introspection2We don’t know what we think, according to Alex Rosenberg in the NYT. It’s a piece of two halves, in my opinion; he starts with a pretty fair summary of the sceptical case. It has often been held that we have privileged knowledge of our own thoughts and feelings, and indeed of our own decisions; but the findings of Benjamin Libet about decisions being made before we are aware of them; the phenomenon of blindsight which shows we may go on having visual knowledge we’re not aware of; and many other cases where it can be shown that motives are confabulated and mental content is inaccessible to our conscious, reporting mind; these all go to show that things are much more complex than we might have thought, and that our thoughts are not, as it were, self-illuminating. Rosenberg plausibly suggests that we use on ourselves the kind of tools we use to work out what other people are thinking; but then he seems to make a radical leap to the conclusion that there is nothing else going on.

Our access to our own thoughts is just as indirect and fallible as our access to the thoughts of other people. We have no privileged access to our own minds. If our thoughts give the real meaning of our actions, our words, our lives, then we can’t ever be sure what we say or do, or for that matter, what we think or why we think it.

That seems to be going too far.  How could we ever play ‘I spy’ if we didn’t have any privileged access to private thoughts?

“I spy, with my little eye, something beginning with ‘c'”
“Is it ‘chair’?”
“I don’t know – is it?”

It’s more than possible that Rosenberg’s argument has suffered badly from editing (philosophical discussion, even in a newspaper piece, seems peculiarly information-dense; often you can’t lose much of it without damaging the content badly). But it looks as if he’s done what I think of as an ‘OMG bounce’; a kind of argumentative leap which crops up elsewhere. Sometimes we experience illusions:  OMG, our senses never tell us anything about the real world at all! There are problems with the justification of true belief: OMG there is no such thing as knowledge! Or in this case: sometimes we’re wrong about why we did things: OMG, we have no direct access to our own thoughts!

There are in fact several different reasons why we might claim that our thoughts about our thoughts are immune to error. In the game of ‘I spy’, my nominating ‘chair’ just makes it my choice; the content of my thought is established by a kind of fiat. In the case of a pain in my toe, I might argue I can’t be wrong because a pain can’t be false: it has no propositional content, it just is. Or I might argue that certain of my thoughts are unmediated; there’s no gap between them and me where error could creep in, the way it creeps in during the process of interpreting sensory impressions.

Still, it’s undeniable that in some cases we can be shown to adopt false rationales for our behaviour; sometimes we think we know why we said something, but we don’t. I think by contrast I have occasionally, when very tired, had the experience of hearing coherent and broadly relevant speech come out of my own mouth without it seeming to come from my conscious mind at all. Contemplating this kind of thing does undoubtedly promote scepticism, but what it ought to promote is a keener awareness of the complexity of human mental experience: many layered, explicit to greater or lesser degrees, partly attended to, partly in a sort of half-light of awareness… There seem to be unconscious impulses, conscious but inexplicit thought; definite thought (which may even be in recordable words); self-conscious thought of the kind where we are aware of thinking while we think… and that is at best the broadest outline of some of the larger architecture.

All of this really needs a systematic and authoritative investigation. Of course, since Plato there have been models of the structure of the mind which separate conscious and unconscious, id, ego and superego: philosophers of mind have run up various theories, usually to suit their own needs of the moment; and modern neurology increasingly provides good clues about how various mental functions are hosted and performed. But a proper mainstream conception of the structure and phenomenology of thought itself seems sadly lacking to me. Is this an area where we could get funding for a major research effort; a Human Phenomenology Project?

It can hardly be doubted that there are things to discover. Recently we were told, if not quite for the first time, that a substantial minority of people have no mental images (although at once we notice that there even seen to be different ways of having mental images). A systematic investigation might reveal that just as we have four blood groups, there are four (or seven) different ways the human mind can work. What if it turned out that consciousness is not a single consistent phenomenon, but a family of four different ones, and that the four tribes have been talking past each other all this time…?


  1. 1. Callan S. says:

    Isn’t there a bit of an ‘OMG bounce’ effect the other way, though? I mean, if he had said access to our own thoughts are only marginally better than our access to the thoughts of others, that’s something to consider. But while what he said was close to that (ie, that access to our own thoughts is no better than access to others thoughts), it seems to have been bounced? It seems uncharitable to not make slight adjustments to what he’s said in case a slight adjustment makes it far more plausible to consider.

  2. 2. Peter says:

    I don’t know, I think the ‘common sense’ view is that we have radically better access to our own thoughts than those of other people. But yes, it could work the other way. You could argue that the original position of our knowledge of our own thoughts being infallible as the result of a bounce by someone early on (Descartes?) – Hey, it doesn’t really seem that I can be wrong about simply being in pain: OMG, our thoughts are infallible! 😉

  3. 3. Jochen says:

    What if it turned out that consciousness is not a single consistent phenomenon, but a family of four different ones, and that the four tribes have been talking past each other all this time…?

