On Philosophy

March 18, 2007

Knowledge of Inner States

Filed under: Mind — Peter @ 12:00 am

Consider the thought: “I am in pain”. Is it rational to doubt that we are in pain, given that we think that we are in pain? Is it even consistent? While the cogito (I think therefore I am) gives us warrant to conclude that we do in fact exist it doesn’t seem to give us reason to think that our inner lives are as we think they are. Why can’t we be largely mistaken about what is really going on inside us?

Well we can easily demonstrate that we have good reason to believe that we are really in pain when we think that we are in pain. When people are in pain they demonstrate certain characteristic behaviors, such as favoring the part of them that is in pain and jerking away when something causes them pain. Simply observation of ourselves shows us that our inner thoughts, that we are in pain, are almost always correlated with these behaviors. And thus we can conclude, by a roundabout method, that our thinking that we are in pain is usually correlated with us “really” being in pain, and a reliable indicator of it. Thus we can trust our thoughts about our internal states, at least as much as we can rely on correlation in general.

But this may seems somewhat unsatisfying, since it gives us authority about our internal states only by a kind of third person observation. But, then again, it is not as if first person knowledge is perfectly reliable either. For example, people can report that they are not in pain when all of their non-verbal behavior indicates that some part of them does hurt. Of they might agree that they are in pain but say that the pain in somewhere else. Or they might claim, honestly, to be in pain but display no other indications that they are really in pain.

These problems can be dealt with though by separating pain into two aspects, the functional-behavioral aspect and the higher order aspect. The functional-behavioral aspect of pain, painf, is pain behavior, which means the disposition to favor a certain body part, to reflexively pull away, ect, as well as certain affects on attitude, such as reduced patience. Basically painf is anything that we could conceivably be unconscious of, assuming that we weren’t paying attention to our own behavior. The higher order aspect, painh is the thoughts we have about pain, meaning not only the thought “I am in pain”, but the diminished ability to focus on other thoughts because of the pain, and the conscious desire for that pain to go away. I claim that it is best to treat painf and painh as separate phenomena that are simply often correlated in the normal course of events.

Of course you can be wrong about being in painf, but I don’t think that anyone will oppose this authority being taken away from us, since it is impossible to be wrong about being in painh, since thinking that we are in painh or not thinking that we are in painh is all there is to being or not being in painh.

Now some may think that I am pulling a fast one with this analysis of pain. Maybe the separation of pain into these two parts simply seems too convenient. But both parts play an explanatory role. We can test for the presence of painf with certain behavioral tests, and we can test for the presence of painh simply by asking people. Thus both painf and painh are the best explanations of certain observable behavior, and, in the case of painh, certain facts about subjective experience.

Misgivings aside, some may object to this account on the grounds that it may seem to violate some experimental evidence concerning the reliability of our judgments regarding our inner states. For example, the work of Nisbett and Wilson seems to show that the process by which we arrive at certain ideas and judgments is unconscious, and that we only think that it is conscious because our unconscious presents us with a fabricated story about that process when we reflect upon it. There are two ways to approach these results. One is to simply let memory be a different story, since the results of the experiments really deal with how people remember certain internal states, not how they have access to their current internal states. The other is to divide judgment like we did with pain. Judgmentf are the unconscious states that lead to a conscious decision, and judgmenth is the process of judgment that we find in reflection. Again, we can claim authority over judgmenth, how we consciously think of, or experience, our judgments, while allowing that judgmentf is something that we may be in error about (perhaps fairly often).

Now it is not the purpose of this analysis to restore a kind of infallibility to our inner awareness. People claim, and feel, that their inner awareness gives them access to the functional-behavioral aspects of their lives. And, as Nisbett and Wilson showed, this is a mistake; we may often be wrong about those aspects. So in that sense our inner awareness is far from infallible. I have only rescued infallibility for a limited range of mental events, a category of events that we don’t usually make reference to. My point in establishing this category, and its infallibility, is simply to make sense of talking about consciousness, because most reasonable investigations of consciousness need to give people some first person authority about what is and isn’t conscious, otherwise consciousness, by its subjective nature, becomes unknowable. The higher order aspects fill this role. We can coherently talk about consciousness and its contents in terms of these higher order aspects without committing ourselves to giving people any accuracy with regards to what is really going on “under the hood” in the process that makes them actually conscious.

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