Philosophers have traditionally assumed that knowledge of our own thoughts is special. Descartes famously believed that knowledge of our current thoughts is infallible. He also believed that those thoughts themselves are self-presenting, so that whenever one entertains a thought, one is capable of infallible knowledge of it. Many figures in the history of philosophy have shared these beliefs (including Aristotle, Augustine, and Locke). This is no longer true today. Most now accept that it is possible to be mistaken about one’s current thoughts, and that many such thoughts occur unconsciously, in ways that aren’t available to one. Nevertheless, almost everyone in the field believes that our knowledge of some subset of each of the main kinds of thought (judgment, decision, desire, and so on) is both authoritative and available to us through some form of privileged access. It is believed that our knowledge of these thoughts is much more certain than the knowledge that we have of the thoughts of other people, and normally cannot be challenged from a third-person perspective. Moreover, the mode in which we acquire this knowledge is unavailable to others, even in principle. Philosophical discussions of self-knowledge typically start from a statement of these assumptions, and proceed to develop theories that purport to explain them.Carruthers (2011) argues that these assumptions, and the philosophical theories based on them, are directly challenged by an extensive range of evidence from across cognitive science. In their place is proposed the Interpretive Sensory-Access (ISA) theory of self-knowledge. This holds that there is just a single mental faculty (the “mindreading” faculty) that is responsible for all our knowledge of propositional attitudes, whether those thoughts are our own or other people’s; it claims that the faculty in question has only sensory access to its domain, utilizing “globally broadcast” attended sensory outputs (including inner speech and visual and other forms of imagery); and it claims that our access to all attitudes (whether our own or other people’s) is equally interpretive in character. One outcome, it is argued, is that there are hardly any kinds of conscious propositional attitude; another is that there is no such thing as conscious agency.
Notice that the philosophical assumptions described above are inherently contrastive in nature. They presume that one’s knowledge of one’s own thoughts is very different in kind from one’s knowledge of the thoughts of other people. (The ISA theory, in contrast, claims that these are very similar, differing only in that there are some forms of sensory information available for interpretation in the first person that are not available in the third, such as our own inner speech and visual imagery.) Those assumptions therefore cannot be defended from empirical attack in the way that philosophers of perception defend their direct-perception accounts from the findings of vision science. The latter group say that they are only intending to make claims about the personal level, and make no commitments regarding the subpersonal processes that support our direct perceptual access to the world. A similar move is not available in the domain of self-knowledge, since what the data show is that knowledge of our own thoughts is not different in kind from knowledge of the thoughts of other people.
The relevant evidence is of many different forms, ranging from experimental studies in social psychology demonstrating the ease with which people’s reports of their current attitudes can be “pushed around” by minor contextual modifications, through introspection-sampling studies, studies of people’s metacognitive abilities to monitor and control their own learning and reasoning, studies of systematic failures of self-knowledge and/or other-knowledge in autism and schizophrenia, as well as brain-imaging data for self versus other tasks. Some of these forms of evidence count directly against some philosophical theories, some count against all or almost all. The data are reviewed in detail and their significance discussed in Carruthers (2011).
Perhaps the most directly relevant set of data consists of numerous psychological studies demonstrating people’s willingness to confabulate about their own current or very recent thoughts, attributing thoughts to themselves that we have every reason to believe they never entertained, and making errors in self-attribution that directly parallel the errors that we make in attributing thoughts to other people. These studies show that, at least in these cases, people are using the same mindreading faculty that they employ when attributing thoughts to other people, relying on sensory forms of evidence that stands in need of highly fallible interpretation.
Recent defenders of the philosophical status quo who know about some of this data admit that they are forced to become dual method theorists as a result (Nichols and Stich, 2003; Goldman, 2006). That is, they are forced to admit that sometimes people employ self-directed mindreading when attributing thoughts to themselves (hence the instances of confabulation), while on other occasions they have knowledge of their own thoughts that is authoritative and privileged. The main problem for dual method theories, however, is to explain the patterning in the data. For this, they need to provide some principled account of the circumstances in which people access their thoughts directly and the circumstances in which they rely on self-directed mindreading. No such account has yet been provided that can accommodate all the data. Indeed, many instances of confabulation concern perfectly ordinary everyday thoughts occurring in circumstances where people should have been paying attention to their thoughts. In these cases one would expect that people should have had authoritative access to their thoughts if such a thing is ever possible.
