Re: Introspection: The Science of Experience

From: Stevan Harnad (
Date: Sat Oct 28 1995 - 15:04:13 GMT

> From: "Susie (Suzanne Jane Petrie)" <>
> Date: Fri, 27 Oct 1995 15:11:56 GMT
> sh> So let's pick another example: You're not making an arbitrary choice
> sh> between identical pencils on your right and left, you're doing some
> sh> arithmetic. Let's do it right now: I give you two numbers (9, 6)
> sh> and I ask you to add them, and you say "15." Where did that come from?
> sh> How did you do that? Don't reply "I remembered; I had memorised it
> sh> once, and I recalled it now," because I will ask you the same question:
> sh> How did you remember? Can introspection answer that question?
> No because you just do it, you can't help it; it just happens. It's
> already set in your mind. You don't really think about how you
> remember to do something arithmetic. You do it in a logical manner
> and come out with an answer.

Yes, but (1) saying you do it automatically doesn't explain HOW you do
it (I could tell you a plane flies automatically: would that tell you how
it flies?), and (2) if everything you do deliberately turns out, when
you look at it closely, to be either automatic or impulsive, it doesn't
sound like there's much you can take credit for! What kind of free will
is it when everything turns out to be automatic?

> sh> So maybe this is how it goes: Things happen unconsciously, so
> sh> introspection does not reveal them directly, but the psychologist,
> sh> trained in the ways of the unconscious, can detect them, and then
> sh> he tells you, brings it to your consciousness, and then you can confirm
> sh> it.
> I think this is true because alot of what you unconsciously think
> is what you think truthfully deep down inside even though you don't realise
> it at first. When you let your conscious mind listen to your
> unconscious mind you can get an idea of what is really important to
> you. For example, don't the dreams you have show what your mind
> actually thinks even though they are unconscious thoughts? Studying
> what your dreams are about have a significant relationship to what
> the conscious mind thinks. If the unconscious mind wasn't important
> then we wouldn't be able to dream.

No one knows why we dream, but the unconscious mind is no longer very
high on the list of likely causes. (Most theories these days think it
has something to do with rehearsing and consolidating the memories of
the experiences you had that day; some think it is just spontaneous
activity in visual areas of the brain, keeping them in shape for daytime
use, so to speak.)

And as I said in the reply to Emma: Don't be too eager to hold on to the
idea of an unconscious alter ego, plausible as it may sound sometimes.
We've already been lulled into thinking we undertand the causality
of our conscious doings (whereas a simple "how?" reminds us that we
really have no idea). Taking on an alter ego would multiply all our
"how" questions by 2: (1) "How did you do that?" "My subconscious mind did
it for me." (2) "So how did your subconscious mind do it?" -- Seems like
you might as well have gone straight to (2) in the first place, about your
conscious mind...

As to the interpretation of dreams: Beware of the Hamlet/Polonius
effect (seeing camels, weasels, whales in the clouds) and don't forget
the privacy of introspection. Your therapist says: "That person you
duelled with in your dream was really your father, whom you would
unconsciously like to slay to marry your mother..." How would you go
about checking whether it really meant that, rather than something else
(or nothing at all)? Don't reply that "well, if it makes sense to me,
or makes sense of things for me" because Hamlet made sense of the cloud
to Polonius too.

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