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Phenomenology Never Goes Out Of date

Susanna Siegel interviewed by Richard Marshall.

Susanna Siegel is the major philosophical mentalist who gets into our heads and deep into the depths of philosophical phenomenology, epistemic downgrades, how the issues can be approached from different traditions, considers a gun in a fridge, how priming examples don’t reveal underlying psychological mechanisms, cognitive modularity and what it does and doesn’t insulate, top-down effects, the rational accessibility of perception, the contents of visual experience, the richness of perception and what to do about sexism in professional philosophy. Off we go.

3:AM: You remember ‘….staring up at the ceiling as a little girl and wondering whether the marks she saw on the white surface were tiny holes or tiny dots.’ So was that when you decided you’d be a philosopher?

Susanna Siegel: I was around 4 when I wondered about the ceiling. I wanted to be a philosopher when I read Alice in Wonderland and Raymond Smullyan’s “What is the Name of this Book?” around age 7.

3:AM: Are you a very up to date phenomenologist? Can you say something about your philosophical interests in all things perceptual?

SS: Phenomenology never goes out of date.

3:AM: You talk about cases where prior mental states interfere with perception. Can you talk about this idea and why this might lead to what you call an epistemic downgrade?

SS: Suppose you are afraid that I am angry at you, and your fear makes me look angry to you when you see me. Do you get any reason from your experience to believe that I’m angry at you? There’s something fishy and even perverse about the idea that your fears can get confirmed by fear-induced experience. I focus on the general notion of rationality. I am interested in the epistemic status of the type of “top-down” influences on perception from fears and desires. If you could confirm your fears through such fear-influenced experiences, rational confirmation of fears would be too cheap.

Here’s another example. In the early days of microscopes, the true theory of mammalian reproduction was still unknown. Some early users of microscopes were preformationists: they believed that mammals including people grew like plants, from seeds that were placed in a nutritive environment. Suppose their preformationism made them experience an embryo in a spermcell when they looked under the microscope. (It is probably apocryphal, but this was reported to have happened and is discussed in histories of embryology, such as Pinto- Correira’s excellent book The Ovary of Eve, Chicago, 1998). If favoring preformationism influenced your perceptual experience, that experience could not turn around and provide support for preformationism.

On the other hand, there is another side of the issue. If I look angry to you, it would be completely understandable if you ended up believing on the basis of how I look that I am angry. After all, believing your eyes is normally a reasonable thing to do. What else are you supposed to believe, if you have no contravening information? And so we have a philosophical problem. The challenge is to negotiate between the idea that perception is a rational guide to belief when you don’t have any explicit reason to doubt it, and the apparently absurd conclusion that your fear-induced or prejudice-induced experiences could rationally support the very fears and prejudices that give rise to them.

Writ large, this problem is an instance case of a type of situation that pretty much everyone has encountered. If someone is repeatedly mean to you but has no idea he is acting that way, then does he have a reason to stop? Yes, because he’s being mean to you. But No, because he has no idea what he is doing.

If Jack looks angry to Jill, but only because she fears he is mad at her, should she believe he’s angry? Yes, because that’s how he looks to her. But No, because his looking that way is not the form of perceptual openness to the world that it seems to be. Philosophical problems often have this structure: a seemingly straightforward question is posed, but none of the answers seem completely satisfactory, without further elaboration. That’s what we find with the epistemology of certain top-down effects.

The issue can also be approached from a different tradition. Where I went to college, ‘analytic philosophy’ was a class you could take, rather than the mode of philosophy that was taught. In that milieu, the authors that spoke to me the loudest were Marx, Freud, and Kant. I was drawn to the way they would describe social or psychological phenomena from the outside, diagnosing our experiences of normality as an artifact of structures whose influence on us operates under the radar. In some way, understanding the epistemic problem of top-down effects on perception is similar to what in other disciplines is called ‘ideology critique’. You uncover the hidden etiology of what happens – not just in perceptual experience, but in the mind more generally, and in History. And all of these cases raise the same normative questions.

3:AM: You have really cool examples, and there are some interesting experiments suggesting that these things are quite common. You get us to suppose that I fear there’s a gun in the fridge, go and look, and discuss the philosophical upshots of the resulting experience. Can you take us through the significance of this, and explain how a psychological phenomenon can have an epistemic consequence? And can you tell us about some of these experiments, for example, the one about pliers, guns and how white Americans respond to black Americans? You think that this is an enormously important topic because if, for example, perception really is theory dependent then all sorts of influences could be affecting our perceptions, including racism. Is this right?

SS: My gun-in-the-fridge example works the same way as the other examples. If you’re afraid that there’s a gun in the fridge, then this fear is responsible for making the inside of the fridge look that way, the same epistemological issue arises. Do you have reason from your experience to believe that there’s a gun in the fridge? It can seem that this is what you should believe, provided you don’t have any reason to think you’re hallucinating. But given that your fear helps generate the experience, you are in some sense unwittingly manipulating your own evidential situation.

