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Hoffman's Conscious Realism:
A Critical Review

3. Interface Theory of Perception (ITP)

3.2 Are Our Perceptual 'Icons' Veridical?

Book cover: The Embodied Mind: Cognitive Science and Human Experience by Francisco J. Varela, Evan T. Thompson and Eleanor Rosch

Let me start with Hoffman et al's desktop icon analogy. He draws a distinction between realist strategies that mimic the world and 'strict interface' strategies in which perception does not preserve any structures of the world. As he and his team write, the latter winning perceptual strategy is analogous to using the icon on our desktop: 'No features of the icon are identifiable with any features of the file in the computer' [Hoffman et al 2015a: 1484].

However, in dismissing veridicality of the icon on our desktop, Hoffman and his collaborators may be pressing their analogy too far. Clearly, the icon on our desktop is representing a file in some respects. It's a mistake to think that to represent the file with some level of veridicality, the icon needs to be identical with the file. The icon is, after all, a representation. A map can faithfully represent the terrain it maps without being identical to the terrain. Cohen [2015: 1515f] drives home exactly this point in more detail.

Consider my perception of the tree in my back yard. When I see the tree, I experience a tree percept with brown and green features in my visual field. For my tree 'icon' to represent the actual tree in my yard, it need not reveal all (or even most) of the features of the actual tree in my yard. We don't require my tree percept to reveal the cells, molecules and atoms that make up the actual tree for it to be veridical. We don't require my percept to represent the complex process of photosynthesis that is going on in the actual tree.

For my percept to be veridical, we require it to stand in the appropriate causal relation to the tree planted in my back yard. So, we require the actual tree to be an essential part of the causal chain of happenings that start from light from the sun reflecting off its surface particular wavelengths in the brown and green parts of the electromagnetic spectrum. The causal chain continues with those waves hitting the photoreceptors in my eyes, then with electrical impulses being transmitted along my optic nerves and then being processed in the visual cortex part of my brain. This final part of the causal chain leads me to have the private phenomenological experience of the tree. When these causal relations between the actual tree and my tree percept (the tree 'icon') are realized, we say that my perception of the tree is veridical.

Book cover: An Introduction to Western Philosophy by Anthony Flew

In the same way, we say that the file icon on my desktop is veridical when it stands in the appropriate causal relation to the actual file in the computer. And by design, I create that causal connection when I configure the properties of a desktop icon to point to an actual file within the folder structure of the computer's storage. Now, when I drag the icon to the trash or move it to a different folder, the actual file is deleted or is moved. It is precisely when I drag the icon to the trash and it is not deleted, or when I move the icon to a different folder and the wrong file is moved, that we say that the icon does not represent that file; that the icon is not veridical.

A second consideration about Hoffman et al's 'icon' analogy is that it reveals more than intended about the nature of realism. Just as we can peer behind the desktop icon to reveal the inner workings of the computer interface, likewise, we can dig behind our tree percept to uncover the inner workings of nature. With our desktop icon, we can investigate how moving the icon into another folder icon with our mouse changes the electrical patterns on the hard disc. Likewise, scientists investigate how the various colours of a perceived tree represent certain wavelengths of reflected light and how they interact with photoreceptors in our eyes and transmit electrical signals to our visual cortex. Our tree percept does not place us in an epistemological prison; no more so the icon on our desktop.

Copyright © 2020

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