Is introspection a reliable way of understanding the mind?

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

Is introspection a reliable way of understanding the mind?

Postby Brandon Norgaard on Wed Sep 09, 2009 11:22 am

Modern psychology tends to discount the possibility of understanding the mind through introspection. Instead, modern psychology emphasizes more objective methods of studying the mind such as observation of other people's behavior and in more recent times, brain scans. I believe that through a careful and systematic introspection, one can reliably understand some things about their own mind that objective methods will likely miss entirely. Do you agree or disagree?
User avatar
Brandon Norgaard
Site Admin
 
Posts: 261
Joined: Mon Aug 31, 2009 3:54 pm
Location: Folsom, CA

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

Postby Brandon Norgaard on Tue Aug 13, 2013 8:10 pm

Peregrine, now that I have some time I'm going to respond to the criticism of introspection that was a part of your earlier post in the "Is there a God?" thread (here is a link)
Peregrine wrote:I agree that introspection is an important source of knowledge about consciousness, and that the behaviorist dismissal of introspection is unwarranted. However, it is understandable why behaviorists are suspicious of it. Countless psychological experiments, unwittingly distorted testimonies in court, and my own uncertainties about my thoughts and feelings demonstrate that introspection is not always a reliable source of knowledge. I think you would agree that the most fruitful approach to studying consciousness would draw on both introspection and a third-person analysis (observations of behavior, brain scans, etc.).

I am aware of scientific studies that have cast serious doubt on people's ability to report reliable information about the origin of their thoughts and the cause of them thinking certain ways solely through their own introspection. Studies have shown that people do tend to make up their own explanation for how they came to believe or act as they did, when the experimenter in these cases is able to know better than the subject because of the circumstances at hand.

There are some areas of knowledge, however, on which we can have apodictic certainty (utter and infallible certainty because it is clearly and unambiguously known from direct experience) through introspection. You are probably aware of Descartes' Cogito ergo sum, in which he argued that one cannot sensibly deny that they are thinking because this act would, itself, be a thought. One can be apodictically certain that they are thinking through introspection. I don't need any third party to perform some brain scans in order to know that I am thinking. It is another matter, though, the origin of the specific thoughts that I have in mind. I also believe we can be apodictically certain of that which we are perceiving at any given time. It is, however, a lot more difficult to understand what our perceptions mean and what objects actually exist in the external world and what causes them to move and change as they do. It is a lot more difficult to understand what causes my thoughts and my perceptions to happen as they do. I know with utter certainty that I have these thoughts and these perceptions, but there are few things for which I am able to achieve this infallible level of certainty.
User avatar
Brandon Norgaard
Site Admin
 
Posts: 261
Joined: Mon Aug 31, 2009 3:54 pm
Location: Folsom, CA

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

Postby Peregrine on Fri Aug 16, 2013 9:43 am

Hi Brandon - I think I agree with all that you've said in this post :) Here are some points, though, that connect introspection to the topics of free will and the nature of the self:

Descartes' "cogito ergo sum" is indeed a fundamental conclusion from our experience of reality. Like other fundamental conclusions (such as the commutative property of addition), it is an important starting point...but it is not terribly profound. Basically, it is stating that if we've established that something is acting in the world (like thinking, jogging, dripping, or weeping), then existence can be attributed to that thing. For example: "this worm crawls; therefore, this worm exists." It is rehashing what is already implied by the premise "cogito" or "this worm crawls" - the existence of "I" or "this worm." But now come the mysteries: what is this "I" that exists? Is there some unchanging, immaterial essence to it, or is it an ever-changing, physically determined, Humean "bundle of perceptions" around which we draw a circle called "self"? (I see that you've raised such questions in another forum.) For these deeper questions, mere introspection does not seem sufficient - though, as I mentioned in my "Is there a God?" post, it may certainly yield insightful clues.

At the end of your last post, you wrote:

Brandon Norgaard wrote:I don't need any third party to perform some brain scans in order to know that I am thinking. It is another matter, though, the origin of the specific thoughts that I have in mind. I also believe we can be apodictically certain of that which we are perceiving at any given time. It is, however, a lot more difficult to understand what our perceptions mean and what objects actually exist in the external world and what causes them to move and change as they do. It is a lot more difficult to understand what causes my thoughts and my perceptions to happen as they do. I know with utter certainty that I have these thoughts and these perceptions, but there are few things for which I am able to achieve this infallible level of certainty.


