X-Rated Introspects

I feel motivated to write a few words on a subject not generally considered a major issue in Philosophy of Mind, but often referenced and almost always assumed with controversy to be as portrayed. It is also a term, and a process, in common usage. I speak of introspection.

In common usage it generally means taking an opportunity to reflect a little, especially when done in a self-referential way. As usual, philosophical usage takes an original meaning and distorts it. In philosophy it is taken to be the process whereby we have direct, intimate and essential knowledge of our inner lives.

So, in philosophy of mind it is often cited as a reason to reject the mind being physical, or at least explicable to us even if we can’t deny the physical brain does determine/cause mind somehow. The basic thought will use an example, such as pain. That whereas a neuroscientist, using a scanner, and the latest empirical theories can note many things about a pain, but not how it feels, we beings with minds can know this, via introspection. And words such as ‘direct’, ‘essence’ are thrown up time and again. Almost as if, when experiencing a pain, one could look inwards as if a tag were there, citing intensity, spatial location, character and so on. I’d like to point out that it does not. In fact no process of introspection is anything like as direct or information bearing as the dismal philosophers of mind uncritically assume.

Staying with pain as an easy example. We do get information from pain, but some actual reflection indicates it is not particularly direct, and not in itself very detailed information at all. A pain can be generally located, though ask what the volume or surface area of a pain is would yield only bafflement (I will say only that general location is quite an obvious feature of something evolved to indicate damage, as pain no doubt is).  There is nothing precise about it. Nor is the location information featured in the pain itself. How often does one use fingers, or similar, to test painful areas, both for area, depth and intensity? (Intensity is another good one, for how does one judge pains oneself has experienced if not only with reference to others? The pain itself does not tell us how intense it is.) It is not information in the pain, rather it is acquired experience of pains, and wider interaction with wider senses and other bodily locations that offers information.

This is just one example, but it does generalise. Think on affective states. Of course they carry with them various sensations and impressions, but without reference to experience of other instances of similar states, and their place in the wider context of emotional landscape they are fairly empty and vague. If one didn’t know love until you realised how much you loved a particular person, why did you think so before? Where was the information nugget saying one’s first experience was only two out of ten love-intensity for you?

This is just by way of defusing the idea of direct, privileged access to our own mental states, simply because they are occurring in our own bodies. It is worth pondering because it undermines so much of the reason dismal philosophers of mind want to reject the idea that neuroscience is a more powerful tool to understanding mind than having a bit of a think.


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