Introspective Illusion

On split brain research, Susan Blackmore observed that, “In this way, the verbal left brain covered up its ignorance by confabulating.” This relates to the theory of introspective illusion (see also change blindness, choice blindness, and bias blind spot). In both cases, the conscious mind turns to confabulation to explain what it has no access to and so what it doesn’t understand.

This is how we maintain a sense of being in control. Our egoic minds have immense talent at rationalization and it can happen instantly with total confidence in the reason(s) given. That indicates that consciousness is a lot less conscious than it really is… or rather that consciousness isn’t what we think it is.

Our theory of mind, as such, is highly theoretical in the speculative sense. That is to say it isn’t particularly reliable in most cases. First and foremost, what matters is that the story told is compelling, to both us and others (self-justification, in its role within consciousness, is close to Jaynesian self-authorization). We are ruled by our need for meaning, even as our body-minds don’t require meaning to enact behaviors and take actions. We get through our lives just fine mostly on automatic.

According to Julian Jaynes theory of the bicameral mind, the purpose of consciousness is to create an internal stage upon which we play out narratives. As this interiorized and narratized space is itself confabulated, that is to say psychologically and socially constructed, this space allows all further confabulations of consciousness. We imaginatively bootstrap our individuality into existence, and that requires a lot of explaining.

* * *

Introspection illusion

A 1977 paper by psychologists Richard Nisbett and Timothy D. Wilson challenged the directness and reliability of introspection, thereby becoming one of the most cited papers in the science of consciousness.[8][9] Nisbett and Wilson reported on experiments in which subjects verbally explained why they had a particular preference, or how they arrived at a particular idea. On the basis of these studies and existing attribution research, they concluded that reports on mental processes are confabulated. They wrote that subjects had, “little or no introspective access to higher order cognitive processes”.[10] They distinguished between mental contents (such as feelings) and mental processes, arguing that while introspection gives us access to contents, processes remain hidden.[8]

Although some other experimental work followed from the Nisbett and Wilson paper, difficulties with testing the hypothesis of introspective access meant that research on the topic generally stagnated.[9]A ten-year-anniversary review of the paper raised several objections, questioning the idea of “process” they had used and arguing that unambiguous tests of introspective access are hard to achieve.[3]

Updating the theory in 2002, Wilson admitted that the 1977 claims had been too far-reaching.[10] He instead relied on the theory that the adaptive unconscious does much of the moment-to-moment work of perception and behaviour. When people are asked to report on their mental processes, they cannot access this unconscious activity.[7] However, rather than acknowledge their lack of insight, they confabulate a plausible explanation, and “seem” to be “unaware of their unawareness”.[11]

The idea that people can be mistaken about their inner functioning is one applied by eliminative materialists. These philosophers suggest that some concepts, including “belief” or “pain” will turn out to be quite different from what is commonly expected as science advances.

The faulty guesses that people make to explain their thought processes have been called “causal theories”.[1] The causal theories provided after an action will often serve only to justify the person’s behaviour in order to relieve cognitive dissonance. That is, a person may not have noticed the real reasons for their behaviour, even when trying to provide explanations. The result is an explanation that mostly just makes themselves feel better. An example might be a man who discriminates against homosexuals because he is embarrassed that he himself is attracted to other men. He may not admit this to himself, instead claiming his prejudice is because he believes that homosexuality is unnatural.

2017 Report on Consciousness and Moral Patienthood
Open Philanthropy Project

Physicalism and functionalism are fairly widely held among consciousness researchers, but are often debated and far from universal.58 Illusionism seems to be an uncommon position.59 I don’t know how widespread or controversial “fuzziness” is.

I’m not sure what to make of the fact that illusionism seems to be endorsed by a small number of theorists, given that illusionism seems to me to be “the obvious default theory of consciousness,” as Daniel Dennett argues.60 In any case, the debates about the fundamental nature of consciousness are well-covered elsewhere,61 and I won’t repeat them here.

