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Not All Sensory Systems Are Information Channels

What distinguishes sensory systems from other biological adaptations? The standard answer is that an organism’s sensory systems are channels for receiving information about its environment. I argue that this account is mistaken. I begin by identifying a core problem that sensory systems have evolved to address, and go on to show that there are two ways sensory systems confront the problem. Information use is integral to one of the solutions, but not to the other. One important consequence of the discussion is that theorists routinely overestimate the extent to which plants utilize information in their tropistic responses to environmental conditions.

Biologically Successful Perception without Accuracy

It is generally allowed that perceptual accuracy is sometimes sacrificed for other goods like speed or energy efficiency. At the same time, we might suppose that some degree of accuracy is required if perception is going to fulfill its selected-for purpose. Palmer (1999) endorses this point of view: “Evolutionarily speaking, visual perception is useful only if it is reasonably accurate.” In this paper I identify an important kind of exception to Palmer’s view that accuracy is integral to the success of perceptual tasks found in nature. On the standard way of thinking about accuracy in psychophysics, accuracy needs to be distinguished from inter-observer reliability. My central claim is that biologically successful perception sometimes depends on inter-observer reliability rather than accuracy. The biological utility of inter-observer reliability is on display in the phenomenon of sensory exploitation, a key driver of sexual selection.

The following is my best, most accessible paper:

An alternative to the causal theory of perception, forthcoming in Australasian Journal of Philosophy

Proponents of the causal theory of perception have applied the theory to questions about which particular objects or events are perceived, which parts are perceived, and which properties are perceived. In each case they insist that successful perception is causally dependent on what is perceived. The causal theory rests on an important insight regarding the information-carrying role of perception. In order to succeed in this role, perception cannot be grounded in spurious correlations. But we can respect this insight without embracing the idea that a successful percept must be causally dependent on what is perceived. A correlation in nature can also be genuine or lawful when it arises from a common cause. I show how successful perception is frequently achieved through correlation via a common cause.

A role for representations in inflexible behavior, Biology & Philosophy 35 (2020): 1-18

Representationalists have routinely expressed skepticism about the idea that inflexible responses to stimuli (e.g. reflexive responses like the pupillary light reflex) are to be explained in representational terms. Representations are supposed to be more than just causal mediators in the chain of events stretching from stimulus to response, and it is difficult to see how the sensory states driving reflexes are doing more than playing the role of causal intermediaries. One popular strategy for distinguishing representations from mere causal mediators is to require that representations are decoupled from specific stimulus conditions. I believe this requirement on representation is mistaken and at odds with explanatory practices in sensory ecology. Even when sensory states have the job of coordinating a specific output with a specific input, we can still find them doing the work of representations, carrying information needed for organisms to respond successfully to environmental conditions. We can uncover information at work by intervening specifically on the information conveyed by sensory states, leaving their causal role undisturbed.

Aristotle on Perception as Representation, In: Bennett D., Toivanen J. (eds) Philosophical Problems in Sense Perception: Testing the Limits of Aristotelianism. Studies in the History of Philosophy of Mind (2020), vol 26.

Aristotle speaks of perception as having a content that is assessable in terms of truth and falsity. Why might Aristotle have been drawn to a view of perception as representational (as opposed to presentational) in nature? That is the question I aim to address in this paper. I am inclined to think that Aristotle takes perception to be representational rather than presentational because perception sometimes involves having in mind things which are not, strictly speaking, present.

Review of Nicholas Shea’s Representation in Cognitive Science, Mind 130 (2021): 281-290.

The Senses as Signalling Systems, Australasian Journal of Philosophy 96 (2018): 519-531 [nominated for Philosopher’s Annual 2018]

A central goal of philosophy of perception is to uncover the nature of sensory capacities. Ideally, we would like an account that specifies what conditions need to be met in order for an organism to count as having the capacity to sense or perceive its environment. And on the assumption that sensory states are the kinds of things that can be accurate or inaccurate, a further goal of philosophy of perception is to identify the accuracy conditions for sensory states. In this paper I recommend a novel approach to these core issues, one that draws heavily on game-theoretic treatments of signaling in nature. A benefit of the approach is that it helps us to understand why biologists attribute sensory powers to such a diverse range of organisms, including plants, fungi, and algae.

Sensory Malfunctions, Limitations, and Trade-Offs, Synthese 195 (2018): 1705-1713

Teleological accounts of sensory normativity treat normal functioning for a species as a standard: sensory error involves departure from normal functioning for the species, i.e. sensory malfunction. Straightforward reflection on sensory trade-offs reveals that normal functioning for a species can exhibit failures of accuracy. Acknowledging these failures of accuracy is central to understanding the adaptations of a species. To make room for these errors we have to go beyond the teleological framework and invoke the notion of an ideal observer from vision science. The notion of an ideal observer also sheds light on the important distinction between sensory malfunction and sensory limitation.

On the Generality of Experience: A Reply to French and GomesPhilosophical Studies 173 (2016), 3223-3229 (w/Neil Mehta)

According to phenomenal particularism, external particulars are sometimes part of the phenomenal character of experience. Mehta (J Philos 111:311–331, 2014) criticizes this view, and French and Gomes (Philos Stud 173(2):451–460, 2016) have attempted to show that phenomenal particularists have the resources to respond to Mehta’s criticisms. We argue that French and Gomes have failed to appreciate the force of Mehta’s original arguments. When properly interpreted, Mehta’s arguments provide a strong case in favor of phenomenal generalism, the view that external particulars are never part of phenomenal character.

