Noise, uncertainty, and interest: Predictive coding and cognitive penetration

Consciousness and Cognition 47:86-98 (2017)
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This paper concerns how extant theorists of predictive coding conceptualize and explain possible instances of cognitive penetration. §I offers brief clarification of the predictive coding framework and relevant mechanisms, and a brief characterization of cognitive penetration and some challenges that come with defining it. §II develops more precise ways that the predictive coding framework can explain, and of course thereby allow for, genuine top-down causal effects on perceptual experience, of the kind discussed in the context of cognitive penetration. §III develops these insights further with an eye towards tracking one extant criterion for cognitive penetration, namely, that the relevant cognitive effects on perception must be sufficiently direct. Throughout these discussions, we extend the analyses of the predictive coding models, as we know them. So one open question that surfaces is how much of the extended analyses are genuinely just part of the predictive coding models, or something that must be added to them in order to generate these additional explanatory benefits. In §IV, we analyze and criticize a claim made by some theorists of predictive coding, namely, that (interesting) instances of cognitive penetration tend to occur in perceptual circumstances involving substantial noise or uncertainty. It is here that our analysis is most critical. We argue that, when applied, the claim fails to explain (or perhaps even be consistent with) a large range of important and uncontroversially interesting possible cases of cognitive penetration. We conclude with a general speculation about how the recent work on the predictive mind may influence the current dialectic concerning top-down effects on perception.

Author Profiles

Jonna Vance
Northern Arizona University
Dustin Stokes
University of Utah


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