Monday, October 01, 2007

In Defense of Phacts

The phenomenology (or conscious experience) of perception would be much easier to study scientifically if the only relevant facts were -- as Pete Mandik suggests (if I understand him right) -- facts about, on the one hand, external objects and the sensory organs, and on the other hand, our judgments about external objects and sensory organs. Facts of the first sort are objectively measurable and facts of the second sort are directly reportable or expressible (at least on a sufficiently thin notion of "judgment").

On such a view, when I stare at a visual illusion and say "Line A looks longer to me than Line B", I can be wrong about the length of the lines, but I can't be wrong about how the lines look to me. There is no thing, distinct from the lines in the world, the state of my eyes (about which I'm making no claims), and that very judgment itself for me to be wrong about.

The view is appealing, but I don't think it can be right. For one thing, consider non-obvious visual illusions. The following figure is sometimes presented as an instance of the "horizontal-vertical" illusion, according to which vertical lines look longer. There may also be other illusions in it. (Do the lines look like each bisects the other exactly, or does one of the segments look longer?)

One might be wrong about the actual lengths of the lines on the screen. One might be wrong about how people in general would judge the lines or whether there are consistent errors how we'd reach for such a figure. One might be wrong about the impression such a figure would make on one's retina. But can't one also feel uncertainty about -- and thus presumably go wrong about (or is the uncertainty merely foolish?) -- something else, too: How the figure looks to you right now, whether one line really does look longer to you now than the other? And doesn't a different sort of fact make claims of the last sort true than makes the other claims true?

If I judge that I am experiencing pain, there's a feeling of pain and there's a judgment about it. The pain isn't just the judgment. Nor is the feeling just some fact about external tissue damage, since I might be unconscious or under anaesthesia and so feel no pain.

Suppose I'm convinced that I'm a brain in a vat. I have no eyes, no sensory organs at all, and there are no objects around me -- or so I think. I judge that I'm having a sensory experience of redness right now. That can't be a judgment about external things or about sensory organs, for in my view there are no such things. Am I judging that I'm judging there to be a red patch out there? That can't be right either. I don't judge that there's a red patch in my environment. Am I judging that I'm having an experience that's like the experience that would normally be caused by looking at something red? I don't see why I have to be judging that, either -- I might be skeptical about "normal causes" -- but let's say, for the sake of argument, that that is what the judgment comes down to. There's that word "experience" in there. It seems I'm making a specifically phenomenal claim -- a "phactual" claim, if you will -- a claim that is made true or false by facts about my experience, not facts about the outside world or my sense organs or about some judgment.


Anonymous said...

Hey Eric,

I'm (I guess you've noticed :) ) on the "no-phacts" side. (Though I don't agree with Pete that all that is there is the judgment, and that the what-is-it-like is result of this judgment/conceptualization. If I got him right that is.)

1. You ask:
"But can't one also feel uncertainty about [...] how the figure looks to you right now, whether one line really does look longer to you now than the other?"

I think one can easily translate that to talk about real lines...Those two lines appear in this particular case (the visual illusion) same in some respect as two lines with same length appear in normal circumstances. So then, I'm not wondering about any phact, but am wondering if those appear or not in the way lines of same length appear in normal circumstances.

I think it is easier to make the point when talking about colors. When I wonder if the white ball under green light looks green, I'm not wondering about any phacts, but am wondering if the ball in that particular situation appears as a green ball appears in the normal circumpstances.

2. I agree that pain is not a judgment. But I think one can have illusion of pain. This is not saying that it won't affect us the way real pain affect us. But also illusionary monster can scare us as much as the real one. If we hate the appearance of yellow balls, we will also hate the appearance of white balls under yellow light.

Unknown said...

Hi Eric. I agree with most of what you say, and am sympathetic to phacts as well, but I have reservations about the following:

" Am I judging that I'm judging there to be a red patch out there? That can't be right either. I don't judge that there's a red patch in my environment."

What is the "I" that, in this case, does not judge that there is a red path in your (its?) environment? Why couldn't the opponent of phacts say that certain "low-level" visual centers judge that there is a red patch while the "higher-level" centers--in particular the ones responsible for your inner speech and verbal reports--do not? (If you object to using the term "judgments" for sub-personal mental processes, we can borrow Dennett's term "micro-takings" instead.)On this view the self is evenly distributed throughout your brain, so there is no single center whose response counts as "your" official and definitive judgment.

Anonymous said...

