Friday, January 07, 2011

Two Approaches to Transparency about Self-Knowledge

According to transparency views of self-knowledge, we learn about our own mental states not by turning our attention inward to detect the presence or absence of those states (as "inner sense" and "self-monitoring" views suggest) but rather by turning our attention to the outside world. In Gareth Evans's (1982) example, if someone asks me if I think there will be a third world war, in answering that question, I don't think about myself; rather, I think about the state of the world.

Suppose I answer "yes" to Evans's question. I have reached some sort of judgment. But what exactly have I reached a judgment about? There are two very different options insufficiently distinguished in the literature. Option 1: I am reaching a judgment about the world. In the context of the question (which was, literally speaking, about what I think), that judgment about the world serves a self-ascriptive function. Option 2: I am reaching a judgment about my mind. I'm not attending to my mind as a means of reaching that judgment, but the judgment is still a self-directed one. Call Option 1 the Topic Shifting approach to transparency and Option 2 the Self-Judgment approach.

Topic Shifting and Self-Judgment have complementary virtues and vices. Topic Shifting fits nicely with the intuitive sense in Evans's and others' examples that I'm not really thinking about my own mind; but then it's not clear why the result is supposed to be self-knowledge. It doesn't even seem to be self-belief. Conversely, on the Self-Judgment approach it's clear why the conclusion might count as self-knowledge, but we seem to have abandoned the core idea that I am thinking about the world, not my own mind, in answering the question.

Why not have it both ways? Combining Options 1 and 2: The transparency procedure produces a judgment that is both about my mind and about the world. This Dual Content approach shares with the Self-Judgment approach that it's clear how the product of the transparency procedure could be self-knowledge. And yet we can retain much of the original transparency intuition: The conclusion of my reflections does involve, perhaps even is mostly, a judgment about the world.

Think about avowals. An avowal, as I intend the term, is an assertion with a dual fucntion: If I avow some proposition P (say "the world is flat") I am doing two things. I am asserting that the world is flat, and I am asserting that I believe (or judge) that the world is flat. This self-attributive aspect of avowals distinguishes them from simple assertions. On the Dual Content approach, the transparency procedure generates avowals.

Consider a spectrum from simple assertion to self-alienated confession: The simple assertion that P is not at all an assertion that I believe that P. The self-alienated confession that P is not at all an assertion that P is true, but only that I (seem to) believe it. Through the middle is a range of avowals with different degrees of emphasis on asserting P vs. asserting belief that P. Assertions containing self-ascriptive phrases like "I think" might tend, on average, to be somewhat more toward the confession side than assertions without self-ascriptive phrases.

Final thought: The public visibility of blog posts, Facebook status updates, and the like creates an atmosphere of self-observation that tends to convert simple assertions into avowals. We are thus becoming an avowal society.


Jeremy Goodman said...

I think the transparency strategy is best cashed out as the claim that, outside the scope of any suppositional reasoning, instances of the following inference schema are rational:

I believe that P

That is, if I believe that P, I can rationally form a belief that I believe that P on the basis of my belief that P. My belief that P is straightforwardly about the world and by belief that I believe that P is straightforwardly about my mind. There's no need to postulate dual contents.

(The "outside the scope of any suppositional reasoning" qualification is needed to prevent reasoning of the form:

(1) P [supposition for conditional proof]
(2) I believe that P [transparency rule]
(3) Therefore, P --> I believe that P [conditional proof]

This sort of reasoning is obviously absurd, and this is because (1) expresses a supposition rather than a belief. See Chalmers and Hajek's "Ramsey + Moore = God".)

Anibal Monasterio Astobiza said...

Avowals are utterances that gets the best of both worlds (option 1 an option 2)

Mainly, they are descriptive in nature.

Do you think about their role in communicative situations, that is, what about their pragmatic functions?

(When we talk with others sometimes is not for the purpose of letting know them what is going on in our minds or what we believe about the world... we sometimes use language to manipulate).

Anibal Monasterio Astobiza said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anibal Monasterio Astobiza said...

A twitter user and friend of mine in the cyberspace, Wildcat2030, says we need a third option to flame the debate.

