:: Article

No One Left to Trust

By Richard Marshall.


Perplexities of Consciousness: Life and Mind Philosophical Issues in Biology and Psychology, Eric Schwitzgebel, MIT, 2011

‘Know Thyself’ sounds simple but turns out to be a public health issue at the very least. Nietzsche thought the mind to be a mysterious and surreal terrain. Freud turned his insights into a secular religion for the pampered bourgeoisie. Schwitzgebel is one of the contemporary batch of serious thinkers approaching the mind without the trappings of the Freudian cult. He argues that we should be profoundly perplexed by our inner lives. He doubts if introspection can deliver anything trustworthy about the content of our minds. His book reinforces one of the central claims that Nietzsche made about humanity, which is that we misinterpret our own thoughts and motivations systematically and often. The tough-minded Chicagoan philosopher Brian Leiter has taken back Nietzsche from Foucaultian post-modernists in the last decade or so and argued that this feature of Nietzsche has massive implications, if true, for work on moral responsibility. If we don’t possess our own motivations then being held responsible for them is dubious. Alongside Nietzsche’s claim that we have no freewill and that everyone is different, the pillars supporting a universal ethical system collapse.

Batman: Arkham City, released on the 18th October, the successor game to 2009s Arkham Asylum, is a stunningly brilliant vision of the eerie, cunning, protean and twisted darkness of our minds that Nietzsche first identified with terrifying intensity as the nineteenth century burned down, its final cinders snuffed out in the trenches of Passchendale. The games’ crazed, sublime, convoluted protagonists are all aspects of our cracked and mutated inner life, a dangerous, out of control and unsurveyable geography of our machine’s disingenuous ghost. Batman, Joker, Riddler, Penguin, Catwoman, Harley Quinn, Hugo Strange, Harvey Dent, the unmappable, ever changing shadows of the rain-drenched environs of Arkham City itself, are characterizations of the inversions, camouflages, envies, resentments and willful deviousness of our gore-blasted minds, our secret, self deceiving, inner selves lusting for power and stewing up resentment from evolved, living, biological innards.

This version of the mind is instinctual, not rational, where we take pleasure in whole situations rather than in accumulated and accountancy-costed pleasures and pains, where what matters is power over others, where whatever matters to us and is thought objective and true is perceived as such thanks to gestalt experiences of immense trauma, where truths about ourselves remain hidden and where trauma constructs traits that are crystallized in infancy into unchangeable character types. The result of this mind is something surreal, ‘strangers both to the principles of perspective, and to all the normal rules of time, space, logic and causality… devoid of perspective or sense of proportion,’ as Ernest Gellner puts it. Inner life is cunning, camouflaged, inaccessible, enslaved to instincts, twisted, dishonest, linked to weakness and illness to the point where pathologies of modern times are grown as symptoms of social policy, ethical taste and political settlement (although Leiter would dispute the last point). The slave morality of Christian charity is merely the ethics of envy, that of the slave for the master, our ascetic planet merely an outworking of the herd’s trickster logic overcoming their instinctual drives for revenge. Locke and Mill’s and Adam Smith’s calculus of democratic politics and market economics are merely the atomistic, accountant-led denial of life, where the bloody urges of life are replaced by the anaemic complacencies of civilization.

Ernest Gellner, in his book The Psychoanalytic Movement talks about the Nietzschean Minimum, summarising these basic ideas. The first point of this Nietzschean Minimum is what Gellner calls ‘the self-devouringness of morality’, by which he means that morality in the pejorative sense is a contorted and tortured outcome of the same wild sources that feed our basic desires. For this reason its ascetic conclusions are dishonest. ‘Self-devouring’ is a phrase meant to capture the necessary inconsistencies of the position: because Nietzsche condemns some morality but not all morality Gellner argues that ‘is not the condemnation of dishonesty itself a survival of that self-tormenting conscience which is being damned? In the name of what value or ideal can we damn cunning and the moralistic self-torturers if they prevail? Was it not they themselves who invented the ideal of the abstract truth? So do we not damn them in the name of a pseudo-standard which they themselves deceitfully invented, and in disregard of the more terrestial norm of success which we ought to reinstate?’ Brian Leiter in his later book on Nietzsche’s ethics explains this apparent contradiction in terms of a distinction between morals in the pejorative sense, morals ‘for the herd’ as Nietzsche charmingly puts it, and morality that allows the higher types to thrive.

