Thursday, September 18, 2008

Six Ways to Know Your Mind

Philosophers often provide accounts of self-knowledge as though we knew our own minds either entirely or predominantly in just one way (Jesse Prinz is a good exception to the rule, though). But let me count the ways (saving the fun ones for the end).

(1.) Self-observation. Here's an old joke: Q.: How do behaviorists greet each other? A.: "You're fine. How am I?" Writers in the behaviorist tradition stressed the importance of observing your behavior to assess your own mental condition. Gilbert Ryle reportedly said, how do I know what I think until I hear what I have to say? Or: I find myself asking the server for the apple pie; I conclude that I must prefer the apple to the cherry. Every philosopher thinks we can do this, of course. Psychologists such as Bem and Nisbett have stressed (counterintuitively) the centrality of this mode of self-knowledge. I think they're right that it's too easily underrated. [Update: Let me fold all "third-person" methods, such as being told about yourself by someone else or applying a textbook theory, into this category, even though, as Pete Mandik points out in the comments, they're not strictly "self-observation".]

(2.) Introspection. We cast our mental eye inward, as it were, and discern our mental goings-on. This "inner eye" metaphor has been much maligned, and obviously there are differences between external perception and introspection -- but at least for some mental states (I think, especially, conscious states), some quasi-sensory introspective mechanism plausibly plays a role, if we treat the analogy to perception with a light touch: We detect in ourselves, relatively directly and non-inferentially, some pre-existing mental state.

(3.) Self-expression. Wittgenstein suggested that we might learn to say "I'm in pain!" as a replacement for crying -- and just as we don't need to do any introspection or behavioral observation to wince or cry when we burn ourselves in the kitchen, so also we might ejaculate "that hurts!" without any prior introspection or behavioral observation. Or a young child might demand: "I want ice cream!" She's not introspecting first, presumably, and detecting a pre-existing desire for ice cream. Nor is she watching her behavior. Yet she is right: She does want ice cream.

(4.) Self-fulfillment. The thought that I am thinking is necessarily true whenever it occurs. So is the thought that I am thinking of a pink elephant, assuming that attributing myself that thought is enough for me to qualify as thinking of a pink elephant. Again, no detection or observation required. I can make this stuff up on the fly and still be right about it. For some reason, Descartes thought this was important. My own view is that it's about as important as the fact that whenever you say, in semaphore, that you are holding two flags, you're right. (Well, okay, let me moderate that a little: For some mental states it may be an interesting fact that the self-ascription implies the existence of the state -- for example if it's not possible to believe that you believe that P without also thereby at least half-believing that P.)

(5.) Simple derivation. I adopt the following inference rule: If P is true, conclude that I believe that P. This rule works surprisingly well (as Alex Byrne has pointed out). Dodgier but still useable as a rule of thumb: From X would be good, conclude that I want X all else being equal.

(6.) Self-shaping. A romantic novice is out on his first date. He blurts out, simply because it sounds good, "I'm the type of guy who buys women flowers". At the same time, perhaps just as he is finishing up that claim, he successfully resolves from then on to be the kind of guy who buys women flowers. No detection, no observation, no self-expression of a previously existing state, no simple self-fulfillment, no derivational rule. His self-ascription is true because he makes it true as he says it. Victoria McGeer and Richard Moran have developed versions of this view, but neither quite as starkly as this example suggests. But I suspect that much of what we say about ourselves (both publicly and in private) is bluster that we find ourselves committed to living up to. This self-shaping model works pretty well for imagery reports too.

Six ways. That's it. Am I missing any? (By the way, so-called "transparency" views, the object of much recent philosophical attention, can be wedded to any combination of 3-6, and are not by themselves positive accounts of self-knowledge.)


Pete said...

Hi Eric,

What do you think of these?

(7.) Testimony. Someone else who knows about this sort of stuff and I have independent reason to trust tells me that I have such-and-such mental state.

(8.) Theoretical posit. I posit the having of such and such mental states to explain something or other. This need not necessarily degenerate into (1.) since I may be trying to explain something other than behavior. Perhaps I'm trying to explain some other mental state. Like I posit that I have nonconceptual sensory states to explain how it is that I have such and such states of perceptual knowledge. (8.) likely works in concert with (7.) since the theoretical positing is likely a communal affair. But it's not obviously impossible for a Robinson Caruso lone genius to cook up folk psychology on his own.


Pete Mandik

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Right! I meant to include all these sort of "third-person" methods in (1), but I see that I ended up focusing on self-observation more narrowly construed. Thanks for catching this and pointing it out!

Neil said...

I'm all for simple derivation, except that I don't know how to apply it. "Is X true", and "do I believe X" are, from the first person point of view almost the same question (which is why simple derivation works). But that means - doesn't it - that finding out whether X is true is no easier than finding out whether I believe X.

Anibal said...

In the Festschrift to Paul Chruchland, Pete Mandik make a suggestion (originated from Paul himself) of introspecting our brain states as such (brain states)

Why not a ninth way (maybe it is an extension of the first way):
(9.) the improvement of our self-knowledge by means of third-person methods (aka, "neurofeedback" that is nowadays in vogue:Christopher deCharms)

enahmias said...

Don't be so coy, Eric. The behaviorist joke is better in this form:
Two behaviorists finish having sex and one looks to the other and says, 'It was good for you. How was it for me?'

Nice post. Another type of feedback that falls mostly in 1 is reading things we write, from diary entries to academic papers to shopping lists. I'm sometimes quite surprised to learn what I say I believe.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for the continuing comments, folks!

