I was intrigued by a paper that came to my attention in the December 2013 issue of Philosophical Studies by Anna Farennikova in which she argues that we ‘see’ absence. In other words, seeing that something is not there is as much a product of our visual system as seeing an object. The example with which she begins goes like this. “If someone steals your laptop at a cafe, you may see its absence from your table.” Can you “see” something that is not present? Farennikova rejects the idea that the visual information is simply the table (without the laptop) and that the absence of the laptop is quickly deduced. She argues, instead, that our visual system includes mechanisms for ‘seeing’ the absence of something, making the case that “in addition to representing objects, perception represents absences of objects.” You might be tempted to say “what difference does it make if I ‘see’ the absence of something or ‘judge’ the absence of something. But Farennikova explains the difference that it makes:
The phenomenon of seeing absence can thus serve as an adequacy-test for a theory of perceptual content. If experiences of absence are possible, then we have another reason (following Siegel) to reject the view that perceptual content is restricted to colors and shapes.
This is a question that addresses what it means to perceive. And this is exactly why it interests me. The argument she builds is one that necessarily considers the variation in sensory experience, particularly in visual experience. There are subtleties in the distinction between sensory experience and higher level cognitive experience. Observing these nuances inevitably leads to a careful evaluation of what it means ‘to perceive,’ which is important to some of the arguments I’ve made about the nature of mathematics.
Farennikova does a fairly thorough job of anticipating her critics. And she is careful to distinguish the phenomenon that she is addressing from other experiences where there is a ‘failure to see.’ She draws attention to the fact that “many experiences of absence feel instantaneous and lacking in conscious effort.” She also points to the strong adaptive advantage of seeing absences.
To survive, we need to be reliably and efficiently informed not only about “what is present in the world, and where it is” (Marr 1982), but also about what is absent from the world and where it is absent. This reliability may require automaticity, which is a function of blocking interference from beliefs and higher cognitive states. If these reasons are correct, then the capacity to sensorily respond to the absence of things should be as primitive and fundamental to humans as the capacity to sensorily respond to the presence of things.
Farennikova’s argument relies on specifying the mechanism involved in experiences of absence, and showing that this mechanism is visual as opposed to cognitive. The model she proposes is a matching operation, where templates that have developed through experience in the visual system are matched with the sensory input of any given moment. These templates of absent objects are not images. They preserve some of the visual attributes of the object but they also hold more abstract information about how the structure of the object is organized. Templates are generated in sensory memory and, she explains, exist at a subpersonal level. They are not necessarily the same as conscious imagery and are not dissimilar to the processing considered commonplace in ordinary vision. Since all of these components are visual, it is reasonable to regard the entire process as visual.
Farennikova then appeals to the rich content view of seeing:
Theories of seeing have been tailored to the perception of material objects, so it is no surprise that absences fail to satisfy their criteria. But what justifies the assignment of genuine seeing only to material objects?
In some visual experiences, some properties other than spatial properties, color, shape, motion, and illumination are represented” (Siegel 2010 The contents of visual experience. Oxford University Press)
I also found a paper that takes issue with Farennikova by Jean-‐Rémy Martin, Université Paris and Jérôme Dokic, Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales.
While agreeing with Farennikova that absence experiences are not reducible to high-level cognitive states such as beliefs, we reject the Perceptual View. Instead, we claim that absence experiences are neither strictly perceptual nor strictly cognitive. In particular, we propose that these experiences belong to the category of metacognitive (specifically metaperceptual) feelings, which reflect a specific kind of affective experience caused by subpersonal monitoring of (perceptual) processes.
Absence experiences for these authors are metaperceptual feelings of suprise. They argue that “mismatches at the narrow level of templates” are not enough to produce experiences of absence. “Rather, the adaptive function of the experience of incongruity suggest that it must be driven by whole expectations (with templates as proper parts).”
These things may all seem like tedious distinctions, but within this discussion there are actually some intriguing questions, like: When is the work of sensory processing over? When do our conscious minds appear to be at the helm? Is there anything in the middle? I’m inclined to say that even at the advanced level of cognition that we call mathematics, sensory processes are still at work. Not just in the reading of notation or the analyzing of images, but in the content of the mathematics itself, where templates, matches and mismatches are likely moving our minds eye to find out what’s there and what it means. Perhaps there is no cut off between sensory and higher-level cognitive processing. Rather there is some continuum of seeing/understanding whose depths are explored abstractly in mathematics and, in a more immediate way, by language.
Note: Farennilova has put together a series of images related to her research on her website : Seeing Absence