I haven’t posted anything in quite a long time, so I figured I’d start by sharing an essay that I wrote for my Topics in Language and Mind class. It’s about the distinction between beliefs formed through perception and beliefs formed through reason. The argument is simple: the distinction essentially amounts to a difference in the immediacy of the formation of propositions.
Immediately vs Mediately Justified Belief
Propositions about the external world enter into the mind through two seemingly distinctive processes: perception and reflection. Propositions that are acquired through perceptual experience seem to become available to the mind simply through the enjoyment of sensual experience while propositions acquired through reason are based upon inferences made about perceptual experiences. This view, that there is a distinctiveness between those propositions formed through perceptual experience and those formed through reason, is similar to the dogmatic position defended by James Pryor, who claims that what this distinctiveness essentially amounts to is a difference in immediacy. His claim is essentially that propositions based on reason are mediated or justified by other beliefs while propositions based on perceptual experience undergo no such process of cognitive justification. Admittedly, the explanation of the distinctiveness of propositions formed through perceptual experience that I am about to purport is a stronger, more restrictive version of Pryor’s argument. I believe that Pryor’s sense of immediacy is not strict enough to explain the distinctiveness of propositions formed through perceptual experience, perhaps because he lends too much to the notion of “background beliefs”.
That these two modes of proposition formation are distinct is not entirely obvious, nor is it altogether clear as to what this distinctiveness consists in. Take, for example, the propositions formed while having a certain color experience. One can entertain many sorts of justified beliefs about a color experience, many of which seem to occur spontaneously. For instance, the perception of a certain wavelength of light might lead someone to entertain the justified belief that what she is perceiving is the color red, a belief which seems to be justified immediately, without the aid of any complex thought process. This belief would certainly by justified in virtue of her enjoying a perceptual experience of that specific wavelength: if the wavelength of light were different, she would not have the proper justification for believing that color to be red for she would be enjoying a different color experience altogether. But is this justified belief, that she is perceiving the color red, really an immediately justified belief? It seems the case that such a proposition could be entertained by the mind without any significant cognitive processing of the visual experience. Yet the subject’s ability to demonstratively distinguish this color experience as the color ‘red’ seems to rest upon another belief, specifically, the belief that this type of color experience is called ‘red’. She needn’t even have to state her belief in order for a cognitive process to become involved: she need merely make the mental distinction that the color experience she is enjoying is a token example of a specific type of color experience in order for the processes of reason to become involved.
If we accept that such a seemingly spontaneously justified belief is not immediately justified by perception and does indeed rest upon the justification of other beliefs, what then counts as an immediately justified belief? In other words, what is a proposition formed strictly through the processes of perception? To see what sorts of beliefs can be immediately justified by perceptual experience, consider the beliefs that might be entertained by a baby or small child. A young child that has not yet learned to speak of or recognize colors does not distinguish color experiences as having continued existences and perceives only the color mosaic immediately presented to him through perception. What propositions might be justified in this case? These sorts of propositions must be evident only in virtue of the specific perceptual experience being entertained. For instance, while the child might not be able to distinguish what a certain color experience is, the child will be able to distinguish between different color experiences that occur within the same color mosaic. The perception of two distinct color experiences occurs simply in virtue of the fact that there are two different wavelengths of light causing distinct color experiences, thus causing an immediately justified belief that there are two color experiences currently being entertained. This case is not limited to children: all people that have perceptual faculties that are able to create distinct color experiences upon the perception of different wavelengths of light are able to enjoy such immediately justified beliefs. In the case of vision, a subject is only immediately justified (as opposed to mediately justified) in believing propositions that occur in virtue of what is presented to the mind via the visual faculties. More generally, immediately justified beliefs are propositions about the world that occur merely as a result of the phenomenal character of perception. It should be stated here spatial character is part of the phenomenal character of perceptual experience, therefore allowing us to be justified in believing that things are located in the space around us where we perceive them to be located.