The second aspect of the Nietzschean Minimum is the idea that excellence is parasitic on aggression, which therefore condemns humanitarian, ascetic morality as a perversion. The third aspect is a social Darwinianism, where conflict rather than harmony is the norm and characterizations to the contrary are against our true natures. Enlightenment values are merely on this view ‘… the old priestly venom, the resentment and self-hatred of the weak, the attempt to set up their weakness as the norm and to stigmatise vigour as evil…’

Schwitgebel’s book is a depth probe into the very deepest swamps of our self-image. Since Nietzsche concluded that most of us are incapable of self-knowledge, and Freud developed Nietzsche’s incredibly brilliant insight into the subterfuge of unconsciousness, there is now powerful empirical evidence beginning to produce data supporting the idea that our minds are mysterious not only to others but to ourselves also. Up until recently methodological suspicions of Freudian techniques hampered alternative approaches to investigating these mysteries. Ernest Gellner wrote his devastating critique of the Freudian movement in his The Psychoanalytic Movement, characterized it as an ideology structured in ways similar to those of a religion. Given that modern currents of thought have generally shunned religion, the Freudian content tended to be considered too spooky to be genuine.

The main problem Gellner identified was that Freud took the hard-nosed Nietzschean Minimum, which included the violent and power obsessed beasts of irrational and unknown motivations lying in everyone’s breast, and domesticated them for mass consumption. By adding an extra helping of sexuality, the salon-titillating aspect of this business gave the whole movement a genteelly scandalous reputation for all those unhappy wealthy unemployed and bored wimmin and that extra whiff of sex gave it the extra something the rather scary Nietzschean stuff didn’t have. As Gellner puts it about Nietzsche, ‘The Transvaluation of Values, which he commended, is questionably coherent, highly nebulous, sounds as if it might be arduous and perilous, and, let’s not beat about the bush, is a bit above the heads of ordinary people. A highbrow classicist-philosopher is shrieking against long-term historical trends which are hardly involved in the daily concerns of most people.’

So Freud is basically Nietzsche Lite, to borrow a soft drink metaphor. The middle classes loved it, and coupled with the provenance given to the whole movement because Freud was a medical man, Freud has become the religion of the stolid, affluent bourgeoisie. Lacanian Freudians like Zizek should brood on this as they try and roar Marxisms from these bourgeois séances.

Studies of mental stuff has for a long time been harnessed to the Freudians and the psychoanalytic movement and its bogus, manipulative institutionalized approach has been suspect to people wanting to approach their studies without the paraphernalia of the cult. Some thought that dismissing the Freudian formulas meant dismissing the very idea of the unconscious and the mental altogether. But that attitude threw the baby out with the proverbial slops. The mind’s irredeemably strange and secretive nature is no longer the exclusive preserve of hokum mongerers.

Eric Schwitzgebel, a philosopher at the University of California at Riverside, is a leading figure assessing the philosophical relevance of current work about the workings of our minds. His approach is far from the foggy Freudian heuristic. He broods on data arriving from cool experiments which lead to some equally cool (and disturbing) insights about our minds. As a result of this work he claims that we really don’t know ourselves at all well. Minds turn out to be not at all transparent to us and most attempts at naïve introspection turn out to be very unreliable.

Introspective writers are special and important to us. They claim that we can believe what they’re saying because when it comes to their own beliefs about pain, grief, sex, hatred, love, desire, hope, failure and so on, they know best. It would be shocking if it turned out that they were deluded about themselves, that what they claimed about their beliefs were in fact not true. From Proust to Henry James to Beckett and Burroughs, we trust their reports. We consider the inner spaces as being the preserves of some of our most courageous and brilliant contemporaries.

Some even consider it is our self knowledge of this inner space that defines us in some way as being modern, as when the critic Bloom claims that it was through Shakespeare’s representation of the mind of Hamlet that modern people were invented. And the great introspective novelists have often been impressed by the unreliability of introspection. Characters are often portrayed as not understanding their real motivations, as knowing less than their readers. Jane Austen, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Henry James and Marcel Proust are examples of writers skillfully portraying the self-delusions of characters incapable of grasping their own minds.

