Department of Philosophy
Philosophy of mind

Cognitive penetration in perception

It is clear that what we think and believe sometimes influence what we perceive and how we perceive objects and states of affairs. But how does these cognitive states actually influence perception?

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According to Jerry Fodor´s modularity theory, cognition can only influence perception indirectly via processes such as attention. Fodor regards the perceptual module as insulated from the cognitive module. New research within cognitive psychology and cognitive neuroscience arguably challenges Fodor´s modularity theory. According to proponents of cognitive penetration, cognition can influence perception directly, and not only indirectly via attention as supposed by the modularity theory. In other words, cognition penetrates perception.

The workshop on cognitive penetration has three aims that are connected:


Firstly, there are different definitions of cognitive penetration on the market. Some of these definitions are negative definitions while others are positive definitions. The negative definitions give a definition of cognitive impenetrability and presents cognitive penetrability as the opposing view. The positive definitions are more straight attempts to cash out the necessary and sufficient conditions for cognitive penetration. According to an early negative definition of cognitive penetration:

“Functions are said to be cognitively impenetrable if they cannot be influenced by such purely cognitive factors as goals, beliefs, inferences, tacit knowledge, and so on. Such a criterion makes it possible to empirically separate the fixed capacities of mind (called its ‘functional architecture’) from the particular representations and algorithms used on specific occasions” (Pylyshyn 1980: 111).
However, this definition is problematic, as it seems to imply that most perceptual states may be cognitively penetrable. If a cognitive penetration claim should be regarded as a substantive claim the claim must be stronger than the mere claim that cognition may influence perception. According to a cognitive penetration claim, cognition must influence perception directly. What we need to understand then is what is meant by direct influence. In 1999 Pylyshyn presented an alternative positive definition of cognitive penetration: 

“[I]f a system is cognitively penetrable then the function it computes is sensitive, in a semantically coherent way, to the organism’s goals and beliefs, that is, it can be altered in a way that bears some logical relation to what the person knows” (Pylyshyn 1999: 343).          

Though this definition of cognitive penetration excludes cases where cognition may causally influence states of a non-cognitive system via processes such as attention, it is problematic as a definition of cognitive penetration because of its clear links to the computational representational model of the mind.


Secondly, the workshop intends to consider different alleged cases of cognitive penetration. To consider such cases is also essential for getting to an agreement regarding how cognitive penetration should be defined. Are typically alleged cases of cognitive penetration really cases of cognitive penetration? Is it possible to explain such cases without assuming that there is cognitive penetration? What is required for a case to be a genuine case of cognitive penetration? Or, what is required for a case to be undoubtedly a case of cognitive penetration?


Thirdly, the workshop needs to consider the possible consequences of cognitive penetration that are already mentioned above. Do these consequences that follow with necessity if it happens to be the case that some perceptual state are cognitively penetrated? To what extent are these potential consequences of cognitive penetration worrying?