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Experiencing Colours and Shapes1
Imagine that you are looking at a red, round tomato. What properties does your experience represent the object as having? Presumably your experience represents the object as red and round, but does it also represent it as being a tomato, and as being bought from Sainsbury’s as opposed to Tesco’s? Some philosophers think that visual experience represents only a narrow range of properties, for instance, colour, shape, size and location properties, whilst other philosophers think that visual experience represents a much larger range of properties, including natural kind, artificial kind and semantic properties. Philosophers in the first camp include Colin McGinn, Alan Millar and Tyler Burge, and philosophers in the second camp include Susanna Siegel and Christopher Peacocke. In this paper, I shall offer a new argument for thinking that the philosophers in the first camp are right.
I understand the notion of perceptual representation as follows. To say that a visual experience represents an object, x, as red, is to say that x looks red. Hence the central question of this paper concerns which properties objects can look to have—can an
For helpful comments and discussions, thanks to Tim Williamson, Rory Madden, Geoff Lee, Hemdat Lerman, Susanna Siegel, David Chalmers, Matthew Soteriou, Wylie Breckenridge, Anders Nes and Bill Brewer.
object look to be a tomato in the same way that an object can look to be red? The notion of perceptual representation is also connected with the notion of veridicality. If experience represents an object, x, as F, then the experience is veridical only if x is F. Hence, if x is not F, then the experience is not veridical, and if x is F, then the experience is at least partly veridical.
To show that experience does not represent the property of being a tomato, I shall rely on the following principle:
P: Necessarily, for any properties, x and y, if something can be x without being y, and if experience can represent something as x, then experience is able to represent something as x without representing it as y, unless y is an enabling condition for experience.
Two properties that satisfy principle P are the properties of being red and being square. Something can be red without being square; experience is capable of representing something as red; and experience is capable of representing something as red without representing it as square.
The argument for principle P consists in considering what would have to be the case for it to be false. For P to be false, there would have to be two properties, x and y, such that something can be x without being y, but for some reason it is not possible to
represent x without representing y. What would explain the fact it is not possible to represent x without representing y, given that something can be x without being y?
Consider the property of being brown and the property of being rusty. Prima facie, these properties may appear to be a counter-example to P, since although something can be rusty without being brown, it is not clear whether something can look rusty without looking brown. However, I do not think that these properties are a counterexample; let me explain. Imagine a world, w1 , in which rusty things were green. There would surely be the same inclination in w1 to say that something could look rusty and green as there is in our world to say that something can look rusty and brown. So if something can look rusty at all, then one should accept that it is in principle possible for something to look rusty without looking brown.
The reason for the final condition in principle P that refers to enabling conditions of experience is due to the following case. Consider the property of being red and the property of having a brightness level greater than zero. Something can certainly be red without having a brightness level greater than zero, yet it seems impossible to represent something as red without representing it as having a brightness level greater than zero. This is because to represent anything at all you must represent it as having a brightness level greater than zero—that is, having a brightness level greater than zero is an enabling condition of experience. The moral of this is that whenever there are enabling conditions of experience such that they are always represented in perception, all other properties that
are capable of being represented will be represented alongside these enabling conditions. Hence the need for the final condition.
I shall now turn to my main argument. Consider two properties for x and y. The first is the property of being a tomato. The second is the property of having all the highly specific colour and shape properties relevant to the appearance of a given tomato. I shall call this latter property the agglomeration property, which is just an abbreviation for certain colour and shape properties. Something can have the agglomeration property without having the tomato property, for instance a wax tomato, and it is widely accepted that experiences can represent the colour and shape properties contained in the agglomeration property. Given that being a tomato is not an enabling condition of experience, principle P requires that experience is therefore able to represent the agglomeration property without the tomato property. Let us take such an experience that is representing the agglomeration property without the tomato property. This gives rise to a problem: how must one’s experiences change in order to start representing the tomato property in addition to the agglomeration property? What would justify one in thinking that one’s experiences have started to represent this extra property? In general, what is the perceptual difference between representing the collection of colour and shape properties of a certain tomato, and representing the property of being a tomato in addition to the collection of colour and shape properties? I call this the perceptual difference problem.
