Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Introspection and Expression

I've been working (for years, I'm afraid) on an essay called The Unreliability of Naive Introspection. A common reaction to the essay's title is this: What, We don't know what we believe and how we're feeling? That's nuts!

I might be nuts, but I'm not that nuts. I do think that we're fairly good judges of what we think and how we feel. I can still hold the view that our introspective judgments are generally unreliable because I don't think such judgments are grounded in introspection. Instead, I'd call them expressive.

Here's the idea. When someone asks you "What do you think about X?" You don't cast your eye (metaphorically) inward. You don't attend to your experience or think about your mind. Instead, you express what's on your mind. You reflect on X, perhaps, and allow yourself to render aloud your judgment on the matter. This is a very different process from thinking about what your visual experience is right now (e.g., whether it's fuzzy 15-degrees from the center of fixation) or from trying to decide whether your present thought is happening in inner speech and if so whether that inner speech involves auditory imagery, motor imagery, and/or something else. In the latter case, you are attempting to discern something about your ongoing stream of experience. In the former, you're not. My beef is only with the latter sort of judgment.

Wittgenstein famously characterized sentences like "I'm in pain" or "that hurts" as just a complex way of saying "ow!" or grimacing -- in other words, as an expression in the strict sense in which a facial expression is an expression -- a more or less spontaneous manifestation of one's mental state. But even pain we can reflect on introspectively. If the doctor asks exactly what the pain in my finger is like, I can attend to my experience and say "well, it's kind of a dull throbbing in the middle of the knuckle". The difference between introspective judgment and expressive self-ascription is the difference between such reflective descriptions and a spontaneous "that hurts!"

But maybe it's not fair to compare the accuracy of a very general self-ascription ("that hurts") with a rather specific introspection ("shooting pain from here to here"). In the case of pain, I suspect, very general introspections ("there is pain") will tend to be fairly accurate.

However, self-ascriptive expressions of belief, unlike pain, can be pretty specific: "I think that fly will be landing on the ice-cream shortly" -- similarly with desire, intention, and many other propositional attitudes (for a definition of "propositional attitudes", see the second paragraph here). I doubt that I am similarly specifically accurate my self-reflective introspections about what exactly my stream of experience is as I think about that fly.

Emotion commonly lends itself both to spontaneous self-ascription and to reflective introspection. When someone says "I'm depressed" or "I'm angry", it's often hard to know how much this is expression vs. introspection. But in adding detail, people tend either to go expressive, treating the emotion as a propositional attitude ("I'm angry that such-and-such") or to go more strictly introspective ("I'm experiencing my anger as a certain kind of tenseness in the middle of my chest"). It's only the last sort of judgment I would argue to be unreliable.


Anonymous said...

Hi Eric,

I'm pretty suspicious of there being some "phenomenal experience" at all. At least if that means something that should be set apart from our attending to things which are separate from us(intentionality in general), and to be about some private things. (What does it mean to things to be private? That only I have access to it? If I'm only person that I see some tree, is that tree private?)

Even when we attend to pain, or feeling in our stomach, those things seems to me appear as separate to me, not as something "in my mind". Of course those appear in my body, and I do usually have privileged access, but I can imagine people sharing a pain (like in this post).

And it seems to me that the whole "introspection" idea depends on the idea that there is some private experience. So, because of that I'm not very comfortable with the idea of "introspection" too.

So I'm inclined to agree that what you call unreliable is really unreliable, but for me it is just because it is yet another judgment about things.

Connected to this, I don't think "seems" has some phenomenal sense, and is used only to report the judgment made (while making that judgment), and as such is infallible.

Sorry for the long comment. :)

Anonymous said...

