Philosophy, Psychology and Neuroscience Research Seminar

The PPN Research Seminar is a joint endeavour to promote interdisciplinary discussion between Philosophy and Psychology, and to communicate research carried out in both departments.

Venue: Sense-data seminars will take place in the Reid Room, Philosophy Level 4, 67 Oakfield Avenue, 4–6pm, with other seminars in the Psychology Level 6 Meeting Room, 58 Hillhead Street, 4:00–5:30pm, unless otherwise noted (see below).

All students, staff and visiting researchers are welcome to attend.

Wednesday 21 September 2016 Psychology Level 5 Seminar Room David Howes (Anthropology, Concordia University) Sensory Aesthetics: A Cross-Cultural Perspective
Monday 24 October 2016 Philosophy Reid Room Derek Brown (Philosophy, Brandon University) Colouring Sense-Datum Theory
Monday 31 October 2016 Philosophy Reid Room Howard Robinson (Philosophy, Central European University) Why is the Sense-Datum Theory so Unpopular?
Monday 14 November 2016 Psychology Level 6 Meeting Room Adina L. Roskies (Philosophy/Neuroscience, Dartmouth) Predictive Coding and Cognitive Ontology
Monday 23 January 2017 Philosophy Reid Room Michael Martin (Philosophy, UCL/Berkeley) Two-level Accounts of Experience: Sense-Data & the Problem of Temporal Experience
Monday 20 February 2017 Psychology Level 6 Meeting Room David Carmel (Psychology, Edinburgh) Attentional Attractors and Visual Awareness
Monday 6 March 2017 Psychology Level 6 Meeting Room Marcin Miłkowski (Philosophy, Polish Academy of Sciences) Explaining Hallucinations Computationally
Monday 13 March 2017 Psychology Level 6 Meeting Room Lore Thaler (Psychology, Durham) Human Echolocation of Contour Shape
Monday 8 May 2017 Psychology Level 6 Meeting Room Irene Sperandio (Psychology, UEA) How Does the Human Brain Represent Size?
Monday 15 May 2017 Psychology Level 6 Meeting Room Matthew Soteriou (Philosophy, King’s College London) The Dream Present as a ‘Time Island’

AHRC logoThis year’s seminars are jointly sponsored by the Institute of Neuroscience and Psychology, and the CSPE’s Rethinking the Senses and Sense-Data: Phenomenology and Metaphysics projects.

Organised by Dr Keith Wilson, Dr Umut Baysan and Professor Fiona Macpherson.



David Howes (Concordia University)

Sensory Aesthetics: A Cross-Cultural Perspective

This presentation begins by recuperating the original definition of the aesthetic proposed by the philosopher Alexander von Baumgarten and then examines how this definition was formalized and neutered by Immanuel Kant. For Baumgarten, aesthetics had to do with the study of “the plenitude and complexity of sensations,” which culminated in the perception of art. When Kant took up the concept, however, he drained it of its sensory plenitude and revised its significance to that of a “disinterested” contemplation and judgment of beauty.

The presentation then shifts to a consideration of how the senses are engaged in diverse non-Western aesthetic traditions with a view to arriving at a multi-modal understanding of aesthetic experience which holds across cultures instead of being peculiar to the West. Examples range from Navajo sandpainting and Japanese tea bowls to African masks and Desana basketry.

The presentation closes with a consideration of the proliferation of innovative display practices in contemporary art galleries, such as the “Soundscapes” exhibition at the National Gallery and “Sensorium” at Tate Britain, which redefine art as that which engages multiple senses. It is argued that these shows signal the restoration of Baumgarten’s original definition of the aesthetic and compel us to reject the straightjacketing of aesthetic perception proposed by Kant.

Derek Brown (Brandon University & University of Glasgow)

Colouring Sense-Datum Theory

This paper brings some central philosophies of colour to bear on key issues in sense-datum theory (SDT). The thesis is that these philosophies are, for good reasons, committed to a veil of visual perception and in this sense share much in common with SDT. I begin with a brief overview of SDT and the arguments from illusion and hallucination. Some well-known challenges to SDT are mentioned but not detailed. Following this I outline two central challenges in current colour theory, one from colour variation and one from colour structure. The impact of these on three philosophies of colour (reflectance physicalism, eliminativism, and mentalism) is then considered. The outcome is finally reflected back onto the arguments from illusion and hallucination, where the expicit case is made for each approach to colour not merely being committed to a perceptual veil, but being so committed due to the pressures from colour variation and/or colour structure. Beyond mere commitment to a veil, full-blooded SDT minimally adds that the veil consists of existing objects and the properties they instantiate—that is, it consists of sense-data and their features. This matter, which concerns the particularity of the veil, involves a host of distinct issues and is thus left to another work.

Howard Robinson (Central European University)

Why is the Sense-Datum Theory so Unpopular?

My view is not so much that the sense-datum theory is the best available theory, but that it is, after a little thought, more or less the only one worth taking seriously: and that the fierce resistance to it amongst philosophers is little short of a professional psychosis.

In this talk I'll examine some of the reasons for this fit of irrationality. In particular, I'll consider the argument that it is contrary to a naturalistic picture of the world, the argument that it cuts us off in a disastrous way from the world, and the claim that the indeterminacy of data shows that they cannot be 'things'. In doing this, I will discuss some defences of disjunctivism I have not considered before (especially those given by Bill Fish) and look at the extremely revealing disagreement between John Searle and Tim Crane on the nature of intentionalism.

