Re: Introspection: The Science of Experience

From: Stevan Harnad (
Date: Sat Oct 28 1995 - 14:37:01 GMT

> From: "EMMA FLETCHER" <>
> Date: Fri, 27 Oct 1995 15:10:21 GMT
> It is undoubtedly true that introspection has little value as a
> scientific evaluation of the mind, as this form of experience is
> intensely personal due to the fact that public access is impossible.

Even if it were only mildly personal, the problem would be the same:
I can repeat and experience for myself the results of any experiments or
observations made in astronomy, chemistry, geology, etc., but I can
never repeat or experience for myself your experiences. This is true of
intensely personal experiences, but it is just as true of neutral ones,
like how warm it feels to you today.

> Only the instigator of the thoughts, himself, knows the true nature of
> their being. Nevertheless, even this can be argued against as the
> ultimate source of knowledge may not be apparent to the thinker, as
> introspection is unable to probe deep enough to locate the exact birth
> place of thought or experience.

The shortest way to remember it is that introspection can only tell you
the way things SEEM TO YOU, not the way they are. No one can argue with
you about how things seem to you. (If OJ had not denied he killed Nicole,
but claimed only that it SEEMED to him that he had not killed her, that
could be perfectly true, but we could never know it. Exercise: Could a
lie detector reveal that he was lying about the way it seemed to him?
Distinguish this from the question of whether a lie detector could
reveal that he was lying when he said he didn't kill her.)

> Nevertheless I believe that
> introspection has some degree of value, as is it not from introspection
> that empathy originates; or does this too have no conscious mental birth
> place?

We were considering introspection as a candidate method for doing
psychology: If experience is the subject matter of psychology,
introspection looks at first like the natural way to study it. At this,
it appears to be a failure. But that doesn't mean it's useless for other
things. Although you can never be sure you are REALLY empathising with
someone (whether you really know what experience they're going through),
sometimes it's enough to be close, or even for both of you to THINK
you're close. The Hamlet/Polonius effect is bad for psychological
explanation at a (shall we call it) professional? scientific?
population? level, but it may be what keeps things flowing smoothly at
an interpersonal level.

> Is consciousness concerned with experience? Without being conscious
> experience would not exist.

Consciousness is just the capacity to have experience. A conscious
creature is one that has experiences. It feels something when you pinch
it. If it has no experiences at all, it is not conscious, like a car
or a rock. Your right that without being conscious an experience would
not exist. That's what's unique about experience; you have to experience
it. There's no such thing as an "unexperienced experience." So to say
"conscious experience" or "conscious of an experience" is just to add a
redundant word.

> Yet when the origin of experience is
> questioned the realm of the subconscious seems to play a major role.
> Therefore is experience more concerned with the subconscious ? Perhaps
> it is a balance of both; but is the action of the subconscious a
> plausible explanation to how and why we have experience?

"The subconscious"? What is that? Sounds like another mind, very much
like my own, except it's not me. It's an alter ego in my head. I think
we have enough headaches with one mind/body problem: We don't need two!

The idea of "the subconscious" comes from psychodynamic psychotherapy,
originating mostly with Freud. We can talk about this in seminar if you
like; we can even read about it. But the short answer is: There IS no
subconscious. On the other hand, as even our introspection on the hows
and whys of what we thought we did through our free will -- all the way
from picking the left pencil to to replying to these messages --
reveals: We have no idea how (and, looked at closely, why) we do
anything. That means the real cause of it all is unconscious. Not "the"
unconscious or "subconscious" or some other mind-like thing. Until
further notice, the only mind I have is the conscious one, the one that
has the experiences. It simply turns out that in introspecting on my
experiences, and what my experiences tell me seems to be going on, the
true causes of it all -- of my experiences as well as my my actions as
well as my abilities and skills -- are unconscious causes. So to find
them, I must look by some other means than introspection.

Now we have to figure out what other means are available. If you like,
we can explore the psychodynamic blind alley for a while, to see why
psychological explanation does NOT turn out to be an explanation in
terms of the doings of my "subconscious." Let me know if any of you want
to pursue this further.

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