The conference aims to bring together philosophers and scientists working on the question of the individuation of the senses.

We commonly consider ourselves to have five different senses and, corresponding to each sense, we label five kinds of experience: visual, tactual, auditory, olfactory and gustatory. But what is a sense, and in virtue of what do we label five kinds of experience? These are the central questions that will be addressed during the conference.

Theories of perception are central to philosophy, and yet there has been little work done investigating the nature of the senses. Philosophers take vision to be the paradigm mode of perception, and assume that whatever is true of vision will generalise to the other senses. Yet, prior to having some account of the senses, this assumption is unjustified.

Any account of the senses should be able to answer the following questions:

  • What is the nature of the senses?
  • How many human senses are there?
  • How in general should questions about the nature and number of animal or alien senses be answered?

Answering these questions will in turn require a number of questions about the nature of experiences in different modalities to be addressed:

  • Are spatial properties represented differently in different modalities?
  • Must experiences in different modalities represent different objects and properties?
  • Do the proximal stimuli of the sense organs help to individuate the senses? For example, does visible light play an essential mediating role in vision such that creatures that utilise only ultra-violet or infra-red light lack visual experiences?
  • Are there a number of dimensions along which experiences in one modality can vary (e.g. pitch and loudness in auditory experience)? If so, what explains these dimensions and what is the relation between them and the mechanisms which realise the modality?

Answers to these questions are of intrinsic interest, but they have a wider philosophical significance, too, and will shed light on other philosophical debates such as:

  • Are there any special problems that different senses raise, about knowledge and justification?
  • Can the same account of perception apply to all the senses or are different accounts are needed of different modalities?
  • What is the relationship between the senses and what can be perceived by different senses?

More generally, research on this topic could shed light on two of the most fundamental questions in the philosophy of mind, namely, how to account for conscious mental life within the natural world and the relationship between consciousness and representation. Most of this discussion is framed (often not explicitly) in terms of visual experiences. Investigating the nature of other kinds of experience will shed new light on the nature of perceptual consciousness by providing a greater range of phenomena to be explained, thereby better testing any proposed theory.

One of the aims of this conference is to promote dialogue between philosophy and the sciences. This is because empirical scientific research can both inform and be informed by research into the individuation of the senses. As a result some scientists have already begun to address the question at the heart of the conference. We have the potential therefore for a constructive interdisciplinary dialogue.

Science can be informed because theories of perception (for example in cognitive psychology, neurology, and psychophysics) often take the idea that there are different senses for granted. They usually work with merely an intuitive grasp of what it is for an experience to be in a particular sensory modality. This situation must be remedied, since the prior individuation of experiences is crucial to which theories of perceptual experiences are postulated and held to be true. (For example, how should one decide which brain mechanisms underpin all visual experiences if one does not have a prior grasp on which experiences are visual?)

Science can also inform the debate in a variety of ways. For example, scientific investigation and manipulation of the senses can provide new data that empirical and philosophical theories must address. Recent important work has emerged on many topics including:

  • Synaesthesia
  • Cross-modal integration and interference
  • The physical mechanisms that underlie each sense
  • Attention
  • Sensory deprivation
  • Sensory substitution devices
  • Animal senses that humans lack

The conference aims to bring together researchers who share an interest in this topic, from the United Kingdom, the United States, and beyond. It is important to do so for two reasons. First, despite the significance of the topic, there is only a very small existing relevant literature in philosophy. Thus, progress in this area would be greatly facilitated by discussion. Secondly, in recent times, individual researchers have begun to note the significance of this topic and have started to develop different approaches to the study of the topic. The repercussions of bringing together individuals working on this topic, when the investigation of the topic is still in its infancy, would be great.