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Consciousness
With so many collections on
visual perception published in the past decade or so, you may well ask what's
new about this one that makes it worth your time (and, possibly, your money).
The question is made all the more relevant when all but one of the works in
this book (the paper by NoŽ and O'Regan, chapter 23) have already been made
available (some of them even jointly) in similar volumes (e.g. Steven Yantis (ed)
Visual Perception, MIT, 2001). The answer is that, apart from giving you
the chance to revisit some modern classics in this area (for example, the
papers by Gibson, Marr, Fodor and Pylishyn's, and Snowdon), this anthology
distinguishes itself by its exclusive focus on what may well be called the
central debate in visual science: What is the nature of visual perception? And
how does it fit into a broader account of the mind? The editors' explicit aim
in their choice of papers is to target what they call a "distinct
philosophical and scientific orthodoxy about the nature of perception"
(p.1), namely the idea that perception is a process of representation via
inductive inference based on input to the sensory systems. What results is an
instructive and carefully balanced view into theoretical and philosophical
questions about the nature of vision.
happens in such a collection, some of the papers chosen make the case for the
orthodoxy whilst others -- in my opinion, more interesting -- criticize or
stand as alternatives to it. Representatives of the dominant view include
Richard Gregory (chapter 7), David Marr (chapter 11), David Lewis (chapter 8)
and Fodor and Pylyshyn (chapter 10), the latter dutifully defending the case
for the established view from its most reputed opponent: Gibson and his
ecological approach to perception (chapter 5). Similar attacks on the orthodoxy
are mounted by, e.g., Paul Snowdon (chapter 9), Thompson et al. (chapter 15)
and Dana H. Ballard (chapter18). While these authors each have his/her own
distinctive theoretical take on visual perception, their views come united by
their criticism of the orthodoxy and the emphasis on action and embodiment.
Seen from this side of the debate the function of vision has little, if
anything, to do with producing inner representations; rather the purpose of
vision is to guide action and assist in the meaningful exploration of the
Still within the
spirit of confronting the orthodoxy with its critics, three other broad themes
are distinguishable in the papers included. The first concerns the orthodox
belief that having a scientific explanation of perceptual experiences amounts
to finding the neural correlate of conscious visual experience. David Chalmers
(chapter 22) attempts to show just why this is the case, while NoŽ and O'Regan
(chapter 23) put up a convincing argument against both the existence and need
for such neural correlate (see also Bach-y-Rita, chapter 20). The second theme,
also dear to the established view, concerns the kind of perceptual experience
we think we have. Is it the sort of richly detailed visual impression that is
typically assumed to be by traditionalists? Or is it more like a 'grand
illusion', i.e., you actually see only little detail but, due to the constant
movement of the eyes, have the impression of seeing everything? Dennett
(chapter 19), Ballard (chapter 20) and NoŽ and O'Regan† (chapter 23) all
challenge the orthodox view on this account. Finally, the topic of the
thought-independence of perceptual experience is here advocated on behalf of
the orthodoxy by Dretske (chapter 16), and comes under heavy attack by Anscombe
(chapter 4), Grice (chapter 3), Strawson (chapter 6) and Peacocke (chapter 12),
himself a former defender of that same thesis.††
†It is not
possible in such short space to elaborate on the more specific topics raised
and implied by all the above discussions (e.g. the nature of visual
hallucinations and the status of causal theories). The brief presentation above
should nevertheless make it clear that NoŽ and Thompson have put together a
valuable book on the metaphysics of vision, one which moreover combines
philosophical depth with up-to-date scientific research. Both the novice and
the informed reader stand to benefit from this nicely contained guide to the
most important theoretical rifts in the area. A book to keep close at hand for
all those interested in learning and exploring visual perception.
© 2003 Isabel Gois
Isabel Gois is a
PhD student at King's College London working on Consciousness. Her research
interests include Philosophy of Mind, Neuropsychology, and Mental Disorder. She
has articles published on Emotions, Computationalism, and Consciousness.††††
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