Is introspection a reliable way of understanding the mind?

Discussions relating to how knowledge is formed, including science, common sense, and phenomenology

Re: Is introspection a reliable way of understanding the mind?

Postby Brandon Norgaard on Wed Sep 04, 2013 11:20 pm

Peregrine wrote:I just realized that we haven't shared our definitions of "consciousness" yet. In the "main concepts" page of this website (which I applaud you for including, since it elucidates some difficult philosophical terms and serves as a great pedagogical tool), you use a David Chalmers quote to address several meanings of "consciousness." It wasn't clear to me which one you favor. I find the distinction between "conscious" and "unconscious" mental activity useful (though sometimes misleading), in which "conscious" activity refers to reflective, "second-order" thoughts about our own mental activities (whether about the thinking system as a whole - the "self" - or about a particular thought, perception, memory, etc.).

I actually should have been more clear rather than to simply use the quite ambiguous term “consciousness”. I mean that we have a continuous stream of cogitations inherent to our phenomenal consciousness. After re-reading the consciousness page I wrote, I now believe that I was incorrect to say that if one believes in phenomenal consciousness that they probably believe in some form of dualism. Perhaps these two beliefs are indeed highly correlated among those who are familiar with the terms, but this is another matter. What I was trying to imply at the time with this claim is the difficulty in reconciling the belief in phenomenal consciousness with materialism. It it is conceivable that the way things appear in our stream of consciousness is merely a representation of the material reality and that therefore acknowledging that one has a first person experience of consciousness does not mean that there is anything about these experiences that are qualitatively different than material substance. These would all just merely be representations and the exact way that they represent reality would be difficult or impossible for us to know.

While this is conceivable, it is not reconcilable with what I know from experience. I have been able to grasp the essence of my cogitations, which we can call qualia, and I recognize their unique properties. I am not absolutely certain of this, but with my understanding of the properties that material substance has, I conclude that my experience of colors, sounds, tastes, feelings and the like are not simply a representation of material substance. Yes, I believe in property dualism. There has been much discussion on this, including all those thought experiments (Mary's room, the colorblind neuroscientist, etc.) but I won't try to get into that now. Overall, the debate over qualia doesn't seem very productive. I just thought I would explain myself a little more here.

Peregrine wrote:Yes, I think we can have nonverbal cogitations (like bare perceptions), but do you think you can actually categorize these cogitations without language? My point in bringing up the thought-language connection is to show that whatever degree of certainty you might possess about the bare fact of your experiences, the very acts of categorizing them, expressing them, and interpreting them (even to yourself) all depend on language and memory, which therefore introduce less certainty because of the limits of language and memory. To use an extreme example: It is possible, though highly unlikely, that some glitch in your learning or memory has made you misinterpret or forget the true meaning of "free will" (maybe it really means an "enslaved" will), and thus your statement "I am certain I have free will" would actually be false according to your perspective.

Are you going with a Cartesian evil demon argument? Well at the least I will say that it does not make sense for me to consider the possibility that flaws in my thinking are leading me to false conclusions on the matters of which I am currently considering. Am I able to think about rocks? Maybe there are no such thing as rocks, but flaws in my brain make me think this way...maybe when I think about rocks, I am actually thinking about trees, but don't know it because of flaws in my brain...well I'm just going to dismiss these questions as pointless. If you wish to consider this a concession to your point, go ahead.

Peregrine wrote:
Brandon Norgaard wrote:As I mentioned before, it is the perception itself that is apodictically certain but what this means is less certain.


Isn't the claim that you have free will (that your perceptions and thoughts are determined not by physical processes, but by a nonphysical will) an interpretation and conclusion about the origin of these thoughts/perceptions, and therefore not apodictically certain like the bare experience of the thoughts/perceptions?

Yes, indeed my conclusion that myself and others have free will is not apodictically certain. I just looked through my past posts to see if I ever said that this was apodictically certain, or saying the same thing with different words, and I didn't see anything. I might have said something like this in the past, since my views have evolved over time. I'm pretty sure for some time now my stance on this matter is that through introspection I experience myself choosing to act and I am apodictically certain that there is an intention to act at that moment. From this I conclude that I have free will, but this conclusion is not infallible. This first person experience of intending to act is not the only point of evidence here. I became strongly in favor of free will on the basis of this and many other points of evidence.

Peregrine wrote:Also, what is the phenomenological method (or your particular method) for dealing with contradictory introspective claims (namely, between people like you who conclude they have free will, and people like me who conclude they don't)?

There are several steps to this method. Probably the most important for this point of consideration is the use of thought experiments to allow the other to realize that their beliefs are inconsistent and self-defeating.

In your life, do you ever engage in moral advocacy? Do you believe that certain things are right and wrong? You may acknowledge that much of morality comes from each person's culture, upbringing, and personal opinions, but is there any way of transcending this and arriving at a universal ethical framework? Some people will respond “no” to this question, but will nonetheless try to influence other people's behavior somehow, which seems to imply that they do believe that there is a right and wrong and that people can make choices in life to act in a way that are closer to good or to evil. One who has beliefs about political or societal issues and tries to influence the behavior of others through persuasion does seem to be one who believes in human free will. If one engages in moral advocacy and yet claims that they believe in determinism then the latter is a self-defeating position. In the face of this, I realized that people must have free will and many that I have talked to have realized this as well. If you're not buying this right now then I encourage you to read my manuscript, which explains this line of reasoning in more detail.

Peregrine wrote:I think your idea of brain modules "communicating" with one another matches findings and theories in the cognitive sciences. However, I would question your claim that each module "thinks." "Thinking" is a vague term we use for the convergence of a number of mental processes, which depend on a number of brain "modules."

I am going with Stephen Pinker and Jerry Fodor's arguments here. I believe I read in one of Pinker's books that there is evidence that specific brain modules have inherent conceptual atoms and that the activity that goes on within them, which produces results that can affect one's behavior or be passed onto other brain modules, combines these conceptual atoms into more complex conceptual structures and operates on them using rules inherent to the module. This is essentially what thinking is, in a certain sense. There is also the sense of the word “thinking” that we were talking about before, where one hears or sees words in their mind and these are in their main communicative language. Pinker and Fodor explain how it is impossible for something like English (or Spanish or Chinese for that matter) to be the main way that the brain goes about its inner processing and produces its results.

Peregrine wrote:Yes, I am willing to use introspective methods and see where they lead us. But your claim that you have "utter," "unambiguous," "infallible" certainty that you have free will seems to close the door to discussion and inquiry. All I'm pointing out is the possibility of misinterpretation and bias (which I may very well have myself!). I think that a sincere, critical inquiry into matters like free will can only begin once this possibility is acknowledged.

Again, when did I say I had utter, unambiguous or infallible certainty that I have free will? I suppose I might have said this, but I was wrong if I did. I am utterly certain that I act with intention sometimes, and for this and other reasons, I conclude that I have free will.
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Re: Is introspection a reliable way of understanding the mind?

Postby Peregrine on Thu Sep 05, 2013 1:20 am

Hi Brandon, as with the forum on free will, I'll save my responses for my commentary on your manuscript. Thanks for inviting me to read it!
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