My Research

My primary research focuses on various aspects of representation in conscious experience, particularly perceptual experience. I am interested in the scope of influence of cognitive, emotional and other states on perceptual experiences, the implications for what properties can be possible contents of conscious perceptual experiences, and in what determines or grounds the content of perceptual experiences. I draw both on traditional philosophical methods and also on empirical work in the psychological and biological sciences. Some of my more empirically driven papers discuss the perceptual anomaly of grapheme-color synesthesia, where graphemes such as ‘4’ are perceived as colored. A few of my papers have addressed the metaphysical relation between experience and matter, the mind/body problem.

Current Projects

I am currently working on a project that continues my interest in the penetration of perceptual experiences by non-perceptual cognitive states and emotions.

My most recent paper, “The Perception of Virtue” argues that  emotional responses of esteem to perceived demonstrations of good character represent the perceived character traits as valuable, and hence, as virtues. These esteeming experiences are analogous to perceptual representations in other modalities in their epistemic role as causing, providing content for and justifying beliefs regarding the value of the traits they represent. I also discuss the role that the perceiver’s own character plays in their ability to recognize and respond appropriately to virtue in others, showing that moral virtues are also epistemic virtues when it comes to facilitating knowledge about the character of people we encounter.

In another recent paper, “Good Looking”, I draw on empirical work concerning the relation between the assessment of moral character, experiences that are evaluative (perceiving someone as attractive) and the perceptual representation of value. Studies show that people we judge to have good character we also evaluate to be more attractive. I argue that in these cases, evaluative perceptual experiences represent morally admirable people as having positive (often intrinsic) value.

Another of my current interests involves the ethical obligations that arise in the context of seduction and romantic relationships. In “Deception and consent to sexual relations” I look at the extent to which informative failures undermine valid consent to sexual relations, specifically where deception is involved. I also discuss the implications that follow for our moral obligations with respect to honesty in romantic encounters.

For more information about these current projects such as copies of papers, please contact me privately or check back here.

Previous Work

In recent years, I have been interested in the nature and content of perceptual experiences. My papers, “You Can See What ‘I’ Means”, “Can Blue Mean Four”, and “Representing the Impossible” defend the controversial claim that perceptual experiences can represent objects to have properties over and above those directly transduced by the sensory modalities. “You Can See What ‘I’ Means” and “Can Blue Mean Four” concern the penetration of perception by cognition. “Representing the Impossible” discusses the implications of this view for the metaphysical relation between mental properties and physical properties. My paper, “Phenomenal Intentionality and Color Experience” is about what determines perceptual content.

Dretske (1995) and Tye (1995) both argue that non-doxastic perceptual experiences only represent objects’ shapes as arranged in a spatial dimension. In, “You Can See What ‘I’ Means” and “Can Blue Mean Four?”, I defend the contrasting view that conscious visual experiences can represent visual objects to have high-level properties such as belonging to an abstract category or representing something such as a number. For instance, we may perceptually represent a numerical grapheme as the number four. Some have argued in favor of high-level contents on the basis of the subjective character of experience. In “You Can See What ‘I’ Means”, I discuss how such arguments may have limited appeal due to their reliance on introspection. Rather than appealing to phenomenology, I develop my account based on behavioral evidence from grapheme-color synesthetes. The basic idea is that there is a special form of synesthesia that depends on high-level properties. I argue that these penetrate perceptual contents and then argue that the case generalizes to the perception of normal perceivers.

My paper, “Can Blue Mean Four”, further develops the case for the representation of high-level properties in visual experience from synesthesia. In this paper, I draw on a special variety of number– color synesthesia to argue that we can visually experience graphemes (like ‘4’) to have numerical values (or to represent numbers). A small subset of number-color synesthetes seem to have a heightened ability to perform mental arithmetic in virtue of their synesthesia. How can we explain the apparently facilitative effect of synesthesia on mental arithmetic in synesthete savants? I argue that only the view that synesthete savants visually experience graphemes as having numerical values can account for the role that their color photisms play in facilitating their performance of mental arithmetic.