Yet at the same time an alternative notion of rational and transparent minds has been imported into the suppositions of the various kinds of utilitarian consequentialists who assume that we are capable of naïve introspection to certainty. Science itself places knowledge about what is perceived to the mind as being a crux of its methodology. Indeed many of the great intellectuals of the modern world have been impressed by the near infallible access to the inner streams of consciousness. Descartes, Berkeley and Hume thought that only our sensory and imagistic inner experiences were indubitable. Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty built a whole philosophical programme out of the phenomenological, motivated by the belief that unmediated perception was as close to being indubitable as it was possible to be. Contemporary philosophers such as Sydney Shoemaker and David Chalmers argue for the infallibility of our claims about inner experience. Paul Churchland and Dan Dennett can be read as endorsing something like infallibility given some charitable interpretation. Even those top philosophers who think we can make introspective errors tend to argue that the errors are rare and untypical.

Russ Huriburt gives us reasons for doubting self reports about our own beliefs. He has run experiments showing that we are often and typically wrong about our beliefs. So, to give one example from his work discussed by Schwitzgebel, a person will report that he rarely has angry thoughts about his children whilst most times when randomly sampled he reports having angry thoughts about his children. Or again, people will report that they are often thinking about sex when random sampling reveals no such thing. Or again, people get it wrong about whether they visualize a lot or whether they have lots of inner speech going on. Schwitzgebel is impressed by Huriburt’s experimental data.

Huriburts’ are disconcerting claims. Here are some more serious ones. There’s evidence that we are poor at knowing our most important dispositions and attitudes. People who avow sincere anti-sexist and anti-racist beliefs, some of whom may have spent the whole of their adult lives thinking about these issues, have been shown to systematically think in sexist and racist ways. The evidence includes women and non-whites. This is shocking.

As well as being largely mistaken about our own dispositions and attitudes, we are also ignorant about our character traits. This makes the psychological tests that test for traits suspect when they involve self-reporting. But these are exactly the kind of things that are used as part of a selection process for employment, the kind of process that tests to see if you’re an extrovert, assertive, sociable and so on by asking a range of questions and then drawing conclusions from patterns detected in the answers. So you get asked whether you like chatting with people, whether you like dancing, sitting in the centre of a group etc. and if you keep answering yes to those questions then they infer that you are an extrovert. The accuracy of this kind of self report is pretty dismal when the trait is difficult to directly observe and evaluatively loaded, such as flexibility, creativity and laziness. In fact in these cases people tend to think better of themselves than their peers.

When it comes to questions such as whether we think we are morally good, there’s just not the evidence to know how accurate self-reporting is. But Schwitzgebel is pretty pessimistic about the accuracy of any self-reporting in this area. He thinks people are too wily to be honest, even to themselves. He ran an experiment recently with Joshua Rust which showed that ‘… 66% of philosophy professor respondents estimated that they responded to 98% of the emails they receive from students (49% of respondents claimed to respond to 100% of student emails) — statistics which, when we have presented them to undergraduates, typically meet with incredulity and often outright laughter. And when Josh and I sent to our survey respondents some emails designed to look as if they were from undergraduates, those same philosophers who claimed at least 98% email responsiveness responded to just 64% of the emails. Philosophers who gave lower estimates of their email responsiveness responded to 57% of our emails; and overall, self-described responsiveness predicted 1.1% of the variance in measured responsiveness (r = .11; p = .04).’ There’s no evidence and no suggestion that the self-reporting was deliberately insincere. It’s just that self-reporting is generally untrustworthy, according to Schwitzgebel.

Now this is a trivial example, but it shows pretty clearly that in this sampled population they were attributing to themselves way too many good traits and seriously underestimated their inner jerk. Schwitzgebel has devised a whimsical objective measure of this self-deception, what he calls the jerk-sucker ratio. A jerk is the kind of person who jumps the queue. A sucker is the person who joins the queue early and tolerates the jerk. He gives this scenario: ‘Suppose there’s a line of cars slowed down to make a left turn or to exit the freeway. They’re not stopped. Their lane is just slower than your lane, because it’s crowded with cars planning to turn. The question is, how far along do you go before you change over into that lane? Cutting in at the last moment, of course, is the jerk option — it puts you in front of everyone else without having waited your turn and furthermore it increases the risk of accident and slows down the cars behind you in your lane who aren’t turning or exiting. Getting over early and tolerating the jerks is the sucker option. Suppose there are 48 cars waiting and two who cut in at the last moment. If you’re one of those two who cuts in, you’re in the 96th percentile for jerks. If there are 85 cars waiting and 15 who cut in, and you cut in, you’re in the 85th percentile for jerks. (Of course, this measure breaks down as the ratio of cutters to waiters approaches 1:1.) I might think to myself that I’ve got better reasons to hurry than all the others waiting or that I’m a skilled enough driver to cut in at the last second without negative consequences. And maybe for some people that’s true; but in my own case I worry that that would just be defensive rationalization.’ Schwitzgebel thinks the evidence points to the fact that few people know they are jerks even when they clearly are.

