Picture: Eric Schwitzgebel. Eric Schwitzgebel, author of the excellent Splintered Mind blog (and Professor of Philosophy at University of California at Riverside) has a new book out, Perplexities of Consciousness, which sows doubt and confusion where they have never been sown before.  Like Socrates, Schwitzgebel wants to make us wiser by showing us that we know much less than we thought. It has often been thought that while we might easily be wrong about the world and the things in it, we weren’t prone to being wrong about how the world looks to us: Schwitzgebel seeks to show that in many respects we actually suffer from unresolvable confusions about even that, and worse, in some cases we’re demonstrably wrong. Subjective experience may be a matter of there being something it is like to see red or whatever; but we actually have no clear idea of what that something is (or what it is like).

Back in 2007 Schwitzgebel published a book Describing Inner Experience? Proponent Meets Skeptic with Russell Hurlburt which examined Hurlburt’s method of Descriptive Experience Sampling (DES). In DES subjects are asked to record their inward experience at random moments (prompted by a beeper) and are subsequently put through a fairly searching interview. This earlier book, as it happens, is currently the subject of a special issue of the Journal of  Consciousness Studies.  The book’s title sets up a confrontation, but in fact it’s clear that Hurlburt has a good deal in common with Schwitzgebel: the development of a special method for clarifying inner experience implicitly concedes that error is a serious possibility. The differences seem to be partly a matter of how well DES can really work, and partly a difference of agenda, with Schwitzgebel addressing the issues at a more radical and demanding philosophical level.

There is history to all this, of course: introspectionists like Wundt and Titchener once claimed that with careful training our inner experience could be described scientifically in great detail. The catastrophic collapse of that school of thought led on to the absurd over-reaction of behaviourism, which denied the very existence of inner experience. Only now, we might say, does it seem safe for Hurlburt to venture into the scorched territory of introspection and see if with a slightly different tack, a new beginning can be made.

Schwitzgebel’s new book gives us plenty of intriguing reasons to be pessimistic about that project. The book shows its origins in a series of separate papers, but it does cohere around  central themes, finding ambiguity and conflicting testimony just where we might hope for certainty.

First off it asks: do you dream in black and white? This used to be a common question and there was apparently an era when a large proportion of people thought they did. Nowadays no-one seems to think they dream without colour and in the more distant past the question never seemed to come up (dost thou dream in woodcut or tapestry?). Schwitzgebel very plausibly suggests that the idea of monochrome dreams is tied to the prevalence of black and white films and television. Perhaps if you asked, many people would now say they dream in 2D?  I’ve had dreams that apparently took place at least partly in the world of some video game.

You may feel that the question is actually meaningless and that dreams don’t typically either have or lack colour. Perhaps they are pure narrative, and asking whether they are in black and white makes no more sense than asking whether Pride and Prejudice was written in colour. Certainly if we extend the questioning and begin to ask whether dreams are in Technicolor, or what screen format or resolution they use (or in my case perhaps whether they were Xbox or PS2) the discussion starts to seem absurd; but could we deny that people might dream in black and white, at least sometimes? It doesn’t seem too difficult to imagine that you might. It is possible that the prevalence of monochrome moving images actually changed the way people dreamed for a while; but it seems probable we must admit that some people were in fact mistaken about the qualities of their own dreams, and we must certainly accept that there was a degree of uncertainty. So Schwitzgebel has his wedge in position.

Second, he asks: do things look flat? He cites sources who say that a coin viewed at an angle looks elliptical: not to me, he objects (at least not unless I view it very obliquely, when I can sort of see it that way); if coins look elliptical to you does the world in general similarly look flat? Schwitzgebel addresses the idea that the coin in fact looks like its projection on to a flat surface and raises some objections: in fact, he claims there’s no way to make the geometry of ‘flattism’ make sense. He suspects that here again people’s intuitions have been captured by ‘technology’ – in this case people are thinking of how objects would be represented in a drawing or photograph. He remarks that some theorists have claimed that stereoscopic vision involves systematic doubling of perceived objects; while it’s true that if we focus on something far away we can see two images of a finger held close to our face, Schwitzgebel finds it a very odd idea that most of the objects in our field of vision are normally doubled (I agree – I also agree with him that the world doesn’t look all that much flatter when viewed with one eye rather than two).

Now we move on to academic, questionnaire-based research into our mental imagery, and it seems Galton is to blame for first spreading the idea that this sort of thing worked. Curiously, Galton’s research found that the scientists in his sample were predisposed to deny the existence of mental imagery altogether, while the other subjects were more likely to accept it;  a result which no-one has been able to duplicate since. Perhaps back then people thought mental imagery was an airy-fairy poetic business which hard-nosed scientists should reject.  It turns out, moreover, that there is little or no correlation between reporting vivid mental imagery and being good at tasks which apparently require mental visualisation, such as comparing rotated 3d shapes. This is odd: why would evolution give us vivid mental imagery if it doesn’t even help with tasks that require vivid mental images?  Again it seems that our own reports are all but useless as a guide to what’s really going on in there. We may claim to visualise a table, but under questioning we usually turn out to be unable to provide details, or become confused, or pause to imagine up some more details.

