Wednesday, May 06, 2009

When Are Introspective Judgments Reliable?

I'm a pessimist about the accuracy of introspective judgments -- even introspective judgments about currently ongoing conscious experience (e.g., visual experience, imagery experience, inner speech; see here). But I'm not an utter skeptic. If you're looking directly at a large, red object in canonical conditions and you judge that you are having a visual experience of redness, I think the odds are very good that you're right. So then the question arises: Under what conditions do I think judgments about conscious experience are reliable?

I think there are two conditions. (In my Fullerton talk last week, I said three, but I'm giving up on one.)

First, I believe our judgments about conscious experience ("phenomenology") are reliable when we can lean upon our knowledge of the outside world to prop them up. For example, in the redness case, I know that I'm looking at a red thing in canonical conditions. I can use this fact to support and confirm my introspective judgment that I'm having a visual experience of redness. Or suppose that I know that my wife just insulted me. This knowledge of an outward fact can help support my introspective judgment that the rising arousal I'm feeling is anger.

Second, I believe that our judgments about phenomenology are reliable when they pertain to features of our phenomenology about which it's important to our survival or functioning to get it right. It's important that we be right about the approximate locations of our pains, so that we can avoid or repair tissue damage. It's important that we recognize hunger as hunger and thirst as thist. It's important that we know what objects and properties we're perceiving and in what sensory modality. It's also important, I think, that we be able to keep track of the general gist of our thoughts and imagery so that we can develop chains of reasoning over time.

However, about all other aspects of our phenomenology not falling under these two heads we are, I think, highly prone to error. This includes:

* the general structural morphology of our emotions (e.g., the extent to which they are experienced as bodily or located in space, their physiological phenomenology)

* whether our thoughts are in inner speech or are instead experienced in a less articulate way (except when we deliberately form thoughts inner speech, in which case it is part of the general gist of our thoughts that we're forming the kind of auditory imagery associated with inner speech)

* the exact location of our pains (as you'll know if you've ever tried to locate a toothache for a dentist) and their character (shooting, throbbing, etc.)

* the structural features of our imagery (how richly detailed, whether experienced as in a subjective location such as inside the head, how stable, etc.)

* non-objectual features of sensory experience such as its stability or gappiness or extension beyond the range of attention

* virtually everything about our hunger and thirst apart from their very presence or absence.
About such matters, I think, when we're asked to report, we're prone simply to fly by the seat of our pants and make crap up. If we exude a blustery confidence in doing so, that's simply because we know no one else can prove us wrong.


Michael Metzler said...

Interesting summary of your case. Although, the last paragraph seems to describe human mammals just talking about whatever, not just their conscious experience. In fact, I suspect that we are more sincere in our attempts at reporting on phenomenology than we are about other subjects (like our ability to attract someone of the opposite sex, our connection to God's thoughts, why we just drank two beers, our understanding of the history of the world, or why we don't give money to the poor). And it is not that no one else can prove us wrong, but rather that, even though we can be proven wrong, we can still get away with it - like the spin-scum cleric continuing to bluster away after all intelligent people had already dismissed themselves with a final verdict.

On the milder cases, however, are not we sincerely guided by the illusion of direct access and control? Our sincerity seems to derive from the very real guiding narrative structures, social expectation, etc.

I like Dennett's script model; on my interpretation: what it was like to experience X is what it was like, regardless if that was really what it was like. Same with coming to a belief that P: there is no 'belief that P' before there is content 'that P,' and there is no content 'that P' before one thinks or asserts 'that P'. We have to come up with SOMETHING after all. As someone once put it: "Belief is what I take to be rooted in a proto-religious faith in our ability to understand ourselves and the world. To say that ‘I believe that P’ is a dabbling in a bit of erroneous dogmatism."

Anibal Monasterio Astobiza said...

Phenomenology with capital "P",
as the subjetive description of one´s own mind states, is fated to errors, setting aside the two dimensions which you recognize.

But the mathematical conceptualisation (psychophysics) is not making progress in finding the regularities of our qualia and some facets of our phenomenology.

For example, in terms of the richness of our mental imagery and its properties (e.g. Kosslyn).

On the other hand, in schizophrenia studies auditory hallucinations can be assesed in phenomenological dimensions or subjective reports by certain scales or psychological inventories which with the aid of statistics are more or less realible; and schizophrneia subjects are not the epithome of "immunity to error through misidentification"

And in current times, with the advance of objective techniques to see the brain in action, is not possible to link subjective states with objective ones, and finally overcome the difficulties within phenomenology.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for the comments Michael and Anibal!