Once we assume that we underestimate negative traits about ourselves then a whole bunch of disturbia bubbles up. I take it that I overestimate my own intellectual powers, my attractiveness, my goodness, my niceness, my happiness, more or less everything good I will overestimate and everything bad I’ll underestimate and in that way I’ll see fit not to kill myself! And so will you. Actually, if you’re depressed then this isn’t the case. Depressed people tend to be more accurate about themselves than mentally healthy people. If you want to be mentally healthy and defy suicidal tendencies, inaccuracy of introspective reporting that underestimates personal deficit seems a sure fire requirement. This is the health issue I mentioned right at the start. We seem to have evolved a mentality that avoids accurate introspection in order to survive. Looking into this matter, this is the conclusion of Shelley Taylor and Jonathon Brown. McKay and Dennett have written about how good mental health requires the propagation of positive self illusions. Schwitzgebel morosely agrees.

Remember Germaine Greer having a go at all those slipshod sibyls who were depressed and anguished? Greer quite rightly thought that this was a terribly bad stereotype for wimmin artists because it suggested that you had to be mental and suicidal and then write confessionally if you were to be any good. But this work on self-knowledge suggests that if you want to get accurate self reporting then the person is going to be more trustworthy if they really are depressed. And when you think about it, quite a few of the heavy duty geniuses of the interior are hardly what you’d describe as being chipper.

So Eric Schwitzgebel is drawing philosophical conclusions from this kind of data. He asks straightforward questions that before reading seemed to be a synch to answer but quickly become greyed out and strangely hard. Like, what’s the colour of the last 20% of your vision field? Was it that colour before you started to attend to it? Imagine the image of a dog outside your house. How many details were there when you did that? Are they still there now? Can you count the details before you now? Was there always a window in the house you imagined or has it just arrived now that I’ve mentioned it and you’ve started concentrating on it? How stable is this image you’re perceiving? Can you remember everything about it from the very start? And he gives you the history of the answers that have been given up to now and because they seem influenced by contextual matters that ought to be irrelevant he makes you wonder, as he does, whether anyone can ever say for sure what is true about these matters.

So, for example, in chapter one he asks whether people dream in colour or in black and white. Aristotle back in the 4th c. BCE assumed we did. Epicurus in his Letter to Herodotus agreed. Descartes in the 1640s writes about dreaming of a piece of wax seemingly changing colour. According to Schwitzgebel’s scowering of the pre-scientific texts about dreaming, there’s unanimous agreement that dreams are coloured. Things shifted in the early scientific research into dreams. Gustav Fechner claimed he never dreamt in colour – ‘… dreams appear to me as though proceeding in a kind of twilight’ he writes but Freud disagreed and took coloured dreams for granted. Mary Calkins in 1893 mentions coloured dreams. Edward Titchner writes about dreams having flashes of colour in 1912. Warren Middleton and Richard Husband concluded in the 1930s that most people dreamt in colour.

Then after that things changed for a while. From the 1930s to the 1960s the consensus was that dreams were not coloured. But then, after the 1960s, people reverted to thinking that dreams were coloured once again. It is this type of patterned shifting of consensus that makes Schwitzgebel suspicious of the veracity of any claim about the nature of the dream images experienced. Schwitzgebel explains the consensus shifts in terms of the early years of the twentieth century being the heyday of black and white photography and film. Although from the beginning there were some hand painted colour films, such as the 1925 version of Ben Hur and in the late 1930s some films were coloured that drew huge crowds such as Gone With The Wind and The Wizard of Oz, most were monochrome. Schwitzgebel argues that the relationship is causal: reports of monochrome dreaming are accounted for by the mass audiences of black and white movies and media. People drew on these things to describe their inner experiences because they didn’t actually know the details.

