Experience and Its Objects

The following is an  essay that was published in
Ian Berry. Lee Boroson: Outer Limit. Exh. Cat. Saratoga Springs, NY: The Frances Young Tang Teaching Museum and Art Gallery 2005. Essay by Alva Noe.
Experience and its objects
Alva Noë

Perception reveals the world to us and makes it available for thought and for science. What is the difference between the way the world enters into experience, on the one hand, and thought and science, on the other? This is a problem for philosophy. It is one that art can help us answer. Consider:
Do you see the stars? They are so far away that they may have flickered out of existence long before their light reaches you. It might be better to say that you see lights in the sky and judge them to be star light. This is why the fact that the stars appear as points of light in the night sky doesn’t force us to believe that stars actually resemble points of light. Stars are no more like points of light, than people are like ants when they are seen from a great height.
A scientist is likely to demur. The scientist says your relation to the things you see is never more direct than your relation to the stars in the night sky. Perception is a delicate causal process wherein light is reflected off objects in such a way as to give rise to the neural events on which conscious experience finally depends. A remote signal reaches your sensory periphery at the speed of light and then travels at much slower speeds as it propogates in the nervous system. It is no more possible to experience an event when it actually happens than it is to receive a letter before it is sent. We live in the past. Events in the world outpace the experience which is their result. It would be prejudice to think that the time it takes for light to reach you has any bearing on whether, when you receive such light, you see.
In fact – so says the scientist – your relation to a coin is exactly like your relation to stars. A star looks from here misleadingly like a point of light. But the coin, held up before you at an angle, looks from here misleadingly like an ellipse. You do not perceive the coin itself, for what you perceive is elliptoid, but the coin is circular. What you see is elliptoid; you infer the circularity of the object whose projection is thus made available to you. As with stars, so with coins, and with all other sublunary objects. Perceiving, according to the scientist, is like astronomy; it is a theoretical activity of drawing inferences, however unconscious, as to the far-away causes (e.g. stars, people, circular coins) of stimuli close to home (e.g points of light, ant-like blips, elliptical profiles).
Undergraduates, like readers of newspapers, love to be told that things are not as they seem. We get a certain frisson when our attitudes – about the common cold, about sex, about diet and health – are unmasked by the cool hand of science. This tendency partly explains our willingness to entertain what is surely an outrageous suggestion that all seeing is like seeing stars. Is it possible to resist this idea? Yes. Consider: the scientist’s argument takes for granted a particular conception of the nature of perceptual experience. To begin to zero in on this conception, recall the causal story. Vision is a three stage process; first, objects affect incident light; second, light irradiates our sensory receptors (the retina); third, the activation of the sensory receptors produces electrochemical activity which results in conscious experience. Physics and neuroscience occupy themselves with stages one and two. As for the third and final stage – when physical processes in the brain give rise to subjective states of consciousness – there is no accepted framework for investigation. The only consensus is on this one point: no one knows how the action of the brain gives rise to consciousness. No one even has a good story about how this is supposed to go.
Given this, it is remarkable that scientists, and many philosophers, tend to assume that perceptual experiences are optical projections or representations. If you think of experiences that way – as projections or images of a distal world on an internal screen – then you can hardly insist that there is a principled difference between the way the coin, on the one hand, and the stars, on the other, affect consciousness. Just as a round coin may look elliptical from here, so stars may look like points of light. Perceiving is mediated by this kind of projective relation.
We can grant that how things look depends on your perspective – how could we challenge that? — without granting the problematic projective conception of experience. Importantly, there is nothing in settled science that forces this conception on us. In my view, the assumption is optional and can be rejected. Here is an alternative conception, one no less consistent with the empirical facts about perception as a physical process. Let our paradigm of perceiving be active touching. Consider a blind person’s experience of the texture of the sidewalk as he or she tap-taps along with a cane. He or she experiences the sidewalk and its texture, but not by forming a picture of it, in the head, as it were. The experience, rather, is the temporally extended activity of probing, one that is constituted not only by what the perceiver does, but by the way the world resists or even acts back. Whereas on the conception I challenge – which is not only our imagined scientist’s conception, but also that of the tradition that comes down to us from Descartes — experiences are self-standing and internal, on the alternative way of thinking of perceptual experience, experience is not something that takes place within us, but something we do.
If this alternative conception is right, then experience should not be thought of as a way in which we represent things, as it were in our consciousness. Rather, it should be thought of as a way in which we make contact with things. Perceptions aren’t about the world; they are moments of contact with the world. On the alternative conception, experience is a dynamic episode of engagement with the world. The world enters into experience the way music enters a dance, or, to use a better metaphor, the way the terrain guides us when we walk. The object, in perception, shouldn’t be thought of as a theoretical posit, but as terra firma. We encounter it. The science of consciousness investigates, or ought to investigate, the way we manage to attain and preserve this kind of contact with the earth. The brain plays a big role in this story, but it can’t be the whole the story. The brain, the body, and the world, work together to make consciousness happen.
Back to the stars. Against the background of the alternative conception, we can appreciate that it is not so unreasonable after all to suppose that when we look up at the night sky, we do not succeed in making contact with the stars. The stars are just too far away! We do manage to make contact with the lights. If they were to disappear, it would make a difference to how things look. And so with the coin: skillful perceivers do manage to connect to the coin when they take in its elliptical appearance. Circular coins look elliptical from an angle, after all. If you move the coin far enough away, it ceases to look circular, or elliptical, and becomes little more than a spot. This reveals not that coins seen from such and such a distance look like spots, but rather, that at such and such a distance, one’s ability to see the coin – to maintain contact with it – breaks down.
This puzzle about what we see is interesting for a few different reasons. It is a puzzle precisely about what we see. The puzzle doesn’t concern the nature of stars or our relation to them or the projective properties of coins. It concerns, rather, the question whether we conceive of our selves as seeing them, as opposed to mere appearances of them, when we “experience coins and stars.” What is the face value of our experience? It is remarkable that this can be an open question. And at least part of what makes this so remarkable is the fact that it is entirely unclear what methods we should use to try to settle it. Crucially, science is no help to us.
What about art? Can it help us understand the way objects enter into our experience of the world? One way it could do this is by making experience itself its subject matter. Another way art can do this is by making science and the ways of representing the world in models and in thought its subject matter. Scientists model, and models capture structure, offer explanation, and enable prediction. Some artists play with models, by warping them, and so cast light on the way modelling reveals the world, and on the differences in the way science and experience do this.
Lee Boroson’s Celestial Incorporation illustrates this. Boroson transforms high-resolution digital images of the sky – images that we know represent the stars and their positions – by removing empty spaces between the star-images. In this way Boroson constructs models that have been, at least partially, denuded of their representational powers, for he has disrupted the isomorphism, the rules of projection, that enables such models to represent. The result of these manipulations? In one sense, what results are new models, models that preserve some, but not all, of the spatial relations among the stars. In this connection, it is important to keep in mind that Boroson uses the very same raw data that actual astronomers use – unanalyzed astronomical data gathered by NASA (??) telescopes. In another sense, however, Boroson’s models can be thought of as articulating questions about modelling itself and so about the way stars – or any other theoretical entities – enter science. In this way Celestial Incorporation helps to demarcate the place of science in human experience, by calling attention to the fragility of the theoretical grip we have on such objects. Celestial Incorporation is a question-mark put to science in the face of experience. We encounter the question, in thought, by encountering the work of art, in experience.