A quick note about “eliminativism”: the physical processes which instantiate consciousness could turn out be so different from our naive guesses about their nature that, for pragmatic reasons, we might choose to stop using the concept of “consciousness,” just as we stopped using the concept of “phlogiston.” Or, we might find a collection of processes that are similar enough to those presumed by our naive concept of consciousness that we choose to preserve the concept of “consciousness” and simply revise our definition of it, as happened when we eventually decided to identify “life” with a particular set of low-level biological features (homeostasis, cellular organization, metabolism, reproduction, etc.) even though life turned out not to be explained by any Élan vital or supernatural soul, as many people throughout history62 had assumed.63 But I consider this only a possibility, not an inevitability.

59. I’m not aware of surveys indicating how common illusionist approaches are, though Frankish (2016a) remarks that:

The topic of this special issue is the view that phenomenal consciousness (in the philosophers’ sense) is an illusion — a view I call illusionism. This view is not a new one: the first wave of identity theorists favoured it, and it currently has powerful and eloquent defenders, including Daniel Dennett, Nicholas Humphrey, Derk Pereboom, and Georges Rey. However, it is widely regarded as a marginal position, and there is no sustained interdisciplinary research programme devoted to developing, testing, and applying illusionist ideas. I think the time is ripe for such a programme. For a quarter of a century at least, the dominant physicalist approach to consciousness has been a realist one. Phenomenal properties, it is said, are physical, or physically realized, but their physical nature is not revealed to us by the concepts we apply to them in introspection. This strategy is looking tired, however. Its weaknesses are becoming evident…, and some of its leading advocates have now abandoned it. It is doubtful that phenomenal realism can be bought so cheaply, and physicalists may have to accept that it is out of their price range. Perhaps phenomenal concepts don’t simply fail to represent their objects as physical but misrepresent them as phenomenal, and phenomenality is an introspective illusion…

[Keith Frankish, Editorial Introduction, Journal of Consciousness Studies, Volume 23, Numbers 11-12, 2016, pp. 9-10(2)]

25 thoughts on “Introspective Illusion

  1. All remembering is confabulated in some sense it seems to me. Even memories of shared experience, as consensus narrative. Add beer to the mix for extra confabulousness.

    • There is one key insight that has been on my mind in recent years. Sure, it can be difficult for many to come even an intellectual understanding of how much our minds confabulate. But most people can come around to accepting that fact, at least on an intellectual level.

      The real challenge is to admit to oneself how deep down the rabbit hole that goes. What if confabulation is the very foundation of our modern identity and hence of our modern society? That is a profoundly radical suggestion. It points to the possibility that we might be wrong about so much of what we believe, so much of what we assume we know to be right.

      This is a threat to the status quo of the entire social order. And on some level, most people probably realize its a threat. For that reason, the threat can’t even be acknowledged for fear that it can’t be contained once it is out in the open. This fear is correct. We must confabulate stories that hide the fearful power of confabulation. It’s confabulation all the way down.

      • “This is a threat to the status quo of the entire social order. ”

        This ‘order’ is like a draft of a fiction short story more so than an actual order we can delineate and study.

        Rabbit hole is a well-worn cliche.

        “What if confabulation is the very foundation of our modern identity and hence of our modern society?”

        Cliches seem to be the foundation – if we were only so lucky to live in an age of truly creative confabulation.

        “Society cannot abolish slavery in practice; only on paper. The slaves shall serve.”

        • I’d argue that all of language is cliche. But most cliches have been used so long that we have forgotten their origins.

          So, either we use cliches with awareness or unawareness, assuming our purpose is communication which is the basis of any hope of shared meaning, confabulatory or otherwise. A truly and fully original expression would be incomprehensible to anyone else, although it might make for intriguing art. What most perceive as original is simply the mixing of cliches in various ways.

          As for a “an age of truly creative confabulation”, that would mean the entire collapse or transformation of the social order, beyond even mere revolution. Even if “This ‘order’ is like a draft of a fiction short story,” it nonetheless is a powerful draft in its hold over the collective imagination.

          And slavery is a whole other issue. I guess it depends on what you mean. Many societies in the anthropological record don’t appear to involve slavery, no matter how defined. Also, slavery may not have existed in many bicameral societies or at least we have no evidence, for example, that the pyramids were built by slaves. But I’ll check out what you wrote.