The next chapter raises the interesting question of human echolocation. Nagel famously took bats as his example of a creature whose inner experience we could not hope to imagine because it had a sense we entirely lacked. With amusing irony Schwitzgebel’s case here is based on the fact that we do have some echolocation after all; we’re just not normally aware of it. With a little practice we can learn how to stop short of a wall just by making regular noises and picking up the echo (if you’re going to try this at home, I recommend taking some precautions to ensure that your nose isn’t the first part of you to detect the wall unambiguously).  Some blind people are well aware of this echolocating ability, but (a real score for Schwitzgebel) they misperceive it.  Typically they describe the experience as being about pressure on the face, and nothing to do with hearing: but experiments with blocked ears and covered faces show clearly that they’re wrong about their own experiences.

I mentioned Titchener earlier: Schwitzgebel gives an interesting account of his methods. Whereas these days one would typically try to capture the subject’s impressions as fresh as possible, uncontaminated by the experimenter’s own prejudices, Titchener and his contemporaries took the opposite view: until you were very thoroughly trained in discrimination of your impressions, your testimony was worthless. Schwitzgebel explains how Titchener’s researchers were trained to pick out ‘difference tones’, illusory notes heard under certain conditions.  (You can try it out for yourself on Schwitzgebel’s own page here. There is other useful stuff on his home page including abstracts and draft chapters.)  Some of these tones are debatable and only a minority claim to be able to hear them: are the others failing to hear them, or hearing them and failing to discriminate? Titchener apparently has no answer.

The next chapter returns to earlier concerns about whether experience is sparse or abundant:  are things outside the centre of our attention still constantly present in consciousness (abundant), or do they drop out (sparse).  Schwitzgebel previously used the terminology ‘rich’ and ‘thin’, and we discussed some earlier Hurlburtian experiments of his. It will come as no surprise to find that Schwitzgebel, who quotes radically opposing views from a variety of sources, regards the matter as unresolved and possibly unresolvable; but I must say that this time round I couldn’t see any reason why we shouldn’t just conclude that experience is sometimes sparse and sometimes abundant. There’s no doubt that sometimes when we focus narrowly on one thing, we lose track of everything else; and it seems hard to deny that at times we also pay vigilant attention to our surroundings in general. Couldn’t it simply be that consciousness can have a wide or a narrow beam, at least partly under our own control?

Schwitzgebel now feels ready for a direct assault on the doctrine that our knowledge of our own experience is infallible.  He warms up by questioning whether we know what emotion is, conceding (rather dangerously?) that his wife can sometimes judge his emotional state better than he can himself. What neutral yardstick he uses to confirm his wife’s diagnosis is not altogether clear.

Why is it, he asks, that scarcely anyone, even the most vigorous sceptics, seriously questions the infallibility of introspection on certain points? The core argument seems to be that we can be wrong about the way things are, but we cannot be wrong about the way they appear to us. But why not? Schwitzgebel claims the argument rests on equivocation between two senses of  ‘appear’ , one of them epistemic as in ‘it appears to me that…’.  I don’t know whether the argument actually rests so much on the word ‘appear’ , but it seems a valid and interesting claim that there are two levels at work here: our experience and our beliefs or claims about it, with no special reason to think that the latter must be magically veridical.

Now there is a kind of rock-bottom argument available here; I don’t think I’ve ever seen it used, but it may be in the back of the minds of those who argue for infallibility. This is that eventually you get below the level where truth and falsehood apply. If you pare experience down enough, you get to a point where it just is: it’s not actually that it’s infallible, more that it’s beyond the realm of fallibility or infallibility. To be fallible, to have truth values, there has to be an element of intentionality (and the right kind, too, with an appropriate ‘direction of fit’ – I don’t think desires can be false), but at the rock bottom level, this is absent. If I just experience without any thoughts about it at all, fallibility doesn’t come into it.

I dare say Schwitzgebel might accept that up to a point, although he could reasonably point out that our experience is in practice completely suffused with a kind of intentionality; unconscious parts of our mind do an awful lot of interpretation before reports from our senses reach us and arguably pretty well everything is presented to us ‘as’ something, not just as mere sense-data (the kind of intentionality involved, that lets part of our brain add implicit messages to the conscious part about ‘that there being a table’ and so on is interesting, probably very important, and totally obscure); though generally it seems we can ‘look through’ to the basic sense-impressions if we want.

