This project aims to establish an international coalition to study sense modalities.  During the last twenty-five years, philosophers have embarked on new approaches to questions regarding how we interact with the external world through perception.  Increasingly, these approaches operate outside the traditional sense-experience based framework as established by the philosophers of the seventeenth century. The new philosophy of perception is concerned not so much with sceptical doubt--which motivated the former thinkers--but  with philosophically rigorous and empirically plausible models of information flow from world to mind, with how this information is utilized, and with the ontology of sense perception.  The shifting theoretical orientation of philosophy of perception is intensely inter-disciplinary, drawing on simultaneously evolving approaches outside of philosophy, and bringing together disciplines across the humanities and the sciences.  The Senses project is inspired by this shift in thought.

A central goal for our project is to take up and encourage research on sense modalities outside of vision, as well as submodal and multimodal sense perception.  While the new philosophy of perception has significantly illuminated vision, the other senses have been relatively neglected. Our aim as a group is to broaden the focus of perception research. We aim to use the lessons learned from the inter-disciplinary investigation of vision to open up new areas of investigation in non-visual modalities and multimodal sensory processing. How do the other senses interact with the world?  Each of the senses seems to deal with different kinds of environmental objects and contingencies but they nonetheless seem to share information.  If they do this, how do they do this?  What do they share with the functional organization of vision?  How do they communicate and collaborate with one another?  Addressing these and like questions will enrich our understanding of perception generally and how it relates to mind and environment.

One general question common to much of the research of philosophers and scientists involved in our project is this:   Is there a theoretically important division among the sense modalities?   Or are the distinctions that we make, based on receptors or on qualitative feel,  theoretically unimportant and in need of adjustment or de-emphasis?  And in what ways are the differences  between the outputs  of the various sensory modalities important with respect to consciousness and epistemic employment?  A bit more precisely, this cluster of questions might be understood in either or both of the following ways:

    Perception and rational cognition: The materials for epistemic assessment are either modal or multi-modal.  If this interface--between perception and cognition--is such that the perceptual contribution to cognition is always multi-modal, then are distinctions between modalities theoretically important vis-à-vis cognition?  Or, weaker, are these distinctions at least of less importance?

    Sensory maps:  If information from distinct modalities is organized into a single informational array and distinct modalities involve distinct mappings (either in terms of their content/objects or in terms of the organizational character of the respective maps of receptoral data, or both (for example, spatial data/maps vs. tonal data/maps), then are distinctions in modality less theoretically important than usually supposed?  And what would the answers to these questions imply about the formation of beliefs, concepts, and other cognitive states from sensory experience?   

From here, a number of sub-questions and issues follow:

    Evolutionary history of the senses: What do the senses share by way of common cellular and network organizational principles?  How and when did they diverge?

    Bodily feelings and cognitive feelings: Bodily feelings include thirst, hunger, air-hunger, and pain.  Cognitive feelings include the feelings of presence and familiarity, pastness and episodic memory, the feeling of control, and directivity as a component of sensory content.  These phenomena, especially as they occur in non-visual perceptual experience, are worthy of theoretical exploration.

    Substitution and prosthetics.  With the development of strategies used by individuals with sensory deficits and sensory substitution technologies like Cochlear implants and Trans Visual Substitution Systems (TVSS), comes rich opportunity to ask questions about and test theories of the phenomenology, ontology, and epistemology of sense perception.

    Time and the Senses: Sensory perception takes place over time.  Sensory exploration leads to information about environmental objects that is not available at-a-moment.  And time itself can be represented by the sensory system.  What do these facts tell us about the sense modalities and their relation to cognition? 

    Sensory subordination/domination:  Do phenomena like the the McGurk and rubber hand effects suggest that all the other senses are subordinate to vision?  What does this tell us about the above questions concerning rational cognition and sensory maps?

    Dual systems: Important work in vision science over the last few decades has revealed two visual systems, associated with the ventral stream and dorsal stream in the visual cortex.  Are there neuro-anatomical or pscyho-functional analogs to these structures for other sense modalities?

See the bibliography for related literature.

Project aims and description