Do you dream in color? If you answer Yes, how can you be sure? Before you recount your vivid memory of a dream featuring all the colors of the rainbow, consider that in the 1950s researchers found that most people reported dreaming in black and white. In the 1960s, when most movies were in color and more people had color television sets, the vast majority of reported dreams contained color. The most likely explanation for this, according to the philosopher Eric Schwitzgebel, is not that exposure to black-and-white media made people misremember their dreams. It is that we simply don’t know whether or not we dream in color. In Perplexities of Consciousness, Schwitzgebel examines various aspects of inner life (dreams, mental imagery, emotions, and other subjective phenomena) and argues that we know very little about our stream of conscious experience.
Drawing broadly from historical and recent philosophy and psychology to examine such topics as visual perspective, and the unreliability of introspection, Schwitzgebel finds us singularly inept in our judgments about conscious experience.
Can conscious experience be described accurately? Can we give reliable accounts of our sensory experiences and pains, our inner speech and imagery, our felt emotions? The question is central not only to our humanistic understanding of who we are but also to the burgeoning scientific field of consciousness studies. The two authors of Describing Inner Experience disagree on the answer: Russell Hurlburt, a psychologist, argues that improved methods of introspective reporting make accurate accounts of inner experience possible; Eric Schwitzgebel, a philosopher, believes that any introspective reporting is inevitably prone to error. In this book the two discuss to what extent it is possible to describe our inner experience accurately.
Hurlburt and Schwitzgebel recruited a subject, "Melanie," to report on her conscious experience using Hurlburt's Descriptive Experience Sampling method (in which the subject is cued by random beeps to describe her conscious experience). The heart of the book is Melanie’s accounts, Hurlburt and Schwitzgebel’s interviews with her, and their subsequent discussions while studying the transcripts of the interviews. In this way the authors' dispute about the general reliability of introspective reporting is steadily tempered by specific debates about the extent to which Melanie's particular reports are believable. Transcripts and audio files of the interviews will be available on the MIT Press website.
Describing Inner Experience? is not so much a debate as it is a collaboration, with each author seeking to refine his position and to replace partisanship with balanced critical judgment. The result is an illumination of major issues in the study of consciousness—from two sides at once.
What do we know about our inner life, our stream of conscious experience? In this BIT, Eric Schwitzgebel investigates some of our singularly inaccurate judgments about conscious experience. He considers unattended stimuli (does unremembered mean unexperienced?) and our visual experience when our eyes are closed.