When you look at a penny on the table does it appear to you as a circle, or as an ellipse? Contemporaries tend to say it looks elliptical, but in the past there seems to have been a consensus saying it appears as a circle. Why? Schwitzgebel argues that what we report we see things as draws on analogies to the dominant representational devices of the time of reporting. Painting and photography represent three dimensions on a flat two-dimensional screen: where these are dominant, as in our contemporary world, we tend to report our mental images as if they too were projections onto a flat screen. Where this wasn’t the case people were not so inclined. In ancient Greece signet ring impressions in wax was the common way to represent things and so reports of mental representations fitted that approach. Aristotle and Plato analogised memory to the signet ring in wax. Sextus Empiricus in Against the Logicians and Outlines of Skepticism did too. They didn’t report that coins looked elliptical because they didn’t think in terms of analogies to projected images onto a flat screen. Ancient Greeks didn’t analogise to paintings, they analogized to wax impressions. Therefore they report seeing coins as circles.

When you look at the sun, does it strike you as being a foot wide? Aristotle said it did to him. Does a straw in a glass of gin look bent to you? Contemporaries tend to think it does, but explain it as an illusion. But then we can ask whether looking through a telescope makes what you see an illusion. Do things look flat? How we report these things depend on the technology and model of optics we assume. Again, Schwitzgebel’s point is that our reports seem to depend on the analogies we draw on in our reporting rather than directly reporting our introspections. In doing so, the report of how things appear is seriously altered and doesn’t seem to merit claims that they are indubitable.

Schwitzgebel explains that the worries about drawing distinctions between how things seem to us and how things really are go back as far as the Indian philosophers Dignaga in the 6th century and Dharmakirti in the 7th who have been discussed by contemporary philosophers of phenomenology such as Dreyfus and Rao. Chinese philosopher Xunzi of the 3rd century BCE writes about size distortion in perception: ‘If from the foot of a mountain you look up at the trees, trees ten cubits high look like chop sticks, but someone looking for chopsticks would not climb up to break them off’ he writes. Xunzi likens the mind to water, where perceptions are like reflections in the water. Zhuangzi at the same time compares the mind to a mirror. The medieval Chinese philosophers made this commonplace. Is the mirror assumed to be a flat mirror or a concave or convex one? This matters if we want to get clear how things appear to us. Schwitzgebel is nervous about believing anyone’s reports about what things appear to be to them because such belief reports seem influenced by factors that undermine their reliability. His scholarship gives you the confidence to trust his nervousness.

Give yourself a phosphene and then let’s think about it. How? Press gently the corner of one of your eyes. A spot will appear in the other corner, grey with a bright ring. That’s a phosphene. You can make it move by wiggling your finger some. But some folks claim that they have no images ever. If you do, are there determinate facts about these images? So if I have an image of a spotty dog, are there a specific number of spots to my image dog, or just a general impression of spots? Can I still function if I have no images, no consciousness? Do blind people use echolocation to navigate using their sticks? Do all people? Do we perceive in order to be aware of the world or did it evolve to support successful actions?

Schwitzgebel distrusts breaking down perception into separate modalities à la Aristotle — sight, hearing, smell etc – and he favours ‘… a more continuous amodal/modality-neutral approach that distinguishes sensory experiences by their organisation in the environment (i.e. the object and events occurring in the world), and not by the sensory channels by which they are detected.’ And he is sensitive to one possible source of error in reporting perceptions on this approach, ‘… since most people are [more] right… about the fact that certain environmental objects are sensorily present than they are about the specific sensory character of their experience of those objects.’

Dolphins resist having their eyes blindfolded. Yet they don’t use their eyes all that much to get their information about the watery world they live in, relying much more on echolocation. So perhaps this shows that they don’t know the source of their beliefs. There’s evidence that three year old children don’t have accurate ideas of which modalities are the source of their sensory knowledge either. And there are weird things that don’t seem to make sense if we stick to the thought that common sense ideas about perceptions are true. Some blind people, when interviewed about the phenomenological character of silent objects, talk about having experiences that are neither auditory nor involving facial pressure but of them being like no other kind of sensation, a sense of the presence of something in space. Others say they have no way of knowing where silent objects are, even when they were tested and were able to do so. Naïve phenomenological reports taken at face value are for Schwitzgebel just another source of untrustworthy data.

