Over at Ktismatics John has an interesting post up making the case that we have direct access to our minds. John writes:

In my post I summarized some of the empirical evidence supporting the contention that much, if not most, human cognition takes place outside of conscious awareness. However, I decidedly did not propose that all of cognition is unconscious. We consciously attend to things, reason, solve problems, assemble stored memories, plan, evaluate information. And we’re self-reflexive about it: we are consciously aware that we’re reasoning, problem-solving, etc.

Doesn’t this mean that we have direct access to our own minds, at least to some extent? I’d say yes. If’ I’m aware that I’m solving a problem, and if both my awareness and my problem-solving are mental processes, then my mind has direct access to some of its own activities. If we’re consciously aware of the activities and outputs of our own consciousness, then that’s not just direct self-relation but also direct self-awareness of the self-relation. Consciousness is an emergent property of brain activity; unless we believe in the soul or some form of panpsychism there is no source of consciousness other than brain activity. So consciousness has to be in direct relation with the unconscious brain activity that generates it — doesn’t it? — even if that direct relation doesn’t take the form of conscious awareness of brain function. My hand is in direct connection with itself, even if it can’t hold itself in its grip. A bridge is in direct connection with itself, even if it can’s support itself on itself.

Yes and no. The claim that we do not have direct access to our minds is not the claim that our minds are not dependent on our brains, but rather that our introspective accounts of our mental activities are unreliable guides to how these mental activities function. In other words, the thesis that we can have knowledge of how our mental states function through self-reflexive conscious awareness of our internal states is here challenged.

read on!

To understand why this observation is philosophically important it is necessary to understand how claims about conscious awareness have functioned in the history of philosophy. In his second meditation, Descartes writes:

8. But what, then, am I ? A thinking thing, it has been said. But what is a thinking thing? It is a thing that doubts, understands, [conceives], affirms, denies, wills, refuses; that imagines also, and perceives. [ L][ F]

9. Assuredly it is not little, if all these properties belong to my nature. But why should they not belong to it ? Am I not that very being who now doubts of almost everything; who, for all that, understands and conceives certain things; who affirms one alone as true, and denies the others; who desires to know more of them, and does not wish to be deceived; who imagines many things, sometimes even despite his will; and is likewise percipient of many, as if through the medium of the senses. Is there nothing of all this as true as that I am, even although I should be always dreaming, and although he who gave me being employed all his ingenuity to deceive me ? Is there also any one of these attributes that can be properly distinguished from my thought, or that can be said to be separate from myself ? For it is of itself so evident that it is I who doubt, I who understand, and I who desire, that it is here unnecessary to add anything by way of rendering it more clear. And I am as certainly the same being who imagines; for although it may be (as I before supposed) that nothing I imagine is true, still the power of imagination does not cease really to exist in me and to form part of my thought. In fine, I am the same being who perceives, that is, who apprehends certain objects as by the organs of sense, since, in truth, I see light, hear a noise, and feel heat. But it will be said that these presentations are false, and that I am dreaming. Let it be so. At all events it is certain that I seem to see light, hear a noise, and feel heat; this cannot be false, and this is what in me is properly called perceiving (sentire), which is nothing else than thinking.

Descartes’ Meditations, especially the first three meditations, is essential reading on these issues. In the passage above Descartes argues that thought provides a ground of absolute certainty or incorrigibility, and is therefore the foundation or ground upon which all knowledge must be based. If, according to Descartes, thought has this special characteristic then this is because it is absolutely present to itself without any accompanying absence.

To understand the epistemological significance of this self-presence, it is necessary to understand just how re-presentation contains the possibility of error woven within it. Rather than beginning with thorny questions of how mind represents the world, it would perhaps be more illuminating to look at more common examples of representation from the worlds of law and politics. In law and politics a representative is a third party that comes between two people or groups of people, mediating their relation to one another. For example, a diplomat represents one nation to another nation. Neither nation relates directly to the other nation, but rather each nation only relates directly to the representative. This entails that any knowledge one of the nations has about the other nature is always received second-hand through the representative.

Here the relationship between representation and absence becomes evident. Insofar as the relationship between the two nations is mediated by a third party, insofar as their relationship to one another is indirect, the two parties are absent to one another and must rely on the reliability and honesty of the representative or diplomat for their access to each other. Consequently, mediated relations between parties always contain an element of doubt or uncertainty. The case is no different with representational theories of knowledge. The representation is a third term that comes between the knowing subject and the world to be known. What our minds relate to is not the object but our representations of objects. In this respect, representations have the structure of signs. As C.S. Peirce famously defined them, a sign is something that stands for something in some respect or capacity. In a clever twist, Umberto Eco, in A Theory of Semiotics, defines a sign as anything that can be used to deceive or tell a lie. Representations are entities that purport to stand for something else. As such, signs necessarily embody an absence insofar as what we directly relate to is not the world but the representation.

If signs and representations necessarily contain a degree of uncertainty or doubt, then this is because they embody absence within themselves, implying a present that is not, in fact, present. This point can be illustrated with reference to the final scenes of Kubric’s The Shining [around the 3:13 mark]:

Running through the topiary in the midst of a blizzard, the boy escapes the clutches of his crazed father through the skillful use of signs. The signs in question are his footprints in the snow. These footprints stand for the path the boy has taken. The father uses these signs to follow the boy’s trail. The boy, possessing a basic understanding of signs, steps back in his own footprints and then runs off in another direction, covering his tracks, so that his father will be led astray. Here the signs deceive his father and the boy fortunately escapes.

