The evil demon in the lab: skepticism, introspection, and introspection of introspection


In part one, I clarify the crucial notion of “introspection”, and give novel cases for the coherence of scenarios of local and global deception about how we access our own minds, drawing on empirical work. In part two, I evaluate a series of skeptical arguments based on such scenarios of error, and in each case explain why the skeptical argument fails. The first main upshot is that we should not over-estimate what it takes to introspect: introspection need not be accurate, or non-inferential, or exclusive of perception, or even exclusive of confabulation. The second main upshot is that, while skeptical challenges by figures such as Carruthers, Doris, and Schwitzgebel are rich and empirically informed, these skeptical challenges founder on how they are epistemologically under-informed.

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  1. 1.

    For some examples, see Smithies and Stoljar (2012: p. 4), Dretske (2012: p. 49), Siewert (2012: p. 129), or Spener (2012: 384).

  2. 2.

    See Stump (2010: chs. 3, 4), Talbert (2015, 2017), or Benton (2017).

  3. 3.

    Contrast the set up in Schwitzgebel 2008 that does build in a commitment to uniqueness: “Think of introspection as you will—as long as it is the primary method by which we normally reach judgments about our experience in cases of the sort I’ll describe. That method, whatever it is… (2008: p. 248, emphasis mine).” (The same wording committed to uniqueness is used in Schwitzgebel 2011, ch: 7).

  4. 4.

    See Spener (2015) for further discussion.

  5. 5.

    See Chalmers (2003), Horgan and Kriegel (2007), or Gertler (2012).

  6. 6.

    Perhaps other mental states of the student result in him being in pain. Perhaps they even jointly cause him to be in pain, and to believe he is in pain, so that there is no time lag problem. Contrast the following pathways:

    Belief that in pain → pain  
    Suitable cluster of mental states ] → pain
      ] → belief in pain

    One challenge for this response is metaphysical—to spell out the more detailed causal story in a plausible way. For many conditions C, it might seem that we’ll be in pain and believe we’re in pain when C obtains, even though we don’t end up even believing we’re in pain when C rolls around. Just consider the range of cases in which we might say “oh, that actually wasn’t bad”. Another challenge for the response is epistemological—if the belief that you are in pain fails to be caused by your pain, and also fails to cause your pain, it’s less clear whether they’re suitably related for you to know that you’re in. Presumably a defender of infallibility wants to defend the knowledgeable status of our introspective judgments as well as their truth.

  7. 7.

    For critical discussion of Nisbett and Wilson (1977), and references to further critical discussions, see section 1.3 of Newell and Shanks (2014).

    Bortolotti points out that, even if the Nisbett and Wilson explanation in terms of spatial position fails, their stocking study could still supply a case of confabulation (2018: p. 4).

  8. 8.

    For references to examples of philosophers making this move, see Engelbert and Carruthers (2010: 249). They also describe the stocking study in accord with the lore.

  9. 9.

    Here is the full table from Wansink et al. (2005):

    Biased visual cues unknowingly influence overconsumption*

      Visual cues consumption
      Accurate visual cue (normal soup bowls) Biased visual cue (self re-filling cue bowls) F test (1, 5)
    Actual consumption volume
    Actual ounces of soup consumed 8.5 ± 6.1 14.7 ± 8.4 8.99c
    Actual calories of soup consumed 15.4.9 ± 110.3 267.9 ± 153.5 8.99c
    Estimated consumption volume
    Estimated ounces of soup consumed 8.2 ± 6.9 9.8 ± 9.2 0.46
    Estimated calories of soup consumed 122.6 ± 101.0 127.4 ± 95.6 0.03
    Consumption monitoring*
    “I carefully paid attention to how much I ate” 4.9 ± 2.3 5.3 ± 2.4 0.69
    “I carefully monitored how much soup I ate” 4.7 ± 2.5 4.7 ± 2.8 0.00
    “I usually eat until I reach the bottom of the bowl” 6.2 ± 2.1 6.6 ± 2.5 0.31
    “I always try to clean my plate (or bowl) at home” 6.4 ± 2.2 6.1 ± 2.7 0.20
    Presence of others*
    “If other people keep eating, I am more likely also to” 5.5 ± 2.4 5.4 ± 5.7 0.03
    “Eating with other people distracted me from how much I was eating” 4.7 ± 2.8 4.6 ± 2.5 0.00
    Self-perceptions of satietya
    “How hungry are you right now?” 3.4 ± 2.1 3.0 ± 1.9 0.63
    “How full are you right now?” 5.7 ± 1.9 5.1 ± 2.7 1.03
    “How nauseated are you right now?” 3.3 ± 2.3 2.6 ± 2.0 1.47
    “How much food do you think you could eat right now?” 7.1 ± 1.7 7.0 ± 1.8 0.04
    1. Values are mean ± SD
    2. *Measured with agreement scales (1 = strongly discharge; 9 = strongly agree)
    3. aMeasured with semantic differential scales (e.g. 1 = a little; 9 = a lot)
    4. bp < 0.05
    5. cp < 0.01
  10. 10.