    Well, I always harbored some suspicions that eliminativists are actually zombies… 😉

  4. 4. Richard J.R.Miles says:

    The majority of brain function involves non-conscious continuous internal autonomic interaction, so for me it is not suprising that there is a small percentage of conscious activity to carry out somatic action for the 4Fs.

  5. 5. SelfAwarePatterns says:

    I tend to broadly agree with Rosenberg’s views, but find that he often overstates the case. That was my feeling when I read his article. The main insight I take from Libet’s results and blindsight, as well as the split-brain patient experiments by Roger Perry and Michael Gazzaniga, is that introspection is an unreliable source of information about how the mind works. I think this is crucial to understand, because many of the objections to scientific theories of mind seem based on introspection. Introspection has a role, but we have to be aware that most of our cognitive machinery is inaccessible by our inner awareness.

    The idea of there being different groups of human minds is an interesting one. There’s probably good reason to suspect that there are, to some extent. For example, the language centers in most people are on the left side of the brain, but from what I understand, some people have them on the right side. That said, I suspect our minds are are far more similar than different in their basic mechanics. It’s worth noting that in the case of blood, while there are different compatibility groups, those groups don’t represent radical departures from what blood fundamentally does in the body.

  6. 6. antianticamper says:

    “A systematic investigation might reveal that just as we have four blood groups, there are four (or seven) different ways the human mind can work.”


    Some (not all) forms of meditation can be viewed as work in this direction. Though even here, potential diversity is under-appreciated and there is often the trap of the “correct” methods and the “correct/universal” insights.

  7. 7. Mark S. says:

    The link between language and cognition is a red herring?

  8. 8. Sci says:

    Assuming I’ve got the correct Rosenberg in mind this actually seems tamer than his assertion in the Atheist’s Guide to Reality that all the very idea we have thoughts about things is erroneous.

    Though I did think his argument for materialism equaling eliminativism of mental aboutness was sound. But then I remember I had to think about it to reach that conclusion…

  9. 9. Callan S. says:

    Well, I always harbored some suspicions that eliminativists are actually zombies…

    Sounds like something an eliminativist would say.

  10. 10. Michael Murden says:

    Two thoughts:
    First – I suspect that we perceive our thoughts, in much the same way that we perceive visual, auditory etc. stimuli. “The findings of Benjamin Libet about decisions being made before we are aware of them” suggest that the physical region of the brain in which a decision is made might be different than the location where the conscious mind becomes aware of the decision for purposes of (for example) verbal report. The process whereby the conscious (for the present purpose let’s define conscious as ‘able to provide a verbal or analogous to verbal report) mind becomes aware of the brain activity which is available for verbal report is perceptual. The conscious mind perceives activity happening in other parts of the brain.
    Second – If the above is reasonably close to correct, it suggests that there may be neuronal networks within the brain dedicated to intra-brain perceptual tasks in the same way that there are neuronal networks dedicated to our five traditional senses. That would in turn suggest that the “Human Phenomenology Project” might be at least in part neurological. Wikipedia defines “Phenomenology (from Greek phainómenon “that which appears” and lógos “study”) is the philosophical study of the structures of experience and consciousness.” Erase “philosophical” and you have a straightforward scientific project.

  11. 11. Sci says:

    Debating Psychology’s Replication Crisis

    “Should psychology researchers focus more on confirming old results and less on new discoveries?”

    I do wonder how worthless the field is at this point.

  12. 12. Dylan Black says:

    Rosenberg agrees that your access to your own thoughts is better than the access you have to the thoughts of others. You have available to you information that is generally unavailable to others. But what he would insist on is that your access to that information isn’t privileged, direct, infallible, and fundamentally different than the access other people have to it. You’re using the same mind reading module that everyone else is using.

    Setting aside the old Cartesian assumptions about privileged self-knowledge, an interesting question is what it would take to prove Rosenberg wrong. Would it suffice to show that we have cognitive systems that keep track of information about our own minds in a way differently than the minds of others? Or would that just count as more information?

  13. 13. Richard J.R.Miles says:

    Re. my comment 4 and some of what Michael at 10 says.
    It is the non-conscious autonomic activity that we become consciously aware of, in order to satisfy the 4 F’s of the autonomic needs by conscious somatic action. For example: I need a drink and I must do this, that or the other, but first I need the toilet. Phenomenal conscious thought and actions have evolved from this need to satisfy the non-conscious autonomic needs.

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