Hi Eric,

I would say that you believe of phenomenal facts that they are facts only inasmuch as you believe that your belief in them is true, and that you believe that your belief in them is true only inasmuch as you endorse the dispositional stereotype of one who believes in them. In other words, the facticity of phenomenal facts is determined simply by your second-order dispositions. But the same holds true for any fact whatsoever, so the very legitimacy of the dispute over phenomenal facts in particular is thrown into question. But I suspect that we don't want to go there.

So: the figure. How it looks to you (How it looks to you? How it looks to you? How it looks to you?) -- that's a belief, yes no? It's either that or I suspect that you're just begging the question. As a belief, "how it looks to you" is determined by your dispositions toward it, including whether or not you would say that one line is longer than the other, etc. And you believe that you could be wrong about that belief, wrong about your dispositions toward the figure. Well, I do agree that you can be uncertain about it, but not wrong. The resolution of uncertainty resides in actualization. (Somehow I am reminded of Claude Shannon's Mathematical Theory of Communication.) You can't go wrong: you will have had this belief, these dispositions, by the very fact of your dispositional enactments.

Yes? No?

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Yes, Tanasije, I've noticed you're with Pete on this one! I should emphasize, though, that I'm not sure that I have Pete right about judgment/conceptualization.

In response to your concerns:

1. I'm not sure what you mean by "appear" here. Is that not phenomenal? Also: Do I have to be thinking about "normal circumstances"? Does there really have to be an evaluation of normality and past similar events to make judgments about whether the lines look the same length? (Maybe so, but a story needs to be told.)

And: What if there is no ball at all?

2. I agree that one can have an "illusion of pain" in the sense that one can judge that one is in pain when one is not (maybe it's an itch instead, or an unpleasant but not painful sudden coldness). I don't think one can have an illusion of pain in the sense that something can be phenomenally identical to pain without being pain. As I use the word "pain", pain-like phenomenology necessary and sufficient for it.

But I'm not sure how this is relevant to my objection. How does thinking that pain can be illusory help you escape the argument: (a.) facts about pain are not facts about tissue damage, (b.) facts about pain are not facts about judgments that you're in pain, so (c.) facts about pain are "phacts" in the sense you and Pete reject. Do you mean to reject (a)?

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Nice point, Quirinius! I'm fine with what you say -- except that I think the higher-level centers are closer to definitively "your judgment" than the subpersonal ones. So speaking roughly, you don't judge there to be a red patch, though there may be subpersonal parts of you that reach micro-judgments to that effect.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...


"I would say that you believe of phenomenal facts that they are facts only inasmuch as you believe that your belief in them is true, and that you believe that your belief in them is true only inasmuch as you endorse the dispositional stereotype of one who believes in them."

That's an interesting thought (for someone who accepts my dispositional stereotype view of belief). I'm not sure, though, believing that one believes should be a matter of endorsing the dispositional stereotype so much as recognizing that one fits it. (These may come apart to the extent one lacks control over one's dispositions.)

I would say "how it looks to me" is not a belief but a bit of phenomenology. Maybe you're right that that way of thinking about things simply begs the question! Or maybe instead you can see it as an invitation -- a way of thinking about and framing the issues that I think one might find appealing. If Mandik's view requires us to reject this (to me, to some of us) appealing way of thinking about things, that's a strike against it (to me, to some of us), prima facie.

That said, I do agree that there may be some important connections between "how something looks to me" and my dispositions to say certain things about it. Can we distill a purely phenomenal sense of "looks" that is conceptually independent of behavioral dispositions (if still causally connected?). Hm. Interesting and important question. It seems like a "yes" to that question fits better with my overall argument here than a "no", but I'm not sure I want to leap to "yes" straightaway....

Anonymous said...

A minor clarification: I do agree that believing that one believes in something is a matter of recognizing that one fits the dispositional stereotype of one who believes in that thing, but I also think that it's only through endorsement of the stereotype's attendant dispositions that the corresponding belief becomes "true" or that their object is reified as "fact."

I fucking love that we should view your offering as an invitation. (I use 'fucking' with the intent of conveying its unadulterated, virginal thrust.) It forces all the phact-haters to take a sort of existential stand. To be sure, it's still fairly predictable which way most of them will go, but I am so with you now.

Anonymous said...


Thanks for you continued participation in this conversation. I think it's pretty neat stuff.

I want to keep my remarks here very brief, since I'm working on something longer that will be up on Brain Hammer soon.

