, Volume 166, Issue 3, pp 429-454
Date: 01 Nov 2012

Seeing absence


Intuitively, we often see absences. For example, if someone steals your laptop at a café, you may see its absence from your table. However, absence perception presents a paradox. On prevailing models of perception, we see only present objects and scenes (Marr, Gibson, Dretske). So, we cannot literally see something that is not present. This suggests that we never literally perceive absences; instead, we come to believe that something is absent cognitively on the basis of what we perceive. But this cognitive explanation does not do justice to the phenomenology. Many experiences of absence possess immediate, perceptual qualities. One may further argue that the ability to detect certain absences confers strong adaptive advantage and therefore must be as primitive and fundamental to humans as seeing positive things. I argue that we can literally see absences; in addition to representing objects, perception represents absences of objects. I present a model of seeing absence based on visual expectations and a visual matching process. The phenomenon of seeing absence can thus serve as an adequacy-test for a theory of perceptual content. If experiences of absence are possible, then we have another reason (following Siegel) to reject the view that perceptual content is restricted to colors and shapes. Furthermore, if the proposed account is correct, then we have grounds for dissociating seeing absence from other imagery-based phenomena termed “perceptual presence-in-absence” (Noë, Macpherson).