          • “Also, slavery may not have existed in many bicameral societies or at least we have no evidence, for example, that the pyramids were built by slaves.”

            I’ll take your word for it. Is Judaism not already a form of slavery? I think the pyramids were built by aliens.

          • It was from archaeological research in recent years. They were looking at the quarters of the workers. And the evidence they found pointed away from slavery.

            If there is any comparison, it might be closer to feudalism. But even that is probably an imperfect comparison. The mentality during the ancient civilizations was far different.

            That said, there might have been slavery involved in building pyramids during the later empires. I had in mind the Bronze Age empires, which is what the archaeological research was about.

        • It’s interesting to note that, as with ‘stereotype’, ‘cliche’ is itself a cliche. Both words were originally technical terms from printing. They then became used as metaphors and, after a long enough period of usage, they became so cliche that people stopped thinking of them as cliches.

          This relates to how Jaynes argues humans use metaphors and Hyde with metonymy. We use a way of thinking and speaking to such a degree that it simply becomes part of the background of our perceived reality. The most insidious cliches are those that become fully abstracted from their roots, with the most powerful of them becoming social constructs taken as ideological realism.

          That is what happened with the terminological concept and conceit of ‘slavery’. At first, a slave had the concrete meaning referring to the people by that name, the Slavs. It then began to be used more generally and so became a cliche way of speaking about severely unequal power structures and social relations. After a while, the cliche nature of it was forgotten and it was turned into a broad abstraction that could be applied to societies that had nothing to do with the original concrete context.

          That is what allows you to now claim slavery as ideological realism. A deeply embedded cliche simply becomes reality as we know it. Obviously, slavery can’t be ended from within the very system built on the cliche of slavery. To end slavery would mean to end the cliche.

        • On a related note, rauldukeblog above has been working on an ‘original’ theory. He observes a pattern of intellectuals claiming originality for what isn’t original. He argues that there is an obsessive-compulsive quality to this and that it speaks to something fundamental within consciousness itself. His theory fits in with much of much of my own thinking. I’ve brought in views like Johann Hari in his argument that addicts are the ultimate individuals. And I’ve connected this with the repetition compulsion of genre writing. This would obviously touch on the cliche basis of language.

          As a thought experiment, consider the cliche I used and that you pointed out as cliche. It’s an obvious cliche, but I suppose all cliches initially are obvious. Imagine, though, what might become of that cliche when its origin was forgotten. Let me imagine a future where this happens. Something happens to our society. It disappears and is replaced by another, but some of the remnants of our society remain including language. Think of this new social order along the lines of We by Yevgeny Zamyatin:

          This future social reality excludes subjective experience. To match this, the social order also excludes the world outside of the enclosing wall. Yet for all the loss of past knowledge, the cliche of down the rabbit hole survived in some form within the language, although it is already beginning to be uprooted from its past meaning. Maybe, even though rabbits have long been extinct, there is still a vague memory of it referring to some kind of hole that leads elsewhere. It’s unlikely that this began in a happy state. As it was forming, many people would have been trying to escape this walled-in world. One of the ways of escape was digging under the wall and the escape routes began to be referred to as rabbit holes, eventually changing its spelling to rabidhal that referred to the escapees and the world beyond. As the wall was reinforced, escape became impossible and the word took on a larger meaning of the incomprehensibly strange, the prohibited other, and the unacknowledged beyond.

          It became a vague word indicating something like non-existence since those who disobeyed were disappeared and people spoke of them in hushed terms as the rabidahl. This became part of what helped to define the social order and its meaning, and so this new civilization was built as much with this new word/concept rabidahl as it was built with a wall. In the process, rabidahl lost its sense of cliche as it became an abstraction incorporated into the linguistic and cultural dark matter. All that was left was the implication of what was unknown and threatening, and yet as ideologically real as is hell to a fire-and-brimstone fundy.

