On one of my favorite blogs The Splintered Mind, Eric has on several occasions pointed to an experiment suggested by Dennett, which is supposed to show fallibility of our judgments about our own experience. As Eric says:
People will often say about their visual experience that everything near the center has clearly defined shape, at any particular instant, and the periphery, where clarity starts to fade, begins fairly far out from the center — say about 30 degrees. Both the falsity of this view and people’s implicit commitment to it can be revealed by a simple experiment suggested by Dennett: Take a playing card from a deck of cards and hold it at arm’s length off to the side. Keeping your eyes focused straight ahead, slowly rotate the card toward the center of your visual field, noting how close you need to bring it to determine its suit, color, and value. Most people are amazed at how close they have to bring it before they can see it clearly!
So, obviously people were wrong about their experience, and that shows that the thesis that people have infallible access to their experience is wrong.
In one earlier post – Introspection and Expression, in the comments I pointed to Eric that it seems to me that there is problem with the wording of things. That has to do with my thinking that ‘experience’ of which it is talked in those examples fails to refer to anything. It is what I’ve called p-sense of ‘experience’ of which philosophers speak a lot, but which seems to me as a left over of Cartesianism. I think it is just the common (or np-sense) of ‘experience’ (which refers to events in which one participates) “pushed” into the head.
But if this example isn’t about properties of the p-sense experience, what is it about?
As I said in the comment on Eric’s blog, one can simply reframe the question so to speak about capacities. Instead of asking “Is your visual field clear 30 degrees from the center of fixation?”, one can simply ask “Can you see things clearly when they are 30 degrees away from the place at which your eyes are pointed?”. This is, I guess, even how the experimenter would in fact frame the questions to the subjects, if he wants to be understood. He will move the card, and ask if the subject can recognize the color, the suit and the value of the card. There is no sense to talk about clarity of visual field independent of seeing something. It is the thing that is seen clearly or not, and not some separate property of a supposed ‘visual field’. And really, the answer to the question might depend on what is the thing that is presented. There is no a priori reasons why some things might not be seen clearly, thought certain type of things might be. Might be that we see lions clearly even if they are far from the direction in which we are looking, but not tigers.
Anyway, along with this reframing and denying of p-sense experience, of course the issue of infallibility of access to our experience disappears. What the people are wrong about here is their capacities, they thought that they can recognize a card even if it is 30 degrees away from the direction in which they are looking, but they can’t. And really, it is just normal case where one isn’t aware of the capacities simply because he hasn’t checked them.
A person might think that he is able to lift 50kg bag, but he won’t know before he actually tries. One might point however that in the case with the bag, everybody can see if the person can lift or not the bag. In the ‘clarity experiment’ though it is just the subject himself that can witness the results of the test. However for explaining this we don’t need p-sense experience. What one needs to allow is just (and I think it is unproblematic) that the access to the things (acts of hearing, seeing, feeling etc…) is subjective, and that what one sees and how he sees in some cases is not same with what someone else sees or how he sees it.
In the cases when someone shows us the card while he himself seeing just the back of the card, there is no need to explain his lack of knowledge of what we see by there being some p-sense experience in our minds to which we have access but that other person doesn’t. It is simply that from the position he is in, he can’t see the card, and we can.