The question then is perhaps whether there is some very simple level of intentionality that can be added to the rock-bottom experience without any chance of its being wrong yet without it having the kind of trivial self-validation (‘This is the sentence I wrote’) that Schwitzgebel rightly excludes. Could it be that along with the experience itself we have an accompanying belief which says something like “Yeah, that…” which can’t really be wrong?  I still find it hard to resist the idea that there’s something infallible in there.

It’s a great point though; a strong and well-founded attack on such an important and well-accepted dogma has to be of great value. It forces us into greater clarity even if in the end it isn’t accepted.

The book winds up with consideration of another engaging and interesting issue. What do you see when you turn out the light? (I can’t tell you, but I know it’s mine, as Lennon and McCartney argued in their seminal work.)  Apparently little attention has been given to what things look like when our eyes are closed in normal light, but the book unearths quite a sequence of views about what we can see when our eyes are closed in the dark. Grey bands feature strongly in the older reports and then seem to drop out of favour: specks of light turn up fairly regularly, but you won’t be surprised to hear that there is in the end no real consensus but a quantity of misplaced confidence. I think it’s perhaps a little surprising so few people seem to say that when their eyes are closed in the dark they see nothing.  Trying it myself I find I have to sort of insist on seeing and then get some very dim lines and grids, and flashes of amorphous shapes in brighter colour. This kind of thing might well have a good explanation in neurology and the more or less random firing of isolated neurons that respond to lines, grids, or patches of colour.  At times, strangely, I had to do something hard to describe to stop my imagination intervening in what I was experiencing and livening things up.  Overall, it doesn’t look too promising a field for research to me, but, as Schwitzgebel suggests, why not see what you think (or see what you see)?

So in conclusion, what’s the verdict? I think Schwitzgebel’s case is essentially successful; his contention that there’s more to deal with here than we may have realised seems hard to deny.  This is salutary and also interesting; and since the subject is engaging and much of the discussion is readily accessible, I think the book deserves a wider readership outside the philosophical village.

I think it was Russell who said that when acting on a vigorous mind, scepticism produces new energy rather than despair: so can we add any positive conclusions to the overwhelmingly negative ones in the book?  I’m left with two main thoughts. First, there is a philosphical case to be answered in the central assault on infallibility.  Second, I think a great deal of the ambiguity and contradiction exposed by Schwitzgebel comes from the sheer complexity of the task. We ourselves, the experiencing entities, are pretty complex, with different levels of conscious and unconscious thought interacting in a variety of ways.  Second, the ways we can experience and think about things is limitlessly varied.  I don’t think it would be difficult to list fifty significantly different ways of  ‘thinking about’ a table, with and without explicit imagery.  Accordingly in many cases I think simple misunderstandings over what type of experience we’re talking about are more than half the problem. Perhaps Galton’s scientists thought ‘mental imagery’ meant what I would call ‘voluntary hallucination’; perhaps for those monochrome dreamers ‘black and white’ just meant dreams where colour wasn’t specifically salient. Taking all these problems together with a certain natural human variability, I think we might find explanations.  It wouldn’t be trained subjects we need, just better terminology and a more clearly developed common understanding.  I say ‘just’ – in fact it’s quite a tall order but not, I think, hopeless.


  1. 1. Eric Schwitzgebel says:

    Thanks for the very generous review, Peter!

    Your positive suggestions at the end seem very sensible to me. I’m inclined to doubt that “more than half” of the problem is simple misunderstandings about what the target experience is supposed to be, but as long as you think there is a substantial residue of confusion and error not traceable to such simple misunderstandings, our disagreement on that point is only one of degree.

    Your view of experience as sometimes sparse and sometimes abundant strikes me as among the plausible options (though it is rarely endorsed in print). You’ll be unsurprised to hear that I don’t see how we can settle, though, whether experience is like that as opposed to being generally abundant (with forgetting) or generally sparse (with refrigerator light error).

    I admire your blog. I hope we someday have the chance to meet in person.

  2. 2. Peter says:

    Thanks to you Eric – it’s a great book – and thanks for your kind words. It would certainly be great to meet if the chance ever arises.

    “More than half” was certainly a bit airy – you might well ask how I can tell in the current confused state of affairs. On the other hand I’m not sure I’d describe the confusions as ‘simple’ misunderstandings either!

  3. 3. Tom Clark says:


    Thanks for a typically well-written and insightful review. You say

    “If you pare experience down enough, you get to a point where it just is: it’s not actually that it’s infallible, more that it’s beyond the realm of fallibility or infallibility. To be fallible, to have truth values, there has to be an element of intentionality (and the right kind, too, with an appropriate ‘direction of fit’ – I don’t think desires can be false), but at the rock bottom level, this is absent.”

    I think you’ve hit the nail on the head with this. We aren’t in an epistemic relation to experience; we don’t inspect it or observe it, rather we consist of it as experiencers. There’s no distance between me the experiencer and my experience that could permit me to be wrong about what red looks like *now*, what pain feels like *now*. I could be wrong in judging that what seemed like pain was in fact a sensation of cold, but I can’t be wrong that it *seemed like pain* to me at the moment I felt it.