The topics of free will and the nature of the self deal precisely with this latter, more dubitable class of questions: what are the origins of our thoughts? What objects actually exist in the "external" world (or the "internal" world, too, if such a dichotomy between external and internal worlds is ultimately warranted)? What causes our thoughts and perceptions, and what do they mean?

Using only introspection to answer these questions is like studying the Earth by studying only geography (and remaining ignorant of geology and meteorology). We would gather much practical knowledge for navigating the world by examining maps and the present-day, surface formations on the planet, but our knowledge would remain superficial if we weren't cognizant of the subterranean (biological/psychological) and atmospheric (political/sociological) forces that shape the Earth (self).

I look forward to the Saturday discussion about free will. See you there!
User avatar
Peregrine
 
Posts: 11
Joined: Sun Aug 04, 2013 3:17 pm

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

Postby Brandon Norgaard on Mon Aug 19, 2013 11:29 pm

Peregrine wrote:Hi Brandon - I think I agree with all that you've said in this post :) Here are some points, though, that connect introspection to the topics of free will and the nature of the self:

Descartes' "cogito ergo sum" is indeed a fundamental conclusion from our experience of reality. Like other fundamental conclusions (such as the commutative property of addition), it is an important starting point...but it is not terribly profound. Basically, it is stating that if we've established that something is acting in the world (like thinking, jogging, dripping, or weeping), then existence can be attributed to that thing. For example: "this worm crawls; therefore, this worm exists." It is rehashing what is already implied by the premise "cogito" or "this worm crawls" - the existence of "I" or "this worm." But now come the mysteries: what is this "I" that exists? Is there some unchanging, immaterial essence to it, or is it an ever-changing, physically determined, Humean "bundle of perceptions" around which we draw a circle called "self"? (I see that you've raised such questions in another forum.) For these deeper questions, mere introspection does not seem sufficient - though, as I mentioned in my "Is there a God?" post, it may certainly yield insightful clues.

Yes, I had actually only intended to use a part of the cogito argument, and that is that one can have apodictic certainty of their immediate experience. As you pointed out, Descartes uses this to conclude his own existence as apodictically certain, although the only thing that is certain is that something exists. Indeed it is another matter what this “I” is and whether it is a single thing or whether it is many things that are constantly changing. Am “I” merely a bundle of perceptions (or more accurately cogitations, which also includes thoughts and the like)? Or is there an essence of myself to which all these cogitations are causally bound, or perhaps from which they originate? I'm trying to keep these discussion threads from getting into every topic so I'm going to recommend you post your thoughts on this question either in Is phenomenal consciousness real? or Do souls exist?

I do think that acknowledging that we can have apodictic certainty over some things through introspection is important. This becomes important when we can also achieve this level of certainty in categorizing our experiences and realizing things that do not easily fall in line with the popular scientific theories that are out there. In the face of a dilemma between a personal conviction of some point on the one hand and a popular scientific theory on the other, if it seems the two are not easily compatible with each other, then the most reasonable explanation is that the scientific theory needs to be reformulated in a way that takes into account the apodictic knowledge gained through introspection. This is probably the most important step of the modern phenomenological method because, if done properly, it allows us to develop a more detailed and clear understanding of the world and our place in it.

Also, it was great seeing you and discussing free will with you and the others last Saturday. I was planning on re-stating my points in response to your points on this subject on this forum tonight, but I'm out of time. We'll try for tomorrow.
User avatar
Brandon Norgaard
Site Admin
 
Posts: 261
Joined: Mon Aug 31, 2009 3:54 pm
Location: Folsom, CA

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

Postby Peregrine on Thu Aug 22, 2013 8:03 pm

Brandon Norgaard wrote:I do think that acknowledging that we can have apodictic certainty over some things through introspection is important. This becomes important when we can also achieve this level of certainty in categorizing our experiences and realizing things that do not easily fall in line with the popular scientific theories that are out there. In the face of a dilemma between a personal conviction of some point on the one hand and a popular scientific theory on the other, if it seems the two are not easily compatible with each other, then the most reasonable explanation is that the scientific theory needs to be reformulated in a way that takes into account the apodictic knowledge gained through introspection. This is probably the most important step of the modern phenomenological method because, if done properly, it allows us to develop a more detailed and clear understanding of the world and our place in it.


