What are you looking at?

We don't understand our own experiences nearly as well as we think

Eric Schwitzgebel, professor of philosophy at University of California at Riverside. (Eric Grigorian for The Boston Globe) Eric Schwitzgebel, professor of philosophy at University of California at Riverside.
By Joshua Rothman
May 22, 2011

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In 1951, the psychologist Solomon Asch gathered seven college students around a table and presented them with two cards. On one, he’d printed a single vertical line; on the other, three lines of varying lengths. Going around the table, Asch asked each student a simple question: Which of the three lines was the same length as the solitary one? Asch’s secret was that all but one of the “volunteers” were actors, with instructions to answer incorrectly. While the actors contributed their wrong answers, Asch watched the real volunteer, who always went last. Would he give in to the pressure of the group?

The results were unsettling: When they had to go against the group, 75 percent of Asch’s volunteers gave at least one wrong answer, often without knowing it. Psychologists have long cited Asch’s experiments as sublime demonstrations of “groupthink.” But they also point to a more subtle and disquieting aspect of our inner lives: They suggest just how easily our confidence in our own perceptions, memories, and inner experiences can be shaken. Most of us assume that we know, with omniscient certainty, exactly what we’re thinking, feeling, and perceiving. Asch’s experiments force us to question that certainty. If we’re so sure of what’s going on in our own minds, then how can we be so easily persuaded to change them?

Eric Schwitzgebel, a philosopher at the University of California, Riverside, has spent the last 10 years trying to make sense of this uncertainty. In his new book, “Perplexities of Consciousness,” he argues that, contrary to our intuitions, we actually don’t know all that much about our own inner lives. Schwitzgebel contends that, when it comes to our own experiences, we are “poorly equipped with the tools, categories, and skills that might help [us] dissect them.” When we’re pressed to characterize them, our emotions, perceptions, and imaginings “flee and scatter” — they turn out to be “gelatinous, disjoined, swift, shy, changeable.” We ought to be skeptical, in short, of the impressions we have of our own inner lives.

Much of the history of philosophy is the history of skepticism; John Dewey called it “the mark and even the pose of the educated mind.” Most skepticism, though, has been directed outward, with the aim of questioning how much we can know about the world. Inner life has been a redoubt against skepticism. It was against skepticism that Descartes wrote “I think, therefore I am”: Take away everything we know about the world outside, and we still have the world inside.

Schwitzgebel aims to rob us of that consolation. If we examine our own minds “conscientiously,” Schwitzgebel argues, it’s hard to make definitive, authoritative statements about what’s really happening in there. Recalling a mental snapshot, for example, we can rarely say how detailed it is. We are often perplexed, even, by the larger movements of our inner lives: “Most of us have a rather poor sense,” Schwitzgebel writes, “of what brings us pleasure and suffering....We may say we’re happy — overwhelmingly we do — but we have little idea what we’re talking about.”

Ultimately, if our inner lives are mysterious to us, what’s left? Perhaps, Schwitzgebel suggests, we can learn more about ourselves by looking outward. He spoke to Ideas from his office in California.

IDEAS: You’re skeptical about something — our knowledge of our own inner lives — that almost everyone takes for granted. What planted the seed of that skepticism?

SCHWITZGEBEL: My dissertation, as a graduate student, was on connections between philosophy of mind and developmental psychology. One thing that I’d been really struck by...was that children seem to have, maybe through the age of 4 or 5, just incredibly poor knowledge of their own minds, including their own stream of experience....They will say things that just seem so flabbergasting about their own experience, that you’ll just think — no way, that’s not even close to right!...Afterward, I got interested in adults. We’re not that bad. But are we really so much better?

IDEAS: Let’s start with a simple example. What’s the kind of inner experience you’re saying we don’t actually know that well?

SCHWITZGEBEL: Well, just form a visual image of the front of your house....Then ask yourself: How detailed is it? Does it have clearly specified color throughout? Is it flat, like a painting? Or does it have intrinsic depth? Does it have a position in egocentric space — is it as though the image were right before your eyes, or is it in your head?...Most people end up saying: “Well...I’m not totally sure. It’s not as clear to me, I don’t feel as confident about that as I feel confident that there is a coffee mug on my desk.”

IDEAS: So compared to the outer world, the inner world is actually remote from us.

SCHWITZGEBEL: I wouldn’t use the word “remote.”...Things can be problematic because they’re too near. The frame of my eyeglasses is too near my eyes for me to see it well. It’s not that it’s remote — it’s almost that it’s too close.

IDEAS: You argue that what’s true about mental images is also true of emotions.

SCHWITZGEBEL: I think that when you ask someone how they feel about something, what you get is probably 80 percent theory and 20 percent real juice.

IDEAS: How does that idea make you feel? Is it unnerving?

SCHWITZGEBEL: I may be unusual in a certain way, in that I find being cast into doubt and uncertainty kind of liberating and exhilarating and fun. When I read a piece of philosophy or piece of psychology or science fiction, and it throws me off and confuses me and bewilders me, and calls into doubt what I thought I knew — that lights my candle, that’s what I really like.

IDEAS: But you could be wrong about that. Maybe you only think being a skeptic makes you happy!

SCHWITZGEBEL: There is no solid ground. But we can use a diversity of methods to shine a light on things....In coming to self-understanding, we can use introspection to some extent....We can also use third-person evidence. I can notice the fact that across the history of my career, back into undergraduate days, I’ve always enjoyed reading the skeptics, and that I find myself spending time with certain authors rather than others, and that I write certain kinds of things. [And] there’s a kind of support you can get from people, too....If you have, say, a spouse, that can be very valuable as another source of evidence.

IDEAS: If our own judgments about our inner lives are so tenuous, then why are we so confident about them?

SCHWITZGEBEL: [Because] no one else can prove you wrong! When you’re in a position where you are the sole authority on something, that tends to artificially inflate your confidence....It’s a common experience as a professor. You get in a room in front of undergraduates, you start talking about Kripke and Descartes, you know way more than they do, you start saying all this stuff, you feel very confident about it. But if someone else who was your epistemic peer about Kripke and Descartes were sitting in the room, suddenly your confidence would be a lot lower.

IDEAS: We’re better at judging things when there are other people there to help us.

SCHWITZGEBEL: We know that our judgments, in general, are fallible, and biased in all kinds of ways, and should be corrected by other people. [When it comes to our inner lives,] we still have that same fallibility, that same bias. We lack correction. We’re in a worse epistemic position!

Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and teaching fellow in the Harvard English department and an instructor in public policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.