Burge’s Defense of Perceptual Content, Philosophy & Phenomenological Research 88 (2014), 556-573 (w/Ben Bronner and Alex Kerr)

A central question, if not the central question, of philosophy of perception is whether sensory states have a nature similar to thoughts about the world, whether they are essentially representational.  According to the content view, at least some of our sensory states are, at their core, representations with contents that are either accurate or inaccurate.  Tyler Burge’s Origins of Objectivity is the most sustained and sophisticated defense of the content view to date.  His defense of the view is problematic in several ways.  The most significant problem is that his approach does not sit well with mainstream perceptual psychology.

Are Color Experiences Representational?, Philosophical Studies 166 (2013), 1-20

The dominant view among philosophers of perception is that color experiences, like color judgments, are essentially representational: as part of their very nature color experiences possess representational contents which are either accurate or inaccurate.  My starting point in assessing this view is Sydney Shoemaker’s familiar account of color perception.  After providing a sympathetic reconstruction of his account, I show how plausible assumptions at the heart of Shoemaker’s theory make trouble for his claim that color experiences represent the colors of things.  I consider various ways of trying to avoid the objection, and find all of the responses wanting.  My conclusion is that we have reason to be skeptical of the orthodox view that color experiences are constitutively representational.

Visual Prominence and RepresentationalismPhilosophical Studies 164 (2013), 405-418 (w/Ben Bronner)

A common objection to representationalism is that a representationalist view of phenomenal character cannot accommodate the effects that shifts in covert attention have on visual phenomenology: covert attention can make items more visually prominent than they would otherwise be without altering the content of visual experience.  Recent empirical work on attention casts doubt on previous attempts to advance this type of objection to representationalism and it also points the way to an alternative development of the objection.

Everyday Thinking about Bodily SensationsAustralasian Journal of Philosophy 88 (2010), 523-34 (w/Dorit Ganson)

In the opening section of this paper we spell out an account of our naïve view of bodily sensations that is of historical and philosophical significance. This account of our shared view of bodily sensations captures common ground between Descartes, who endorses an error theory regarding our everyday thinking about bodily sensations, and Berkeley, who is more sympathetic with commonsense. In the second part of the paper we develop an alternative to this account and discuss what is at stake in deciding between these two ways of understanding our everyday view. In the third and final part of the paper we offer an argument in favor of our alternative.

The rational/non-rational distinction in Plato’s RepublicOxford Studies in Ancient Philosophy XXXVI (2009), 179-197

My attempt to show that Plato has a unified approach to the rationality of belief and the rationality of action, and that his defense of this approach is a powerful one.

Reid’s Rejection of IntentionalismOxford Studies in Early Modern Philosophy IV (2008), 245-263

The result of my efforts over a number of years to understand what Reid’s distinction between sensation and perception amounts to.  In the final section I argue that Reid has a coherent view on the nature of color, but an incoherent view of perception.

Finding Freedom through Complexity, Review of Nancey Murphy and Warren S. Brown, Did My Neurons Make Me Do It?, in Science 319, 22 Feb 2008, 1045

The Platonic Approach to Sense-PerceptionHistory of Philosophy Quarterly 22 (2005), 1-15

This paper isn’t so much an attempt to defend a thesis as an attempt to outline what I take to be a distinctive approach to sense-perception that is shared by Platonists as different from one another as Plato, Plotinus, and Schopenhauer.

Third-Century Peripatetics on Vision, in Lyco of Troas and Hieronymus of Rhodes, RUSCH vol. XII (2004), edd. WW. Fortenbaugh and S. White, 355-362

Later Peripatetics routinely invoke emanations from sense-objects in spite of Aristotle’s insistence that visible objects as such do not release anything into the medium of vision.  However, we need not suppose that these later Peripatetics are drawing on the effluence theories of the Atomists or Empedocleans.  I suggest that they are developing their own account, which has its roots in Aristotle’s remarks on vision.

Alexander of Aphrodisias on the Role of Color AppearancesAncient Philosophy XXIII (2003), 383-393

Alexander of Aphrodisias posits differences in color appearance that do not reduce to differences in what color is perceived, and appeals to these color appearances in his account of how we perceive certain spatial properties of objects.

Reid on ColourBritish Journal for the History of Philosophy 10 (2002), 231-242

For a more up-to-date statement of my reading of Reid on color, see “Reid’s Rejection of Intentionalism” above.

A Puzzle concerning the Aristotelian Notion of a Medium of Sense-PerceptionDie Phil. der Antike Bd. 14 (2002), 65-73

Once upon a time I attempted to find a coherent notion of a medium of sense-perception in Peripatetic writings.  I failed.

Appetitive Desire in Later PlatoHistory of Philosophy Quarterly 18 (2001), 227-237

In his later works Plato alters his characterization of appetitive desires in order to secure the conclusion that there is a genuine unity to the class of appetitive desires.  This alternative to the view in the Republic is pretty cool.

Berkeley, Reid, and Thomas Brown on the Origins of our Spatial ConceptsReid Studies 3 (1999), 49-62

I argue that Reid successfully undermines Berkeley’s suggestion that the acquisition of our spatial concepts is an intelligible response to our bodily sensations.  Thomas Brown’s attempt to respond to Reid by appeal to sensations of the overlooked “muscle sense” fails.

Democritus against Reducing Sensible Qualities, Ancient Philosophy XIX (1999), 201-215

There is evidence that Democritus produced a number of reductive definitions of sensible qualities, accounts of colors, flavors, and the like that identify these properties with microphysical properties of objects.  There is also evidence that Democritus resisted a reductive approach to such qualities.  This paper is an attempt to reconstruct Democritus’ worries about the reductive approach.

What’s Wrong with the Aristotelian Theory of Sensible Qualities?Phronesis XLII (1997), 263-282

An attempt to show that Aristotle’s view of sensible qualities isn’t so bad after all.

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