Introspective disputes deflated: the case for phenomenal variation

Abstract

Sceptics vis-à-vis introspection often base their scepticism on ‘phenomenological disputes’, ‘introspective disagreement’, or ‘introspective disputes’ (ID) (see Kriegel in Phenomenol Cogn Sci 6(1):115–136, 2007; Bayne and Spener in Philos Issues 20(1):1–22, 2010; Schwitzgebel in Perplexities of consciousness, MIT Press, Cambridge, 2011): introspectors massively diverge in their opinions about experiences, and there seems to be no method to resolve these issues. Sceptics take this to show that introspection lacks any epistemic merit. Here, I provide a list of paradigmatic examples, distill necessary and sufficient conditions for IDs, present the sceptical argument encouraged by IDs, and review the two main strategies (resolution and containment) to reject such a scepticism. However, both types of strategies are unsatisfactory. In order to save introspection from the looming sceptical threat, I advocate a deflationary strategy, based on either an ‘Argument from Perceptual Kinship’ or an ‘Argument from Ownership’. In the end, there cannot be any genuine IDs, for nothing can fulfil the reasonable conditions for IDs. What looks like IDs may instead be indicators of phenomenal variation. Debates that look like IDs may then arise even if introspection were a perfect method to know one’s mind. Thus, scepticism vis-à-vis introspection based on IDs rests on shaky grounds.

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Fig. 1

Notes

  1. 1.

    See e.g. Windt (2013) for such a defence of dream reports, which under some interpretation would count as being based on introspection.

  2. 2.

    I do not want to focus solely on phenomenology (Husserlian or otherwise) but include less strict kinds of first-person methods; hence, I prefer ‘introspective’ rather than ‘phenomenological’. Furthermore, while a disagreement may consist between the beliefs of a single individual over time, I want to stress the inter-individual and discursive nature of these disagreements; hence, I prefer ‘dispute’ over ‘disagreement’.

  3. 3.

    The example deliberately resembles the case of the ‘Gentle Tasaday’: The Tasaday are considered by some to be a fake tribe: people were paid to act as a stone-age tribe for reporters and anthropologists. However, the issue is more complicated because the Tasaday being a hoax could itself be a hoax: real stone-age tribesmen might have been coaxed with cigarettes to claim to be actors playing stone-age tribesmen. There is evidence for each story, and the truth remains a mystery. See Hemley (2007).

  4. 4.

    For further discussions on how to reasonably deal with peer disagreement, see e.g. Christensen (2009) and Feldman and Warfield (2010). A discussion of peer disagreement is beyond the scope of this paper.

  5. 5.

    See Alston (1971) on how to interpret the notion of privileged access.

  6. 6.

    ‘Cette prétendue méthode psychologique est donc radicalement nulle dans son principe. [...] Les résultats d’une aussie étrange manière de procédere sont parfaitement conformes au principe. Depuis deux mille ans que la métaphysiciens cultivent ainsi la psychologie, ils n’ont pu encore convenir d’une seule proposition intelligible et solidement arrêtée. [...] L’observation intérieure engendre presque autant d’opinions divergentes qu’il y a croyant s’y liver.’ (Comte 1830: 35f)

  7. 7.

    ‘Like other attempts to strip away interpretation and reveal the basic facts of consciousness to rigorous observation [...], Phenomenology has failed to find a single, settled method that everyone could agree upon. [...] It is just astonishing to see how often ‘academic’ discussions of phenomenological controversies degenerate into desk-thumping cacophony, with everybody talking past everybody else. [...] We are fooling ourselves about something. ’(Dennett 1991: 44 & 66)

  8. 8.

    The epistemological problem regarding phenomenological, first-person approaches of ‘data generation’ is that if inconsistencies in two individual ‘data sets’ should appear, there is no way to settle the conflict. [...] This is a third defining characteristic of the scientific way of approaching reality: there are procedures to settle conflicts resulting from conflicting hypotheses. Epistemic progress continues.’ IDs seem to be exactly the inconsistencies that Metzinger has in mind. See also Metzinger (1995: 35).

  9. 9.

    ‘People often differ greatly in their judgements about their stream of experience (across cultures, between individuals within the same culture, or within the same individual over time). Sometimes, in such cases, it seems unlikely that their actual underlying experiences vary correspondingly. Consequently, some of their judgements—we do not necessarily know which ones—are probably wrong.’ (Schwitzgebel 2011: ix–xi).

  10. 10.

    ‘The above phenomenological disputes, and others like them, are disconcerting inasmuch as the Consciousness Studies community does not have accepted guidelines for adjudicating them. Phenomenological disputes have a way of leading to apparent deadlocks with remarkable immediacy. [...] The most violent reaction is to claim that there is no fact of the matter concerning these disputes. Phenomenological disputes are hard to adjudicate simply because they are not adjudicable.’

