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Cognition and PerceptionReview - Cognition and Perception
How Do Psychology and Neural Science Inform Philosophy?
by Athanassios Raftopoulos
MIT Press, 2009
Review by Simone Marini
Aug 10th 2010 (Volume 14, Issue 32)

Cognition and Perception is an impressive and ambitious project, both for the width of its scope and the depth and variety of its goals. At the most general level, the book is a criticism of constructivist anti-realism in philosophy of science, which contends that all perception is theory-laden and there is no 'objective' dimension attached to it, and a defense of realism, according to which perception brings us in direct, although limited, contact with the world.

The minimal realism Raftopoulos defends holds "that objects, their spatiotemporal properties, and some of their observable features, all of which can be retrieved directly from a visual scene, are real -- that is, mind-independent -- entities and properties in the world." (xxiv) As we shall see, such information is retrieved by perception purely bottom-up and results in representational states with non-conceptual content.

The main features of the theory of perception Raftopoulos proposes do not lie in its novelty, for "the thesis of the continuity of perception and cognition" (xiv) has already been undermined both on psychological and neuroscientific grounds. Rather, Raftopoulos's aim is to amass all empirical evidence for the thesis of the cognitive impenetrability of perception and to apply these empirical findings to philosophical issues such as the nature of non-conceptual content and phenomenal content; perceptual demonstratives; the question of the theory-ladenness of perception; and the realism/ant-realism controversy. Accordingly, the book is divided into two parts, the first devoted to establishing the theory of the cognitive impenetrability of perception and the second to applying the empirically informed thesis of the cognitive encapsulation of perception to philosophical problems.

A terminological excursus will lead us into some of the details of Raftopoulos's view. The whole discussion is framed in terms, and at the same time is a defense, of a tripartite distinction between 'sensation', 'perception', and 'observation', which constitute various stages of visual processing. In brief, 'sensation' comprises non-cognitive early visual processing of retinal information, such as changes in light intensity (which allow us to decode information about surfaces). The computations performed at this level are automatic, non-conscious. The resulting representations of aspects of the world are, therefore, non-cognitive and need to be further articulated before they can be used by higher cognitive processes. Instances of this intermediate processing stage, which constitutes 'perception', are, for instance, computation of shape, spatial relations, orientation, size, motion, and surface properties. Both 'sensation' and 'perception', according to Raftopoulos's view, belong to early vision, and the difference between them lies in the kind of information that they process. As it will be clear in what follows, it is crucial to notice both 'perception' and 'sensation' are not subject to the influence of higher cognitive states -- or so Raftopoulos, amongst others, argues. All remaining visual processings which culminate in object identification and recognition belong to cognition or 'observation', which allows the formation of object-representations with semantic content.

Raftopoulos needs to establish this tripartite classification before he can use it in the philosophical framework of the second part of the book. As Machamer points out in his foreword, the role of attention in, and the timing of, low-level visual processings are the key elements in Raftopoulos's overall strategy to establish the thesis of the cognitive encapsulation of perception. In particular, Raftopoulos argues against theories of attention such as Treisman's 'Feature Integration Theory', which claim that attentional effects descend top-down from higher cognitive centers to low level peripheral visual processes to restrict information processing to specific parts in the visual field, and suggests a distinction of visual processing into a pre-attentional stage and a selective attentional stage based on the timing of attentional effects, which only seem to take place "100 or 120 ms after stimulus onset" (87).

In the former, pre-attentional, stage, the visual system parses objects primarily by means of spatio-temporal information (such as relative location, motion, spatio-temporal continuity), which is retrieved bottom-up from the visual scene (where necessary, low vision can also avail of featural information about object size, shape and color). This task is carried out by the feedforward sweep, a type of visual processing which transmits information bottom-up to higher brain structures  without receiving top-down feedback. This is the stage of visual processing Raftopoulos calls object individuation, which involves a weak form of object representation devoid of semantic content. Early pre-attentional visual processing yield what Raftopoulos, borrowing the expression from Pylyshyn, labels 'proto-objects', which are processed by the visual system as spatio-temporal units, existing separately of other objects.

Object-individuation does not involve possession or application of concepts (it does not involve perception of an object as the object that it is), and the information it processes is not stored in any kind of conscious, retrievable, memory and cannot therefore be used for subsequent object-identification, which involves instead a strong form of object representation (according to which the object is categorized as falling under a certain description), and presupposes possession and application of the relevant concepts. It is the processings associated with object-identification which deliver the objects of ordinary perceptual experience.

