Knowledge and Infallibility

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Others argue that while self-attributions may constitute self-knowledge, they are not epistemically superior to other kinds of beliefs. I suspect … [that our] judgments about the world to a large extent drive our judgments about our experience. Properly so, since the former are the more secure. Schwitzgebel If psychological states are theoretical entities, both self-attributions and other-attributions will proceed by inference from observed data—presumably, behavior.

See the entry on folk psychology as a theory. Skepticism of a different kind stems from a puzzle raised by Boghossian Some philosophers take attitudes to be relational in another way as well, namely that attitude contents depend on relations to the environment: e.

3 Minute Theology 2.8: What is Inerrancy?

He notes that there seem to be three ways we might know our mental states: a on the basis of inner observation, b on the basis of inference, or c on the basis of nothing. But, he argues, each of these options presents difficulties. Regarding a : inner observation seems to reveal only intrinsic features of a desire or a belief, not relational features.

Regarding b : that we must rely on inference, to know our own mental states, seems to imply that we lack privileged access to them.

Regarding c : knowledge on the basis of nothing is rare at best. It is thus self-verifying, and hence may constitute knowledge on the basis of nothing beyond that thought Burge But most cases of self-knowledge are not like this. Boghossian concludes that we face a trilemma regarding self-knowledge. Some deny the assumption that recognizing a relationally defined state requires identifying the relational properties that make it the state that it is Burge ; Heil Others argue that self-knowledge can be privileged even if it rests on inference Dretske ; Byrne And some maintain that we can know our attitudes through introspective observation, and that this weakens the case for relational construals of attitudes Pitt Empirical work in psychology constitutes another source of doubt about the epistemic status of self-attributions.

In a widely cited paper, Nisbett and Wilson present studies showing that subjects routinely misidentify the factors that influenced their reasoning processes. The accuracy of subject reports is so poor as to suggest that any introspective access that may exist is not sufficient to produce generally correct or reliable reports.

While these studies are instructive, their results are limited in that they apply only to the unconscious sources of decisions; they are silent as to our privileged access to our current states. Wilson now acknowledges this limitation. Wilson Schwitzgebel has marshalled other sorts of empirical evidence to show that introspective reports are unreliable. But Schwitzgebel has also suggested that our attitudes about introspection may be particularly obstinate.

This conclusion is borne out by his collaboration with a psychologist Hurlburt and Schwitzgebel The authors collect introspective reports from a single individual, who carries a beeper that sounds at random moments; when it sounds, she is to note what she is currently thinking and feeling.

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Strikingly, their disagreement about the reliability of introspection remains even after their lengthy discussion of the results. A crucial problem for the theory of introspection is to fix its range of reliability. This is the problem of calibration, which arises for any scientific instrument and cognitive capacity. I would subdivide the problem into two parts. One would seek to specify the operational conditions under which introspection is sufficiently reliable. The second would seek to specify the propositional contents for which it is reliable.

Goldman As Goldman notes, we can fix the range of introspective reliability only by using introspection and evaluating its results for internal coherence and for consistency with other sources. But since there is no clear consensus as to how to evaluate the results of introspection, or what weight to accord other sources of evidence about mental states, such as external stimuli and behavior, introspection faces an especially thorny and complex problem of calibration.


Williamson has argued against a particular, seemingly plausible thesis regarding self-knowledge: that someone experiencing a sensation can know that she is experiencing that sensation. Williamson imagines a subject who feels cold at dawn, but gradually warms until she feels warm at noon. At some point she feels barely cold, and truly believes that she feels cold.

At the next moment, she feels only very slightly warmer than at the previous moment; but since she felt barely cold at the previous moment, at this later moment she may not, in fact, feel cold. Given that sensations are usually regarded as especially accessible, the fact that one is not always in a position to know whether one is experiencing a given sensation suggests that one is not always in a position to know whether one is in any given mental state.

I will briefly sketch two prominent responses to Williamson. This response dovetails with acquaintance accounts. If having a sensation generally allows the subject to form a self-attributing belief that appropriately incorporates that sensation, then feeling cold may be luminous after all. For even a slight difference between feeling cold and feeling not-cold will make a difference in the corresponding self-attributions. The idea that we know our mental states through acquaintance with them is usually associated with Russell , but such accounts trace their lineage at least to Descartes.

