Accepting Impossibility is Admitting Defeat

Posted by on July 9, 2011

What is red? Red is the property of redness. What is redness? Redness is the commonality between an apple, blood, a stop sign, my girlfriend’s pajamas, Santa Claus, and Kool-Aid.  Okay, they all have in common the quality of redness, but what exactly is redness or the experience of it? Well, redness is the experience of red.  Ah, now we stumble into the problems of explaining subjective experiences such as the color red and emotions, with the latter being the focus of Gilbert’s “Stumbling on Happiness.”  Gilbert for the most part exposes the many problems facing the study of subjective experiences by mentioning several scientific studies that have found various issues, as well as the issues of “language squishing” and experience-stretching” in people’s real time reports of their subjective experiences.  Through the end of his third chapter, Gilbert concludes optimistically that it is possible to study the subjective experiences, albeit not entirely scientifically accurately, through his three premises.  In this paper I will discuss the two reporting problems among others in reporting subjective experiences, Gilbert’s three premises, and the issues regarding Gilbert’s technique.

We would like to believe that when we ask someone how they are feeling, they would report to us accurately their feeling.  Or, when we ask someone how they felt about a certain experience in the past, they could recount to us accurately about their past feelings.  Unfortunately, Gilbert reports that scientific studies show it is not this simple and that is why studying subjective experiences is extremely difficult (Gilbert 70).  One such study was of the magician that would allow the participant to remember a card from a group of six that is shown, then shortly after tell them that he removed the card the participant picked from the six, and present five cards to them which do not include the participant’s card; the trick is that the five cards presented are not any from the first six, but the participant never catches the trick.  This shows that our ability to remember is not that as great as we think it is. We are horrible at noticing our experience and reporting it.

Another example is that of a person asking for directions from another person who is walking by, and while the other person is giving them directions, construction workers walk through the both of them; in the midst of this the person asking for directions switches with another completely different person that comes in place of him and continues the dialogue with the person giving directions.  The person giving directions never notices that the person has changed and the person who he is talking to is no longer the same that started out the conversation.  This seems to suggest that our minds are even horrible at noticing the current experience, and so when we report our current subjective experience we most likely will be inaccurate.

Lastly, we would surely like to believe that if we saw the color yellow we could differentiate it from our experience of blue, but as with the other things mentioned the task is not so simple.  Scientists setup an experiment where they presented the volunteer with a color swatch that they could study for five seconds, and then they split the volunteers into two groups, the describers and non-describers.  The volunteers were presented with six color swatches and told to pick the one they had originally chosen; the describers were told to describe the color swatch for thirty seconds before being able to pick the original.  The non-describers for the vast majority of the times were able to choose correctly, while surprisingly only 33% of the describers were able to choose the original.  These results further suggest that something is surely going wrong in reporting experiences, so trusting somebody’s report on their subjective experience in terms of scientific accuracy can be highly risky.

To only add to the problems of trusting reports of subjective experience are the hypotheses of experience-stretching and language-squishing.  To explain both of these concepts Daniel Gilbert uses the example of twins that have always been attached at the forehead.  He describes that most of us would not accept the idea that when the twins say they are happy, they mean happy like the way we do.  The underlying issue here is that the twins have not experienced life as singletons like us, therefore they do not experience happiness the way we do.  Experience-stretching in these conditions would be such that on a scale of 0-8, the twins would talk about their feelings the same way we do but they would be feeling something else.  For example their 8 in feeling happy eating birthday cake might be our 8 in feeling happy scuba diving.  This means that under different circumstances their response would be different.  If a glass of water is given to a person that was stranded in a desert, he would love that glass of water more than when he would ordinarily.

Language-squishing on the other hand states that on the same 8 point scale a person would be feeling the same thing but talking about it differently.  If a person said they were ecstatic, it would mean what we think as being happy.  What the person calls ecstatic would change every time the person has a new experience that is better than the previous best.  Essentially this means that when the person tries to remember the past and says what was in the past wasn’t truly happiness because they were deluded, and they’ve discovered what real happiness is now, they are erroneously reporting about their subjective experiences.  “In other words, people can be wrong about the present when they say they were wrong in the past (Gilbert 54).”

Both the language-squishing and experience-stretching hypotheses expose the problems of trusting people’s reports about their subjective experiences.  People seem to be horrible at reporting what they experience, but Gilbert suggests if people did not have awareness they would never even know they had an experience.  This awareness, though it may be flawed in its report about what it was experiencing, is still necessary for there to be a report of the experience in the first place.  In order to solve the problems presented by the two earlier hypotheses and that of inaccurate reports, Gilbert proposes a solution with his three premises.

