On Philosophy

August 12, 2006

What Introspection Tells Us

Filed under: Mind — Peter @ 12:47 am

Introspection has a bad reputation, and justifiably so. Many aspects of the mind that seem intuitively transparent to us, such as the reliability of a memory, or justification for a decision, are in fact not so clear, and “introspection” is often in error about them. Is introspection then fatally flawed? Is there nothing that we can know about our minds with authority? I think that there is, and thus that introspection still has a role to play in philosophy.

The philosophers who originally proposed introspection as a way to understand the mind did not know about the existence of the unconscious, and I think this is what led them to make the mistakes that they did. If you don’t know about the unconscious then the entirety of the mind must be conscious. But since we are aware of everything that is conscious then surely we are aware of everything in the mind, given that there is no unconscious, and thus we can’t be mistaken about it, since there is nothing in the mind that could be the cause of an error without us being aware of that cause, and thus being able to correct for it.

As nice as this would be it doesn’t hold up to experimental evidence, and is in fact logically inconstant. For example if everything in the mind is conscious then not only are all thoughts conscious but the connections between them are as well. However, if we are aware of a connection between two thoughts then that connection must be a conscious thought as well. Now we have a third thought, about the connection, which is itself connected to the two original thoughts. But we must be aware of those connections …, and thus we are led to the conclusion that we have an infinite number of thoughts at any given time. Not only is this a silly idea it clearly doesn’t agree with our experience of being conscious.

Let us consider a more limited version of introspection then, one that can reveal facts about our conscious experience with perfect accuracy, but that has no special power to illuminate any of the unconscious. Here I am taking consciousness in the more limited sense, as simply the contents of our phenomenal field, specifically the ideas and impressions we are aware of at a given moment. The unconscious then encompasses quite a bit: the connections between thoughts, our beliefs, memories we aren’t currently experiencing, senses we aren’t paying attention to, why a thought occurs to us, ect. Why are people misled into believing they have introspective access to the unconscious? I think it is because we live with our unconscious constantly, and thus from our conscious experience we feel that we can deduce quite a bit about it, and for the most part I suspect that these deductions are fairly accurate. For example when we have a succession of thoughts we can usually deduce from the contents of those thoughts why one led to another, even though we aren’t conscious of the connection. Similarly we can deduce what we believe fairly accurately since we are used to having certain thoughts that affirm the belief, and acting in ways consistent with that belief. (I will admit that this statement about belief may seem a bit contentious, since not everyone thinks that beliefs are unconscious, but let us leave that discussion for another day.)

If we grant that the unconscious is closed to direct introspection why should we believe that introspection is more accurate with respect to the conscious mind? Simply because it is part of the nature of consciousness that it makes up our awareness. That is for some mental feature to be conscious we must be aware of it, and if we are aware of it then we must have introspective access to it (since that is a consequence of being aware). We may not be aware of our belief that the sky is blue, but if I consciously think “the sky is blue” surely I am aware of thinking that (and am thus able to accurately reflect upon it, because if I am not aware of the thought then it wouldn’t have been conscious in the first place). But have I been begging the question? Let us then consider the alternate possibility: instead of really being aware of consciousness I am simply judging that I am conscious of those things, and I don’t realize that it is only a judgment because I am also systematically mistaken about that as well. This seems to be a similar predicament to the one we are in with respect to our unconscious, so surely I can’t dismiss it as simply unlikely. My response to this is that the contents of those judgments would be consciousness, specifically that of which we are aware, and thus once again we are in a position were we have accurate introspective access to consciousness.

I will admit that there is one challenge to introspection I am currently unable to refute. The last remaining possibility to show introspection about consciousness to be faulty is to suppose that even though we have accurate awareness of our consciousness at the moment we are unable to accurately reflect and introspect and reflect on it because, after the moment passes, we misremember it. I consider this possibility highly unlikely, but until we have evidence about the accuracy of our short-term memory with respect to conscious experience I can’t say for sure.

So given that introspection gives us reliable access to consciousness where does that leave us? Well for one thing it prevents us from explaining consciousness away. Clearly I have introspective access to something, thus consciousness must exist in some form. Secondly we must structure our theories so that they agree with, and ideally explain, the features of conscious experience. In some senses phenomenology has been doing this all along, although phenomenology is more concerned with describing conscious experience than it is with explaining why people have it.

Note: This post leans on some of the definitions given here.

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1 Comment

  1. I am not an expert in philosophical theories, so excuse any ignorance in my response. I generally found the theme interesting but don’t quite follow why introspection does not enable us to explore the unconscious. I understand that the moment we expose something it comes into the realm of the conscious. But to get there, that is to make an unconscious reaction, into a conscious response, does not introspection help?

    Comment by Vasu — August 12, 2006 @ 1:50 pm


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