Featured Philosop-her: Susanna Siegel


Susanna Siegel is Edgar Pierce Professor of Philosophy at Harvard University. She is author of The Contents of Visual Experience (Oxford 2010), a book about perception and intentionality. She has recently published articles about perceptual justification, the influences of hopes, fears, beliefs, and prior knowledge on perception, wishful thinking, and the relationship between affordances and perception. She teaches a course in the General Education program on social protest and political philosophy, and contributes to the program in Mind, Brain, and Behavior.  She is committed to fostering analytic philosophy in Spanish, and together with Diana Acosta and Patricia Marechal, is hosting a series of philosophy workshops in Spanish at Harvard. The second workshop will take place in March of 2015.

The Rationality of Perception

Susanna Siegel

I’d like to thank Meena for starting and hosting PhilosopHer.

For a long time I’ve been interested in perception. Much work in Anglophone philosophy of perception has focused on two kinds of perception: “good” cases where perception puts us in contact with reality, and “bad” cases where we are unwittingly hallucinating or under a visual illusion of some sort. The distinction between good and bad cases is important. It is the start of enduring philosophical problems of skepticism about the external world. And if there were no good cases, both science and common sense would be called into question. Both rely heavily on observation.

I’m interested in a third category of perceptual states. It cross-cuts the good and bad cases, and it can help analyze desire, fear, a range of cultural phenomena. The third category is that sometimes perception is a sham. It purports to present things as they are, but behind the scenes, your own psychological states are stacking the deck, so that the way things appear ends up congruent with what you want, hope, fear, suspect, or already believe.

Here’s an example from Cordelia Fine’s (2010) book Delusions of Gender. She starts Chapter 1 with a quote from Jan Morris, a male-to-female transsexual describing her post-transition experiences in her autobiography Conundrum (1987). Morris writes,

“The more I was treated as a woman, the more woman I became. I adapted willy-nilly. If I was assumed to be incompetent at reversing cars, or opening bottles, oddly incompetent I found myself. If a case was thought too heavy for me, inexplicably I found it so myself.”

How does Morris’s being presumed incompetent by others come to be part of her own outlook on the world? This happens in part by influencing her perception of things in the world. Consider Morris’s perception of heaviness. This perception is a sham. It’s no surprise if the perceived heaviness of a suitcase is a function of how strong you are – even if, from your point of view, you seem to be simply taking in a feature of the suitcase. It’s more surprising if its perceived weight is a function of how strong you think you are – and if that belief can in turn be influenced so fluidly by what hoards of other people presume about you, regardless of your physical strength. What other people presume about you has nothing to do with the heaviness of the suitcase, and everything to do with social relationships.

So suppose Morris finds the suitcase to be heavy when she tries to lift it. Does Morris’s experience of its heaviness make it reasonable for her to believe that the suitcase is heavy? Yes or No? Both answers can seem plausible. No: It is fishy for her to believe that the suitcase is heavy, when what led to her perception of heaviness simply internalizing other people’s ill-founded underestimation of her competence. Her perception of heaviness is akin to a rationalization of the outlook on which she can’t lift it.  But at the same time, Yes: What else is she supposed to think about how heavy the suitcase is? If the suitcase feels heavy, then so long as she isn’t aware of any reason to discount the feeling, isn’t it reasonable for her to believe that it really is heavy? (Perhaps later, on reflection, Morris becomes aware of such reasons, but let’s focus on the moments before she is aware of any such reason.)  The philosophical problem is that both Yes and No answers to this question seem plausible.

This epistemological problem takes many forms. It can arise when the very contents of perceptual experience are influenced by what the subject fears, beliefs, wants, suspects, or knows. Some influences on the contents of experience have come to be called ‘cognitive penetration.’ This label applies widely. It isn’t always exactly what Fodor and Pylyshyn, and Churchland debated in the 1980’s under that label. (I talk a bit about the differences in “Epistemic Evaluability and Perceptual Farce”).

But the same problem can arise from psychological influences on the role of perceptual experience in what the subject goes on to believe.  For all Morris says (“I found it to be heavy…), perhaps the suitcase didn’t feel heavy, but she just thought it did. Morris might be making an introspective error about how heavy the suitcase feels. Or perhaps introspection isn’t involved at all, and Morris is jumping to the conclusion that the suitcase is heavy. Due to her outlook on herself (freshly inherited from those who presume she’s weak or incompetent), she believes that it is heavy, but if she were guided by her experience, she’d find the suitcase easy to lift.  Here, the perverse, ill-founded outlook makes her discount her experiences, preventing them from playing the prized epistemic role of regulating our beliefs.

So there are a number of ways in which perception might be influenced by the view of herself that Morris is gradually internalizing. This view of herself is obstructing her access to the world. And it is doing that, by making Morris perceive the world as the world would be, if the patriarchal presumptions that she encounters were true. If she were weak and incompetent, then the suitcase really would be heavy.