If we accept this argument, that beliefs formed through perception are distinct from beliefs formed through reason in their immediacy, is it necessarily the case that beliefs cannot have any effect on beliefs formed through perception? It seems obvious that beliefs can certainly affect the mediately justified beliefs of reason – there is a sense of redundancy in this statement. But it is not entirely clear that beliefs can have no affect on the immediately justified beliefs of perception. One might ask, if part of the definition of an immediately justified belief is that none of one’s justification for believing this belief can rest upon other beliefs, then how would it be possible for beliefs to have an effect on immediately justified beliefs without turning them into mediately justified beliefs? One reply to this is that if beliefs could have an effect upon the phenomenal character of perception, then beliefs could plausibly have an effect on immediately justified beliefs. If this were possible, regardless of whether the immediate/mediate distinction holds, then the distinctiveness that separates perception and reasoning as sources of justification might be in some sense threatened in virtue of the fact that beliefs formed through reason and reflection would then be allowed to affect both immediately and mediately justified beliefs. For a more detailed understanding of why this might be the case, I turn now to an argument made by Paul Chruchland in favor of cognitive penetration.
Jerry Fodor puts forward the notion that the structure and design of the human body causes the perceptual senses to be encapsulated in such a way that they are isolated from each other and from higher forms of cognition. Churchland, on the other hand, is for the notion of cognitive penetration, claiming that entertaining certain beliefs or perspectives on the world can cause the senses to perceive the world differently. He cites other sorts of illusions in which it is actually possible to change one’s perspective to actually perceive something entirely different, such as the illusion of the image of a young girl can be turned into the image of an old woman by consciously shifting the focus of the eyes. He also cites the ability for a trained musician to distinguish subtle differences in sound that an untrained ear might not be able to pick up on.
The first of these examples, the shifting of one image into another, does not seem to me to be a case of cognitive penetration into the senses: while the object or focus of the visual experience changes, the phenomenal character is essentially no different in one image than it is in another. This case is like seeing a pattern in an image that you hadn’t seen before – the color and spatial character of the experience doesn’t change, your mind merely distinguishes a new object upon which to draw its focus. The latter example of the trained musician is perhaps more interesting for this paper. The notion that one is able to distinguish between sounds that were previously indistinguishable through the training of the mind might be considered a more powerful case for cognitive penetration. One might argue that the phenomenal character of the sound does not actually change (i.e. the sound that is perceived has not changed) and that it is now just a matter of paying closer attention to the phenomenal character of your experience. Yet there is a sense in which the phenomenal character does actually change in that the belief and training actually causes the perception of an entirely new set of sounds that were previously not perceived.
To see how this sort of penetration might affect my argument that beliefs do not have affects upon immediately justified beliefs, consider two painters, a master and an apprentice. The master painter has a highly developed sense of color from years of experience, able to distinguish between shades of color which are caused by wavelengths of light only a couple of nanometers apart. The apprentice painter, on the other hand, is unable to distinguish colors to this degree. When presented with a certain panel of color which demonstrates only the slightest gradation of color, the painters will seem to actually enjoy entirely distinct perceptual experiences: the apprentice will see only one shade while the master will see many. Both are immediately justified in their beliefs because both entertain their propositions merely as a result of their perceptions. Belief did not have a mediate effect on the difference in their perception in the sense that the justification of their propositions did not rest on other propositions. Thus it seems the case that the senses can in fact be penetrated by cognitive processes, and immediately justified beliefs can also be affected by belief.
Yet I do not believe that this necessarily undermines my or Pryor’s argument. Pryor claims that immediately justified beliefs are not autonomous in the sense that there are background beliefs which do have effects upon immediately justified beliefs. The beliefs that allow one to distinguish perceptual experiences from each other are a part of these background beliefs. The training that the master undergoes does not provide justification in the way that higher order conscious beliefs do for mediately justified beliefs – there is a sense in which this training must cause a change in the unconscious beliefs that work in the background of perception before they can truly be said to have an effect on the phenomenal character of experience. Thus the distinction that I made between perceptual and reason based justification remains: perceptual justification of propositions is done immediately while reasoned justification of propositions is done mediately in such a way that it rests upon other beliefs and propositions.