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Perception, Hallucination, and IllusionReview - Perception, Hallucination, and Illusion
by William Fish
Oxford University Press, 2009
Review by David Wall, Ph.D.
Sep 15th 2009 (Volume 13, Issue 38)

According to a Naïve Realist about perception 'the phenomenal character of [a veridical visual experience] is its property of acquainting the subject with [the elements of the material world that the subject is looking at]' [16].  That is, the naïve realist claims that in veridical perception we are directly related to the objects and their properties that we perceive, which themselves 'shape' what our perceptual experience of them is like.  Despite providing an intuitive, straightforward account of perceptual experience [1.3], and having anti-skeptical advantages over indirect realist accounts of perception [1.4], naive realism is often dismissed as uninformative about the nature of the perceptual relation: how do the objects and properties that we are acquainted with determine the phenomenal character of perceptual experience? 

More significantly, naïve realism is generally taken to be unable to give a good account of non-veridical perception.  The possibility of hallucination and illusion commit the naïve realist to a disjunctive theory of the phenomenal character of perceptual experience: in these cases the phenomenal character of experience can be indistinguishable from a veridical case but because the material world is not as it appears to be, by definition, this cannot be explained in terms of the objects and properties perceived themselves shaping what the experience is like.  Yet, if this phenomenal character can be sufficiently explained independently of the elements of the world themselves in the non-veridical case, why think that they are necessary to explain phenomenal character in the veridical case: how can the naïve realist avoid having their account of veridical perception 'screened-off', or made redundant by the explanation of non-veridical perception?

Perception, Hallucination, and Illusion is William Fish's admirable attempt to answer these questions for a naïve realist account of perception.  After first giving a precise formulation of the view, offering initial motivations for it, and clarifying the challenges an adequate version must overcome, Fish tackles these problems in turn.  In his account of veridical perception he invokes a distinction between the presentational character of a visual experience, 'constituted by the seen objects and their properties' [50] and the phenomenal character of that experience, 'its property of acquainting the subject with the elements of the presentational character' [50].  This distinction allows Fish to explain how different perceivers seeing the same scene can nonetheless have experiences that differ in phenomenal character: it is the way in which a perceiver is acquainted with the presentational character of a scene that determines what her experience is like, and this, the phenomenal character of the experience, is partly dependent on her perspective on the scene, the acuity and idiosyncrasies of her visual system, the amount of attention she is paying, and her conceptual resources [75].  In this way the world can be intimately involved in, but not fully determinative of, veridical perceptual experience. 

In contrast, because the world is not involved in a hallucinatory experience at all, Fish argues that hallucinations do not have phenomenal character at all: they do not acquaint a subject with some presentational character.  Rather, he claims that in hallucination we merely believe that we are having an experience with a certain phenomenal character.  Hallucinations are mental events, perhaps caused by various kinds of psychological abnormalities, that produce 'the same cognitive effects in the hallucinatory that a veridical perception of a certain kind would have produced in a rational subject' with the same overall background beliefs and conceptual resources [114].  Hence, to the hallucinator the experience is indiscriminable from that kind of veridical experience because, as part of it, she has the (false) belief that she is having a certain phenomenal experience.  This is, in effect, an eliminativist theory of the phenomenal character of hallucination [93], but a theory that accounts for the indiscriminability of hallucination without screening-off the world-involving account of veridical perception. 

Perhaps the most novel part of Fish's view is his account of illusion, and in this respect disjunctivism is something of a misnomer.  He treats veridical perception and hallucination as poles of a continuum along which different kinds of illusion can be placed: in an illusion a subject is acquainted with certain presentational properties of the viewed scene, so her experience does have phenomenal character, but the cognitive effects of her experience differ in some significant ways from those that would normally be produced in a similar rational subject being acquainted with those presentational properties.  Hence, her beliefs about what her experience is like do not accurately describe its phenomenal character.  For instance, when someone sees a coiled rope as a snake her experience successfully acquaints her with the brown-ness, coiled-ness, and under-a-log-ness of the rope but also causes her to have certain mistaken beliefs, such as that she sees scales, and that she is seeing a snake [167-170].  So unlike in hallucination the illusory experience does have phenomenal character, but unlike in veridical perception, the higher cognitive effects of the experience are significantly different from those caused by a veridical perception, and include certain characteristic false beliefs.  In this way Fish can avoid categorizing illusion as completely different from hallucination, thereby creating another screening-off problem from whatever account he gives, but also avoid categorizing it as just like hallucination which, with his error theory of the phenomenal character of hallucination and the prevalence of common, e.g. perceptual, illusions, would suggest that it is only in extremely rare cases that we actually have experiences with phenomenal character. 

What is most impressive about the book is Fish's precision, clarity, and straightforwardness.  He draws useful distinctions, for example between phenomenal character and presentational character that helps to show the range of possible versions of naïve realism, and his presentations of the arguments from hallucination and illusion show the exact, and different, problems each kind of experience raises for the naïve realist, as well making clearer the kinds of response available.  Further, he is refreshingly open about the difficulty of these challenges, the plausibility of various responses, and the strength of his favoured account.  I would highly recommend the book to those working in philosophy of perception but also to students due to its clarity and easily accessible style.  

Of course, this does not mean that Fish's argument is wholly convincing.  A naïve realist has to reject what Fish calls 'the local supervenience principle', the view that particular neural activity is sufficient for an experience to have a particular phenomenal character [118].  If this is true then the screening-off problem becomes almost unavoidable for the naïve realist.  Fish acknowledges the wide-spread acceptance of the principle but argues that neither the thought experiments nor the empirical evidence commonly taken to support it actually does so: he argues that the former merely assumes the principle whereas the latter is either inconclusive or irrelevant to the issue [120-140].  He takes this to put the naïve realist on a par with an indirect realist who appeals to local supervenience with respect to explaining phenomenal character such that the views should then be judged according to which gives the better explanation [140].  As you might expect, he takes his naïve realist account to be superior here.  Fish might be right about the status of the local supervenience principle but he seems mistaken about the argumentative position.  Importantly, his naïve realism is an error theory of the phenomenal character of hallucination: it claims that things are not as they appear to be, and posits wide-spread false beliefs.  As such it is reasonable to think it carries an extra burden compared with an indirect realism that appeals to local supervenience to try to explain how things are as they appear to be.  Moreover, the kind of explanation available to the naïve realist seems unsatisfactory: at risk of raising the screening-off problem she cannot propose some uniform explanation of the error but often has to appeal to idiosyncratic cognitive abnormalities.  So Fish is unable to meet the explanatory demands on his account.  Nonetheless, it is a valuable attempt.

 

© 2009 David Wall

 

Dr. David Wall, Department of Philosophy, University of the West of England, Bristol


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