How come in pitch dark some people claim to see their own hands but never other people’s in a phenomenon called the spelunker illusion? What qualifies as a hallucination? How could the Charles Bonnet Syndrome be true, which is when people who lose their sight sometimes report hallucinations? Schwitzgebel thinks the problem is easier to handle once we accept his central contention that when we claim to be reporting what we are doing is more invention than reportage.

This is a key issue that Schwitzgebel is trying to establish in the reader’s minds: what we think of as the most incontestably indubitable and transparent source of our beliefs, our direct perceptions unmediated by theories metaphysical, psychological or neurological, are suspect. Descartes famously asked what it was possible to doubt and thought that he could doubt everything except the doubt that was directly perceived in his mind. The cogito was the important source of certainty. The importance of the cogito argument he took from his Catholic education. The indubitable cogito is first discussed by Augustine. Descartes is developing a Catholic introspective tradition which became the basis of Enlightenment epistemology, whose problems many argue frame the philosophies of Hume and Kant, Locke and Russell. Schwitzgebel doesn’t buy the Cartesian idea that introspection is infallible. He thinks we can’t trust any introspective reports. The implication is that the Cartesian introspective epistemological tradition is threatened by his doubts.

The ‘stream of consciousness’ is not indubitable. The introspective method of Augustine and Descartes and Locke and Russell that supposedly leads to transparency is mistaken because our introspective judgments are just frequently wrong. Basing knowledge of the world through the trustworthiness of introspective reports is fatally threatened by this insight. Schwitzgebel draws a distinction that he thinks is fundamental. It is between introspective attention and perceptual attention. Introspective attention is where ‘the goal is to discern features of your own conscious experience or phenomenology.’ The goal of perceptual awareness is different; there ‘… the goal is to discern features of the outside world.’ He thinks that although these are different awarenesses they are not necessarily competing with each other. But the fact that they can come apart helps explain why we are continually wrong about how things appear to appear to us.

Schwitzgebel suggests introspection may be a kind of gist detector. Introspection can give you the basic point, the general significance, the basic fact of the matter, but it can’t give you the structural or content details. Going beyond just the gist throws us back on using analogies with familiar technologies of representation, and it is because of this that errors generalise. Schwitzgebel is explicit about the skeptical inferences he intends by arguing that all we detect without error is gist. ‘We have poor self-knowledge of everything but gist. And gist is so basic, so obvious, that to know that is not yet to know very much: If all I securely know about my current visual imagery is that it’s my house as viewed from the front, really I know very little about my imagery. Knowledge of gist, assuming that we do indeed know it, is just knowledge of the very most basic stuff that ought to just hit one over the head unless the most utterly radical skepticism about self-knowledge is true — a mere island of obviousness, that is, in what is mostly a sea of ignorance about our stream of experience.’

Schwitzgebel is continually asking us to confront our beliefs about beliefs and perceptions and phenomenological content so that we can see how confused our views actually are on these maters. He has an interesting case in point when he asks whether consciousness is vague. Vagueness is a term of art used by philosophers to think about the way many things seem to have an indeterminate borderline. Rather than a sharp point where a thing switches from being one thing to another, a vague borderline is blurry, where we have a sense of a gradual transition rather than abrupt change. In these cases it seems that to think of there being a precise point of change must misrepresent the phenomenon. So if we think about what we mean when we say ‘I’ll meet you at noon’ we don’t think there’s a last noonish second. We just know that if I arrive at five past noon that’s noonish, so I’m doing what I said I would, but if I arrive at four o’clock then I’m not.

So is consciousness vague? It seems not because how could there be a case where we’re not sure whether this is consciousness or not. ‘Even a little bit of consciousness, it seems — a tiny grey patch, a barely felt twinge — is determinately a case of consciousness’. This is the kind of thing that John Searle has been arguing for decades now and intuitively it seems right. So consciousness doesn’t seem vague. But it does seem vague too. When we think about evolution and the way that is supposed to work it seems improbable for consciousness to have sprung fully formed into the biosphere. This is the point of Dan Dennett’s book Freedom Evolves and all his stuff on the mind and consciousness. Things evolve gradually and there’s no reason why consciousness should be an exception. So there will be vague cases of consciousness, cases where it hasn’t fully become consciousness. But then we think consciousness isn’t and is vague.

Schwitzgebel thinks that the contradictory pulls of our intuitions perhaps show that we are inherently inconsistent in our beliefs about consciousness. But if consciousness is plausibly vague, then it adds to the possible approaches that may be taken towards it — ‘determinately conscious, determinately non-conscious or somewhere in the grey area in between.’ Once it is accepted that introspective perception is untrustworthy, perhaps even unknowable in some cases, then its role in various research programmes and as the basis of several metaphysical claims is seriously undermined.