According to these accounts, our awareness of our mental states is sometimes peculiarly direct , in both an epistemic sense and a metaphysical sense.


It is epistemically direct in that I am not aware of my mental state by being aware of something else. It is metaphysically direct in that no event or process mediates between my awareness and the mental state itself. By contrast, I may be aware that it rained last night only by being aware of the wet pavement; and, more controversially, my visual experience may mediate between my awareness of the pavement and the pavement itself. The claim that introspective access is both epistemically and metaphysically direct is most plausible for phenomenal states like pain.

This is because how a phenomenal state appears epistemically and how it actually is its ontology or nature are, according to many philosophers, one and the same. Pain … is not picked out by one of its accidental properties; rather it is picked out by the property of being pain itself, by its immediate phenomenological quality.

Kripke —3. Limiting acquaintance accounts to self-knowledge of phenomenal states—or, more strictly, self-knowledge of mental states individuated by phenomenology—does not entirely fix their scope, as philosophers disagree as to which kinds of mental states are individuated by phenomenology. Recently, the idea that thoughts have a distinctive phenomenology has received renewed attention Bayne and Montague ; Kriegel ; see the entry on consciousness and intentionality.

Some philosophers also argue that conscious attitudes, such as judgments, have distinctive phenomenologies.

The purported epistemic and metaphysical directness of introspection does not imply that we are either infallible or omniscient about our own states, since it is an open question whether we routinely engage in introspection. Acquaintance accounts hold special appeal for epistemic foundationalists, who claim that all of our knowledge rests on a foundation of beliefs that are justified, but not justified by other beliefs. Acquaintance accounts provide for highly secure beliefs that are justified by experiences rather than by other beliefs.

For example, Fumerton argues that an experience can directly justify the belief that one is having that experience. In this context, the truth-maker for a belief is the mental state that makes it true: e. Terms in square brackets are mine. Fumerton One approach to explaining how experiences can directly justify beliefs about them draws on the phenomenon of demonstrative reference Gertler ; Chalmers By attending to how an experience feels or appears , one can use this appearance—e. Chalmers Some critics charge that acquaintance accounts construe introspective beliefs as too close to their objects to qualify as genuine, substantial knowledge.

In effect, this objection denies that introspective attention to an instance of a phenomenal quality can provide for an understanding of that quality adequate for genuine factual knowledge. Another worry about acquaintance accounts stems from the observation that we sometimes err about our experiences. In a famous example, a fraternity pledge is blindfolded and told that his hand will be burned with a cigarette. An icicle is then applied to his hand, and the pledge responds by screaming as if in pain.

On the relevant interpretation of this case, the pledge mistakes coldness for pain: it epistemically seems to him that his phenomenology is that of pain. No easy argument renders this statement self-verifying. To answer this objection, acquaintance theorists will concede that we can be wrong about our own phenomenal states. These accounts require only that, under certain conditions, the phenomenal reality of an experience constitutes its epistemic appearance Horgan and Kriegel ; Gertler The idea that we know even some of our sensations by acquaintance remains highly controversial; the idea that we know our thoughts, or our beliefs or other attitudes, by acquaintance is even more controversial.

As James observed, self-knowledge requires more than mere contact with a mental state: it requires that one properly conceptualize the state, classifying it as a state of a particular kind e.

Account Options

The most difficult hurdle for acquaintance accounts is to explain how this conceptualization occurs. In particular, the difficulty is to explain how awareness of a mental state can be direct and immediate, yet epistemically substantial—a genuine grasp of the state as a state of a certain kind. While acquaintance accounts construe self-knowledge as strikingly distinctive in its directness and epistemic security, inner sense accounts take the opposite tack: they construe introspection as similar to perception in crucial respects. On such accounts, and in contrast to acquaintance accounts, the connection between the introspected state the input and the introspective state the output is causal and contingent.

But inner sense accounts allow that introspection also differs from perception in significant ways. Perception is achieved through dedicated organs such as eyes and ears, whereas there is no literal organ of introspection. The monitoring mechanism involved in inner sense must form representations of the mental states it takes as input. But how does this process ensure that the output the representation of the scanned mental state matches the input the scanned state itself?

A complete account must also explain how the introspective process correctly classifies the type of mental state at issue: as, e.

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