A brood comb

….philosophical and other notes….

Can reports of how things seem to us be false?

Posted by Tanas Gjorgoski on August 8, 2006

At Splintered Mind, Eric Schwitzgebel has raised the issue of the intuitive infallibility of subjects’ reports of how things seem to them (see this post about non-obvious illlusions, and the Section IV of his comments on Titchener’s introspective training manual).

The Issue

First response might be that intuitively it is clear to us that when we sincerely say “That horizontal line looks to me longer then that vertical line”, it has to be the case that the horizontal line looks longer then the vertical one, after all I’m the final authority of how things look to me. But when one tries to explicate what this intuition is grounded in, and what this authority consist of, the issue becomes not so clear.

One way to approach the issue of infallibility of reports of type “it seems to me”/”it looks to me as” is to imagine some passively received information about the phenomenal world, some aggregation of facts which is on other hand intimately available to the subject, and to which it has privileged access. One can recognize that we ended up with an idea of sense-data of some kind, a notion of given criticized by Sellars in Empricism and Philosophy of Mind.
But even if we don’t go into the arguments against sense-data, when we look at our experience, there is no such sense-data , what we have is our being in the phenomenal world, and as Eric says about one of his introspections about trying to pass judgment about particular illusion:

How could it be hard to reach a judgment about how things appear to you? Although judgments about how things are understandably carry some risk, judgments about how things look to you right now are insulated in a particular way. Could you really go wrong in such a judgment? And if you couldn’t go wrong, where does the difficulty lie?

If we remove this idea of sense-data, of such facts “handed” to our passive receptivity so to say, our starting intuition seems little shaken.

In this post I will try to show how alternative approach based on subject’s intimate knowledge of the performance of his willfull mental acts might provide better explanation of what the intuition of infallibility of those “seem to” reports based on.

Reports based on Self-Agency

A) We have infallible sense of authorship of our own actions. We are exising in the phenomenal world, but as selves. One of the roots of this selfhood, seems to me is this fact of awareness of own self-agency. We make distinction between us moving the hand voluntary, or if our hand is moved by someone else. In same way if we are undergoing spasms, even the movement is in our own body, we don’t recognize it as ours, as the agency of the self is missing… the movement is not willed.
(There is problematic area of what we call acting by habbit or “mechanical” actions, but let’s leave those aside for this argument.)

B) Willfull acts are:

  1. Planned, the self sees the possibility for acting in the phenomenal world, and initiates it
  2. Intimate, there is no separation between the subject and the Will – it might make sense to say that the self is the Will.
  3. Done through time, acts are not some kind of momentarily things, it is actING by the agent.
  4. Even the act is seen as possibility by the Will, the act is done in the phenomenal world. Because the phenomenal world is not dependent on the subject, the possibility imagined by the subject might be accomplished or not… For example, one can will to pass his hand through a wall, but the act won’t be accomplished because in the phenomenal world the hand will be stopped in its movement when it reaches the wall.

C) The mental acts are also acts done in the phenomenal world, and as such they are:

  1. Willed
  2. Done in time
  3. Can be successfully done or not (with intimate awareness if the act succeeded or the subject has “hit the wall with the hand). It is the fact that even mental acting is done in the phenomenal world (not dependent on the
    subject), which
    plays role of the “given”, or “sense-data”… It is not up to the will (or not merely up to its skill to do an act), but up to the phenomenal world if the action can be successfully performed. (The issue of skill to perform action, is also one other interesting issue, which I will ignore here)

On side note, there is interesting issue here of where the distinction might lay between the mental acts and bodily acts. While by being acts they share their basic properties, few things might be distinguished among which those two come to mind:
a)accessibility of mental acts to other people
b)the relation to the things in the phenomenal world. the bodily actions affect objects in the phenomenal world, while mental acts, e.g. the recognition is seen as leaving the object as it is. Though this is also not necessary so, because e.g. in case of Necker Cube, it seems as if we are changing the phenomenal world with mere mental acts.

After this said, I will now state that the reports of subjects are based on mental acts performed, and not passively received fact (sense-data). It seems obvious to me, that when we are required to report how something seems to us, we are willfully performing some acts, in minimal case at least focusing on the things in the world.
Together with what is said in A), B) and C), I think that is enough to give account for the intuition of infallibility of reports.

Comparing lines

In the next part, I will focus on a specific case – the recognizing the relation between sizes of two lines (i.e. if of two lines, the first is shorter, longer or same length with the second one). To do that, I will try to more precisely explicate what the mental act of recognizing might consist of (I’ll give myself some speculative freedom):

D) Here is a caricature of how I think the ostensive teaching of the usage of words “same, longer and shorter line” would go…
Let’s say we have person who doesn’t know what it means to compare the lengths of two lines, and we want to teach him. How can we do it? We can present that subject with pairs of lines of different lengths (directly one above the other), and pronounce the judgments “A is longer than B”,”A is equal length with B”, and “A is shorter than B”. To learn the concepts, the subject must figure out what are we talking about… he must learn to discern some specific feature of the examples, because in the pictures there are lot of things we could be talking about… we could be talking about the number of the lines, their color, their position on the paper, and so on… This figuring out consist of finding the cognitive act (or set of acts), whose success will coincide with the different words pronounced .
At the end, when learning is successful,  the person has figured out what (mental) act he has to do in order to pass judgment.