One response that does not seem promising to me would to argue that, although the tomato property is not an enabling condition for representing all properties in experience, it is an enabling condition for representing the agglomeration property. This does not seem plausible, however. Imagine a world in which lemons, rather than tomatoes, had the tomato-agglomeration property (i.e. were red and round); there would surely be just the same inclination to say that, in such a world, subjects who represented the tomato-agglomeration property represented the lemon property as there is in the actual world to say that subjects who represent the tomato-agglomeration property represent the tomato property. So it is not plausible that representing the tomato property is a necessary condition, or equivalently an enabling condition, for representing the agglomeration property.
I am going to consider three lines of response to the perceptual difference problem, and I shall argue that none of them is successful. The first response is the phenomenological response, on which when you know what kind of thing a tomato is, your experiences acquire a new phenomenology that represents the property of being a tomato. The second response is the dispositionalist response, which says that if you are disposed to judge that something is a tomato on the basis of certain experiences, that is sufficient for those experiences to represent the property of being a tomato. The third response is the causal view, on which if experiences of a certain kind are normally caused by tomatoes, that is sufficient for experiences of that kind to represent the property of being a tomato.
Response (1): the phenomenological response
According to this response, recently defended by Susanna Siegel in ‘Which Properties Are Represented in Perception?’ (Siegel, forthcoming), when you come to recognise something as a tomato, your experiences of tomatoes acquire a new phenomenology which represents the property of being a tomato. Similarly when you come to recognize someone as Bob, or a face in a random array of dots, or spoken Russian, your respective experiences acquire new phenomenological properties which represent respectively the properties of being Bob, being a picture of a face, being Russian. In general, then, this view is that recognition of the object of experience produces new phenomenological properties within the experience which are best explained by the presence of additional content in the experience.
Let us define the new phenomenology that is produced upon visually recognizing something as a tomato as the ‘tomato-phenomenology’. I shall argue that it is implausible to think that the tomato-phenomenology intrinsically represents the property of being a tomato, independently of any externalist considerations about whether there are tomatoes in one’s environment. But, I shall argue, once an externalist component is added, the relevance of the new tomato-phenomenology to the question of what properties the experience represents disappears.
Consider a twin-earth on which there is a fruit superficially indistinguishable, but different, from the tomato, which we can call the twin-tomato. When twin-Oscar acquires
the concept twin-tomato and comes to recognise twin-tomatoes as twin-tomatoes, it seems plausible that his experiences caused by twin-tomatoes will acquire the very same new phenomenology that tomatoes acquire on earth when Oscar acquires the concept tomato and comes to recognise objects as tomatoes. This is because there need be nothing in the new phenomenology that is sensitive to the precise biological/historical difference between tomatoes and twin-tomatoes. Yet if the new tomato-phenomenology in question intrinsically represents the property of being a tomato, independently of any externalist considerations, then we will be committed to thinking that twin-Oscar non-veridically represents twin-tomatoes as tomatoes, and this seems implausible. After all, twin-Oscar has just as good grounds for saying that the illusions are occurring on earth.
It follows that an externalist component is needed in the account. One way of adding such a component would be to argue that the tomato-phenomenology represents the property of whatever normally causes it. On earth, what normally causes the tomatophenomenology are tomatoes, and on twin-earth, what normally causes it are twintomatoes. But, with this component, the view essentially reduces to the causal view which I mentioned above and which I shall discuss below. What is now making the experience represent the property of being a tomato is the causal relation holding between some phenomenology and tomatoes. It needn’t be any particular phenomenology—for instance, had there been some other phenomenology in the experience that was normally caused by tomatoes, that other phenomenology would have represented the property of being a tomato. For instance imagine a possible world in which apple-phenomenology— the phenomenology that, in the actual world, is normally caused by recognition of
apples—was normally caused by tomatoes. In that world, apple-phenomenology would represent the property of being a tomato. What is doing the representational work, then, is that there is some phenomenology that is normally caused by tomatoes. It needn’t be tomato-phenomenology rather than simply red-and-round phenomenology. So, on the amendment we have been considering, the guiding idea of the phenomenological view has been lost, namely that the new phenomenology produced by recognizing something as a tomato has some special role to play in explaining how experience comes to represent the property of being a tomato.
