You don’t really know your mind, or do you?

Recent psychological research has been interpreted as casting serious doubts on many crucial aspects of the human experience: that we have “free will” (it’s complicated, hence the scare quotes), that we are at the least capable of rational thinking, and even that we are conscious. Indeed, it has become both fashionable and a bit of a cottage industry to “show,” scientific data in hand, that all those facets of mentation simply do not exist, they are illusions, figments of our imagination (though nobody has really provided an account of why on earth we have them, as metabolically costly as the apparatus that makes them possible is). All of this, of course, despite the staggering crisis in the replicability of results from psychology, which ought to make anyone reading anything in that field a bit cautious before agreeing that we are lumbering rationalizing and self-deluded robots.

The latest salvo on this topic that I’ve come across is an article by Keith Frankish, an English philosopher and writer, published in Aeon magazine with the title “Whatever you think, you don’t necessarily know your mind.” Let’s take a look.

To begin with, the title itself is interesting — and I’m perfectly aware that authors often don’t get to pick the titles of their articles or books. “Whatever you think, you don’t necessarily know your mind.” Well, no, we don’t necessarily do, of course. That would be like arguing, say, that whatever we see with our eyes is necessarily a true reflection of the external world. But we know better: we understand about illusions, mirages, the unreliability of our senses under certain environmental conditions, and how internal states (e.g., being inebriated, or under the influence of drugs) may alter our visual perceptions, sometimes drastically so. Heck, people sitting in sensorial deprivation tanks often develop very vivid hallucinations that appear terrifyingly real to them, even though they know that there is nothing out there. So, taken at face value, the title of Frankish’s article argues for close to nothing: the question isn’t, and never has been, whether our access to our own thoughts is always reliable, but only whether it is reliable enough for the purposes of reflecting on what we do and why.

Frankish tells us that many philosophers think that we have privileged access to our inner thoughts, and that moreover this access is largely immune from error. I think the first part is hard to doubt (though people have tried), while the value of the second part hinges on just what “largely” means. There is no reason to think that our inner sense of awareness is more reliable than our outer senses, and it may be less so. Indeed, even our regular senses differ among themselves in both precision and reliability, just as they do for other animals. Our sense of smell, for instance, is poor compared to our vision, but for dogs it is the other way around.

Frankish briefly summarizes the ideas of two philosophers who fall outside of the mainstream as he defined it: Gilbert Ryle and Peter Carruthers. Ryle thought that we don’t actually learn about our inner thoughts via an inner sense, but rather from our own behavior, which means that other people, somewhat paradoxically, may know our mind better than we do. This, of course, is the behaviorist position that has (justifiably, in my opinion) been the butt of a number of jokes, such as: two behaviourists have just had sex; one turns to the other and says: “That was great for you, darling. How was it for me?”

Carruthers’ idea relies on empirical results in experimental social psychology (see caveat above!) demonstrating that at the least sometimes not only we are mistaken about what we think we think, but we confabulate, i.e., make up explanations for our behaviors that cannot possibly be true. A typical experiment, for instance, shows that when people are offered a choice of several identical items they tend to pick the one on the right. When asked to justify their (unjustifiable, since the things are all equal!) choice they invent some story to make sense of what they have done.

This shouldn’t be particularly surprising, since the brain is trying to make sense of a situation in which it is faced with a series of facts that appear to be in contradiction with each other. It then produces some hypothesis about what happened: well, those objects look like they are identical, but I picked one above the others, so there must have been a reason, so they cannot possibly really be identical with each other. Confabulation is a very interesting phenomenon, and something of which we all have to be aware. But is it enough to make the stronger claims that Carruthers, Ryle, and Frankish want to make?

In The Opacity of Mind, Carruthers speculates that we and other primates have evolved systems to reliably guess about other people’s thoughts and intentions, not our own, and that we then began to direct those same inferential tools toward our inner mental processes. Since we have additional sensory data when it comes to ourselves — not just our outward behavior, but also feelings, pains, perceptions, etc., then we think we can more reliably tell what is going on inside our own minds.

The genesis part of the theory is speculative, of course, and there probably is no way to actually test it, as in many other evolutionary psychological scenarios. But I don’t have any problem with the idea that part of what constitutes our conscious thinking is an interpretation of our largely unconscious thoughts, making them explicit. The issue is that that isn’t the only thing we do consciously. We can also challenge our own subconscious thoughts, deliberately go after their logical implications, evaluate how they square with our beliefs and priorities, and so forth.

