Friday, June 10, 2011

The Uncertainty of Our Inner Lives

We rely on our intuitions, emotions, perceptions, and memories to make sense of our world, to get along with other people, to make decisions—simply, to survive. Yet it's nearly impossible for us to verify them and, claims Eric Schwitzgebel, philosopher and author of Perplexities of Consciousness, we actually have a poor grasp of them. He argues that we are “poorly equipped with the tools, categories, and skills that might help [us] dissect them." What's more, we rarely question our minds and are inclined to a sort of cognitive hubris—at least when it comes to how we feel, see, and think. "When you’re in a position where you are the sole authority on something," he says, "that tends to artificially inflate your confidence."

The Boston Globe recently published an interview with Schwitzgebel, in which he explains his contention that we should be skeptical about our inner lives—even more skeptical than we are about the world outside of the mind. Our knowledge of self, he says, is weak knowledge at best. The author of the interview, Joshua Rothman, preludes the piece by recounting a famous experiment conducted by Solomon Asch:
In 1951, the psychologist Solomon Asch gathered seven college students around a table and presented them with two cards. On one, he’d printed a single vertical line; on the other, three lines of varying lengths. Going around the table, Asch asked each student a simple question: Which of the three lines was the same length as the solitary one? Asch’s secret was that all but one of the “volunteers” were actors, with instructions to answer incorrectly. While the actors contributed their wrong answers, Asch watched the real volunteer, who always went last. Would he give in to the pressure of the group?

The results were unsettling: When they had to go against the group, 75 percent of Asch’s volunteers gave at least one wrong answer, often without knowing it. Psychologists have long cited Asch’s experiments as sublime demonstrations of “groupthink.” But they also point to a more subtle and disquieting aspect of our inner lives: They suggest just how easily our confidence in our own perceptions, memories, and inner experiences can be shaken. Most of us assume that we know, with omniscient certainty, exactly what we’re thinking, feeling, and perceiving. Asch’s experiments force us to question that certainty. If we’re so sure of what’s going on in our own minds, then how can we be so easily persuaded to change them?
I understand why most people find the results of Asch's study unsettling—just as they do Schwitzgebel's suggestion that we can know little with certainty about what we think or feel. We find comfort in believing we know our own emotions, have memories about which we can be certain, and can perceive the world around us without interference from other people. When asked if he finds his ideas unnerving, Schwitzgebel said:
I may be unusual in a certain way, in that I find being cast into doubt and uncertainty kind of liberating and exhilarating and fun. When I read a piece of philosophy or piece of psychology or science fiction, and it throws me off and confuses me and bewilders me, and calls into doubt what I thought I knew—that lights my candle, that’s what I really like.
While Schwitzgebel enjoys the thrill of uncertainty—did he take Theory of Knowledge?—he contends that we can move towards certainty. "In coming to self-understanding," he says, "we can use introspection to some extent....We can also use third-person evidence." I find Schwitzgebel's ideas quite interesting. But then again, how certain can I be of that?

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