We don’t know our own conscious experience

Eric Schwitzgebel reports:

Philosophers since Descartes have been taken with the idea that we know our
own conscious experiences or "phenomenology" directly and with a high
level of certainty.  Although infallibilism in this regard has been under
heavy attack since the 1960’s, philosophers still generally assume that our knowledge
of our own phenomenology is quite good and that, for example, we are extremely
unlikely to be grossly mistaken about our own current phenomenology when we
concentrate extended attention on it.  I argue against this claim.

In "How
Well Do We Know Our Own Conscious Experience? The Case of Human Echolocation
Michael S. Gordon and I argue that although there is something it is like for a
human being to echolocate, we have very poor knowledge of the experience of
echolocation.  In "How
Well Do We Know Our Own Conscious Experience? The Case of Imagery
" I
suggest that our knowledge of even something as basic and prevalent as our
visual imagery is surprisingly poor.  In "Why Did
We Think We Dreamed in Black and White?
", I present the common 1950’s
opinion that we dream primarily in black and white as an example of a case in
which people have been grossly mistaken about their own subjective experiences.
("Do People Still Report Dreaming in Black and White? An Attempt to Replicate a Questionnaire from
" provides empirical evidence that popular opinion about the
presence of colors in our dreams has indeed changed since that period.)

Unreliability of Naive Introspection
" provides a brief general overview
of several domains in which introspection of conscious experience appears to be
unreliable.  A more ambitious general paper on this topic is in the works.

Training: Reflections on Titchener’s Lab Manual
" explores, through an
examination of the historical case of E.B. Titchener, the prospects of training
to improve the quality of introspective judgments.  "Difference
Tone Training: A Demonstration Adapted from Titchener’s Experimental Psychology
provides the reader the opportunity to train herself in a roughly Titchenerian

I am also working on a book manuscript with Russell T. Hurlburt, a
psychologist at UN Las Vegas and a leading proponent of experience sampling as a
means of generating accurate descriptions of moments of conscious
experience.  The book centers around an edited transcript of a series of
interviews Russ and I jointly conducted with a subject who was wearing a random
beeper and who was asked to take note of her experiences whenever the beeper
went off.  In the course of the interview, Russ and I concretely confront
the question of how much to believe the subject’s reports of randomly selected
moments of her experience.  If her reports are largely accurate, then the
transcripts also provide, in unprecedented detail, a portrait of moments of an
ordinary person’s phenomenology.

Read his home page and blog.  Here is Eric on conjugal love.

Addendum: Will Bryan Caplan take the bait and present his argument that such studies are a priori false because the studies themselves rely on data from consciousness?  Of course this counterargument is wrong.  We can make lots of mistakes, but still hold the capacity to measure some of those mistakes.


"Of course this counterargument is wrong. We can make lots of mistakes, but still hold the capacity to measure some of those mistakes."

Of course YOUR CLAIM is wrong, if the study suggests that our consciousness is largely not reliable.

You write as if the degree of our inability is unimportant.

How can dreaming be in black and white OR in color? In dreams we don't actually see. So how could we see in color? I don't think this is just semantics. Perhaps stimulus to the retina is necessary for actual color "perception". If you're on the phone with someone and she tells you she has a red dress on, you're not seeing the color red, even if you see the dress "in your mind's eye". Similarly, memories of a dream image that include color do not mean that while sleeping you saw that image in color.

Of course this counterargument is wrong. We can make lots of mistakes, but still hold the capacity to measure some of those mistakes.

How can one tell whether these 'capacities' are intact?

"I'm a little unclear about..."

The examples/experiments (which you can conduct on yourself) in the papers clarify matters.

Mondays are meshed with Tuesdays
and the week with the whole year.
Time cannot be cut
with your exhausted scissors,
and all the names of the day
are washed out by the waters of the night.

No one can claim the name of Pedro,
Nobody is Rosa or Maria,
all of us are dust or sand,
all of us are rain under rain.

They have spoken to me of Venezuelas,
of Chiles and Paraguays;
I have no idea what they are saying.
it is so long, the spring
which goes on all winter.
Time lost its shoes.
A year lasts four centuries.

When I sleep every night,
what am I called or not called?
And when I wake, who am I
if I was not I while I slept?

This means to say that scarcely
have we landed in to life
than we come as if new-born;

from Pablo Neruda's "Too Many Names"

To define philosophical things like consciousness, one has to study deeply Indian philosophy,for example, a study of "Upanishads".

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