These are his words:

"we may need here a third option. Namely, besides Topic Shifting and Self judgment, Supervenient Reflectivity may serve as 'supra-observer' allowing both the belief that 'P' and the position that 'it seems' that there is a belief that 'P'"

Sabio Lantz said...

Cool quote:
"We are thus becoming an avowal society."
Am I wrong to think that perhaps the commital of an avowal offers the avowee a better opportunity to see the mix of the mind and environment in action. It is more committal.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for the comments, folks!

@ Jeremy: What you describe is what I would call a straightforwardly Self-Judgment approach. While I think that approaching things that way is a cognitive option, I think it strains a bit against what seems right in the Topic Shifting approach. My inclination is to think that we can take either approach, and often, indeed, take some blend of both.

Dual contents seems to me a plus, given the nature of avowals as I have described them, not a liability.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

@ Anibal: I lean toward a rich pragmatics of assertion, though I don't have much specific to say about this case. Avowal can serve a large variety of pragmatic functions, often more than one at once.

I'm not sure I understand the Supervenient Reflectivity idea. Tell me more.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Sabio: Yes, I agree. Avowal is generally more committal than simple assertion because you know you're on the line for it as you say it. And to the extent avowal reflects self-observation of the entanglement of mind with environment, it might also tend to enhance appreciation of that.

Jeremy Goodman said...

I do think that when we make this sort of inference I described our belief that p is usually an occurrent judgment. Perhaps this is even a necessary condition for the inference to be rational. This seems to me to capture plenty of the intuition behind Topic Shifting.

I guess I'm skeptical that there are such things as avowals, as you use the term. Saying "The world is flat" just isn't to say that I believe that the world is flat, whether or not it's my Facebook status. Of course, it expresses such a belief, but that's not a matter of its semantic content.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

@ Jeremy: I think it's part of the assertion in a speech-acty way -- like you can use "Really?" to convey that you doubt a proposition or you can request that the window be closed by saying "It's cold in here". That isn't semantic content in a narrow sense. I should have said that more clearly; I'm probably still not really saying it clearly enough. If your *aim* is to express the belief, then that is part of the content in the sense I intended.

Jeremy Goodman said...

That makes sense, but now I'm not sure I follow the analogy. Would it be that if I judge that p with the *aim* of doing metacognition, I thereby *convey* (to myself?) that I believe that p? I don't really understand what that means, but I'm probably taking your analogy too literally?

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

@ Jeremy: The analogy works better in the interpersonal, spoken-out-loud case, in which the aim is communicative: I aim to convey something about my mind (that I believe P), not just about the world (that P). In the private case, where I've set myself the task of determining whether I think there will be a third world war, there's an analogous dual aim of reaching a judgment in part about the world in part about my mind. This can be so even if the form or shadow of the judgment in inner speech is determinately one or the other ("P" or "I think that P", rather than both).

Anibal Monasterio Astobiza said...

I invite to participate Wildcat2030 and explain in more detail his words.

I quoted what he said because he left that comment in a thread on "friendfeed" and i supposed it would be interesting.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks, Anibal!

Bill Robinson said...

I think the point of transparency views is to deflate the question about self knowledge. If Eric says "There will be a 3rd WW" I know what he thinks about that matter; and he doesn't know any less than I do in this respect. What's the problem supposed to be? There's just no room for a puzzle about how I know what I think.

What "I think that p" means depends on the intended contrast, which, in turn, depends on context. It could mean: (Others may disagree, but) _I_ think that p. That is, it could be tantamount to "p and I recognize that others don't agree".

But, on some other occasion, it might mean: "I _think_ that p". That is, it could be tantamount to "Probably, p" or "p, although I'm not fully confident about that".

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for the comment, Bill! I agree that the aim of transparency views is partly or often deflationary, and that assertions that "I think that P" can have either of the emphases you describe. And yet I am also inclined to think that the question still arises about what the topic or content is of the judgment that is arrived at by whatever process or processes produce such judgments. Thus, the issue I discuss arises, even when transparency approaches are deflationary in intent. Don't you think?