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.


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