          This insular society grows stale and weak. Instability follows and the discontented claim a shortened version of the word in calling their movement Rabd as a point of pride. After revolt, civil war, and starvation brings this civilization to collapse, the entire period of transition and later the entire period preceding it as well is referred to as Rabid. Some future linguists trace the word back to its etymological and textual source, but at that point much of the historical context was lost along with the most of the story, although some will speculate that Alice in Wonderland referred to the worship of an archaic goddess involving initiatory caves. It then takes on another cliche usage as a technical term in studying ancient cultures and it is used with great reverence by those future scholars.

          A civilization was built and destroyed through the use of a cliche, an entire historical period became defined by it. Yet all of it began with a mundane cliche that was dismissed by more clever minds not realizing the power of cliches, including the cliches in their own minds. I say that only sort of jokingly. Consider the real world example of capitalism as a metaphor that became a cliche that became a dominant social order… and like everything before it will one day return to nothing, but as illusory as any social order may be ideological realism has a ways of compelling obedience in how it shuts down individual and collective imagination, shuts down moral and radical imagination. Don’t worry about the cliche you see when there are more powreful cliches blinding you.

          • Honestly, don’t worry about it. For some reason, it really rubbed me the wrong way. But I was maybe just in an irritable mood. I apologize for the overkill response. I’m in a better mood. And I have better things to be irritated about.

        • Complaining about rabbit hole as a well-worn cliche while the cliche of slavery enslaves your mind. Metaphorical translation:

          *Standing in a swamp swatting at mosquitoes while alligators lurk unseen below the surface of the water.
          *Cleaning out a mustard stain on your shirt while you bleed out from a jugular wound.
          *Opening a window for fresh air while your house burns down around you.

          There are all kinds of metaphors, some cliche and others less so. Take your pick. The problem isn’t necessarily a lack of creative confabulation but a lack of awareness about confabulation, whether or not you think its creative.

        • I was thinking more about your statement that, “Cliches seem to be the foundation.” You might be right in a way you didn’t intend. It’s the obsession with cliches that is the foundation of modern WEIRD egoic consciousness, maybe with early forms in the Axial Age but not fully formed until recent centuries. Written language did create the initial conditions where cliches could potentially be seen and judged as cliches. Prior to that, all language was likely openly cliche and otherwise formulaic and filled with stock phrases and truisms. That is one theory about how the bicameral mind might have operated in the voices heard.

          Even ignoring speculations about bicameralism, we see this basic pattern of mind in oral cultures. Originality of language and thought simply wasn’t of much concern, and so lack of originality (or the perception of a lack, real or unreal) wasn’t a sign of intellectual inferiority and uncultured uncouthness. That doesn’t mean they lacked profound understanding and insights. The Homeric epics, considered great literature, arose out of the oral tradition and indeed they are peppered with cliches. What has interested me for a while is how slow the change occurred. Oral ways of thinking held on for a couple of millennia after the beginning of the Axial Age. That is because the majority of Westerners only became literate this past century, and I’m not sure that the majority of the world’s population is yet fully and functionally literate (most likely not).

          This is seen in scribal culture which, although obviously text-based, was heavily reliant on ancient oral and visual modes of experience and thought. Scribal texts originally lacked punctuation and spacing to be read silently, as they were intended to be read aloud and so the language was determined by sounding it out. The presentation of text was highly formulaic with the structure and pictures guiding the mind in reading, such that an illiterate person could ‘read’ a Bible. The Word of God was the Bible as a physical artifact and, in an oral culture, most of the illiterate population heard the Bible so often they had it largely memorized and it would’ve been experienced as a living voice.

          It took the printing press, especially movable type, to fully shatter this ancient mindset. That is why we should take note that ‘cliche’ and ‘stereotype’ were metaphors originating from the printing profession. To explicitly think in terms of cliche and stereotype, with the assumption that ideals of originality and uniqueness are desirable and achievable, is a foreign mentality to the oral mind and its vestigial forms that remained in place. This is to think in terms of text, of the written word devoid of the oral and visual. For most of human existence, illiteracy meant that the formulas of mnemonics were necessary for maintaining vast amounts of info. We moderns instead have discharged the duty of memory onto texts and technology. We see this as freedom, as if the older forms of thinking are something to be disdained.

