Proof That You Don’t Even Know Your Own Mind

Many of today’s philosophers would probably agree that since we possess exclusive access to our own minds and the thoughts they generate. And we often assume those to be immune from errors of any sort. There are some philosophers who describe humans as having an ‘inner sense’ that monitors how the mind thinks, the same way that our ‘outer sense’ monitors the world we see. But there are exceptions to those who believe in these models.

Another Perspective of Mind Behavior

There is Gilbert Ryle, who happens to be a mid-20th-century behaviorist philosopher, who sees this process occurring differently. He believes we learn about the workings of our minds from our own behaviors and not by any inner sense. And since we may not be in the best position to observe ourselves, it could be that people who are a part of our daily lives know more about our own minds that we do. And then there is a contemporary philosopher named Peter Carruthers that has a view that is similar (but for totally different reasons), who argues that a person’s belief about their thoughts and the decisions they make are simply the result of their own self-interpretations and many time are just wrong.

Lack of Subjectivity

As it turns out, there is considerable evidence for these conclusions. This data is the result of vast experimental work conducted in the field of social psychology. It has been well established that humans tend to think they have beliefs that they really don’t have at all. For instance, when presented with a choice among items that are identical, people usually pick the item on the right. But when they are asked for the reason they picked it, they usually create a reason such as it was a nicer color or seemed to be better made.

Lack of Awareness

Additionally, whenever a person does a task that was a response to an earlier hypnotic suggestion – which has been forgotten – they tend to confabulate reasons for performing it. It seems that what is happening is these people are engaging in subconscious self-interpretation. They actually do not know the real reasons for their actions, so they infer a reason that seems plausible and then attribute that reason to themselves. It is not aware to them that they are interpreting, and providing these reports believing they are keenly aware of the reasons they confabulated.

There are also several other studies that also support this conclusion. For instance, whenever subjects are told to nod their heads as they listen to tapes, they are much more agreeable with the content on the tapes than if you were told to shake their heads instead. And in instances where they are instructed to pick among between two items that had rated previously as equally desirable, they will often state that they like the one that they chose earlier. This again implies that they’re subconsciously interpreting their very own behavior, as they interpret nodding to mean agreement and their choice to uncover a preference.

As he built on this evidence, Carruthers has made a very strong case for a view of self-knowledge that is highly interpretive, as indicated in his exciting book called The Opacity of Mind (2011). His case begins with a claim that human beings – as well as other primates – seem to have a mental subsystem that is dedicated to the understanding of other people’s minds. This subsystem subconsciously and rapidly creates beliefs regarding exactly what other people feel and think, strictly based on observations of their behavior. The evidence for this kind of ‘mindreading’ system is the result of a variety of studies and sources, which includes the remarkable speed that an infant will develop an understanding and knowledge of the people who spend time around them.

Carruthers believes that this is the very same system that’s responsible for the knowledge we have of our own minds. Human beings didn’t create an inner sense. Instead, they acquired self-knowledge by directing an outward-looking system upon themselves. And since this system is looks outward, it can only access sensory inputs and has to draw conclusions from those alone.

So the real reason that we know our thoughts much better than the thoughts of others is because of the amount of sensory data that is available for self-analysis – this includes our perceptions, our emotional responses, and also our bodily senses. Carruthers refers to this as the Interpretive Sensory-Access (ISA) theory, and he furnishes a massive amount of data and other experimental evidence to support this theory.

This new ISA theory has amazing consequences attached. One is these – with some exceptions – is that we humans don’t actually have any conscious thoughts or even make any conscious decisions. Because if this were true, we’d be directly aware of them and not have to use interpretation. The conscious ordeals that we experience come from a sensory state of some kind, and the things we accept as conscious thoughts and decisions are actually sensory images – for instance, all those episodes of inner speech that all of us have. While these images may be an expression of thoughts, they still require interpretation.

So our decisions and thoughts happen subconsciously, as this ISA theory seems to imply, then all those morality philosophers are going to be very busy. We often think that people cannot be held accountable for their subconscious attitudes. The embracing of the ISA theory may not mean we have to throw away responsibility, but we may need to rethink it in a radical new way.