Hi Eric

Isn’t introspection simply meta-cognition? That is, the ability to reflect on one’s stream of consciousness?
Now, if it is, I believe your expressive statements is nothing more than simply spontaneous expressions of the same species as grimacing when your in pain and saying “ow!”.
This, it seems to me, would make expressive statements of the sort “I think X is good” very strange. This would then be a sort of spontaneous statement that you blurb out when asked “what do you think about X”, which would itself be a spontaneous statement. On this account reflection isn’t needed.
This, I believe, is obviously false. We are capable of introspection! Thus I reject your idea that there are expressive statements which require reflection. Either they are grounded in introspection or they do not exist!

Sam said...

Hi Eric,

As before, I continue to resist my old philosophy of mind teacher’s intuitions. Honestly Eric, I’ll tell you why I just don’t see what you are saying. It was an experience I had while studying Husserl’s philosophy. At first, I was very confused and skeptical about Husserl’s ideas. A philosophy without presuppositions, rigorously scientific, the epoche, etc. It was all a bit much.
One day I read an excellent exposition of Husserl’s description of intentionality, something about consciousness always being consciousness of something. Something very basic and many philosophers of all stripes agree on it. But I just reflected upon it over a couple of day and then one day, I remember feeling great because, I GOT IT. Eureka…it made sense and I saw, by doing my own thought experiments that I could not cease being conscious by will and that consciousness is always consciousness of something. Now, I know this raise a bunch of problems for many. But I made a discovery which ultimately led me to follow Husserl further and test more of his ideas. Husserl had shown me something about reality, as he set out to do, “To the things themselves,” he used to say.

I guess the basic struggle within philosophy is two things:

1) Appearances hide reality
2) Appearances reveal reality

I side with the second. I think the appearances, even when we attend to the nature of mind itself, reveal reality. If you strip away yourself and your individual mind with the epoche, you can get there.

I may not be getting at exactly what you are saying here, but I guess I do not see how we can make stronger statements about the structure of consciousness without a reliable access to the contents of our own minds.


Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for the interesting comments, folks! (and I didn't find any to be objectionably long, Tanasije)

Tanasije, thanks for pushing me a bit on "private". I think if there's a tree that only I can see -- maybe because it's locked away in a cave to which only I have access, it is my private tree, in an ordinary sense of private. If there's an inner monologue that only I can here it's private in just the same sense. Why not? I don't want to build too much into the idea of privacy here (and I definitely think Ryle wouldn't do so).

I agree about "seems". It's only philosophers who give it a phenomenal sense.

Can the experience of observing external things be private in the relevant sense? I think so: If I'm seeing streaks coming out of the streetlamps at night or if I'm seeing illusory motion in a visual demonstration, then although my eyes are turned toward what's "out there" I'm reporting on my private experience of it. So also, only less obviously, in the normal case, I'd say. Why not?

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Asger, I'm not sure I understand your comment. I don't think you need to reflect on your own mind to say "I think the Republicans will win". Are you denying that? I also think we are capable of introspection -- but that's not usually what's going on when we report our propositional attitudes. *Sometimes* we do so reflectively, but it tends to be in problematic cases where we aren't reliable, e.g., when we're thinking about what our patterns of outward behavior show about what we really believe or desire or when we deliberately conjure up a scene in imagination and think about what our reaction to it would be.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Sam, I guess I'm still in the first stage of finding Husserl's program "a bit much", as you say!

I wouldn't endorse either (1) or (2). In fact, I don't like the language of "appearances" at all -- as though there are these things that stand between us and the world that we need to get it right about to understand the world. I think that's a leftover from the veil of perception idea. (See here.)

I do agree with your final point: If we don't have reliable access to our stream of experience, that creates serious problems for studying consciousness. Unfortunately, I think we're stuck with those serious problems! But that would nicely explain why consciousness studies is such as mess and has made so little progress since the 19th century -- don't you think?

Anonymous said...

If by private it is meant just that one has a privileged access to the thing, I'm OK with that. I guess I wanted to argue against private experience as something "in the mind", but i guess you agree on that point?

Also, what I might have problem is with "intro" in introspection, when applied to such things as "clarity of visual field". You deny there is veil of perception, but seems to me "visual field" implies some such thing. I mean, when talking about clarity/vagueness of visual field, it sounds as if there is this thing - visual field, and that it has some properties across it.

