Academic journal article Psychonomic Bulletin & Review

Notions Such as "Truth" or "Correspondence to the Objective World" Play No Role in Explanatory Accounts of Perception

Academic journal article Psychonomic Bulletin & Review

Notions Such as "Truth" or "Correspondence to the Objective World" Play No Role in Explanatory Accounts of Perception

Article excerpt

Published online: 18 September 2015

© Psychonomic Society, Inc. 2014

Abstract Hoffman, Singh, and Prakash (Psychonomic Review and Bulletin, 2015, in press) intend to show that perceptions are evolutionarily tuned to fitness rather than to truth. I argue, partly in accordance with their objective, that issues of 'truth' or 'veridicality' have no place in explanatory accounts of perception theory, and rather belong to either ordinary discourse or to philosophy. I regard, however, their general presumption that the evolutionary development of core achievements of the human perceptual system would be primarily determined by aspects of fitness and adaption as unwarranted in light of the evidence available.

Keywords Visual perception . Concepts . Mathematical models

In our ordinary intuitions about perception, we are convinced that our perceptual apparatus by and large conveys to us a basically 'truthful' account of the external world. We are apparently biologically endowed with a predisposition to accept certain expressions generated by our perceptual capacities for 'things in the objective world.' This propensity constitutes a kind of naïve realism that is deeply built into our mental make-up (cf. Mausfeld, 2010a). Although naïve realism already founders in the face of most elementary scientific facts, for instance about the properties of our sense organs, it intellectually expresses some of our deepest convictions about the mental activity of perceiving, namely being in direct touch with a mind-independent world. These convictions are so deeply entrenched in our conception of the world and our interactions with it that it is hardly surprising that they exercise a continuous impact on perception research. Attempts to cope with them pervade the entire history of rational enquiry into perception since the time of the Pre-Socratics. Variants of more refined forms of naïve realism are still prevailing as a tacit background assumption in current perceptual psychology, albeit often concealed by technically sophisticated formulations.

Hoffman, Singh and Prakash (HSP) set out to mount a new attack on widely held convictions in perceptual psychology according to which perception somehow mirrored structural aspects of the 'objective world.' HSP approach this issue from a new direction, namely through a kind of conceptual analysis based on mathematical techniques from evolutionary game theory and genetic algorithms. They formulate two questions that they want to answer in the paper. "First, is the vocabulary of our perceptions isomorphic to aspects of objective reality so that our language of perceptions could, in principle, describe the objective truth? Second, if so, do our perceptual systems in fact succeed in describing the true state of affairs in the world?" The main thrust of their paper is to demonstrate by mathematical inferences from allegedly rather simple premises that natural selection "shapes perceptions to guide adaptive behavior." According to HSP, the "key insight from these evolutionary games" is that "natural selection tunes perception to payoffs, not to truth."

In this comment, I will focus on two issues: (1) I will try to locate HSP's endeavor within the intellectual landscape of the history of perception theory. (2) I will deal with the specific premises, in particular regarding 'truth' and 'objective world', which they employ as starting points for their mathematical analyses, and bring into question, for the explanatory purposes of perception theory, both these premises and the types of mathematical idealizations associated with them.

Perception theory, with its history of about 2,500 years, belongs to the oldest fields of psychology and in fact science. Although our theoretical understanding of the principles on which the achievements of the perceptual system are based still barely scratches the surface, important theoretical insights have been achieved in the course of these enquiries that no contemporary explanatory account should ignore. …

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