You are here

Observation vs. Inference

18 November, 2015 - 17:28
Available under Creative Commons-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. Download for free at

When someone observes their environment they think about it in some way. This type of thinking is different from thinking that isn't based off of immediate vision. How do the two types of thinking differ? What is different when you think from when you are observing your environment, versus when you think about things that aren't dependent on what you are looking at (a more 'inferential' type of thinking)? Fodor (Fodor, Jerry (1990)) states - "For one thing, observationally fixed beliefs tend, by and large, to be more reliable than inferrentially fixed beliefs."

Based upon the same visual observations, will two organisms reach the same conclusions? Why don't I try to compare a deer and a human. There is a similar way in which both species process basic information about the environment (along with the animals in it), for instance if someone is attacking them both species recognize that as a threat. And i'm sure both species process data about environments without other animals or humans in it in a similar fashion as well. They both need to function in the environment, to look at the flora and fauna and decide what they want to eat, etc. It must be more complicated or 'theoretical' ideas that humans hold which separate our thinking from that of other animals (like deer). Here Fodor states that two organisms will reach the same observational beliefs 'however much their theoretical commitments may differ':

  • The claim, then, is that there is a class of beliefs that are typically fixed by sensory/perceptual processes, and that the fixation of beliefs in this class is, in a sense that wants spelling out, importantly theory neutral. A a first shot at what the theory neutrality of observation comes to: given the same stimulations, two organisms with the same sensory/perceptual psychology will quite generally observe the same things, and hence arrive at the same observational beliefs, however much their theoretical commitments may differ.

Is there a difference between perception and cognition? How someone perceives the world is based off of - and influenced by - how they think of the world. Perception is the organization, identification and interpretation of sensory information in order to represent and understand the environment 1. Cognition is how our minds use sensory data, in addition for being a name for all of a humans intellectual faculties - language, learning, reasoning, problem solving, and decision making. So what is the exact relationship between perception and cognition? Here again is Fodor:

  • Precisely parallel to the philosophical doctrine that there can be no principled distinction between observationand inferenceis the psychological doctrine that there can be no principled distinction between perceptionand cognition. The leading idea here is that "perception involves a kind of problem solving--a kind of intelligence (Gregory 1970). Perception, according to this account, is the process wherein an organism assigns probable distal causes to the proximal stimulations it encounters. What makes the solution of perceptual problems other than mere routine is the fact that, as a matter of principle, any given pattern of proximal stimulation is compatible with a great variety of distal causes; there are, if you like, many possible worlds that would project a given pattern of excitation on the sensory mechanisms of an organism. To view the mental processes which mediate perception as inferences is thus necessarily to view them as nondemonstrativeinferences. "We are forced ... to suppose that perception involves betting on the most probable interpretation of sensory data, in terms of world objects" (Gregory 1970). It is worth stressing the putative moral: what mediates perception is an inference from effects to causes. The sort of mentation required for perception is thus not different in kind - though no doubt it differs a lot in conscious accessibility - from what goes on in Sherlock Holmes' head when he infers the identity of the criminal from a stray cigar band and a hair or two. If what Holmes does deserves to be called cognition, perception deserved to be called cognition too, or so, at least, some psychologists like to say.

So observation is similar to perception, and inference is similar to cognition. When someone interprets or infers information, they are thinking - and when someone observes the world around them they could likewise be viewed as just seeing (or 'perceiving').

Which visual objects generate which cognitions? Or, which visual environments generate which types of cognitions? My guess would be there are visual environments that put a high cognitive demand on someone, or alerts them to a higher degree than less threatening or stimulating environments. It is interesting that vision plays such a large role in what a human or other animal might be thinking. For instance, a forest environment might make a human feel like it was under threat, or at least more so than a grassy environment where the human could see far around itself.

From the Fodor quote I concluded that it seems like the observations and conclusions reached from perception or vision are simple ones. Investigation into what is going on visually is just linking the vision of a scene (like a crime scene in the Holmes example) and with the knowledge you need to make the proper links. An understanding of of deep human emotional factors isn't necessary. However, a complex understanding of human motivation might be needed to understand complex ideas. Complex ideas might be linked to vision, however most things that people just see visually they don't need a complex emotional background to understand. There are many 'worlds' that each visual environment might represent. Those are also simple, however. In the visual field there are simple things like effects and causes (this causes that, etc). To understand the environment, much of the information of what is happening doesn't have to pass through consciousness since it is usually fairly simple. A deeper reflection, esp. a deeper emotional reflection is capable with complex thought, probably at a separate time from when one reaches the immediate conclusions they do about the environment.