He also thinks that the dissonance within beliefs and thoughts (such as when sincere affirmation of a disposition conflicts with behavioural and spontaneous responses e.g. when I say wimmin are as clever as men but only ask men about tough philosophy questions when there’s a choice) disqualifies assigning beliefs to people in such states. Beliefs need to be certain if they are to play the role of mapping out the territory navigating the world we live in, and where they are radically unstable or indeterminate then Schwitzgebel argues that they shouldn’t be labeled beliefs.

Schwitzgebel concedes that phenomenologists such as Husserl, Brentano, Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty thought both that introspection was important but also that it was error prone, although he also finds them poor writers whose obscurantist style impedes understanding . He finds Brentano clearest, although he doubts Brentano’s claims that introspective awareness is not important and inner perceptual awareness infallible.

He notes that the claim of infallible reporting of introspection has been theorised in different ways: top Behaviourist BF Skinner put it down to the vagueness or instability of the vocabulary used and ‘… the impossibility of precise differential reinforcement.’ Others have agreed with the error thesis but for other reasons: D.M. Armstrong attributes it to the memory or projection involved in reporting. Churchland thinks erroneous introspection reporting is small and rectifiable.

Schwitzgebel cites a whole bunch of philosophical big guns supporting this notion that introspective reports can be in error but not too seriously, names such as Dretske, Nicols, Stich, Goldman, Horgan, Gerler, Kriegel. The legendary Dave Chalmers, who has a band and is the coolest BIG NOISE on the block, even argues for a kind of infallibility, but Schwitzgebel finds his way of running the argument so restrictive that it seems no actual substance is allowed to remain in the infallibility bracket. But up until at least the middle of the last century there was a consensus towards thinking that introspection is largely infallible and indubitable.

But now things have changed. Schwitzgebel is making a case for saying that, like everything else, we are all confused about the content of our own minds. Dan Dennett is cited as holding contradictory views that he never resolves, saying that he holds introspection to be untrustworthy at some times and then at other times saying they are indubitable. The experimental evidence now makes it difficult to see how we can consistently hold that introspection is anything like an infallible source of belief. Haybron, for example, has run experiments showing that we have no idea about how unhappy we all are. Misery is real for most of us and yet we don’t self report it because we don’t believe it or if we do, we report inaccurately in order to create self-delusions to live by.

By this process we end up in the vague state described earlier where the dissonance erodes the state to being too insecure for it to count as a belief state. Beliefs are important. They are the maps we need and use to navigate our world. What happens when we discover that even the most considered and self-assigned beliefs, such as my belief that I am an anti-racist, may be disqualified by revelations that I have subliminal racist reactions? Am I, despite my sincere declaration of being an anti-racist, really a racist? Am I hypocritical? Schwitzgebel argues a belief has to be able to guide us, and in these cases the guidance is suspect. He suggests that we are not in any state of belief. We are not racists, but there are things in our thoughts that don’t warrant us having a belief in anti-racism either.

This book confirms the suspicions of Nietzsche that self-knowledge is hard because introspection is impossible. Schwitzgebel suggests that introspection is merely a gist seeking capacity and that we need to fill in details and do so by analogizing to whatever is familiar and at hand. Doing so distorts and renders the report no less untrustworthy than external reporting.

This is serious stuff. The complexity of its subject matter and the subtlety of Schwitzgebel’s handling of his material makes it a very cool read. Staring into my mind makes me more perplexed. I started by comparing the mind to Nietzsche’s Minimum and gave Arkham City as a picture of its dastardly cunning. This might have erroneously suggested that the writing as well as the content was in an analogous style. Schwitzgebel is no hysteric however; he’s a very cool, refined and measured thinker whose immense subtlety refines and nuances his thoughts to a kind of earned skeptical authority. But after reading this extraordinarily serious book there does remain the aftershock of having to consider the consequences of his idea that we really can’t take our own inner lives at face value. We are used to being told that the external world is not transparently available to us. Schwitzgebel now presents the case for denying the transparency of the internal world too.

It takes us to a Heart Of Darkness. So is this what scared Kurtz?


Richard Marshall is still biding his time.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, October 28th, 2011.