Friday, April 04, 2014

A Negative, Pluralist Account of Introspection

What is introspection? Nothing! Or rather, almost everything.

A long philosophical tradition, going back at least to Locke, has held that there is a distinctive faculty by means of which we know our own minds -- or at least our currently ongoing stream of conscious experience, our sensory experience, our imagery, our emotional experience and inner speech. "Reflection" or "inner sense" or introspection is, in this common view, a single type of process, yielding highly reliable (maybe even infallibly certain) knowledge of our own minds.

Critics of this approach to introspection have tended to either:

(a.) radically deny the existence of the human capacity to discover a stream of inner experience (e.g., radical behaviorism);

(b.) attribute our supposedly excellent self-knowledge of experience to some distinctive process other than introspection (e.g., expressivist or transparency approaches, on which "I think that..." is just a dongle added to a judgment about the outside world, no inward attention or scanning required); or

(c.) be pluralistic in the sense that we have one introspective mechanism to scan our beliefs, another to scan our visual experiences, another to scan our emotional experiences....

But here's another possibility: Introspective judgments arise from a range of processes that is diverse both within-case (i.e., lots of different processes feeding any one judgment) and between-case (i.e., very different sets of processes contributing to the judgment on different occasions) and yet also allows that introspective judgments arise partly through a relatively direct sensitivity to the conscious experiences that they are judgments about.

Consider an analogy: You're at a science conference or a high school science fair, quickly trying to take in a poster. You have no dedicated faculty of poster-taking-in. Rather, you deploy a variety of cognitive resources: visually appreciating the charts, listening to the presenter's explanation, simultaneously reading pieces of the poster, charitably bringing general knowledge to bear, asking questions and listening to responses both for overt content and for emotional tone.... It needn't be the same set of resources every time (you needn't even use vision: sometimes you can just listen, if you're in the mood or visually impaired). Instead, you flexibly, opportunistically use a diverse range of resources, dedicated to the question of what are the main ideas of this poster, in a way that aims to be relatively directly sensitive to the actual content of the poster.

Introspection, in my view, is like that. If I want to know what my visual experience is right now, or my emotional experience, or my auditory imagery, I engage not one cognitive process that was selected or developed primarily for the purpose of acquiring self-knowledge; rather I engage a diversity of processes that were primarily selected or developed for other purposes. I look outward at the world and think about what, given that world, it would make sense for me to be experiencing right now; but also I am attuned to the possibility that I might not be experiencing that, ready to notice clues pointing a different direction. I change and shape my experience in the very act of thinking about it, often (but not always) in a way that improves the match between my experience and my judgment about it. I have memories (short- and long-term), associations, things that it seems more natural and less natural to say, views sometimes important to my self-image about what types of experience I tend to have, either in general or under certain conditions, emotional reactions that color or guide my response, spontaneous speech impulses that I can inhibit or disinhibit. Etc. And any combination of these processes, and others besides, can swirl together to precipitate a judgment about my ongoing stream of experience.

Now the functional set-up of the mind is such that some processes' outputs are contingent upon the outputs of other processes. Pieces of the mind stay in sync with what is going on in other pieces, keep a running bead on each other, with varying degrees of directness and accuracy. And so also introspective judgments will be causally linked to a wide variety of other cognitive processes, including normally both relatively short and relatively circuitous links from the processes that give rise to the conscious experiences that the introspective judgments are judgments about. But these kinds of contingencies imply no distinctive introspective self-scanning faculty; it's just how the mind must work, if it is to be a single coherent mind, and it happens preconsciously in systems no-one thinks of as introspective, e.g., in the early visual system, as well as farther downstream.

[For further exposition of this view, with detailed examples, see my essay Introspection, What?]


howard berman said...

servuMight the act of introspection alter the content observed, thus complicating introspection regardless of its cause? Or is that view held by the views summarized?
Further are there different kinds of introspection matching different levels of awareness?
Finally, does any consciousness require introspection?

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Howard, I do think that introspection can affect the process introspected and that there are different kinds (though not cleanly separable). I'm inclined to doubt that consciousness requires introspection, since on my account if introspection, it's a process aimed at reaching a conscious judgment about experience, and we don't often do that.

Nick Byrd said...

Hi Eric. Another fun post!

I noticed you never mentioned introspection of our reasoning/inference/judgment. I wonder: would you say all of this about introspection of these cognitive phenomena as well?

howard berman said...

