Philosophical Studies

, Volume 175, Issue 6, pp 1401–1421 | Cite as

How wishful seeing is not like wishful thinking

  • Robert LongEmail author


On a traditional view of perceptual justification, perceptual experiences always provide prima facie justification for beliefs based on them. Against this view, Matthew McGrath and Susanna Siegel argue that if an experience is formed in an epistemically pernicious way then it is epistemically downgraded. They argue that "wishful seeing"—when a subject sees something because he wants to see it—is psychologically and normatively analogous to wishful thinking. They conclude that perception can lose its traditional justificatory power, and that our epistemic norms should govern how experiences are formed. To make this case, the downgrader must first isolate a feature of wishful thinking that makes it epistemically defective, then show that this feature is present in wishful seeing. I present a dilemma for the downgrader. There are two features of wishful thinking that could plausibly explain why it is irrational: the fact that a desire causes you to form a belief not supported by adequate evidence, or the mere influence that desire holds over belief formation. Each option presents formidable difficulties. Although the first “bad evidence” explanation, which McGrath employs, explains the irrationality of wishful thinking, it does not transfer to wishful seeing, since experiences are not formed in response to evidence. The second “influence of desire” explanation, which Siegel employs, fails to isolate an epistemically defective feature of wishful thinking, and also does not transfer to wishful seeing. I conclude that the downgrader’s argument from wishful seeing fails.


Perception Perceptual justification Epistemology Cognitive penetration 



For written comments, thank you to Michael Huemer, Zoe Jenkin, Cameron Kirk-Giannini, and Matthew McGrath. Thanks to audiences at the Brandeis Student Speaker Series and the NYU-Columbia graduate conference. For many comments and much encouragement, thanks to Jessi Addison, Brett Chance, Alyssa Colby, Jenny Judge, Rachel Katler, Max Lewis, Phil Shannon, and Aarthy Vaidyanathan. For a team assist with copy-editing, many thanks to Carolina Flores, Zoë Johnson-King, and Elise Woodard. (Any typos are their fault.) For extensive conversation, thank you to Jeremy Fantl, EJ Green, Eli Hirsch, Eric Mandelbaum, Jerry Samet, Miriam Schoenfield, and Susanna Siegel.


  1. Block, N. (2014). Seeing as in the light of vision science. Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, 89(3), 560–572.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Delk, J. L., & Fillenbaum, S. (1965). Differences in perceived color as a function of characteristic color. The American Journal of Psychology, 78(2), 290–293.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Feldman, R., & Conee, E. (2001). Internalism defended. American Philosophical Quarterly, 38(1), 1–18.Google Scholar
  4. Firestone, C., & Scholl, B. J. (2016). Cognition does not affect perception: Evaluating the evidence for “top-down” effects. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 39. doi: 10.1017/S0140525X15000965.
  5. Frankfurt, H. G. (1969). Alternate possibilities and moral responsibility. The Journal of Philosophy, 66(23), 829–839.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Hansen, T., Olkkonen, M., Walter, S., & Gegenfurtner, K. R. (2006). Memory modulates color appearance. Nature Neuroscience, 9(11), 1367–1368.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Huemer, M. (2013a). Epistemological asymmetries between belief and experience. Philosophical Studies, 162(3), 741–748.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Huemer, M. (2013b). Phenomenal conservatism über alles. In C. Tucker (Ed.), Seemings and justification:new essays on dogmatism and phenomenal conservatism (pp. 328–350). New York: Oxford University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Levin, D. T., & Banaji, M. R. (2006). Distortions in the perceived lightness of faces: The role of race categories. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 135(4), 501.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Lewis, D. (1980). Veridical hallucination and prosthetic vision. Australasian Journal of Philosophy, 58(3), 239–249.Google Scholar
  11. Macpherson, F. (2012). Cognitive penetration of colour experience: Rethinking the issue in light of an indirect mechanism. Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, 84(1), 24–62.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Markie, Peter. (2005). The mystery of perceptual justification. Philosophical Studies, 126, 347–373.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. McGrath, M. (2013a). Phenomenal conservatism and cognitive penetration: The ‘bad basis’ counterexamples. Seemings and Justification: New Essays on Dogmatism and Phenomenal Conservatism, 225–247.Google Scholar
  14. McGrath, M. (2013b). Siegel and the impact for epistemological internalism. Philosophical studies, 162(3), 723–732.Google Scholar
  15. Olkkonen, M., Hansen, T., & Gegenfurtner, K. R. (2008). Color appearance of familiar objects: Effects of object shape, texture, and illumination changes. Journal of Vision, 8(5), 13.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Pryor, J. (2000). The skeptic and the dogmatist. Noûs, 34(4), 517–549.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Siegel, S. (2012). Cognitive penetrability and perceptual justification. Nous, 46(2), 201–222.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Siegel, S. (2013a). The epistemic impact of the etiology of experience. Philosophical Studies, 162, 697–722.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Siegel, S. (2013b). Reply to Fumerton, Huemer, and McGrath. Philosophical Studies, 162(3), 749–757.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Siegel, S. (2016). How is wishful seeing like wishful thinking? Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 92(1). doi: 10.1111/phpr.12273.
  21. Siegel, S., & Byrne, A. (forthcoming). Rich or Thin? In B. Nanay (ed.) Current controversies in the philosophy of perception. Routledge.Google Scholar
  22. Sosa, E. (2007). Reflective knowledge. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  23. Stefanucci, J. K., & Proffitt, D. R. (2009). The roles of altitude and fear in the perception of height. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance, 35(2), 424.Google Scholar
  24. Stokes, D. (2012). Perceiving and desiring: A new look at the cognitive penetrability of experience. Philosophical Studies, 158(3), 477–492.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. Teng, L. (ms). Cognitive penetration, inferentialism, and Bayesian perception.Google Scholar
  26. Tucker, C. (2014). If dogmatists have a problem with cognitive penetration, you do too. Dialectica, 68(1), 35–62.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. Vance, J. (2014). Emotion and the new epistemic challenge from cognitive penetrability. Philosophical Studies, 169(2), 257–283.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. Witzel, C., & Gegenfurtner, K. R. (2013). Categorical sensitivity to color differences. Journal of Vision, 13(7), 1.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of PhilosophyNew York UniversityNew YorkUSA

Personalised recommendations