Let me illustrate these points by discussing one body of data deriving from the “dissonance” tradition in social psychology, where hundreds of supporting references could be provided. In a typical experiment, subjects will be induced to write an essay arguing for a conclusion that is the contrary of what they believe. In one condition, subjects may be led to think that they have little choice about doing so (for example, the experimenter might emphasize that they have previously agreed to participate in the experiment). In the other condition, subjects are led to think that they have freely chosen to write the essay (perhaps by signing a consent form on top of the essay-sheet that reads, “I freely agree to participate in this experiment.”)
The normal finding in such experiments is that subjects in the free-choice condition (and only in the free-choice condition) change their reported attitudes on the subject-matter of the essay. And this happens although there are typically no differences in the quality of the arguments produced in the two conditions. If subjects in the free-choice condition have previously been strongly opposed to a rise in university tuition costs, for example (either measured in an unrelated survey some weeks before the experiment, or by assumption, since almost all people in the subject pool have similar attitudes), then following the experiment they might express only weak opposition or perhaps even positive support for the proposed increase. Such effects are generally robust and highly significant, even on matters that the subjects rate as important to them, and the changes in reported attitude are often quite large.
We know that freely undertaken counter-attitudinal advocacy gives rise to negatively valenced states of arousal, which dissipate as soon as subjects express an attitude that is more consistent with their advocacy (Elliot and Devine, 1994). Indeed, even pro-attitudinal advocacy will give rise to changes in expressed attitude in circumstances where subjects are induced to believe that their honest advocacy will turn out to have bad consequences (Scher and Cooper, 1989). And in circumstances where subjects are offered a variety of methods for making themselves feel better about what they have done (an attitude questionnaire, a question about their degree of responsibility, and a question about the importance of the topic), they will use whatever method is offered to them first (Simon et al., 1995; Gosling et al., 2006). For example, if asked first about the importance of the question of tuition raises, they will say that it is of little importance (even though in questionnaires administered a few weeks previously they rated it as of high importance), thereafter going on to express an unchanged degree of opposition to the change and rating themselves as highly responsible for what they did.
The best explanation of these patterns of result is that subjects’ mindreading systems automatically appraise them as having freely chosen to do something bad, resulting in negative affect. Then when confronted with the attitude questionnaire they rehearse various possible responses, responding affectively to each in the manner of Damasio (1994). They select the one that “feels right” in the circumstances, which is one that provides an appraisal of their actions as being significantly less bad. And as a result of making that selection, their bad feelings go away. For example, saying (and hearing themselves say) that they do not oppose a raise in tuition (contrary to what they believe) enables their earlier actions to be appraised as not bad, and as a result they cease to feel bad. In contrast, it seems quite unlikely that subjects should really be changing their minds prior to selecting an answer on the questionnaire, with their novel belief then being available to be authoritatively reported. For we know for sure that they do not change their beliefs unless offered the chance to express them, and there is no plausible mechanism via which a question about one’s beliefs should lead to the formation of a new belief in these circumstances (which can then be veridically reported).
Such phenomena are fully consistent with the ISA theory of self-knowledge. Indeed, they are predictable from it when combined with independently warranted psychological theories (such as the use of mental rehearsal and prospective affect in action selection; Damasio, 1994; Gilbert and Wilson, 2007). But they are deeply problematic for most standard philosophical accounts. For one would think that a direct question about one’s beliefs (e.g. about the badness of a tuition raise, or about the importance of the issue) would have the effect of activating the relevant belief from memory. And there seems no reason why a judgment of this sort should remain unconscious or be otherwise inaccessible to the subject. But if subjects had authoritative access to this activated belief, then it would be mysterious how they could at the same time express an inconsistent belief and make themselves feel better by doing so. For if they say one thing while being aware that they think something else, then they should be aware of themselves as lying. And that ought to make them feel worse, not better.
These counter-attitudinal essay-writing data can be combined with many other studies of confabulation to support the ISA account: subjects’ mindreading systems monitor and interpret their own behavior, both overt (such as an episode of essay writing) and covert (such as sentences rehearsed in inner speech), much as the overt behavior of others is monitored and interpreted. And this is the only mode of access that people have to their own thoughts. For if they also had privileged and authoritative access to some of their own thoughts, then the data would not display the patterning that it does.
Why, then, do people across time and place have such a powerful intuition of infallible (or at least authoritative) access to their own thoughts? And why are they inclined to believe that their thoughts are self-presenting (or at least accessible in a privileged way)? One answer would be that people have these intuitions because they are true. Compare the universality of believing that water is wet: people believe this because water is wet, and because everyone has access to plenty of data to indicate that it is. Likewise, then, there might be voluminous and easily available evidence that supports the existence of direct access to our own attitudes. But the only such evidence (to the extent that it exists at all) is the general reliability of people’s reports of their own attitudes, which often turn out to be consistent with our observations of their behavior. But this can’t begin to support the claims that error and ignorance with respect to one’s own mental states are impossible. Nor does it close off the possibility of skepticism about self-knowledge. (Compare the fact that visual perception, too, is generally reliable; yet skepticism in this domain has been common, whereas no philosophers have ever been skeptics about knowledge of their own thoughts.) And neither, even, does it support the idea that our access to our own mental states is somehow privileged and especially authoritative. All it supports is general reliability.