    But for this same reason there aren’t first person *facts* I know about how basic qualia feel, http://www.naturalism.org/kto.htm#Unspecifiable In possibly knowing a fact, there has to be the possibility of being mistaken, and as you’ve suggested there’s no such possibility with respect to the appearance of qualities in experience.

    So when you say “I still find it hard to resist the idea that there’s *something* infallible in there,” I think what you might mean is that in consciousness there are elements which we can’t be wrong about, and this is indeed the case. But it’s also the case that we can’t be right about them. If you think of qualia as the subjective, private counters in the game of perception, this makes sense. We don’t and can’t judge the basic, irreducible elements of a representational vocabulary to be right or wrong, they just are what they arbitrarily are in representing the world (about which we *can* be right or wrong), and so it is with qualia, seems to me.

  4. 4. Arnold Trehub says:

    Tom and Eric,

    Yes, conscious content is not propositional content, so it is neither true nor false. It is just what it is: 3pp, a transparent brain representation of the world from a privileged egocentric perspective; 1pp, an experience of something somewhere in perspectival relation to one’s self. The task of science is to explain how this can happen within nature as we understand it — our physical universe. Whatever scientific explanations for consciousness that are proposed have to be tested and validated by empirical evidence.

  5. 5. Paul Bello says:

    permit me to ask a perhaps silly question: If I say to myself “I’m feeling sad right now,” this has no truth conditions? It clearly seems to be a statement (semantically) supportable by virtue of an introspective act just prior to its utterance. It has an indexical component that refers to (something like) the specious present, over which introspection is more-or-less likely to be successful and/or correct. How isn’t this an epistemic relation to experience?

    any clarification is much appreciated.

  6. 6. Charles Wolverton says:

    Paul -

    You probably know more about this than I, but I’ll take a stab.

    It’s not clear to me whether your statement could have truth conditions because I don’t see how it’s truth could be evaluated – at least according to my Rortian take on truth, which involves establishing a consensus within a relevant and competent community (“truth is what your peers let you get away with saying”). The Cartesian answer is, of course, that there is a relevant, competent, and incorrigible community of one that suffices – you. But for non-Cartesians, there currently can’t be such a process (even deleting incorrigibility) because we don’t know how to isomorphically map your 1pp experience of “feeling sad” into something measurable and reportable for evaluation from a 3pp by members of a community.

    My understanding of the disagreement about qualia is whether there ever can be such a mapping. I have doubts about whether the issue is even well-framed, so I currently have no opinion on that.

    As for the epistemic status of the statement, that same process – establishing consensus within a community – is the core of the Sellarsian view of knowledge. (Not surprising since Rorty was a fan of Sellars.) So, for much the same reason I don’t see that the statement can acquire epistemic status (at least in that sense).

  7. 7. Peter says:

    Thanks, Tom – I think we are in the same sort of place, only I am more confused ;)

    Paul, yes: ‘I’m feeling sad right now’ has truth conditions – but the actual sadness doesn’t. What you think or say or believe about your emotional state might be wrong; but your emotional state in itself can’t be wrong (or right for that matter, as Tom points out).

  8. 8. Paul Bello says:

    I think I might have misread Tom. I agree that experiential states themselves can’t be true or false, but I guess what’s got me confused is how we’d ever be able to individuate different experiential states without them having something like an epistemic relation between the experiencer and the experience. How would I ever know that I was happy (and thus not sad) if I couldn’t (implicitly at minimum) evaluate whether or not I was in some state of affairs in which I experience happiness (and thus not in a state of affairs in which I’m sad). Maybe this misses Tom’s point in some deep way, but to me, it seems almost impossible (or at minimum useless) to invoke experience without introspection along for the ride. Just seems to me that they would be undifferentiated and thus of little meaning.

  9. 9. Charles Wolverton says:

    “How would I ever know that I was happy … if I couldn’t … evaluate whether or not I was in some state of affairs in which I experience happiness …”

    I think you should stick to the form of your earlier question:

    “How would I ever know to say ‘I am happy’?”

    Analogous to learning to say “I see red” when you have certain visual sensory experiences, you presumably learn to say “I am happy” when you have different sensory experiences – only in this case, instead of external stimuli they are internal, biochemical processes that are the source of experiences we call “emotions”.

    Ie, the epistemic relation you are looking for is between the physical experience and what you say, not between the experience and you, the “experiencer” (what would the latter even mean?)

    And that’s where the “community” to which I referred above comes in. In the case of learning to say “I’m happy”, it comprises (for example) you, your parents, other relatives, et al. They already have reached consensus on what one should say in response to certain emotional experiences, and they teach you to do likewise – just as they teach you to say “I see red” in response to certain external sensory stimuli. It’s trickier, of course, because unlike teaching about seeing red in which case they can point at something and say “red”, they can’t point at your emotion and say “happy”. But it obviously works out – we all learn to say the right thing at the right time. Well, most of the time.

