Profiles | 23 January 2020

Graduate Profile: Jordan Dopkins, Philosophy PhD Candidate


Jordan Dopkins in Big Sur

Jordan Dopkins is a fourth-year PhD candidate in the Philosophy Department with specializations in the Philosophy of Mind, Philosophy of Cognitive Science, Philosophy of Perception, and Aesthetics. In 2019, he was awarded a Summer THI Fellowship for his project “A Content View of Perceptual Experience.” We asked Dopkins to tell us about his research and contributions to the field, and he prompted us to re-examine how we perceive our everyday experiences and the ways this influences our beliefs.

Congratulations on your THI Research Fellowship! Let’s start by looking at your research in philosophy on “perceptual experience.” Can you tell us more about that—in layman’s terms, what is perceptual experience? How would you explain it to a non-philosopher?

Perceptual experiences are just the ordinary, everyday experiences that we enjoy via our senses. Some examples include seeing a yellow coffee mug or hearing a violin. And although perceptual experiences are ordinary, they display some curious and thorny features that are of interest to philosophers. First, perceptual experiences are conscious. There is something that it is like to have a perceptual experience. There is something that it is like to hear a violin. In contrast, there is nothing that it is like for the music stand in front of the violin player. These conscious features of perceptual experience are interesting for philosophers because they appear to be subjective, and they don’t seem to be captured by our best scientific descriptions of perceptual experiences. Second, perceptual experiences seem to have strong influences on our beliefs. We tend to think that we should or should not believe certain things on the basis of our perceptual experiences. When I have a perceptual experience of steam rising from the yellow coffee mug on the table, I should hold the belief “someone is drinking coffee.” When I have a perceptual experience of a friend in the passenger seat of my car, I should not hold the belief “I am alone in my car.” Philosophers describe this phenomenon by saying that perceptual experiences have normative force. Philosophers are interested in identifying the properties of perceptual experiences that give it this normative force.

You describe your work as looking at a “content view” of perceptual experience–can you tell us what that is?

Although perceptual experiences are ordinary, they display some curious and thorny features that are of interest to philosophers.

The content view is the name for a family of theories about what is constitutive or essential to all perceptual experiences. While the details of different versions of the content view vary, they all claim that perceptual experiences are a matter of representing things in perception as being one way rather than another. This can be contrasted with theories that state that perceptual experiences are, constitutively, just direct relations between perceiving subjects and the world and could only present things one way: the way they actually are. So, according to the content view, the perceptual experience of the yellow cup involves representing (whatever that is) the cup as yellow. Other theories may state that a perceptual experience of the cup involves something like a direct, non-representational relation to the yellow cup.

Following on the previous question, we are interested in learning more about your academic, intellectual, and artistic interests and concerns more broadly. What is the wider context and what are the stakes of this work for the field of philosophy and beyond?

A lot of my own research, and interests beyond my research, center around questions about representations. I think that things like artwork, photographs, maps, and sentences are clear cases of representations. I am very interested in what makes them representations; in other words, in virtue of what facts are those things representations. I am also interested in why we think this notion of representation is useful for talking about minds, psychological states, and states of the central nervous system.

A lot of my own research, and interests beyond my research, center around questions about representations.

Stated broadly, my current research is concerned with the role that representational states play in explanations in cognitive science and perceptual psychology. Cognitive scientists and perceptual psychologists often talk about states of the central nervous system as though they were representational states, but it isn’t clear that they actually function like representational states. They seem to just be causes of/caused by things in the environment or to bear some structural similarities. In particular I am looking at an explanatory paradigm in cognitive science that takes neurons in the hippocampus of mammals like rats and humans to function as maps. So-called “place cell neurons” are supposed to fire in a way that corresponds to one’s location relative to other locations that correspond to landmarks. I am looking at the representational language that researchers use when they talk about these place cell neurons and trying to understand why they talk about them as though they were representations.

How did you use your THI grant in summer 2019? Have you shared this work at conferences or in publications?

The THI grant was pivotal in helping me refine my dissertation topic.

The THI grant was pivotal in helping me refine my dissertation topic. The grant afforded me the opportunity to have conversations with some philosophers of perception and cognitive scientists. And yes! I presented some of the research I did for the THI grant at UCSC’s Friday Forum, and at the Mountain-Plains Philosophy Conference in Oklahoma. I will also be presenting more of that research to undergrads here for a Cowell College Course. More conference presentations and, hopefully, a publication are in the works!

Jordan Dopkins is a member of THI’s 2019-2020 cohort of fellows. Read about our funding opportunities for graduate students here.