This kind of sham opens the possibility that perceptual experience itself might be epistemically evaluable. Philosophers often distinguish perception from reasoning. We reason from information we have already, whereas perception is a way of taking in new information. But in a perceptual sham, perception is hijacked as a means of apparently confirming the outlook that shapes it.

We’re familiar with the idea that perceptual judgments can be epistemically better or worse (more or less reasonable). In my book The Rationality of Perception (in draft), I argue that even perceptual experiences can be epistemically evaluable, due to the ways they are formed. Not every perceptual experience is epistemically evaluable. But some are. The epistemically evaluable experiences are outgrowths of the rest of our outlook on the world. When that outlook is epistemically ill-founded, so are the experiences they help generate.

If experiences could be epistemically evaluable, that would solve the epistemological problem posed by perceptual sham. Does Morris’s have reason from her experience to believe the suitcase is heavy, if it feels heavy and she can see no reason to doubt her experiences? No. Her experience is an outgrowth of an epistemically poor outlook on the world, according to which is incompetent in various ways. Her experience was formed unreasonably, due to influences of this outlook.  It is like an unjustified belief. It’s unsuitable for transmitting justification to subsequent beliefs about how heavy the suitcase is.

If I had more space, I’d discuss cases where perceptual experiences are outgrowths of well-founded outlooks on the world. Think of all the intelligence involved in the radiologist’s knowing which parts of an X-ray to focus on when she is studying it to see if there’s a tumor.  But here I’ll stick with the putative cases of ill-founded experiences.

If experiences can be epistemically evaluable due to the way they are formed, what exactly is it about the way that they’re formed that makes them epistemically evaluable?

A first answer is that some experiences result from inferences. What kind of inferences? The kind that bear on the rationality or irrationality of the subject. This kind contrasts with many pre-perceptual inferences discussed by psychologists, such as Helmholtz in the 19th century and today’s Bayesian theories of perceptual processing. Those inferences do not bear on the rationality or irrationality of the subject. I think that in addition to resulting from Helmholtzian inferences, experiences can also in principle result from an epistemically more significant kind of inference.

A second idea is that perceptual experiences can be epistemically evaluable by virtue of their relationships to fears or desires (including hopes and preferences). What kind of relationship? It doesn’t have a label, the way inference does. But we might call it ‘elaboration’. Consider experiences that are congruent with what you fear or want. For instance, an acrophobe (someone afraid of heights) on a balcony will typically overestimate its height from the ground.  (Stefanucci, J. K., & Proffitt, D. R. 2009. “The roles of altitude and fear in the perception of height”. Journal of experimental psychology. Human perception and performance, 35(2), 424-38.) Non-acrophobes are also poor at estimating height. But the misestimates of acrophobes are in the direction of exaggerating the distance to the ground. Why? One explanation is that a greater distance from the ground is more congruent with their fear than a smaller distance. If fear makes the chance of falling salient to you, and the greater the height, the more dangerous the fall, then an experience of a higher balcony rationalizes the fear. It makes the fear seem reasonable.

A similar phenomenon is found in desire. An advertiser might try to move you to buy something, by getting you to want it. How do they get you to want it? They present it in a way they think you will find desirable. Tim Scanlon and Peter Railton have emphasized ways in which desires are closely related to representations of the world that are congruent with them. But now consider a case where a desire you have already influences how things appear to you. You’re tired, you want to plop down and rest. You see a bed. It looks fluffy! It might even look as if it is beckoning you to plop down and rest. Here, the way the bed looks to you could be an outgrowth of your desire to rest. The perceptual experience of the bed as fluffy is an outgrowth of your desire. The outgrowth could operate via attention – you attend to features of the bed that it really has. Or it could operate in some other way: your experience exaggerates the fluffiness of the bed.

How could these relationships between fear and experience, or between desire and experience, be epistemically evaluable? If fears can be well-founded or ill-founded, then when the fear is elaborated into an experience, the experience could inherit the ill-founded or well-founded character of the fear. What about desire? It’s a long-standing question in moral philosophy whether desires can be fitting or ill-fitting. In the special case of a preference to maintain a belief, the notion of ill-fittingness is easy to grasp. (This preference is central to the analysis of belief polarization and other forms of motivated cognition).

Here’s a hypothesis. The elaboration of fear or desire into experience is mediated by confidence that things in the world are congruent with the fear. Whether or not fear or desire are independently well-fitting or ill-fitting, the confidence that the world is congruent with the fear or desire is clearly something that can be more or less reasonable.

Where can this analysis say about Morris? Morris ‘adapts willy-nilly’ to the presumption of incompetence that she finds herself subject to. How could other people’s presumptions influence her perception? They could influence it by influencing her confidence in those presumptions. Surrounded by social reality where those presumptions operate, one’s own confidence in those presumptions could easily gravitate upward. That is one kind of social construction in action. And once one’s confidence in such presumptions gravitates upward, it can mediate the influence of fear and preference on perception. The situation is ripe for elaboration and inference – two routes by which perception itself can be drawn into the domain of epistemic norms.

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