A better explanation of the universality of our intuitions about self-knowledge is that they derive from a pair of inference-rules that are built into the structure of the mindreading faculty itself (whether innately or by learning):
- One thinks that one is in mental state M → One is in mental state M.
- One thinks that one is not in mental state M → One is not in mental state M.
Carruthers (2011) argues on reverse-engineering grounds that just these rules are likely to be built into the mindreading system, providing heuristic short-cuts in the process of behavior interpretation (especially behavior in which subjects ascribe mental attitudes to themselves). As a result, if a question is raised about the provenance of a belief about one’s own attitudes, or about the possibilities of mistake or ignorance, then one will initially be baffled. For an application of the inference rules (1) and (2) with oneself as subject leaves no room for such possibilities. It will require systematic reflection on the significance of such phenomena as self-deception, or the findings of cognitive science, for one to realize that mistakes about one’s own attitudes are possible, and that some of one’s attitudes might be inaccessible to one.
In addition, these rules also function to “short-circuit” processes that might otherwise lead one to be aware of ambiguities in one’s own inner speech. This means that we are never confronted by the manifestly interpretive character of our access to the thoughts that underlie our own speech. Or so I will now suggest.
When interpreting the speech of another person, the mindreading system is likely to work in conjunction with the language faculty to arrive at a swift “first pass” representation of the attitude expressed, relying on syntax, prosody, and salient features of the conversational context. But it is part of the mindreading system’s working model of the mind and its relationship to behavior that people can be overtly deceptive, and that their actions can in various ways disguise their real motives and intentions. One would expect, then, that whenever the degree of support for the initial interpretation is lower than normal, or there is a competing interpretation in play that has at least some degree of support, or the potential costs of misunderstanding are much higher than normal, a signal would be sent to executive systems to “slow down” and issue inquiries more widely before a conclusion is reached. In these cases we become aware of ourselves as interpreting the speech of others.
When interpreting one’s own speech, however, the mindreading system is likely to operate rather differently. For possession of inference rules (1) and (2) means that it implicitly models itself as having direct access to the mind within which it is lodged. Moreover, even among people who know about cognitive science, and/or who believe that self-deception sometimes occurs, such ideas will rarely be active and salient in most normal contexts. Hence it is likely that once an initial “first pass” interpretation of one’s own speech has been reached, no further inquiries are undertaken, and no signals are sent to executive systems triggering a “stop and reflect” mode of processing. As a result, the attitude that initially seems to be expressed is the attitude that one attributes to oneself, not only by default but almost invariably. So although the process of extracting attitudes from speech is just as interpretive in one’s own case as it is in connection with other people, it is rarely if ever consciously interpretive.
Carruthers (2011) argues that when the full range of evidence is considered, the Interpretive Sensory-Access (ISA) theory emerges as significantly better than any of its more-traditional philosophical rivals. If so, then philosophers and others need to begin exploring what this should mean, and how related topics might be impacted. As noted earlier, one outcome is said to be that there are hardly any types of conscious attitude, and another is that there is no such thing as conscious agency. What this means for our conception of ourselves as subjects, and for our beliefs about our moral responsibility, are matters requiring urgent attention.
- Carruthers, P. (2011). The Opacity of Mind: An Integrative Theory of Self-Knowledge. Oxford University Press.
- Damasio, A. (1994). Descartes’ Error. Papermac.
- Elliot, A. and Devine, P. (1994). On the motivational nature of cognitive dissonance: Dissonance as psychological discomfort. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 67, 382-394.
- Gilbert, D. and Wilson, T. (2007). Prospection: Experiencing the future. Science, 317, 1351-1354.
- Goldman, A. (2006). Simulating Minds. Oxford University Press.
- Gosling, P., Denizeau, M., and Oberlé, D. (2006). Denial of responsibility: A new mode of dissonance reduction. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 90, 722-733
- Nichols, S. and Stich, S. (2003). Mindreading. Oxford University Press.
- Scher, S. and Cooper, J. (1989). Motivational basis of dissonance: The singular role of behavioral consequences. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 56, 899-906.
- Simon, L., Greenberg, J., and Brehm, J. (1995). Trivialization: The forgotten mode of dissonance reduction. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 68, 247-260.