I have yet to thoroughly read and analyze the Less Wrong blog, mostly because every time that I do I feel like I am being either deceived or patronized. However, I want to give it an honest shake, so my first step, as usual, is to execute a brief intuition purge so that I can think more dispassionately on the issue. Today I read this post and was immediately infuriated by the blatant casuistry, misleading inferences, and obvious manufacturing of their own relevance. Most of the objections that surfaced have already been mentioned in a recent post of mine, but today my beef is with a “key lemma” of the Less Wrong approach: “The idea that we lack good introspective access to our own desires – that we often have no idea what we want – is a key lemma in naturalistic metaethics, so it seems worth a post to collect the science by which we know that.” If introspection was so weak, then I simply must ask, how could anyone ever know? A baseline has to be established by verbal report in order even to test that baseline! This is like saying “sir, as sublime and effervescent as you report to be feeling, and your mirth, laughter, and smiles notwithstanding, our economic models confirm that you are not even remotely happy.”
Alarm bells immediately sound in my head on account of how sure they are that “we know,” when in fact the scientists themselves are by no means this certain. The bells get louder as I realize how self-serving their thesis is: “you don’t really know what you want and how your mind works, until, that is, you read these posts on behavioral economics–that great, sagacious resource on the depths of the human soul.” Did these authors ever bother to stop and wonder whether the problem might be that people introspect too rarely and that they might improve with practice? They seem to miss this logic train, but worse, their conclusions would actually discourage one from using such an unreliable mental tool! This is not just nonsense, but discouraging and slightly dangerous nonsense.
The post is exceedingly vague: define “good,” for instance. Could I justifiably claim that we lack “good” or reliable senses just because some ingenious and tricky magicians can put on a magic show that exploits their weaknesses? Of course not. The world is not full of such crafty magicians lurking around every corner, undermining our perceptions, and furthermore, their deceptions often rely on the complicity of the audience, who really wants to be deceived! In fact, the appeal of a magic show is that our senses are so damned good that it is refreshing and magical to see them thwarted. Sadly, this sensationalist “magic show” reasoning is exactly what is offered by the Less Wrong team, as they show how scientists can cleverly devise an experiment in which they deceive me in order to exploit a minor weakness in my introspective access, a result which depends not only on that deception, but ironically the accuracy of my initial verbal report, an artificial laboratory setting, and a meaningless task that none of us perform routinely and couldn’t possibly care less about. Furthermore, the experiment does not support the conclusions in the post. The subject is shown two pictures, told to pick their favorite, later told that the wrong picture is the one that they picked and asked why they picked it. Many of these deceived subjects did not spot the ruse and innocently reported why they like the picture before them, but there is absolutely no evidence to support the claim that they are confabulating. They might simply be reporting with perfect accuracy exactly why they liked that picture, without realizing that it was not the picture that they liked most! I mean, its not like they claimed that they liked that picture because sharp ice-cream from Mars is verbose. Furthermore, if introspection was so weak and unreliable, how do the scientists know that the first picture actually was their favorite? If it wasn’t, then their answer to why they preferred the wrong picture might actually be right! Though highly unlikely, this should demonstrate how even the scientists in this study trust the introspective reports of their subjects and that it would be rather foolish not to! If anything this experiment should be interpreted as a referendum on short term memory and how weak it is on tasks that we don’t give a shit about. Or, perhaps a referendum on how we too easily trust psychologists or those in positions of authority, making us complicit much like in the magic show, but in this case due to our earnest desire to dispel all need for thought and choice.
The post continues by citing a study of small children, whose “introspective” reports border on confabulation, and then complete their analysis with references to split-brain studies, in which collosotomy patients confabulate even worse that the children. It doesn’t take a genius to spot the deception here. Small children have not yet developed robust autobiographical selves, have not reached the age of reason, and have had precious little time to practice and therefore improve their “interpreter module.” Collosotomy patients have had the largest tract of interhemispheric neurons surgically severed to stop debilitating epileptic fits; their “interpreter module” has been separated from the locus of emotions. Any wonder why they might lack “good” introspective access to their desires? To conclude that we all are subject to just as much confabulation and self-deception here is preposterous casuistry. Talk to any self-respecting neuroscientist and they will tell you that introspective information forms an unbelievably great proportion of their data, that it is often highly reliable, and that hosts of neurological syndromes, such as synaesthesia, went unnoticed for decades, written off as “crazy,” simply because scientists, like these Less Wrong bloggers, failed to take people at their word. Just give those children and collosotomy patients a few months or years of practice and they will perform much better at instrospecting on their desires, which should serve as a reminder to scientists and bloggers alike to keep the fourth dimension in mind! For my part, I’ll choose to simply read this blog post as an introspective confession that these writers themselves do not have great introspective access to their desires, or to when they are unwittingly introspecting in a public forum, but unlike them, I will extend them the courtesy of taking them at their word (despite the Liars Paradox that this creates).