Which brings me to the major example brought forth by Frankish in support of Carruthers-type interpretations of conscious thinking. Turns out that we are all, deep down, “racists.” Meaning that psychological experiments (again, see caveat above!) seem to show that — when we are not paying attention — even people who claim to be opposed to racism behave in ways that indicate a subconscious level of racial bias. From this, Frankish concludes: “Such behaviour is usually said to manifest an implicit bias, which conflicts with the person’s explicit beliefs. But [Carruthers’] theory offers a simpler explanation. People think that the stereotypes are true but also that it is not acceptable to admit this and therefore say they are false. Moreover, they say this to themselves too, in inner speech, and mistakenly interpret themselves as believing it. They are hypocrites but not conscious hypocrites.”

I beg to differ. First off, it isn’t clear by what measure of “simpler” this second interpretation would allegedly satisfy Occam’s razor better than the implicit bias explanation. Most importantly, though, no, sorry, when I say that I firmly believe people should be treated equally regardless of their ethnic background I’m not lying, nor am I being a hypocrite, unwittingly or not. What I’m doing is to consciously override my unconscious biases, on the basis of rational deliberation over the issue. That is what makes human beings so different from any other animal on earth, so far as we know, and it is a precious thing indeed. But of course if you don’t believe that we are conscious, and if you believe that we always confabulate, then your must conclude that people are latent hypocrites, about everything. Which raises the obvious self-referential question: was Frankish just confabulating when he wrote the Aeon article?

210 thoughts on “You don’t really know your mind, or do you?

  1. michaelfugate

    Isn’t this just a “no true Scotsman” argument? Only those who don’t understand evolution are racists. To try to blame racism on religion or to cure racism by Darwin has no basis in fact. Science can’t tell you what you ought to do in this case. If I can understand common descent and eat a cow, I can understand common descent and enslave a human. I can justify either however I want.


  2. Robin Herbert

    I don’t see how this is a “no true Scotsman” argument, you will have to explain it.

    Racists say that, in general, there are superior races and inferior races in terms of intelligence and temperament and general ability. They are talking about a fact of the matter, rather than an “ought”. How we should act on those facts, is another matter.

    Garth says that there have been scientific facts, available more than 15 years ago, that contradict this idea.

    All I am asking is, what are those scientific facts, available more then 15 years ago, that would have led someone to confidently, or even tentatively conclude that the difference in technology among different populations was due almost entirely to environmental and cultural factors and not to genetic variation?

    As I said, the educated racists I have met have argued that it is due mostly to genetic variation and they use evolution as the basis for this argument.

    No one has told me what I could have said to them, based on information available more than 15 years ago, to show them that they were wrong, or even that they were being unreasonable.


  3. Robin Herbert

    Hi Michael,

    Or are you saying that no one who understands evolution could possibly think that populations geographically separated over long periods of times could have developed genetic variations that would result in different average intelligence, temperament and ability? Which is, as I said before, the argument that the educated racists make.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. synred

    Whether out Africa vs. multi-regional was still a matter a dispute when my daughter was an anthropology major 20 years ago. This did not go as far as ‘separate species’ but did predict rather bigger differences than observed.

    The recent discovery of ~5% Neanderthal genes does points to some regional variations. I doubt it contributes much to developing technology, etc., but no doubt David Duke and his ilk will use it to claim ‘white’ people are superior.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Massimo Post author


    No, I haven’t received any poop in the mail, yet.


    Other than my usual suggestion to tone down the sarcasm a bit, scientific racism was, and still is, a thing, so no need for desbielef on that account.

    And Robin is correct, there is no scientific evidence for systematic differences among human populations in terms of either intelligence (whatever that is) or temperament.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. SocraticGadfly

    To follow on Massimo, by definition, the midpoint on IQ tests is 100, as administered by country on a country-by-country basis, so when a Frank Miele talks about 20 percent or whatever of sub-Saharan Africans having an IQ of 50, he’s full of all sorts of shit.

    And, him and Vince Sarich being on the masthead of Skeptic is still something I hold against Michael Shermer, even if neither one wrote racialist pieces for Shermer.

    Liked by 2 people

  7. Robin Herbert

    Hi Massimo,

    I think that Garth agrees that there is no scientific evidence for systematic differences among human populations in terms of either intelligence or temperament.

    What I am saying is that more than 15 years ago there was no scientific fact that you could point to to counter the idea that a separation of populations over 30,000 to 80,000 years would have been expected to produce some sort of genetic variation, given that evolution is a continuum and the gradual change that produced modern man would be expected to have continued. When the educated racist would say that the best explanation of the vastly differing technological achievements among these populations would thus be best explained by genetic variation among the populations, there was little I could say to counter and say that such disparity is better explained by cultural and environmental factors.

