A Lunch BIT from Perplexities of Consciousness by Eric Schwitzgebel

Early in Perplexities of Consciousness, Eric Schwitzgebel asks a wonderful and deceptively simple question: Do you dream in color or black and white? Think about it for a second before you answer. OK, which is it? And how can you be certain? And if you think you’re sure, consider that prior to the advent of color television, most people reported dreaming in black and white. After it became commonplace, well, you can probably guess what happened. Now how sure are you?

Philosophy has been aiming for certainty since the Greeks, and countless treatises have aimed to set it on firm foundations capable of repelling doubt. But in the case of Schwitzgebel’s book, it’s precisely the uncertainty that tells us something essential about human consciousness. The lesson, he, writes, is simply that we know very little about the internal workings of our mind we call consciousness. Or, as Nicholas Humphrey put it in his review of the book in the New York Times Book Review, “our minds, rather than being open-access, are largely hidden territory.” The BIT from which this book is drawn, on the experience of “seeing” with one’s eyes closed, tackles similar territory.

Humphrey begins his review with a similar, I-was-certain-it-was-one-thing-but-it-turned-out-to-be-another anecdote:

A few days before a review of my latest book appeared in these pages, I wrote to my editor, saying I had seen an advance copy and how much I liked the color illustration of the yellow moon. He replied that I must be mistaken, since the Book Review doesn’t use color. The next weekend he wrote to say he couldn’t think what had come over him — he reads the Book Review every week, and had somehow not noticed the color. Odd. And yet these lapses can happen to the best of us. Ask yourself what the Roman number four on the face of the church clock looks like. Most people will answer it looks like IV, but almost certainly the truth is it looks like IIII.

Humphrey wonderfully sums up Schwitzgebel’s thesis: “We are fantasists about our own mental experiences because we have little other choice. When we are probed by questions beyond our introspective competence, we have to make the answers up as best we can.”

But, Humphrey continues, maybe the weakness of our self-knowledge isn’t the problem. Maybe the problem is simply that our capacity for expressing the richness of inner mental experience – that is, philosophical writing itself – is too weak to do the job of conveying the rich, multifaceted experience taking place:

I suspect the real problem may be not that we know too little about our mental states but that we know too much. We are asked to say “what it’s like” — to dream, to imagine, to feel — as if there ought to be a simple answer: colored or not, single or double, in the head or in the heart. But, when it comes to it, the rich totality of our experience will not fit the Procrustean bed that philosophy, and everyday discourse also, tries to impose on it.

Thus we move from one kind of doubt (about self-knowledge) to another (about philosophy). And so goes philosophy, haltingly and uncertainly, further into its quixotic quest for certainty.

Check out When Your Eyes Are Closed, What Do You See?: A BIT of Perplexities of Consciousness.