Thank heaven for doubt

In a time when certainty has never been more fashionable, Eric Schwitzgebel, a philosopher at the University of California, Riverside, has made a career of documenting just how unaware, moment to moment, we are of our internal thoughts, motivations and experiences. While the unreliability of introspection might seem like an odd choice of subject for a philosopher, over time he's argued, persuasively, I think, that we're not as transparent to ourselves as we'd like to believe, and uses that insight to draw implications about the jaw-dropping fact that we're conscious, reflective, sentient beings at all.

Schwitzgebel is out with a new book that the Boston Globe briefly describes.

Eric Schwitzgebel, a philosopher at the University of California, Riverside, has spent the last 10 years trying to make sense of this uncertainty. In his new book, 'Perplexities of Consciousness,' he argues that, contrary to our intuitions, we actually don’t know all that much about our own inner lives. Schwitzgebel contends that, when it comes to our own experiences, we are 'poorly equipped with the tools, categories, and skills that might help [us] dissect them.' When we’re pressed to characterize them, our emotions, perceptions, and imaginings 'flee and scatter' — they turn out to be 'gelatinous, disjoined, swift, shy, changeable.' We ought to be skeptical, in short, of the impressions we have of our own inner lives.

A related theme is picked up by David Brooks in "The Social Animal," which describes just how much of our lives are lived in deeper waters beyond the range of our conscious sonar. Jonah Lehrer, who spoke at the IdeaFestival in 2008, has consistently shown an appreciation for what we don't know that I've always found refreshing. Just recently, for example, he related false recollection to some particuarly effective advertising.

If Schwitzgebel et al are to be believed, a healthy suspicion toward what we think we know - and certainly what we tell others - is more than warranted. But why should our "emotions,  perceptions and imaginings" be so "gelatinous, disjoined, swift, shy, changeable?" What's the purpose?

Search me. But the longer I live, the more I think that our not-so-aware and imperfect minds should resist the easy answers in any case. That's just the mind's first - fearful - cut. In fact, I'm thankful that the connection between inner life and its outward report is so tenuous - and not because there are no truths to be had. On the contrary, a healthy doubt about what we think we know leaves us open to the possibility that the truths are more incredible than we could ever imagine. What's the rush?