Friday 30 August 2013

Transparent Minds

We all know what mental states we are in. We know whether we are happy, whether we are in pain, whether we have religious beliefs, whether we have a desire to be a philosopher, and so on. But how do we know it?

Jordi Fernández
I have recently proposed (Transparent Minds: A Study of Self-Knowledge, Oxford University Press, 2013) that we determine which beliefs and desires we have on the basis of our grounds for belief and desire. The idea is that the racist, for example, thinks that he believes that white people are more intelligent than black people on the basis of his hate towards black people. The theory is one of the 'transparent' approaches inspired by Gareth Evans's observation that, when we are asked what we believe, we look at the world instead of inspecting the contents of our own minds.

Transparent Minds
by Jordi Fern├índez 
Some applications are drawn from the theory in the second part of the book, such as an account of the thought insertion delusion. In this delusion, the patient makes claims of the type "I have the thought that such-and-such, but it is not my thought". The explanation I propose of why these patients make claims of that type turns on an idea about what happens, phenomenologically, when we normally determine that we have a belief.

What happens is that we feel pressured to accept the content of that belief. If I think that one of my beliefs about my wife is that she is cheating on me, then the question of whether she is cheating on me or not is no longer open for me. I thereby feel inclined to accept that she is cheating on me. I call this the 'assertiveness' of self-knowledge. The theory sketched above can explain why self-knowledge is assertive. The reason is that, when I think that one of my beliefs about my wife is that she is cheating on me, I have formed that higher-order belief on the basis of my grounds for believing that my wife is cheating on me. It seems natural, then, that if I have grounds for my first-order belief, I should feel inclined to have that belief.

The proposal about thought insertion is that thought insertion patients do not experience the same in self-knowledge. They find certain thoughts in their minds, but experience their thoughts as mere pieces of information that may or may not match the world. What they are trying to say, I propose, is that they find the thought that such-and-such in their minds, but the thought is neutral on whether such-and-such is happening in the world or not. If the theory of self-knowledge sketched above explains the assertiveness of self-knowledge, and this diagnosis of the delusion is correct, then this suggests a hypothesis about why these patients experience the thought insertion delusion. The reason is that they have trouble attributing thoughts to themselves through the 'transparent' procedure that, for us, is normal to follow in self-knowledge.

If you are interested, Lauren Ashwell just wrote a very informative review of the book for Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews.

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