Here are two things Dennett says about heterophenomenology:
(1) Scientists should interpret a subject’s first-person reports as expressions of the subject’s beliefs (about their consciousness experience)
(2) Scientists should treat people as incorrigible about what it’s like to be them.
Since (2) seems to contradict Dennett’s often repeated claim that people can be wrong about their experience, let me give you a quote:
“You are not authoritative about what is happening in you, but only about what seems to be happening in you, and we are giving you total, dictatorial authority over the account of how it seems to you, about what it is like to be you” (Dennett 1991, 96). (In other places, Dennett uses the term “incorrigible”.)
I’d like to know what (1) and (2) amount to, whether they are logically independent, and why we should believe them.
Claim (2) has been extensively dissected and criticized by Eric Schwitzgebel. Eric published a helpful paper on this topic, which was followed by a reply by Dennett, which was followed by further discussion on Eric’s excellent blog.
After much searching, Eric settles on the following interpretation of (2) (which has been endorsed by Dennett via email to Eric):
“The key idea is that there are two sorts of “seemings” in introspective reports about experience, which Dennett doesn’t clearly distinguish in his work. The first sense corresponds to our judgments about our experience, and the second to what’s in [the] stream of experience behind those judgments. Over the first sort of “seeming” we have almost unchallengeable authority; over the second sort of seeming we have no special authority at all.” (from here.)
So according to Eric, when Dennett says subjects are authoritative about “what it’s like to be them,” he means they are authoritative about their judgments. Eric also says that he “can agree” with Dennett on this point. But I’m still confused, so I can’t figure out whether I should agree.
First, where does the “almost” before “unchallengeable” come from, and is it anywhere to be found in Dennett’s writings? As Dennett’s quote shows, Dennett wrote “total, dictatorial authority” (and elsewhere of “incorrigibility”). And what exactly does it mean that something is “almost unchallengeable”? “Almost P” normally implies NOT P. If it’s almost unchallengeable, it must be challengeable after all. I would agree with that, but then I wouldn’t know what all the fuss is about. Because of this, I will drop the “almost” from Eric’s interpretation, pending further clarification on this point.
Second, how should we understand Eric’s talk of “judgments,” such that people have unchallengeable authority over them? One option would be to think of the judgments as identical to the first-person reports themselves. In this sense, subjects surely have unchallengeable authority: they get to issue their own reports. But this is a trivial kind of unchallengeable authority – Eric himself considers it as a possible interpretation of (2) in his article, calls it “paltry”, and argues that Dennett must mean more than that. The other option I can think of is that the judgments are identical to the subject’s beliefs about her experience. Under this reading, (2) reduces to (1) plus unchallengeable authority.
But this assimilation of (2) to (1) plus authority creates more problems than it solves.
First problem: what reason do we have to accept that every time a subject issues a first-person report about her experience, she first has to generate a belief about the experience? In many cases (e.g., button pressings during signal detection experiments; notice that Dennett explicitly assimilates such button pressings to first-person reports), it seems more plausible that the report is not mediated by any belief. This problem can be somewhat alleviated by loosening the notion of belief to something like any state that causes first-person reports to say what they say. This trivializes the unchallengeable authority claim again – now (2) boils down to the claim that first-person reports are caused by some state inside subjects that causes them to say what they say. True, but uninteresting. Another way to alleviate this problem is to appeal to Dennett’s intentional stance: a belief is simply a theoretical fiction posited by the interpreter to measure the cognitive state of the subject. While Dennett explicitly advocates this treatment of (1) (Dennett 2003, 20), this interpretation trivializes again the claim of unchallengeable authority – now (2) boils down to the claim that interpreters can attribute subjects beliefs with the same propositional contents as their first-person reports (but this is not to say that the subjects’ minds contain any explicit representations of such contents). In addition, I don’t think Dennett’s intentional stance is an adequate reconstruction of the way either ordinary people or scientists use the term “belief” – I think people are more realistic about beliefs than Dennett’s intentional stance allows.
Given that I find the above deflationary interpretations of “beliefs”/”judgments” unsatisfactory, I will assume that “beliefs”/”judgments” are explicit propositional representations in the minds of subjects – states separate from, and intermediate between, both the experiences subjects are reporting about and the verbalization process. Also, let’s assume we have compelling evidence (which as far as I can tell, we lack) to posit that subjects always have beliefs as intermediaries between experiences and the verbalization process.
Second problem: now, I really don’t see any reason to grant unchallengeable authority to subjects in expressing their beliefs. Why couldn’t subjects make mistakes in verbalizing their beliefs?