Monday, February 2, 2015

More on “Transparency”
In 1976, when I delivered the John Locke Lectures at Oxford, I often spent time with Peter Strawson, and one day at lunch he made a remark I have never been able to forget. He said, "Surely half the pleasure of life is sardonic comment on the passing show".  This blog is devoted to comments, not all of them sardonic, on the passing philosophical show.
Hilary Putnam

I have argued [see the two previous posts] that experiments performed on childred in India (the subjects’ ages ranged from 8 to 17) who had been blind from birth, but gained full sight when they received corneal implants, show that “transparency” is not intrinsic to visual experience as “representationalists” like Michael Tye claim.  Here is a passage from Tye I quoted in an earlier post (Visual experiences aren’t always transparent (8/27/2014)):

 “Focus your attention on the scene before your eyes and how things look to you.You see various objects and you see these objects by seeing their facing surfaces…intuitively, the objects you see are publicly observable physical surfaces. They are at varying angles to the line of sight and varying distances away. They can be photographed. In seeing these surfaces, you are immediately and directly aware of a whole host of qualities. You may not be able to name or describe these qualities but they look to you to qualify the surfaces. You experience them as being qualities of the surfaces. None of the qualities of which you are directly aware in seeing the various surfaces look to you to be qualities of your experiences…when you introspect your visual experience, the only particulars of which you are aware are the external ones making up the scene before your eyes. Your are not aware of those objects and a further internal object or episode. Your awareness is of the external objects and how they appear. The qualities you experience are the ones the surfaces apparently have. Your experience is thus transparent to you.”[1]

As I pointed out in my previous post (Perceptual transparency and Sinha’s observations 1/20/2015)),  if even some subjects satisfy the following description given by Ostrovsky et al (who examined the children in India immediately afer they received the corneal implants)—
“they pointed to regions of different hues and luminances as distinct objects. This approach greatly oversegmented the images and partitioned them into meaningless regions, which would be unstable across different views and uninformative regarding object identity”—
then the visual experiences of those children at those times weren’t  “transparent” to them in Tye’s sense. Afortiori, transparency is not an intrinsic property of visual experiences. It is quickly learned as cross-modal (visual-haptic[2]) connections are learned, but not innate and obviously not intrinsic. In this post, I want to consider two responses that a representationalist might make.

Response 1: restrict the claim that the objects of which viewers are immediately aware are qualities that “external” surfaces appear to have to “normal” viewers, i.e. replace “when you introspect your visual experience, the only particulars of which you are aware are the external ones making up the scene before your eyes” with “when normal viewers introspect their visual experience, the only particulars of which they are aware are the external ones making up the scene before their eyes”. Point out that until they learn to identify the objects they see, the children who received the corneal implants in Project Prakash were not normal subjects, and thus did not falsify the restricted claim.
The problem with response 1: although the restricted claim is true, it is useless for Tye’s purposes. According to Tye (loc. cit.), the unrestricted claim is explained by representationalism. Why? Because the thesis of representationalism is that the representational content of visual experiences is identical with their phenomenal character, and the representational content is about the those physical surfaces and their qualities. For the purposes of this explanation, visual experiences need to be essentially representational, and if transparency is to be an argument for that, visual experiences need to be essentially transparent, not merely transparent under normal conditions and in the case of normal viewers. This is what the studies of the Project Prakash subjects show not to be the case.
Response 2: abandon the claims that the representational content of visual experiences describes “external” objects and “physical” surfaces [but this would entail rethinking just what representationalists want to mean by “representational content”, of course], and claim merely that what are represented are qualities that the surfaces of external objects can have. This restricted claim would still entaila that even the colors that the Project Prakash subjects saw when they saw “regions of different hues and luminances” were colors that physical surfaces could have, and (according to this response) that is enough. This response concedes that “externality” may require cross-modal (visual-haptic) connections to be learned, as the experiments I have cited (including Held’s experiments with kittens in the 1960s) show, but maintains the essential thesis of representationalism, that phenomenal character=representational character.
The problem with response 2: because phenomenal character is supposed to be identical with representational character, when colors look different to different viewers, the objects they see must be repesented by their experiencs as having incompatible physical properies. According to representationalism, differences in subjective color just are differences in the objective color the viewer’s experience represents the object as having. (Note that Tye is a “color realist”.) Several kind of evidence seem to me to demolish this. Some of this is evidence “from my own case”, that I described in a previous post (Escher Colors (6/11/2014)). Another sort of evidence is beautifully described by Ned Block in “Sexism, Racism, Ageism, and the Nature of Consciousness”, a paper that shows that even normal aging affects the way colors appear to us. If my the subjective colors of the a painting on my wall is somewhat different now than it was when I was fifty, which are the true colors? Like the question, given that the subjective colors of the painting are slightly different when I close my right eye as opposed to looking at it with both eyes open, which are the true colors? the  question is absurd.

The difference between the two responses: the first response maintains the transparency claim, but limits it to “normal” people. The second response abandons it, but holds fast to the central claim of representationalism, the identity of phenomenal character and representational content. Both responses are empirically untenable.

[1] Michael Tye, “Representationalism and the Transparency of Experience”, Noûs, 36(1), 137-151. The passage quoted is on 138-39.
[2] “Haptic” = having to do with touch.


  1. I think that transparency theorists will adopt a version of Response 2. They will say that what Sinha's patients right after the surgery are aware of is not objects. Rather they are aware of patches of color and texture.

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