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How wrong can I be?

Picture: Infallible. I was pondering the question of my own infallibility recently.  Not as the result of a sudden descent into megalomaniacal delusion – I was thinking only of the kinds of infallibility which, if they exist, are shared by all of us conscious beings.

Of course, I am only infallible on certain points: the question is, which? One prime candidate is my own existence. Quite a few people these days contend that the ’self’ is an illusion, perhaps a fading shadow of the idea of the soul, or kind of trick with smoke and mirrors.  If we are to believe Descartes and his cogito, however, my own existence is the one thing I can’t doubt. Non-existent people don’t doubt anything, so to doubt my own existence is to prove it – though some would be quick to point out that a momentary doubt doesn’t amount to all that much in the way of a self, and that everything else remains to be argued for.

There are, in any case, some other issues on which I may be infallible.  I might be infallible about certain aspects of my current experience.  I could certainly be mistaken (dreaming, deluded, illuded) about the fact that this is a dagger I see before me, but I couldn’t be wrong about the fact that it seems to me there’s a dagger before me, could I? The world might be an illusion, but even illusions are things.

Or to make it even less debatable, I could be wrong about having stubbed my toe just now, but I couldn’t be wrong about the sensation of pain I’m currently feeling, surely? Perhaps I never stubbed my toe; perhaps I don’t have toes and am just a brain in a vat somewhere; perhaps none of the world really exists at all and this current thought, with all its implied memories and feelings,  is just a weird metaphysical wrinkle on the surface of universal nothingness; but that experience of pain is finally undeniable. The sheer immediacy of pain seems to mean that there just is no gap between me and it into which any misunderstanding could creep.

And yet… We’re familiar these days with the strange deformations of awareness which can result from brain injury; people who no longer recognise their arm as belonging to them; people who feel pain in an arm they haven’t got any more; people who are blind but insist, in the teeth of the evidence, that they can see.  Isn’t it possible we could have people who believe themselves to be in pain when they aren’t? A competent hypnotist produces false and even absurd beliefs in subjects all the time and could probably induce such a state without the least difficulty?

Well, a hypnotist could certainly induce someone to say they were in pain, and behave as if they were in pain; but would the subject be in real pain? Unfortunately, the only way we can get at people’s real, inner, subjective states is through their reports, so if a hypnotist has interfered with their ability to report, we’re a bit stuck. These days, it’s true, we could put someone in a scanner and have a look at their brain activity; but that would still beg some philosophical questions.

It’s tempting to say, look, I have real pain in my toe right this minute and that – that – can’t be a mistake. I grant you could fool some person into declaring themselves in pain falsely, and even believing it. We could imagine Mary the Pain Scientist, who has lived since birth in a state of analgesia; then we tickle her toes and tell her that that’s pain. Of course she believes it. But these cases of error somehow just don’t touch the infallibility of the real cases, like mine. Mary, and the other deluded pain-claimants, are simply using the wrong words – they’re calling something pain which isn’t really pain. But let’s put words aside; that thing I’m feeling now – that’s what I’m feeling, and I can’t be wrong.

If that argument succeeds, it seems to do so only by descending to a level where the concepts of truth and falsity no longer apply: of course there’s a sense in which a mere wordless sensation can’t be false. It can still be real, but if the reality of my feelings is all we’ve established, we don’t seem to have added anything of substance to the cogito. And indeed if we put ourselves back into Descartes shoes, it seems impossible to deny that some wicked demon could have convinced us that we were in pain when we aren’t – that’s more or less what happened to Pain Mary.

This is murky territory, but my own guess is that while we can’t feel pain without feeling pain, we can believe we’re in pain without feeling real pain, and for that matter we can feel pain while holding at some level the erroneous belief that we’re not feeling pain. The feeling itself may be veridical in some loose sense, but it can coexist with a higher-order belief about it which happens to be false.

I feel reasonably happy about that because it is clearly the case that we can have false beliefs about our own beliefs;  indeed, it’s pretty common.  I absolutely believe that bungee jumping is safe, until I step onto the platform, when I find that some part of my brain, or perhaps just my legs and stomach, hold other views entirely.

But the mention of believing something with one’s legs reveals that beliefs are slippery and polymorphous. To believe something I don’t need to do anything; I can have beliefs about things I never thought of  (yesterday I believed that Kubla Khan’s smallest horse never used the St Malo ferry, and would have said so confidently and without hesitation if asked, though I never thought of the beast until now), and I can go on believing things while unconscious, perhaps indeed when dead (did Galileo stop believing that the Earth goes round the Sun when he died?) .

But what about good old straightforward thoughts? Surely my thought that I am thinking that A, is much less vulnerable than a belief that I believe that A? How could I be thinking about a nice cup of tea while thinking that I’m thinking about the ferry to St Malo? It’s certainly possible for the attention to wander from one topic to another by insensible degrees – but could I really be mistaken about what I’m thinking now? There seems a real problem in that to me.

Now of course introspection is systematically unreliable in dealing with questions of this sort. Since introspective thoughts are pretty much by definition second order – ie, they’re thoughts about thoughts – introspection only gives me access to half of the comparison. I can only think about thoughts I’m thinking about. If my real thoughts were not what I thought I was thinking, how would I know any different?

It’s a fair point, but if my thoughts could be different from what I thought I was thinking, it would surely give rise to some very odd discrepancies between my behaviour and my expectations. In the case of beliefs, we’ve already noticed that discrepancies of a sort can arise, causing some minor inconsistencies in my behaviour over bungee-jumping, for example, as I stride confidently to the platform and then subside into panicky paralysis – but current thoughts seem a different and more difficult case to me.

How could that be so, though? Thoughts about my thoughts are second-order thoughts, and there is no magic connection between a thought and its target which guarantees accuracy.  It follows that there is simply no way of guaranteeing that second-order thoughts are not erroneous, and so there seems to be no way the infallibility I’m attributing to my own thoughts could arise.

The only answer I can see is that we must be wrong to assume that my knowledge of my own thoughts comes from second-order thoughts. The reason I know what I’m thinking is not that I have another true thought about what I’m thinking; instead, my knowledge just comes with the fact that this is what I’m thinking.

That radically contradicts the theory championed by some that conscious thoughts are exactly those for which there is a second order thought about the first thought. The error here, perhaps, has been to construct a model for our knowledge of our own thoughts which resembles our knowledge of the contents of a book. We know what that sentence says because we have a correct thought about it. But books have only derived intentionality (they only mean anything because someone has interpreted them as meaning something) whereas our thoughts have original intentionality (they mean stuff irrespective of what anyone thinks about it). It seems, then, that  the distinguishing property of a conscious thought is actually that the having of content and the knowing of content are inseparably the same.

I feel we’re frustratingly close to a new insight into the nature of intrinsic intentionality here. But I could be wrong.

Posted in Conscious Entities.