There are several ways that what you hope, fear, or already believe can influence perception. In Keith Payne’s chilling experiment, when primed with pictures of black men, subjects more often misclassify a tool (pliers, wrench, or a drill) as a gun, compared with subjects who are primed with pictures of white men. So we know that whatever state of mind the black prime puts you in, it leads to those errors of classification. But the experiment doesn’t speak to the underlying psychological mechanisms. (This is true of most experiments that reveal the cognitive manifestations of racism). How do the pliers look when you see them after the black prime? The experiment doesn’t say. One option is that the pliers actually look like a gun. That would be cognitive penetration. Another option is that the pliers look like pliers, but you simply form the belief that a gun is displayed, either because you don’t believe your eyes, or you don’t let your belief be guided at all by your experience. We could call this perceptual bypass: the experience is bypassed as a guide to belief.

3:AM: How do you work out how to interpret what is going on in these cases? How could you tell whether its penetration rather than bypass, or both?

SS: There is a lot we don’t know about these cases. We need a theory of the cognitive underpinnings of implicit bias, together with a theory of the kind of state the prime puts people in. We also need to understand better how social interacts effect perception. For the most part, work in social psychology and in vision science have proceeded independently. But partly in response to experiments like Payne’s, as well as work on racial categories and face perception, that division has started to loosen.

3:AM: Now the language of penetration comes from considerations about modularity and mind of the sort put forward way back in the 80s by Jerry Fodor. Doesn’t modularity insulate against cognitive penetration? Is the implication of all cognitive penetration that perception isn’t modular?

SS: Modularity would insulate against cognitive penetration, but not against the effects of fears, hopes, and prejudice on perceptual judgment. For everyday purposes, as well as political ones, it doesn’t matter if we end up perpetuating a racist outlook by closing ourselves off from the facts via perception per se or via perceptual judgment. But that difference marks a big divide in the psychology of perception. Which side is right is enormously important for understanding cognitive architecture.

The issue in psychology is whether perceptual processing involves modules. It’s important to remember that different aspects of perception can be modular or anti-modular. And the flipside of that observation is that we can distinguish between cognitive penetration of pre-conscious processes, and cognitive penetration of conscious experience. My concern has always been with conscious perceptual experience.

As you suggest, modules don’t tolerate influence from hopes and fears and prejudice. But perceptual modules would not insulate against any effects of fears, hopes, prejudice on perceptual judgment. Nor does it insulate against the effects on those states on selective attention. Indeed these are the main ways the proponents of modularism try to explain away apparent cases of cognitive penetration: they take what appears to be a case of cognitive penetration, and argue that it is really instead a selection effect or an effect on judgment. These alternatives are the crucial ones to rule out in experimental work in this area. But what’s important for cognitive architecture is less important for epistemology.

3:AM: So what new framework for understanding these phenomena are you beginning to piece together? And as you do this, are you not doing a priori psychology which some people will find a little odd?

SS: In cognitive science, it is controversial whether there are actual cases of cognitive penetration. The jury is still out. Among vision scientists there are ardent modularists and ardent anti-modularists. On the anti-modularist side, some approaches to perception posit Bayesian mechanisms that generate percepts in part on the basis of expectations about what the inputs are likely to be, given the pattern of previous percepts. Just how this maps on to conscious experience is still obscure.

My framework is for understanding the epistemic implications of a range of top- down effects. It is useful to map out the different types of potential top-down effects on perception, so that we can assess their epistemic consequences. There is a theoretical dimension to every experimental science. Starting with data that have been collected, one has to generate hypotheses about specific data. Since the existence of cognitive penetration is unclear, this kind of theorizing is needed. Starting from other direction, one can also generate models of different types of top-down effects, and then see what sorts of data these models are compatible with. This kind of theorizing is useful for epistemology, since general epistemic issue isn’t targeted at cognitive penetration per se. You might call either kind of theorizing “ a priori psychology”, but that label is a bit misleading. It suggests that one is purporting to know facts about actual psychological processing from the armchair. And it also suggests that we’re not drawing on other empirical facts when we generate those hypotheses. A better term would be ‘theoretical psychology’.

3:AM: Reflecting on all this, should we conclude that perception is pretty irrational? Epistemic downgrade seems to be a threat everywhere because we’re always in some prior mood or other, or have some prior expectation other.

