We 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…?