Friday, June 15, 2007

Gilbert Ryle's Secret Grotto

Gilbert Ryle, in his justly famous 1949 book The Concept of Mind, downplayed the importance of inner events to our mental lives, emphasizing instead patterns of behavior. (See, for example, the IEP entry on Behaviorism.)

Yet Ryle does not (despite his reputation) deny the existence of an inner mental life altogether. He admits, for example, the existence of "silent monologues" (p. 184), silent tunes in one's head (p. 269), "thrills and twinges" of emotion (p. 86 and many other places), "private" visual images (p. 34), and the like. Daydreams and silent soliloquoys, he says, belong among things we can catch ourselves engaged in, much as we can catch ourselves scratching or speaking aloud to ourselves. Such events, he continues, "can be private or silent items" of our autobiography (p. 166-167) to which only we have access, and he sometimes explicitly characterizes them as "in our heads".

Such remarks may surprise some who are used to hearing Ryle characterized (or caricatured) as a radical behaviorist who denies that the terms of ordinary English can ever refer to private episodes. Although Ryle derides the general importance of inner, ghostly "shadow actions" (p. 25) in a "secret grotto" (p. 119), and repeatedly denies the necessity of their occurrence prior to outward actions, he plainly does allow the existence, and even the occasional importance, of private mental events.

This seems to me exactly the right view. We do have a sort of "secret grotto": We can (in some sense) witness our own silent utterances, visual imagery, daydreams, and twinges of emotion, in a way others cannot. Yet it's not clear that our noticing such events in the "stream of experience" gives us any generally privileged self-knowledge beyond the kind of privilege that anyone might have who can witness some things that others cannot (say what takes place when one is alone in a room); and indeed we may not actually be very accurate witnesses. Nor is it clear that inner speech is any more important, or necessary to thought, than outer speech; or that the twinges we feel are the most important or central fact about suffering an emotion; or that it's an any way important to most of our goals to be in touch with the happenings in this inner grotto.

And that's why it's fine, on my view, that we are so little in touch with them, and so badly.

Part of me is attracted to an externalist, embodied, view of the mind. There's something I'm suspicious of in talking about our experience as "inner". And yet I'm not sure the metaphor of spatial interiority (and maybe a metaphor is all it is) is so bad, if it's just meant to capture the kind of privacy that even Ryle seems to allow.


Anibal said...

If even Gibert Ryle concedes, though minimally, the existence of some sort of activity in the cartesian theater or our camera obscura, what role we can give to them: a rehearsal to behavioural dispositions, some ephiphenomena...

We are currently, or at least is the dominant opinion in some circles of cognitive science, discovering that many cognitve operations and even functional behaviour lies under the umbrella of the unconscious.

But my nightmare is why we have conscious streams however? if they are so puzzling to investigate and analyze philosophically (third person) and in our daly activities personally (first person).

Is it that concious states are evolutionary by products, functionally unimportant?

Jim said...

Great question anibal, why do you think we have conscious streams?

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Shoot, anibal, I wish I had something clever to say about that! Why we have the *functions* of vision, imagery, emotion, etc., is (relatively) clear -- but why we don't have just the functions and not the phenomenology attending them (and I do take the presence of the phenomenology to be a separate fact, at least conceptually/metaphysically if not nomologically), well I've never heard a good answer to that.

Could we just as well ask: Why is the gravitational constant G? Is it *just* a brute regularity of nature? Somehow, that seems unsatisfying.

Anibal said...

That seemingly eternal quest is what lead me to study philosophy, but if philosphers like Eric don´t have or heard yet a satisfactory explanation to human consciousness, is because that question still lies into the aspect of problems (fortunately) rather than mysteries (remember Chomsky).

To me, a plausible answer is that though we are aware of outcomes and not processes, our evolutionary pathway allow us to direct inward our attention and not only to extramental objects (A.C. Nobre, experimental psychologist based at Oxford studies how we direct attention inwardly), and then for some kind of unknown instance the generation of circles of reverberation, self-simulations... and then magic, the extra factor รก la Dennett suddenly... appears.

Jim said...

anibal and Eric:

It would seem that consciousness cannot aid survival if it can have no effect on physical activity.

Why not start with trusting our first-person intuition that conscious experience can influence physically describable activites--even though such thinking is apparently outside mainstream academic norms.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for the comments, anibal and jim! I'm inclined to think, Anibal, that the approach you suggest is among the more reasonable options. But I'm not sure how to settle such questions. Well, who said philosophy would be easy?

As to whether consciousness is epiphenomenal or not -- it does seem reasonable to think it would play a causal role. But again, how do we measure that, how do we determine what role, exactly, it plays?

Jim said...


This is why your focus on internal speech is so important. For example, I'm sitting at my desk, replyng to a post at The Splintered Mind, and my wife says could you take out the garbage now. My internal speech response to that request is something to the effect "don't bother me know you bitch, I'm trying to solve the problem of consciousness." I then finish my reply to The Splintered Mind and other web site replys. I end up taking out the garbage 45 minutes after my wife's original request. She is angry with me for the rest of the afternoon but I feel good about my replys to various web sites.

Lets replay that scenario in a slightly different way. This time my wife makes the same request. My internal speech response is the same but instead of folliwng the instructions of my internal speech I simply note them internally, get up immediately from the computer, take out the garbage and return back to my replys. My wife says she loves me and I'm still satisfied with my web site conversations.

My choice to counter, in this instance, my internal speech, results in the enhancement of my survival (less tension in relationship, lower blood pressure etc.).

By observing internal speech in the stream of consciousness, rather than acting on it, I gradually begin to notice that my brain seems to throw-out thoughts, images, feelings and emotions, which eventually suside or vanish if I don't act on them.

This type of experience begins to raise the issue, at least for me, of a possible distinction between mind and the neuron messages from the brain.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

I wonder: Does introspectively noticing or attending to your inner speech make you more able to resist the impulses it expresses? Maybe so, but I don't know. It's an interesting idea. Hard to think of a way to test that empirically, though!

Jim said...


I believe one of Liebet's experiments in the 1980s indicated that there was a 150 or so millisecond gap between the conscious experience of will and muscle movement--which might be enough time for consciousness to have an effect on volition.

It would be more in the form of allowing or supressing an action than in an initiation of action.

That type of result would seem consistent with my first-person experience of choosing to get up immediately to take out the garbage. The act of getting up immediately was a veto of an ingrained habit to ignore my wife's request and the internal language which endorsed that habit.

This act of getting up immediately
was based on injecting a new concept (please your wife) into the more traditional casual structure and its dreary outcome (wife being angry).

The result of all this is an endorsement of the assumption that sometimes willful actions can cause our physical actions to conform to our conceptually formulated intentions.

I believe this kind of heresy is also supported by modern quantum physics and therefore can be considered "scientific."

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Well, I'm nervous both about the Libet (Al Mele presented a pretty damning criticism of him here at UCR a few months ago) and about connections between quantum mechanics and consciousness, but I won't deny the appeal of a view on which there's a conscious experience of forestalling or overcoming a prepotent or habitual response!