  10. 10. Paul Bello says:

    Hi Charles,
    Presumably a deaf mute that’s lost in the wilderness is capable of suitably individuating thier experiences, I just don’t see how they could do so without noticing differences in thier internal state. I’m not presuming any kind of linguistic competence is required to do so — I take it that dogs are certainly capable of this without members of a dog-community agreeing on a set of terms by which to describe the world.

  11. 11. Peter says:

    …how we’d ever be able to individuate different experiential states without them having something like an epistemic relation between the experiencer and the experience

    Indeed. But I think we’re only talking about denying infallible epistemic relations here. You can still have true and justified knowledge of your own experiences, it’s just that that kind of introspective knowledge hasn’t got a special and unique exemption from error.

  12. 12. Paul Bello says:

    Ah, that’s a bit clearer for me. Thanks, Peter. I’m still under the impression that given some form of epistemic reliablism, it’s very hard to be wrong about one’s occurrant propositional attitudes. I confess that this analysis certainly wouldn’t generalize to propositional attitudes that I held in the (even immediate) past, or that I might plan to hold at any future time. I’m happy to bin these attributions under a more general umbrella called “self-knowledge,” which are considerably more prone to error via misidentification, confabulation or what have you. I’m not even convinced that we need to be infalliable about our occurrant propositional attitudes. I’m more concerned that these ought to be differentiated from inferences about the self in the past or future.

  13. 13. Charles Wolverton says:

    Paul -

    You used the term “epistemic”, and that implies linguistic competence, at least according to Sellars and his followers (and I assume everybody else in the field, although I certainly could be wrong). Non-epistemic dispositions of organisms to respond differentially to “experiences” (ie, sets of stimuli) are certainly possessed by deaf-mutes (from birth or like Helen Keller, later in life? it might make a difference), dogs, and even amoebas, but that seems quite irrelevant to the issue I thought you were addressing.

    Peter -

    “You can still have true and justified knowledge of your own experiences”

    So how do you determine that beliefs about your experiences are true and how do you justify them? And whatever your answer, once you have taken those steps and converted such a belief into knowledge, how do you decide what level of endorsement you assign to that knowledge, ie, how confidently you can assert it?

    “that kind of introspective knowledge hasn’t got a special and unique exemption from error.”

    Not, I assume, to suggest that there is a kind of knowledge that does.

    And is the meaning you attach to “epistemic relation between the experiencer and the experience” something like the experiencer’s ability to describe the experience, ie, to make assertions about it?

    Mary -

    Just to complete the trio.

  14. 14. Peter says:


    So how do you determine that beliefs about your experiences are true and how do you justify them?

    How indeed – much could be said about that (and in fact much has, by Gettier and others): too much for me to venture an attempt here.

    And yes on the other points, which I have rearranged (as intended, I hope).

    I wouldn’t mess with Mary if I were you. :)

  15. 15. Paul Bello says:

    I may have flippantly used “propositional attitudes” where I shouldn’t have. I suppose if one limits oneself to the notion that the contents of belief are always propositional, then I certainly see your point. I for one, am somewhat skeptical. I’ve been reading a lot lately about the property theory of mental content (endorsed by David Lewis, Chisholm and others), and I’m coming to find that account more persuasive in general. Plus, new data from cognitive development seems to suggest that pre-verbal infants with a presumably undeveloped linguistic competence are sensitive to the false beliefs of others. I can’t see how to appropriately square this with a strict requirement that epistemic reasoning is somehow inextricably bound to language comprehension. Of course, we do have to concern ourselves with why 3 year old infants fail verbal tests of belief-understanding, given the fact that younger infants pass non-verbal analogues of these tests. In any case, the new data (using adult subjects) seems to suggest that these are dissociable processes, and can be reliably pulled apart in non-verbal false-belief tasks by tying up linguistic resources with an unrelated dual-task. Errors in non-verbal false-belief reasoning typically follow under these circumstances.

  16. 16. Charles Wolverton says:

    Peter -

    I’m aware of the multifaceted state of epistemology (or at least I infer it from the relevant SEP entries), but my question wasn’t a general “what are all the ways one might?”, it was a specific “how would you?”, asked in response to your quoted statement. I’m just asking for something like “internalist theory X”. I can find the details. Needless to say, I’m skeptical of internalist theories of justification, but I’m willing to explore one.

    Sellars’ “externalism-plus” approach appears to deal with some of the Gettier examples via either the bit about “asking for and giving reasons” – which avoids “knowledge by virtue of dumb luck” – or via levels of endorsement – which implicitly avoids any idea of infallibility and handles Barn County situations: “that appears to be a red barn” rather than “that is a red barn”.

