Seminar on Cognitive Penetrability

From Louise Antony

Dear Colleagues and Students,

I will be teaching a seminar in Spring 2018 that might be of interest to students working in cognitive science. It will focus on the question whether perception can be “cognitively penetrated,” ie., whether cognitive states like belief and desire can literally change what we perceive. This issue has attracted a lot of attention from philosophers recently, partly because of its apparent implications for epistemology.

The seminar will meet Tuesdays from 4 to 6:30 in South College E301. Auditors — students or faculty — are most welcome!

Louise Antony

Philosophy 755-01 Philosophy of Mind

The topic of the seminar will be cognitive penetrability. The issue here is the relation between perception and cognition. Some theorists, like psychologist Zenon Pylyshyn and philosopher Jerry Fodor, argue that perception involves specialized computational modules that provide input to cognitive processes, but that are unaffected by central cognitive states, like belief and desire. They hold, in other words, that what you see (or hear or taste or touch or smell) is not affected by what you believe or want. In Pylyshyn’s terms, perceptual processing cannot be “penetrated” by cognition. Arguably, whether or not perception is cognitively penetrable has important consequences for epistemology: roughly, foundationalism is only possible if perception is not cognitively penetrable. If perception is cognitively penetrable, then it looks like some form of coherentism has to be true.

The view that perception is not cognitively penetrable has been challenged on empirical grounds. There is by now a huge body of literature arguing that one’s knowledge, goals, or associations can affect the way things appear. For example, Bhalla and Proffitt report that, in a task in which subjects are asked to judge the steepness of a hill, subjects wearing heavy backpacks judge the hill to be steeper than do subjects not wearing a backpack. Some of this literature has become canonical in the study of implicit bias – a study by Levin and Banaji, for instance, reports that categorizing faces as either racially black or racially white influences perceived darkness of skin tone of faces even when the stimuli have been matched for luminence. Philosophers have also challenged the view that perception is cognitively impenetrable. For example, Susanna Siegel argues that changes in a subject’s state of knowledge can affect the character of perceptual experience – that, for example, learning the Cyrillic alphabet changes the way a phrase in Cyrillic script looks, or that learning a foreign language alters the way speech in that language sounds. Some philosophers who adopt a Bayesian approach to perception, like Jacob Hohwy, contend that cognitive-level estimates of the conditional probability of a sensory experience’s having a given cause affect the course of perceptual processing.

Readings will include works by philosophers and psychologists, including: Fodor, Pylyshyn, Siegel (we’ll read at least some chapters of her new book The Rationality of Perception), Chaz Firestone & Brian Scholl, Fiona MacPherson, E.J. Green, Steven Gross, Jacob Hohwy, Edouard Machery, and Christopher Mole.