In my last post I asked whether one is necessarily conscious of one’s empathy.
I offered an example where something of the state of one person is evoked in another (me), but “I don’t notice it at all. In this case, I sit with Joe and my body responds to something in him (perhaps he’s as unaware of his feeling as I am of mine). No cognition, no rationality, no awareness. Nothing registers, nothing is done – the moment passes.”
But this polarises things too much – as though thought is either a fully formed conscious idea or nothing at all. It separates body and mind, it is more all-or-nothing.
As sometimes happens, the very next thing I read after publishing the post gives me a diffirent way of putting things.
Eric Scwitzgebel and Russell T. Hurlbert have written Describing inner experience?. In it they set about to discover what out inner experience is like: verbal, imagistic, emotional…
(At the bottom of this post I include an except from the preface to show the brilliant method used to study this fleeting topic.)
Consciousness without inner speech, etc.
What I’ve latched onto is Hurlbert’s concept of ‘unsymbolized thinking’ – the idea that “much conscious thinking takes place neither in speech, nor in images, nor in any other symbolic format.”
Russ Hurlburt suggests that people often overestimate the amount of inner speech (silent speaking to oneself) in their stream of experience. People, he says, simply presuppose that that is how thinking must occur….In conversation Hurlburt has also suggested that one basis for the impression many people have that they frequently or constantly talk silently to themselves is that when we stop to think about what our current stream of experience is, that self-reflective activity tends itself to produce inner speech in many people. Why exactly this should be so I’m not sure. But if it is so, someone might gain the false impression that inner speech is constant because she notices inner speech whenever she stops to think about what her experience is. (This would be a version of the “refrigerator light error”.)
The inner consciousness of empathy
To come back to my question – is one necessarily conscious of one’s empathy? My answer must now be maybe. If conscious does not necessarily involve inner speech, let alone the formulation of ideas, then it is quite possible to have an empathic response without (yet or ever) formulating that response into an idea.
It still remains a possibility, though, that empathy is a fact and not necessarily an experience. It may be that there is an empathic neurological response which the subject does not register consciously – even in unsymbolised thinking.
From the preface to Describing inner experience?:
Can inner experience (‘phenomenal consciousness’ in contemporary philosophical lingo) be accurately apprehended and faithfully described? The question is crucially important, both for a humanistic understanding of who we are and what we know about ourselves and for the newly burgeoning scientific field of ‘consciousness studies.’ One of us, Russ, is an optimist, believing that adequate methods make faithful descriptions of experience possible. The other, Eric, is a pessimist, believing that people are prone to considerable introspective error even under the best of conditions. Five years ago at a conference in Tucson, we presented opposing papers on the matter and instantly became friends, arguing over dinner, then over margaritas, then again the next day, then in the airport waiting for our respective flights home.
This book is the product of our best attempt to make concrete progress in our dispute. We felt a need to do something more than simply continue with the usual methods of abstract argument, historical reference, and citation of favorite experiments. Thus, we recruited someone not party to the dispute (we’ll call her ‘Melanie’), asked her to describe her experience in a way Russ found suitable – by random sampling and interview – and debated the extent to which the resulting descriptions could be believed. The bulk of this book is a lightly edited transcript of these interviews, in which Melanie makes her best effort to describe individual moments of her experience in careful detail, and Russ and Eric question her, argue with each other, and further pursue their disagreements (and connect with the relevant psychological and philosophical literature) in side boxes. Although Melanie’s experiences are in certain respects quite ordinary, we think the reader will find at least some of her descriptions surprising, intriguing, and suggestive. The book begins and concludes with chapters expressing our different points of view and our different takes on what we accomplished and failed to accomplish.