Regarding whether you understand me correctly, I'd say that your characterization is fair, given the little that I said. Although I do think that judgment is too narrow of folk-psych category to capture what I want to say about the second realm. "Conceptual reactions" was a hand-wave in that direction. Another might be "Assertoric attitudes with propositional content". But more on this later and elsewhere. For the time being I'm happy to conduct this in terms of judgment, though keep in mind I want something broader yet still purely "cognitive".

Regarding the pain case, I think your description isn't quite fair to what is to map on to the respective realms. In particular, the first realm wouldn't be simply tissue damage. It would be something analogous to stimuli and sensory organs and thus include nociceptive neural activity.

Regarding the brain in the vat case, the BIV isn't simply failing to judge that there exists a hearth and a piece of wax near it. They are judging, among other things, that there does not exist a piece of wax, etc. And that negative existential judgment counts as a judgment about items in the external world. Additionally, the BIV is resisting what must be a disposition toward a positive existential judgment. To give a purely cognitive analogy, consider cognitive illusions like the Monty Hall Paradox that I've discussed over at Brain Hammer. The player believes in the superior choice dictated by experts, but can't shake the urge to choose contrary to expert opinion. I'm curious what you would say about such cases. Are they experiential or phenomenal and not just about various judgments?

And here's a quick note to some of your commenters: before falling in love with the existence of phacts to be the separately existing truth-makers of phenomenal jusdgments, ask yourselves what you think of ficts. What are ficts? They are the separately existing truth makers that make fiction true. It's true that Luke Skywalker got his hand chopped off. Do you really believe in the separate existence of a fict, that is, a truth-maker that exists separately from the moviemakers and their movie? I don't. I'm ok with saying that there are ficts, but I don't think they exist separately. I don't grant them third-realm status. Ficts are reducible to second-realm entitites. Ditto for phacts.

Yikes! I thought I said I was going to be brief!

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks, Badda, for your clarification and encouraging profanity!

If, on reflection, one doesn't endorse a dispositional stereotype, it's impossible to fit it exactly, since endorsement is part of believing. But I'm not sure that believing that one believes is either necessary or sufficient for thinking something is true or a fact.

Against necessity: One might now authetically, sincerely judge that P but recognize that one does not overall react and behave P-ishly enough to count as believing it in the broad, dispositional sense (my "Acting Contrary..." essay is about this).

Against sufficiency: One can believe that one believes something -- again, in the broad, dispositional sense of matching a certain stereotype, roughly -- and still wonder (in a moment) whether it's really true. That moment of wondering may be contrary to the stereotype, but if overall one fits it well enough....

Both these cases turn on distinguishing sharply between momentary judgment and broad, enduring, dispositional belief.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for the reply, Pete. I look forward to seeing your longer treatment on Brain Hammer!

On nociception: I think it's potentially a problem to let brain-states count as part of the sensory organ in the relevant sense. It's not clear then what brain states should be excluded. If all possibly relevant brain states (in the visual cortex, say) count as part of the sensory system, then maybe the only way to believe in phacts is to reject token identity theory, so that phenomenal phacts are distinct from brain facts. Now we're into standard debates in mind-body metaphysics. Do you want our dispute to collapse into that? I think it's more interesting if it doesn't!

On the BIV: The BIV might simply withhold judgment one way or another about the wax.

On Monty Hall: I'm inclined to think you feel your judgment being pulled one way, then the other, or you feel an impulse to judge one way but also feel the force of reasons to judge the other. I'm not sure exactly the best way to describe such cases, but I would resist saying that you simultaneously reach two separate, conflicting judgments. So you need something other than completed judgments to explain the phenomenology of such cases.

Anonymous said...


I guess it will explain my position best by saying that I'm inclined towards naive realism, and Rylean analysis of the words like "appearance".

1. So, 'appearance' wouldn't be something phenomenal, but depending would be (in veridical cases) an aspect of the thing to which we have access through seeing.

Yes, I agree that a story needs to be told. Let me just say that, in my opinion the story would involve the analysis of the relation between predicating X to the object (e.g. "is green"), and talking about something appearing X (e.g. "appears green"). I think that "appears green" requires notion of "is green". So, in short reasons for talking about past events would be related to learning of the predicate green. Also because it would get us into circularity to define "is green" through "appears green", there seems to me a need to talk about normality (i.e. how things appear in normal circumstances).

2. I wouldn't reject (a). I don't think that facts about pain are facts about tissue damage (though I think they are correlated with it). But again, from the naive realism stand point, if there is illusion of pain, there is no pain. However there are facts about something appearing and affecting us the way pain does. I admit this goes against common-sense, but I would say that this is in part that we don't tend to distinguish the pain from how it affects us, and even those are two different things, because normally they go together, by "pain" we mean both the pain, and the way it affect us.

