The Will As Organizer of Normative Perception

I’ve talked many times on this blog about the way that perception is not a merely physically phenomenon. Light does not just strike the retina, creating an image. Rather, the mind is actively involved in SHAPING and ORGANIZING the light that strikes our eyes into objects that retain their color constancy and shape constancy despite changing perspective and conditions.

Think of it this way. Why is our perception not an unintelligible jumble of shapes and colors? The answer is that the brain imposes various features on the light that hits the eye to create things we immediately recognize as objects. The brain also imposes features on a scene that allow us to organize those objects in space. For example, the brain creates depth perception which has the side effect of meaning that things are always in focus (this is a great example of why vision CANNOT be like a camera or just light striking the retina because camera cannot have everything in a scene in focus at once). The brain also keeps color constant and uses clues from the scene to keep these  patterns up. These schemas are the origin of visual illusions. For example, two instances of orange that are the exact same in tint/color will look different if one is under the shadow of an object because the brain adjusts the lighting for what it believes is the direction of the light. There are many, many examples, and the punch line here is that the brain has automatic processes that it uses to make a scene of visual data intelligible.

My belief is that the will performs similar functions for our normative perception that things like depth perception perform for inanimate, natural reality. Let me explain that sentence. Something like depth perception organizes our perception of things like tables, chairs, animals, and other people. But we don’t just perceive other things. Our perception lets us see VALUE, EMOTION, and OPPORTUNITIES. This may sound strange but it’s a very intuitive thought when you take a second to think about your own perception. For example, scientists have found that in 1/10 of a second, we can determine whether someone is happy or sad or threatening or not. We cannot, in this time, register the features of this person’s face that make us conclude that. Because of that, we do not reach judgments about other people’s moods by INFERENCE. We can say “he’s mad” after being exposed to a face for a second and even if we cannot say anything about his face that makes us believe that, like “o his brow was furrowed,” or “there was an intensity in his eyes.”

This is important. This means that moods and other characterizations of different scenes are often perceived, but not IN VIRTUE of seeing anything else. Sometimes, you just SEE that your friend is upset, or that the person in aisle 5 is being threatened, or that something is ugly. Because we’re usually able to stare at something for a while, we can produce reasons for thinking these things. “This painting is ugly because these lines aren’t even,” or “these colors don’t work together,” but crucially we can reach judgments about whether something is ugly or whatever as a basic perception. It can be a free floating perception.

I think that we are capable of having perception of something’s value. These perceptions function very similarly to my example above of perceiving someone’s distress or sadness. We can perceive that sleeping with one’s sister is wrong or bad. An evolutionary disgust reaction might be behind such feelings, but the point is that we perceive some things as right or wrong intuitively and in a basic fashion. This isn’t to say people can’t be deviant. I might perceive that killing in the name of my deity is morally right. We would say that such a perception is wrong, but the point is just that such a person might believe that action to be right in the same way that we believe that keeping a promise is right.

Such perceptions constitute what I will call our normative perception. We don’t just perceive chairs and tables, but also normatively loaded things like opportunities, value, ugliness, humor, and beauty.

Here’s the big claim of this post: the will organizes our normative perception in the same way that depth perception organizes our natural perception. 

The will then, is what takes our various individual normative perceptions — that this and that are good or worthwhile — and organizes them so that we have a coherent normative universe. Here are two examples. What is the difference between someone who watches birds outside his window each day because they flutter and attract her attention versus someone who engages in bird watching? The answer I think is that in one case, the desirability of watching birds (the “goodness” of it in the agent’s eyes) is integrated into a wider normative horizon, including a respect for nature, amateur scientific interest, and an appreciation of beauty. Just as depth perception allows one chair to be seen as in front of another, the will allows one value to be juxtaposed and integrated with another through the course of an activity. This is further bolstered by the fact that perception is socially permeable (the ash experiment shows that what we see is very related to what people around us are doing and seeing. Folie a deux scenarios also shows this). The will is what allows the social conventions and forms of birdwatching to seep into the bare activity of looking at birds. Our will is what transforms looking at birds into the activity: birdwatching. 

Another example is the way that deliberation works. Deliberation allows us to compare values and decide on a course of action. For instance, we may perceive that equality is valuable, but be able, through reflection to conclude that this is a value illusion and that equality is not what matters but rather the plight of the worst off is what matters.

There are other similarities. Here’s a favorite analogy of mine. There is such a thing as blindsight. Patients who are unable to see anything in their visual field can pick up blocks put in front of them and also mail letters in openings arranged in different ways. They can “see” what is necessary to perform the task, even though they have no subjective experience of what is in front of them.

This is very similar to a type of action in which we act for no reason. I’ve talked about this before, but sometimes we can act for no reason at all. I may try to land on all the cracks on the sidewalk as I stroll along. When asked why I’m trying to do that, I will say “no reason.” Or, “I just felt like it.” In these cases, I claim that we have a case similar to blindsight. Just as the mind can make an agential possibility available to the mind despite there being nothing to see, the will can sometimes make an action attractive to the agent without their being any perceived value to the action. The person who acts for “no reason” does not see anything valuable in the action other than their brute intentional ability to act and do it. They act intentionally but not for a reason.

The upside of all of this is that just as the mind makes visual scenes intelligible, the will makes normative reality intelligible. The will is what makes our agential horizon intelligible and so is constitute of practical rationality. The will then is necessary for intentional action.


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