Michael: I agree that we bluster in those other ways, too. To what extent the matter is whether one cannot be "proved wrong" or whether one can "get away with it" is an interesting question. Of course the two often go together! On Dennett: That's an aspect of his view that I've never understood. I think there are phenomenal facts and there are facts about what you believe, and you can get it wrong about them, straight and simple. (I complain about Dennett's views about this in a 2007 article in Phenomenology & the Cognitive Sciences, by the way.)

Anibal: I think all that stuff is a mess. I suspect, though, it's not so much of a mess that we can't make progress. Brain science should help, but I don't see it as a panacea, because to reveal anything about consciousness fMRIs (in addition to all the usual methodological issues) still need to be interpreted in light of what we know by other means about consciousness.

Anonymous said...

Introspection requires practice, to establish reliability, just like external observation.

How long does it take to learn mathematics? How long does it take to become proficient at chess or spelling or field hockey? These are all skills that are obviously possible for human beings to learn. Some folks are better equipped than others and will learn faster, while some will have a hard time mastering even the basics. None of these skills can be learned without practice. Practice will not take place unless the individual believes it is possible to learn the skill, in the first place, and actually attempts to master it.


Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Jim/Lifeos: I definitely agree with you on that point. In fact, I've just been writing about that very thing today!

Michael Metzler said...

Thanks Eric. I will take a look at that article. I of course blustered a little bit in my comment, but blustering can always use refinement so that those within a narrow field of blustering can at least have a subjective feel of understanding.

I agree about getting it wrong or right, plain or simple. But statements of fact seem to require an existing model of interpretation (e.g. scientific paradigm) or a narrative construal of evidence. Perhaps paradigm cases are best found in the legal practice where me must make determinations that affect lives - rather than Socrates' tradition of wisdom where negating belief was primary. I am skeptical of direct access, unmediated 'facts' (my skepticism is rooted in the assumption that propositions don't exist).

Nick Baiamonte said...


If we go along with your skeptical view concerning introspection (and given your two caveats about when judgments concerning conscious experiences are reliable)—what does this say about one’s (inner) moral life? For example, do you treat beliefs, feelings, intuitions, emotions, and judgments as the same types of phenomena? Here are some examples:

(1) I believe that all people are deserving of healthcare and medication.

(2) I feel that someone is watching me, and this is scare (because, perhaps, the person wants to do me harm).

(3) I have the intuition that promises should be kept, unless seriously mitigating circumstances obtain.

(4) When following a rule I exercise sympathetic understanding n the process. (I have a rule that students must attend regularly scheduled exams; but I’m willing to suspend the rule in the even that the student is attending to a family emergency.)

(5) I judge cronyism in job-selection to be morally repulsive.

It would seem to me that your skepticism would span over our introspective moral lives in ways that might be counterintuitive (or appalling). For example: Is one (mostly) wrong about one’s conscious experiences of my basic moral beliefs, attitudes, intuitions, emotions, and judgments (such as (1)-(5)? If so, then what does this imply about the possibilities of being moral and trying to live a moral life?

If one advocates a kind of skepticism regarding one’s application of (or truly adhering to) one’s moral principles—that is one thing; but the project of trying to be moral still remains a viable one.

If one advocates a kind of skepticism regarding one’s inner conscious moral attitudes, feelings, emotions, beliefs, and judgments, then it is not obvious to me that the project of trying to be moral is viable.

Josh Weisberg said...


I'm not sure about your use of 'reliable' here. Aren't introspective judgments reliable when the mechanisms that form them work right? In other words, a judgment is reliable when it is formed by a reliable belief-forming mechanism. Your 1st condition seems more about how one would justify an introspective belief to oneself, which I took to be a separate issue from the externalist conditions of reliability. If the mechanism is working right, I may have no idea about any knowledge of the outside world relevant to propping it up.

But in regards to 1, the external knowledge might influence the introspective judgment. If introspection is theory-laden, that might make it less reliable in situations where I know already how the external world is supposed to be.

About 2, I'm not sure why introspective knowledge would add anything to first-order knowledge of hunger, thirst, properties, etc. Or do you think that a judgment "I'm hungry" is always introspective? Babies seem to get the hunger thing prior to introspecting. What do they gain survival-wise when they can introspect about their hunger?

One role introspection may play is allowing us to over-ride automatic reactions driven by basic instincts. I may automatically (or at least "non-reflectively") reach for the cheesecake, but monitor and veto that move to avoid the pounds. Or I may learn to suppress a reaction that is socially unacceptable. I'm not sure, however, that such things couldn't be done at the level of non-introspective consciousness.

My feeling is that introspection about coarse-grained features is reliable, and that it can be improved in range and specificity with practice, as Jim says. But I see little reason to think that introspection has any "privileged" status, especially when it comes to the fine-grained features philosophers argue about.

Sorry--this has gotten way too long!


Anibal Monasterio Astobiza said...