  11. 11.

    Note that condition (i) is not fulfilled when I assert an opinion but you refrain from judgement. Even though I might want to pressure you to make up your mind, this case does not involve disagreement proper: Your non-commitment does not rule out the truth of my opinion. Your reservation to commit actually hinders a proper dispute from arising.

  12. 12.

    Because of the behavioural nature of (ii), we need not concern ourselves too much with the nature of introspection or what disputants understand under ‘introspection’. If disputes arise due to a misunderstanding of the word ‘introspection’, then these discussions become something else. However, nobody in paradigmatic introspective disputes argues that they are based on a misunderstanding of the word ‘introspection’. Instead, they are seen as being about which features are manifest in phenomenality (Kriegel 2007) or which phenomenal features are available for introspection. There is at least some common ground: Most disputants in ID are phenomenal realists, and they see introspection as something akin to a detection or scanning mechanism broadly construed: If everything goes right, then there is something that introspection detects or scans. The result of this process is an ‘introspective belief’. If something goes wrong, then we either form no introspective belief (a false negative) or we form a belief about experience that is not veridical (a false positive). So even if the nature of introspection is notoriously hard to pin down, the behavioural evidence together with the common ground of introspection being akin to scanning or detection suffices to present these disputes adequately as, prima facie, introspective disputes.

  13. 13.

    That is: someone else’s utterances which we take to be a report.

  14. 14.

    See Smithies (2013a, b) for overviews on the debate concerning cognitive phenomenology.

  15. 15.

    See also Schwitzgebel (2002, 2003), Schwitzgebel et al. (2006).

  16. 16.

    See Schwitzgebel (2011: ch. 2) for an in-depth discussion of the issue with more historical references.

  17. 17.

    ‘[I]t seems quite impossible that all the shapes we see can be the envelope’s real shape. This side of the envelope can have but one shape: it cannot be both rhomboidal, as is the shape which you on the left see, and also rectangular, as is the shape seen by those in front; the angles at its corners cannot be both right angles and also very far from right angles. Certainly, therefore, the sense-given shape which some of you see is not the shape of this side of the envelope.’ (Moore 1953: 30f)

  18. 18.

    See Peacocke (1983: 98f), but also Smith (2000: 172): ‘[T]he suggestion that pennies, for example, look elliptical when seen from most angles is simply not true—they look round—and in no sense, not even in the extended sense given to the term in these pages, is the look of such a tilted penny an illusion.’

  19. 19.

    ‘[T]he way things look to us alters when we come to recognize what types of things they are. And this difference in how things look is a difference that follows from a difference in the way it seems to us for it to look to us as it does. [...] There is a way it seems to us to see sunflowers not just as some more shaped and coloured things, but as what has a distinctively sunflowery look.’ (Siewert 1998: 256)

  20. 20.

    ‘When I am experiencing an object, nothing in my experience of it determines which object I’m experiencing anymore than there is something about a gauge’s representation of a tire’s pressure that determines which tire it is registering the pressure of.’ (Dretske 1995: 33)

  21. 21.

    ‘What defines the character of driving a Porsche [...] is something more complex. There are characteristic ways in which the vehicle accelerates in response to pressure on the gas pedal. There are definite features of the way the car handles turns, how smoothly one can change gears, and so on. What it is like to drive a Porsche is constituted by all these sensorimotor contingencies and by ones skillful mastery of them,—one’s confident knowledge of how the car will respond to manipulations of its instruments.’ (O’Regan and Noë 2001: 960f)

  22. 22.

    Prinz (2000: 250) defends this position: ‘Of course it can seem like motor plans feel like something, but the qualia are derivative. It is like something to feel tension in our muscles, to feel limb positions changes, to have visual states altered by a sift in bodily orientation, and so forth. The feelings are all feelings in input systems. The striking fact is that conscious experience seems to be restricted to input systems.’

  23. 23.

    Tye (1992: 160f) defends this under the heading The argument from introspection: ‘Standing on the beach in Santa Barbara a couple of summers ago on a bright sunny day, I found myself transfixed by the intense blue of the Pacific Ocean. Was I not here delighting in the phenomenal aspects of my visual experience? And if I was, does not this show that there are visual qualia? I am not convinced. It seems to me that what I found so pleasing in the above instance, what I was focussing on, as it were, were a certain shade and intensity of the colour blue. I experienced blue as a property of the ocean not as a property of my experience. My experience itself certainly was not blue. Rather it was an experience that represented the ocean as blue. [...] What introspection reveals are simply aspects of the contents themselves.’

