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Lilliana Albertazzi
Why Perception is Not Reducible to Physics?


The concept of ‘perception’ in contemporary science is not univocal. Its equivocalness depends on theoretical aspects (assuming or otherwise that the whole of mesoscopic reality can be adequately described by classical physics), methodological aspects (classic psychophysical techniques or brain imaging vs. qualitative descriptive techniques), and formal ones (what type of syntax to select for simulation models and their implementation in machines). The problems underlying the equivocalness are of diverse. The first is the co-presence in a perception of different psychophysical, neurophysiologic, and qualitative aspects. Put briefly: psychophysics studies the relations between distal stimuli, for example, luminous radiations of varying frequency and intensity; psychophysiology studies the relations among proximal stimuli, i.e. between stimuli and the sense organs; qualitative analyses (descriptive psychology, Brentano 1995a; Albertazzi 2004) and its experimental developments in Gestalt psychology (Koffka 1935; Köhler 1969; Kanizsa 1979), in its turn, study the aspects and the global structures that emerge, for example, in the actual event of ‘seeing a colour’ (Brentano 1995b; Albertazzi 2005, chapters 3, 4).

The various psychological schools don’t always draw clear boundaries between these different aspects. In particular, phenomenal aspects are usually analysed in terms of psychophysical or neuronal correlates, even though no bijective mapping exists between a perceptive event and a psychophysical stimulus, but rather a more complex structure of relationships (Da Pos 1997; Gemerek et al 2002. See Albertazzi 2007).

Nor is the difference between a metric-free descriptive analysis of phenomena and a quantitative metric analysis at issue. The phenomenal aspects of perception can also be analysed using a metric: for example, when the distance of an object is analysed in relation to its size in the visual field, or when phenomena of colour recognition or discrimination are studied by referring to psychological or subjective dimensions mapped on NCS or Munsell systems (Da Pos, Albertazzi, sumitted). A phenomenology of perception does not in principle exclude the ‘measurement’ quantification and parameterization of data and experimental investigation. What it does exclude is reduction of the phenomenal aspect to the psychophysical or neuronal ones.

A second problem concerns the intrinsic dynamism of perception, which does not consist in a ‘mental state’ except by abstraction. As a complex whole, perception in its actual unfolding (i) cannot be analysed in terms of independent features, (ii) nor is it a mere ‘representation’ of a stimulus, or (iii) the product of a probabilistic inference. Rather, it is the presentation of a unitary event of which the perceiver’s subjective structure is a non-independent part (Albertazzi 2006a, 2006b).

To support the thesis of the irreducibility of perception to physics, I shall present some experimental studies on phenomena of light and colour, which do not have any correspondent physical stimuli. These studies show that our perceived world is largely a construction of our mind (Gilchrist 2002, 2006; Koenderink et al. 2007; Hoffman 2003; Michotte 1991).

Lilliana Albertazzi is Associate Professor at Trento University in the Faculty of Cognitive Science.  She teaches courses in ‘Philosophy and Theory of Languages’ and ‘Semiotics of Visual Representation.’  She has authored five books, more than 100 publications, and edited 18 books with another forthcoming.  Her main fields of interest include:  theory of representation, Gestalt psychology, art, theory of cognitive space and time, philosophy and psychology, and cognitive semantics.  She is a director of the Mitteleuropa Foundation and is on the Advisory Boards for Axiomathes, Brendtano Studien, Meinong Studies/Meinong Studien, Polish Journal of Philosophy, and Cognitive Semiotics.  She is also a member of the International Cognitive Linguistics Association (ICLA), the International Cognitive Science Association (COGSCI), and the Società Italiana di Scienze Cognitive.


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