Sensation and Perception – A Correction

In my paper entitled ‘The Causal Basis of Perception: A New Integration on a Gibsonian Base  on the section entitles ‘The Definition of Perception‘, I have written:

‘I prefer to retain the term “sensation” to refer to our awareness of discriminated features at a level that is prior to our integration of these into the awareness of entities. I believe that our awareness of objects constitutes a major cognitive breakthrough announcing and defining the perceptual level of cognition.’

I wrote those thoughts in 1975 and have recently been rethinking them, particularly the concept of sensation as a form of awareness at a pre-integration level, (below that of full perception,) which I imply. in the above quote, is the product (at least in part) of the “integration of these into the awareness of external entities.”

I now see this latter argument as rationalistic and anti-empiricist. We are not aware of sensations and then aware of our integration of sensations into perceptions. When we perceive, we are not aware of separate primitive sensations accompanying perception. The notion that perception (a) is preceded by the level of sensations, and (b) that perceptions are somehow the product of the automatic integration of sensations, is a rationalistic argument that is in fact a species of the cognitive deficiency argument for the inadequacy of the senses. It is, in other words, a species of the argument that our senses do not give us sufficient information about the world for them to provide veridical direct contact with the world, and that therefore our senses must be somehow ‘enriched’ by automatic ‘mental’ or neurological processes that add structure, content and persistence to raw sensations (often called ‘sense data’).

I must now admit that I was at the time far too impressed by Ayn Rands definition of perception, which I took far too literally, and which reads as follows:

A “perception” is a group of sensations automatically retained and integrated by the brain of a living organism, which gives it the ability to be aware, not of single stimuli, but of entities, of things. An animal is guided, not merely by immediate sensations, but by percepts. Its actions are not single, discrete responses to single, separate stimuli, but are directed by an integrated awareness of the perceptual reality confronting it.- this definition by Ayn Rand can be found on-line at   The ARI Lexicon

I still hold that Rand’s last sentence (the most important part of her definition) regarding the action guidance function of perception is correct, when she speaks of a perceiving animal:

Its actions are not single, discrete responses to single, separate stimuli, but are directed by an integrated awareness of the perceptual reality confronting it.

However, the first part of Rand’s definition emphasizes the idea that a perception is ‘a group of sensations’. It is not clear to me now how a perception can be a group of sensations, even granted that they are somehow ‘automatically retained and integrated by the brain of a living organism’. What is the nature of this integration? Perhaps it consists of some higher level of consciousness actively recognizing the relationships between the sensations, and from those relationships forming a new mental unit called a ‘perception.’ These latter are not Rand’s words but mine. But I believe that Rand had something like this in mind when writing the above definition of perception as a form of ‘integration’.

On the other hand, one could immediately object that Rand could not be talking about consciousness as the active agent of integration, since she uses the phrase ‘integrated by the brain of a living organism.’ She is apparently saying that integration is an action of the brain. But that is a neurological theory and not a philosophical theory of perception.

Then there is the problem of the word ‘retained’ in reference to a ‘group of sensations.’ This implies that perceptions are somehow ‘retained’ (did she mean stored in the brain?) This criteria is consistent with many then dominant theories of perception based on the notion that sensations are not stored and are instantaneous, non-related sensory responses to punctate stimuli (such as blips, pings, pricks, flashes, etc.) coming from energy striking the sensory organ, producing an immediate awareness of ‘something’ but no awareness of ‘object.’ Sensations, not being stored (as memories?), cannot be recalled (remembered?) and examined for content, but if perceptions are stored groups of sensations then they can be examined (or somehow focused upon) as such after (perhaps even while) they are (being) integrated.

This view of perception is, unfortunately, in its most consistent form, that of Emanuel Kant, who influenced many scientist of his day and certainly modern scientists as well. One such scientist, who was a great intellect in deed, was Herman von Helmholtz, whose works Ayn Rand admired (such as On the Sensations of Tone, his thesis on the psycho-physiology of the experience of music).  Here is a quote by Ayn Rand regarding the importance of Helmholtz on the nature of musical perception:

The nature of musical perception has not been discovered because the key to the secret of music is physiological—it lies in the nature of the process by which man perceives sounds—and the answer would require the joint effort of a physiologist, a psychologist and a philosopher (an esthetician).

The start of a scientific approach to this problem and the lead to an answer were provided by Helmholtz, the great physiologist of the nineteenth century.

. . .

Helmholtz has demonstrated that the essence of musical perception is mathematical: the consonance or dissonance of harmonies depends on the ratios of the frequencies of their tones. The brain can integrate a ratio of one to two, for instance, but not of eight to nine. . . . [eclipses in the original] – from The Ayn Rand Lexicon: Music (on-line)

Helmholtz’s theory of perception falls in the class of ‘unconscious inference’ theories of cognitive ‘enrichment’ of the senses by the unconscious mind. (See Helmholtz on Perception, Its Physiology, and Development).

When examined closely Helmholtz’s theory falls appart for it depends upon the existence and exercise of unconscious inference (a species of reason and logic) existing prior to and as the cause of integrated conscious awareness of the world. But what is the conceptual base of these inferences if not experience, sensory experience through interaction with the world?  Unfortunately the answer is Kantian in that it assumes the idea of innate filters and organizers imposed on raw sensations to build perceptions. But such perceptions must be cognitive constructs of a theoretical (hence inferred) world. These are Kants innate filters that cause us to see the world as spatially and temporally ordered.  Thus, according to Kant, the world is not perceived, it is constructed!