3.Re. "What if there is no ball?". That is really a problem for naive realism (the hallucinations, dreams, if you meant those). But one could take direction that hallucinations and dreams are not really cases of perception. Or maybe take the direction in comparing those things to virtual reality goggles "in the head".

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for clarifying, Tanasije:

Regarding 3, I'm inclined to think the "no ball" cases are fatal to at least the naivest sort of naive realism, though I know there are things that can be said (and have been said).

Regarding 1, I'd respond with that same point: experiences of green can't be reduced to appearances of the greenness of outward objects since they can occur without the relevant outward objects.

Regarding 2: I'm inclined to go with common sense on this one.

So it seems to me that the "no ball" case and the pain case are cases where your view strains a bit.

Every view strains a bit somewhere or other, of course! Maybe I just don't feel the countervailing attractions of the view fully enough?

Anonymous said...

"Maybe I just don't feel the countervailing attractions of the view fully enough?"

And maybe I overestimate them. :)

Anonymous said...


Is endorsement a part of believing? Doesn't it depend on your dispositional stereotype of one who believes or, indeed, one who endorses? I would think that, depending on your stereotype, the counts against necessity and sufficiency could easily be sidestepped. It seems that you have sidestepped them yourself when earlier you stated your inclination to think that we all know for sure that we are conscious -- even as I was questioning the utility of that concept. That said…


I'm not in love with the existence of phacts so much as I'm in love with the way that Eric's invitation calls us to waive aside the various counts against their existence and to invent a dispositional stereotype of one who believes in them that we could easily recognize even if we don't actually endorse it.

Anonymous said...

Hello, splintered minds.

It appears to me that philosophical discussions about our judgements of external objects and our sensory organs regarding perceptual illusions often ignore that the ascription of an empirical concept always refers to both, a perceptual stimulus caused by the object (intuition) and a percievable property of the object (appearance, if you pardon my Kant'sh).
Rahter than regarding the jundgement about the external object that is yielded by the illusion as wrong, it should be considered that the ascription of the empirical concept to the object is correct. The illusion is a special case of this concept, in which the object of perception behaves in an unfamiliar and unexpected way, so that some inferences wtith other concepts do not work as they should.
Taken into account that our empirical concepts are gained through experience, ie. by percieving objects, they are bound to refer to different perceptual dispositions. Note that a single property can be offerd as a stimulus to different sensual dispositions, e.g. by a change of perspective or through manipulating (rotating) the object. As physiology teaches us, even simple shapes and movements may stimlate different locations of the brain and neuronal clusters. But in everyday experience, we rather organize empirical concepts as properties of objects, not as perceptual stimuli. As a consequence many inferences between empirical concepts are synthetic, they rely on their common coexistence in particular objects.
Often enough experience forces us to recognize special cases, and we have to subdivide our concepts to adjust. In case of a perceptual illusion it we experience a perceptual stimulus which is commonly correlated to a property that always causes an other stimulus at the same time. Or, as with the example of the crossed lines, that the extension of a line can both be percieved by differnt sensual dispsitions (for horizontal and vertical length). Different clusters in the visual cortex are stimulatetd regarding to their position in space or in relation to the eye. Because of that, both stimuli are regarded by our cognitive habits as sufficiant criteria of a single empirical concept (of a certain length). The illusion offers only one stimulus, but we fail to recognize that fact and are to be astounded if the sensual input in this case has different relation to other sensual input than usual.
If we manage to distinguish the perceptual stimuli, we never fail to make judgements about our perceptions, but we would have to question their correlation to objective properties any time. This would be highl impractical, because their main use is to determine the properties of objects of the outside world. These Objects moreoften cause bundles of stimuli than allowing us stetting them apart. Because our information of the "real" properties of things is always incomplete, we have to rely on our cognitive habits to guess the missing parts.
We can't stop beein judgemental about hings, but we eploy a lax attitude towards sensual differences (which for this discussion were closly associated with localised neuronal activity), that cause perceptual illusions.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for the continuing discussion, folks! I find it interesting and helpful.

Badda: I would say that one central part of the dispositional stereotype for believing that P is the disposition to judge that P when reflecting on the matter. (Here I'm slipping back into my word "judgment" instead of "endorsement", which I was borrowing from you. Do you think it makes a difference?)

