Tomorrow I'm off to the Pacific APA in San Francisco. Thursday 4-6 I'm commenting on Wayne Wu's "Introspection as Attention and Action". This post is adapted from those comments.
(Also Wed 6 pm I'm presenting my paper "A Pragmatic Approach to the Metaphysics of Belief" and Sat 6-9 I'm critic in an author-meets-critics on Jay Garfield's Engaging Buddhism. Feel free to stop by!)
What does introspective attention to one's perceptual experiences amount to? As I look at my desk, I can attend to or think about my ongoing sensory experiences, reaching judgments about their quality or character. For example, I'm visually experiencing a brownish, slightly complicated oblong shape in my visual periphery (which I know to be my hat). I'm having auditory experience of my coffee-maker spitting and bubbling as it brews the pot. What exactly am I doing, in the process of reaching these judgments?
One thing that I'm not doing, according to Wayne Wu, is launching a new process, distinct from the perceptual processes of seeing the hat and hearing the coffee-maker, which turns an "attentional spotlight" upon those perceptual processes. Introspective attention, Wu argues -- and I agree -- is a matter of applying phenomenal concepts in the course of ordinary perceiving, with the goal of arriving at a judgment about your perceptual experience -- doing so in a way that isn't radically different from the way in which, according to your goals, you can aim to categorize the things you perceive along any of several different dimensions.
I hope the following is a Wu-friendly way of developing the idea. Suppose you're looking at a coffee mug. You can do so with any of a variety of perceptual goals in mind. You can look at it with the aim of noticing details about its color -- its precise shade and how consistent or variable its color is across its face. You can look at it with the aim of noticing details of its shape. You can look at it with the aim of thinking about how it could effectively be used as a weapon. You can look at it with a critical aesthetic eye. Each of these aims is a way of attending differently to the mug, resulting in judgments that employ different conceptual categories.
You can also look at the mug with an introspective aim, or rather with one of several introspective aims. You can look at the mug with the aim of reaching conclusions about what your visual experience is as you look at the mug rather than with the aim of reaching conclusions about the physical mug itself. You might be interested in noticing your experience of the mug's color, possibly distinct from mug's real color. According to Wu, this is not a process radically different from ordinary acts of perception. Introspection your visual experience of the color or shape of the mug is not a two-stage process that consists of first perceiving the mug and then second of introspecting the experiences that arise in the course of that perceptual act.
The approach Wu and I favor is especially attractive in thinking about what the early introspective psychologists E.B. Titchener and E.G. Boring called "R-error" or "stimulus error". Imagine that you're lying on your stomach and an experimenter is gently poking the bare skin of your back with either one or two toothpicks. You might have one of two different tasks. An objective task would be to guess whether you are being poked by only one toothpick or instead by both toothpicks at once. You answer with either "one" or "two". It's easy to tell that you're being poked by two if the toothpicks are several centimeters apart, but once they are brought close enough together, the task becomes difficult. Two toothpicks placed within a centimeter of each other on your back are likely to feel like only a single toothpick. The objective task would be to guess how many toothpicks you are being poked with in reality.
An introspective task might be very similar but with a crucial difference: You are asked to report whether you have tactile experience of two separate regions of pressure or only one region. Again you might answer "one" or "two". This is of course not the same as the objective task. You're reporting not on facts about the toothpicks but rather on facts about your experience of the toothpicks. The objective task and the introspective task have different truth conditions. For example if two toothpicks are pressed to your back only 6 millimeters apart and you say "one" you've given the wrong answer if your task is objective but quite possibly the right answer if your task is introspective.
[Edwin G. Boring in 1961]
Here's the thing that Titchener and Boring noticed, which they repeatedly warn against in their discussions of introspective methodology: People very easily slide back and forth between the introspective task and the objective task. It's not entirely natural to keep them distinct in your mind over the course of a long series of stimuli. You might be assigned the introspective task, for example, and start saying "one", "one", "two", "one", "two", "two", "two" -- at first your intentions are clearly introspective, but then by the thirtieth trial you have slipped into the more familiar objective way of responding and you're just guessing how many toothpicks there actually are, rather than reporting introspectively. If you've slipped from the introspective to the objective mode of reporting, you've committed what Titchener and Boring call stimulus error.
For Wu's and my view, the crucial point is this: It's very easy to shift unintentionally between the two ways of deploying your perceptual faculties. In fact I'm inclined to think -- I don't know if Wu would agree with me about this -- that for substantial stretches of the experiment your intentions might be vague enough that there's no determinate fact about the content of your utterances. Is your "one" really a report about your experience or a report about the world outside? It might be kind of muddy, kind of in-between. You're just rolling along not very thoughtful of the distinction. What distinguishes the introspective judgment from the perceptual judgment in this case is a kind of minor thing about your background intentions in making your report.
Introspection of perceptual experience is perception with a twist, with an aim slightly different from the usual aim of reporting on the outside world. That's the idea. It's not a distinct cognitive process that begins after the perceptual act ends, ontologically distinct from the perceptual act and taking the perceptual act as its target.
When you know that your experience might be misleading, the difference can matter to your reporting. For example, if you know that you're pretty bad at detecting two toothpicks when they're close together and you have reason to think that lots of the trials will have toothpicks close together, and if your focus is on objective reporting, you might say: "Well, 50-50% -- might be one, might be two for all I know". For introspective reporting, in contrast, you might say something like "Sure feels like one, though I know you might well actually be touching me with two".
In visual experience, noticing blurriness is similar. Take off your glasses or cross your eyes. You know enough about the world to know that your coffee mug hasn't become objectively vague-edged and blurry. So you attribute the blurriness to your experience. This is a matter of seeing the world and reaching judgments about your experience in the process. You reach an experiential judgment rather than or in addition to an objective judgment just because of certain background facts about your cognition. Imagine someone so naive and benighted as to think that maybe actual real-world coffee mugs do in fact become vague bordered and blurry edged when she takes off her glasses. It seems conceivable that we could so bizarrely structure someone's environment that she actually came to adulthood thinking this. That person might then not know whether to apply blurriness to the outward object or to her experience of the object. It's a similar perceptual act of looking at the mug, but given different background concepts and assumptions in one case she reaches an introspective attribution while in the other case she reaches an objective attribution.