Re: Introspection and Explanation

From: Harnad, Stevan (
Date: Tue Feb 11 1997 - 21:26:41 GMT

> From: McKee, Alex <>
> If agreement is given that no sound byte can holistically describe the
> entirety of the mind, then is the work of cognitive science, the parts
> that pertain to the elusive mind and its derivatives, such as
> consciousness, concerned more with the extraction of descriptive
> processes than with descriptions themselves?

Let me suggest a good rule of thumb for posting to the py104 list:

Both the questions and the answers should be completely understandable
to an intelligent younger sibling. Now what would kid-sib make of
"concerned more with the extraction of descriptive processes than with
descriptions themselves"?

> For myself, rather than consciousness being a process of the mind or
> the brain being an organic evolutionary partner or vehicle for the mind
> and thus necessarily distinct due to a separate identity, could it not
> alternatively be said that the brain, consciousness and awareness are
> all parts of the mind?

We can always say X is part of Y, if it really is. But what does it
mean to say "brain, consciousness and awareness are all parts of the
mind? Kid-sib would say: "I know what it means for the brain to be a
part of the body, but I don't know what it means to say the brain is
part of the mind: What is the mind? I think I know what consciousness
and awareness are: they're synonyms. They both mean the same thing. And
I think that what we mean by 'I have a mind' is that I am conscious
( = aware). So that still leaves it a bit of a mystery what the relation
is between having (or being) a brain and having (or being) a mind."

If kid-sib found that puzzling, then we could welcome him to the
mind/body problem which has been puzzling not just philosophers, but all
the rest of us, since our species first started thinking (and then
thinking about thinking).

> In effect the mind defies definition not because we are unable to
> locate a compatible synonym, but because there are too many parts of
> too many synonyms to be considered.

To define something is not to find a synonym for it (because then you
would need a definition of the synonym too!). Besides, we're not trying
to define the mind, because we all know what it is already: To have a
mind is to have experiences, to feel -- feel anything at all. The lowly
axolotl, if it feels something when I pinch it, has a mind.

We all know that. What we need to do now is EXPLAIN (not define) how
the mind works: How does the brain manage to do all the things we do
with our minds? We won't get very far in trying to explain how the
brain manages to FEEL, but we can make some headway in trying to
explain what it can DO.

> Chapter 1 in Cognitive Science: An Introduction (D.W Green and Others)
> seems to support the notion that although mental processes can be
> studied there is no place for Introspection. Certainly, with the
> examples given or inferred into experiments on perception, objectivity
> seems to be established and there is no need to even consider using
> Introspection. Could this not only apply to perception of the physical
> world?

The reason we cannot explain the mind by introspection is simply that
introspection doesn't reveal how the mind works, it just takes it for

If I ask you to to try to recall who your teacher was when you were 8
years old, then (assuming you do remember!) you have no idea HOW you
remembered it. If I ask you how much 5 + 2 is, you have no idea where
the "7" came from. If I ask you how you recognise the colour of a rose?
how you can tell you are hungry? how you are able to understand the
words on this screen? you couldn't begin to explain how.

You've never asked yourself how you do these things because part of
having a mind is taking all these things for granted. (Where would we
be if we couldn't do a thing without knowing exactly how our brain is
capable of such a thing? We would be even worse than the centipede that
starts to worry about which of its hundred legs to move for every step
it takes!)

You have to step back and deliberately try to make all these remarkable
capacities "strange," as if you had never heard of them before, and
then ask: Now how could anything at all accomplish that?

Introspection can show you what it FEELS like to have a mind, but it
can't explain how the mind works, how it manages to do all the
remarkable (though ever so familiar) things it can do.

> Is not the functionalist approach a method by which Cognitive
> Scientists can only further their understanding of the processes
> involved in the brain 'part' of the mind? Is this limitation on only
> covering the brain part of the mind a reason why computers will never
> be 'human'?

We'll talk more about computers and computation as the course goes
along. But what does "the brain part of the mind" mean? Is there
anything else?

> In Chapter 1 of the same text, is Gibson suggesting that when mental
> processes become 'natural', as in driving control, and are committed to
> to a sub-conscious state, that we are unable to access them, in the
> form of mental representations, for psychological study? Perhaps this
> would not be a wise test in a real moving vehicle, but in a simulation,
> would it not be possible for an eloquent driver to affirm each action
> with a linguistic counterpart thus showing that that mental
> representation, in the form of language generation, can exist alongside
> sub-conscious actions?

An eloquent driver, new at driving, before it has become "automatised,"
could not even explain how he managed to make a left turn! You think
that "I rotated the wheel counterclockwise" EXPLAINS how it was done?
But how do I rotate the wheel counterclockwise, rather than, say,

Now for simple tasks like that, there are models that explain how a
machine would manage to do that, so, until someone comes up with a
better explanation, we can perhaps believe that something like that goes
on in our brain too. The trouble is that when it comes to anything the
slightest bit more complicated than that, no one yet knows how anything
could do it (and introspection certainly doesn't give us any clues.)

> Is it to be understood that Cognitive Science places no value on
> Introspection? Isn't the act of transferring thoughts from internal
> bio-chemical or electro-magnetic states to language a necessary step in
> Introspection? Doesn't language production oblige an examination of
> one's own thoughts? Even if the text being produced is considered to be
> highly scientific and objective, isn't there a degree of processing to
> ensure it remains so? An examination of your thoughts to 'see' that
> they are coherent?