          But are we really free? And are we really all that original? Or is it that we’ve become obsessed with appearances in sacrificing depth? Maybe we’ve become disconnected from the fundamental nature of our own minds, such that we could dismiss something as cliche without grasping what a cliche means. There is something much more amazing going on here that simply can’t be captured by a word such as ‘cliche’. It could be that the modern mind is so obsessed with cliches for the very reason we have become so trapped in particular cliches. Our derision of cliches gives hint to our hatred and anxiety about this state of entrapment, moreso because it was of our own making.

        • Here is what I was thinking about:

          “One of the perplexing things is how could the early civilizations, lacking in much advanced technology and knowledge, have been able to build vast pyramids. Even today, it would require the most powerful cranes in the world to move the largest blocks of stone that were somehow moved into place in building those ancient structures. Obviously, there were some brilliant minds to help accomplish this, but there also must have been immense organized labor of a kind we never see in the modern world.

          “Strangest of all, this labor appears not to have been slavery, with no bureaucratic centralized government organizing it all or obvious physical infrastructure to make it possible. There was some kind of social commitment and obligation that compelled large numbers of people to take group action involving back-breaking, life-threatening labor toward a goal that required multiple generations to achieve.”

          “By the way, these civilizations are what Julian Jaynes considered to be bicameral. It was during this era that nearly all of the Egyptian pyramids were built. Of eighteen pyramids, only two were built after the collapse of the other civilizations. And those two pyramids came five centuries after the collapse when entirely new societies were forming—during the early Axial Age. The kind of society that built those earliest pyramids was entirely different than the world we know”

          “If not slaves, then who were these workers? Lehner’s friend Zahi Hawass, secretary general of the Supreme Council of Antiquities, who has been excavating a “workers’ cemetery” just above Lehner’s city on the plateau, sees forensic evidence in the remains of those buried there that pyramid building was hazardous business. Why would anyone choose to perform such hard labor? The answer, says Lehner, lies in understanding obligatory labor in the premodern world. “People were not atomized, separate, individuals with the political and economic freedom that we take for granted. Obligatory labor ranges from slavery all the way to, say, the Amish, where you have elders and a strong sense of community obligations, and a barn raising is a religious event and a feasting event. If you are a young man in a traditional setting like that, you may not have a choice.” Plug that into the pyramid context, says Lehner, “and you have to say, ‘This is a hell of a barn!’”

          “Lehner currently thinks Egyptian society was organized somewhat like a feudal system, in which almost everyone owed service to a lord. The Egyptians called this “bak.” Everybody owed bak of some kind to people above them in the social hierarchy. “But it doesn’t really work as a word for slavery,” he says. “Even the highest officials owed bak.””

          • I was a slave then, to community. So is Danny Williams in NFLD. I am a slave now to Adrian Bejan’s constructal law. I am in the WordPressGang.

  2. My very first article in WP was just this observation, that I (and presumably others) have to interpret the world from within the confines of whatever conceptual structures or frameworks of “reality” we build within our minds, that “internal stage”. It seems that the structures for the interpretation of sensory information are fairly similar in all humans, hence a fair agreement about those easily quantifiable, physical characteristics of a “tree”, “warm day”, or “movement”. But most of how we structure our actions isn’t based in momentary sensory experience. Rather, it’s a response to mental imageries ranging from the potentially physical to anything else that can be imagined. In terms of natural selection this makes practical sense when it behooves the person gathering water to respond to the cry of, “Tiger!” just as if she’d seen one herself, to impart that image with the volition of a “predator”, and to have been compelled by that imagined volition to have armed herself with a spear. And from there, it’s not much of a jump to her boiling the water she collects as a means to drive out the evil spirits that cause sickness. Extend this to a greater environment in general (the universe), and one creates a framework upon which to hang… everything.