Weak object representations are formed in the dorsal pathway, which subserves on-line visuomotor control and in which the information is processed automatically in a viewer-centered framework of reference, giving rise to absolute proto-object representations. Since at this stage there is no top-down cognitive direction of the visual processings, visual scenes are parsed or segmented into proto-objects according to operational principles or constraints which Raftopoulos claims to be hard-wired in the perceptual system.

None of these principles ['cohesion', 'boundness', 'rigidity', and 'no action at a distance' principles] is about specific objects. Instead, they reflect some very general properties of the world, and in this sense the process of early vision is not guided by expectations, by beliefs, or by any "object hypotheses" in general, in a top-down manner. The general assumptions about the physical world probably are built in the perceptual systems and act as constraints that guide perception. (105)

Unlike weak representations, the strong type of conscious object representation is formed in the ventral stream, in which information is processed in a relational framework of reference and object representations acquire semantic content through the effects of top-down conceptual influence.

The interesting upshot of the empirical work Raftopoulos refers to in the first part of the book is that there is a clear delimitation to what higher conceptual structures can influence top-down; moreover, such limit seems to be innately embedded in our perceptual circuitry. What falls  outside the boundaries of cognitive influence, i.e. perceptual processes, seems to be structured according to "optico-spatial" (135) features of the world itself which function as rules that determine the content of perceptual states.

In the second half of the book, Raftopoulos explores the philosophical impact of the cognitively impenetrability of perception thesis. Raftopoulos's systematic philosophical discussion culminates in his defense of a minimal, or restricted, form of realism against both semantic and epistemological constructivism (chapter 8).

Against semantic constructivism, according to which linguistic terms have no determinate empirical content, Raftopoulos proposes his own theory of perceptual demonstratives (chapter 6) according to which the referent of mental perceptual states that can be linguistically articulated by demonstrative terms (like 'this' and 'that') is fixed in non-conceptual, bottom-up, ways. In brief, the proto-objects indexed in a visual scene by pre-attentional, object-centered, segmentation processes are enough to fix the referents of perceptual demonstratives, even though their object-files do not contain any descriptive information to identify the object in question. The segmentation processes which individuate the proto-objects are the causal link which grounds the mental perceptual demonstrative in the world directly, thus fixing its referent. The segmentation processes which individuate the proto-objects are the causal link (the information they process is not conceptual) which grounds the mental perceptual demonstrative in the world directly, thus fixing its referent. In this sense, according to Raftopoulos, perception puts us in a de re relation with the world, that is it puts us in direct contact with the object, without the mediation of a description which identifies the object. Once again, the parsing of a visual scene into discrete proto-objects is carried out according to the innate operational constraints of the visual system.

Raftopoulos's dismissal of semantic constructivism relies on the claim that perceptual states link us with the world directly, or, put differently, that perceptual states have non-conceptual content (chapter 4). His argument for the existence of such content is straightforward: the existence of cognitively encapsulated visual mechanisms (which Raftopoulos has established in the first half of the book) is both a necessary and sufficient condition for the existence of non-conceptual content. In other words, once one accepts the former, one thereby has to accept the latter as the content of early visual states. Since early vision is constituted by both 'sensation' and 'perception', Raftopoulos further claims that sensory states are both non-conceptual and non-representational, while perceptual states are non-conceptual and representational, in the coarse sense of being presentations of object-types rather than object-tokens.

On this view, conceptual content is not arrived at by introspecting non-conceptual content. Rather, they are different types of content, formed at different stages of visual processing and subserved by different mechanisms. In particular, non-conceptual content depends on the feedforward sweep and the local recurrent processing; conceptual content requires instead global recurrent processing. In the context of this general dichotomy between conceptual and non-conceptual content, Raftopoulos identifies a further distinction within non-conceptual content. As we have seen, non-conceptual content is not defined in terms of subjective awareness, but, rather, in empirical terms. When it comes to the question of whether there is any form of consciousness attached to non-conceptual content (chapter 5), Raftopoulos claims that there is a subset of non-conceptual content, that is perceptual content, of which one can be phenomenally aware. Again, phenomenal content (or awareness) is defined empirically as non-conceptual content in which local recurrent processing occurs. Phenomenal awareness is a different type of awareness from access or report awareness, which depends on global recurrent processing. Moreover, unlike report awareness, phenomenal awareness takes place before the onset of attention and it carries limited and unstable spatio-temporal information about proto-objects size, shape, orientation, color, motion, symmetrical and topological relations, and functional properties.

