My Research

My primary research focuses on various aspects of representation in conscious experience, particularly perceptual and emotional experience. More specifically, I am interested in understanding the interactions among three interdependent factors: first, what it’s like to have a particular conscious experience; second, what that experience represents to you; and third, your attitudes towards the object of that experience. One dominant theme of my research is that each one of these factors shapes the other two: none of the factors are independent of the others. Much of my work explores this interdependence in various kinds of conscious perceptual experience (e.g., illusions, synesthesia) and also in various kinds of conscious emotional experience (e.g., esteem, love, grief).

On the topic of perception, my work focuses on determining the scope of influence of cognitive, emotional and other states on perceptual experiences, the implications this has for what properties can be contents of conscious perceptual experiences, and on what determines or grounds the content of perceptual experiences. I have advanced the view that perceptual experiences can be penetrated by information from outside of the visual stream, specifically by both higher-level cognitive states and also by emotions. We commonly speak as though we perceive many kinds of properties: we say that we not merely see the dog, or the dog’s expression, but that we can see the anger on her face, or even see that she is dangerous. But this common way of speaking and thinking about perception is at odds with the way that some philosophers and cognitive scientists use the term. For instance, Dretske (1995) and Tye (1995) both argue that non-doxastic perceptual experiences only represent objects’ shapes as arranged spatially.

In “Can Blue Mean Four”, “You Can See What I Means”, “Representing the Impossible” and “Good Looking”, I defend the contrasting view that conscious visual experiences can represent visual objects as having high-level properties, e.g. amodal and semantic properties. For instance, in “Can Blue Mean Four”, I develop the case for the representation of high-level properties in visual experience from synesthesia. Here, 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. I argue that we can explain the apparently facilitative effect of synesthesia on mental arithmetic in these synesthete savants by the view that synesthete savants visually experience graphemes as having numerical values. In “You Can See What ‘I’ Means”, I argue that the case from synesthetes generalizes to make the case about the possible perceptual contents of normal perceivers’ visual experiences. In a more recent article, “Good Looking”, I draw on empirical work concerning the relation between the assessment of a person’s moral character, visual 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 are penetrated by emotional experiences of esteem and inherit their contents. They thereby come to represent morally admirable people as having positive (often intrinsic) value.

On the topic of emotional experience, I defend the intentionalist view that an emotional experience represents its object as having some evaluative property. For instance, fear may evaluate what it is felt toward as being dangerous. I am interested in which evaluative properties of objects specific emotions represent, the role of emotions in facilitating knowledge about those properties, and in the influence of emotions on other perceptual modalities. For instance, I have advanced the view that different esteeming emotions represent their objects to have various types of value (e.g., that love and grief are kinds of esteem for an object whose value is of such a kind that it is non-fungible). In “The Perception of Virtue”, I argue 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, I argue, 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.

My writings on these topics are primarily projects in the philosophy of mind and philosophical psychology, but my work also intersects with moral psychology, aesthetics, ethics and epistemology. In execution I draw both on traditional philosophical methods and also on empirical work in the psychological and biological sciences.

Prior to my interest in perception and emotion, 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.

For more information about these or other current projects such as copies of papers, please contact me privately or check back here.  Below I offer a more detailed description of my published work.

Publication Summaries

The Perception of Virtue (forthcoming in an edited volume with Oxford University Press)
In this paper, I put forward an argument for the view 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.

Good Looking (Philosophical Issues: A supplement to Nous)
Here, 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 are penetrated by emotional experiences of esteem and inherit their contents. They thereby come to represent morally admirable people as having positive (often intrinsic) value.

Can Blue Mean Four (in an edited volume with MIT Press)
This article further develops the case for the representation of high-level properties in visual experience from synesthesia. Here, 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.512px-Synesthesia.svg

You Can See What ‘I’ Means (Philosophical Studies)
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”, 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.  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.

Representing the Impossible (Philosophical Psychology)
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. This paper 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.

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Phenomenal Intentionality and Color Experience (Topics in Cognitive Science)
This paper argues 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.

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Two HOTs To Handle (Philosophical Psychology)
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.

Reduction and the Determination of Subjective Character (Philosophical Psychology)
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.