On your account, is introspection a glance at conscious thoughts or unconscious thoughts,
as well?

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Nick: Thanks for the kind words. I think we can only introspect what is conscious, and only the surface as reasoning/inference/judgment is conscious. Perhaps enough of the surface -- after all we see apples despite seeing only their surfaces -- but the issue is complex.

Howard: No, only the conscious, on my view.

Howie Berman said...

Do you believe self knowledge is rooted in introspection? Intuitively we or I believe that self knowledge is possible and that some know themselves better than others know themselves.
Have you treated this topic at all?

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Yes, I've written quite a bit on it -- for example this:

Scott Bakker said...

For me this picture of fractionate, heuristic capacities is the only kind of introspective capacity that makes any kind of evolutionary or biomechanical sense.

Given what we know, 'consciousness' is in the business of selecting, stabilizing, and broadcasting information for the purposes of problem-solving/facilitating behaviour. This means that conscious metacognition has to continually run the guantlet of the 'cognitive bottleneck': All the information available for the conscious cognition of conscious experience/cognition is 'post-bottleneck.' In addition to the limit on the kinds of information that can be selected for conscious consumption, there's a limit to what can be done with that information. Given the sheer complexity of the brain, there is no way it can solve for itself the way it solves for its environment. So even though human brains belong to the very environments they are adapted to behaviourally solve, they will always constitute a kind of structural blind spot, a point where the powerful machinery of environmental problem solving is largely useless. Human metacognitive capacity, on this picture, will consist in a series of 'specialized hacks,' heuristics geared to narrow problem-ecologies.

This is why 'conscious, deliberative metacognition,' philosophical introspective reflection, has proven so treacherous. The above picture is bound to generate any number of illusions, like the 'simple faculty illusion,' where the lack of information pertaining to the numerous tools in the cognitive and metacognitive toolbox generates the assumption of unity; or the 'sufficiency illusion,' where the lack information tagging the adequacy of the information available leads to a generalized form of what Kahneman calls 'What-you-see-is-all-there-is,' or WYSIATI, the sense that our metacognitive intuitions tell the whole story - Cartesian self-transparency. And the list goes on and on.

Blind Brain Theory in a nutshell!

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Yes, Scott -- I'm very sympathetic with all of that, and nicely put. My one main hesitation is that I'm not sure how we decide between a "selecting/broadcasting" view of consciousness and a more liberal view on which even unselected/unbroadcast processes can also be part of the stream of consciousness.

Scott Bakker said...

This is definitely a problematic feature of GNWS, the way the 'workspace' metaphor does disservice to the transactional complexities involved. What we have is something more like a 'loopiness' when it comes to deliberative cognition, where the 'stream of consciousness' pertains to the serial, post-cognitive bottleneck phase of what is a far vaster, and perhaps, as you think, hopelessly tangled process.

But this is where Dehaene's notion of conscious access proves useful: as treacherous as the conscious/nonconscious information divide proves to be, it remains the case that some things we can report, and some things we can't. To the extent that conscious cognition is restricted to what we can report, and that what it can report is very likely heuristically tailored to problems other than those posed by philosophers, then it seems safe to suppose that the bulk of philosophy, traditionally speaking, has been committing Spinoza's sin of theorizing the condition (biology) in terms belonging to the conditioned (the implicit, the tacit, the unconscious, the mind, the soul, etc.). It's hard not to see spooky functionalism as a form of auto-anthropomorphizing!

Either way, things don't look good for the old way of doing things, *given* the divide. Is there any reasons/research problematizing the divide understood in these terms?

Anonymous said...

Interesting ideas. However, the brain is able to think about thinking, talk about talking, understand understanding. All of these are underlain by a comparison process going on in our cortex. We can compare a comparison and compare that to comparing a comparison.

By this process there is no contradiction in doing so. The logic of the process allows it, endlessly, like looking into two mirrors facing each other altho slightly offset in angle. We are given the same, consistent, endless views by this process.

The Comparison Process has that capability. It can look at itself, because each of these tasks is consistent with it. Endlessly recursive and re-iterative it is.
It's not at all inconsistent to look at ourselves, either. Just another form of comparison process.

There is no exclusion involved, no "This sentence is false." It's internally self-consistent, too. It has its own logic. That's why it can create its own self-consistent systems, such as math, language, and endlessly so.
You might check out Le Chanson Sans Fin on

Herb Wiggins, MD. Clinical Neurosciences