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?

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Categories: Epistemology, Philosophy of Mind

210 replies

  1. “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them.”

    So does God have a penis or a vagina?

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  2. Hi Robin,

    I am not sure why anybody thinks that Darwin’s theory had any usefulness at all in the cause of human equality.

    One thing that Darwin’s ideas killed is polygenism — the idea that the different human races were separate and distinct creations. Prior to Darwin that was a scientifically defendable possibility. Polygenism has also featured in various theologies (both prior to and post Darwin; e.g. the Nazis).

    Darwinian evolution points to monogenism, with a relatively recent (in evolutionary terms) separation between extant races, and given that it is far harder to maintain that racial differences amount to much.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Yes, Garth Daisy agrees. But you don’t have to enslave people to be a racist. You can just think that all people of a particular race aren’t as intelligent as your race. You can think they deserve = rights and still be a racist. Are you denying this? Are you saying as long as you are for = rights you are not racist?

    In which case what do the facts of Darwinism and genetics have to do with it? You seem to on the one hand be arguing that if people knew we are “all the same” regardless of so-called race, we would not discriminate based on superficial characteristic like skin color. Here you appear to admit we should not discriminate even if blacks were inferior in some meaningful way.. Why not? Which facts will convince people they “deserve” rights.

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  4. Garth: If the ‘inferiority’ of a group were scientifically verified and you believed the facts would that make you a racist? Would you let one of ‘them’ marry your daughter?

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  5. I never said the Bible wasn’t silly.

    However, likely they meant ‘spiritual image’ not literally body. After all only 1/3 of the Big Guy has a body. Even biblical literalness are not that literal and something may have been lost in translation as well.

    I’m just glad women were included?

    It certainly coveys the idea of equality as in all being of equal value.

    Were you really so ignorant has to not know about this rather famous ‘doctrine’ at the heart of Judaism, Christianity and Islam?

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  6. Hi Coel,

    I am not aware that polygenism was being suggested by any significant number of people before Darwin.

    and given that it is far harder to maintain that racial differences amount to much

    A racist doesn’t say that the differences amount to much – just a differential in intelligence and personality (self control etc).

    Given that Darwinian evolution shows that these are developed gradually over time and humans are a point on a continuum, how would someone conclude that different populations throughout the world continued on the same evolutionary pathway?

    Remember that in the 19th and early 20th century they did not know how old the earth was and didn’t know how quickly or slowly this process happened. And even in the late 20th century people could still conclude that different populations had considerably different characteristics in terms of intelligence and temperament. After all we can see intelligence increase considerably in animals over 100 years, so how much could it change in humans in 100,000 years or more?

    And yes, these are exactly the kinds of things highly educated snd well informed racists I have met do say.

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  7. Neanderthal Hybrids

    Soon David Duke will be claiming he is superior because of his Neanderthal blood!

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  8. https://goo.gl/8ITvBF

    Link to hybrids in ScienceNews. Apparently WordPress strips links attached to text in an email.

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  9. Hi garth,

    “It’s really the science of “out of Africa” that provides us the best reason to not be racist. Again there are other very good reasons for equality under the law, but racism is best defeated by the facts of biology and genetics.”

    Actually I have been waiting a long time for biology and genetics to catch up with what I learned just from interacting with people of different races and getting to know them.

    The science of “out of Africa” has always been the gem in the crown of the educated racist’s argument and always difficult to counter.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Polygenism was seriously suggested both before AND after 1859.

    Per this subsection of Wiki’s article, there are polygenist evolutionists. Like Alfred Russell Wallace: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Polygenism#Polygenist_evolution

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Synred,

    “If the ‘inferiority’ of a group were scientifically verified and you believed the facts would that make you a racist?”

    Maybe, it depends on what you mean by “inferior.” This is a fictitious world you are creating where there may actually be good reason to be racist. Again do not confuse this with equal treatment. But if it were factually true that a certain race were significantly more violent and greedy than all others it would be justifiable to be wary of, suspicious of, and not pleased to see members of that race moving into your neighbourhood. No? If those were the facts, racism in the form of “I don’t like that race” or “I’m afraid of that race” would be perfectly justifiable. But we live in a world with different facts so racism is not justifiable. The facts are what makes the difference. Fact lives matter!

    “Would you let one of ‘them’ marry your daughter?”

    Hmmm, I guess you haven’t read God’s word. It says women are equal and you should let them decide for themselves (It doesn’t really say that, I just noticed you trying to make the case that it does). Personally I would let my daughter make her own choice but I would not be happy if she married someone from a race that was factually proven to be more violent and greedy. Fortunately we live in a world with different facts. How about you? Would you let your daughter marry someone from a race that was factually proven to be more violent and greedy than all other races? Would you be happy about it? Would you not be justifiable racist towards that race because of the facts?

