Posts tagged ‘introspection’

Auguste ComteThe folk history of psychology has it that the early efforts of folk such as Wundt and Titchener failed because they relied on introspection. Simply looking into your own mind and reporting what you thought you saw there was hopelessly unscientific, and once a disagreement arose about what thoughts were like, there was nothing the two sides could do but shout at each other. That is why the behaviourists, in an excessive but understandable reaction, gave up talking about the contents of the mind altogether, and even denied that they existed.

That is of course a terrible caricature in a number of respects; one of them is the idea that the early psychologists rushed in without considering the potential problems with introspection. In fact there were substantial debates, and it’s quite wrong to think that introspection went unquestioned. Most trenchantly, Comte declared that introspection was useless if not impossible.

As for observing in the same manner intellectual phenomena while they are taking place, this is clearly impossible. The thinking subject cannot divide himself into two parts, one of which would reason, while the other would observe its reasoning. In this instance, the observing and the observed organ being identical, how could observation take place? The very principle upon which this so-called psychological method is based, therefore, is invalid.

I don’t know that this is quite as obvious as Comte evidently thought. To borrow Roger Penrose’s analogy, there’s no great impossibility about a camera filming itself (given a mirror), so why would there be a problem in thinking about your thoughts? I think there are really two issues. One is that if we think about ourselves thinking, the actual content of the thought recedes down an infinite regress (thinking about thinking about thinking about thinking…) like the glassy corridor revealed when we put two mirrors face to face. The problem Comte had in mind arises when we try to think about some other mental event. As soon as we begin thinking about it, the other mental event is replaced by that thinking. If we carefully clear our minds of intrusive thoughts, we obviously stop thinking about the mental event. So it’s impossible: it’s like trying to step on your own shadow. To perceive your own mental events, you would need to split in two.

John Stuart Mill thought Comte was being incredibly stupid about this.

There is little need for an elaborate refutation of a fallacy respecting which the only wonder is that it should impose on any one. Two answers may be given to it. In the first place, M. Comte might be referred to experience, and to the writings of his countryman M. Cardaillac and our own Sir William Hamilton, for proof that the mind can not only be conscious of, but attend to, more than one, and even a considerable number, of impressions at once. It is true that attention is weakened by being divided; and this forms a special difficulty in psychological observation, as psychologists (Sir William Hamilton in particular) have fully recognised; but a difficulty is not an impossibility. Secondly, it might have occurred to M. Comte that a fact may be studied through the medium of memory, not at the very moment of our perceiving it, but the moment after: and this is really the mode in which our best knowledge of our intellectual acts is generally acquired. We reflect on what we have been doing, when the act is past, but when its impression in the memory is still fresh. Unless in one of these ways, we could not have acquired the knowledge, which nobody denies us to have, of what passes in our minds. M. Comte would scarcely have affirmed that we are not aware of our own intellectual operations. We know of our observings and our reasonings, either at the very time, or by memory the moment after; in either case, by direct knowledge, and not (like things done by us in a state of somnambulism) merely by their results. This simple fact destroys the whole of M. Comte’s argument. Whatever we are directly aware of, we can directly observe.

And as if Comte hadn’t made enough of a fool of himself, what does he offer as as an alternative means of investigating the mind?

 We are almost ashamed to say, that it is Phrenology!

Phrenology! ROFLMAO! Mill facepalms theatrically. Oh, Comte! Phrenology! And we thought you were clever!

The two options mentioned by Mill were in essence the ones psychologists adopted in response to Comte, though most of them took his objection a good deal more seriously than Mill had done. William James, like others, thought that memory was the answer; introspection must be retrospection. After all, our reports of mental phenomena necessarily come from memory, even if it is only the memory of an instant ago, because we cannot experience and report simultaneously.  Wundt was particularly opposed to there being any significant interval between event and report, so he essentially took the other option; that we could do more than one mental thing at once. However, Wundt made a distinction; where we were thinking about thinking, or trying to perceive higher intellectual functions, he accepted that Comte’s objection had some weight. The introspective method might not work for those. But where we were concerned with simple sensation for example, there was really no problem. If it was the seeing of a rose we were investigating, the fact that the seeing was accompanied by thought about the seeing made no difference to its nature.

Brentano, while chuckling appreciatively at Mill’s remarks, thought he had not been completely fair to Comte. Like Wundt, Brentano drew a distinction between viable and non-viable introspection; in his case it was between perceiving and observing. If we directed our attention fully towards the phenomena under investigation, it would indeed mess things up: but we could perceive the events sufficiently well without focusing on them. Wundt disagreed; in his view full attention was both necessary and possible. How could science get on if we were never allowed to look straight at things?

