Maybe before plunging into the project I pursue in Varieties, I should say something on the very idea of a first-person, introspectively based project for studying consciousness. In particular, I want to comment on the idea that a crucial step in cognitive science becoming a serious scientific study, no flimsier than organic chemistry or astronomy, was getting rid of any appeal to introspection, subjective data, etc. The comment I want to make is that this is a complete myth: introspection is pervasive in cognitive science, and we’re lucky that it is.
To appreciate the depth of the myth, we should remind ourselves of Reichenbach’s old distinction between “the context of discovery” and “the context of justification.” A nice, clean example is provided by the renowned 19th-century chemist August Kekulé, who discovered (among many things) the structure of benzene molecule. When he was very old, he gave a speech in which he described how he discovered the structure: he couldn’t figure out how all the empirical constraints from what we already knew about benzene could be satisfied by one structure, until one day he dreamt about a snake biting its own tail, and then realized that the benzene must have a similar structure, circling back into itself. However, when he originally published his hypothesis (now widely accepted) in the mid-1860s, he did not write “check this out, I had a dream…” He gave a complicated empirical argument to do with isomers and stuff like that. The point scientific discovery is one thing, scientific justification another.
I point this out because a lot of cognitive science in areas like vision science (i.e., areas implicated in consciousness research) consists in perceptive scientists having introspective insights and then coming up with really cool ways of justifying the insights in introspection-free ways. My impression, from going to cogsci talks about once a week for a dozen years now, is that 80% of what cognitive scientists do in such areas is to devise spectacularly ingenious ways of providing purely third-personal “objective measures” that ratify what they already know based on personal introspection. In many cases, the hypothesis itself is totally obvious from the first-person perspective; where the scientists shows her ingenuity is in devising a way of demonstrating what we already know in an introspection-free way.
This exercise is not without value, but it’s not exactly the same as what happens in organic chemistry and astronomy, where the discoveries themselves are being made with the use of science and technology. There are of course cases where the discoveries themselves are made in a similar way (especially discoveries about brain mechanisms subserving cognitive functions, behavior under extreme conditions of cognitive duress/attentional overload, etc.). But as far as understanding consciousness is concerned, cognitive science rarely discovers anything without appeal to introspection; more often, its concern is to justify what has been partly-introspectively discovered without appealing to introspection.
I like to imagine a possible world where everything is the same up till 1913, but then, after Watson publishes “Psychology as the Behaviorist Views It,” no scientist has ever again appealed to introspection. Maybe, coincidentally, there was some cosmic event that wiped introspective capacity from all humans. How would cognitive science develop over the next century? In some areas, maybe very similarly (or even better!) than it did in the actual world. In the area of consciousness research, I think we would have virtually no scientific knowledge gathered over the following century. I suspect we would not have a global workspace theory, an information integration theory, and all those other cognitive-scientific theories of consciousness we have today; we would not have the gamma synchrony hypothesis, the fronto-parietal network hypothesis, the dlPFC hypothesis, and all those other hypothesis about the neural correlate of consciousness we have today; etc. We would have next to nothing. But in the actual world, we do have all these things. So don’t tell me that cognitive science has rid itself of introspection!
The other comment I wanted to make about all this is that introspection should have its place even in the context of justification, though it shouldn’t be exaggerated. There’s an old Cartesian view that insists on two awesome features of introspection. We can summarize them as follows:[Infallibile] If introspection says you are having phenomenology P, then you are having P. [Self-intimating] If you are having phenomenology P, then introspection says you are having P.
Both are implausible, and insisting on them has been disastrous for the reputation of introspection. But consider these two alternative principles:[Nice to have] If introspection says you are having phenomenology P, then you are more likely to be having P than if it says you’re not having P. [Pretty cool] If you are having phenomenology P, then you’re more like to introspect having P than if you’re not having P.
My claim is that introspection is pretty cool and nice to have, and that in virtue of being such it meets a minimal standard of reliability. I think of introspection as about as powerful and reliable as my sense of smell. My sense of smell is also pretty cool and nice to have in the above senses: smelling coffee makes it more likely that there’s coffee around and having coffee around makes it more likely that I smell coffee. Importantly, if I had no other sense perception but smell, then even if I were completely incapable of improving my sense of smell, I would totally use it all the time to try to get information about my environment. As it happens, in the actual world introspection is our only mode of access to consciousness, so given its minimal reliability, we should totally use it all the time. Which we have been – so everything’s cool…