Adina L. Roskies (Dartmouth)

Predictive Coding and Cognitive Ontology

I will address the way in which predictive coding theories of brain function might bear on the question of what our cognitive ontologies (or psychological taxonomies) should be. To what extent does predictive coding force us to reevaluate our conceptions of the joints of nature with respect to concepts of the world and concepts of the mind? To what extent is it compatible with the traditional concept of the receptive field, and with other ways of assigning function? Does it ratify or does it challenge them?

Michael Martin (UCL/Berkeley)

Two-level Accounts of Experience: Sense-Data & the Problem of Temporal Experience

In this talk I compare and contrast two sense-datum theorists: from the end of the 20th century, John Foster, who defends what I call a two-level account of experience, insisting that experience is presentational, while imagination and memory are representational or conceptional states of mind, and from the second decade of the twentieth century, the early Bertrand Russell, who treats all experience as a mode of acquaintance. I'll explore how certain considerations about temporal experience and our conception of what it is to undergo experience favours Foster's picture over Russell’s.

David Carmel (Edinburgh)

Attentional Attractors and Visual Awareness

Spatial attention is often likened to a spotlight, but this metaphor is inadequate: It cannot account for the reduced sensitivity at unattended locations that accompanies facilitation at attended locations, nor for the flexibility of attention, which can be divided over several locations. Here, I will describe recent psychophysical work that systematically explored the effects of both the validity and number of peripheral attentional cues. A series of experiments demonstrated that dividing attention impairs sensitivity at the cued locations, but improves it at uncued locations. These findings are consistent with a model in which attentional cues act as attractors for spatially-tuned receptive channels: Cueing alters channels’ spatial tuning, increasing their density near a cue and decreasing it elsewhere. Multiple cues pull in different directions, reducing both of these effects. Attentional attractors thus account for these and various other findings, and offer a viable mechanism for attention’s effects. Furthermore, I will argue that they have implications for the hotly debated question of whether attention is a condition (either necessary or sufficient) for conscious experience. If attention is simply a change in the spatial tuning of retinotopic channels, then the baseline state is not inattention but rather an unbiased distribution of receptive channels. Changing the distribution of channels in retinotopic space thus constitutes attention—and in the absence of a biologically plausible scenario in which all channels are withdrawn from a specific location, it is meaningless to talk about situations in which attention is absent. Instead, I will propose that efforts should be focused on defining the causal clusters that lead to conscious perceptual experience.

Marcin Miłkowski (Polish Academy of Sciences)

Explaining Hallucinations Computationally

In this talk, computational explanations of episodes of hallucination are analyzed from the perspective of the mechanistic account of explanation. To make the discussion more specific, I focus on visual hallucinations occurring in people with Charles Bonnet Syndrome. Even if computational explanations, as I argue, need not be representational, and representations are not reducible merely to computational phenomena, there are numerous features of representations that can be explained computationally. To substantiate this claim, I briefly introduce a recent computational model of this hallucination, which relies on generative models in the brain, and argue that the model is a prime example of a representational and computational explanation. I conclude by arguing that computationalism is a natural ally of explanatory pluralism.

Lore Thaler (Durham University)

Human Echolocation of Contour Shape

Echolocation is the ability to infer spatial information from sound echoes. Humans can echolocate for example by making mouth clicks. There are various examples in the literature showing that humans can use echo-acoustic cues to avoid obstacles, determine object distance or location. In previous work it has also been shown that people can even echolocate shape of objects. Importantly, in the case of 2D contour shape (i.e. triangle, square, vertical rectangle, horizontal rectangle) we have also shown that perception of shape is only possible if people move their head (Milne et al, 2015, APP). In my talk I will describe recent work from our lab that has investigated the possible acoustic features enabling human echolocation of 2D contour-shape. I will also describe predictions about behaviour arising from these acoustic analyses. I will also describe recent work in which we investigated how expectations about object shape affect performance in a contour shape discrimination task.

Irene Sperandio (University of East Anglia)

How Does the Human Brain Represent Size?

One of the most puzzling abilities of the human brain is size constancy: an object is perceived as having the same size even though its image on the retina varies continuously with viewing distance. An accurate representation of size is critical not only for perceptual recognition, but also for goal-directed actions, such as grasping. In fact, to successfully grasp an object, our grip aperture needs to be scaled to the true size of the object regardless of changes in retinal image size due to variations in viewing distance. In this talk, I will present a number of studies using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and behavioural (i.e. perceptual judgments, kinematics) approaches to demonstrate that the human brain supports multiple representations of size, some of which do not require conscious processing and are more automatically driven than others. I will discuss the findings, which provide evidence for separate mechanisms responsible for size- and grip-constancy, in light of the ongoing debate on the neural basis of size perception.

Matthew Soteriou (King’s College London)

The Dream Present as a ‘Time Island’

Among those philosophers who accept the common sense view that our dreams involve conscious experiences, one central area of dispute turns on the question of whether it is appropriate to categorise our dream experiences as perceptual experiences that are akin to waking hallucinations. Many of those who deny this, propose instead that our dream experiences should, rather, be regarded as acts of imagination. An associated dispute turns on the question of whether we should regard dreaming and waking states as constitutively different. In this talk I shall be exploring how these debates can be illuminated by considering the following question: what, if anything, is peculiar about temporal awareness in dreams, in contrast with wakeful consciousness? In particular, I shall be considering the proposals that (a) as you dream, you cannot refer to your actual present as ‘now’. In that respect, when you dream, you are cut off from your actual present, i.e. the actual time at which you dream; and (b) when you dream, you do not have access to a temporal perspective on your actual past and your actual future.