    A consequence of this is, however, that while we can learn new things, they won’t mean anything if our conceptual framework of reality doesn’t leave us with a place to hang that new knowledge. This could be as Aurthur C. Clarke’s, God-of-the-gaps type statement that, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” But it could also apply to a moral, volitional, or emotional interpretation… this is “right”, nature has a purpose, the world is a dangerous place, God loves me… So changing that very framework is often fundamental to really acquiring new knowledge, though it implies that something old will probably be lost. And the transitions, those moments when two incompatible frameworks still coexist in the mind’s reality are those times of cognitive dissonance, the proverbial “man with two watches.”

    The appeal of psychedelics, meditation that quiets the egoistic self, and openness to experiences such as down-to-earth travel or confronting fear is that that these are the kinds of things that can affect the framework itself. Consequently, they can result in profound “Aha!” moments, where some piece of knowledge is suddenly understandable or makes perfect sense. And likewise, something else probably also won’t make sense anymore. But ideally, whatever new framework, or screen upon which to project the universe one does establish supports perceptions that are beneficial to the person who holds them.

    From an existential perspective, there’s a Japanese saying referring to Shinto that doesn’t translate well to English…
    “If you think there is a spirit in the tree, and there isn’t, then it’s just a superstition. But if there is a spirit in the tree, then it’s a fact.”
    The point is that it makes no difference whether it’s is a superstition or a fact… it’s still what you feel.

    • I don’t have a whole lot to add. My own perspective tends toward the Shinto-like. All I can verify directly in my experience is what I experience. But the details are rather fuzzy. And the sources are unknown. We can’t get very far down that road. It’s a dead end.

      Even my own supposedly internal voice doesn’t really have any discernable location. Calling it internal is more of an assumption, a comforting belief and a cultural bias. It only seems internal when I’m not paying attention. But the moment I focus upon it, it suddenly becomes a strange thing. All I can say, within my experience, is that there is a voice speaking that apparently no on else can hear.

      Yet even the simple act of claiming it as my voice is suspect. It’s just a voice that can only be known in hearing it speak. So, what can ‘I’ possibly be when the very claims on a voice are weak at best?. This high weirdness of experienced reality is more than most people seem able to handle. There is a reason most prefer to fall back into unconscious behavior.

      Here is what Paul Otteson recently posted on the Julian Jaynes Facebook group (the text below is from him and following it a quote from Jaynes):

      I think that one of the ways to truly ‘get’ Jaynes is to ‘get’ that he ultimately could not give us what he gave us. Put more sensibly, he shows how consciousness is ‘of-language,’ but reminds us that there simply cannot be a language of… languagizing. There is no describing describing, explaining explaining, mapping mapping, etc. As Jaynes puts it:

      “If understanding a thing is arriving at a familiarizing metaphor for it, then we can see that there always will be a difficulty in understanding consciousness. For it should be immediately apparent that there is not and cannot be anything in our immediate experience that is like immediate experience itself. There is therefore a sense in which we shall never be able to understand consciousness in the same way that we can understand things that we are conscious of.”

    • By the way, I noticed you also ‘liked’ another post of mine, Research On Meat And Health, about an entirely different topic. That is also important, but most people would see the two as entirely separate.

      Yet to my crazy radical mind, it’s all of the same cloth, that of human reality. Humans are meat-eaters. And it has had a powerful effect on human evolution and hence neurocognitive development. Some go so far as to theorize it is one of the most defining features, the very factor that allowed the human brain to grow disproportionately large (i.e., the expensive tissue hypothesis).

      There is a reason, I’d argue, that animistic tribes tend to be hunter-gatherers. They live close to a vitally living world where life and death are a daily experience. They don’t have experienced detached by an artificially controlled food system, agricultural or otherwise. Piraha women will breastfeed, next to their own babies, the orphaned baby animals from hunts. Then later on they’ll usually eat those animals.

      I have a bunch of posts on my speculations about how diet and other substances may have influenced societal and psychological changes. Unlike posts such as the above, some of my diet-related writings involve more original observations, insights, and speculations.

      The Agricultural Mind

      Autism and the Upper Crust

      “Yes, tea banished the fairies.”

      Diets and Systems

      The Madness of Drugs

      The Drugged Up Birth of Modernity

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