Response (2): the dispositionalist account:
According to the dispositionalist view of experience, if one is disposed to judge that something is a tomato, on the basis of certain experiences, then that is sufficient for those experiences to represent the property of being a tomato. Very similar to the dispositional view is a view we can call the ‘recognition’ view. On the recognition view, after one acquires the concept tomato, and becomes familiar with tomatoes, one acquires a visual recognitional capacity for tomatoes that gets absorbed into the content of experience in such a way that one’s experiences come to represent the property of being a tomato. If I have read him correctly, Christopher Peacocke has recently endorsed this view in The Realm of Reason. The recognition view seems to me the same view as the dispositional view. Consider the twin-earth scenario again. Oscar and twin-Oscar are able to recognize tomatoes and twin-tomatoes respectively on the basis of visual experiences representing the very same agglomeration property of colours and shapes. What can
explain how Oscar comes to have a recognitional capacity for tomatoes, whilst twinOscar comes to have a recognitional capacity for twin-tomatoes? One option would be to say that Oscar applies the concept tomato when he exercises his recognitional capacity for tomatoes, whereas twin-Oscar applies the concept twin-tomato when he exercises his recognitional capacity for twin-tomatoes. Since judgement is essentially the application of concepts, this option amounts to the dispositional view of perception. One could argue that what makes Oscar’s and twin-Oscar’s recognitional capacities different is that they are caused by different kinds of thing. This option would amount to the causal view, which I shall discuss below. The important point at this stage is that the recognition view does not count as a view distinct from either of the theories of perceptual representation covered in this paper. For simplicity, in the rest of this section I shall assume that the recognition view is the same as the dispositional view, rather than the causal view, and I shall use ‘disposition to judge’ and ‘recognitional capacity’ interchangeably.
Although it is rarely made explicit, the dispositionalist view seems to me to be a view held by many philosophers. I think, for instance, that it is the natural way of construing certain claims about the shape, colour, and size constancy of perception—the idea that an object looks the same colour under different types of illumination, or that an object looks the same size at different distances from the subject. However, I won’t defend this particular claim here.
According to the dispositionalist view, some of the content of experience is constituted by what the subject is disposed to judge. Let us call this ‘dispositional’
content. The various reasons why philosophers have thought that experience has a nonconceptual content support the idea that at least some of the content of experience is not dispositional—that it is possible to represent some properties in experience without having the corresponding dispositions to judge. For instance, it is plausible that we can discriminate more shades of colour than we have colour concepts for; that non-concept possessing animals can have essentially the same perceptual experiences as us; and that we are able to acquire empirical concepts on the basis of experience, which would seem impossible if experience consisted in the application of empirical concepts. Let us call that part of the content of experience that is not constituted by what one is disposed to judge ‘non-dispositional content’.
Given the examples that motivate non-dispositional content, it is plausible that one can non-dispositionally represent colour and shape properties. Can one nondispositionally represent the property of being a tomato? Consider the perceptual difference argument again: assume now that one’s experiences are non-dispositionally representing the colour and shape properties of a given tomato; how would your experiences have to change in order to start non-dispositionally representing the property of being a tomato in addition to the colour and shape properties of the tomato? The dispositionalist answer to this question is now ruled out. If no theory is capable of answering this question, then we can take ourselves to have shown that, even by the lights of the dispositional view, if experience does represent the property of being a tomato, it does so in a different way from the way in which it represents colour and shape properties.