SS: We need not conclude that perception is irrational. But we should conclude that perception is rationally assessable. This conclusion overturns a deeply rooted assumption in psychology and philosophy that perception is a landing pad for information (or misinformation) that tumbles in along a-rational channels, naively open to the objects, properties, and events that are there for us to perceive. Experiences can fail to be receptive in these ways, because they can arise in some of the same ways as irrational beliefs do. And that opens the possibility that the epistemic notions that we use to convict some beliefs might convict some experiences as well. Epistemic evaluation could then begin upstream of belief and knowledge, in the generation of perceptual experience. Here’s where the domain of epistemology expands, reaching beyond belief, inquiry, and knowledge, into the realm of perception.

Once we draw this general conclusion, we face the question of when perception is irrational. The cases that elicit the intuition of irrationality most strongly involve unreasonable fears, suspicions, beliefs, or prejudices. You’re right that we always have prior moods and expectations, but they are not always unreasonable the way that racial prejudice is.
Now, some people reject the idea that perception influenced by racial prejudice is irrational. They respond to the pliers/gun case by proposing that it is, sadly, reasonable to associate black men with crime, given the crime rate in the United States, or given the highly circumscribed experiences that many people have as a result of de facto racial segregation in many communities. There are several ways to develop their suggestion but I can’t see the force of any of them.

Perhaps the most common way to develop their suggestion starts from the idea that a perceptual system that runs off of statistical generalizations yields rational perceptions. In reply, we should distinguish between the rationality of a perceptual of cognitive system, and rationality of individual percepts or beliefs that the system produces. Consider the heuristics discovered by Tversky and Kahneman. A system that relies on such heuristics may up with true, reasonable beliefs most of the time. But that does not entail that each belief formed using heuristics is reasonable. Here’s the stock example: tell people that Linda was a philosophy major and was politically active in college, and then ask them whether Linda is more likely to be a feminist bank teller, or a bank teller. By far the most common answer is that Linda she is more likely to be a feminist bank teller. This answer violates basic tenet of probability theory – that something is more likely to have one feature than that feature plus another one. But even probability experts make the same mistake as everyone else. The fact that the error is pervasive does not change the fact that it is an error. Similarly, it could turn out that our perceptual systems are sometimes driven more by prior expectations or associations than by the actual inputs we face in our immediate environment (such as the pliers in Payne’s display). Having a perceptual system that worked in that way might well lead to reasonable beliefs most of the time. But that doesn’t show that every perceptual belief that results from those mechanisms are rational.

A different version of this response that I’ve gotten suggests that the black prime could reasonably trigger a fear response, which would in turn reasonably put you on the lookout for a weapon. But reasonableness of a fear response depends on a whole host of situational factors, and it is manifestly unreasonable to rest a fear solely on facial features associated with black people. There is no situation in this experiment: just a face with a neutral expression. No social space, no situational context, no interactions, not even any movement, posture or gait – in short, none of the social cues that we rely on in everyday interactions when fear is a reasonable response.

3:AM: Some theorists like Peter Carruthers and others think that knowledge about other minds and our own minds uses the faculty of perception. If what you’re saying is right then knowledge of other minds and our own is also going to be subject to the threat of downgrade too. Is that right?

SS: Not necessarily. When experiences are downgraded, they’re downgraded relative to a content. For instance, a single experience might have gun-content as a result of prejudice, but not illumination-content. An experience that is epistemically downgraded relative to its gun-content will not provide as much rational support for believing that a gun is present as a non-downgraded gun- experience would. But the gun-experience, even if downgraded, might still provide the normal amount of rational support for believing that something shiny is present. Similarly, the gun-experience might still provide the normal amount of rational support for self-ascriptions (“I am having a gun-experience”) even if it provides little if any rational support for believing that a gun is present.

3:AM: Your book ‘The Contents of Visual Experience’ asks a slightly different question. When seeing John Malkovich in the street, for example, do we see an array of colours, shapes moving along, or else do we see more complex, rich content features such as personal identity, causation, natural and other kinds? Your have an answer that you think a naïve realist can accept too don’t you? Can you say something about this?

SS: My answer is that we see more complex content, where contents can be true or false. But the underlying issue does not depend on that framework. A Naive Realist disjunctivist, for instance, who thought that experiences are sometimes constituted by perceptual relations to the objects and properties we see could still ask: which properties are those? Are they just colors and shapes, or do they include much more complex properties? Once the issue is posed in terms of properties, it can be addressed even if by those who are suspicious of the idea that experiences have contents that can be true or false.

3:AM: Someone suspicious of philosophers may find the distinction trivial. Can you say why it matters which answer is given?

