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Are we the best authority on our own mental states?


To: Derek S.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Are we the best authority on our own mental states?
Date: 22 February 2005 10:20

Dear Derek,

Thank you for your email of 11 February, 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'?

Your essay takes as its starting point a principled hostility to dualism and dualistic explanations. There is no 'I', only the whole physical person. Talk of 'mental' states is a (more or less misleading) way of talking about brain states.

On this assumption, as you point out, human being are, under normal circumstances, wired up in such a way that each of us is in the best position to report on our own 'mental' (in scare quotes) states. In a similar way, it would be silly to expect the temperature gauge on your car to report on the temperature of the water coolant in a different car, and there would be little point in designing one. One can go further to say, evolution has seen to it that our brain is able to monitor our own states, so that we can tell, e.g. when and where our bodies have been injured, by collecting pain data. (There is a lovely line in Terminator 2 when the young lad asks Arnie whether he feels 'pain' when he is injured, and he replies that his sensors 'collect injury data which you would call "pain".')

It is not inconceivable that creatures could evolve with physical gauges, which they used to monitor their physical states, rather than relying on 'feelings'. So I would know, e.g. that my body was injured by noticing the red light blinking on my injury gauge. But then, of course, the design requires 'awareness' of the red light. You could make a gauge for that, e.g. one which emitted sounds but then the same problem would arise.

At this point, one might wonder, what is it about the notion of 'feelings' or 'awareness' or 'sensations' which leads people down the blind alley of dualistic explanations?

Or, perhaps, first we should ask: what is a mental state? This is a legitimate question for the materialist no less than for the dualist. The difference between you and your car is that your car doesn't have mental states. It doesn't feel hot when the temperature gauge goes into the red.

Mental states are associated with persons who experience them. That I am in intense pain might be a plain fact for all to see - from my groaning and writhing - but I am the only person who actually feels it. That's what makes the pain 'mine'. One tentative definition of the mental, therefore, might be in terms of a special kind of 'authority' which a subject has concerning his own mental states. I know immediately, and without observation (e.g. of my behaviour, or of a pain gauge) that I am in pain.

This is the point which Descartes exploits in his argument for mind-body dualism.

As you correctly point out at the beginning of your essay, however, the domain of the 'mental' extends beyond immediate feelings like pain which we are 'actively aware' of so long as they obtain, to conditions or states regarding which (you could easily have gone on to note) are not always and on every occasion the best authority. I tell you I am not jealous that you are going out with Mary and I believe what I say. But everyone else can see from my despondent behaviour that I am self-deceived.

Here we have the beginnings of an argument against the Cartesian notion of the 'private theatre'. (This was in fact the sort of thing I was looking for in the essay question.) The case I am making here is that some sort of argument like this is what is needed. There is an illusion, or misconception concerning the 'mental' which needs to be identified, and shown to be illusory.

At the end of your essay, there is evidence that for all your materialist scruples, you are a little bit tempted by the Cartesian illusion. This is when you talk about the possibility of 'monitoring the brain by an electronic device'. Even if you could plug into my brain you would 'only see the red you usually see' when you see a red rose through my eyes. It follows that there is such a thing as 'the red GK usually sees' and 'the red DS usually sees' which might, for all we could ever know, be the same colour or different colours, a question which one could not resolve by any physical investigation of our bodies or brains.

This is the crucial point where we need to apply the philosophical critique of 'first person authority'. Unlike jealousy, red is the kind of feeling that you just know you have whenever it occurs, without inference. I just know the colour that red things have for me and you just know the colour that red things have for you, and this knowledge is, in principle, incapable of being physically measured or tested or compared.

What is wrong with that idea? - There had better be something wrong with it, otherwise we have no right to call ourselves 'materialists'.

All the best,