Here then we encounter ground zero of the question of our knowledge. Given that our signs or representations are the “presence of an absence” (i.e., the presence of something we are not directly related to), how can we determine the difference between those signs or representations that are veridical or accurate representations of the world and those that are not? If we are only directly related to our representations and not the world, then the question appears to be insoluble. Descartes’ sought an absolute foundation for knowledge that was beyond all doubt. Clearly our representations will not deliver us this foundation because they embody an absence that perpetually leaves room for doubt. What is needed is an absolute presence that would establish certainty. If thought, according to Descartes, provides such a foundation, then this is because my relationship to my thought is characterized by complete presence or immediacy (i.e., the absence of mediation) such that while I can doubt what my thought represents or stands for, I cannot doubt the simple having of this thought itself. While I can doubt whether or not I’m actually typing these words or am merely dreaming that I’m typing these words, I cannot doubt, according to Descartes, that I seem to be having this experience.

Thought, for Descartes, is thus unassailable or beyond all doubt because it embodies no absence or is characterized by immediate self-evidence and certainty. Initially Descartes’ gain here appears to be slight as we’re still in doubt about the existence of the world, other minds, our own bodies, our memories, and so on. However, Descartes does believe that he has opened up the domain of thought as a reliable field of investigation that cannot be doubted. The issue will now be one of determining whether or not we can, based on thought alone, establish the transcendence of the world in a way that is absolutely certain and this will require an investigation of the contents of our thought.

I will not here rehearse in detail the remainder of Descartes’ argument. Readers will find it in the third meditation. According to Descartes, the first thing of which we can be certain beyond ourselves is the existence of God. Since God is perfect he is therefore good. Insofar as God is good he cannot be a deceiver. Therefore, thinks Descartes, we can trust certain representations we possess as being accurate representations of the world.

Having briefly taken a detour through Descartes, it is now possible to re-situate the question of direct access with respect to our minds. Do we have, as Descartes suggested, direct access to our thought as Descartes suggested? Subsequent history and investigation has not been very supportive of Descartes’ hypothesis. In particular, neurology and psychoanalysis have both shed a great deal of doubt on Descartes’ equation of thought with awareness. John wrote:

We consciously attend to things, reason, solve problems, assemble stored memories, plan, evaluate information. And we’re self-reflexive about it: we are consciously aware that we’re reasoning, problem-solving, etc.

Is the suggestion that we are conscious or aware of doing these things really as self-evident as John suggests? I think not. Take our moral reasoning or problem-solving. In his recent book How We Decide (which is a terrific read, even if I disagree with it on many points), neurologist Jonah Lehrer recounts fMRI experiments with subjects engaged in moral deliberation. What these scans show is that moral decision making takes place primarily and in the first place in the amygdala, with the frontal cortex only subsequently becoming active after the decision has already been made. Moreover, those subjects that have significant damage or abnormality to their amygdala, transforming them into perfect Kantian calculative subjects, are often severely impaired where moral decision making is concerned. There is a strong connection here between sociopathy and such abnormalities among such subjects.

Now the amygdala is a region of the brain strongly connected to emotions and memory, while the frontal cortex is related to operations of higher reasoning. The significance of these observations with regard to the thesis that equates thought with awareness should be evident. Subjects who are asked why they wouldn’t steal candy at a grocery store will appeal to reasons such as potential consequences of their actions, the violation of some abstract moral principle like the categorical imperative or one of the Ten Commandments, etc. The fMRI scans reveal something different. Far from being a deliberative problem-solving process, the decision is already made at the level of unconscious emotional reactions. In other words, the higher-order problem solving activity comes ex post facto. The subject experiences these higher order reasoning processes as what led him to the decision, but the decision was already made behind his back at an unconscious level.

The conclusion to be drawn from this example– and examples of such findings could be multiplied infinitely –is that thought and awareness are not the same thing. There is a profound disadequation between how we experience ourselves (the domain of conscious awareness) and what produces these experiences (the domain of thought). Our self-reports based on conscious introspection are tremendously unreliable as guides as to why we do things. Consequently, when John writes:

If we’re consciously aware of the activities and outputs of our own consciousness, then that’s not just direct self-relation but also direct self-awareness of the self-relation. Consciousness is an emergent property of brain activity; unless we believe in the soul or some form of panpsychism there is no source of consciousness other than brain activity.

I cannot help but feel he’s missed the basic point of these discussions. This is clear from his references to panpsychism and the soul which are irrelevant to the issue under discussion. When a philosopher claims that we do not have direct access to our minds he is not claiming that the brain doesn’t produce the mind or that mind is not an emergent property of brain. One can adopt (as I do) the thesis that mind is an emergent property of brain and that we do not have direct access to our minds without being a panpsychist. The point here is epistemological, not ontological. What is at issue is whether conscious thought is a privileged domain of knowledge that can function as an absolutely secure foundation for all other knowledge as thinkers like Descartes, Hume (with his impressions or sensations), Husserl, and many others besides have argued. What researches in fields such as psychoanalysis and neurology have revealed is that far from being such a privileged and foundational domain, our relation to our own thought is every bit as deceptive and prone to error as our relationship to “external” objects in the world. As a consequence, there is no reason to grant conscious awareness a privileged and foundational role in philosophical thought. Our introspective reports as to why we think as we do are representational with respect to ourselves no less than with respect to objects (thereby embodying all the doubt we encountered in the relationship between representations and objects represented), and our introspective accounts of how thought actually functions are very likely to be extremely misleading and outright false. Yet if this point is granted, a number of assumptions, central axioms, and problematics governing contemporary philosophy are transformed significantly.