However, in what follows, I shall argue that there is no dispositional content in experience. My first argument is that the dispositionalist is committed to thinking that experiences that we would normally describe as non-veridical in fact have selfcontradictory contents. Consider a case in which a subject is looking at a white piece of paper through a red pane of glass which she knows is there. The piece of paper looks red, but, given that the subject knows that the red pane of glass is there, she is disposed to judge that piece of paper is in fact white. According to the above construal of the dispositionalist theory, the experience non-dispositionally represents the paper as red, but dispositionally represents it as white. It follows that the overall content of the experience is that a contradictory state of affairs obtains: the experience represents that the paper is both white and red. That the dispositionalist view entails that such an experience has a self-contradictory content seems to be a reductio ad absurdum of the dispositionalist view. It is implausible that, simply because you are disposed to disagree with the way the world is presented to you in experience, it follows that the experience represents that a contradictory state of affairs obtains.
My second argument is that there seems to be no constraint on what kinds of dispositions to judge a subject may have, and yet there do seem to be constraints on what sorts of properties a perceptual experience may represent. Consider the property of being Tony Blair’s favourite fruit. I may be disposed to recognise tomatoes as Tony Blair’s favourite fruit, yet it seems implausible that I would thereby perceptually represent tomatoes as Tony Blair’s favourite fruit. What makes this implausible is that it entails
that my experience on one such occasion would have been non-veridical had Tony Blair woken up and decided then that he preferred pears to tomatoes that day.
The dispositionalist could try to avoid this conclusion by saying that only those judgements that are made rational by experience become part of the content of the experience. What it is for a judgement to be made rational by experience would then be a significant question, but one idea would be a matter of the subject possessing evidence that, if they were having that kind of experience, the judgement would probably be true. But if this is the rational constraint, then it is clear that the judgement that something is Tony Blair’s favourite fruit meets it: one can, after all, have evidence that if something looks a certain way, then it is Tony Blair’s favourite fruit.
Response (3): The causal view
I shall now turn to consider a different view of how experience comes to represent the property of being a tomato. On this view, if one’s Z-type experiences are normally caused by tomatoes, then that is sufficient for one’s Z-type experiences to represent the property of being a tomato. This view of the content of experience has been endorsed by a number of writers, including David Chalmers (forthcoming).
Let us call the content of experience that is constituted by what normally cause the experience the ‘causal’ content. Just as when we were considering the dispositional view, it seemed plausible that there was some content of the experience that was non-
dispositional, equally it now seems plausible that there must be some content of the experience that is not causal content. For instance, it seems that a stick can look bent to a subject, owing to unusual lighting conditions, even though the subject has only ever been in causal contact with straight things. Also it seems that something can look blue to a subject, owing to unusual lighting conditions, even though the subject has never actually been in causal contact with anything blue. Let us call the part of the content of the experience that is not constituted by what experiences are normally caused by ‘noncausal’ content. Can experience non-causally represent the property of being a tomato? Consider the perceptual difference argument again: assume now that a subject’s experiences are non-causally representing the colour and shape properties of a given tomato; how must those experiences change in order to start non-causally representing the property of being a tomato? The causal view is now ruled out as an answer to this question. If no theory is capable of answering this question, then we can take ourselves to have shown that, even by the lights of the causal view, if experience does represent the property of being a tomato, it does so differently from the way in which it represents colour and shape properties.
However, I shall now argue that there is no causal content in experience, by discussing various problems facing this view. To recap, according to the causal view, if one’s Z-type experiences are normally caused by tomatoes, then that is sufficient for one’s Z-type experiences to represent the property of being a tomato. The first problem with this view, which I call the ‘plurality’ problem, is due to the fact that there are many normal causes of a given experience, and yet it is implausible to think that experience
represents every single one of them. The second problem, which I call the ‘individuation’ problem, concerns how to choose the correct way of individuating a given experience, since this affects what counts as the relevant normal causal relations that determine the content of the experience.
I shall start with the plurality problem, which I shall argue there are two kinds of, namely a horizontal problem and a vertical problem. Firstly, the horizontal problem. There are a number of properties which are co-extensive with the property of being a tomato, and which are causally relevant to a subject having Z-type experiences, but which it is implausible to think experience represents. Consider the property of having a certain nitrate level. It might well be that standard tomatoes have a fairly unique nitrate level in the actual world. That they have this nitrate level is also causally relevant to how they look (had they had different nitrate levels, they would have looked to have different colours and shapes). Thus experiences that are normally caused by tomatoes are also normally caused by objects with particular nitrate levels. However it seems implausible to think that those experiences represent the property of having certain nitrate levels. There is, in fact, a large set of properties, all coextensive with the property of being a tomato, and all causally relevant to how tomatoes look. The horizontal problem is the problem of saying which of the properties in this set are represented, given that not all of them are represented.
