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WhyYouDontKnowYourOwn
Mind
AlexRosenberg
THESTONE

JULY18,2016

Itisoftensaidthatwecannevertrulyknowthemindsofothers,because
wecantgetinsidetheirheads.Ourabilitytoknowourownminds,
though,israrelycalledintoquestion.Itisassumedthatyourexperienceof
yourownconsciousnessclinchestheassertionthatyouknowyourown
mindinawaythatnooneelsecan.Thisisamistake.
EversincePlato,philosophershave,withoutmuchargument,shared
commonsensesconfidenceaboutthenatureofitsownthoughts.They
havearguedthatwecansecurecertaintyaboutatleastsomevery
importantconclusions,notthroughempiricalinquiry,butbyintrospection:
theexistence,immateriality(andmaybeimmortality)ofthesoul,the
awarenessofourownfreewill,meaningandmoralvalue.InaStone
columnGaryGuttingexplainedhowthistraditioncontinuestomanifest
itselfincontemporaryphilosophyasthesearchforatranscendentalor
absoluteconsciousnessthatprovidesthefullersignificanceofourordinary
experiences.ThomasNagelhasinvokedthesamesourcetotrumpscience
inthispublicationaswell.
Introspection,themindseye,assuresuswiththegreatestconfidence

thatitisthebest,insomecasestheonlyauthorityonhowthemindworks,
becauseweallthinkithasdirect,firstpersonaccesstoitself.Wereallvery
confidentthatwejustknowwhatsgoingoninourownminds,fromthe
inside,sotospeak.
Yetresearchincognitiveandbehavioralsciencesincreasingly
underminesthatconfidence.Itseemshardlyaweekgoesbywithout
anotherarticleinthemediareportingcounterintuitivelaboratoryfindings
byempiricalpsychologistsstudyingcognition,emotionandsensation.
Whatmakesmanyoftheseresultsremarkableistheirconsistentviolation
ofexpectations,assumptionsandprejudicesforcedonusbyourown
consciousawareness.
Infact,controlledexperimentsincognitivescience,neuroimagingand
socialpsychologyhaverepeatedlyshownhowwrongwecanbeaboutour
realmotivations,thejustificationoffirmlyheldbeliefsandtheaccuracyof
oursensoryequipment.Thistrendbeganevenbeforetheworkof
psychologistssuchasBenjaminLibet,whoshowedthattheconscious
feelingofwillinganactactuallyoccursafterthebrainprocessthatbrings
abouttheactaresultreplicatedandrefinedhundredsoftimessincehis
originaldiscoveryinthe1980s.
Aroundthesametime,aphysicianworkinginBritain,Lawrence
Weiskrantz,discoveredblindsighttheability,firstofblindmonkeys,
andthenofsomeblindpeople,topickoutobjectsbytheircolorwithoutthe
conscioussensationofcolor.Theinescapableconclusionthatbehaviorcan
beguidedbyvisualinformationevenwhenwecannotbeawareofhavingit
isjustonestrikingexampleofhowthemindisfooledandthewaysitfools
itself.
Meanwhile,philosophyhaslargelypersistedinitscenturieslong
CartesianismfollowingDescartesinsistenceinhisMeditations(1641)
thatourknowledgeofourownmindsnatureismorereliablethanany
otherbelief.GalenStrawsonrecentlyillustratedthiscenturiesold
convictioninarecentessayinTheStone:Weknowwhatconscious

experienceisbecausethehavingistheknowing:Havingconscious
experienceisknowingwhatitis.HewritesItisinfacttheonlythingin
theuniversewhoseultimateintrinsicnaturewecanclaimtoknow.
Despitetheseassurancesfromphilosophy,empiricalsciencehascontinued
tobuildupanimpressivebodyofevidenceshowingthatintrospectionand
consciousnessarenotreliablebasesforselfknowledge.Assourcesof
knowledgeevenaboutthemselves,letaloneanythingelsehuman,bothare
frequentlyandprofoundlymistaken.
ToseethemistakeweneedtorecognizeanothermistakeDescartes
made:hisdenialthatotheranimalshaveanymentallivesatall.Careful
fieldobservationbyprimatologistsbeginningwithJaneGoodallrevealed
thatapeshavewelldevelopedtheoriesofmind.Theyengageinmind
readingtomake(sometimesgood)guessesaboutthefuturebehaviorof
others.Mindreadingispsychologistsshorthandfortreatingotheranimals
ashavingsomethinglikedesiresandbeliefsthatworktogethertoproduce
choicesinbehavior.
Afteracertainpointintheevolutionarypast,organismsbeganneeding
topredictwhetherothersposedthreatsinordertoprotectthemselves,and
laterneededtocoordinatetoattainoutcomesnotachievablealone.This
environmentstronglyselectedformindreading.Hadvariationincognitive
abilitiesnothitonthisadaptation,punycreatureslikeuswouldneverhave
survivedinthefaceofsavannamegafauna.
Mindreading,eveninourownhands,isaveryimperfecttool:Wehave
togoonothersbehavior(includingverbalbehavior).Wecantreallytell
withmuchprecisionexactlywhatothersbelieveorwant,becausewecant
getinsidetheirheads.Soourpredictionsareoftenprettyvagueand
frequentlyfalse.LikeotherDarwinianadaptations,mindreadingisan
imperfect,quickanddirtysolutiontoadesignproblem.Itwasjustgood
enoughthat,equippedwiththistheoryofmind,wemanagedtogradually
climbtothetopofthefoodchain.Wewereabletodosoinlargepart
becauseoncemindreadingwasinplacehumanlanguage,whichrequiresit,

