Friday, January 11, 2008

Book Review

Readers of this blog might be interested to see this review, in Salon, of my recent book with Russ Hurlburt, Describing Inner Experience? Proponent Meets Skeptic.

I'd love to say something clever about the review, but I've never been much good at clever. (Maybe that's part of what helps keep me "straight-faced"?)

15 comments:

Anonymous said...

Hi Eric, I'm interested in this conversation. If you have time, can you you abbreviate your argument for pessimism?
Best, Kevin

The Financial Philosopher said...

I started to read the review and had to stop after seeing the second grammital error/typo within one minute.

I'm sorry but professional writers, or anyone pretending to be such, are allowed no more than one error (if any at all) per 1,000 words.

Keep doing what you are doing. Critics keep their job longer if they can find a counter argument that sounds remotely intelligent...

The Financial Philosopher said...

No. I did not intend to misspell "grammatical." Is that ironic? At least I have an excuse... I'm just entertaining myself and typing quickly with no editing whatsoever. Perhaps the "critic" is doing the same?

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Welcome, Kevin! My argument has two main strands. First, variation in report, without plausible variation in underlying experience, suggests that some people must be mistaken in their reports. And second, when queried in the right kind of way, people will often express uncertainty or confess to error about their own experience.

For more details, probably the best summary is my essay "The Unreliability of Naive Introspection" available on my academic home page.

Financial: Funny, but I didn't notice the errors, or even your misspelling of grammatical! This is why I need to find a new grad student who is willing to proofread my essays for me. Sadly, my previous proofreader is now employed as a professor. (Well, all things considered, that's not so very sad. ;) )

Justin Tiwald said...

Great review, Eric. Wolf makes you a likable character. And he mentions the blog! Your broader readership is sure to grow (I say with some envy).

"Q" the Enchanter said...

"First, variation in report, without plausible variation in underlying experience, suggests that some people must be mistaken in their reports. And second, when queried in the right kind of way, people will often express uncertainty or confess to error about their own experience."

Eric, these features aren't peculiar to introspection, are they? To take the example of Melanie's visualizing legs-without-positions, suppose that instead of reporting on the content of her visualizations of a soldier by the side of the road she had been testifying based on a quick look at a photo of a soldier by the side of the road. Wouldn't you expect the same kinds of error and variation in answering questions about, say, the position of the soldier's legs? How would you distinguish the errors attending these two different kinds of recollection?

John Miedema said...

As an undergrad I had the opportunity to do a thesis on the phenomenology of introspection. I found that introspective reports varied with beliefs about reality. E.g., altered state experiences had a positive correlation with "transcendent" beliefs and a negative correlation with materialist beliefs. The problem with introspective reporting may not be ability but rather the absence of an interpretive framework to frame inner observations. Beliefs about reality is one such framework. Unfortunately for research, the framework is not shared but is personal.

I hope to read your book sometime. Best wishes.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for the comments, folks! (And for the envy, Justin. Is that something I should feel thankful for? Hm!)

"Q" and John: Your comments complement each other nicely. I agree, Q, that we also have the same sorts of problems in reporting outward things. In fact, in Ch. 10 of the book I do an extended comparison between introspection and eyewitness testimony. But while there's a large literature in psychology on the surprising unreliability of eyewitness testimony, philosophers and psychologists tend on the contrary to take the accuracy of introspective reports about experience for granted.

Part of why this is problematic, in my view, is the sort of thing John mentions: We don't have very good frameworks for understanding the stream of experience. We don't think about it much, compared to how much we think about the outside world, and inner experience is shy and fast-moving, not holding still to be examined. We tend to reach for analogies to outward things we know better (especially media and technology) but the analogies are imperfect and can be misleading. One example is the fact that most Americans in the 1950s -- falsely, in my view -- thought their dreams were black and white. They over-analogized to movies.

"Q" the Enchanter said...

"most Americans in the 1950s -- falsely, in my view -- thought their dreams were black and white. They over-analogized to movies."

That's interesting and reminds me of a funny story, which might make for an intriguing datum: When I was a kid I used to watch the old Superman series (starring George Reeves). One morning I was watching one of the older episodes, which were in black and white, and said something to my mother like, "See? The S thing is red and yellow." (I was lobbying for her to make me a Superman costume.) It seemed I couldn't not see the costume in color.

