Tuesday, 24 June 2014

"Perplexities of Consciousness" by Eric Schwitzgebel: A Critical Review

"I wish I could find my way through this morass. I can't. So I aim to drag you down into it with me."—Eric Schwitzgebel
Is introspection a skill? Could regular practice or disciplined training enhance our introspective acuity or is introspection impervious to all attempts at improvement? Why is the literature and research on introspection so riven with disagreement and is there the slightest hope of resolving even just one of the many conflicts that beleaguer the study of what for many of us is such a seemingly familiar and incontestable part of experience?

These, and many related questions are raised by Eric Schwitzgebel's provocative book "Perplexities of Consciousness" (2011) which seeks to thoroughly undermine any unjustified certainties we might harbour about our inner world. In seven chapters of scrupulous research and analytical enquiry, Schwitzgebel mounts a devastating case against introspection that should leave even the most stalwart of advocates baffled by the puzzles and bamboozled by the paradoxes.

Why, for instance, was it so common during the mid 20th Century for people to report only ever dreaming in black and white? Does a tilted circular coin look elliptical or simply circular and tilted. How can the lines in some optical illusions appear to be different lengths even when we know they are the same? What is the exact sequence of colours that comprise the fading of an after-image? Were you aware of your left foot before I just drew your attention to it? Are you aware of every sensation currently stimulating your body or of only the portions that you attend to? Reports gathered from numerous studies are radically at odds over these kinds of questions and the signs that some form of resolution can be found are—at least if Schwitzgebel is to be believed—vanishingly remote.

Much as I admire, Schwitzgebel's impeccable research and thought provoking inquisitiveness I have to declare a serious disagreement with his project as a whole and therefore the assumptions on which it stands. Schwitzgebel is by no means a fool but I would contend that the study of introspection is little more than a fool's errand, one that is guaranteed only ever to end up mired in incomplete and inconclusive findings for reasons that I hope to make clear.

Despite Schwitzgebel's attempts to remain objective in this study, one underlying assumption goes unchecked. He is evidently under the unshakeable impression that introspection is a skill that can be improved. From this seemingly innocuous assumption flow all of the perplexities that swell the pages of this book.

Introspection, like thought or mindedness more generally, is best conceived not as a skill in-and-of-itself but as an essential component in the exercise of skills. Several prominent philosophers have pointed this out already, most notably Gilbert Ryle or Norman Malcolm in his 1977 essay: "Thinking". If introspection were a skill, it would be a singular exception to the rule that improvement comes through practice. We can't improve introspection simply by regular and determined acts of introspection. You don't learn what horses look like by determined introspection. You learn what horses look like through the observation of horses (or images or models of horses)—preferably aided by the use of a representational medium of some kind.

The perplexities Schwitzgebel so assiduously uncovers are the consequence of extricating the mental from the performative. When the mental is considered in this way and scrutinised in isolation from what it enables, then of course the results will be skewed, contradictory and incoherent. Why should this route of enquiry be any more conclusive or revealing regarding our abilities than a corresponding study of the performative component of skills stripped of all dependence on mind? Are robots skilful?

Treating introspection in isolation from the skills of which it forms an integral part and expecting it to yield reliable results is like expecting a shaken bag of Lego to produce interesting constructions. Lego needs to be interacted with by minded creatures in order to realise its potential. The surprises to which Lego often leads are neither the result of random variation nor of intuitive foresight. They are the result of an interplay between expectation and unexpected discovery, of prediction and speculative experiment. This process is iterative, accumulative and reliant upon ongoing feedback. Without this indispensable interplay we are left either with impoverished introspection or unproductive random variation. Neither is of much efficacy on its own and hence the perplexities of trying to make sense of introspection divorced from the skills it both enables and in part constitutes.

"Perplexities of Consciousness" is a book to be ambivalent about. As a tool for understanding consciousness it is of doubtful value but as a body of evidence to challenge the idea that introspection is a skill, it could barely be more authoritative. It is curious though that Schwitzgebel is not led by the evidence he gathers to the realisation that there is something seriously amiss in standard accounts of consciousness, something that can only be resolved by radical reconceptualisation along the lines that I have sketched, lines that Ludwig Wittgenstein, Gilbert Ryle, J.L. Austin, Norman Malcolm, J.J. Gibson and Donald Brook have already mapped out but that seem to have been all but forgotten by contemporary philosophy. 

The morass of which Schwitzgebel speaks is simply a figment of unalloyed introspection.


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