Philosophical Studies

, Volume 173, Issue 9, pp 2461–2485 | Cite as

The empirical case against introspection

  • Rik PeelsEmail author


This paper assesses five main empirical scientific arguments against the reliability of belief formation on the basis of introspecting phenomenal states. After defining ‘reliability’ and ‘introspection’, I discuss five arguments to the effect that phenomenal states are more elusive than we usually think: (1) the argument on the basis of differences in introspective reports from differences in introspective measurements; (2) the argument from differences in reports about whether or not dreams come in colours; (3) the argument from the absence of a correlation between visual imagery ability and the performance on certain cognitive tasks; (4) the argument from our unawareness of our capacity of echolocation; (5) the argument from inattentional blindness and change blindness. I argue that the experiments on which these arguments are based do not concern belief formation on the basis of introspection in the first place or fail to show that it is unreliable, even when limited to introspection of phenomenal states.


Belief formation Introspection Phenomenal states Reliability 



For their helpful comments on earlier versions of this paper, I would like to thank Lieke Asma, Leon de Bruin, Jeroen de Ridder, Geertjan Holtrop, Naomi Kloosterboer, Kelvin McQueen, Emanuel Rutten, Eric Schwitzgebel, Robin Scott, Hans van Eyghen, and René van Woudenberg. Publication of this article was made possible through the support of a grant from Templeton World Charity Foundation. The opinions expressed in this publication are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Templeton World Charity Foundation.


