Perception – an introduction

by Neil Rickert

I am starting a series of posts on perception.  I will mainly be discussing my own ideas about perception.  If you are looking for the conventional wisdom on perception, then this is the wrong place.

Note that I will also be continuing my discussion of how science works in other posts.

What is perception?

I will be roughly following J.J. Gibson’s view of what is perception.  That is to say, I consider perception to be a process whereby we — or, more generally, cognitive agents — obtain information about the environment.  Gibson distinguished between perception and sensation, where “sensation” refers to the particular experience that we have of the environment, what some consider to be a kind of internal picture.

Gibson is best known on account of his theory of direct perception.  I won’t say much about that in this post.  I anticipate that my next post in this series will be about the argument over direct perception and indirect perception.  For the moment, I’ll comment that my own view is closer to that of direct perception, though it probably differs from Gibson’s view.

The hard problem of cognition, as so named by David Chalmers, is that of explaining sensation.  However, I am not persuaded that is an important problem, and it might even be a pseudo-problem.  I consider the problem of perception, seen as the acquiring of information, as the central problem of cognition.  We could not be conscious, or even aware that there is a world, were it not for our ability to have information about that world.  That’s why I see the problem of perception, of acquiring information about the world, as more important than the details of sensation.

Thinking, in my view, is something like the building of internal models and then perceiving those models.  If there were some internal computer that was building models or simulations, but we were not perceiving those models, then we would not be aware of our thoughts.  And I don’t see how we could call it “thinking” if we were not even aware of it.

The origin of my ideas

My ideas on cognition mostly originate from my attempts to understand how we learn about the world.  I started those attempts around 25 years ago, originally for pedagogical reasons.  My starting assumption was that our ability to learn was a product of evolution, so I should look to what kinds of abilities could plausibly evolve.  I avoided the approaches of artificial intelligence and those of philosophy of mind, for those seemed to be based on a designer’s view of cognition and learning, and seemed unlikely to be what could have evolved.

In my investigations, I did spend some time reading books on theories of learning coming from behaviorist psychology, but I mostly found those unhelpful.  One of those books was that of Eleanor Gibson, on perceptual learning.  I have later come to appreciate its relevance, though I missed that on my initial reading.

I took learning to be the acquiring of knowledge, and in turn I took that to amount to the acquiring or improving of abilities, particularly the kind of abilities that would enhance the chances that a biological organism would survive, or be selected for (in the terminology of natural selection).

That’s enough of an introduction for now.  Look for more details in future posts in this series.

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