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Introspection and its limits

By suspendedreason2021-03-28 17:48:46.524Z

Jumping off previous conversations between @hazard, @snav and I. Wanna start hammering down what we mean by introspection, which parts of it are more or less fallible, etc. To be clear up front before I start talking limitations: I definitely think introspection can be a useful guide and tool for personal growth, zero dispute. My feeling, however, is that introspection often gets treated with a “naive” stance even in otherwise sophisticated practitioners—by naive I mean taking felt experience at face value/as self-evidently true. We can call this an objection, specifically, to the “resonance heuristic.” It’s hard for me to exactly model this “introspection-as-window” view (which implies clarity, leaving Plato’s cave), but I see it as a very different stance than the introspection-as-dialectic-mode-of-discovery view (which implies shoddy tools in difficult terrain managing to make meaningful progress).

Some reasons not to take a naive stance to introspection:

  1. Self-deception: standard Bob Trivers stuff. It feels like there's a lot of this in Freud, too, but ostensibly Freud thinks therapeutic interaction can tease out many/most real truths from the unconscious (?). Maybe Snav can correct any misunderstandings, I’m speculating a bit. Anyway, this critique something like, "Accurate maps of many domains, if they are stored by the unconscious at all, are at least very difficult to get at consciously. It may be possible that our entire input + storage system is biased in a deep systematic way, so that we can never retrieve accurate maps of many domains. E.g., no amount of self-interrogation or honesty can get a pragmatically true answer to a question like, “Am I angry because X said Y, or because I believed Y?”
  2. The role of weird context, hormones, brain chemicals etc in adding noise: I've done my fair share of recreationals, I've had stints of mild depression/mania, and this makes me believe that low-n size abduction about felt experience, and the reasons behind it, can go really wrong. Separating “Am I angry because my T/dopamine/blood sugar is spiking or am I angry because there’s inherently something triggering about Y?” requires a scientific method-type to figure out—paying attention to confounders, context, basing theories on many observations.
  3. The vast majority of people who proceed in introspection don’t do it rigorously—they’re not keeping notes or spreadsheets, they’re using the resonance heuristic + a few recently stored memories easily available in the cache and at least superficially relevant to the situation at-hand.

I think even just getting a good working definition of what different people mean when they say “introspection” would clear up lots of confusions/disagreements we might have. If introspection just means, "trying to rigorously reflect on the patterns of your behaviors/situations/responses, in order to understand yourself better," no question that’s a valuable tool—there are possible pitfalls and blindspots (areas of motivated ignorance, self-deception, biased perception, etc), but if you keep open to contradiction and paradigm shifts, don’t fixate on an interpretive frame too early, keep searching for evidence—standard inference stuff that you need everywhere else as well—there’s no problem. What I see getting intuition, resonance, etc treated as, however, is as a kind of greenlight on greater “transcendental” truths—the felt resonance is trusted by default; this trusting is considered crucial to being "authentic" to “true” selves, the way we get in touch with our bodies, or emotions, or unconscious, etc. In much of contemporary political discourse, feelings are given the kind of legitimacy scientific fact is. I see this as a signal-corrective problem: previous regimes of rationalism and politics dismissed feelings too much, and the pendulum has now swung too far in the other direction. I think the proper stance toward these things is far more critical, far more hermeneutically suspicious.

Here’s an interesting case study from a recent Discord interaction I’ve anonymized & abridged:

X: Your desire, and all of our desires, is for a transcendent good that we cannot express except in limited metaphors, of which utilitarianism is a particularly poor one. Therefore a sort of mystico-religious view on life's ultimate aims is correct and not a cynical or businesslike one.

Y: This is an opinion I find it hard to believe you can furnish any evidence for—it's more likely, with everything we know about living organisms, that our desires are mostly boring biology complicated/obfuscated by weird cultural situations and the schematic particularities of cultured brains.

X: The method of revealing this is what I'm currently doing and what Socrates did: Showing dialectically that our actual deepest desire is for a transcendent good, and that when we believe our true desire to be for something else it turns out not to be true upon reflection

Y: I don't think that's true, I think we can be highly confident from observation that non-human living organisms follow game-theoretic and evolutionary logics tightly, because evolutionary logics just work; what works, survives, end of story, and there are a set of high-level survival strategies that beat others. Except in eusocial species with specific genetic configurations, true & pure moral altruism is not one of those winning strategies—there's no reason to expect it would exist as a biological drive in the genome

Y: And when even you yourself are admitting that human beings' demonstrated behavior directly contradicts this theory of true desire for altruism? Now you're positing that we not just have some secret deep-down true and "transcendent" desire, which defies our scientific understanding, but also that our ignorance to this true desire leads us to act in ways that constantly contradict it. It's unclear what one could even point to to falsify this theory; it seems unfalsifiable

