Perceptual Learning Explains Two Candidates for Cognitive Penetration

Erkenntnis 81 (6):1151-1172 (2016)
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Abstract

The cognitive penetrability of perceptual experiences has been a long-standing topic of disagreement among philosophers and psychologists. Although the notion of cognitive penetrability itself has also been under dispute, the debate has mainly focused on the cases in which cognitive states allegedly penetrate perceptual experiences. This paper concerns the plausibility of two prominent cases. The first one originates from Susanna Siegel’s claim that perceptual experiences can represent natural kind properties. If this is true, then the concepts we possess change the way things appear to us. The second candidate for cognitive penetration is Fiona Macpherson’s claim that, in addition to concepts, our beliefs can penetrate perceptual experiences. It is argued that neither candidate is a case of cognitive penetration. In doing so, I provide an explanation to both that is based on perceptual learning, a non-cognitive phenomenon where relatively slow and long-lasting modifications to an organism’s perceptual system bring about changes in perception. This explanation is theoretically more plausible and remains closer to the empirical data than the explanations based on cognitive penetration.

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Valtteri Arstila
University of Turku

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