Confabulation does not undermine introspection for propositional attitudes


According to some, such as Carruthers (Behav Brain Sci 32:121–138, 2009; Philos Phenomenol Res 80:76–111, 2010; The opacity of mind: an integrative theory of self-knowledge, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2011; The centered mind: what the science of working memory shows us about the nature of human thought, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2015), the confabulation data (experimental data showing subjects making false psychological self-ascriptions) undermine the view that we can know our propositional attitudes by introspection. He believes that these data favour his interpretive sensory-access (ISA) theory—the view that self-knowledge of our propositional attitudes always involves self-interpretation of our sensations, behaviour, or situational cues. This paper will review some of the confabulation data and conclude that the presence and pattern of these data do not substantiate the claim that we cannot introspect our propositional attitudes. As a consequence of this discussion, I conclude that the ISA theory is not well supported by the empirical data.

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  1. 1.

    This set of mental states is also sometimes referred to as ‘intentional mental states’. See Searle (1983, p. 3) for a more comprehensive list of these states.

  2. 2.

    Theorists such as Lycan maintain that one’s mechanism of inner sense works like one’s mechanism of outer sense (visual perception), except that inner sense’s objects of detection include beliefs, desires, intentions, and so on. According to another of the view’s proponents, Paul Churchland, this makes the view ‘no more (and no less) mysterious’ ([1988] 2013, p. 122) than outer sense. It may be objected here, however, that inner sense (e.g., the detection of a belief) is far more mysterious than outer sense (e.g., the seeing of a red rose). This is because it seems quite mysteriousness as to how one could know whether one had a belief that P, rather than say a wish or desire that P, by simply looking inward. What would one look for in one’s internal search? It is such a mystery that opens the door to scepticism about introspection, and thus makes sceptical accounts of self-knowledge important to address. See Byrne (2018, chapter 2) for a recent discussion of the main objections to the inner sense view.

  3. 3.

    In previous work, see Andreotta (2017), I have argued that the transparency method is the most promising of these theories. In what follows, however, I make no explicit reference to this view. I am only interested in addressing scepticism about our ability to know our own propositional attitudes in a way that is different from the way that other people gain knowledge of them. Only once this scepticism has been addressed can we begin to assess views which seek to account for this difference.

  4. 4.

    It is worth pointing out that not all philosophers have chosen to use the word ‘introspection’ this broadly. Gertler (2011), for instance, uses the word ‘introspection’ only for processes which involve inner perception. According to Gertler, even if a view states that there is a unique way in which one can acquire knowledge of one’s own mind, that view should not be called ‘introspective’ unless it also involves inner perception. See Andreotta (2017), chapter one, for a theory-neutral definition of introspection.

  5. 5.

    Smithies and Stoljar (2012) note that there are multiple ways in which the difference thesis may be construed. They note that introspection may differ from other ways of gaining knowledge—such as by perception or testimony—in epistemological respects and psychological respects (as well as many other ways).

  6. 6.

    Carruthers (2011, p. xii) says that his own view is closest to Gazzaniga’s (1998). He situates the ISA theory between Gopnik’s (1993) view—which he claims goes too far; and Wegner’s (2002) and Wilson’s (2002) views—which he claims do not go far enough. One reason to focus on Carruthers’ view here, as opposed to the view outlined in Gopnik’s earlier work, is that Carruthers’s view draws upon recent empirical data. As Rey (2013, p. 262), points out, a major piece of evidence for Gopnik’s (1993) view—evidence from the false belief studies—is now seen as highly controversial (see Onishi and Baillargeon 2005).

  7. 7.

    In this paper, I will employ the term ‘confabulation’ in accordance with how Carruthers (2011) understands it—namely, to refer to any false psychological self-ascription. It should be noted that there are controversies about the definition and applicably of the term that will not be considered here. See Hirstein (2009) for a discussion of such controversies.

  8. 8.

    Carruthers expands upon the ISA theory in chapter 2 of his recent book The Centred Mind (2015).

  9. 9.

    It may be objected that this view is easily refuted because one will still be able to self-attribute one’s own propositional attitudes even if one is in a dark room, unable to observe any of one’s own behaviour (see Rey 2013). Carruthers’ (2011, p. 158) own response to this objection is that such a person will still have visual imagery, inner speech, and affective feelings to draw upon.

  10. 10.

