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.

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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)]