What Do We Know? Essays & Opinions
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Eric Schwitzgebel

You Are Ignorant of Yourself

Professor of Philosophy at University of California-Riverside.

How well do you know your own mind?

You might think very well! If you pick a number without telling anyone, only you know the number you picked, and it would be bizarre to suppose that you might be wrong about it. If you ram your toe against the furniture, you know your pain immediately and intimately in a way no one else could. You know – of course you do! – your opinion about The Beatles, about onion rings, about the new dress code at work. Most philosophers in the Western tradition who worked on self-knowledge from the 17th through the 20th centuries assumed, and tried to explain or build a philosophical worldview grounded upon, the striking idea that we know our own minds differently and better than we know the physical world around us.

In two books and a long series of articles, I have argued that this view is backward and tends to go farthest wrong exactly where it matters most.

Let’s consider three major aspects of our mental lives: our conscious experiences, our attitudes, and our personality traits.

How well do we know our stream of conscious experiences – that is, our emotional feelings, our imagery, our sensory perceptions, our stream of inner thoughts? Some conscious experiences we know very well: If I’m experiencing a vivid, canonical pain or if I’m looking directly at a bright red patch in good lighting conditions, the odds are excellent that I know that I’m feeling pain or experiencing red. But are these representative cases of self-knowledge of the stream of conscious experience? Or might they instead be best cases that don’t accurately reflect our typical epistemic condition?

Form a visual image of your house or apartment, as viewed from the street. Indulge me – go ahead and do it right now. Assuming that you are able to form such an image (and some people say they cannot), consider these questions:

How much of the scene can you vividly visualize at once? Can you keep the image of the roof vividly in mind at the same time you vividly imagine the front door? Or does the roof fade as you start to think about the door? How much detail does your image have? How stable is it? Supposing you can’t visually imagine the whole scene in vivid detail all at once, what are the sketchier parts of the image like? For example, do they have determinate shape and color? Does your visual image have depth in the same way that your sensory visual experience presumably has depth, or is your imagery somehow flatter, more picture-like? Is your image located in subjective space? Does it seem in some way as though the image is in your head, in front of your eyes, or in front of your forehead? Or does it seem wrong to say that the image is experienced as though spatially located anywhere at all? How much is your visual imagery like the experience of seeing a picture or having afterimages, dreams, or daydreams?

These are pretty substantial questions about your imagery experience. I’m not asking about piddling details. If I were to ask you similarly medium-grained questions about, say, the computer keyboard in front of you, you would have no trouble answering those questions: How stable is it? Do parts of it flash out of existence? Does it have a durable color? Does it have a determinate number of keys? Where is it located?

Most people find it much harder to answer medium-sized questions about their imagery experience than about the ordinary objects around them. We know that we’re experiencing visual imagery, and broadly what the imagery is about, but press for even a little more detail and we fall into confusion.

The case is similar for emotional experience, the feeling of hunger, visual sensory experience, etc. Let’s do hunger. Are you hungry right now? Let’s suppose you feel a little hungry but not very hungry. How is that hunger felt? It’s located in your stomach, maybe? How far does it spread? Is it also in your head? Is there a general hungry lassitude or tension in the limbs? Can you discern the features of your hunger experience with the same easy confidence that you can discern the features of the coffee cup in your hand?

Certain conscious experiences we know very well. But our stream of experience is not mostly constituted by easy stuff. Our imagery, thoughts, emotional twinges, and sensations are fast-paced and changeable, disjointed, weird, and shy. They skitter away as we consider them, or they remain only as theatrical, interrupted versions of themselves. We are poorly equipped with the concepts and skills to make sense of them. We know much better the middle-sized things in the world around us.

How about our attitudes? The trivial ones are easy. Do you want chocolate or vanilla? Do you think it will rain this afternoon? But self-knowledge of our morally most important attitudes – the ones most central to our self-conception – is much more difficult, in part because those attitudes are morally important and central to our self-conception. Do you really believe in an afterlife, for example? How much do you really value your marriage? Do you really think that women are just as smart as men?

You know, presumably, what you’ll say about those issues. But having an attitude, I would argue, is much more about how you generally live your way through the world than it is about what you are disposed to say. Your attitudes are revealed in the choices you make, in your spontaneous assumptions, in what surprises you, in your emotional reactions. Often, we are quite self deceived: Recent psychological work shows that people who sincerely disavow sexism are often, though they don’t know it, habitually sexist in how they treat the people around them. Or we sincerely say that marriage and family are more important to us than money and career, but we consistently privilege the latter over the former when they conflict, and we are in fact more pleased by getting a raise than by our children’s successes in school. Our broadest, morally most important attitudes are exactly the ones on which we are prone to fool ourselves.

The same holds for our personality traits: the morally neutral ones are often much easier to get right than the morally important ones. We know pretty well whether we’re introverted or extroverted, relatively excitable or relatively mellow. But are you a creative person or relatively uncreative? Are you courageous? Thoughtful? Unfair? The more “loaded” a trait attribution is, and the less straightforwardly measurable, the more people’s self-ratings tend to misalign with the ratings made by peers and acquaintances, as well as with psychologists’ best attempts to objectively measure such traits. Correlations approach zero for traits like creativity and unfairness.

We have privileged self-knowledge of some things, such as the number we are secretly thinking of. But about the general character of our stream of experience, and about our morally most important attitudes and traits, we are substantially self-ignorant.

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