In the intimate, yet ironically enigmatic and obscure realm of introspection, the closest I think I can come to what you call "apodictic" (indisputable) certainty is to assert that "I am experiencing something, and I think it is x." For example, "I am seeing and smelling and tasting something, and I think it is red wine." The only thing I'm really "certain" about is that I am experiencing something; the uncertainties immediately pounce into the picture the moment I try to translate and tame that experience into the necessarily limited and "objective" (or "intersubjective") terms of language. By using the term "red," I'm appealing to a publicly understood meaning, which I may be wrong about - for instance, perhaps English isn't my native language, and what I really mean is "white." And maybe what I classify as a "wine" should more accurately be called a "juice" or some other class of beverage. The only thing I can be certain about is that I think I am experiencing red wine. Thus, when I try to classify or categorize my experiences using a shared language, I find myself necessarily crossing over into the realm of uncertainties and probabilities, and depending upon "external," "third-person" knowledge to verify the words I select.

Brandon, I'm curious to know what you think you can be apodictically certain about through introspection, beyond the mere fact of experiencing something, whatever it may be. Also, what "popular scientific theories," specifically, do you think would be trumped by your personal convictions and your certain, introspective knowledge? And in what sense do you mean that these scientific theories are "popular"? Popular among the "masses"? Popular among scientists? "Popular" in the derogatory sense of being widely believed, but not well established? All of the above?

I also enjoyed our talk on free will, and look forward to our next Phil Club discussion (alas, I'm on a business trip in the Bay Area, and won't be able to make it this Saturday...I think!).

Your certainly uncertain interlocutor,

Peregrine
User avatar
Peregrine
 
Posts: 11
Joined: Sun Aug 04, 2013 3:17 pm

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

Postby Brandon Norgaard on Thu Aug 22, 2013 11:40 pm

Peregrine wrote:In the intimate, yet ironically enigmatic and obscure realm of introspection, the closest I think I can come to what you call "apodictic" (indisputable) certainty is to assert that "I am experiencing something, and I think it is x." For example, "I am seeing and smelling and tasting something, and I think it is red wine." The only thing I'm really "certain" about is that I am experiencing something;

Yes, I mean that we can grasp the essential properties of any immediate experience we have. When I was speaking of "categorizing" I meant that since we can understand the properties of each cogitation, we can then recognize that some are in this category, some are in that category.

Peregrine wrote:the uncertainties immediately pounce into the picture the moment I try to translate and tame that experience into the necessarily limited and "objective" (or "intersubjective") terms of language. By using the term "red," I'm appealing to a publicly understood meaning, which I may be wrong about - for instance, perhaps English isn't my native language, and what I really mean is "white." And maybe what I classify as a "wine" should more accurately be called a "juice" or some other class of beverage. The only thing I can be certain about is that I think I am experiencing red wine. Thus, when I try to classify or categorize my experiences using a shared language, I find myself necessarily crossing over into the realm of uncertainties and probabilities, and depending upon "external," "third-person" knowledge to verify the words I select.

This mental understanding and categorization is not dependent on communicative language, but on pure thought. I can think about the concept of redness, which is defined by the property of redness as it is experienced. Likewise the category of whiteness is defined by just that. These concepts are not dependent on any language through which we can attempt to communicate and attempt to have some kind of a shared understanding of things. I do not need any such language in order to experience and to introspect and to think and to recognize the essential properties of my cogitations and to categorize them.

As you brought up, it is another matter what all of this means. What is the causal origin of what I am looking at? What exists that is causing me to have these sensations? I can make informed judgments on this sort of matter, but I can never be fully certain of my conclusions.

Peregrine wrote:Brandon, I'm curious to know what you think you can be apodictically certain about through introspection, beyond the mere fact of experiencing something, whatever it may be.

Well, for one, I am certain that I experience myself acting with free will sometimes. This sort of experience I can categorize as different from commonplace habitual actions that I make more frequently. Also as I mentioned above, I can grasp the essence of the experience of seeing colors and hearing sounds and tasting and smelling and feeling things. I can understand these experiences and I can categorize them, and I can recognize that what I know from this is not the same thing as the understanding I have about material substance and the physical world. From this I believe in property dualism.

Peregrine wrote:Also, what "popular scientific theories," specifically, do you think would be trumped by your personal convictions and your certain, introspective knowledge? And in what sense do you mean that these scientific theories are "popular"? Popular among the "masses"? Popular among scientists? "Popular" in the derogatory sense of being widely believed, but not well established? All of the above?