    A cached version is here:

  11. 11.

    For surveys of a range of portion size effects, see Wadhera and Capaldi-Phillips (2014) and Benton (2015). For a meta-analysis of the studies, see Zlatevska et al. (2014). And for discussion of potential mechanisms of portion size effects, see the (2011) paper of Burger et al.

  12. 12.

    For discussion of further forms of pluralism, see Prinz (2004), Boyle (2009), or Samoilova (2016).

  13. 13.

    For discussion of a similar problematic over the interpretation of cognitive dissonance experiments, see Fiala and Nichols (2009).

  14. 14.

    For a (skeptical) survey of potential cases of cognitive penetration, see Firestone and Scholl (2016).

  15. 15.

    For some recent reflections on how to understand cross-modal interactions in perception, potentially as perception that is somehow multi-modal, see the essays in Part II of Stokes et al. (2014). For a sample recent discussion focusing on (images of) food, see Spence et al. (2016).

  16. 16.

    For a survey of how to articulate and how to evaluate fallibilism, see Fantl and McGrath (2009).

  17. 17.

    For overviews of the studies, see Scaife (2014) section 2, Doris (2015: ch. 4), or Bortolotti (2018). Note that, while Schwitzgebel argues that introspection is not reliable, he still seems to assume that its function and standard for success is to be understood in terms of accuracy (2008: pp. 265–6). This assumption is importantly challenged in Doris (2015: ch. 4).

  18. 18.

    For further discussion of such examples of introspection, see Lawlor (2009) or Cassam (2014: ch. 11).

  19. 19.

    Here I try to present some novel problems for appealing to Schwitzgebel. For further challenges (that I largely endorse) to Schwitzgebel's critique, see Bayne and Spener (2010), Smithies (2013), or Bayne (2014).

  20. 20.

    Thanks to Carolina Flores for this point.

  21. 21.

    Consider the following passage:

    My wife mentions that I seem to be angry about being stuck with the dishes again (despite the fact that doing the dishes makes me happy?). I deny it. I reflect; I sincerely attempt to discover whether I’m angry—I don’t just reflexively defend myself but try to be the good self-psychologist my wife would like me to be—and still I don’t see it. I don’t think I’m angry. But I’m wrong, of course, as I usually am in such situations: My wife reads my face better than I introspect (2008: p. 252, see also p. 255).

  22. 22.

    For further discussion of challenges for formulating skeptical arguments in terms of known incompatibility, see Blome-Tillmann (2006) and David and Warfield (2008).

  23. 23.

    Although see Lasonen-Aarnio (2010, 2014) or Baker-Hytch and Benton (2015) for challenges to standard assumptions about how knowledge can get undermined.

  24. 24.

    For critical discussion of those arguments, see Goldman (2006), Fiala and Nichols (2009), Rey (2013), or Andreotta (2019).

  25. 25.

    For views with a similar structure in the case of introspection, inspired by the perceptual case, see Hellie (2006) or Macpherson (2010). The perceptual flavor is optional however. “Constitutivists” such as Shoemaker (2009) or Smithies (2012) thoroughly reject perceptual models of introspection, but still hold that you in general have introspective reason to believe that you are in a mental state only if you are in that mental state.


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For their help with this paper, I’d like to thank Jack Barnett, Alex Byrne, Ophelia Deroy, Carolina Flores, Carl Ginet, Anna Giustina, Anil Gomes, Patrick Greenough, Lisa Miracchi, Ram Neta, Shaun Nichols, Adam Pautz, Adriana Renero, Barbara Rolls, Eric Schwitzgebel, Sydney Shoemaker, Susanna Siegel, Declan Smithies, Hannah Trees, Ru Ye, Jonna Vance, Timothy Williamson, and several anonymous referees. I’m also grateful to audiences at workshops or other events at the University of Geneva, the Institut Jean-Nicod, the Ohio State University, Oxford University, Bled, CSU Chico, Nanyang Technological University, and the University of Bergen.

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Silins, N. The evil demon in the lab: skepticism, introspection, and introspection of introspection. Synthese (2020).

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  • Introspection
  • Self-knowledge
  • Skepticism
  • Reliability