X: if we discover through dialectics or a sort of revealed introspection some "true desire" that is not the good, then what i am saying appears not to hold (though ofc this presupposes good intention on the participants in discourse and isnt an empirical science)

A couple things here that makes this an interesting case: it takes a view on introspection somewhere between as-window-on-truth and as-dialectic-process. In my interpretation, X believes that larger, transcendent truths about human beings can be confidently ascertained via self-reflection on our own desires, but that self-reflection takes a dialectic form. It’s not entirely clear to me what this self-reflection would consist of, and I wish I had asked—again, as I think @hazard mentioned recently, if introspection is just rigorous reflection on the patterns of your life, it’s not dramatically different than theorizing about grocery store ethnomethods, or organizational structure. However, I don’t think people see armchair theorizing as definitive or authoritative in the way introspection is often seen. And it’s unclear why, if introspection merely means theorizing about oneself, that evolutionary biology would be a separate, rival paradigm rather than a dialectic supplement. Rather, it seems that many see introspection as specifically about self-reflective phenomenology, and that the inner landscape of feeling is given an authority it doesn’t deserve.

  • 4 replies
  1. hazard2021-03-28 21:19:32.248Z

    Very useful post! Your dialog with discord person prompted me to think about similar stuff I've heard from other people before. Those sorts of things have been very much not on my mind as I've been digging into more introspective/emotional practices. I think this is largely because I rarely have to interact with anyone, and there aren't many/any social spaces that I feel like are mine, so when I hear someone spouting nonsense I just tune them out. Actually, it's really only been in the past year of getting on twitter that I've felt like I'm in "the same room" with others to the degree where I care if they're wrong.

    Your dialog made me think back to some interactions I've had, and in this comment I mostly just want to express common ground and share a sense of frustration. You actually reminded me of this post I wrote 4 years ago The Ultimate Hippie and the Path to the Dark Side. I just reread it, and I stand by most of it. It's musings on what leads people to detached world views where they're guided only by "their gut" which has also become detached from reality.

    Maybe later I'll do a step my step update comparison to my thoughts now. But for now, here is my proof-of-work that I also have a lot of issues with a particular type of person (though I expect we might disagree on who in particular is or isn't this type).

    1. In reply tosuspendedreason:
      suspendedreason2021-03-28 21:52:40.523Z


      where the BS starts to sneak in is when people way back when started asking “Why does any of this work?” They came up with ideas, theories and conjectures, which eventually coalesceced into the yoga cannon we know today. The thing is, the underlying theories have no real reason to be right. Yes, a yogi can probably tell you what to do to get the results you want, but their why isn’t likely to be as based in reality.

      None of this really matters for the person who just wants their knee to stop hurting. You do yoga, feel the effects, and close the book. But let’s say you are searching for “What’s really going on?” You ask more questions about chakras. You ask about how to better direct your prana. You want to try and use your knew yogic understanding of the body to make new predictions.

      So this obviously gets into the Fake Frames stuff about fitness, local vs global explanatory power, and indexicality vs genericism. Asking "What's really going on?" is trying to get at larger principles, in order to make further deductions from them. The frame becomes problematic when these interrogations or attempts at generalizations lead you away from pragmatically working truths. I'm still really dissatisfied with this whole framing because it leaves so many tough Qs open about language, framing, and the way theories "connect" or can be logically extended.

      Near the end of your post you write:

      Your gut decision making capabilities are truly impressive and beautiful. You can accomplish things that you’d never be able to do by thinking them through. Try catching a baseball in real time by calculating it’s trajectory. The thing is though, that despite how powerful your gut is, there is nothing in it designed to help you figure out what is true and what is not.
      If you got anything from this post, it’s that you should be a lot more suspicious of yourself than you currently are.

      I'm curious then how your perspective on introspection has changed such that you think resonance or gut feeling has a truth role. OR, alternatively, whether your definition of introspection doesn't rely heavily on these things.

      I mention in OP that normal theorizing about the external world is also influenced by gut and resonance, although that kind of self-consultation still sorta feels classifiable as "introspection" to me; second, I think our inner phenomenological landscape is way more prone to cybernetic and hyperstition effects, where adopted theories start actively top-down creating felt realities. This is sorta true of other human realms—reflexivity of social theory to social behavior is well-theorized—but even here, the effect comes when the theory becomes institutionally adopted or publicly known. The researcher still has a very long window of hypothesizing & testing & building theories, when the social phenomena has not yet learned or incorporated his theory of it. (Not so with introspection.) You talk about this a bit re: hallucinations of visitations from God, or experiences of ESP.

      1. hazard2021-03-29 14:01:32.307Z

        What do you think are some of the best/most robust frames with "global explanatory power"? You made me realize that I'm very unsure if anything I've interacted makes sense to put in that bucket.

        I'm curious then how your perspective on introspection has changed such that you think resonance or gut feeling has a truth role. OR, alternatively, whether your definition of introspection doesn't rely heavily on these things.