I mean popular among the majority of scientists. It is quite common for scientists to only take into account objective data when formulating theories, and I believe this misses out on significant evidence. I believe we can become more enlightened by incorporating all objective and intersubjective data when we formulate theories. As for which theories can be "trumped", my response is that any theory is open to improvement by new data. This is how science works. Since I see science and phenomenology working hand-in-hand within a more general category of methodological empirical epistemes, any theory produce within any such discipline can be improved upon if new evidence is found and this goes for any phenomenological theory. I do think that the popular scientific theories are as close to the truth that we have ever been able to previously achieve, but nonetheless they can be improved upon with the consideration of intersubjective data.

Take for instance quantum mechanics. There are many interpretations of quantum mechanics. Some of these, such as the many worlds interpretation, are only based on objective data. This one in particular is not compatible with my personal convictions gained from introspection. As a result I would think this interpretation is wrong, but one could probably still formulate something kind of similar that is consistent with the notion of free will.

Peregrine wrote:I also enjoyed our talk on free will, and look forward to our next Phil Club discussion (alas, I'm on a business trip in the Bay Area, and won't be able to make it this Saturday...I think!).

Your certainly uncertain interlocutor,

Peregrine

Indeed, I do look forward to continuing our discussions. I hope you enjoy your trip.
User avatar
Brandon Norgaard
Site Admin
 
Posts: 261
Joined: Mon Aug 31, 2009 3:54 pm
Location: Folsom, CA

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

Postby Peregrine on Sat Aug 24, 2013 2:28 am

Brandon Norgaard wrote:This mental understanding and categorization is not dependent on communicative language, but on pure thought. I can think about the concept of redness, which is defined by the property of redness as it is experienced. Likewise the category of whiteness is defined by just that. These concepts are not dependent on any language through which we can attempt to communicate and attempt to have some kind of a shared understanding of things. I do not need any such language in order to experience and to introspect and to think and to recognize the essential properties of my cogitations and to categorize them.


Thanks for your reply, Brandon. Your comments bring to mind a current hot topic in philosophy and the cognitive sciences that I find extremely fascinating and illuminating: the relationship between thought and language. It has been contended that any reflective, abstract, or "higher-order" thinking (beyond mere perception or mental images) is impossible without language. I find the arguments and evidence for this claim persuasive and in tune with my own introspective experience. Rarely do I find myself without words dancing in my head. Sometimes I manage to shut them out and focus on pure sensation, but I find myself quickly grasping for them again, desperate to grasp the meaning of what I perceive. And when I strain my brain to perform some strenuous mental work (like constructing a philosophical argument in this forum), the inner monologue only magnifies and multiplies.

Can I really think about a concept like "redness" without depending on language? Sure, I can simply stare at my red wine and thoughtlessly "take it in," but when I attempt to consider the property I'm perceiving and its relation to other objects, I can't help but see/hear the word "red." And is this property really defined by my experience of perceiving it? "Red" is part of a spectrum, after all - a spectrum that our culture has divided into ROYGBIV. Countless verbal inputs ("See that red car?" "Don't touch that red-hot stove!") have reinforced what our culture means by "red." The globalization of these patterns of thinking may blind us to the possibility of differing conceptions; for example, a culture might not distinguish between red and orange, but rather refer to a single property that embraces them both ("rorange," perhaps). Or a culture might divide what we call "red" into several properties - "rid," "rud," and "rad" - which are "clearly" distinguishable in their minds.

Some thinkers have taken this further, arguing that consciousness itself is impossible without language and culture. They assert that words (or more generally, "signs") are necessary to organize reality in order to establish a distinction between "self" and "world," and facilitate the kind of self-awareness that humans (and other animals, to varying extents) exhibit. One fascinating, first-person account that verifies these ideas is The World I Live In, by the deaf-blind author Helen Keller (an introspective genius, in my regard). She begins Chapter XI with the line: "Before my teacher came to me, I did not know that I am." She goes on to describe the unconscious, thoughtless, empty "no-world" she experienced before her teacher brought language into her life. She had been in physical contact with other humans before, but it was only through this act of genuine communication that she finally became "alive." Many examples of so-called "feral children" also support the idea that critical thinking and a degree of self-awareness depends on learning language and culture by a certain age.

