“Experience and Belief: An Inquiry into the Doxastic Variability of Experience”

Committee: Anil Gupta (chair), John McDowell, Robert Brandom, Edouard Machery

Link to the dissertation

Visual experience, it is widely held, is theory-laden and plays a vital rational role. In my dissertation, I do two things: I first argue that the two families of views that dominate the debate on visual experience fail to accommodate both these features. Second, I show that a superior account is available.

The account I advocate takes its cues from my analysis of Hanson’s rich and unduly neglected account of scientific observation, which I use as a foil against which to assess contemporary accounts of visual experience. Three aspects of Hanson’s view are particularly noteworthy: first, it accommodates numerous ways in which beliefs can affect our seeing – both its phenomenology and the conceptual content he thinks seeing involves. Second, Hanson claims that some of these effects are not contingent, but indeed necessary for seeing to be epistemically significant. Ultimately, this is a semantic claim: the concepts seeing involves derive an essential part of their meaning from being integrated in the seeing subject’s belief context. Absent such a context, neither determinate concepts nor, a fortiori, epistemically significant seeing are possible. And since seeing’s conceptual content semantically depends on the subject’s belief context, the former may change along with the latter. The third important aspect is Hanson’s insistence that the phenomenology of seeing, if co-constituted by environing items, can diverge from our expectations. Whether we notice such divergence, the way we see it, and how we respond to it – all this depends on our belief context. That such divergence is possible, however, is crucial for establishing that seeing, though determined by beliefs, can exert empirical constraint.

That Hanson accommodates numerous effects of beliefs on seeing is a virtue of his account – one that relationalism lacks, as I show by analyzing various relationalist views. Relationalists think that the vital role of experience is to relate us to mind-independent items. Crucially, they also think that this relation neither involves nor depends on concepts. Thus, I argue, there are many effects beliefs may have on seeing that relationalists are in principle barred from accommodating.

Representationalists, on the other hand, can accommodate such effects. Doing so, however, bars them from also crediting experience with what they take to be its vital rational role: justifying beliefs. For if experiential content is affected by false or irrational beliefs, experience’s ability to play that role is impaired. As I show via a discussion of Siegel’s recent account of the rationality of perception, representationalists are saddled with the unsatisfactory consequence that for all we know, experience often executes its rational role poorly; both experience itself and we, in relying on it, may be irrational.

The view I offer ultimately arises from taking seriously Hanson’s remarks on empirical constraint. Implicit in these remarks, I argue, is an account of the rational role of experience that diverges from those offered by both relationalists and representationalists. No doubt relationalists are right that experience often relates us to mind-independent objects. Also, representationalists are right that experience may serve enable us to justify our beliefs. But more generally, the main rational role of experience, I suggest, is to make rational transitions to perceptual beliefs. And which transitions an experience with a given phenomenology makes rational depends neither just on what, if anything, it relates us to, nor just on its content, but crucially on the experiencing subject’s belief context.

My view thus assigns a vital rational role to experience while also integrating Hanson’s insight that experience can only play this role if a suitable belief context is present. Crucially, it succeeds where both relationalists and contemporary representationalists fail: it credits experience with a rational role that is not impaired, not even if the various conceivable effects of beliefs on experience are widespread. Finally, I point out that the novel perspective I offer on the bearing of experience on belief has significant consequences for debates within philosophy, and beyond, in which experience is credited with a rational role.

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