    “Were you really so ignorant has to not know about this rather famous ‘doctrine’ at the heart of Judaism, Christianity and Islam?”

    Are you really so ignorant as to think Jewish, Christian and Muslim doctrines treat women as equals? There are other verses in the bible. That’s the problem with God based morality. No way to verify what it actually means because HE DOESN”T EXIST!

    People’s own brains and emotions provided with the correct facts about the way the world actually is are perfectly capable of figuring out what is moral and not moral. If the facts were that some races smelled strongly like sulphur, you wouldn’t want to ride the bus with them. Those facts would make that type of racism justifiable and therefore not immoral. The facts are what dictate what is and is not moral with regards to racism. Fortunately the facts of this world are that there are no such significant differences between people of different skin colour. The concept of race is barely distinguishable if at all. Those facts are what make racism wrong. Different facts would make racism justifiable.

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  12. Robin

    “Given that Darwinian evolution shows that these are developed gradually over time and humans are a point on a continuum, how would someone conclude that different populations throughout the world continued on the same evolutionary pathway?”

    They wouldn’t until later. Again no one said Darwin alone ended racism. This is all from my comment that everyone was racist before Darwin. Nothing in that statement implies that Darwin ended racism. His discovery was the starting point for the discoveries that would make racism factually indefensible.

    “And yes, these are exactly the kinds of things highly educated snd well informed racists I have met do say.”

    “Highly educated” people are fully capable of having their facts wrong. I’m not talking about intelligence. I’m not talking about educated. I’m talking as bout having you facts right. Sow me a racist who has his facts right.

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  13. Robin

    “Actually I have been waiting a long time for biology and genetics to catch up with what I learned just from interacting with people of different races and getting to know them.”

    You knew we all come from a common ancestor in Africa by just talking to people? That’s bloody brilliant, mate. You should get that ability tested.

    “The science of “out of Africa” has always been the gem in the crown of the educated racist’s argument and always difficult to counter.”

    Say what? I don’t know what argument you are talking about but please share because I think I can easily counter it.

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  14. Hi garth,

    But again, what facts that were known before the 21st century, did they have wrong?

    As far as I can tell the educated racist, until about 15 years ago, said nothing that could be regarded as non-factual.

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  15. Hi garth,

    “You knew we all come from a common ancestor in Africa by just talking to people? That’s bloody brilliant, mate. You should get that ability tested”

    Of course I said nothing of the sort. Coming from a common ancestor out of Africa does not imply that there are not considerable differences in the different populations.

    What I knew was that there were no significant differences between populations in terms of intelligence and temprament.

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  16. Robin can you answer the hypothetical of the facts being different? What if the biological fact of the matter was that a particular race f people that evolved in another part of the world from the rest of us were far more violent and greedy than the other races. Would you have racist feeling towards them? Would you want your daughter to marry one?

    It’s a bit convenient to say I’ve always known the races were the same in a world where the races are all the same. It”s also easy to say blacks are more violent unless there are facts to discredit that notion. Fact lives matter.

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  17. “What I knew was that there were no significant differences between populations in terms of intelligence and temperament.”

    Wow. That would either make you the most well traveled extrovert of impossible proportions or someone who comes to conclusions based on insufficient sample sizes. I know what you are getting at and I agree, one can tell if one is fortunate enough to meet people from all different races and areas of the world that we are all similar in intelligence and temperament. And science confirms why that’s so. I think you are discounting your science knowledge a little too much. “Out of Africa” has been the most a credible as long as I’ve been alive. Are you sure the science you knew didn’t help confirm your suspicions that were are more similar than different?

    What if the facts were different Robin? What if there were significant differences in temperament and intelligence? What if there were significant differences in violence, greed, smell? Perhaps equal treatment would still be the moral thing to do but wouldn’t the “I don’t like those people” kind of racism be perfectly justified? Wouldn’t different facts change the morality of the situation?

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  18. Hi garth,

    “Say what? I don’t know what argument you are talking about but please share because I think I can easily counter it.”

    So you have never heard what the educated racists say? OK.

    The educated racists say that evolution is not something that stopped 200,000 years ago or 60,000 years ago or even now, they say that it is a continuum and that a gradual change implies that there will be very many transitional forms and branches. They say that the human diaspora began between 100,000 and 60,000 years ago and that we would expect the process that resulted in the anatomically modern human was continuous before and after that time and that, even in Africa, we would have expected populations to start to diverge.

    They say that selective breeding can considerably change the temprament and intelligence of animals such as dogs and that we should expect nothing else in human populations and that 10,000 years, 50,000 years or 100,000 years might result in a considerable divergence in these things in the human population, in fact that we should expect that they would.

    They say that we can track the human diaspora and see many different levels of development during that time, for example some populations never developed even the wheel, or handwriting or mathematics beyond a basic level, while others developed hand writing, advanced mathematics and a number of different levels of technology.

