Mohan Matthen is a philosophy professor at the University of Toronto, and last November his tenure as Canadian Research Chair in philosophy, perception, and communication was renewed.
Matthen’s work focuses on perception, including how perception is specialized and how it differs between species. His background is varied, including a B.Sc. in physics and an MA from Delhi University before earning his PhD in philosophy at Stanford; his research is, as quoted from a 2006 interview, “[in a sense] a philosophy of science”.
Along with writing his own book, 2005’s Seeing, Doing, and Knowing, Matthen has edited several others and published many articles and reviews. This week, he sat down with the Medium to discuss his research and the position of CRC.
The Medium: You just had your CRC renewed in November of last year. How does that feel?
Mohan Matthen: It was terrific news. And I’m sure that my department feels good about the federal government helping out with my salary.
TM: How does it feel to be called “one of Canada’s most promising and innovative thinkers”?
MM: “Promising” seems wrong about somebody my age, but it’s wonderful to learn that my ideas have attracted some attention.
TM: Can you share some details about how far you’ve come with your research on how human senses work?
MM: Seeing, Doing, and Knowing was meant to offer a comprehensive framework for thinking about sense perception. The main innovation there was the realization that perception is species-specific. Human beings live in the world differently than birds or dogs, and as a consequence, our perceptual systems gather different kinds of information than theirs.
I now realize that I (together with most others) adopted what you might call a snapshot view of perception, which is, moreover, passive. I now think that when we perceive, we probe the world and interrogate it to reveal its secrets. Active interrogation is a process that unfolds over time, and it integrates vision, hearing, touch, and so on. You get a very different picture when you think about gathering information rather than just receiving it.
I still think that it was important to think of perception as specialized by species, but I didn’t realize how transformative it would be to think of perception as active.
TM: How far have you come since you’ve started your research?
MM: Surprisingly far. For my first few years in Toronto, I followed leads that were hinted at in my 2005 book, and thought that my mission was to fill in and extend that framework, which, as I said earlier, was meant to be quite comprehensive. But my new project of understanding active perception has taken me into completely new areas, such as how we try to eliminate error and uncertainty, how we represent space, and how we evaluate our environment.
TM: What made you want to delve into this topic? Did you feel like research was lacking in the human senses, or did you just want to focus on something specific?
MM: There’s a huge amount of research out there. No lack at all! What I thought was that I could pick out a theme and bring a number of different lines of investigation together.
TM: Do you think the study of philosophy is sometimes seen as a field that won’t necessarily offer something as valuable as a science would?
MM: Sure, a lot of people think that. I wish they didn’t, but you have to face the fact that philosophy is undervalued.
TM: What are your thoughts on this, and how has your research helped in battling these views?
MM: I hope that in the next decade or so, I can combat this kind of negativity about philosophy. I have had some colleagues who have had a huge impact on public perception of a lot of philosophical issues: Tom Hurka and Wayne Sumner in ethics, Mark Kingwell and Joe Heath in politics, Jim Brown in science.
But above all, I would like to emulate Ian Hacking, who taught me when I was at Stanford as a graduate student, and then surprisingly turned out to be a colleague in Toronto. Ian has made a big difference in so many scientific areas. I’ll never forget a very prominent mathematical geneticist in Cambridge tell me how Ian changed his whole approach to statistical prediction.
I would like my research on active perception to develop into a paradigm that scientists can buy into in the same kind of way.
TM: Do you have any more books in the works?
MM: My idea of a book is something very connected, something that brings things together and has an argument that runs from page one to “page last”. When I have an idea, my first inclination is to write a paper. I think about writing a book only when I begin to feel that my ideas can illuminate a whole big area.
That said, I now think I have a book on active perception, in exactly that way: an argument from page one to page last that sheds light on a whole big area and forces you to think of it differently.
In the background are a number of ideas that I’ve been playing around about the perception of beauty and about pleasure in general. But these have not yet gelled. At least not in the same way.
TM: For your interview back in 2006 on the UTM website, you were quoted as saying, “I think that philosophy has something to contribute in formulating what sorts of questions are important.” How has philosophy helped you in deciding what questions are important for your theories?
MM: I often take traditional questions in philosophy and ask what scientific psychology can teach us about them. For example, philosophers have long asked where our perceptual representation of space comes from. Does it, for example, come from touch, and do the other senses tell us how to reach for tactile information? I argue that when you think about the integration of the sense modalities in active perception, you have to take a very different view. In this work, I think of myself as using a philosophical perspective to draw various lines of scientific inquiry together.
TM: What’s next for you after you’ve completed your theory?
MM: I want to think about pleasure. Not a life of pleasure! I want to think about how pleasure informs us about the world around us, and about how it can be right and how it can be wrong.