Does my response to you, saying to you that you know you're conscious even when you doubt the utility of the concept "conscious" run against that view of mine? I don't think it has to. Two reasons:

(1.) One can match the stereotype for belief well enough even if what one says in some contexts doesn't match the stereotype. And I'm willing to bet that you match pretty well the stereotype for believing that you're conscious. For example, you don't read about zombies and say "hey, that's me!"; you attribute to yourself felt emotions, sensory experiences, etc., even if you don't call them "conscious" because you hesitate about the word. And here it's relevant, as came out earlier, that the ascriber has the privilege in defining the stereotype: Compare our saying that some woman believes that men are untrustworthy, even if she resists using the word "untrustworthy" for some quirky philosophical or etymological reason.

(2.) I think -- and this runs against philosophical tradition, I know! -- that the standards for knowledge are lower in certain ways than the standards for belief (this is also in my "Acting Contrary..." essay). I find it more comfortable to say you know that you're conscious than to say that you believe it. Likewise, I find it more comfortable to say that Jason knows the bridge is closed (as he is absent-mindedly driving toward it) than that he believes it is closed. Knowledge, I think, has more to do with capability and belief has more to do with typicality -- and we have the capacity to act on information we often don't actually act on. (Another case is the implicit racist who knows that the races are intellectually equal but doesn't believe it.) I should probably do another post on my view of the belief/knowledge difference at some point! So you know you're conscious in the sense that you have the capacity to react in consciousness-recognizing ways; but whether you believe it is somewhat in-betweenish (in my view) given your qualms about the concept.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Leif, I'm not sure I followed everything in your comment, I'm afraid -- maybe partly because Kant'sh isn't my native tongue?

Is your core idea that objects as known to us (as opposed to as they are in themselves) are always just clusters of phenomenal experiences or "appearances"; and so if there's an "illusion" that's really just a bit of an incoherence among various ways in which we can experience an object over time and with perspective. So, for example (is this Ayer?), the stick that looks bent in the water we call "really" straight only because the most coherent way to organize our sensory experiences pertinent to that phenomenal object, including our experiences of touch and visual experiences from other perspectives, involves attributing it "objective" straightness -- but there's nothing *inherently* illusory about the stick's bentness?

Shoot, this *is* hard to speak clearly about!

I'm not entirely hostile to this brand of idealism, though I think the fact that we're often wrong about our experiences (in my view) while we remain correct about outward objects adds a wrinkle to it. More fundamentally, I'm not sure how we go about resolving such deep metaphysical disputes. I have no faith in the a priori reasoning and appeal to philosophical intuition that typically ground the arguments on either side.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for your kind answer, I'm confusing myself all the time, so maybe it isn't the jargon at all.

But we don't have to get all a priori about it. Given that we have conceptual means to reassure the identity of objects in a continous strain of experience (that could be archieved by a spontaneity of understanding, but not necessarily so), we could simply pull the stick out of the water and see that it is straight. Close our eyes and touch it we would feel that it doesn't bend.

Real properties are always derived form bundels of perceptual properties, which are onle mediate to conscious conceptualisation (of the object as appearance).

The problem with illusions the inference form these subconciously gained ascriptions of perceptual properties (which are never wrong, because there is nothing that could prove them wrong) to the ascription of real properties (like the real shape of an object).
If we regard the object of the illusonal input as a normal and common case of the empirical concept ("a something that appears to me as a such and this ...", a phact), we are likely to infer certain real properties of the object commonly correlated with the phact. But it is in fact a special case of this kind of phact with different real properies.
We would have noticed that, if we could have taken more perceptual properties into account.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for the clarifications, Leif. But I'm not so sure about this idea that (knowledge of?) "real properties" (by which I take it you mean things like objective, physical shape) are derived from "perceptual properties" (by which I take it you mean a type of phenomenal "phact").

I'm actually more inclined to think the inference usually goes the other way around: Our perceptual system delivers up the verdict "red shirt there" and on the basis of that (rarely, and only if we want to) we reach the judgment that we are having the conscious experience of "redness".

Yes, when we look at objects and reach judgments about them, we both have phenomenal experiences and opinions about the objective features of the objects and sometimes opinions about the phenomenal experiences themselves. But exactly what the relationship is among these three things is tricky. I don't think we should necessarily accept the veil of perception view that it goes like this:

Phenomenal experience -> knowledge about phenomenal experience -> opinion about outward object.

Maybe the outward object simultaneously causes both the opinion about the object and the phenomenal sensory experience, which are intertwined and mutually influencing, and those two things in turn jointly cause (occasionally) knowledge about the phenomenal experience.