    Carruthers leaves open the question of what constitutes a perceptually-embedded attitude (2011, p. 83). For example, he points out that a grandmaster in chess may be able to ‘see literally…that White is doomed to lose’ (2011, p. 84) after looking at a particular chess configuration.

  11. 11.

    Carruthers’ contention that we have special (or introspective) access to our sensory based propositional attitudes because such attitudes are bound to the sensations they are about is by no means obvious, however. The binding position could be false and we could still have special (or introspective) access to our sensory based proposition attitudes. Such a position would not sit easily with ISA theory, though I do not consider the point any further here.

  12. 12.

    I suspect that we would not see the same results with stronger beliefs people held. For example, if people were asked about what they believed about the place they were born, or what they believe their brother’s name to be.

  13. 13.

    This was noted in an experiment performed by Fredrickson et al. (1998). See chapter 3 of Bargh’s (2017) recent book Before You Know It for many similar experiments involving priming.

  14. 14.

    While it is true that the ISA theory does not predict that subjects will always make erroneous self-attributions, the cases involving errors are important, as they are the cases that are supposed to reveal how we normally do attribute our propositional attitudes.

  15. 15.

    Another significant challenge to Carruthers’ preferred interpretation of this data—quite apart from the concerns raised here—comes from the findings from a direct replication of these experiments carried out by Johnson et al. (2014). Using a much larger sample size than the one used by Schnall et al. (2008), Johnson et al. (2014) found that similar results did not materialise—that is, the experimenters failed to find the same kind of connection between one’s sensations and one’s moral judgements that was present in the original experiments. This failure to replicate the original results means that the conclusion that subjects are confabulating because of misleading perceptual cues would not seem to be the best explanation of the patterning of the data.

  16. 16.

    Following Cassam (2010), I understand judgements to be conscious mental actions, which are related to beliefs, which are typically more stable, longstanding, mental states. Unlike Cassam, however, I think the two typically go together with a greater congruity. I agree with Nico Silins, who says that if you ‘judge that p, you have justification to believe that you believe that p’ (see 2012, p. 302). I raise this distinction because in the examples discussed here, Carruthers claims that a judgement has been confabulated. Given the close connection between judgement and belief, I think that these cases could have just as easily be classified as cases involving belief.

  17. 17.

    Not everyone agrees that the confabulation interpretation is correct here. For example: Goldman (2006, p. 232), considers the possibility that the left and right hemispheres may be separate streams of consciousness, and so the subject’s self-attribution is not, strictly speaking, an example of confabulation because the psychological ascription refers to a different stream of consciousness. Goldman does not press this response, however. Fiala and Nichols (2009), moreover, suggest that there are some examples in the split-brain literature where subjects express low confidence in their self-reports. If this is true, it may not be right to identify such a case as one of confabulation, because the subject would not be confident in his avowal. And Rey (2013, p. 265 ft. 9) points out that there has not been a sustained attempt to determine whether the split-brain subjects express any hesitancy when they give their answers. There is also the possibility that even without displays of hesitancy, the subjects may nonetheless possess an ability to introspect that is difficult to detect in usual performance.

  18. 18.

    This quote was brought to my attention in Balsvik (2017).

  19. 19.

    According to a Google Scholar search, in September 2018, the paper has had over 12,000 citations.

  20. 20.

    Although the two are closely related, it is important to distinguish introspection from privileged access (the thesis that our own self-ascriptions are epistemically privileged). This is because, as Byrne (2018, p. 9) points out, the two can come apart. One could argue that we do not have introspective access to our propositional attitudes, and yet still claim that we have privileged access to them (perhaps because we are around ourselves more often). In this paper, I am only concerned with the question ‘Can humans introspect their own propositional attitudes?’

  21. 21.

    See Schmidt et al. (2017).

  22. 22.

    See Keeling (2018), for a discussion of the question ‘Why do we confabulate?’ For a discussion about some of the potential epistemic benefits of confabulation see Bortolotti (2018).


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I would like to thank Miri Albahari, Nin Kirkham, Daniel Stoljar, Alex Byrne, André Gallois, Sean Ramsey, and Harriet Levenston for feedback and advice on earlier versions of the paper. I also would like to thank three anonymous referees of this journal for their insightful comments.

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Andreotta, A.J. Confabulation does not undermine introspection for propositional attitudes. Synthese (2019).

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  • Self-knowledge
  • Introspection
  • Confabulation
  • Carruthers
  • ISA theory