    They say that this variation is due either to genetic difference, culture or a mixture of the two and that, given that we expect evolution to be a continuum and given what we know about how much things like intelligence and temprament can change over even a very short period that, overwhelmingly, we should expect the differential technologies that developed by different populations is mainly due to genetic differences that occurred during the tens of thousands of years around the human diaspora, say from 120,000 years ago to 40,000 years ago.

    So what have they got factually incorrect there?

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  19. “Are you sure the science you knew didn’t help confirm your suspicions that were are more similar than different?”

    Absolutely sure. As I pointed out the scientific facts, until very recently, were embarrassingly on the side of the racists. But, yes, I am widely travelled and have moved in a number of very different circles. While I am personally shy, I appear to be very approachable and have spoken with a wide variety of people and none of my observations showed that there was any significant difference due to race. As you pointed out I could have been wrong in that, but it turned out, only very recently and against the expectation of Darwinism, that I was right.

    Liked by 1 person

  20. BTW taking to people and getting to know them is a way of gathering facts about their intelligence and temperament. You seem to be indicating that all of this talking and getting to know people provided you with the fact that we are all similar in intelligence and temperament. A correct fact is a correct fact no matter how you came by it. It’s still all about correct facts. You might have talked to all of those people and come to the conclusion that we are all similar in intelligence and temperament and then science may have proven that wrong and your guess from your experience would have been mistaken.

    But as it turns out the fact that you gathered from taking to people is confirmed by the science. Hooray for correct facts.

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  21. Robin,

    “So what have they got factually incorrect there?”

    Nothing it seems. But I didm’t see an argument for racism, did you?

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  22. “As I pointed out the scientific facts, until very recently, were embarrassingly on the side of the racists.”

    Excuse me? What scientific facts until very recently were on the side of racists?

    “But, yes, I am widely travelled and have moved in a number of very different circles”

    7 Billion people Robin. How many did you talk to? Sufficient sample size? Thank god we have genetics and biology to confirm your conclusion from an insufficient sample size.

    “As you pointed out I could have been wrong in that, but it turned out, only very recently and against the expectation of Darwinism, that I was right.”

    Against the expectation of Darwinism???

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  23. Hi garth,

    So you don’t think the claim that white skinned people from Europe having higher intelligence on average than dark skinned people on Africa has any relation to what racists are claiming?

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  24. Love how Garth, after making an “all” comment less than 48 hours ago, is trying to use sample size against Robin. Either not enough, or else too many, of those hash brownies, maybe?

    Liked by 1 person

  25. This is a fictitious world you are creating where there may actually be good reason to be racist

    Yep, it a thought experiment meant to test your hypothesis about the determintive effect off facts on morality.

    I think your definition of ‘racist’ is wanting, indeed not just you. The definition does not cover the subtly of the possibilities. It means more than just thinking other races are ‘inferior’ or at least people with racist beliefs general think it justifies their own privilege and treating there ‘inferiors’ badly.

    I’m not religious and I’m not responsible for their inconsistencies.

    Racist will invent differences whether they are real differences or not.

    By your definition racist are not necessarily bad people, e.g., people like Garrison. In his world a belief that blacks were inferior intellectually was plausible and non-the-less he opposed slavery, etc.

    People we call racist today general hate other groups, not just think they are inferior.

    In no case do facts drive morality which seems to be your pet idea.

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  26. Garth,

    Is the expectation that the gradual change which led to the modern human would have stopped 100,000 years ago or so, or continued to happen?

    Is the expectation that intelligence and temperament have a genetic basis?

    Would you expect these things to vary in separated populations over, say 30,000 to 80,000 years?

    What is the argument from Darwinian evolution that the different technological achievements of the different populations is down to environment and or culture and not a genetic difference in the population?

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  27. Come on, what are all these scientific facts, available more than 15 years ago, that would have led anyone to confidently conclude that the variation in technological achievement among various hunan populations was due almost entirely to cultural and environmental factors and not genetic variation?

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  28. The dominance of Europeans is almost certainly an accident of history. The group that stumbles on science first beats out the others. It’s kind of a one way valve.

    Somebody had to be first even when building on accomplishments of others. Even with the Neanderthal DNA the differences are minimal.

    But the immorality of ‘racism’ is not dependent on there being no differences. Even if there were significant differences it would not be ok to treat people unequally or deny them autonomy.

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  29. Socratic: “too many, of those hash brownies, maybe?” Comon, my friend. It’s not the quantity, in this case. Rather, the quality, at least in my experience. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  30. Why “almost certainly”?

    Most people are saying that my ability to learn and achieve is largely determined by my genes.

    So would the same people say that the fact that some populations didn’t develop the wheel or writing, while another were making reasonable estimations of the size of the earth and the sun was entirely an accident of history and nothing at all to do with the genetic variation that was expected to continue as the populations separated?

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