Notes on the Given

– In another fascinating paper, Tim Crane looks at just what is given in experience. He divides the contents of experience into two distinct things: (1) what is ‘given’ – the phenomenoloigcal aspect – and (2) the ‘semantic’ or propositional aspect. Interestingly, Crane takes (2) to be a way of modeling (1), which is itself non-propositional and non-conceptual.

– (1) is non-conceptual and non-propositional because it is representational – we experience X in a certain, concrete way. This is the phenomenological aspect – while anyone else can look at X and see it, the specific representation of X to me now is had only by me.

– (2) models (1) in the following way: propositional content is that which can be abstracted from the phenomenological experience and shared with others  – this is the ‘abstract content’, while the phenomenological experience is the ‘real content’. Propositions model the ‘belief state’ or mental state in much the same way numbers model physical systems.

– (1), then, for Crane, has a priority over (2) since (1) is what’s being modeled.

– Crane develops his phenomenology against an intentionalist account of phenomenology, where, roughly, all experience is representational by virtue of all experience being propositional –  hence, the content of experience can be true or false and thus is something about which we can make a judgement. Different propositions can be associated with the same ‘concrete event’ – this is what Chalmers terms ‘content pluralism’. The trouble with this, Crane argues, is that it leads to multiple contents being conveyed to the subject through experience – which is fine it’s seen as a claim about the information delivered by experience:

‘ If it is a claim about the information which the experience delivers, or what kind of information can be derived from the fact that I am having this 14 experience, then it is not difficult to make sense of the claim (whether or not the claim is true). But if it is a description of the phenomenology of the experience, of what it is like to have an experience, then it is less clear what it means. When having a visual experience of the planet Venus in the evening, it does not seem as if many distinct (and possibly incompatible) contents are being conveyed to me. What is given or conveyed to me is a certain scene, a certain region of concrete reality, which seems like a reasonably unified thing. It does not seem like receiving multiple messages saying different things (even if these messages are relayed by different ‘content relations’).’

– What Crane argues is that what is conveyed by experience isn’t something that we can judge in such a way:

‘Nonetheless, it is not easy to make literal sense of the idea that what we take in in experience is what we can judge. When I judge, because of what I can see, that the pig is under the oak, this is something which in a certain way, abstracts from the real presence of the pig there. The content of the judgement can outlive the experience, it can be the content of others’ judgement, things can follow from it (for example, that something is underneath the oak). What can outlive the experience, of course, is the concrete state of affairs: the pig actually being under the oak. Could this be what is given to the subject? Maybe; but not according to the standard intentionalist account. This is because, for the standard intentionalist, what is given is something that can be true or false. But the pig being under the oak is not something that can be true or false. It is just something that is there. Nor is it something from which things follow. Things follow from truths or propositions; the pig being in the garden is not a truth or a proposition, but something in the world. And things in the world are not true or false.’

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Notes on Perception and Skills

– Interestingly, perceptual knowledge of facts doesn’t require perception of the object of said knowledge itself – we don’t need to perceive X to know a fact about X (consider how alarms or doorbells let us have perceptual knowledge of something which we don’t directly perceive).

– Derived knowledge is a species of identification: a is f because b is g. This knowledge requires learning to identify a is f from b is g.

– This learning begins as a conscious inference – explicitly moving from b is g to a is f – and as the identification skills develop, the inference fades away, as it were, and the derived knowledge becomes more and more psychologically immediate.

– Lurking in the background here is the fact that learning skills require ‘normal conditions’ in order to be able to properly use such skills. Internal/external factors, environment and other related things fall under ‘conditions’. Lurking further in the background is the idea of ‘proper function’, but that will require some more fleshing out.

A Problem for Direct Realism

Here I take a central thesis of a direct realism theory of perception to be the idea that if we are directly aware of objects, and not a sense-datum or idea, then we have to say that things such as colour must be such that reference can be made to them without reference to any subjective or phenomenal experience of perceivers- we cannot reference colour except by way of referencing it as we experience it, ergo phenomenal concepts. However, how can colour be referenced in a way that avoids phenomenal concepts and still be about colour in any coherent way?

John McDowell explains further, referencing J.L. Mackie’s view of primary and secondary qualities (in which experiences of, say, red do not need to be understood in terms of the experiences the red object gives rise to):

‘According to Mackie, this conception of primary qualities that resemble colours as we see them is coherent; that nothing is characterized by such qualities is established by merely empirical argument. But is the idea coherent? This would require two things: first, that colours figure in perceptual experience experience neutrally, so to speak, rather than as essentially phenomenal qualities of objects, qualities that could not be adequately conceived except in terms of how their possessors would look; and, second, that we command a concept of resemblance that would enable us to construct notions of primary qualities out of the idea of resemblance to such neutral elements of experience. The first of these is quite dubious…But even if we try to let it pass, the second seems to be impossible. Starting with, say, redness as it (putatively neutrally) figures in our experience, we are asked to form the notion of a feature of objects which resembles that, but which is adequately conceivable otherwise than in terms of how its possessors would look (since if it were adequately conceivable only in those terms it would be secondary). But the second part of these instructions leaves it wholly mysterious what to make of the first: it precludes the required resemblance being in phenomenal respects, but it is quite unclear what other sense we could make of the notion of resemblance to redness as it figures in our experience.’ (‘Values and Secondary Qualities’, in ‘Essays on Moral Realism’, ed. Geoffrey Sayre-Mccord, p. 169)

I think the following argument can thus be extracted:

Direct realism holds that reference to colour (or any phenomenal quality) can be made apart from phenomenal concepts – or, there is a neutral figuring in experience for colour.