Some have argued that the view that perceptual experiences represent properties over and above those directly transduced by the sensory modalities such as in amodal perception, will constrain how we should think of the metaphysical issue about what material properties serve as the realizers of those phenomenal experiences. For example, Nöe and Thompson develop a version of the extended mind thesis based on the assertion that the embodied and enactive approach to perception is necessary to account for amodal perception, and that this entails that phenomenal qualities are realized by physical properties of external objects. My paper, “Representing the Impossible” develops a counter-example to the extended mind thesis about perception based on the perception of an impossible figure. The impossible figure is a picture that depicts an object that we represent to have a three-dimensional shape, even though the figure could not possibly be instantiated in three-dimensions. Thus, the paper offers indirect support for the view that narrow properties of the perceiver’s perceptual system are both necessary and sufficient for amodal perception.

In “Phenomenal Intentionality and Color Experience”, I argue that a popular theory about the nature of phenomenal content has difficulty accounting for the intentionality of color experiences. ‘Phenomenal intentionality’ is a view about the representational content of conscious experiences that grounds the content of conscious experiences in their phenomenal character. Roughly, the problem for the view is as follows. Color predicates are usefully employed in sciences such as biology, cognitive science and engineering. They are used in law-like generalizations about properties of phenomena. Moreover, there is reason to take this to be a legitimate practice since the success of scientific practice rests on the assumption that the terms involved in laws governing the behavior of entities are terms that refer to properties that entities can really have. We should assume, then, that there is some consistent set of properties that our color terms refer to. I review possible candidate versions of the view. Some versions fail to count things as part of the content of color experience that they should, resulting in verdicts that some color experiences are inaccurate which should not be. Other versions admit properties as part of their contents that ought not to be, resulting in color experiences being deemed accurate when they ought not to be considered so.

Prior to my interest in perception, I focused on the metaphysical relation between the mind and body. Most philosophers currently working in this area maintain that mental properties bear some necessary relationship to material properties. Work in this area is directed toward resolving two concerns. First, how are mental and material aspects of the world related? Second, which material properties are mental properties necessarily related to? My research took up these issues as they pertain to the special case of phenomenal experience or consciousness, those properties in virtue of which there is something-it-is- like to be you at any given time. My three papers, “Two HOTs To Handle”, “Reduction and the Determination of Subjective Character”, and “Representing the Impossible” support the view that the qualitative features that comprise conscious experiences are mental representations that may ultimately be reducible to physical states of the brain.

In “Two HOTs To Handle” I provide a novel analysis of a reductive theory of phenomenal consciousness. The well known higher-order thought theory holds that conscious states are identical to meta-representational cognitive states that represent us to be in other mental states. Unlike consciousness, meta-cognition is thought to be easily amenable to physical reduction. I argue that the ambiguous employment of the term ‘mental state’ in the context of the theory’s guiding principle has resulted in two metaphysically distinct models of the theory. In the context of the theory’s main principle, the term ‘mental state’ appears to denote a mental-state-type on some occasions, and on other occasions it appears to denote a mental-state-token. In evaluating whether the higher-order theory provides a viable reductive model of consciousness, the principle of charity dictates that we should aim to evaluate the strongest model of the theory. The clarifications made here should lead to more productive discussions of the theory.

My paper, “Reduction and the Determination of Subjective Character” takes up the two models of the higher-order thought theory identified in my previous paper, “Two HOTs to Handle”. I argue that, although the theory is generally interpreted in line with the mental- state-token version of the principle, the model based on mental-state-types is stronger. I show the type-model to be better motivated than the token-model. I also show that it withstands the various objections that are commonly lodged against the higher-order thought theory. Those objections target the token-model. In addition, although various alternative self- representational meta-cognitive theories of consciousness have been proposed by Kriegel, Van Gulick, and Gennaro in reaction to the objections commonly made against the higher-order theory, these alternative theories do not improve on the original higher-order model in the ways that they are purported to. I show each to be inferior to the type-model of the higher- order thought theory as each of those alternative self-representational views is vulnerable to a unique set of problems. The type-model of the higher-order theory is immune to these problems.