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Does the missing fundamental require an inferentialist explanation?

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Philosophers and music psychologists rarely interact. In my doctoral thesis, I explain the origins of this impasse, and I argue that both disciplines would benefit from a rapprochement. In this talk, I explore what the philosophy of science might have to say about a particular explanatory strategy that is often taken by psychologists (both of music and of hearing) in order to explain the workings of the auditory system — namely, the appeal to ‘perceptual inference’.

Perceptual systems are sometimes said to perform ‘inferences’ in order to figure out what’s in the environment. According to the people who appeal to perceptual inference — the ‘inferentialists’ — perceivers don’t have direct, unmediated access to the world. The world appears as it does because our perceptual systems construct it to appear that way, and this construction happens by means of the performance of inferences. Perceptual systems, it is thought, have to make ‘educated guesses’ about what is in the world, because the stimulus, with which they are presented, is not sufficiently detailed to guarantee the delivery of a stable percept. However, nobody seems to have a clear idea as to what, exactly, a perceptual inference is supposed to be.

In this paper, I explore what it might mean for a perceptual system, rather than a conscious agent, to perform an inference. I take the example of the ‘missing fundamental’, often cited as an key example of auditory illusion, and I argue that we do not need to appeal to perceptual inference in order to explain it. I claim that the ‘missing fundamental’ is not, in fact, a perceptual illusion, nor does it count as a case where the stimulus is critically impoverished. The motivations for appealing to perceptual inference are thus undermined. Moreover, I argue that, given the opacity of what is meant by ‘perceptual inference’, we should avoid appealing to it, in the presence of a simpler explanation. I close by anticipating some objections, and offering replies.

This talk is part of the CamPoS (Cambridge Philosophy of Science) seminar series.

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