Thursday, May 22, 2008

The Unreliability of Naive Introspection...

... that is, my essay of that title, is now out in Philosophical Review. I confess to some pride: The essay is the culmination of years of thought and discussion, including a series of more narrowly focused essays on the same general theme; and Philosophical Review is the most selective and prestigious of all philosophy journals.

A certain very eminent philosopher (who will go unnamed) told me that he thought the essay was perhaps "the chattiest essay ever published in Phil Review". I'm not quite sure what to make of that remark....

Here are the first two paragraphs [footnotes excluded]:

Current conscious experience is generally the last refuge of the skeptic against uncertainty. Though we might doubt the existence of other minds, that the sun will rise tomorrow, that the earth existed five minutes ago, that there's any "external world" at all, even whether two and three make five, still we can know, it's said, the basic features of our ongoing stream of experience. Descartes espouses this view in his first two Meditations. So does Hume, in the first book of the Treatise, and -- as I read him -- Sextus Empiricus. Other radical skeptics like Zhuangzi and Montaigne, though they appear to aim at very general skeptical goals, don't grapple specifically and directly with the possibility of radical mistakes about current conscious experience. Is this an unmentioned exception to their skepticism? Unintentional oversight? Do they dodge the issue for fear that it is too poor a field on which to fight their battles? Where is the skeptic who says: We have no reliable means of learning about our own ongoing conscious experience, our current imagery, our inward sensations -- we are as in the dark about that as about anything else, perhaps even more in the dark?

Is introspection (if that's what's going on here) just that good? If so, that would be great news for the blossoming -- or should I say recently resurrected? -- field of consciousness studies. Or does contemporary discord about consciousness -- not just about the physical bases of consciousness but seemingly about the basic features of experience itself -- point to some deeper, maybe fundamental, elusiveness that somehow escaped the notice of the skeptics, that perhaps partly explains the first, ignoble death of consciousness studies a century ago?

[To continue, see the official Phil Review website, or the version on my own website.]

9 comments:

Felipe Leon said...

Congratulations, Eric! I remember liking an earlier draft of that paper very much (despite the fact that it was devastating to my own views on introspection at the time!).

MT said...

Mazel tov!

Genius said...

"I'm not quite sure what to make of that remark"

I think it is a compliment to you that you can publish a chatty essay - it must have excellent content (well even more so than what is minimally required to publish in the PR)

Genius said...

I just read it.
I guess the chattiness helps to draw you into all the thought experiments - Anyway I suggest everyone read it.

xsplat said...

Eric, I might be outside your circle of credentialed relevance, but I have a lifelong interest in the Hard question, and appreciate how you approach it.

Have you read Susans website (sorry, too lazy to repost the link), and what are your view on time dilation?

Time dilation is a major clue about consciousness, and I feel you are a bit off the mark in your emphasis on thick and thin, black and white yes or no consciousness.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for the kind remarks, folks!

xsplat: I really don't know anything about time dilation, and I'm not sure which Susan you mean (Hurley? Blackmore?). Do you mean the phenomenon of relativity theory or something more purely psychological?

Josh Weisberg said...

Congrats--great stuff, a culmination of lots of work. As for its "chattiness," if they mean it's not full of quasi-logical language and so forth, than take that as a high compliment. We analytic philosophers write badly enough.

Badda Being said...

A certain very eminent philosopher (who will go unnamed) told me that he thought the essay was perhaps "the chattiest essay ever published in Phil Review". I'm not quite sure what to make of that remark....

I think you should write a serious paper on that.

xsplat said...

Yes, Susan Blackmore http://www.susanblackmore.co.uk/

I had mentioned in a comment on another of your posts that she has written about time-dilation and how that relates to our introspective notion of nowness. She goes so far as to claim that there is no now, that it is an illusion.

I had also mentioned the example of not being aware that we were aware of something, until it is pointed out to us. We may be reading a book, and someone asks us if we heard the car drive by, and then we realize that yes, we did hear it.

Your article points out that introspection doesn't give clear answers to if we were conscious of something or not, what our motivations were, and what emotions are and mean.

The reason I mentioned Susan Blackmore in relation to that question is that she highlights the ambiguousness of time. She would agree with you that introspection does not give an accurate portrayal of time. We pull from memory a storyline, as it is relevant to the situation, and those pieces we call linear. We don't know that we heard the car until someone asked us.

And that being so, we have to include sub-conscious thought processes as part of conscioius processes. Introspection draws on and amplifies and feeds back into unconsccious processes. Consciousness is a fluid gradation, not a yes or no. And it makes perfect sense that the unconscious processes may be at odds with the conscious ones - we might be unknowing or wrong about why we want something. And of course consciousness is not a monolith - we can have conflicting emotions. Some of which will be more conscious than others.

So I agree that introspection doesn't and can't clearly point to what our experience is, because our experience is composed of what it is not. It is composed of unconscious and semi-conscious processes. The problem arises from two mistaken assumptions 1) that awareness either is, or isn't, and 2) that it is composed of nothing but what we are aware of.