Brandon Norgaard wrote:Well, for one, I am certain that I experience myself acting with free will sometimes. This sort of experience I can categorize as different from commonplace habitual actions that I make more frequently. Also as I mentioned above, I can grasp the essence of the experience of seeing colors and hearing sounds and tasting and smelling and feeling things. I can understand these experiences and I can categorize them, and I can recognize that what I know from this is not the same thing as the understanding I have about material substance and the physical world. From this I believe in property dualism.


Concepts like "free will," "material substance," "physical world," and "property dualism" that you use above all carry possibly ambiguous meanings that have been forged in historical and cultural contexts. By using them, you necessarily box your introspective experiences into particular frameworks, requiring you to understand their most common meanings in a philosophical context. And what's more, your exposure to these frameworks may very well have boxed in your thoughts, shaping your interpretations of your experiences. This is why "introspective certainty" is such a precarious idea. Multiple psychological experiments demonstrate how notions inculcated by language and culture actually determine how a person interprets and even perceives an event.

Brandon Norgaard wrote:As you brought up, it is another matter what all of this means. What is the causal origin of what I am looking at? What exists that is causing me to have these sensations? I can make informed judgments on this sort of matter, but I can never be fully certain of my conclusions.


Exactly. So when we are considering whether we have an undetermined "free will," we are "looking at" our own thoughts. We can then ask the questions you mentioned above: "What is the causal origin of what I am looking at? What exists that is causing me to have these [thoughts]?" The conclusions we reach, as you say, can never be completely certain, but we can indeed make informed judgments.
User avatar
Peregrine
 
Posts: 11
Joined: Sun Aug 04, 2013 3:17 pm

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

Postby Brandon Norgaard on Mon Aug 26, 2013 10:28 pm

Peregrine wrote:Thanks for your reply, Brandon. Your comments bring to mind a current hot topic in philosophy and the cognitive sciences that I find extremely fascinating and illuminating: the relationship between thought and language.

Yes, the relationship between thought and language is fascinating. I wrote a series of blog posts on this topic a few months ago. My approach is to use phenomenology to attempt to answer the question of how language has meaning, how the meaning of language is related to thought, and how it is possible to convey meaning to others through language.

I could provide a link to these blog posts here, but since these posts were excerpts from part 3 of my manuscript, I figure that if you are interested in reading what I wrote on this subject that I might as well send over my manuscript. There is nothing stopping you from clicking on the “Blog” link at the top and searching for these posts, but you would probably benefit from reading parts 1 through 3 of my manuscript rather than reading these posts, as they are only excerpts and they are lacking in detail.

As I mentioned to you earlier, I am recruiting people onto my project as reviewers and editors and to take part in panel discussions and I pay by the hour. If this sounds interesting to you and you end up taking part in this project, then this could even be a noteworthy item on your CV. I have more information for you if you send me an email. For now I will continue to address the points you made in your recent posts.

Peregrine wrote:It has been contended that any reflective, abstract, or "higher-order" thinking (beyond mere perception or mental images) is impossible without language. I find the arguments and evidence for this claim persuasive and in tune with my own introspective experience. Rarely do I find myself without words dancing in my head. Sometimes I manage to shut them out and focus on pure sensation, but I find myself quickly grasping for them again, desperate to grasp the meaning of what I perceive. And when I strain my brain to perform some strenuous mental work (like constructing a philosophical argument in this forum), the inner monologue only magnifies and multiplies.

Indeed I almost always experience words flashing through my mind, either in the form of auditory inner-monologue or in the form of visual imaginations of words, or both. But from this it sounds like we are in agreement that this does not actually happen all of the time, yet there is some cogitation (term that we can understand to include thoughts, perceptions, feelings, etc.) all of the time. We have a continuous stream of conscious experience, and inherent to this are some form of cogitations. We can categorize these cogitations into visual sensations (whether imagined or actually seen, is perhaps less certain in some cases), auditory sensations (likewise), feelings (many, many qualitatively different kinds of feelings that I will not begin to list here), thoughts, etc. We seem to be in agreement that there is mental activity that we can study introspectively and through this we can reflect on these findings as fact and then we can come to some kind of shared understanding of our conscious experience. It seems we have already made progress towards this end, and if we have not, then what are we talking about?

You mention that you have difficulty trying to grasp the meaning of what you perceive, a point which I concur. As I mentioned before, it is the perception itself that is apodictically certain but what this means is less certain. Also the fact that one's inner monologue magnifies and multiplies when one is engaged in complex thought does not necessarily indicate that this inner monologue is the origin of the thoughts themselves. I believe the evidence strongly points to the inner monologue as merely an epiphenomenon, or perhaps a mechanism through which some areas of the brain communicate to other parts of the brain.