Alas, though my mom was struck by my insistence that I was seeing color in the black and white images, she didn't do your kind of rigorous, heterophenomenological cross examination as a control; so I suppose we'll never know whether I really saw in color or whether my prior categorical knowledge of Superman's colors insinuated itself into my phenomenological report.

nat said...

regarding this remark:

"We don't have very good frameworks for understanding the stream of experience. We don't think about it much, compared to how much we think about the outside world, and inner experience is shy and fast-moving, not holding still to be examined."

The first thing to say about this is something philosophers as diverse as Kant, Neitzsche, James, Wittgenstein and Husserl all appear to have noticed (although each reached utterly different conclusions): to speak of "outer" and "inner" experience is perhaps only to traffic in spatial metaphors. Now either metaphors are sufficient
b/c nonfigurative and nonmetaphoric conceptual schemes to describe or delimit the conceptual structure (structure itself an architectonic metaphor) and/or content of consciousness are impossible (b/c to get a "bird's eye view" on our own consciousness via self-reflection is nonsensical), or we can get beyond metaphors to say something intelligible about the nature of self-consciousness. Neitzsche is negative here: he regards the attempts to get "inside" ourselves as so much metaphysical pretension, while Husserl and James are positive: they think there is a way to carve out (another metaphor) a space not wholly psychological from which one can view (another metaphor) one's own stream-of-consciousness.

Wittgenstein might (might) say the very question is unintelligible, or rather that our folk psychological terminology (outer/inner) is phenomenologically sufficient for descriptive purposes.

Thus it may be that the real debate your book with Hurlburt is about is not about consciousness per se, but about the way in which language itself acts as a barrier to phenomenological reduction.

Yout thoughts?

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Wow, great story, Q! I wonder if you actually did have color experience in response to the black and white environmental stimulus, due to your expectations. I wonder if a context could be set up in which adults would be so primed to expect particular colors that they would mistake a black and white stimulus for a colored one. (I'm suspect this wouldn't be too hard to do with very brief presentation times; I'd be more impressed if it could be done with extended presentations.)

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Nat: I agree that "inner" and "outer" are potentially problematic spatial metaphors, and it was only reluctantly that I consented to allow the title of the book to contain the phrase "inner experience". Now I find myself sometimes using the phrase!

I guess I do think that experience is literally "inner" in the sense that it transpires spatially mostly or entirely within the confines of the body -- at least if some sort of materialism is true. But the metaphor of interiority seems to imply more than that -- seems to imply that there's a sense in which experience is more interior than, say, a bone in your toe is, and I'm not sure about that. I have visions of inner homunculi and "Cartesian theaters" (in Dennett's sense)....

The metaphor of "viewing" one's own experience is, I think, even more problematic. I'm not much inclined to think, myself, that one needs a position separate from one's stream of experience to reach "introspective" (another metaphor, but in Latin) judgments about that experience.

Language definitely can be, as you suggest, a barrier to understanding the stream of experience. But it is also an aid. We can't really do philosophy without it, can we?

nat said...

Thanks for your reply. Your reasoning seems sound and ultimately pragmatic on this topic.

This is somewhat off topic, but this question...

"Language definitely can be, as you suggest, a barrier to understanding the stream of experience. But it is also an aid. We can't really do philosophy without it, can we?"

...is one I myself tend to oscillate on.

It may be that "doing philosophy" is just "doing language," that is attempting to untie those semantic, terminological and conceptual knots that naturally occur among the necessary but generally vague words on which so much ordinary language depends. But one sometimes wonders if philosophers, attempting to untie these knots, end up getting knotted up themselves. To dwell on a seemingly simple word or group of related words in a philosophical frame of mind is to discover hidden complexities of meaning that can be both enlightening but also more confusing.

It may be that language is best understood when not dwelled upon, but when one sticks to the surface (another metaphor!), as the interpretive pressure applied to language does not always yield to clearer ways of thinking.

Anyway thanks for your comments.

MT said...

I'm sorry but professional writers...are allowed no more than one error (if any at all) per 1,000 words.

Professional writers deserve professional copyediting.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Hear, hear! I definitely appreciate a good copyeditor myself.