    And Paul -

    I note from a SEP entry that there are some theories that attribute knowledge to non-linguists. That strikes me as bizarre, but nonetheless I stand corrected. Mea culpa.

  17. 17. Charles Wolverton says:

    Paul (15) -

    Well, despite being on somewhat different paths we seem to be going in a similar direction. I’ve been trying to get some insights into child development psych with the objective of confirming or refuting some (off-the-wall) assumptions about the roll of language in all this. What sources are you finding for develop psychearea? (Having no institutional affiliations, I’m mostly limited to using materials that are Internet is accessible.)

    I;d advise being careful about attributing too much ability to children or any non- or pre-lingual organism. in this podcast, Liz Spelke’s observations about some limited abilities even in “older” children were interesting – and surprising:


    Her comments follow the discussion about the rats in a white room.

  18. 19. Shankar says:

    Seems like the book makes valid points, compared to many others reviewed here.

    As a side note, I really get irritated when people ask whether (or think) that dreams are in black and white. This is as nonsensical as assuming that people dreamed in monaural sound before stereo became popular.

    First, of all, we dont ‘watch’ dreams like sitting in a movie theatre. Our field of vision in our dreams is the same as the waking state. This applies to every other sense, including stuff like vestibular, smell, etc. (Don’t we experience a shove in the back when we dream of taking off on a plane?) All in all, the overall sensory experience one can have in dreams is no different from that of the waking state. That’s what makes them so special (and frightening, from a philosophical standpoint).

  19. 20. Peter says:

    Charles – we might be slightly at cross-purposes: I don’t have a theory to offer. When I said You can still have true and justified knowledge of your own experiences, I just meant Eric’s views didn’t exclude that possibility, not that I had an account of how we could.

  20. 21. Kar Lee says:

    I think both you and Peter are correct in saying that it is nonsensical to ask if we dream in mono sound, or in color. It is quite context dependent.

    When I was a teenager, one time I dreamed of playing with lasers, and I can tell you, they were in color! Rather fake looking kind of colors though, because they looked like those in Star Wars movies.

    From that point on, whenever I hear people say dreams are in B/W, I know they don’t know what they are talking about.

  21. 22. Shankar says:

    The concept of black and white vision didn’t even exist before the invention of photography. Our ancestors couldn’t have possibly even experienced it.

    So, if anything, dreaming in color would have been the natural result. B&W vision is an artificial construct, does not occur in nature (as far as humans are concerned).

    I myself have always dreamt in color. I have had many specific instances where the colors were integral to the dream sequence and remembered those colors on waking up.

  22. 23. Peter says:

    I agree, but let me pass on one interesting comment I’ve had elsewhere – what about colour-blind people?

  23. 24. Kar Lee says:

    Peter, just for the sake of argument, we are not sure if color-blind people see things in B/W even. Some of them could be seeing things in light green/dark green (as if you are putting a light green filter in front of a B/W picture), and some in light red/dark red, etc., a typical inverted spectrum problem. Now, does that count as dreaming in “color”? :)

    I guess whatever you experience in the real world, you experience the same thing in a dream. Otherwise, why is it so difficult to realize that you are in a dream?

  24. 25. Peter says:

    Some of them could be seeing things in light green/dark green

    Interesting – how can you tell? Unless these are people who once had colour vision and then lost it somehow.

  25. 26. Kar Lee says:

    Exactly. That is the incommunicability of qualia.

  26. 27. Paul Bello says:

    There really is a “Mary,” but his name is Knut Nordby:


    I grant you that he didn’t lose color vision. The condition that you refer to is called cerebral achromatopsia, and a summary can be found here:


  27. 28. Peter says:

    Thanks Paul – very interesting.

  28. 29. Paul Bello says:

    My pleasure.
    I’ve been finding lots of interesting correspondences between gedanken-experiments and clincal populations. One that I’ve been especially interested in given my wont to reduce all beliefs to de se beliefs is the case of Perry’s messy shopper example in his famous “The problem of the essential indexical.” If you recall, Perry presents a scenario in which he’s in a grocery store pushing along his cart of groceries and notices a trail of sugar on the ground. He diligently follows the trail, trying to find the shopper who is leaving the mess, but as he watches the trail widen, he suddenly realizes that *he* is the shopper in question. I wondered if I could find any clinical cases of self-dissociation like this, and indeed I did. It’s called “mirrored-self misidentification” and is roughly a derivative of Capgras syndrome, in which the sufferer perceives someone close to him as an imposter. In mirrored-self misidentification, the subject doesn’t recognize himself in the mirror. It seems clear that the subject has all sorts of interesting (and false) de se beliefs (e.g. there’s someone in the mirror, but it isn’t me), without having the corresponding de dicto or de re beliefs.

