Can People Be Honestly Wrong About Their Own Experiences?
A tangent of the jhana discussion: I asserted that people can’t be wrong about their own experience.
That is, if someone says they don’t feel hungry, maybe they’re telling the truth, and they don’t feel hungry. Or maybe they’re lying: saying they don’t feel hungry even though they know they really do (eg they’re fasting, and they want to impress their friends with how easy it is for them). But there isn’t some third option, where they honestly think they’re not experiencing hunger, but really they are.
Commenters brought up some objections: aren’t there people who honestly say they don’t feel hungry, but then if you give them food, they’ll wolf it down and say “Man, that really hit the spot, I guess I didn’t realize how hungry I was”?
Yes, this sometimes happens. But I don’t think of it as lying about internal experience. I think of it as: their stomach is empty, they have low blood sugar, they have various other physiological correlates of needing food - but for some reason they’re not consciously experiencing the qualia of hunger. Their body is hungry, but their conscious mind isn’t. They say they don’t feel hungry, and their description of their own feeling is accurate.
This is also how I interpret people who say “I’m not still angry about my father”, but then every time you mention their father they storm off and won’t talk to you for the rest of the day. Clearly they still have some trauma about their father that they have to deal with. But it doesn’t manifest itself as a conscious feeling of anger. This person could accurately be described as “they don’t feel conscious anger about their father, but mentioning their father can trigger stress-related behaviors”.
Linch gives an especially difficult example:
I think it's possible for people to fool themselves about internal states. My favorite example is time perception. You can meditate or take drugs in ways that make you think that your clock speed has gone up and your subjective experience of your subjective experience of time is slowed down. But your actual subjective experience of time isn't much faster clock speeds (as could be evidenced by trying to do difficult computational tasks in those stats).
But I think this can be defeated by the same maneuver. Just as you can be right about feeling like you’re not hungry, when in fact your body needs food, so you can be right about it feeling like time moves slowly for you, when in fact it’s moving at a normal rate.
Suppose that every person who takes a certain drug (I think salvia is known for this) independently expresses that time is moving more slowly, even if they don’t know this is a common effect of the drug they’re on. They’re clearly not making it up - otherwise how could they all coordinate on the same lie? So they must be having some subjective experience that causes them to believe it. I would call this subjective experience “the subjective experience of time moving slowly”.
The only reason this is tougher than the hunger case is that clock speed is in some sense an inherently subjective experience, so that we have three things: subjective experience of internal clock speed, actual internal clock speed, and wall clock speed. If you properly differentiate all of these, you can say things like “people are accurately reporting their subjective experience of internal clock speed, while being wrong that their internal clock is actually slowed down relative to wall clock speed”.
(though this study suggests a completely different thing is going on; people have normal speed, but retroactively remember things as lasting longer)
This maneuver is kind of tautological. Whenever you say subjective experience is wrong, I can say there are two things: the subjective experience of qualia (which are accurately reported) and the real thing (even if that real thing is another mental process, like clock speed or trauma).
Still, here are two things that recently made me doubt it:
From the Superb Owl blog: Can We Trust Self-Reported Mystical Experiences? A lot of the post addresses what seem to me to be easier problems. But one example stuck with me. Owl lifted it from Sam Harris, and it’s a story about a woman who described herself as ‘enlightened’ to a Tibetan Buddhist master.
…he gave a short laugh and looked the woman over with renewed interest.
“How long has it been since you were last lost in thought?”
“I haven’t had any thoughts for over a week,” the woman replied.
[The master] smiled. “A week?”
“No, my mind is completely still. It’s just pure consciousness.”
“That’s very interesting. Okay, so this is what is going to happen now: We are all going to wait for you to have your next thought. There’s no hurry. We are all very patient people. We are just going to sit here and wait. Please tell us when you notice a thought arise in your mind.
…After a few moments, a look of doubt appeared on our friend’s face.
“Okay…Wait a minute…Oh..That could have been a thought there…Okay…”
Over the next thirty seconds, we watched this woman’s enlightenment completely unravel. It became clear that she had merely been thinking about how expansive her experience of consciousness had become—how it was perfectly free of thought, immaculate, just like space—without noticing that she was thinking incessantly. She had been telling herself the story of her enlightenment—and she had been getting away with it because she happened to be an extraordinarily happy person for whom everything was going very well for the time being.
If this woman had been lying, she could have just continued the the charade. It seems more like she was trying to honestly report her experience, but not noticing her thoughts until the master pointed them out to her. But then it seems like we should describe her as “honestly wrong in her belief that her internal experience was empty of thoughts”.
Can we rescue the thesis?
I did the old trick of including an extra the (ie “the the”) somewhere in the last few paragraphs. Did you notice it? If not, how should we describe your omission? Something like “some subconscious visual processing centers saw the second “the”, decided it was a mistake or something, and didn’t report it to consciousness”? If so, and if you claim “I didn’t consciously perceive the second ‘the’”, isn’t that correctly reporting your own internal experience? Is that sort of like what the woman is saying? I think this depends on the idea that you can have thoughts - pretty complex thoughts, ones that would be immediately apparent to you if you paid attention - without them being conscious.
Or what about one of those drawings that can be seen two different ways, like this one:
Suppose you saw the drawing as a woman under a tree, and didn’t notice the bearded man. You faithfully report “My visual sensorium contains only the image of a woman under a tree, no bearded man anywhere in sight”. Is that being wrong about the contents of your own experience? Is there a sense in which the woman in the story was having thoughts, processing all of their contents, but not noticing them as thoughts, in the same way you can absorb every element of this picture but not notice that it’s a picture of a bearded man?
One final annoying edge case:
I’m having trouble understanding the sense Andres means, and whether it corresponds to our intuitive sense. But suppose Andres just literally means to claim that he can see seven-dimensional objects on DMT, and that he isn’t consciously lying. I find I still don’t believe him. Psychedelic trips seem to be a weird edge case; it seems easy to imagine that Andres saw eg a series of wavy lines, and then his drug-addled brain told him “It’s a seven-dimensional object! Amazing!” This seems no worse than somebody on drugs scrawling “JOY = JUSTICE * LOVE” or something on a blackboard and believing that it they’ve discovered the fundamental truth of the universe, which seems like a pretty common experience.
Can we apply the tautological solution here? Say something like “Andres is faithfully reporting the real experience of believing he sees a 7 dimensional object, even though this might not correspond to anything in the real world?”
I think the problem here is a sort of homunculus fallacy, where I feel like there ought to be some specific “experiencer” in the brain, with a bunch of algorithms and filters feeding stuff to the experiencer, and although the experiencer might be deceived about the world (when the algorithms and filters get things wrong), it cannot be deceived about its experience (since by definition it has direct unmediated access to that; if it didn’t, the content wouldn’t be experience, just another algorithm or filter).
But I’m also nervous rejecting that fallacy! If I’m bouncing off the walls with happiness, and I say “I’m happy”, and someone else says “No you’re not, you just think you are”, and I say “Well, it’s possible that fundamentally all happiness is an illusion, but I’m definitely experiencing the normal type of illusory happiness right now, it’s pretty vivid and intense”, and they say “No, you’re wrong about that”, I still feel like they’re making some kind of weird type error. Can’t justify it, though.