Yes, Neil, I agree that they're the same from the first-person perspective -- that's why the derivation works! However, in a way the first person conclusion is easier. After all, even if I'm wrong about the truth of X, I'll still probably be right that I believe that X.

Hi, Anibal! Yes, I cast the first one too narrowly. I really meant to encompass all third-person methods in its scope. That's not to say that there aren't some interesting differences between different third-person methods of knowing.

Thanks, Eddy, I hadn't heard that variation of the joke! I agree that seeing what you've written is as important as hearing what you say -- at least for us philosophers cooped up in the office all day, writing philosophy!

Pete Mandik said...

Anibal and Eric,

For what it's worth, I'd stick the Churchlandish access to one's own brain states in with (2.), not (1.). On the view I develop in the paper Anibal cites, all introspection involves the application of concepts and there's nothing *more* third-personal to subsuming an inner state under the concept /quale/ or /sense datum/ than the concept /40hz oscillation of pyramidal cell activity/ or /edge-detector activation in area V1/.

BTW, Eric, I'm curious as to why you want to lump so much stuff in with (1.) and under the heading of "third-personal". Should we conclude that you think (2.)-(6.) are all first-personal? (I'm having a hard time seeing that these various means of self-knowledge of the mental line up in neat first- vs. third-personal piles.)

pete Mandik said...

Argh! Though sometimes less is more, that "*more*" should have been a "*less*".

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Hi Pete! Sorry I slipped there. I agree that the kind of stuff you and the Churchlands are talking about is more (2)-ish than (1)-ish. (And I think I basically agree with the point. Biofeedback provides an interesting source of examples.)

On the 1st vs 3rd person: It's not my favorite locution, though I do fall into using it. But my thought is that (2)-(5) are all methods that one can use only to access one's own currently ongoing or recently past mental states. My thought with (1) was to embrace all those methods that are essentially similar in kind to methods by which one could learn about others' mental states or one's own mental states in the medium- to long-term past.

But even this is not exceptionless: If you have enough control over someone else's mental states, you can do versions of (6) and maybe (4). (The mother who says, "my five-year-old son loves baseball", which he hears and accepts and thereby makes true. The person who shouts in my ear: "You're having auditory experience as of a loud noise!")

Do you see things as messier than this?

Pete Mandik said...

Thanks, Eric. I think we are pretty close in our views of how messy things are.

Some additional thoughts.

Re (3.): As I understand the Wittgensteinian suggestion, (3.) wouldn't count as accessing or learning about one's mental states. If "I'm in pain" doesn't have the logical form of a *proposition* like *there is a thing and it is true of this thing that it is in pain* or *it is true of NN that NN is in pain*, but instead is literally is tantamount to an outburst like "Fudge!" or "Sweet Googly-Moogly!", then I haven't thereby expressed any knowledge, first personal or otherwise, by my utterance.

Re: (5.). P is true therefore S believes that P is not a terrible rule to apply to some S's other than yourself.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Yes, thanks Pete!

That's the standard interpretation of Wittgenstein. Maybe it's right. (I'm not sure there's a fact of the matter, though! Did Wittgenstein have a definite positive view underneath those fragments?) Other expressivists like Bar-On explicitly embrace the view that the utterances have propositional content.

On (5): Of course there will be conditions under which it works fairly well for others (as you point out) and conditions under which it works horribly. Has anybody worked out a clear statement of those conditions?

Josh Weisberg said...

Interesting discussion!

I think the 1st/3rd person divide may be messier. If we become very skilled at self-observation, we may do it spontaneously, in a seemingly noninferential way. In that way we'd "detect in ourselves, relatively directly and non-inferentially, some pre-existing mental state." Or so it would seem to the subject. Thus, 1 and 2 might collapse. Likewise with Pete's #8, and, I think, with with #6, if I understand that correctly.

The point is, if it seems direct to the subject, isn't that enough to count as 1st person? Maybe it's just seemingly direct vs. indirect that matters for the distinction, and that looks much more fluid than a hard 1st/3rd split.

About #4: I don't think much in the way of knowledge can be squeezed out of this method, beyond the cogito. Figuring out which thoughts I am having, what their content is, opens up a space for error. It takes work to get your thoughts clear and distinct. I might think that I'm thinking of a pink elephant and later realize that I was thinking of a red elephant or a pink woolly mammoth. Can't that happen? (I'm not sure what "half-believing" is here--can half beliefs give us knowledge?)


kvond said...

"enahmias said...
Don't be so coy, Eric. The behaviorist joke is better in this form:
Two behaviorists finish having sex and one looks to the other and says, 'It was good for you. How was it for me?'"

It is interesting, no matter what you feel about the validity of its terms, this "joke" is exactly the discourse of psychoanalysis and its various derivatives.

Is the joke meant to expose the ludicrous, unrealistic tenets of Behaviorism? If so, one has to at least deal the substantive experiences of coherence in the undermining of the incorrigibility of lst person report in such real interactions.

"Doctor, I had a really nice visit with my mother, it made me so incredibly happy, but maybe you should tell me how I experienced it"

It is quite often it seems, in cases of intersubjective reflection that we can "realize" what we actually were feeling through the 3rd person observations of others.

kvond said...


Also I have some problem with Wittgenstein's grafting of "I'm in pain"onto the act of crying. This strikes me as a backdoor attempt to fuse "reasons" to "causes," a distinction he otherwise is at pains to try to keep distinct.