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Are we always the best authority on our own mental states?


To: Ram A.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Are we always the best authority on our own mental states?
Date: 30 April 2001 09:57

Dear Ram,

Thank you for your e-mail of 21 April, with your first essay for the Philosophy of Mind program, in response to the question, 'Is it true that we are always the best authority about our own mental states? What conclusions do you draw from your answer to that question regarding the distinction between the 'inner' and the 'outer'?

There are various ways we might try to conceive of a person's inner world. We can focus on the individual's thoughts, feelings and perceptions, the moment to moment flow of 'sense data' That is one picture of subjectivity. Or we can focus on the individual's beliefs about themself and about the world. That is another notion of subjectivity. Then there is a third aspect, more difficult to characterize, which is the individual's sense of the 'meaning of existence', how the world as a totality is for them, or the kind of universe they conceive themself to inhabit. This is something that seems particularly to interest you.

Each of us is different 'inside', in each of these three ways. Somehow, we manage to communicate to one another how things are for us. One question is how this is possible. How can one individual possibly know how things are for another?

There is a tradition in philosophy going back to Descartes which says that the subjective quality of my mental life is known by me to such a high degree of certainty that no-one else could know what I know. For example, no-one can possible know the subjective 'colour' that blue has for me. On this picture, other people can discover my beliefs. They can learn about my perceptions from the reports that I give of them. Yet language only goes so far. What cannot be communicated is the sheer quality of subjective experience. Each of us, in this sense, is locked into a private universe which cannot be shared. The assumptions behind this view will be questioned in the program.

However, one interesting question is whether any evidence might be gathered, from our ordinary experience, to rebut the claim that 'we are always the best authority on our mental states.'

Psychiatry is founded on the assumption that it is possible to know how things are for another person. It is possible to explore another person's state of mind. In that exploration, the subject's testimony is of course of vital importance. Yet one doesn't simply take what the subject says at face value. One would be seriously misled if one accepted without question all that the subject says. There is a professional *suspicion* that leads one to dig beneath the surface.

Yet, even in everyday life, we recognize that a person can be self-deceived. On occasion, a friend can be in a better position to assess my state of mind than I am myself. We say after doing a certain action, 'I thought I was doing it for such-and-such a reason, but afterwards I realized it was really because of so-and-so.'

However, the Cartesian could reply that there is a difference between the subjective quality of perceptions, and a person's system of beliefs. Belief involves interpretation, theorizing. 'I did X for such-and-such a reason' is not just a report of immediate experience but a theory. My actions, which others are in a position to observe, can refute the theory.

Consider the case that you describe. The man concerned had a theory, not merely about his own mental states but about the external world. In this sense, he is no different from a Newton or an Einstein. The problem is that the theory is not only a very poor theory, but the subject is incapable of accepting that it is a poor theory. Evidence which we would see as tending to refute the theory, the subject sees as supporting it. There is a failure of rationality. In questioning the truth of the 'invisible spirit' theory, the psychiatrist is not yet questioning the man's authority concerning his own mental states. The subject knows what he believes. It is just that those beliefs are plainly false.

Does the man who believes in the invisible spirit theory know his own mind? Is he necessarily the best authority on his own mental states? I am not an expert, so I cannot say how far the 'suspicion' I mentioned earlier might take you. Perhaps there is no explanation for these weird beliefs but a chemical imbalance or short-circuits in the brain.

The most difficult question of all concerns the third aspect of subjectivity I mentioned, 'the individual's sense of the "meaning of existence", how the world as a totality is for them, or the kind of universe they conceive themself to inhabit'. Consider how difficult it is for a person with strong spiritual and religious beliefs to communicate 'how the universe is for them' to someone who is simply not interested, for whom the universe is just a world of matter in motion. Yet in a more subtle way, for each of us existence has a certain flavour. We can talk about the things we believe, but that seems somehow to miss out the essential thing. Once again, one *seems* to be thrown back on the idea of a 'private world'.

All the best,