This mental act seems to be irreducibly simple, but by little introspection we can see that it successful performance requires bunch of different steps…

  • abstracting the two lines. If the person can’t abstract two lines, he can’t go further with the act. If we present one line to him, and say “which is longer?”, he can’t pass the judgment. Same thing when we show three or more lines to him – the mental act requires that two lines are “located”. (the lines don’t have to be drawn on paper, we can talk about distances before things, one distance being longer then another)
  • abstracting the ends of the two lines. Imagine two lines drawn on paper, which have normal parts, but also on both sides they don’t have sharp endings, but where slowly the line disappears. Imagine that line A has longer normal part than B, but that the B is longer if taken with the slowly disappearing parts of it on both sides… The person has to decide what is counted as end points of the lines
  • keeping in mind the result from comparing the results from the left ends of the lines (e.g. if those ends coincide), while we turn our attention to the right ends. If we present the person with lines which extend to one of the sides in time, it would require some additional consideration to pass judgment.

On any of those points, and I guess in the bunch more others, the act can be unsuccessful, in which case the subject will not be able to pass judgment.

E) The need to pass a judgment (or to determine applicability of the concepts learned in previous point), might appear for lines which are not given one besides the other. In such situation one would require additional mental act, of imagining the two lines put one besides the other, and after that using the previously learned mental act.

According to this analysis then, the subject is willfully (and skillfully) performing mental acts – acts of trying to recognize the relation between the length of the lines. The actions might succeed or not. In case of success the subject reports this fact (of successfully performing the mental action). If the act of recognizing line A as longer than line B is succesfull, then the subject will say “line A is longer than line B”. If the act of recognizing A as shorter than line B, then the subject will say “line A is shorter than line B”, etc..


But, while possibly explaining where the intimate relation with this reports come from, I haven’t mentioned “seems” at all. It was the “seem to us” reports of which we  intuitively think of as infallible.

F) The acts are done in the phenomenal space… the one which is seen as publically accessible – it is the act of recognition of those lines there on the monitor (or on paper, or wherever). However subject can be critical of his acts as passing infallible judgments about the state of affairs in the world . Probably this comes from experience, coming to distinguish less reliable acts from more reliable recognition acts. For example subject can learn that his mental acts as I described in point E might be shown incorect when he takes the actual objects and put them one beside another, and does the recognition act again (as in point D). Because of that subject who passes judgment can add “seems to me”, “looks to me” or something simmilar to qualify his judgement as possibly false. So, I think that this adding of “seems” is kind of external addition of critical mind which accepts fallibility of his judgments.

I think it is connecting the intuition of infallibility of reports, to this “seems”, that might be the cause that initially put us on bad path, and tricks us to start to think about the issue in terms of some kind of “sense-data”.


So, giving this account of “seems”, and put in one sentence, saying that “the situation seems X to me” would be saying “if the situation is objectively the way I recognize it in my acts, it would be X”. The report can’t be false (if it is sincere) because the person has succesfully done the acts for recognition of X, and he just report that success, with added critical stance towards his powers of recognition of objective states of affairs in the world.


2 Responses to “Can reports of how things seem to us be false?”

  1. A very interesting discussion of the issue! I think I basically agree with your analysis. The act is complicated in roughly the ways you suggest, with possibilities for error that we recognize.

    Regarding “seems” or “looks”, they seem [!] to be being used in such cases as a kind of hedge, a recognition that one could have gone wrong. I’m not sure whether you’d take the thought in this direction, but I’d suggest (e.g. with Chisholm and Jackson) that terms like “seems” and “appears” (and “looks”) are ambiguous between an epistemic hedging function, to express that a judgment is tentative (cf. “It seems the Democrats are headed for defeat”), and a phenomenal function. The air of infallibility comes from the hedged epistemic sense; but it doesn’t follow that unhedged judgments about phenomenology — uses of the terms in the purely phenomenal sense — are infallible. The philosophical use of “seemings” or “appearances” sometimes illegitimately plays on this ambiguity.

  2. Thanks for the comment Eric,

    First, let me say that I just realized that I might have not make it clear in the post that I still take the stance that the intuition is right, that the reports of this kind are infallible… The post is an attempt to explicate (to analyze?) that intuition in more details, and provide alternative account (alternative to sense-data approach) of what that infallibility means.
    I had in my notepad some paragraph that said this, but seems it didn’t survive the copy/past process.

    The core of the argument could be put like this… there is no given facts which we passively receive, so infallibility is not based in those, but it is based on the fact that when I have performed willful action, I know I have performed willful action.
    So, the reports are seen as reports of performed willful action, and hence infallible.
    Do you think that this argument can defend the infallibility of those reports?

    As for “seems”, it seems to me that “seems to X” vs. “is X” can be used also to differentiate between things being X themselves (and possibly judged so by some infallible act), and things being X for us. It is this “things being X for us” which requires the whole cognitive act whose report is infallible (i.e. I can’t be wrong in my report that I willfully did some act), and because of that’s why those reports are infallible. But maybe this is theoretical account based on one of the two functions you describe.

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