I agree with you that actually it´s a mess.

But i still think that phenomenology and neurophysiological correlation are complementary approaches, and not mutually exclusive, or unrelated.

One of your colleages from the past, Purkinje (1819, Beitrage zur Kenntnis des Sehens in subjectiver Hinsicht), said that: (perceptual or judgemental) phenomena show physiological truths.

Phenomena can stand for its own without the need of interpreting them in terms of its neural mechanisms

But we´ll never reach a truly understanding of "experiences" without taking into account their putative neural mechanisms.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Michael: I'm not sure I understand your point. This is a tricky area in epistemology and metaphysics, where I suspect people talk past each other a lot. My judgments about the facts must of course arise through psychological processes of various sorts. Is that enough to make them "mediated" in the relevant sense?

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Good to hear from you, Nick! Let me stress that although I'm a pessimist about our accuracy, I'm not an out-and-out bald skeptic who thinks there's no hope. And yes, this pessimism extends to the kinds of cases you mention.

I think the consequence of adopting my view is not the abandonment of reflection but rather the hope to find better ways to introspect, or at least to find principles by which we can start to separate the wheat from the chaff.

Consider your (1): You believe all people are deserving of healthcare and medication. One might *say* one believes this, but unless one has the right behavioral, emotional, and cognitive dispositions, I wouldn't say one does in any straightforward sense believe it. For example, people who believe this should be disposed to vote in certain ways, to have certain emotional reactions to encounters with people who have been denied healthcare, to take it for granted in their implicit reasoning that people deserve health care etc. All this is not necessarily guaranteed by what one sincerely says. (Consider the familiar parallel case of the implicit sexist.)

Seeing the potential disconnections between one's explicit judgments and the dispositional patterns in how one lives is a crucial part of moral self-development, I think.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Hi Josh!

I see that I wasn't very clear about (1). I think "introspective" processes are often partly "extrospective", so it's not so much that we reach an introspective judgment and *then* assess it by looking outward. It's that the looking outward provides part of the basis for the introspective judgment, and in such conditions the introspective judgments are often more reliable than when there is no such external basis. It may be theory laden, but I'm inclined to think that often makes it better, not worse -- depending of course on the quality of the theory!

I agree that babies don't introspect. So why is it important to be able to introspect hunger? Self-regulation, as you suggest, may play a role -- also, relatedly, anticipation and planning.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Anibal, I agree with you and Purkinje. However I also think that in the current state of the field it's problematic to put much weight on what's being reported in the latest issue of Nature Neuroscience.

Pete Mandik said...

Good stuff, Eric.

One thing I worry about here, and this may be along the lines that Josh was thinking on, is that your remarks about hunger, thirst, and perhaps even pain are confusing introspection and interoception.

Here's how I cut the cake. Introspection, which involves an awareness of mental stuff, needs to be distinguished from perception, which involves an awareness of nonmental stuff. Perception itself may be divided into two sorts, interoception and exteroception, which has to do with the distinction between nonmental stuff in your body and nonmental stuff outside of your body.

Arguably, some words like "hunger," "thirst," and "pain," are ambiguous between introspective and interoceptive senses or uses. Take "hunger" for example. Used interoceptively, it is reporting a state of my stomach or blood-sugar. Used introspectively, it is reporting a state of my mind, a *sensation* of hunger, which may or may not correctly indicate my real hunger.

why this matters to your blog post:

the stuff about what's important for survival value may simply be interoceptive, not introspective. What Darwin cares about is, e.g., whether you actually starve to death. The ability to be aware of the so-called mental indicators of starving to death--the sensation or quale of hunger, may, as Dennett or Rosenthal would have, not have diddly-squat to do with survival value. It may instead be some curious cultural invention cooked up by, as you put it, people who like to make crap up

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for the comment, Pete! I agree with your way of cutting the cake. I'm inclined to think that *both* the introspective and the interoceptive takes on hunger have survival value. It's good not only to be responsive to blood sugar levels, etc., but also to know what this feeling that you're having is. However I wasn't very clear about this in the post, and I agree that it's hard to tease the value of the two apart.

In any case, I think I'm now going to cut away the survival value stuff and bring it all down to gist. After all, when you're hungry enough to know introspectively that you're feeling hungry, conscious feeing of hunger is probably part of the gist of your stream of consciousness at the time.

I don't pretend to have an adequate account, yet, of gist.

Mariana Soffer said...

We, the human beings have the tendency to interpret what we see, and experience through the emotions that are invoked by these different mediums. We are meaning making machines! The interpretations are based on out values, emotional states and in reality, As a result, there is an assumption that what we see is the way things are. Never do we question the accuracy of this information, we simply take it as fact .So, the way we perceive things has the power to shape how we think and act in the world.