I'm going to offer a hypothesis here that includes some science and some introspective findings, but also is partially speculative: I accept that not all of the brain is purely logical. My thoughts now are (mostly) coming from my logical capacity, but I also have various forms of emotional capacity as well. There are different modules of the brain, each with their own filters and their own way of conceptualizing things and their own rules for coming to conclusions. This inner monologue could serve as a means for one brain module to communicate to the others. I figure that no brain module is actually dependent on this or any other communicative language in order to think, but that none of them would be able to receive messages from anywhere else in the brain unless there were a language. For me and for you, the inner monologue is in English because we are native English speakers. Our brains therefore have been calibrated to pass messages internally in English. This is then interpreted differently in each distinct module of the brain and the language that served as the means for communication is no longer needed after it has filtered into the respective modules and they are then in the act of simply thinking, which in turn might produce more language as an epiphenomenon, but again the thinking is not done in English. Nor is it done in Chinese for a native Chinese speaker nor in Spanish for a native Spanish speaker. Though is, quite simply, not dependent on language, but a chain of thoughts by any brain module is facilitated by language as interpreted by its filter and language is often then a bi-product of this act of thought, as produced by pure thoughts acting upon a reverse filter.

Each brain module has its own conceptual atoms and its own rules for constructing complex concepts from these atoms. In one's emotional brain module, for example, the emotions fear, embarrassment and elation are either atomic concepts or they are constructed from simpler concepts that are atomic. Each brain module therefore has its own internal language, if you will. The module that produces the most accurate results is the logical one, or perhaps more than one logical module, in the neocortex. I'm pretty sure that is where my arguments are coming from right now, although it deals with the concepts behind these words rather than computing results directly in this language.

Peregrine wrote:Can I really think about a concept like "redness" without depending on language? Sure, I can simply stare at my red wine and thoughtlessly "take it in," but when I attempt to consider the property I'm perceiving and its relation to other objects, I can't help but see/hear the word "red." And is this property really defined by my experience of perceiving it? "Red" is part of a spectrum, after all - a spectrum that our culture has divided into ROYGBIV. Countless verbal inputs ("See that red car?" "Don't touch that red-hot stove!") have reinforced what our culture means by "red." The globalization of these patterns of thinking may blind us to the possibility of differing conceptions; for example, a culture might not distinguish between red and orange, but rather refer to a single property that embraces them both ("rorange," perhaps). Or a culture might divide what we call "red" into several properties - "rid," "rud," and "rad" - which are "clearly" distinguishable in their minds.

I agree with most of this because I think what you are saying is pretty closely in line with what I am saying. The word “red” could never directly refer to any experience. Probably any word we use has a complex indirect relationship to the atomic concepts in which we think and in which we experience consciousness. If there is an atomic concept for redness, then it is probably the red hue, which can come in varying degrees and can be added with other primary colors. Whether the primary colors are red yellow blue or red green blue does not change this. For some people it might be the former, for some the latter, and some people might have four primary colors. Each of these possibilities is compatible with what I am saying here. The word “red” can refer to various different shades, but this is because we have inherent limitations using communicative language to try to convey the meanings of our first person experiences. I think we can use phenomenology to better understand the atomic concepts of experience and thought.

Peregrine wrote:Some thinkers have taken this further, arguing that consciousness itself is impossible without language and culture. They assert that words (or more generally, "signs") are necessary to organize reality in order to establish a distinction between "self" and "world," and facilitate the kind of self-awareness that humans (and other animals, to varying extents) exhibit. One fascinating, first-person account that verifies these ideas is The World I Live In, by the deaf-blind author Helen Keller (an introspective genius, in my regard). She begins Chapter XI with the line: "Before my teacher came to me, I did not know that I am." She goes on to describe the unconscious, thoughtless, empty "no-world" she experienced before her teacher brought language into her life. She had been in physical contact with other humans before, but it was only through this act of genuine communication that she finally became "alive." Many examples of so-called "feral children" also support the idea that critical thinking and a degree of self-awareness depends on learning language and culture by a certain age.