    I understand that others were saying that, even then, there was a good scientific argument against this position. I am asking how I should have responded to such arguments, using facts available more than 15 years ago.


  8. Robin Herbert

    Shermer does not seem to have exhibited even the slightest skepticism that there is a consistency of IQ tests over the decades that would allow us to draw a conclusion upon them about the average IQ across that time. I am assuming that “Skeptic” is just a catchy name for a magazine.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. synred

    50? Absurd! I knew guy with an 80. He functioned kind of. 50 is institutionalization or a best a sheltered group home. Not functional.

    Even the Bell Curve only claimed a 5 point deficit which is well within the cultural systematic error.


  10. synred

    So a story my daughter heard as Anthropology major was about an Antro grad student studying a village in Africa. As part of his study he gave so-called cultural neutral IQ test to the kids. They did terrible.

    Then he went hunting with them. They could recognize tracks and other signs of possible game. He couldn’t see what they were talking about. He realized he’d flunked their IQ test.

    The village was thatched ‘huts’. No straight lines or 90 degree corners. No wonder the test made no sense to them.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. synred

    So this from my recollection of my undergrad psychology class.

    The question on a IQ test are selected to be predictive on a academic performance. So low IQ may be accurately predict that most kids raised in rural Africa won’t to well at Harvard.

    My Prof. for this course said “An IQ test test what an IQ test test”. I think he meant it was not a measure of any kind of intrinsic intelligence. The test scores are designed to be correlated with ever they are designed to be correlated with.



  12. Robin Herbert

    I used to administer the IBM battery for IT aptitude for a college where I worked .

    After one potential student had done particularly well he admitted that he had applied to 6 colleges so far that day and that this was the sixth time he had taken the same test that day.

    Liked by 1 person

  13. Coel

    Hi Socratic,

    Oh, note to Coel as well as Garth — see that Wiki link, because, no, Darwinian evolution did not kill polygenesis.

    It killed polygenesis as a scientific account of human origins. Of course it did take time for Darwinian evolution to become accepted and assimilated. That there was a decreasing minority of polygenism advocates for a few decades afterwards doesn’t really refute the point (that’s more or less how science always progresses).

    Liked by 2 people

  14. garthdaisy


    Your thought experiment makes my case beautifully, I thank you for presenting it. It demonstrates that when you change the facts, the morality of the situation changes. It is currently looked down upon and considered racist to be fearful of members of another race or to not want them living in your neighbourhood, or not to want them to marry your daughter, or to not want them working for your company, or to not vote for them because of their race, but change the facts, as you suggest, make it factually true that one race is inferior, inherently lazy, more violent, more greedy, and less intelligent than the other races, and now the morality of racism changes. It’s still racist to not want members of this race to live in your neighbourhood or to marry your daughter or to work for you and to not vote for them because of their race, it’s still racist, but now it’s justified. It’s not immoral anymore. You would not be looked down on for feeling that way anymore. The facts changed. And now racism towards that race is moral.

    Now please answer your own question from your own thought experiment. I answered it. Would you let one of them marry your daughter? Would you be a racist in that world? And would it be okay to be racist in that way because of the different facts?


  15. garthdaisy

    Hi Robin,

    I have to say I just find it too easy to defeat the argument from these “educated racists” that you think give the anti-racist position fits with the facts. For one thing we already know with certainty that evolution did indeed continue to occur and is still occurring. So what? How does that prove europeans are intellectually superior to Africans? Steel? The industrial revolution? There are more plausible explanations for these than the superior intelligence of the white race. There’s not even such a thing as the white race or the european race. And what kind of “superior intelligence” are we talking about? How intelligent is what steel and the industrial revolution have done to our world? Is a white corporate executive more intelligent than a hunter gatherer tribe leader in Botswana? Is he smarter than Neil Degrasse Tyson? Don’t we know for a fact that there are millions of white men in America who are of inferior intelligence to Marie Maynard Daly.

    How do you let these “educated racists” get away with being so ignorant? If they are proposing that one race is significantly less intelligent than another such that it matters then the onus is on them to provide some evidence that it is true, not just that it is plausible. I don’t even think they have demonstrated that it is plausible, just that it might be possible. There is not one ounce of credible evidence that it’s true. The industrial revolution isn’t even proof that humans are smarter than dolphins never mind that white people are smarter than black people. Unless you think it’s smart of us to be destroying our habitat and theirs, and killing each other with war machines.