  29. 30. Charles Wolverton says:

    This is really an extension of my comment 78 on the Ephatic Consciousness? thread, but I think it’s perhaps even more relevant here. Since that comment, I have started rereading Rorty’s “Phil & the Mirror of Nature” (30th anniverary ed, 2007), and rediscovered this quote in the intro by Michael Williams (which I obviously shouldn’t have forgotten about, but that’s a hazard of trying to drink from a fire hydrant):

    … Nothing of practical significance comes from linking the credibility of an observation sentence with an individual’s confrontation with a private datum. This is the take-home message of Sellars’s attack on “the Myth of the Given.”

    If Sellars is right, the observational-theoretical distinction is methodological rather than ontological. There is no permanent observation language, providing the ultimate court of appeal for all knowledge claims. This is because no properties are “intrinsically observational”: observability is a matter of what we can be taught to report on reliably. Observability is therefore something we can change our minds about. People have held that they could spot witches; but they never could, because there aren’t any. What goes for witches goes for qualia: that we think that we are “immediately aware” of them does not mean that there have to be such things.

    The gist of that is what I have tried to argue from time to time, although incompetently (eg, comment 9 above).

    Just out of curiosity, have any CE regulars read Rorty’s P&MofN?

  30. 31. Vicente says:

    Paul & kar Lee, regarding B/W vision,

    In the page provided by Paul you can read:

    How is it diagnosed?

    Colorblindness is usually tested at children’s four-year physicals. The doctor asks them to identify a red and a green line on the eye chart. If any question remains, more precise visual testing can determine the exact nature of the problem.

    This test doesn’t prove that the patient has B/W vision, but could it be that if we show the patient two copies of the same picture one of them in color and the other one in B/W, and the patient reports that he notices no difference between the two of them, and that both pictures look like things usually do, wouldn’t that mean that he sees in B/W.

    Kar Lee wouldn’t this show that the patient is very likely to have B/W vision, I understand that he could turn all hues to some greenish grade, sort of using a green filter, but why would he add any greenish tones to the B/W picture? so if he sees both pictures identically, and alike the rest of things, the best guess is that he has B/W vision.

    Or not?

  31. 32. John says:

    Interesting review. It is about time that people started looking at their experience again rather than following in the footsteps of Denial Dennett. It is fascinating that so many philosophers, psychologists and neuroscientists so resolutely refuse to consider the role of time in conscious experience. The use of the word “specious” when referring to the “specious present” underlines this prejudice against the possibility that time is involved. The discussion of the experience of depth in particular should have been about time in experience. (See Time and Depth).

  32. 33. John says:

    Charles: “So how do you determine that beliefs about your experiences are true and how do you justify them?”

    The standard way to undermine belief in experience is to say that beliefs are judgments, judgments are processes and processes go one step at a time. At any moment you cannot know anything even your heterophenomenological output is just recall that could be wrong. But of course this is nonsense – see Presentism and the denial of mind.

  33. 34. Kar Lee says:

    Vicente, to a person who only has gray scale vision, whether it is B/W or dark green/light green is really indistinguishable from the outside. In fact, it might even be indistinguishable from the “inside”. I remember when I was a kid, we used to put a blue shield in front of our B/W TV set to supposedly filter out the “radiation” (maybe we were thinking x-rays?). If you watch that TV long enough, you don’t feel the bluish color after a while. It is just normal gray scale, even though it is a little bit bluish in reality. But once you take off the shield, the difference is obvious. So I suspect even if the color blind person indeed has greenish gray scale vision, he cannot tell.

    After reading those white text on black background on Knut Nordby’s website, it took me a long time to get my eyes back to normal. But then it occur to me that what if color-blindness is the norm, and there comes a person who has color-vision, how is he going to explain his experience to the world? And obviously there is no words for red and blue and any color that this person can see. So, in this case, there is no “relevant and competent community”, as Charles insisted in [6], does it mean this color-vision person is still color-blind, since he does not have the language of color because there is no words for it? Does it mean a color-vision person growing up among color-blind people will himself be color-blind? This seems hard to believe!

    However, in another comment I made in a different thread, I mentioned that Jill Bolte Taylor wrote in her book “My stroke of insight” that she only had B/W vision after her stroke, and not until her mother reminded her that she could use color to finish her jigsaw puzzle that she got her normal color vision back, instantly. I theorized that she had color vision, but had no color concept (probably because of the damage to her brain in the stroke), and that made her unable to pick up the color attributes of what she had seen, and therefore recalled seeing no colors, not until she was reminded of the concept. But once she got the concept back, and the part of her brain that was responsible for color vision must have been not damaged during the stroke, she got her sense of color back immediately. So it sounds like language/concept plays a role in your quale.

    But if you have color vision, while your peers don’t, won’t it become clear gradually that you are special?

    Charles [6], from the above discussion, I am highly skeptical about your quote in [6] that “truth is what your peers let you get away with saying”. I don’t believe you need your peers to justify to yourself that there are indeed colors in the world if all your peers are color-blind. Please point out where I have misunderstood the quote, if I have misunderstood it.

