Date of Award

Winter 12-15-2022

Author's School

Graduate School of Arts and Sciences

Author's Department


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Degree Type



Recent cognitive science suggests that the system responsible for perceptual experience is flexible, can learn, and is robustly affected by information stored in subjects’ minds. My dissertation is about the account of the mind and subjective awareness that emerges if this picture of perceptual experience is true. Whether perceptual experience is affected by stored information is usually tied to discussions of so-called ‘cognitive penetration’ (what I call cognitive ‘permeation’). I consider the focus on cognitive permeation largely as a red herring, instead holding that we should view the relevant epistemic issue more broadly: as that of whether changing stores of information flexibly impact perceptual experience—regardless of whether this information originates inside of cognition or perception. Changing stores of information may in principle influence perceptual experience in any of three ways: directly via cognitive penetration, indirectly via top-down shifts in one’s attention, or via learning within the perceptual system itself. This broader phenomenon (which I call ‘perceptual-experiential learning’) likely exists in some form, regardless of the controversies surrounding cognitive penetration. In my dissertation’s first chapter, I argue that the existence of learning within perceptual experience should lead us to posit a new type of illusion: the ‘familiar illusion’. In those with the right life experience and training, some illusions can, in certain ways, be perceived correctly or without error. For example, I argue, using evidence from psychology, that driving-induced motion blur can become a familiar illusion for expert drivers. Unlike the novice driver who is perceptually misled by motion blur, for those with the relevant driving expertise, seeing blurry environments can in fact aid in the successful perception of one’s environment. In the second half of Chapter 1, I argue that familiar illusion raises a puzzle for intentionalism—i.e., for the reductive view that first posits a distinctive way perceptual experience makes subjects aware of environmental information and then attempts to identify or fully explain that flow of information with subjects’ mental representations. Perceptual experience of familiar illusion requires that the system underlying perceptual experience flexibly takes into account the subject’s circumstance to alter its own assumptions. This is a paradigmatically cognitive type of information processing. That the system underlying perceptual experience has flexible assumptions, just like cognition, complicates any intentionalist attempt to account for their distinctively perceptual-experiential mode of conveying information in terms of a certain type of inflexibility in the assumptions of the system underlying that flow of information. What’s more, due to the uncontroversial correlations between paradigmatic types of cognitive processing and cognitive manners of information being conveyed to subjects (of belief), familiar illusion provides some evidence that perceptual experience conveys information to subjects in a manner associated with cognition and belief (i.e., a manner that is not distinctively perceptual-experiential)—contra intentionalism. In the second chapter of my dissertation, I use the existence of learning processes that robustly affect perceptual experience to argue against one form, perhaps the most common form today, of the so-called ‘given’. Philosophers today typically believe in the given in that they typically believe in a type of phenomenal appearance that gives subjects an awareness of a determinate way the environment is. These ‘given appearances’ are meant to explain the sui generis perceptual-experiential way perceptual experience itself conveys information to subjects (under, e.g., intentionalism or ‘representationalism’). Against positing given appearances, I argue that, by virtue of perceptual-experiential learning, subjects with different information in their perceptual or cognitive systems may respond differently and correctly to different environments that proximally impact subjects’ sense organs in exactly the same way. The thespian who has spent enough time both buying lemons in the grocery store and performing with plastic lemons on the stage would very likely respond appropriately in each sort of circumstance—even if the set is modeled on the store and the lemons and plastic lemons often result in the same proximal inputs to subjects’ perceptual systems. That one’s perceptual experience is flexibly responsive to stored information reveals that the way that subjects of perceptual experience receive environmental information is importantly detachable from perception’s proximal inputs. That subjects can become differentially sensitive to distinct environments—despite those environments impacting subjects’ sense organs in exactly the same overall way—shows that the given appearances (if they exist) are not driven by the environment and thus are not ordinary appearances. So, either given appearances are extraordinary appearances, and are therefore mysterious and not explanatory, or they are too independent of the environment to really be appearances at all. I suggest we should take the latter interpretation: we need posit nothing other than cognition and belief to account for perceptual experience’s power to convey environmental information to subjects. In Chapter 3 of my dissertation, I argue for a new way of thinking about the relationship between perceptual experience, the environment, and environmental information that does not fit easily into the existing categories of theories of perceptual experience. It is a doxastic theory in the sense that judgement is said to be a necessary component of perceptual experience; it is a naive realist theory in the sense that the environment itself is said to be a necessary component of non-hallucinatory perceptual experience. Because the addition of a representational, doxastic component to naive realism renders the resulting theory less naive, I call such a theory of perceptual experience ‘doxastic realism’ (as opposed to ‘doxastic naive realism’). Per doxastic realism, certain judgments are disposed to become causally tied to the environment in such a way that they unite with the environment to produce something phenomenal. If I am right, when one looks at and perceptually experiences the lemon on the counter (for example), one’s perceptual experience amounts to an interaction between some of the subject’s processes of judging and the lemon-including environment itself. These judging processes convey information to the subject, but they do not exhaust the phenomenology of non-hallucinatory perceptual experience: the environment itself helps determine one’s perceptual phenomenology.


English (en)

Chair and Committee

Casey O'Callaghan

Committee Members

Rebecca Copenhaver, Kathrin Glüer-Pagin, Jonathan Kvanvig, Matthew McGrath,

Included in

Philosophy Commons