Sure; and we all know what it feels like to do that: but we haven't a
clue as to HOW we do that, and introspection itself doesn't give us any

> If the progression from a
> Newtonian vision is one of no absolutes and a system of total
> interconnectedness, don't pure subjectivity and pure objectivity become
> two unreachable ends of a spectrum where all the views and
> communications of humans reside in differing degrees within the
> intervening space? Should not Cognitive Scientists be willing to
> explore the linguistic processes of subjective introspection alongside
> the behavioural processes of brain perceptions?

(1) Kid-sib would be bewildered by all this about "pure subjectivity and
pure objectivity become two unreachable ends of a spectrum."

(2) Cognitive scientists, like any other scientists, take their ideas
where they can get them: If introspection gave answers rather than
begging the question, cogsci would sit up and listen. (Also, if we COULD
find out by introspection how our minds work, it would make cogsci a lot

> A sort of top-down reverse biological
> functionalist view . This would justify the systems comparison between
> the mind and the universe as seen by Theoretical Physics and thus, for
> me at least, show the righteousness of including introspection and
> subjectivity as analytical tools for the progression of Cognitive
> Psychology. Is this a legitimate view?

Kid-sib's unsure what you're proposing here: Reverse engineering has
succeeded when you can explain how it works. But introspection doesn't
reverse-engineer the mind: rather, it soothes us into thinking that
there's nothing to be explained.

> From: Walker, Guy <>
> [Alex's] comments appear to beg the question of what is entailed in the
> idea of the philosophy of the mind? I would say (as someone who does not
> know a great deal on this subject) that cognitive science, like many
> "sciences' (perhaps) leads us past what the mind can and cannot do in
> its pursuit of reductionist truth - surely this could include a stab at
> "what' the mind is?

Only problem is that kid-sib hasn't the faintest idea what "reductionist
truth" is. ..

> Following this, I would like to argue with the
> supposition that no sound byte can holistically describe the mind. I am
> not presuming this to be true, but could not the mind be just a very
> very complex data and information processing unit?

Right. If anyone expected to have the mind explained with an
explanation only as long as a sound byte, then they are probably
underestimating (substantially underestimating) what needs to be
explained, and what would count as an explanation.

> We seem to be
> struggling with the notion of what it is to 'feel' - but following the
> computer analogy, could feeling just be the innervation of an immensely
> complex hierarchy of neural structures and networks?

They could be, but if that were true, would it explain feelings? We
could perhaps somehow accept that that's all there is to say about the
reverse-engineering of feelings, but would that satisfy kid-sib? I think
that kid-sib would say he has a bit of a problem with just how it is
that the "innervation of an immensely complex hierarchy of neural
structures and networks" explains his feelings. He'd be more impressed
with a machine explanation of how the body manages to turn left, or
even how it does arithmetic calculations; but for reverse-engineering
feelings in a way that makes us feel that we have no more questions to
ask about them -- well, that would take a lot more (at least to satisfy

> Nevertheless, I would like to propose a sound byte that 'might' be able
> to explain the mind holistically - mind = dynamic quasi-synergic multi
> level hybrid data and information processing unit. What - do - you -
> reckon !?

Kid-sib: "Say what?"

> From: Dunsdon, Graham <>
> Alex, my reply to your intriguing comments follows, without the benefit
> of having seen Stevan's reply. As I am a first year student too, I was
> not surprised to see that you are thinking about what we are asked to
> consider as the philosophy of the mind. I have been struck with the
> thought that the mind represents that of which we are consciously aware

This, alas, is the homunculus problem: our awareness ("conscious" is
redundant) IS what it is to be a mind. That's what's going on inside our
heads: If you import more representations, then you need a little man in
the head (a homunculus) that these representation are representations
TO. And that would just defer the problem: We'd have to then explain
what was going on in that little man's head. And if you put more
representations in there, then this process can go on forever.

Maybe "representation" is an unfortunate term, because it's so
homuncular. It's probably better to think of the things going on in the
head as the "activity" of some not yet identified "structures," and the
"activities" are best thought of as as yet ill-understood "processes"
and "states." Once we have a better idea of what those structures,
processes, activities and states are, we will have made some progress
in reverse engineering the mind.

We can (and will) use "representations" to stand for those
little-understood structures, processes and states. But it's probably a
bad idea of thinking of them as representations TO a mind. To be the
system in which those structures, processes and states take place is to
be a mind.

> + a genetically inspired and common framework within which we
> comprehend data (as a member of the human species). This leaves open
> the question of the existence in time and space of the unknown and
> unknowing - which some say is accessible by emptying the mind of all
> knowledge and contemplating that greater 'darkness' - which may be
> accessible to humans in times of genius or other great moments. (more
> philosophy than psychology I appreciate.)

And what does kid-sib make of that?

> However, to the extent of my current understanding of cognitive science
> it is BECAUSE of the inability of the human mind (or our use of it) to
> present to our consciousness a comprehensive and global systems
> specification that represents all that constitutes the mind (whatever
> that is) that cognitive scientists posit theories in terms of logical
> models which can then be used to improve those theories based upon the
> knowledge and insights gained as a result.

Kid-sib's attempt at a translation that he understands: We haven't
yet figured out how the mind works.

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