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Neither Touch nor Vision: sensory substitution as artificial synaesthesia?
Biology and Philosophy (2013)
  • Mirko Farina

Block (2003) and Prinz (2006) have defended the idea that SSD perception remains in the substituting modality (auditory or tactile). Hurley and Noë (2003) instead argued that after substantial training with the device, the perceptual experience that the SSD user enjoys undergoes a change, switching from tactile/auditory to visual. This debate has unfolded in something like a stalemate where, I will argue, it has become difficult to determine whether the perception acquired through the coupling with an SSD remains in the substituting or the substituted modality. Within this puzzling deadlock two new approaches have been recently suggested. Ward and Meijer (2010) describe SSD perception as visual-like but characterize it as a kind of artificially induced synaesthesia. Auvray et al. (2007) and Auvray and Myin (2009) suggest that SSDs let their users experience a new kind of perception. Deroy and Auvray (forthcoming) refine this position, and argue that this new kind of perception depends on pre-existing senses without entirely aligning with any of them. So, they have talked about perceptual experience in SSDs as going “beyond vision”. In a similar vein, Fiona MacPherson (2011b) claims that “if the subjects (SSD users) have experiences with both vision-like and touch-like representational characteristics then perhaps they have a sense that ordinary humans do not” (MacPherson 2011b, p.139). I use this suggestion of MacPherson’s as a motivation for exploring more fully the idea that SSD perception is something new. In this paper, in line with Auvray and Deroy, I therefore argue that SSD perception (at least in long-term, experienced users) doesn’t align with any of the pre-existing senses and that although it relies (quite heavily) on them, it nevertheless counts as something different and partially new. Unlike Auvray and Deroy however, I tentatively explain the new sensory sensitivity that these devices enable in terms of artificially induced synaesthesia. So the main goal of this paper is to synthesize and integrate the empirical work of Ward and Meijer (2010) within the conceptual framework developed by Deroy and Auvray (forthcoming), trying to cash out, in a more specific way, the details of their idea that SSD perception goes “beyond vision”. In suggesting the emergence of a new sensory modality in practised SSD users, I aim to make more explicit the false dilemma on which both Block/Prinz and Hurley/Noë rely; the shared assumption that there are only two options available to explain SSD perception (namely, that it either stays in the substituting modality, or is entirely visual). In endorsing an emergence thesis, which aims at taking us out of the dead-end of the visual vs not-visual (auditory/tactile) dilemma by refusing its two horns, I thus aim at breaking the deadlock in which the philosophical debate about sensory substitution has fallen.

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Mirko Farina. "Neither Touch nor Vision: sensory substitution as artificial synaesthesia?" Biology and Philosophy (2013)
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