becamepossible.
FMRIresearch,thestudyofautism,andexperimentsoninfantfalse
beliefdetectionhaveshownthatmindreadingisarelativelywelllocalized
moduleinthehumanbrain,innateinstructure,subjecttobreakdown
oftengeneticallycaused,andidentifiableininfant/toddlerdevelopment.
Mostimportant,thereiscompellingevidencethatourownself
awarenessisactuallyjustthissamemindreadingability,turnedaround
andemployedonourownmind,withallthefallibility,speculation,and
lackofdirectevidencethatbedevilsmindreadingasatoolforguessingat
thethoughtandbehaviorofothers.When,asDavidHumesaid,welook
intoourselves,allweeverseeareimages,allweeverhearissilentspeech
sounds.Thesesensations(alongwithemotions)aretheonlycontentsof
consciousness,theonlythingsintrospectioncanusetofigureoutwhatwe
arethinking.Theresourcesofintrospectionareexactlythesameasthe
resourcesourmindsworkwithtoexplainandpredicttheactionsofothers:
sensorydataprovidedbysight,hearing,smell,touch(andsometimestaste,
too).
Ofcoursewehavealotmoresensorydataimagesandsilentspeech
insteadofvisualexperienceandheardspeechtogoonintryingtofigure
outourowndesiresandbeliefsthanwhatotherpeoplesbehaviorreveals
aboutwhatisgoingonintheirminds.Thatspartofwhatmakesforthe
illusionthatweknowourownmindssomuchbetter.Butthedifferenceis
onlytheamountofdata,notitsqualityorsource.Weneverhavedirect
accesstoourthoughts.AsPeterCarruthersfirstargued,selfconsciousness
isjustmindreadingturnedinward.
Howdoweknowthis?Well,Humewouldhaveansweredthat
introspectiontellsusso.Butthatwontwashforexperimentalscientists.
Theydemandevidence.SomeofitcomesfromthefMRIworkthat
establishedtheexistenceofadistinctmindreadingmodule,morefrom
autisticchildren,whosedeficitsinexplainingandpredictingthebehaviorof
otherscometogetherwithlimitationsonselfawarenessandselfreporting

oftheirownmotivations.Patientssufferingfromschizophreniamanifest
deficienciesinbothothermindreadingandselfmindreading.Ifthesetwo
capacitiesweredistinctonewouldexpectatleastsomeautisticchildrenand
schizophrenicstomanifestoneofthesecapacitieswithouttheother.
Thatwereadourownmindsthesamewaywereadothermindsis
evidentinwhatcognitivesciencetellsusaboutconsciousnessandworking
memorythedualimagisticandsilentspeechprocessthatweemployto
calculate,decide,chooseamongoptionsimmediatelybeforethemind.
Themostwidelyacceptedpsychologiststheoryofconsciousnessidentifies
itasamodeofglobalbroadcastsolelyfromsensorymodalitiesto
executivedeciding,andaffectivefeelingsystemsthatactonthis
sensoryinput.Selfconsciousnesshasnothingelsetoworkwithbutthe
samesensorydataweusetofigureoutwhatotherpeoplearedoingandare
goingtodo.
Theupshotofallthesediscoveriesisdeeplysignificant,notjustfor
philosophy,butforusashumanbeings:Thereisnofirstpersonpointof
view.
Ouraccesstoourownthoughtsisjustasindirectandfallibleasour
accesstothethoughtsofotherpeople.Wehavenoprivilegedaccesstoour
ownminds.Ifourthoughtsgivetherealmeaningofouractions,ourwords,
ourlives,thenwecanteverbesurewhatwesayordo,orforthatmatter,
whatwethinkorwhywethinkit.
Philosophersclaimsthatbyreflectingonitselfthoughtreliablyreveals
ournature,groundsknowledge,givesusfreewill,endowsourbehavior
withmoralvalue,areallchallenged.Andthethreatdoesntstemfromsome
tendentiousscientisticworldview.Itemergesfromthedetailed
understandingofthemindthatcognitivescienceandneuroscienceare
providing.

AlexRosenbergiscodirectoroftheCenterforSocialand
PhilosophicalImplicationsofNeuroscienceintheDuke
InitiativeforScienceandSociety.Hissecondnovel,Autumn

inOxfordwillappearinAugust.
Nowinprint:TheStoneReader:ModernPhilosophyin133
Arguments,ananthologyofessaysfromTheTimess
philosophyseries,editedbyPeterCatapanoandSimon
Critchley,publishedbyLiverightBooks.
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