    Give me five minutes in a room with these “educated racists” you speak of. In spite of their “education” still have all of their facts wrong. Next time you’re talking to one, see if they can even give a coherent definition of “intelligence.” I’ll bet they can’t.

    The reason not to be racist is that there are no facts that demonstrate there are significant intellectual and temperamental differences between the races. It is this fact that no significant differences exist that make racism wrong. If the fact were that they did exist in a significant way, racism would not be wrong but something justifiable, and even inescapable. Whether or not we would then treat those very different races with equality is another issue that would depend on exactly what those differences were. If one race were far more violent towards their children, it would be hard to argue against banning that race from being baby sitters. Even though that would still be racism, it would be justifiable racism. Fortunately we do not live in a world where those are the facts.


  16. garthdaisy


    You have got to be kidding, singling me out for the sarcasm. Not only am I far from the only one engaging in it I am never the one to start it. Go ahead and check the record. Check my first comments on this threat for sarcasm or sniping or snark directed at others. You won’t find any. I never start it. I return fire in kind. Perhaps it’s my fault for having ideas that are so snarkable. I’m not going to take it. If you want less sarcasm and sniping on this thread you need to head it off at the source. Hint. It’s Socratic. It’s always Socratic. Go and read it for yourself. I won’t just sit here and take it, Massimo. I will return his snark, and your snark, and everyone else’s snark when I receive snark but you won’t find me starting it. Singling me out is indefensible. Outlandish.


  17. Robin Herbert

    Hi garth,

    That does not seem much of an argument.

    Specifically what facts do they have wrong?

    And you have conceded their point that you would expect that groups that have been separated for 30,000 to 80,000 years would have continued to evolve on different paths.

    But, you are saying that you don’t think this genetic variation is the best explained by something else.

    What? Environnent? Culture?


  18. Robin Herbert

    And on what basis would you have discounted that the genetic variation you agree would have occurred could be a factor on the disparity of achievement between these grouos? Remember, using information available more than 15 years ago.


  19. Robin Herbert

    Hi garth,

    “Not only am I far from the only one engaging in it I am never the one to start it.”

    I have reviewed my comments addressed to you and I fail to see how you could have interpreted any of them as sarcastic.


  20. Robin Herbert

    Incidentally that same sarcasm seems to indicate that you didn’t read what I said. I said there was no scientific evidence in those days on which to base an anti racist position, as there is now. So of course my evidence was unscientific, that was the very point I was making.

    As it turned out I was on the money.


  21. Robin Herbert

    Admittefly my educated racist acquaintance was something of a genetic determinist, tended to think that stuff like culture and environment counted for very little compared with genetic programming,


  22. davidlduffy

    “intelligence (whatever that is)”: How about “the global capacity of an individual to reason, solve problems, act purposefully, and interact successfully with the environment” [Weschler 1939]. Usually measured for research purposes by speed and accuracy on a combination of standardised verbal and performance tasks involving reasoning. The summary scores from such tests can be shown to correlate with even subtle injuries to the brain, as well as to overall measures of brain structural organisation eg Pearson r=0.5 between Weschler Full Scale IQ and brain white matter organisation and directionality (measured by MRI as Fractional Anisotropy), and white matter mean and radial diffusivity [Malpas et al 2016]
    as well as to simple (r ~ 0.1) and complex reaction time, and to gross measures such as total brain volume (a suggestion going back to Galton).

    IQ test scores are moderately stable over time, with a test-retest correlation over 3 years of 0.7. For comparison, the test-retest correlation over the same period for serum cholesterol is 0.6. This means that results for either assay for an individual can vary quite greatly between occasions.

    Such test scores are heritable eg SNP LD score based heritability estimate for education level ~0.3, but increasing to ~0.4 in the least disadvantaged quintile from the UK Biobank. The heritability for fluid IQ test score was 0.2, with no moderation by SES.


  23. Massimo Post author


    Ah, my mistake, then. Well, I’m pretty sure that even 15 years ago most population geneticists had settled on the idea that there is no deep split among human populations, data in hand. One such leading scientist is Alan Templeton, for instance.


    I honestly couldn’t care less about what you find outlandish, my blog, my rules. Yes, Socratic also exhibits sarcasm, and occasionally I point that out to him. However, you are by far the worst offender, often unprovoked (for instance by Robin). And, seriously, “he did it first, so I did too”? What is this, kindergarten?

    In general, I don’t mind some, shall we say, sharp humor. It’s sparking that I don’t appreciate. Yes, the difference is subjective, and it may be subtle. But as I said above, my blog, my rules, my subjective judgment. Take it or leave.


Comments are closed.