  34. 35. Kar Lee says:

    Paul, forgot to say, what an interesting “Mary” you have discovered! Thank you.

  35. 36. Charles Wolverton says:

    KL -

    My impression is that you (and others) believe that 1pp access to phenomenal experience can be a stand-alone (AKA “foundational”) source of knowledge and that some of that knowledge can have the status of absolute “truth”. The first belief is one version of the “myth of the given” attacked by Sellars. My understanding is that the second belief is not currently widely held – except in the case of propositions that no one considers worth disputing, eg, “Obama was born in the US”. (Just kidding!)

    As in earlier comments, I should emphasize that the issue isn’t whether one detects distinguishable differences among areas of the “mental image” attendant to optical input from the FOV. It’s how much epistemic significance one attaches to those differences. Being able to “justify to yourself that there are indeed colors in the world” based on merely detecting such differences sounds pretty epistemically significant to me.

  36. 37. Kar Lee says:

    My beliefs are ever-changing…they are probably not relevant for this discussion anyway. The focus of the discussion is the role played by a relevant and competent community.

    It sounds like you also hold the opinion that in the case of the lonely color-vision person in a world of color-blind people, the ability to detect different colors is already a good enough proof of the knowledge, despite the lack of a relevant and competent community. Did I understand it correctly? (Even though those colors that the color-vision person determines to be different fail to convince his color-blind peers that they are indeed different).

  37. 38. Charles Wolverton says:

    In the Sellars view of knowledge, the community is critical to the justification part of “knowing”. No community, no knowledge. Note that I’m not arguing his case (and couldn’t even if I cared to), just reporting. As Paul noted above, there are other views. This one just happens to make sense to me. Others’ mileage may vary.

  38. 39. John says:

    It is interesting that Sellars is another of those heroic who dominated philosophy in the 20th century. It never seems to have occurred to Ryle, Sellars, Dennett etc. that they were trapped in an archaic cosmology. A cartesian might declare that the Cogito is beyond doubt but this group of philosophers were utterly convinced that the cosmology that was accepted in ancient Alexandria was utterly beyond question and could be used to demolish Cogito.

    The love of heterophenomenology and moving the phenomenal into a process is evident in Sellars:

    “… the hero … postulates a class of inner—theoretical—episodes which he calls, say, impressions, and which are the end results of the impingement of physical objects and processes on various parts of the body… (Empiricism and Philosophy of Mind).”

    and also Dennett’s shifting of experience into a theory:

    “The infallibilist line on qualia treats them as properties of one’s experience one cannot in principle misdiscover, and this is a mysterious doctrine (at least as mysterious as papal infal libility) unless we shift the emphasis a little and treat qualia as logical constructs out of subjects’ qualia-judgments: a subject’s experience has the quale F if and only if the subject judges his experience to have quale F.”

    And of course Ryle writes on little else in “Concept of Mind” (see A ghost in your machine!)

    Fortunately, in the 21st century, we no longer need to use two millennia old theories to argue against the existence of experience. Like the subject of this article we can observe and then develop theories to explain our observation rather than using antiquated theories to eliminate observation. Yes, we can be scientists rather than philosophers, linguists or information technologists.

  39. 40. John says:

    Typo: “heroic” should have been “heroic figures”

    This was an ironic reference to their propensity for mocking the Cartesian “Hero”.

  40. 41. tgarnett says:

    Excellent review. See Susan Blackmore’s book “Ten Zen Questions” concerning an “experiential” approach to the fallibility of experience itself. Asking yourself, being trained to ask yourself, creating a continuity for experiential discontinuity by Zazen – are all methods or, if you will, practices. The articulation into words contextualized by the asker and test or gathering shapes the response, and to get weird here, retroactively shapes the experience. Dennitt also points this out.

  41. 42. Kar Lee says:

    Charles, thanks for the clarification.

  42. 43. Vicente says:

    retroactively shapes the experience

    It would shape the memory of the experience if anything.

    To recall that memory is a new experience itself. The fallibility of memories is another issue. To me is one of the facts for which the self is so unstable.

  43. 44. John says:

    tgarnett: “Dennitt also points this out.”

    Denial Dennett and Blackmore demonstrate an utter belief in school physics and place this above their own experience and observations. I gave a quote above of the method used by Dennett to reject experience, he redefines experience as a process, spots that a process has steps and that at each one of these steps nothing occurs so then is able to declare that experience is false or even non-existent. Scientists observe then explain, they do not get a school science book and declare that anything that is incompatible with this gospel cannot exist! Dennett and Blackmore are not scientists.

  44. 45. dreams says:


    [...]Conscious Entities » Blog Archive » Perplexities of Consciousness[...]…

  45. 46. Natorio says:

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