Helmholtz has written about Kant’s influence and importance as a philosopher as follows:

Still we cannot altogether avoid speaking of the mental processes that are active in the sense-perceptions, if we wish to see clearly the connection between the phenomena and to arrange the facts in their proper relation to one another. . .The keenest thinkers, philosophers like Kant for instance, have long ago analyzed these relations correctly and demonstrated them. .  – from  Helmholtz on Perception, Its Physiology, and Development, John Wiley & Sons, New York, 1968, p. 172.

Later on the same page, Helmholtz presents his famous thesis:

The general rule determining the ideas of vision that are formed whenever an impression is made on the eye, with or without the aid of optical instruments, is that such objects are always imagined as being present in the field of vision as would have to be there in order produce the same impression on the nervous mechanism, the eyes being used under ordinary normal conditions. – from  Helmholtz on Perception, Its Physiology, and Development, John Wiley & Sons, New York, 1968, p. 172.

Thus we see (or rather imagine that we see) such objects in the world that would have to be there such as to produce this very impression.  This is a form of sensory experience as an imaginary product of a pre-conceived world model.  Pure Kantianism.  As to Helmholtz’s theory of unconscious inference, he writes:

The psychic activities that lead us to infer that there in front of us at a certain place there is a certain object of a certain character, are generally not conscious activities, but unconscious  ones.  In their result they are equivalent to a conclusion, to the extent that the observed action on our senses enables us to form an idea as to the possible cause of this action; although, as a matter of fact, it is invariably simply the nervous stimulations that are perceived directly, that is, the actions, but never the external objects themselves.  But what seems to differentiate them from a conclusion in the ordinary sense of that word, is that a conclusion is an act of conscious thought. . . Still it may be permissible to speak of the psychic acts of ordinary perception as unconscious conclusions, thereby making a distinction of some sort between them and the common so-called conscious conclusions.  – from  Helmholtz on Perception, Its Physiology, and Development, John Wiley & Sons, New York, 1968, p. 174.

Clearly, Ayn Rand, a strong critic of Kant, especially concerning his theory of knowledge, had no such implications in mind while writing her definition. So I do not charge her with that philosophical error. It was an understandable oversight based on a plausible theory written in her hast to get to the point that perception is automatic and results in direct contact with the external world held in the form of interrelated and interacting objects or entities.

But if Rand’s definition in its whole form is accepted, then my entire thesis stands in contradiction to that definition. It is for this reason that I carefully analyzed and corrected my view of her theory of perception. In general, a philosopher is not entitled to include in a philosophical theory, the results of scientific data, nor any scientific theories as the basis for of justification for the philosophical theory. Philosophy begins with common knowledge, knowledge available to anyone who simply looks out at reality without the need to learn specialized techniques for observation or inquiry.

Thus it is perfectly valid for a philosopher to begin by arguing that the senses give us our basic fundamental awareness of the world and that that awareness is direct and serves as the basis for all conceptual and theoretical knowledge. I believe that Rand would fully (or at least for the most part) agree with this statement. But when she tries to offer an explanation of how perception is achieved (i.e., by ‘the automatic integration of groups of sensations by the brain of a living organism’), then she moves beyond philosophy and enters the realm of scientific speculation. That is where so many philosophers go astray. They try to use what they believe is well-established scientific theories to support (or in too many cases, to prop up) their philosophical theories. This is a methodological error. Philosophy cannot rest on science, for science must rest on philosophy, i.e., on a philosophy of science and a philosophy of nature.  See my discussion on the proper roles of philosophy and science in their mutual quest for knowledge of the world.

Now to correct my definition of sensation, I will simply remember the key concepts offered by Dr. Robert Efron on the concept of ‘specificity’ and Professor J. J. Gibson on the concept of ‘specification’. Both regarded perception as the product of the automatic processing of energy gradients impinging on sensory surfaces in conjunction with human control of those sensory surfaces via exploratory orientation under voluntary control. The resulting experiences can be understood as the product of the specifications contained in the stimulation. If the stimulation provided only a meager level of specification of its objects’ properties, the experience was said to be weakly specified in that context.

Gibson experimented with complex ambient gradients of energy, specifically because he wanted to understand how the actual sensory system worked in an optimal (real-world) context of sensory input with active control of the sense organs by the perceiving organism. Richness of stimulation was important if we want to understand how we perceive the world under normal (not sensory deficient) conditions. For Gibson, object perception was the product of the automatic ‘detection’ of the invariants under transformation of dynamic ambient energy gradients (patterns).

So integrating the concepts of perception advanced by Gibson and by Efron, I will define sensations as: Minimally specified experiences in a energy and sensory deficient context. In this case the ‘existent’ perceived is perceive with the maximal specificity possible under the circumstances, which are insufficient to specify external objects and/or their relationships to each other or the observer. Hence: For an organism capable of perception, sensations are minimal perceptions experienced under deficient sensory or energy conditions. This, I now believe, is the proper way to understand and define the concept of a ‘sensation’ in scientific terms.

Published on: August 19, 2015 @ 11:45 pm

Latest page revision August 20, 2015 @ 11:28 am