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Understanding how perception connects us to the world

May 6, 2019

What do we see, hear or smell?

When I was a child the answer was easy. We see trees, animals, tables, clouds, stars and other things. We hear bird songs, human voices, and the ice cream truck. We smell the morning bread and coffee.

But as I grew up, the world started to fade away behind a veil. I was told that in standard scientific theories of perception, our perceptual organs create models of the objects around us, representations that we carry in our heads and update as we move around.

So, in a sense, what we perceive are these representations. We do not, and cannot, perceive the world directly.

My understanding of the world around me and our perceptual mechanisms had improved.

But the growth was at the same time puzzling, not because it was accompanied by the loss of a childhood naivete. It was because the role of perception in connecting us to the world now became unintelligible.

An example would help see why. When the next-door neighbors moved in, the first thing we saw was a minivan. We immediately thought this must be a family with kids.

Evidence gradually accumulated. There was the soccer ball on the lawn, the two small bicycles in front of the garage, and the screeches of a violin evidently practiced by a child.

The idea that the neighbors had children was a good hypothesis because it explained our observations.

Yet, it was only an unconfirmed hypothesis, though a good one, until we saw them, after which we knew that the neighbors had kids.

But, how can perception achieve this feat? If seeing is a matter of forming representations, then the idea that the neighbors have kids still should be only a good hypothesis that explains what I see.

Under that model, the role of perception in giving us knowledge of ordinary matters becomes puzzling. And the puzzle will grow more when you start thinking this way.

You will wonder, might we be in a situation envisioned in fictions such as “The Matrix,” where our sensory organs are hooked to a super-computer that feeds us a continuous stream of illusory information? How can we even think about the ordinary objects in the world in the way we do?

It seems that our scientific understanding of perception poses an obstacle to understanding how perception connects us to the world.

The goal of my research is to solve this puzzle.

My contention is that our best scientific evidence does not demand a representationalist model. I support this by examining the data generated by direct neural recordings, functional magnetic resonance images and behavioral studies of perceptual systems.

I also work on developing theories of perception that are not only compatible with our best scientific evidence but also show that we perceive ordinary objects directly.

If I am right, our scientific image of the world does not demand abandoning the naïve innocence of childhood.