        Probably the biggest difference between then and now is I think back then the "gut" was still a black box to me. I feel like I've got a lot better understanding of how various types of feelings are generated. Related, perhaps my biggest shift (I can't actually remember if this is a shift, I might have thought this back then) is something like Incorrect Hypotheses Point to Correct Observations. Anytime you say "This feels like XYZ" I think what's happening is something like "I'm having experience A, and based on my past experience and current conceptual schemas I think that XYZ is happening". In how I think about thinks, you can't really be wrong about A, but you can absolutely be wrong about XYZ, depending on all the context. What you need to now do is study the structure and patterns of when certain experiences are had, and not jump to quickly adding your own story.

        An example from a recurring convo with a friend about free will: they insist that even though it "feels like you can make a free choice" you can't cuz determinism. I say that the thing that you do that people use the word "choose" to describe, that experience does not have anything in it that necessitates an inference that the laws of physics must have an uncaused soul at he bottom. The feeling doesn't force that conclusion. What I think sometimes happens is that someone imagines a universe with atoms and uncaused souls at the bottom, tries to imagine what experiences that might produce, and notices similar patterns the experiences they have. You can reason like that, but the experience didn't compel you to that extra hypothesis.

        lol, I still need to actually talk about the stuff that is introspection that I care about. Another day.

      2. S
        In reply tosuspendedreason:
        snav2021-03-29 00:28:54.418Z

        Gonna write out some thoughts here:

        1. I would bound (but not define) the notion of introspection as: "a conscious act of knowledge creation performed by applying symbols to patterns of non-sensory experience". Keys being that introspection is (a) conscious, (b) symbolic, and (c) an act of creating knowledge. If you disagree with any of this, please let me know so we can discuss it.
        2. If introspection is symbolic, then it is constrained by your available symbols for introspection.
        3. "Common knowledge" has a poor set of introspective symbols available: most people are only really familiar with basic emotional words (angry, happy, sad, calm, etc.), and maybe some psychiatric diagnoses (ADHD, depression, etc). This means that most people can only introspect poorly.
        4. Entire schools of philosophy exist precisely to provide new symbols for use as introspective tools (often connected with religious traditions, but not always), and guidance on how and when to use them. In addition to "purely phenomenological" symbols (i.e. a new emotion), these schools often also provide new structures as well: ways of relating experiences to each other (think: "trauma").
        5. Regarding self-deception: Freud's thesis was that we all perform certain patterns of experience that we are determined not to notice (repression), and that these always relate to some experience which made us not want to notice them (trauma, producing a repressed memory). Thus, repression is the act of motivated self-deception. We can only "discover" this if we know how to look for them (i.e. objectively, starting from concrete patterns of thought and behavior and working backward) and are willing to accept unpleasant truths about ourselves (many aren't!).
        6. Regarding chemicals: it depends what you're taking, but my sense is that chemicals tend to affect attributes of pre-existing states of mind (valence, intensity, etc.) as opposed to creating wholly new ones. This means they are useful introspective tools because they have potential to show you what is "already there", but not manifest in normal experience.
        7. Introspection can actually involve the transcendental, in the strict Kantian sense, in that certain types of introspection (specifically psychoanalysis) interrogate the transcendental subject (i.e. the "mind who knows") itself. This is an extremely complex topic that I know almost nothing of (and lack the background to deeply understand), but it was one of Adorno's big projects from what I'm seeing online ( However in this sense, psychoanalysis is not so much the creator of transcendental truths but their destroyer. Most naive introspection is, as you say, aimed toward constructing transcendent (or transcendental, but usually not) truths rather than destroying them.
        8. Regarding the "case study" conversation: I think the two sides are almost talking past each other, because Y is talking about "the human being" (i.e. the biological organism) whereas X is talking about "the [transcendental] subject" (i.e. the conscious experience as it experiences itself, sorry about the Hegelianism). It seems clear to me that the transcendental subject is "downstream" of the biological organism, but the difficulty in working with the idea of subject qua biology is that we each possess a singular set of experiences (as cybernetic entities, shaped by our environments as well as biology), properly unique to each person. Thus in order to create a "science of mind", we must rely on some form of introspection, because our unique set of experiences is inaccessible to all observers except ourselves. Ironically, this is where "Freud the destroyer" shows up, to argue that this "science of mind" will always "bottom out" in biology, but also that there is a weird twilight zone between the two, where we are shaped by our singular experiences in ways inaccessible to a general science of the human being, and also inaccessible to the purely Kantian phenomenological subject (who takes no knowledge for granted beside what can be derived through experience alone). Hence, we need some sort of "middle theory" to fill this gap, which must be taken "on faith", and I believe that the best introspective systems as I described in my 4th point do precisely this. In other words, introspective systems, bridging the divide between the fully general sciences of Man and the pure and singular Knower, fills the "real" God-shaped Hole.