SS: The issue of the richness of perception arises in many domains. In ethics, philosophers since Aristotle have explored the idea that in some situations one can simply see what needs to be done. No deliberation seems required. You simply move intuitively into action in response to what you see. That raises the possibility that morally relevant properties are perceived as such: e.g., the struggling person is to-be-helped. In mathematics, we can ask whether mathematical facts can be learned through perception, for instance by seeing ratios. In epistemology, a long-standing question is where we can get our ideas of necessity and possibility. Can we get these ideas from perception, or do we need to get them via reflection (or are we simply born with them in our conceptual repertoire)? Suppose you see a rock teetering on a ledge and you experience it as liable to fall, or you see an inclined plane as a surface that the ball next to it could roll down. These are compelling cases of perceiving possibility. The 20th Century psychologists James and Eleanor Gibson thought that we perceived affordances, which are possibilities of action for a creature. The 18th century English philosopher John Locke thought that in perceiving solidity in an object, we perceived impossibility of passing through it, and impossibility is a form of necessity. The 19th-century German philosophy Johann Fichte thought that in pressing against something that resists us, we gain a sense of our own boundaries as a subject. The question of which properties we can experience has enlivened many moments in the history of philosophy and psychology.

Aside from fascinating many philosophers through the ages, the question of what we can perceive has diverse applications in other fields. In psychiatry, we can ask whether various delusions normal responses to abnormal perceptionsor abnormal responses to normal perceptions, or abnormal responses to abnormal perceptions. For instance if your spouse doesn’t look quite right to you and you form the delusional belief that it’s an impostor, is anything missing form your perceptual experience? In epistemology, if complex contents are represented in experience, then it is natural to ask how they come to be represented. And if they come to be represented by non-modular process like the ones we discussed above, that opens a whole new branch of epistemology.

With that said, whether perceptual experiences have complex contents is an independent issue from whether there are top-down effects on perception. Top- down effects could give rise to experiences of low-level properties (as it would if depression made things look grey), and complex contents (such as causal contents) could be the result of a module – as the 20th century French psychologist Albert Michotte in effect proposed, laying the groundwork for research by psychologists such as Susan Carey and Rebecca Saxe on modular systems for perceiving both mechanical causation (causation between objects) and agency (a form of causation by subjects).

3:AM: Going back to that small child wondering whether she was looking at holes or dots, do you feel that your current work has put in you in a better place to answer that question? I guess that must be satisfying so I wanted to ask what are the rewards of philosophical investigation and being a philosopher?

SS: Children are often sensitive to ambiguities that one grows used to resolving with age. At age 4 I didn’t have an opinion about whether the ceiling was more likely to have dots or holes, and both possibilities were equally salient. Philosophy has many rewards but one of them is regaining an appreciation for questions that remain open. Not much hangs on whether the ceiling is dotted or perforated, but openness to multiple reasonable interpretations is priceless.

3:AM: As a top philosopher your account of prior expectations and perceptions seems to be pretty important as we look at sexism in academic philosophy generally. Can you say something about this and what can be done?

SS: At one level it is obvious what can be done: increase the numbers. But the numerical disparity is an artifact of something much deeper and less tractable, which are the pervasively patriarchal norms, habits, attitudes, and micro- institutions that are responsible for maintaining the inequalities in the first place. Most of these forms of sexism are covert and not recognizable as such. It takes a big gestalt-shift to see them for what they are, and to recognize how they function to perpetuate the patterns of exclusion that we find.

Since the time I was in college and graduate school the numbers of women in philosophy have increased and that change alone has altered the atmosphere. In the English-speaking world of philosophy, we are at a moment in the development of the field at which the pervasively patriarchal attitudes and social norms that reach back for decades still provide the default expectations, yet the numbers of women involved in philosophy steadily grows, with the result that women in the field come to inhabit it with the same default expectations of respect and integration that men have always been able to take for granted. History teaches us that only uncomfortable, ugly conflicts change deeply-rooted social norms, and that if a community doesn’t start out humane and inclusive, then forceful confrontations are needed to bring more humane and more inclusive modes of interaction into existence. So we can expect much more social discomfort and disruption of the sort we have seen recently in discussions of sexual harassment. And there’s nothing special about sexual harassment per se. It is just one mode among many of inhospitability. You’d be hard-pressed to find a micro-institution in the field that isn’t gratuitously dominated by men. I expect to there to be many such conflicts at every level of philosophy as the field catches up with the rest of the Humanities in its numbers of women.

3:AM: Finally, are there a few books you could recommend to the perceptive readers here at 3:AM that would further enlighten us (other than your own book which of course we’ll all be rushing out to buy as soon as we’ve finished here!)?

SS: In the areas of philosophy I work on, I’d recommend these:

J. Fodor, The Modularity of Mind (MIT Press, 1983).
H. H. Price, Perception (Greenwood Press, 1932/1956).
A. D. Smith, The Problem of Perception (Harvard University Press, 2002).
S. Carey, The Origin of Concepts (Oxford University Press, 2009).


ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER
Richard Marshall is still biding his time.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, September 20th, 2013.