Wednesday, May 15, 2013

What Are You Noticing When You Adjust Your Binoculars?

Maja Spener has written an interesting critique of my 2011 book, Perplexities of Consciousness, for a forthcoming book symposium at Philosophical Studies. My book is an extended argument that people have very poor knowledge of their own conscious experience, even of what one might have thought would be fairly obvious-seeming features of their currently ongoing experience (such as whether it is sparse or full of abundant detail, whether it is visually doubled, whether they have pervasive auditory experience of the silent surfaces around them). Maja argues that we have good introspective knowledge in at least one class of cases: cases in which our skillful negotiation with the world depends on what she calls "introspection-reliant abilities".

Maja provides examples of two such introspection-reliant abilities: choosing the right amount of food to order at a restaurant (which relies on knowledge of how hungry you feel) and adjusting binoculars (which relies on knowing how blurry the target objects look).

Let's consider, then, Maja's binoculars. What, exactly, are you noticing when you adjust your binoculars?

Consider other cases of optical reflection and refraction. I see an oar half-submerged in water. In some sense, maybe, it "looks bent". Is this a judgment about my visual experience of the oar or instead a judgment about the optical structure of my environment? -- or a bit of both? How about when I view myself in the bathroom mirror? Normally during my morning routine, I seem to be reaching judgments primarily about my body and secondarily about the mirror, and hardly at all about my visual experience. (At least, not unless we accept some kind of introspective foundationalism on which all judgments about the outside world are grounded on prior judgments about experience.) Or suppose I'm just out of the shower and the mirror is foggy; in this case my primary judgment seems to concern neither my body nor my visual experience but rather the state of the mirror. Similarly, perhaps, if the mirror is warped -- or if I am looking through a warped window, or a fisheye lens, or using a maladjusted review mirror at night, or looking in a carnival mirror.

If I can reach such judgments directly without antecedent judgments about my visual experience, perhaps analogously in the binoculars case? Or is there maybe instead some interaction among phenomenal judgments about experience and optical or objectual judgments, or some indeterminacy about what sort of judgment it really is? We can create, I'm inclined to think, a garden path between the normal bathroom mirror case (seemingly not an introspective judgment about visual experience) and the blurry binoculars case (seemingly an introspective judgment about visual experience), going either direction, and thus into self-contradiction. (For related cases feeding related worries see my essay in draft The Problem of Known Illusion and the Resemblance of Experience to Reality.)

Another avenue of resistance to the binoculars case might be this. Suppose I'm looking at a picture on a rather dodgy computer monitor and it looks too blue, so I blame the monitor and change the settings. Arguably, I could have done this without introspection: I reach a normal, non-introspective visual judgment that the picture of the baby seal is tinted blue. But I know that baby seals are white. So I blame the monitor and adjust. Or maybe I have a real baby seal in a room with dubious, theatrical lighting. I reach a normal visual assessment of the seal as tinted blue, so I know the lighting much be off and I ask the lighting techs to adjust. Similarly perhaps, then, if I gaze at a real baby seal through blurry binoculars: I reach a normal, non-introspective judgment of the baby seal as blurry-edged. But I know that baby seals have sharp edges. So I blame the binoculars and adjust. Need this be introspective at all, need it concern visual experience at all?

In the same way, maybe, I see spears of light spiking out of streetlamps at night -- an illusion, some imperfection of my eyes or eyewear. When I know I am being betrayed by optics, am I necessarily introspecting, or might I just be correcting my normal non-introspective visual assessments?

This is a nest of issues I am struggling with, making less progress than I would like. Maybe Maja is right, then. But if so, it will take further work to show.


Howard Berman said...

I'm a little unfamiliar with this issue: is the crux self awareness ala Descartes or knowing we know or the difference between true belief and justified belief?
Or did I miss the pont?

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Self-awareness a la Descartes!

Tony Dardis said...

Or Locke.

Rockin' advertisement for your book -- I've got to get it!

Not confident what to say about the binoculars case (or a "focus the camera" case). I am aware that the image I'm seeing of the seagull out there is blurrier than I want. That's all about what's in the world (outside visual experience). But I'm aware of it because my visual experience is not what I want it to be. I think I'm with you in not wanting to say, I know the image is blurry because I know that my visual experience is blurry. But I'm finding it difficult to see how to say that I'm visually aware of the blurry image without saying something about the character of my visual experience.

Callan S. said...

I'd say the food and binoculars are simply learned adjustments. If you forced a baby to always see things blurry, right into adulthood, the put a binocular before them that is already focused on the object it's aimed at, might they adjust the dial to unfocus it? Or what we call unfocusing anyway - for them, they would be focusing it.

Scott Bakker said...

I actually think you're misinterpreting your own book, Eric! I never took you to be making any gross generalizations so far as raising topic-specific instances of introspective unreliability that may or may not generalize vis a vis all introspection, but nevertheless contradict the prevailing, traditional generalization: that introspection provides privileged access to its objects. Tearing down an ill-advised generalization doesn't mean replacing it with a new one.

Certainly our capacity to introspect, given the metabolic expense it likely entails, is the result of some grab-bag of metacognitive adaptations - heuristics. But as Hohwy persuasively argues, we have no reason to presume that any of the philosophical uses of introspection lie within the 'problem ecologies' of those heuristics.

Maja's examples don't suggest anything more than the fact that introspection, when deployed in certain problem contexts, functions quite well. This is pretty much what we would expect, just as we would expect that efficacy to sharply fall off in problem contexts (like the theoretical cognition of the mind/soul/being-in-the-world) where we are clearly outside any problem context faced by our mutating ancestors.

I guess I just don't see where or how PoC rules out the possibility of introspection doing ANY work...

Or was I reading you too charitably?!

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for the thoughtful comments, folks!

@ Tony: Right, I share approximately the same set of confusions about the case. I don't mean to be presenting a clean interpretation, since part of me is pulled by Maja's idea that we know what our visual experience is and adjust in light of it. But I also don't want to *just* sign up for that. I mean to be showing some avenues for resisting Maja on this point -- producing (in my own case) indecision, not a clean theory on the other side.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Callan: Maybe so. Also, of course, animals focus their eyes and plan how much food to take or store, without what we might think of as introspection. But something in me is still attracted to part of Maja's picture.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

@ Scott: No, you were reading my book right, and perhaps my post came off a bit wrong. In the larger context of my full written reply to Maja (not yet circulating -- maybe tomorrow), my position might be clearer.

I think Maja *might* be right about these cases; and I very much like her idea of looking for introspection-reliant abilities as a possible wedge into the question of introspective reliability. Such abilities could be honed and selected for, and then success in those tasks could be corroborating evidence of our accuracy that is nicely different from intuitive appeals to subjective feelings of confidence.

And I don't think introspection is impossible or always and forever unreliable.

But I also do see difficulties with Maja's examples. Despite the appeal of the idea in the abstract, when one pushes on the details it gets squirrely! I'm still not quite sure what to think about these cases....

Callan S. said...

Callan: Maybe so. Also, of course, animals focus their eyes and plan how much food to take or store, without what we might think of as introspection.

They don't?

I dunno - take a horrible example of an animal gnawing its own limb off to get out of a trap. The mutually conflicting pains, partly quite clearly attributed to its own actions (or so I assume) - surely there'd be something inspected there, if not introspected? I'm sure animals deal with a number of competing and conflicting agendas/emotions as well. After all, why do we adjust the bionoculars at all (let alone how we do it)?

Okay, a bit off topic!