The perceptual states which we thus directly (non-conceptually) 'apprehend' bottom-up are different from what has been rejected as 'the myth of the given', that is raw, unstructured, sensations which result from the causal influence of the world on the senses and which constitute the non-epistemic basis upon which our conceptual capacities apply in order to yield our ordinary experiences. The difference between phenomenal content and the 'given' as traditionally interpreted is that, according to Raftopoulos, the former provides us with a structured (re)presentation of the external world (or, more properly, we receive a structured reality bottom-up via perception), where the 'structuring' is carried out by the operational constraints embedded in our perceptual mechanisms. In this sense, phenomenal content is not about one's experience of the world; rather, it is about the world as represented in one's experience. Accordingly, the content of a belief (or any other higher cognitive state) formed on the basis of phenomenal or perceptual content is not about one's internal states; rather, it is about the world directly.

Once Raftopoulos has established that the cognitive encapsulated content of perceptual states is retrieved purely bottom-up, that it constitutes the theory-neutral basis of perceptual judgements (chapter 7), despite the epistemological constructivist claim to the contrary, and that it is structured enough to fix the referent of perceptual demonstrative states and to ground higher epistemic states (and, furthermore, that it is sustained by visual processing which allow a form of awareness which does not involve introspection), he can fully articulate his externalist defense of 'scientific realism' (chapter 8), and "argue that some of the outputs of perception (re)present things as they really are in the world." (328)

Traditional reliabilism does not have the necessary resources for this aim. Although it is hardly disputable that perception successfully guides our actions, this is not enough to "deal with what is the decisive point for realism, namely whether perceptual content carves the world in the right places." (337) Thus, the crucial issue is to establish that perception successfully guides action because non-conceptual perceptual content veridically presents the real properties of physical objects. 

If this were not the case, Raftopoulos contends, perception would be systematically deceitful. But then, how can one account for the fact that perception-based actions are largely successful? Facing this dilemma, it seems that one has to admit

not only [that] the organism systematically misperceives environmental features, but also that it does so in a way that allows the errors to cancel one another out in all possible activities. I think that is unlikely. That perception gets the basic environmental parameters right, and that this is why actions are successful, is a much simpler and more plausible explanation of success. (347-8)

Once again, the crucial explanatory work here is done by the operational constraints of perceptual mechanisms, "which, by reflecting some reliable regularities about our environment, ensure successful interactions with that environment." (348)

Having analyzed some of the central theses put forth by Raftopoulos, we shall conclude with two critical remarks, one on the crucial empirical assumption upon which Raftopoulos's whole project rests and the second on his epistemological externalism.

It seems that Raftopoulos's thesis of the cognitive impenetrability of perception ultimately rests on his endorsement of a weak form of innatism, according to which there are some operational constraints in our visual processings which causally link perceptual states to worldly states of affairs. However, this proves not to be enough to articulate an adequate defense of realism, and Raftopoulos needs to further assume that such constraints carve up the world veridically. The argument in support of such assumption is that if it weren't so we would end up with a more complex explanation of why perception successfully guides action. Since the simplicity principle has a controversial status in the history of science, and given that it is not always applicable (as different formulations of quantum mechanics show), it seems that Raftopoulos's project would be strengthened by a more thorough defense of this assumption (and of his innatist thesis more generally) which is crucial for the success of his project.

On the epistemological side, the fact that Raftopoulos's externalism is empirically grounded in the cognitive encapsulation of perception doesn't seem enough to dispense it from answering some of the traditional objections to externalism. More specifically, there seems to be a gap between Raftopoulos’s claim that there is a causal link between empirical states, non-conceptual content and conceptual content and his theoretical assumption that the subject doesn’t need to know what justifies her epistemic deliberations in order for them to be justified. It is not clear, in other words, how the former empirical claim grounds the latter (meta)epistemological claim.

To conclude, my comments are not to detract in any way from the many merits of Raftopoulos's work, which should be mostly welcomed by both empirically minded philosophers and philosophically minded scientists.



© 2010 Simone Marini


Simone Marini is Ph.D. candidate in the School of Philosophy at UC Dublin.


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