The second kind of plurality problem is the vertical problem. All human experiences are caused by the Big Bang, yet clearly not all human experiences represent
the property of being the Big Bang. Similarly, reddish experiences are normally caused by light of a certain wavelength hitting the retina, but reddish experiences do not represent the property of light of a certain wavelength hitting the retina. The vertical problem is the problem of picking out from the causal chain of events leading from the Big Bang to the neural stimulation in the brain, which events we should count as the ones that the experience represents. The challenge facing the causal theorist is to find a way of restricting the class of normal causes of an experience to just those that are relevant to determining the content of the experience. There are strong theoretical reasons for thinking that the vertical problem will be hard to answer. As David Lewis has argued, picking out an event as ‘the’ cause of some event, and calling the rest mere causal factors or causal conditions, is simply a matter of what we are interested in. (Lewis, 1993, 1956).
The second problem I call the ‘individuation’ problem. The individuation problem concerns how to individuate the relevant ‘kind’ of experience whose causal relations to the world determine the content of experience. Consider an experience of a straight stick partially immersed in water. What counts as the normal causes of this experience depends on how we individuate the experience. For instance, if we individuated the experience as an experience with ‘bent-line’ phenomenology, then this kind of experience will probably be normally be caused by bent lines, and the experience will represent the property of being a bent line. But if we individuate the experience as an experience with ‘bent-line amid water-like conditions’ phenomenology, where ‘water-like’ refers to whatever phenomenology one has in at least some watery conditions, then this kind of experience
will probably be normally caused by straight sticks partially immersed in water, and so the experience will represent the property of being a straight stick partially immersed in water. But this is a quite different content specifying quite different veridicality conditions for the experience. It seems difficult in principle to decide what the correct way of individuating the experience is, and thus what the causal content of a given experience would be.
I shall mention one final problem for the causal theory. According to the causal theory, once a subject’s reddish, roundish experiences have normally been caused by tomatoes, then it is no longer possible to have reddish, roundish experiences that do not represent the property of being a tomato. Yet consider the following scenario: a subject’s green experiences have normally been caused by green squares. This does not mean that it is no longer possible for the subject to have green experiences without representing the property of being a green square. For consider the first green circle that the subject comes across: the subject will represent this as a green circle, not as a green square, even though her green experiences have normally been caused by green squares. But why is there this difference? Why is it that if green experiences have normally been caused by green squares, that does not mean that all green experiences henceforth will represent the property of being a green square; yet if reddish, roundish experiences have normally been caused by tomatoes, then henceforth all reddish roundish experiences will represent the property of being a tomato? The causal view must concede that there is a difference here but it does not have an adequate explanation for this difference.
I have argued that any view which holds that experience can represent the property of being a tomato faces the perceptual difference challenge, namely saying how one’s experiences must change in order for them to go from representing just the colour and shape properties of a tomato to representing the property of being a tomato in addition to the colour and shape properties of the tomato. I think that that the perceptual difference challenge can be straightforwardly generalized to apply to all properties that are not colour, shape, size and location properties. And, given that all the responses to the perceptual difference challenge that we considered above faced serious problems, we may conclude that experience does not represent any properties other than colour, shape, size and location properties.
D. Chalmers, forthcoming, ‘Perception and The Garden of Eden’, in Perceptual Experience, eds. T. Gendler and J. Hawthorne, Oxford: OUP. D. Lewis, 1993, ‘Causation’, in Causation, eds. Sosa and Tooley, Oxford: OUP. C. Peacocke, 2004, The Realm of Reason, Oxford: OUP S. Siegel, forthcoming, ‘Which Properties Are Represented in Perception?’, in Perceptual Experience, eds. T. Gendler and J. Hawthorne, Oxford: OUP.
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