It is a familiar experience to perceive a material object as maintaining a stable shape even though it projects differently shaped images on our retina as we move with respect to it, or as maintaining a stable color throughout changes in the way the object is illuminated. We also perceive sounds as maintaining constant timbre and loudness when the context and the spatial relations between us and the sound source change over time. But where does this perceptual invariance ‘come from’? What is it about our perceptual systems that makes them able to ‘transform’ incoming unstable and fluctuating sensory inputs into generally stable and coherent conscious experiences? And what exactly do we experience as invariant in cases like those described above? There are two main approaches to the Problem of Perceptual Invariance: the Local-Inferential approach and the Global-Structural approach. Although both approaches include an account of the sub-personal perceptual mechanisms ‘stabilizing’ variant and invariant components in incoming sensory stimulation and a proposal regarding the phenomenology of perceptual invariance, in this paper I argue that the latter provides a better solution to the problem overall.
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What I called the problem of perceptual invariance should be distinguished from the more commonly discussed ‘problem of Perception’ (cfr. Crane & French, 2017), even though some philosophers, most famously A. D. Smith (2002) and Alva Noë (2004, 2012), tried to combine them and provide a unified solution. As I see it, the problem of perceptual invariance is more circumscribed than the problem of perception. While the latter concerns the nature of the relationship between perceptual experience and the mind-independent world and, relatedly, the nature of perceptual states (e.g. relational or representational), the former has to do with only one specific aspect of perceptual experience: perceptual invariance. Additionally, while the problem of perception does not involve reference to the mechanisms underlying perceptual experience, the problem of perceptual invariance concerns both the level of perceptual phenomenology and the level of mechanisms. The mechanisms in question are usually known as ‘perceptual constancies’.
Although I am aware that some theories of perception do not consider what happens at the level of perceptual systems to be relevant for their explanatory goals, I will not discuss such views here.
See Buccella & Chemero (unpublished) for more on this.
Of course, on the assumption that accounting for more cases in a unified manner is itself a theoretical virtue.
One major commitment of this type of views is that, because of the ambiguity of proximal stimuli, perception of how things are independently of us must depend on a capacity to ‘construct’ a representation of the object and its properties which can be kept ‘fixed’ throughout changes in contextual and perceiver-dependent elements over time. Also, it should be acknowledged that there are slight differences among individual views within the traditional framework. For instance, Rock (1975, 1977) following Helmholtz and his ‘unconscious inference’ account of how the visual system transforms proximal subjective sensations into distal object representations, holds that proximal stimuli should be considered an ‘early stage’ of perceptual processing. According to Rock, the role of proximal stimulation is to provide one of the two ‘premises’ of an unconscious inference-like procedure which has the (possibly accurate) attribution of a specific property to an object as its ‘conclusion’, the other premise usually being an abstract rule or principle (itself ‘located’ somewhere in the brain) which ‘tells’ the visual system how to interpret the proximal stimulus. As Gilchrist (2012) notices, the idea that perception (and perceptual constancy) should be understood as a process consisting in two separate stages (i.e. sensory stimulation and rule-based interpretation) was very much opposed by the Gestalt psychologists (Koffka, 1935; Kohler, 1947). However, criticisms to this idea have come from within the tradition, too. For example, Burge (2010) rejects the existence of (explicitly or implicitly) represented ‘inferential rules’ in the brain according to which we interpret proximal stimuli.
Pagano and Cabe (2003) showed that subjects can estimate the length of a hand-held rod by simply waving it around and relying on feedback from their arm muscles and tendons. Their suggestion is that the proprioceptive and kinaesthetic systems are directly tracking a relational feature of the arm-rod system, namely its moment of inertia, i.e. an object’s resistance to rotation along one dimension.
Instead of considering incorrect weight judgments in the illusion as the result of an erroneous mental computation, they showed how weight judgments of objects of equal size and weight varied according to the objects’ different distribution of such weight.
In a more conciliatory spirit, Davies (2016) argues that color matching experiments support a pluralist view, where color constancy is sometimes traditional, and sometimes relational. I will not discuss Davies’s view in this paper, but my main reason to resist pluralism is that, when we look at other constancies beyond color, the traditional view encounters difficulties (as the next section argues). This fact, together with a desire to provide a unified account of all the constancies across sense modalities, makes me inclined to put all my eggs in the relational basket. It should also be noted that in a more recent paper, Davies defends a new theory of color vision which has been gaining popularity in both science and philosophy. Roughly, this theory claims that representation of color relations, understood in particular as chromatic contrast properties (in the form of a ‘holistic’ iconic representation of edges separating colored surfaces) is more primitive than representation of monadic color properties (Davies, 2020). This view is supported by several studies involving patients diagnosed with cerebral achromatopsia, a condition that makes subjects visual experience completely achromatic. Despite their inability to see monadic colors, some achromatopsic patients are nonetheless apparently able to visually perceive local contrasts and discriminate among different appearances of edges (Kentridge, Heywood et al., 2004a; Kentridge, Cole et al., 2004b). If this is right, then we might have a further reason to privilege a relational view of color constancy based on the very functioning of color vision.
When presenting the experiment’s results, Foster warns that “it is unlikely that either will look like a match to the reader because they are not seen in the experimental conditions of controlled illumination.” (2003, p. 440).
For example, Maloney and colleagues (Maloney, 1986, 2003; Maloney and Wandell 1986) propose a method to solve the inverse problem of color constancy which exploits the fact that there are more combinations of receptors on the retina than there are possible surface reflection profiles, while others (e.g. Golz and MacLeod 2002; Brainard et al., 2006; Brainard and Freeman 1997) appeal to higher-order scene statistics and Bayesian models.
I do not consider the authors discussed in this section as endorsing GS or even being involved in the debate about invariance as I set it up. Rather, I see the arguments discussed in this section more as external allies of GS, as they undermine what I take to be the strongest source of support for LI.
By “the same blouse” here I mean “a qualitatively identical blouse”.
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Buccella, A. The problem of perceptual invariance. Synthese (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11229-021-03402-2
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