Dissertation: "Reasons and Percepts"
Where does reasoning occur in the mind? According to a traditional picture, only conscious, deliberately formed beliefs are the sorts of things that are based on reasons. Because beliefs can be based on reasons, they are also typically thought to be epistemically evaluable as justified or unjustified. In contrast, perception is typically taken to have a starkly different epistemic role. Perceptions are not thought to ever be based on reasons, or to be epistemically evaluable as justified or unjustified. They are instead considered “unjustified justifiers,” providing justification without themselves being subject to its norms.
I argue, in contrast to this traditional picture, that perceptions can also be based on reasons, and are thereby epistemically evaluable as justified or unjustified. Drawing on psychological research, I examine three cases of basing on reasons in perception: core cognition, perceptual learning, and crossmodal interactions. The scope of mental states that are epistemically evaluable as justified or unjustified is not restricted to beliefs.
Chapter 1: The Epistemic Role of Core Cognition
In chapter one, I focus on core cognition, a set of mental systems that lie at the border of perception and belief. Core cognition consists of a set of innate, domain-specific modules that generate basic conceptual representations of objects, agents, and numbers. Core cognition’s borderline states do not fit neatly into either side of the traditional epistemic divide between perception and belief, raising the question of their epistemic role. Focusing on core object representations, I argue that these states are based on reasons and are epistemically evaluable like beliefs, despite their many prototypically perceptual features. I draw on developmental psychology to argue that the core object system manifests key markers of the basing relation, such as epistemic support relations between inputs and outputs, rule-governed causal transitions, motivating behavior of the individual, and rich inferential role.
Chapter 2: Perceptual Learning and Reason-Responsiveness
In chapter two, I focus on two examples of perceptual learning: correspondences between shape and color known as “color memory effects,” and perceptual expertise in chess players. I argue that the flexibility of perceptual learning is a way of responding to new epistemic reasons. In these cases, not only are individual perceptions formed in response to stored information, but the body of information stored in the visual system also changes due to experience. This flexibility makes it especially plausible that these perceptual states are based on reasons, and are thereby epistemically evaluable as justified or unjustified. I also consider options for the particular kind of justificatory statuses had by perceptions formed through perceptual learning.
Chapter 3: Crossmodal Basing
In chapter three, I focus on crossmodal interactions, in which information from one sensory modality influences processing in another modality. I argue that a perceptual representation from one modality can serve as the reason for which another perceptual representation is formed. I consider psychological results showing that the length of a visible gesture influences the perceived duration of an audible tone. This process is mediated by the perceptual system’s “unity assumption,” a stored principle governing perceptual attributions of causation, depending on cues of spatial and temporal convergence of events. The richness of these causal contents and the communication across distinct sensory modalities make this case strikingly similar to standard instances of epistemic basing in cognition.
These three cases together furnish an argument that perceptual states can be based on reasons and thereby epistemically evaluable. None of these cases involves direct influence from cognition, demonstrating that reasons can be housed within perceptual systems themselves. The scope of epistemic evaluability extends beyond belief, to include even unconsciously and automatically formed perceptions.
Selected Works in Progress
"Epistemic and Aesthetic Conflict: The Case of the Harvard Rothkos"
Do epistemic and aesthetic norms ever conflict? While conflicts between epistemic and prudential rationality have been widely discussed, conflicts involving the aesthetic domain have been largely neglected. I argue that an experience of a work of art can be at once aesthetically upgraded but epistemically downgraded. I focus on a recent example of degraded Rothko paintings displayed under restorative lighting. This setting creates a perceptual illusion simulating an experience of the paintings in their original condition. I consider a structurally similar case of cognitive penetration, in which beliefs play the same role as the restorative lighting, altering the viewer’s experience of the colors of the painting. I argue that this cognitive influence makes her experience epistemically downgraded but aesthetically upgraded, creating a conflict between the epistemic and aesthetic norms. This case of epistemic and aesthetic conflict can inform our theorizing about how to resolve normative conflicts more generally.
"The Perception of Distance by Sight: Berkeley on the Modality of Experience"
It seems as though we see the distance of things, yet Berkeley claims in An Essay Towards a New Theory of Vision that we only immediately perceive light and color through vision. To address this puzzle, Berkeley proposes a “language of vision”, through which we learn to see distance. I argue that Berkeley does not have the resources in his empiricist arsenal to explain how we could have an experience of distance with a proprietarily visual phenomenology rather than an experience of distance with a tactile quality, derived from our initial sense memories of touch. Berkeley must rely heavily on the unreliability of introspection to explain how our experiences of distance seem to us.