Yes, I have heard other stories as well of deaf children in third world countries who didn't learn sign language until their teenage years and they also report not really thinking until they learned language. This does not discount my conclusions from above though because what is probably going on here is that the development of the human brain is not complete until one learns language. We rely on a communicative language in order to calibrate our brains so that they are capable of intelligent thought. I will say that the internal wiring of the brain is just not complete unless one is taught language, but once this development has completed, one does not rely on any communicative language in order to think.
User avatar
Brandon Norgaard
Site Admin
 
Posts: 261
Joined: Mon Aug 31, 2009 3:54 pm
Location: Folsom, CA

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

Postby Brandon Norgaard on Mon Aug 26, 2013 10:54 pm

Peregrine wrote:Concepts like "free will," "material substance," "physical world," and "property dualism" that you use above all carry possibly ambiguous meanings that have been forged in historical and cultural contexts. By using them, you necessarily box your introspective experiences into particular frameworks, requiring you to understand their most common meanings in a philosophical context. And what's more, your exposure to these frameworks may very well have boxed in your thoughts, shaping your interpretations of your experiences. This is why "introspective certainty" is such a precarious idea. Multiple psychological experiments demonstrate how notions inculcated by language and culture actually determine how a person interprets and even perceives an event.

I do not believe any concept carries ambiguous meaning, but that these terms certainly do. It is often quite difficult to come to mutual understandings using language. Even when highly trained specialists use the most jargon laden terminology whose meaning has been well established, there are bound to be gaps in understanding among all parties. And I am not at the moment claiming to be a highly trained specialist, nor have the terms mentioned above acquired well established meanings. I do have a pretty good idea of what I mean when I use these terms, and if there is ambiguity then I can try to use more precise language in order to get my point across.

Are my thoughts boxed in by my exposure to particular frameworks? I ask that you give this process a chance. The modern phenomenological method does not yield immediate results. Any conclusions that come out of a phenomenological research project are open to scrutiny by others and within this method there are ways that subsequent research projects can refute prior conclusions.
User avatar
Brandon Norgaard
Site Admin
 
Posts: 261
Joined: Mon Aug 31, 2009 3:54 pm
Location: Folsom, CA

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

Postby Peregrine on Sun Sep 01, 2013 11:51 am

Brandon Norgaard wrote: We have a continuous stream of conscious experience, and inherent to this are some form of cogitations.


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.).

Based on that definition, I do not think we have a "continuous stream of conscious experience." The most obvious case of unconscious mental activity occurs when we sleep, when we do not engage in lucid/"self-aware" dreaming (which occurs relatively rarely for most people, and only in short intervals during sleep). Fainting spells, comas, and brief periods of "brain death" are also instances of gaps in conscious experience. But even more common are the countless habitual/instinctual actions and perceptions that pepper our waking life and do not pass into consciousness unless we remember/reflect upon them.

Brandon Norgaard wrote:We can categorize these cogitations into visual sensations (whether imagined or actually seen, is perhaps less certain in some cases), auditory sensations (likewise), feelings (many, many qualitatively different kinds of feelings that I will not begin to list here), thoughts, etc.


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.

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?

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)?

Brandon Norgaard wrote:There are different modules of the brain, each with their own filters and their own way of conceptualizing things and their own rules for coming to conclusions. This inner monologue could serve as a means for one brain module to communicate to the others. I figure that no brain module is actually dependent on this or any other communicative language in order to think, but that none of them would be able to receive messages from anywhere else in the brain unless there were a language.


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."

Brandon Norgaard wrote:We rely on a communicative language in order to calibrate our brains so that they are capable of intelligent thought. I will say that the internal wiring of the brain is just not complete unless one is taught language, but once this development has completed, one does not rely on any communicative language in order to think.


As I've argued above and in previous posts, I think the evidence shows that much of our thinking (especially abstract, "conscious," reflective thinking) continually depends on language. Your comments about the brain needing language to communicate with itself seemed to support this, too.

Brandon Norgaard wrote:Are my thoughts boxed in by my exposure to particular frameworks? I ask that you give this process a chance. The modern phenomenological method does not yield immediate results. Any conclusions that come out of a phenomenological research project are open to scrutiny by others and within this method there are ways that subsequent research projects can refute prior conclusions.


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.
User avatar
Peregrine
 
Posts: 11
Joined: Sun Aug 04, 2013 3:17 pm

Next

Return to Building a Structure of Knowledge

Who is online

Users browsing this forum: No registered users and 1 guest

Enlightened Worldview Forum

cron