But why not discuss the situation in "externalist" reading. Why not say that when things are in such and such position related to the direction of our eyes, we don't see them clearly? Same if there is a fog, or it is dark. The clarity would then be property of the seeing, and not of some "visual field". In such view, those unreliabilities of introspection would be just regular unreliabilities about the world.

Anonymous said...

I am in fact denying that you can utter the sentence ”I think the republicans will win” without reflection. When queried about who will win the election, one cannot answer without reflecting on the issue. Your propositional attitudes are ‘reflected’ statements, in the sense that they stem from one’s stream of consciousness that one access through reflection/introspection.
Now, there is one sense in which one is obviously saying “I think the republicans will win” without reflection. Namely, if it is not a propositional attitude. For example if one is reading the statement from a queue card.

Brad C said...

Hi Eric,

Have you taken a look at any of Alan Wallace's work on the need to engage in extensive training to be able to accurately perceive and describe phenomenal experience. In particular he thinks that Eastern meditation training can help us advance the science of consciousness for just this reason.

I wonder what you think of that possibility.

Katsuki Sekida (in his book "Zen Training*) raises doubts about Husserl's *method* for related reasons. He thinks it is a mistake to try to better perceive our phenomenal experience by understanding complicated reasoning and mental exertions such as those Husserl suggests. Instead, he recommends Zen training. If I remember correctly Iris Murdoch has an interesting, if typically murky, discussion of his criticisms of Husserl in *Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals*.

Clark Goble said...

This seems right. If someone asks you how you feel typically (although not always) you don't think about it at all. You just state it. This is, as I see it, analogous to how when seeing a particular word we know its meaning without thinking about it.

Now I think we do contemplate in some cases. Just as in some cases we think about what a word means. But it isn't at all clear that this is some unmediated introspection at all. Rather I suspect its simply more of the same sort of thing. Thinking and having a reaction.

I don't think this entails, as Tanasije suggests, that there is no phenomenal experience. (Depending upon what one means by that) Just that the nature of phenomenal experience is a process rather than some unmediated access and knowledge of a state.

I think, as Asger suggests, that introspection is just meta-congition. What I think is at question is whether meta-cogntion is really that different from cognition. I don't think it is. It's reflexive but that's merely due to the topic and not the kind of cognition. Put an other way I don't think meta-cognition is some higher level of consciousness. It's just thinking, the way we always think, about a different topic.

Clark Goble said...

I guess the basic struggle within philosophy is two things:

1) Appearances hide reality
2) Appearances reveal reality

Become a Heideggarian. Then you'll think both are true.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks, folks, for continuing with your interesting comments!

Tanasije: What I disagree with in the veil of perception view is that we need to have any kind of knowledge about our experience to know something about the outside world. I do accept the idea that there is a visual field with properties that differ from the properties that objects have (for example, it may be blurry or have streaks in it due to cataracts). Would you disagree with that?

Asger: It's one thing to reflect on the Republican's chances before answering and another think to reflect on one's mind before answering. Do you think we have to do the latter? (I'm not sure we even have to do the former.) If it's only the former, then I don't think it's properly called "introspection".

Brad: Thanks for the tips! I haven't read the Wallace, but as it happens I just now (here at the SPP) came out of a talk by Evan Thompson that discussed that very same issue. I think there may well be something in it, but I'd like to see some good evidence that meditators are actually better introspectors as a result of their practice. My sense from Thompson's talk (and a few other things) is that that evidence is pretty thin, still. But I should read more about it!

Clark: I think I'm more or less on board with what you say in your longer comment. I suspect my prospects of becoming a Heideggerian are pretty dim, but we'll see if Mark Wrathall can win me over when he comes to be a professor here at UCR next year!

Anonymous said...