  1. Angell, J. R. (1910). Methods for the determination of mental imagery. Psychological Monographs, 13, 61–108.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Audi, R. (1994). Dispositional beliefs and dispositions to believe. Noûs, 28(4), 419–434.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Bentley, M. (1915). The study of dreams: A method adapted to the seminary. The American Journal of Psychology, 26(2), 196–210.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Bode, B. H. (1913). The method of introspection. Journal of Philosophy, 10(4), 85–91.Google Scholar
  5. Byrne, A. (2005). Introspection. Philosophical Topics, 33(1), 79–104.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Chalmers, D. J. (2003). The content and epistemology of phenomenal belief. In Q. Smith & A. Jokic (Eds.), Consciousness: New philosophical perspectives (pp. 220–272). Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  7. Dennett, D. C. (1969). Content and consciousness. London: Routledge.Google Scholar
  8. Dennett, D. C. (1991). Consciousness explained. London: The Penguin Press.Google Scholar
  9. Dennett, D. C. (2001). Surprise, surprise. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 24(5), 982.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Dennett, D. C. (2007). Heterophenomenology reconsidered. Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences, 6(1-2), 247–270.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Ericsson, K. A. (2003). Valid and non-reactive verbalization of thoughts during performance of tasks: Towards a solution to the central problems of introspection as a source of scientific data. Journal of Consciousness Studies, 10(9–10), 1–18.Google Scholar
  12. Escalas, J. E. (2004). Imagine yourself in the product: Mental simulation, narrative transportation, and persuasion. Journal of Advertising, 33(2), 37–48.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Gallagher, S. (2003). Phenomenology and experimental design: Toward a phenomenologically enlightened experimental science. Journal of Consciousness Studies, 10(9–10), 85–99.Google Scholar
  14. Galton, F. (1880). Statistics of mental imagery. Mind, 5(19), 301–318.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Gemignani, A., Sebastiani, L., Simoni, A., Santarcangelo, E. L., & Ghelarducci, B. (2006). Hypnotic trait and specific phobia: EEG and autonomic output during phobic stimulation. Brain Research Bulletin, 69(2), 197–203.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Grimes, J. (1996). On the failure to detect changes in scenes across saccades. In E. Akins (Ed.), Perception (pp. 89–110). Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  17. Hausfeld, S., Power, R. P., Gorta, A., & Harris, P. (1982). Echo perception of shape and texture by sighted subjects. Perceptual and Motor Skills, 55(2), 623–632.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Hurlburt, R. T., & Heavey, C. L. (2001). Telling what we know: Describing inner experience. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 5(9), 400–403.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Irvine, E. (2012). Old problems with new measures in the science of consciousness. British Journal for the Philosophy of Science, 63(3), 627–648.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Irvine, E. (2013). Measures of consciousness. Philosophy Compass, 8(3), 285–297.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Jack, A. I., & Roepstorff, A. (2003). “Editorial introduction: Why trust the subject?”, Trusting the subject: The use of introspective evidence in cognitive science, Vol. 1, Journal of Consciousness Studies 10.9-10, v-xx.Google Scholar
  22. Jack, A. I., & Shallice, T. (2001). Introspective physicalism as an approach to the science of consciousness. Cognition, 79(1-2), 161–196.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. Kriegel, U. (2013). A hesitant defense of introspection. Philosophical Studies, 165(3), 1165–1176.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. Lobmaier, J. S., & Mast, F. W. (2008). Face imagery is based on featural representations. Experimental Psychology, 55(1), 47–53.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. Lutz, A., & Thompson, E. (2003). Neurophenomenology: Integrating subjective experience and brain dynamics in the neuroscience of consciousness. Journal of Consciousness Studies, 10(9-10), 31–52.Google Scholar
  26. Mack, A. (2003). Inattentional blindness: Looking without seeing. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 12(5), 180–184.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. Marcel, A. J. (1993). Slippage in the unity of consciousness. In G. R. Block & J. Marsh (Eds.), Experimental and theoretical studies of consciousness (pp. 168–186). Chichester: Wiley.Google Scholar
  28. Marcel, A. J. (2003). Introspective report: Trust, self-knowledge and science. Journal of Consciousness Studies, 11(7-8), 167–186.Google Scholar
  29. McKelvie, S. J. (1995). The VVIQ and beyond: Vividness and its measurement. Journal of Mental Imagery, 19(3), 197–252.Google Scholar
  30. Noë, A. (2004). Action in perception. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.Google Scholar
  31. O’Regan, J. K. (1992). Solving the “Real” mysteries of visual perception: The world as an outside memory. Canadian Journal of Psychology, 46(3), 461–488.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. Overgaard, M. (2006). Introspection in science. Consciousness and Cognition, 15(4), 629–633.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. Paivio, A. (1990). Mental representations: A dual coding approach. Oxford: Oxford University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  34. Peels, R. (2016). A conceptual map of scientism. In J. Rik Peels & R. van Woudenberg (Eds.), Scientism: A philosophical exposition and evaluation. New York: Oxford University Press (Forthcoming).Google Scholar
  35. Petrova, P. K., & Cialdini, R. B. (2005). Fluency of consumption imagery and the backfire effects of imagery appeals. Journal of Consumer Research, 32(3), 442–452.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  36. Price, H. H. (1954). Perception. London: Methuen.Google Scholar
  37. Rensink, R. A., O’Regan, J. K., & Clark, J. J. (1997). To see or not to see: The need for attention to perceive changes in scenes. Psychological Science, 8(5), 368–373.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  38. Richardson, J. T. E. (1980). Mental imagery and human memory. London: MacMillan Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  39. Rosenberg, A. (2011). The atheist's guide to reality: Enjoying life without illusions. New York: W.W. Norton.  Google Scholar
  40. Rosenblum, L. D., Gordon, M. S., & Jarquin, L. (2000). Echolocating distance by moving and stationary listeners. Ecological Psychology, 12(3), 181–206.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  41. Schwitzgebel, E. (2007). No unchallengeable epistemic authority, of any sort, regarding our own conscious experience—Contra Dennett? Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences, 6(1-2), 107–113.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  42. Schwitzgebel, E. (2010). “Introspection”, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy., first published February 2nd 2010; substantive revision September 4th 2010, last visited November 24th 2015.
  43. Schwitzgebel, E. (2011). Perplexities of consciousness. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.Google Scholar
  44. Schwitzgebel, E., & Gordon, M. S. (2000). How well do we know our own conscious experience? The case of human echolocation. Philosophical Topics, 282(2), 235–246.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  45. Sheehan, P. W. (1967). A shortened form of Betts’ Questionnaire upon mental imagery. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 23(3), 386–389.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  46. Smithies, D., & Stoljar, D. (2012). Introspection and consciousness: An overview. In D. Smithies & D. Stoljar (Eds.), Introspection and consciousness (pp. 3–25). Oxford: Oxford University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  47. Watson, J. B. (1913). Psychology as the behaviorist views it. Psychological Review, 20(2), 158–177.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  48. Zihl, J., & von Cramon, D. Y. (1980). Registration of light stimuli in the cortically blind hemifield and its effect on localization. Behavioural Brain Research, 1, 287–298.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Philosophy DepartmentVU University AmsterdamAmsterdamThe Netherlands

Personalised recommendations