Sensory Imagining, Perception, and the Significance of Etiology

Lu Teng is a Postdoctoral Fellow at University of Antwerp's Center for Philosophical Psychology. In September 2017, she will join NYU Shanghai as an Assistant Professor of Philosophy. Her primary research interests are epistemology and the philosophy of mind.

Lu Teng is a Postdoctoral Fellow at University of Antwerp's Center for Philosophical Psychology. In September 2017, she will join NYU Shanghai as an Assistant Professor of Philosophy. Her primary research interests are epistemology and the philosophy of mind.

A post by Lu Teng.

Sam just broke up with his girlfriend and does not want to go to class this morning. In the past, Sam’s school always closed during severe weather, so he hopes that a blizzard will arrive soon. When Sam looks out the window, this hope causes him to imagine seeing snow. Clearly, Sam’s imagining does not give him justification for believing that it is snowing. But what explains the lack of justificatory power of Sam’s imagining?

The explanation I want to discuss in this post is ultimately a version of evidentialism. Sam’s imagining lacks justificatory power importantly because the imagining is not formed on good evidential basis. One might point out that many of our perceptual experiences are not formed on good evidential basis. However, they do seem to give us justification. I agree with this observation. I think that the requirement for good evidence only applies to certain experiences, but not all. In particular, I think that it makes an epistemic difference whether a mental process leading to an experience is attributable to the subject or not. The need for good evidence only applies to experiences that result from mental processes attributable to the subject.

A comparison with beliefs might help us see the plausibility of the last point. It seems to make an epistemic difference whether a mental process leading to a belief is attributable to the subject or not: if the mental process is not attributable to the subject, then its quality seems to not matter to the justificatory status/power of the belief; but if the mental process is attributable to the subject, then its quality seems to matter. For example, suppose that a crazy scientist infers from a belief that P to a belief that Q and instills Q into your mind. We would not think that the quality of the crazy scientist’s inference influences the justificatory status/power of your belief that Q. Even if the scientist’s inference is bad, your belief can be justified. On the other hand, if it is you who make the inference, then the inference’s quality seems to matter.

Similarly, it seems to make an epistemic difference whether a mental process leading to an experience is attributable to the subject or not. For example, in a version of the brain-in-a-vat (BIV) case, the BIV’s hallucinations are triggered by a supercomputer directed by some scientists, and the mental processes leading to the hallucinations are not attributable to the BIV but rather to its perceptual system. The quality of these mental processes seems to not matter to the justificatory power of the experience. If the BIV has a hallucination that it is snowing, then the BIV can still acquire justification from the hallucination for believing so. In the blizzard case, due to the causal role of Sam’s hope, Sam’s imagining results from a mental process attributable to him. The quality of such a mental process seems to matter to the imagining’s justificatory power.

To sum up, my explanation of the blizzard case emphasizes that Sam’s imagining has an inappropriate etiology. In particular, the imagining results from a mental process that is attributable to Sam, and it is not formed on good evidential basis. It is worth clarifying that this explanation differs from reliabilism. Reliabilism normally takes justification to depend on the reliability of a mental process, no matter whether the mental process is attributable to the subject or not.

In the rest of this post, I draw some connections between the above discussion of sensory imagining and the epistemology of perception. Such connections are what have been motivating my research. When it comes to perceptual justification, an important issue concerns whether having an appropriate etiology is necessary for an experience to provide justification for beliefs about the external world. According to a theory called dogmatism, it is not necessary. Dogmatism claims that having a distinctive kind of phenomenal character is sufficient for an experience to have justificatory power. Recently, some philosophers have challenged this view by appealing to cognitive penetrability—the possibility that perceptual experiences can be influenced by our beliefs, expectations, desires, or other personal-level mental states. These philosophers argue that some cognitively penetrated experiences can have the same phenomenal character as ordinary unpenetrated experiences, but they seem to lack justificatory power due to their inappropriate etiology.

I agree that cognitive penetration cases pose a challenge to dogmatism. However, one question to ask is: in what way does etiology matter? So far, there has been little discussion on this question that draws inspiration from the epistemology of sensory imagining. I think that this approach is worth more attention from philosophers. Fiona Macpherson (2012) famously argues that there is empirical evidence that sensory imagining can interact with perception—e.g. the Perky effect, and therefore if cognitive penetration happens, then it is psychologically plausible that sensory imagining plays an important role. In addition to the empirical studies Macpherson discusses, recent brain-imagining work provides compelling evidence that sensory imagining and perception share a lot of representation mechanisms, which indicates that the interaction between perception and sensory imagining is also neurally plausible.

If sensory imagining does play an important role in some cognitive penetration cases, then we can apply the above epistemological discussion of sensory imagining to cognitive penetration, and provide a nice story about how the etiology of some cognitive penetrated experiences prevents them from having justificatory power. Even if cognitive penetration does not happen through sensory imagining, I think that the epistemological discussion of sensory imagining can still provide insight on how to analyze the inappropriate etiology of some cognitively penetrated experiences. I explore these thoughts in my dissertation and, more recently, in a work in progress. Earlier I mentioned that cognitive penetration poses a challenge to dogmatism. I actually think that some sensory imaginings independently show the epistemic significance of etiology, no matter whether cognitive penetration happens or not. I argue against dogmatism from this angle in my paper “Is Phenomenal Force Sufficient for Immediate Perceptual Justification?”

What are other possible connections between the epistemology of sensory imagining and that of perception (and memory)? Any thoughts?


References:

Macpherson, F. (2012) “Cognitive Penetration of Color Experience: Rethinking the Issue in Light of an Indirect Mechanism,” Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 84 (1): pp. 24–62.

Teng, L. (forthcoming) “Is Phenomenal Force Sufficient for Immediate Perceptual Justification?” Synthese