On Philosophy

August 26, 2006

How to Defeat Internal-World Skepticism

Filed under: Mind,Self — Peter @ 2:11 pm

Is it possible to be a skeptic about your own conscious states? Specifically, is it possible to rationally believe that you are not having the conscious thoughts that you think you are having? The goal then is to argue that the mind words in such a way that it is not rational to have such doubts, or to show why we have such a hard time entertaining such doubts if they are reasonable. In their paper “Internal-World Skepticism and the Self-Presentational Nature of Phenomenal Consciousness” Horgam, Tienson, and Graham document three failed solutions to the problem: access consciousness, the view that the we have non-inferentially formed beliefs about own current-occident mental state (COMS); ontological consistency, the view that the first order mental state is part of the COMS belief, which is directed at itself; and ontological consistency plus a long armed functional role, the view that the COMS belief is also defined by is causal role within the mind. Unfortunately all of these proposed solutions can be defeated in the same way, because it is possible under all of them that we simply think, incorrectly, that we have such beliefs. For example under access consciousness it is possible that the COMS beliefs are simply systematically in error, in the case of ontological consistency and ontological consistency plus a long armed functional role it is possible to conceive of COMS that play the same role, but whose contents fail to align in any significant way with the actual workings of the mind.

Unfortunately the solution provided by the aforementioned paper has its own problems. The authors propose that our phenomenal experience is self-presenting, and thus that to have the experience is to know we are having that experience, and that it is self-presenting. This view however suffers from some of the same problems as the previously mentioned failures, specifically is possible that we simply think, incorrectly, that we have such self-presenting experiences, or that the content of those self-presenting experiences is radically in error.

Before I go on to discuss my own solution let me first mention that it is important that we not prove too much with regards to introspection. For example there is a well-known tendency for people to prefer the rightmost object in a lineup. Most people are ignorant of this unconscious preference, if you ask them why they picked the rightmost object they will give you many other reasons why they chose it, but they have no idea that there was an unconscious bias, even though that bias did contribute to their decision to pick the object on the right. Thus we don’t want to insist the facts that our conscious self-awareness reveals match up perfectly with the working of the mind, we want to say that they match up with the content of consciousness. The reasons described by the person in the experiment are their real conscious reasons, even if there were unconscious influences on their decision or reasoning, or at least this is what we would like to conclude.

One obvious way out of this problem is to define consciousness as simply the subject of our self-awareness. This certainly eliminates the problem of skepticism, but unfortunately this solution suffers from its own set of problems. Specifically our self-awareness is itself conscious, and thus we would have to conclude that our self-awareness was a subject of itself. However it is impossible that conscious self-awareness could contain all the information about itself (in order to be conscious) as well as information about other contents of consciousness (since this would imply that it could have infinite informational capacity, among other problematic conclusions). The way to overcome the problem of self-representation is to allow that some details are omitted by the self-representing mechanism, and that such details can be filled in when needed (an idea stolen from “The Self-Representational Structure of Consciousness” by Kenneth Williford). Such a resolution will not work for this solution though, because if some details were left out by the self-representing mechanism those details wouldn’t be conscious, and we would be right back where we started.

What I consider to be the real solution turns on a property of thought, that thinking of a complex statement or idea implies that you are thinking about its constituent parts. For example if you are thinking “there are no pink elephants” you are thinking about “pink elephants” and thus in turn “pink” and “elephants”. This seems reasonable to me, and I can’t think of a reason to deny it, so I will simply present it here without a defense for the moment. If we accept this, the solution is fairly obvious, as the possible skeptical defeaters mentioned earlier are all of the form “you don’t really have the conscious thought ‘X’, you simply think that you have conscious thought ‘X’”. However, if we accept the principle I introduced earlier then it is reasonable to conclude: if I think that I am thinking ‘X’ I must also be thinking ‘X’, and thus ‘X’ is a real conscious thought after all. The only possible remaining skeptical defeater is of the form “how do you know that your consciousness corresponds to anything real?” We can use an argument against epiphenomenalism to defeat that possibility; as such an argument demonstrates that our consciousness has real causal powers. You can read my argument against epiphenomenalism here.

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