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Are visuomotor representations cognitively penetrable? Biasing action-guiding vision

Abstract

Is action-guiding vision cognitively penetrable? More specifically, is the visual processing that guides our goal-directed actions sensitive to semantic information from cognitive states? This paper critically examines a recent family of arguments whose aim is to challenge a widespread and influential view in philosophy and cognitive science: the view that action-guiding vision is cognitively impenetrable. I argue, in response, that while there may very well be top–down causal influences on action-guiding vision, they should not be taken to be an instance of cognitive penetration. Assuming otherwise is to assign a computational role to the influencing states that they cannot perform. Although questions about cognitive penetrability are ultimately empirical, the issues addressed in this paper are largely philosophical. The discussion here highlights an important set of considerations that help better understand the relations between cognition, vision, and action.

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Notes

  1. Jeannerod (2006) offers an excellent discussion of the notion of visuomotor representation, characterized as the segment of the global representation of fast and automatic actions, such as the action of grasping, which are largely dominated by their visual input (Jeannerod 2006, p. 5). For more recent discussion of the same notion, see e.g. Butterfill and Sinigaglia (2014), Ferretti (2016a, b, c), Mylopoulos and Pacherie (2017), Shepherd (2017) and Zipoli Caiani and Ferretti (forthcoming). This last paper carefully examines the notion of visuomotor representation and its relation to higher cognitive processing.

  2. Sometimes visual agnosics can actually recognise objects or even describe them through other senses, like sound or touch. Colours associated with certain objects can also help identification.

  3. I take perceptual judgments to be what in the literature is known as phenomenal (as opposed to epistemic) “seemings” (Brogaard 2013, 2014; Lyons 2005; Reiland 2014, 2015; Tucker 2010). They are mental episodes with a hybrid phenomenology: the products of interface systems between perception and cognition, sharing phenomenological aspects of both. See Toribio (2015, forthcoming) for a more detailed treatment of this notion.

  4. Visual agnostics like DF can nevertheless perceive colours and textures. Inasmuch as colours could get associated to certain objects, it would be correct to say that DF has a certain residual visual experience of objects. But only in that indirect sense.

  5. See, e.g., Clark (2001, 2009), Dijkerman et al. (2009), Ferretti (2016a, b, 2017, forthcoming), Jacob and Jeannerod (2003), Kozuch (2015), Mole (2009), Wu (2014) and Zipoli Caiani and Ferretti (2017).

  6. This may seem to imply that visuomotor representations are cognitively penetrable—inasmuch as they are influenced by the cognitive processes that drive the selection of types of action, even if in a mediated way. Yet, such cognitive processes do not causally determine the content of the relevant visuomotor representations. Their influence is of a different nature. The cognitive processes that drive the selection of types of action merely bias some already available visuomotor representations over other ones. That’s what I take Clark’s Experience-Based Selection hypothesis to suggest. See Sect. 5 below for further discussion of this crucial distinction.

  7. Jacob and Jeannerod (2003, p. 16) follow Clark in claiming that visual perception “is not geared towards the guidance and control of action. Rather, it is geared towards the ‘selection’ of objects that can be either goals for visually guided actions or food for thought”.

  8. For further empirical discussion of the dorsal stream bifurcation see e.g. Borghi and Riggio (2015), Chinellato and del Pobil (2016), Rizzolatti and Sinigaglia (2008) and Turella and Lingnau (2014). More philosophically oriented discussions of the same topic can be found here: Brogaard (2011b), Ferretti (2016a, b, c) and Gallese (2007).

  9. Just to be clear. The contention here is that, even if ventral representations are cognitively penetrable in the traditional sense captured by IEV, the top–down modulations from ventral to dorsal processes are of a different nature and do not amount to a case of cognitive penetrability—even indirectly. To postulate some indirect mechanism of cognitive penetration of the kind illustrated by e.g. Macpherson’s (2012) mechanism involving mental imagery would not be appropriate in this context. Partially because the content of the alleged penetrable and penetrating states is of a different kind so that ventral representations cannot not alter the information processed by dorsal mechanisms—something to be argued for in the final Section. Furthermore, such an indirect mechanism is (best) designed for capturing changes in phenomenal character, as in e.g. experiences involving perception of colour. Yet, the phenomenological issue plays a very little, if any, role in the discussion of visuomotor representations. I do not claim that they do not have any phenomenal character, but it is not the phenomenology of such action-guiding representations that is the central issue in the present discussion, but the details of the resulting motor actions.

  10. Burnston (2017) calls this the “diversity/specificity problem”. The problem arises whenever we appeal to the tokening of a cognitive state, which despite having a (propositional) content that might correspond to a range of sensorimotor representations with different particular contents, is meant to explain the tokening of a specific one through a unidirectional and deterministic process of content-causation.

  11. The issue here is similar to the one I raised in Sect. 4 against Nanay’s appeal to the existence of top–down influences from the ventral stream onto the ventro-dorsal and dorsal-dorsal regions in favour of the idea of cognitive penetrability of visuomotor representations.

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Acknowledgements

Research for this paper was supported by the MINECO (Ministerio de Economía y Competitividad) via research Grant MCINN FFI2014-51811, by the EC, Project: 675415—DIAPHORA, H2020-MSCA-ITN-2015, and by AGAUR (Agència de Gestió d’Ajuts Universitaris i de Recerca) via research Grant 2017-SGR-63.

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Toribio, J. Are visuomotor representations cognitively penetrable? Biasing action-guiding vision. Synthese 198 (Suppl 17), 4163–4181 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11229-018-1854-0

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Keywords

  • Action-guiding vision
  • Cognitive penetrability
  • Visuomotor representations
  • Determination
  • Bias