and others as having visual experiences. How are we able to do this? A natural answer is that we first develop the ability to think about our own visual experiences on the basis of our introspective awareness of them. We then somehow extend that understanding of ourselves to others. I criticize this view by showing that we fail to have the kind of introspective access to our own visual experience on which the approach depends. This has the function of problematizing our ability to think about our own visual experiences. In response to this I develop the view that our understanding of our own visual experiences is theoretical. Rather than things which are introspectively manifest to us, our own visual experiences are postulates that are introduced to explain epistemic and behavioral phenomena which we observe. The broader philosophical significance of this is discussed.

the look of things [under review]

The thought that illusions somehow threaten our direct perceptual access to the environment continues to tempt philosophers of perception. Contemporary writers like Antony, Brewer, Genone and Travis hold that illusion poses no such threat because, strictly speaking, there is no such thing as illusion. These authors conceive of the way an object looks, or otherwise appears, as a mind-independent feature of that object. Thus, when a white object looks pink in red light, our experience is not illusory because the object possesses the property we experience it as having: the mind-independent property of looking pink. Against this, I argue that there are aspects of certain perceptual phenomena, like the Hermann Grid illusion and chromatic adaptational effects, that are endogenously produced and so cannot be understood in terms of the awareness of mind-independent features of the relevant stimuli. [Draft available by request.]

The opposite of Berkeley's puzzle

In a recent book with Quassim Cassam, John Campbell argues that sensational accounts of perceptual experience face 'Berkeley’s puzzle'. The puzzle is how we are able to think of a mind-independent world on the basis of perception if perception is merely the having of inner sensations. Campbell's solution to this puzzle is to abandon a sensational view of perception and to replace it with one which regards perception as a matter of being directly related to the mind-independent world. Even if it does solve Berkeley's puzzle, I argue that any view of this kind faces a puzzle that pulls in the opposite direction. What becomes problematic is how such a view could account for our ability to think and know about our perceptual experiences themselves. [Draft available by request]

Perceiving the world as mind-independent

Many claims about the phenomenology of visual experience involve the idea that in vision we experience items as mind-independent. While I agree that it is natural to describe what we see as mind-independent, it is difficult to make sense of the idea that things look mind-independent. Instead, I locate mind-independence in the content of a certain propositional attitude type, which I call seeming, that is very closely tied to visual phenomenology. In particular I argue that it is the spatial character of visual phenomenology that makes the visible world seem mind-independent to us. I argue for this thesis on the basis of the role of occlusion in visual experience. [Draft available by request.]

Contemporary philosophers of perception tend to treat illusion as an explanatory constraint: any adequate theory of perception must be able to account for the occurrence of illusion. Thought of this way, illusion needn't be of very much significance for theory choice in the philosophy of perception. This is because it could be that many different theories of can account for illusion. If we look to the early Analytic period and philosophical writing about perception during the middle of the twentieth century we see a more demanding conception of the importance of illusion. In these periods it was often held that the possibility of illusion requires the truth of the sense-datum theory of perception. The justification typically given for this is the so-called argument from illusion. One common complaint against this argument is that it trades on a confusion about the intentionality of perception. A close look at early presentations of the argument shows that this complaint is without merit. Furthermore, we can identify a distinctive motivation for the argument which connects to dissatisfaction with contemporary intentional approaches to perception.

The importance of illusion

When I look at a tomato I know that I am seeing the tomato rather than experiencing it tactually. How do I know this? One possibility, pursed by Tim Crane, John Searle and others, is that I know that I am seeing the tomato rather than touching it because my seeing has a distinctively visual quality to which I am sensitive. I argue that this approach is phenomenologically implausible and that it is unnecessary. It is phenomenologically implausible because there is nothing in ordinary visual experience answering to the visual quality which Searle and Crane discuss. It is unnecessary because knowledge that one is seeing can be grounded in knowledge of what one is aware of in having such an experience, together with one's grasp of a generic concept of sight.

Knowing the way we experience

There has been recent interest in the idea that things can look ‘real’ in perception or that there is a kind of ‘phenomenological objectivity’ that attaches to many of the things we experience. But what is it for something to feel real? How can we know whether something feels real to us? I want to explore these questions against the background of my work concerning experienced mind-independence and spatiality in perception. Can we understand realness in perception in terms of mind-independence? And how do these issues relate to clinical concerns about schizophrenic patients with ‘insight’ into the fact that they are hallucinating? Can we better understand realness in perception by better understanding how clinicians develop insight in their patients?

Feeling like it’s really there