It’s a pity these vigorous debates are not more remembered in contemporary philosophy of mind (though Eric Schwitzgebel has done a sterling job of bringing the issues back into the light). Might it not be that the evasiveness Comte identified, the way phenomenal experience slips from our grasp like our retreating shadow, is one of the reasons qualia seem so ineffable? Comte was at least right that some separation between observer and observed must occur, whether in fact it occurs over time or between mental faculties. This too seems to tell us something relevant: in order for a mental experience to be reported it must not be immediate. This seems to drive a wedge into the immediacy which is claimed to generate infallibility for certain perceptions, such as that of our own pains.

At any rate we must acquit Wundt, Titchener and the others of taking up introspection uncritically


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.

Picture: Socrates looking at himself. Introspection, the direct examination of the contents of our own minds, seems itself to be in many minds at the moment.  The latest issue of the Journal of Consciousness Studies was devoted to papers on introspection, marking the tenth anniversary of the publication of The View from Within, by Francisco Varela and Jonathan Shear (which was itself a special edition of the JCS); and now Eric Schwitzgebel has produced a new entry for the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

The two accounts are of course quite different in some respects. The encyclopaedia entry is a careful, scholarly account, neutral and comprehensive; the JCS issue is openly a rallying-cry in support of a programme flowing from Varela’s work.  This, it seems, called for an end to the ban on examination of lived experience;  the JCS gives the impression that it was something of a milestone, though Schwitzgebel’s piece does not mention it (he does cite an earlier paper by Varela, once again in the JCS).

What’s all this about a ban? Well, back in the nineteenth century, psychologists had no fears about using introspective evidence; it was thought that a proper scientific effort would lead to an objectively verifiable kind of phenomenology. We should be able to classify the elements of mental experience and clarify how they worked together, just by examining what went on in our own heads. A great deal of work was done on all this (It was a great disappointments for me to discover, on first opening Brentano’s Psychology from an Empirical Standpoint, that it consisted almost entirely of this kind of thing, and that the only passage about intentional inexistence, the interesting issue, was the couple of paragraphs which I had already read as quotes in several other books.).  There was a gradual refinement of the methods involved, leading on to the great heyday of introspectionism, with Wundt and Titchener in the lead. Unfortunately, it became clear that the rival schools of introspectionism had begun to come up with results which in some respects were radically different and incompatible, and since our own introspections are by their nature private and unverifiable, all they could really do by way of settling the issues was to shout at each other.

This embarrassing impasse led to a reaction away from introspection and to the rise of behaviourism, which not only denied the usefulness of examining our inner experience, but actually went to the extreme of denying that there was any such thing as inner experience.  Behaviourism in its turn fell out of favour, but according to Varela there remained an instinctive distrust of introspection which continued to put people off it as an avenue of research. This is the ‘ban’ he wanted to see overturned.

Was there, is there, really a ban? Not exactly.  Apart from the most dogmatic of the behaviourists, no-one has ever tried to exclude introspection altogether. In recent times, introspective evidence has been widely accepted – the problem of qualia, thought by some to be the problem of consciousness, depends entirely on introspection. I think the real problem arises when we adopt special methods. In order to obtain consistent results, the old introspectionists thought extensive training was necessary. It wasn’t enough to sit and think for a bit; you had to have mastered certain skills of discrimination and perception. The methodological dangers involved in teaching your researchers what kind of thing they could legitimately look for are clear.

Unfortunately, it seems to be very much this kind of programme which the JCS authors would like to resurrect – or rather, have resurrected, and wish to gain acceptance and support for.  Once again we are going to need to learn how to introspect properly before our observations will be acceptable. What makes it worse for me is that the proposal seems to be tied up with NLP – Neuro-linguistic Programming.  I don’t know a great deal about NLP: it seems to be a protean doctrine which shares with the Holy Roman Empire the property of not really being any of the three things in its name – but for me it does nothing to render another trip down this particular blind alley more attractive.

Blandula I don’t know about that, but aren’t they right to emphasise the potential value of introspection? Isn’t it the case that introspection is our only source of infallible information? Most of the things we perceive are subject to error and delusion, but we can’t, for example, be wrong about the fact that we are feeling pain, can we? That seems interesting to me. Our impressions of the outside world come to us through a chain of cause and effect, and at any stage errors or misinterpretations can creep in; but because introspection is direct, there’s no space for error to occur. You could well say it’s our only source of certain knowledge – isn’t that worth pursuing a little more systematically?

Bitbucket Infallible? That is the exact reverse of the truth: in fact all introspections are false. Think about it. Introspection can only address the contents of consciousness, right? You can’t introspect the unconscious mental processes that keep you balanced, or regulate your heartbeat. But all of the contents of consciousness have intentionality – they’re all about things, yes? So to have direct experience of mental content is to be thinking about something else – not about the mental state itself, but about the thing it’s about! Now when we attempt to think directly about our own mental states, it follows that we’re not experiencing them in themselves – we’re experiencing a different mental state which is about them. In short, we’re necessarily imagining our mental states. Far from having direct contact, we are inevitably thinking about something we’ve just made up.