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The Reflexive Theory of Perception

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The Reflexive Theory of Perception John Dilworth, draft only, 7/04 The Reflexive Theory of Perception (RTP) claims that perception of an object X by an organism Z consists in Z being caused by X to acquire some disposition D toward X itself. This novel, purely naturalistic perceptual theory explains perceptual intentionality, correct versus incorrect perception and externalist content in a plausible evolutionary framework. The theory also undermines cognitive and perceptual modularity assumptions, including informational or purely epistemic views of perception, in that, according to the RTP, any X-caused and X-directed dispositions are genuinely perceptual--including affective, attitudinal, and immediately activated purely action-directed behavioral dispositions. The Reflexive Theory of Perception (RTP) claims that perception of an object X by an organism Z consists in Z being caused by X to acquire some disposition D toward X itself. It is perhaps surprising that this completely naturalistic, reflexive view seems to be novel, since it has an attractive simplicity--being definable with some initial clarity within a single sentence of modest length--while also being a natural outgrowth of a broadly causal (rather than computational)1 functionalist approach to cognition, that seeks to explain perceptual or other cognitive activities in terms that integrally involve behavioral dispositions. But in any case, I shall defend the RTP here, in ways that emphasize also its integral connection with biological evolutionary theory. As initial support for the reflexive theory of perception (RTP), arguably the primary evidence that some organism Z has perceived food item X is if Z attempts to do things such as to directly causally interact with X in some way, such as by eating the food X, or hiding it for later use, and so on--all of which behaviors are evidence for Z having acquired X-related dispositions as part of its perceptual contact with X. Also, 'negative' 1X-related causal dispositions need to be considered too, for example a disposition to refrain from causal interaction with X when that interaction would otherwise occur, such as if Z is about to collide with object X, and its perception of X consists in its being caused by X to acquire a disposition, immediately activated, to avoid colliding with X. Thus overall, the best evidence that animal Z has perceived object X is if Z attempts to do something X-related, such as attempting to avoid X, or to interact with it. While at the same time, the best evidence that Z has not perceived X is if Z's behavior shows no manifestation of any X-related dispositions whatsoever. To be sure, this purely dispositional view of perception, and of the evidence for its occurrence, might initially seem intuitively questionable, in that perception is widely regarded as being a process of information acquisition, with any associated behavioral dispositions, whether activated or not, being regarded as separable from, and subsequent to, the intake of such perceptual information.2 However, though admittedly a radical view, the RTP can immediately reply with a counter-challenge to such informational views, as follows. If a pure informational view were correct, it would be possible for an organism to perceive all kinds of things without ever engaging in any subsequent appropriate behavior. But such an intellectualist, pure acquisition of information view would empirically be completely empty, in the absence of any concrete behavioral evidence that perception had actually occurred.3 Given that legitimate empirical perceptual theories must explain the role that behavioral evidence plays in establishing that perception has occurred, the simplest explanation of 2perception itself is that it consists in dispositions to behave in the ways that have been observed. Hence a dispositional theory of perception such as the RTP is the simplest available legitimate empirical theory, whereas a pure informational view has no empirical credibility whatsoever.4 Another initial intuitive roadblock to acceptance of a dispositional theory such as the RTP is that the category of dispositions, even when specifically limited to X-caused and X-related dispositions, might seem too unconnected with the standard perceptual and semantic issue of correct versus incorrect, or veridical versus non-veridical, perception. In what sense can some perceptually acquired, X-related disposition be correct or incorrect with respect to X, since any actual behavior toward X that manifests the disposition is simply a behavioral event, having no intrinsic semantic properties? Nevertheless, here too a supporter of the RTP can appeal to the common empirical currency of behavioral evidence, and argue that the only actual evidence we can have as to the correctness or incorrectness of some particular perceptual episode in organism Z's history is broadly behavioral evidence, so that the RTP cannot be any worse off with respect to evidence of semantic correctness than any other broadly empirical theory of perception. If at least some behavioral episodes do provide legitimate evidence of correct or incorrect perception--as they must for those concepts to have any empirical content--then they equally support the attribution of correctness or incorrectness to X-caused and X-related dispositions to thus behave, in conformity with the account of perception offered by the RTP. 3As a simple example, the perceptually acquired disposition for a hungry person to eat some nutritious food placed in front of himself, while being disposed to refrain from eating some rocks similarly placed, would, when behaviorally manifested in either case under normal circumstances, provide adequate behavioral evidence of correct perception of the food and rocks on any theory of perception, including the RTP. Or a linguistic example: if, after gazing at a red object X, one says "that is red" while pointing at X, this would be clear behavioral evidence of correct perception of its color on any theory of perception. On the RTP, this case would involve X-caused, perceptually acquired correct dispositions with respect to the color of X, including a disposition to thus demonstratively utter the relevant sentence in appropriate circumstances.5 To sum up this Introduction, perhaps enough has already been said to show that the reflexive theory of perception has at least some initial viability in comparison with other


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