Yeah, I disagree there is a visual field with its own properties.
Instead of that, I think one can talk about properties of the seeing, hearing, and so on...
So, it is not that there is a visual field which gets unclear when you go from its center to the periphery, but that we clearly see the things towards which we look, and that clarity becomes smaller as we talk about things which are further from the direction in which we look.

Now, you are saying that there are some things, like things being blurry or there being streaks, which are obviously not properties of the things that we see, so they must be property of something.

However I would deny that to explain those one needs to assume that there is a visual field, and explain this phenomenon as properties of the visual field. Instead, it seems to me, one can talk about properties of the act of seeing.

That is, to see, is to see something from specific angle, is to see with eyes which are subject of some limits (two different things might appear same when too far from us, also we can't see clearly things close to us, if we don't look in their direction, etc...), and seeing is subject to other issues, like there being fog, us looking through the colored glass, there being problems with our eyes, and so on...

So, I don't see that "visual field" is explaining anything, which talking about these characteristics of seeing can't.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks, that helps! I do wonder whether we're now getting into something merely metaphysical here (to put it contentiously) -- that is, whether we're getting into an area where they might be more than one acceptable conceptualization. What bad thing follows from ascribing properties to the visual field, or what advantages accrue to avoiding it? It seems a natural way to speak to me. Does it invite too much of a veil of perception view, perhaps, and problems with the epistemology of appearances?

Anonymous said...

Right, it seems that "visual field" talk carries implicitly connection to veil of perception view.

It requires for example to distinguish the awareness of this assumed entity from the awareness of the objects.

How should we talk about access to this theoretical entity for example? If we talk about seeing in case of the outside objects, what verb do we use for our access to this visual field? Saying that we see visual field doesn't sound right to me. It almost implies that there is some other kind of awareness of this field, and it is not hard to see why when people think in terms of visual field, they assume some kind of infallible access. Because this is not something we see, so it must be some thing more intimately connected to mind.

There is then the question of why assume this theoretical entity, if it is not needed?
Some might argue that it is needed for things like hallucinations and dreams, but I don't think it is. (I wrote something on this in the last post on my blog).

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for the tip on your post, Tanasije. I haven't been cruising the blogs much because I'm off at a conference.

I guess I don't see the visual field as a needless theoretical posit, but simply rather as a name for our visual phenomenology (a name that builds in the idea that visual phenomenology has a spatial aspect) -- and by visual phenomenology, I mean just our visual experience or consciousness or "what-it's-like-ness". I don't see how one can deny that there is a "visual field" in this weak sense. I do agree the terminology invites certain unwelcome assumptions, like that knowledge about the visual field is necessary for and prior to knowledge of outside objects. So I do want to be careful about that!

I *think* I can phrase all my views without that term, if necessary. So: Is your visual experience of things (or as of things) 30 degrees from the center of fixation as precise as that of things right on center?

Is there anything misleading, do you think, with that way of speaking? Do you agree or disagree that my thoughts can be phrased in that way without losing their potency?

Anonymous said...

I agree that your ideas can be rephrased in that way, white still making the same points...

Though, I wouldn't talk about visual experience either, but would reformulate it to for example - "Can you see things clearly when they are 30 degrees away from the direction of your perception?"

But, I guess this wouldn't sound much as introspection any more, but about knowing ones abilities. I will repeat myself (from the earlier comment on your paper on PMS WIPS), and draw again the similarity with "Can you raise that bag over there?", which certainly is not case of introspection.

Writing this though, I guess you are right, and that it can be said to be introspection. If we use that weak?) sense of private in which the tree to which I only have access is said to be private, the ability to see clearly in the example will not be accessible to others, so, even if it is ability it is checked privately, so... with introspection :-/

Justin Tiwald said...

Re: accuracy of introspection and Eastern meditation

There are a fair number of cog sci people working on this. A good overview of the current literature is here.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for the link, Justin -- that paper looks very interesting!

Tanasije, I think I see your motivation, but I'd still resist phrasing it in terms of capacities. I think capacities are one thing, experience another, even if they're often closely associated!