We cannot reference colour except by way of phenomenal concepts – or, there is no neutral figuring in experience for colour.

Therefore, a direct realism theory of perception is false.

A Short Philosophy of Perception

A good definition of perception, in my opinion, is ‘to be aware of something’. We usually think of sight when we think of perception – that’s the knee-jerk definition, but obviously we can perceive through the other senses. I can perceive through smell, touch, hearing, taste, etc. There’s more to perception than biological processes, however.

Sense perception is both active and passive – passive in that my sense organs receive the sensory data of which I’m aware (they don’t manufacture the data) and active in that my sense organs are active things. My ears and eyes, though they are passive in the reception of data, aren’t simply sitting there, they are actively a part of the sense process.

Perception is more than just raw sensory perception, though – the mind plays an active role in the organization of sensory data into a meaningful and unified conscious experience. The mind can also perceive, though in a different way than sense perception – one can perceive a contradiction, for example. Again, there is an active and passive element to mental perception (and mental processes in general).

The interesting thing about perception, however, is that it’s not an act, or a deliberate thing, or something that we do – I can’t simply turn off or turn my sensory perception, or cease to be aware of things. There may be times when I’m not consciously aware of any given thing (someone may be in the room that I’m not aware of), of course, but that’s not something I can change by a kind of sensory act.

Beyond the active, conscious, sensory and mental aspects of perception, there’s the unconscious side of perception – and this unconscious perception shapes our conscious perception by shaping the way in which we perceive things. The sensory and mental aspects of perception are one part of the picture – the unconscious aspect can be thought of as a kind of formal cause to the conscious aspect. James K. A. Smith expounds the emotional aspect of perception in ‘Imagining the Kingdom: How Worship Works’:

‘Most often, and most fundamentally, there is an unarticulated (and inarticulable) set of dispositions and inclinations that are activated immediately upon perceiving a situation (my note: Smith refuses to think of perception in an abstract, subject-object way. Perception for Smith involves the whole person, and perception is always of a whole situation in all its grit and messiness) – because that perception is already an evaluation, a “take” a construal that is “seen” emotionally. The scene is colored with a certain affective hue that then inclines me to respond in certain ways. That emotional perception of a situation is not merely a hardwired, biological reflex…’ (p. 39)

The key thing to take away here is that perception is not a clean-cut process of noticing an object – perception isn’t static because the world isn’t static. To perceive is to perceive in a way that has been unconsciously shaped by our habits, which, by shaping our perception, shapes our actions in the world. The thing to note is that this means our perception is shaped by our action, which is shaped by our perception. Perception occurs at different levels, as I’ve already hinted at – there is conscious, active perception and deeper, unconscious levels of perception – these deeper levels are emotional levels, which were referred to in the quote above:

‘We have perceived and understood our situation in a certain light, although with little or no conscious reflection. This is a way of saying that our world (our situation) stands forth meaningfully to us at every waking instant, due primarily to processes of emotion and feeling over which we have little [conscious] control. And yet the situation is meaningful to us the most important, primordial and basic way that it can be meanginful – it shapes the basic contours of our experience. The situation specifies what will be significant to us, and what objects, events and persons mean to us at a pre-reflective level.’ (Mark Johnson, ‘The Meaning of the Body’, p. 59′, quoted in Smith, ‘Imagining the Kingdom’, p. 37)

Perception, as I’ve shown in this post, is a complex, multi-leveled phenomenon – far from being a mere static awareness, it’s an awareness that is shaped by what we do, which in turn shapes our awareness. There’s a lot of fertile ground here for further work – hopefully in the future I’ll do a bit more work on this subject. I’d like to tie in Polyani’s thought as well as Aristotelean.

Notes on Perception

I’ve been rolling things around my head about perception – it’s a fairly interesting topic.

– What’s a good definition of perception? I’ll start with: to be aware of something in a way that establishes some kind of relation between the perceiving agent and the perceived object. Broad and vague enough?

– Not being a materialist, I’m fine with thinking of God in terms of perception. Torrance makes a good analogy:

‘What is meant here by ’empirical’ is not just that which is sensible and tangible so much as the experienced imperceptible and intangible. For an analogy taken from natural science which may be helpful, reference may be made to the spacetime structure of the metrical field, which is inherently invisible or unobservable but which is nevertheless regulative of all our creaturely and phenomenal experience.’ (‘Reality and Evangelical Theology’, p. 39)

– So perception is empirical, in the sense of being an aspect of our conscious experience, but it’s not limited to the sensible only.

– Things that puzzled some philosophers, like distance (Berkely) can be seen as our perception of a kind of ontological relation (maybe). Distance isn’t a thing out there that we see – I don’t see a tree, and another tree, and then a third thing called distance – but I’m aware (I perceive) the distance between the two trees as an aspect of their relation. It is real, but it’s not a real ‘thing’. Perhaps an example from particle physics, where the relations are as important as the actual particles themselves.