Bayes and the first person: consciousness of thoughts, inner speech and probabilistic inference

Abstract

On a widely held view, episodes of inner speech provide at least one way in which we become conscious of our thoughts. However, it can be argued, on the one hand, that consciousness of thoughts in virtue of inner speech presupposes (unconscious) interpretation of the simulated speech. On the other hand, the need for such self-interpretation (even if unconscious) seems to clash with distinctive first-personal characteristics that we would normally ascribe to consciousness of one’s own thoughts: a special reliability; a lack of conscious ambiguity and incomprehensibility; and a sense of causal agency. I try to resolve this puzzle by proposing an account for the requisite self-interpretation of inner speech in terms of Bayesian probabilistic inference. Drawing on “perceptual loop” accounts of speech control, I argue that such interpretive probabilistic inferences are used for the control of inner speech, and that as a consequence of this function, they are biased toward the correct interpretations. I conclude by showing how this model can explain the first-personal characteristics of consciousness of one’s own thoughts. In the case of the sense of causal agency, the resulting explanation yields novel accounts for “audible thoughts” and thought insertion.

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Fig. 1

Notes

  1. 1.

    In DES, subjects are asked to recall and explore their conscious experience immediately before randomly occurring beeps from a device they are carrying, and are interviewed in depth about their findings.

  2. 2.

    According to dual system-theory, human thought is carried out by two different cognitive systems: one that is evolutionarily old, fast, non-linguistic and unconscious (“system 1”), and one that is evolutionarily young, slow, linguistic and conscious (“system 2”).

  3. 3.

    Notice that such an experience of a phonological sequence as expressing a content involves a metarepresentational element. Langland-Hassan (2014) rejects Verbalism because he finds it counterintuitive to assign episodes of thoughtful inner speech a metarepresentational dimension. However, he seems to assume that for a Verbalist, the semantic content of the imagined speech must itself be metarepresentational (Langland-Hassan 2014, p. 524). But a Verbalist only needs to hold that, in addition to imagining a phonological sequence, an episode of thoughtful inner speech also has to represent that this sequence expresses a semantic content C; C itself will be normally not metarepresentational.

  4. 4.

    Peter Carruthers (Carruthers 2006, 2015) offers brief arguments for this view that draw on evolutionary considerations (2006, p. 314f.) and comprehension-based theories of speech-control (2006, p. 314f. and 2015, p. 95f.). My argument in this section partly focuses on the control of inner speech, too, but unlike Carruthers’, it does not depend on a particular theory about this control.

  5. 5.

    Our ordinary presumption of first-personal authority may be a part of a “theory of mind” that is innate or acquired early on (Carruthers 2011), and normally lacks a proper justification. However, the argument of the next sections provides independent reason to believe that this presumption is actually correct, at least for the case of consciousness of thoughts through inner speech.

  6. 6.

    It is plausible to assume that these three first-personal characteristics of consciousness of one’s thoughts are at least partially responsible for parallel features that have been ascribed to self-knowledge of one’s thoughts (and other mental states and events): first, a special (albeit fallible) authority (Moran 2001; for the specific case of self-knowledge about thoughts, cf. Byrne 2011); second, immediacy, in the sense that no conscious inference or interpretation is needed for self-knowledge (Cassam 2011); and third, a non-observational character, in the sense that the subject relates to her thoughts as an agent, not as a passive observer (e.g., Moran 2001; Peacocke 2008; but unlike those authors, the following account treats a mere sense of causal agency as sufficient for agential consciousness and self-knowledge).

  7. 7.

    Cf. also Carruthers 2011; but see the next section for a more optimistic element in Carruthers’ position.

  8. 8.

    Cf., e.g. Jurafsky (1996), Naranayan and Jurafsky (1998), Norris and McQueen (2008), Sohoglu et al. (2012), Yildiz et al. (2013); for an overview, see Jurafsky (2002). Such accounts receive further support from the design of artificial systems for speech recognition, where probabilistic and specifically Bayesian strategies have been employed with great success; cf., with further literature, Watanabe and Chien (2015); for a historical overview, see Furui (2010). For overviews of Bayesian approaches to the mind in general, cf. Rao et al. (2002), Doya et al. (2007), Clark (2013), Hohwy (2014). The account that I develop in the following is compatible with Bayesian accounts of cognition and mental representation in general (such as generalized “predictive coding” theories, see Clark 2013; Hohwy 2014), but it does not presuppose them.

  9. 9.

    Alternatively, one might try to explain the specific features of first-personality in virtue of the fact that unlike in the third-personal case, both the production and comprehension process in the first-personal case draw on the same priors, e.g. about language-specific rules and frequencies, about the context of utterance and about the speaker’s mental states. However, I do not think that this point suffices to explain first-personality: linguistic knowledge is to a large degree shared between competent speakers of a language; and very often, thoughts do not directly express our standing attitudes, and/or immediately respond to the present context, so that the subject’s knowledge about context and attitudes puts a relatively small constraint on the available interpretations. (Thanks to Élisabeth Pacherie for pressing me on this point.)

  10. 10.

    Thanks to an anonymous referee for pressing me on this point.

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Acknowledgements

I have presented versions of this paper at King’s College, London, at the Humboldt University Berlin (Colloquium Tobias Rosefeldt), at the University of Granada (Workshop “Inner Speech: Theories and Models”, July 2015), and at the Institut Jean Nicod, Paris (Paris Consciousness and Self-Consciousness Group). I am grateful to the audiences at these occasions for very helpful discussions. My special thanks for their criticisms and suggestions go to Élisabeth Pacherie, Uriah Kriegel, Mark Textor, Richard Moore, Édouard Machery, Peter Langland-Hassan, Erasmus Mayr, Ole Koksvik, and the anonymous referees for this journal.

Funding Research for this article during a research stay at the Institut Jean Nicod, Paris (2015/6) has been made possible by a scholarship in the Postdoc Programme of the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD).

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Knappik, F. Bayes and the first person: consciousness of thoughts, inner speech and probabilistic inference. Synthese 195, 2113–2140 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11229-017-1321-3

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Keywords

  • Inner speech
  • Consciousness of thoughts
  • Bayes
  • Perceptual loop
  • Audible thoughts
  • Thought insertion