  24. 24.

    Levine (1995: 277f) can be interpreted this way: ‘It seems plausible to think of visual experience as having an intrinsic qualitative character. The reddishness of my visual experience of the diskette case seems to be a property of my experience. [...] We need not expect a priori to know what sort of property it is, but that my experience has it seems apparent. (I am not appealing to privileged access, or any sort of hyper-certainty. I’m just saying let’s not doubt the obvious until we have to.)’

  25. 25.

    The International Association for the Study of Pain (IASP 1986) takes this to be an essential feature of pain, but fails to provide support for this beyond intuition. This intuition that all pains are hurtful seems to be based on introspection.

  26. 26.

    See Tononi (2004, 2008, 2012a, b), Oizumi et al. (2014).

  27. 27.

    See Strawson (1994: 6f), Siewert (1998: 275f) versus Carruthers and Veillet (2011), Prinz (2011), and Tye and Wright (2011).

  28. 28.

    Unless we all experience the same under the same conditions. But this cannot be presupposed.

  29. 29.

    The sparse/abundant discussion may be another example.

  30. 30.

    A professional philosopher (faculty level) with a specialisation in philosophy of mind once admitted in personal communication that s/he sees no problem with bullshitting some introspective report in a Q&A if it supports the point s/he wants to make. So far, s/he has never been called out.

  31. 31.

    This applies just as well to statements about statistical distributions: If pro claims that not all but the majority of dreams are coloured, and opp that not all but the majority of dreams are not coloured, they have a dispute. Both opinions cannot be simultaneously true. However, they can be simultaneously false, namely if exactly 50% of dreams are coloured. These statistical opinions are then contrary, which suffices for a dispute. For a modern take on oppositional relations, see Béziau (2003), Luzeaux et al. (2008), Moretti (2004, 2009); for an in-depth analysis of extended shapes concerning introspective disputes, see Fink (2017).

  32. 32.

    This may involve some reconstruction, but note that phenomenological statements like ‘This appears blue’ or ‘It itches here’ entail statements like ‘Some x is blue’ or ‘Some place itches’.

  33. 33.

    Examples here are Locke (1690/2008: II.xxvii.§9&II.i.§4), Kant (1781/1781/1911), Armstrong (1980: 61), Lycan (1996: 334), Nichols and Stich (2003: 164), Prinz (2004), Goldman (2006: 242ff), Hill (2009).

  34. 34.

    Where ‘all’ is meant unrestricted, i.e. not: all swans in this flock etc. but truly all swans.

  35. 35.

    Levin (1968) already argued that an inductive step must be part of eidetic variation, one of the most basic methods of Husserlian Phenomenology. Note also that this precludes entering into an introspective dispute once one doubts other minds. Then, one immediately rejects the idea that one’s introspectively justified beliefs generalise.

  36. 36.

    Schwitzgebel (2011: xi) mentioned this: Only if there is no variability can we reason that one of the disputants is wrong. See also Hohwy (2011).

  37. 37.

    What might be a reason why we do not speak this way? If it is generally known that all experiences are owned, then it is reasonable that we suppress the possessive phrase at the surface structure in order to ‘be brief’ (Grice 1991: 46). In the past, such genitive constructions have been grouped with accusative constructions under the label of ‘oblique terms’. Their influence on oppositional relationships has been known out since the 14th century (Buridan 2001; Read 2012).

  38. 38.

    This distinction matters unless Thor is the only experiencer. If one is a solipsist, extra- and inter-subjective readings become equivalent. But it would be hard to get into a dispute if solipsism were true. So let us ignore that possibility.

  39. 39.

    One might argue that this is not a case of phenomenal variation, but of perceptual variation as one predicts how one rates a stimulus. But this would be a misinterpretation: What is predicted is the size of the illusion—how a stimulus looks.

  40. 40.

    Yet. The situation might be different, if mind-melding is possible where one person could introspect the phenomenal experiences of another (Hirstein 2012). This, however, is not the place to discuss this possibility.

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Acknowledgements

This research was funded by a Georg-Lichtenberg-Scholarship. I am grateful to Thor Grünbaum, Michael Madary, Uwe Meyer, Eric Schwitzgebel, Sven Walter and several anonymous reviewers for their input. I also thank the participants of the Intensive Paper Writing Workshop at Villa Palazzola in Rome, organized by the University of Copenhagen, and Inga Gittermann for feedback.

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Fink, S.B. Introspective disputes deflated: the case for phenomenal variation. Philos Stud 175, 3165–3194 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11098-017-1000-8

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Keywords

  • Introspection
  • Disagreement
  • Phenomenal consciousness
  • First-person methods
  • Introspective scepticism