In the first premise, Gilbert suggests that all instruments used scientifically to measure something tend to be imperfect.  In essence, everything is imperfect except mathematics, and so it would be illogical to reject the study of subject experience on the basis that the reports by people are imperfect.  The second premise attempts to legitimize people’s reports regardless of how erroneous they may be.  Gilbert states that we might worry about all the types of ways in which the person reporting their subjective experience could be wrong, but at end of the day there is only one person with slightest chance to describe the view from inside, and that is the person.  Therefore we must accept the people’s reports even if they may be inaccurate.

Obviously, the first two premises do not actually fix the problems posited.  So, the last premise is posited in order to remove the problems of language-squishing and experience-stretching.  Gilbert states that we must measure often because by doing so the law of large numbers and the law of probabilities would together solve the problem.  This means that the greater number of times that the subjective experience is measured, the less likely it is that there will be an error in measurement, and that the greater number of trials could possibly provide us with some novel concepts and ideas.  To exemplify this idea Gilbert presents the case of studying a single neuron in comparison to many neurons, he states that what is possible to learn from many neurons is not possible from a single neuron because many neurons work together to teach you something a single neuron could not; he calls this the emergent property of consciousness.

All in all, Gilbert believes that this last premise, along with the acceptance of his first two premises, will allow for a proper study of subjective experience, though not perfectly.  Daniel Gilbert knows that this measuring method of his isn’t something up to the standards of what science likes, but believes it is the one way to go and possibly the most precise we can get as of now when science doesn’t have the most precise methodological and conceptual tools to measure subjective experience.

While Gilbert’s claims seem like they may save the day for us and allow to us trust people’s reports, the conclusions of Wilson’s studies make the worry about people’s ability to access their own mind very real.  Wilson presents, examines, and discusses several studies and essentially proves the following conclusion:

People often cannot accurately report on the effects of particular stimuli on higher order, inference-based responses.  Indeed, sometimes they cannot report on the existence of critical stimuli, sometimes cannot report on the existence of their responses, and sometimes cannot even report that any inferential process of any kind has occurred.  The accuracy of subjective reports is so poor as to suggest that any introspective access that may exist is not sufficient to produce generally correct or reliable reports (Nisbett and Wilson 1977, 233).

The issue that this conclusion exposes is that regardless of how many times Gilbert does his subjective report, what he will achieve is an average of lies which still amounts to an inaccurate study.  Gilbert claims that by testing many times, the factor of people lying or not knowing can be eliminated, but this is only the case if people do not know or their consciousnesses lie some of the times or a few of the times.  What Nisbett and Wilson discover though is that it is not a matter of a few or some of the times, it happens most of the time.  So, if one were to take an average of the people’s reports, who most of the times don’t know what is really going on in their minds, what one gets is an average of confusion, which does not really help.  Therefore, Gilbert’s third premise fails, and we cannot trust the findings of such subjective reports.

What seems to be clearly missing from Gilbert’s approach is seriousness towards objectivity, because though he states he recognizes the types of issues Wilson and others present he seems to simply dismiss those issues through his premises.  Essentially he says that yes I know what I am doing isn’t going to be precise or correct, but because we do not currently have the proper tools to make the study precise, I shall go ahead and use an imperfect method.  Imperfection is all we have right now and so it is okay for us to do this.  If this is the standard that had been used scientifically for the past two centuries, we might not be technologically where we are today.  By admitting to and still using highly imperfect studies, we set a barrier for ourselves for further development in the field.  Using Gilbert’s study and the consequent conclusions could be like accepting the concept of spontaneous generation by Aristotle, which held back science for at least 2 millennia.  Therefore, I really believe that Gilbert does not give critical importance to objectivity, and essentially understates the serious issues presented by many scientific studies, by stating that his magical mathematical trick will fix everything and allow us to use subjective reports.

Yes, it is very difficult to study the mind right now, but that does not mean we should implement incorrect, highly unscientific methods to achieve conclusions that we know in the long run will not help us get anywhere concretely.  Rather than making excuses about how we do not have the tools to do precise scientific studies and therefore justifying incorrect studies, the energies of the scientific minds should be engaged in trying to discover scientific methods that would work.  The journey of the discovery of knowledge is the basis for science, and giving up simply on the assumption that something is impossible at the moment is unacceptable.  This is why I believe, while it may be difficult now, it might not be impossible.  Centuries before us people never thought man could fly or go into space or land on the moon, and yet here we are today having accomplished all those things via several means.  It might be difficult today, but if the energy of intelligent minds is focused on the positive possibilities of discovery rather than the negativity of the current situation, we might actually get somewhere very profound in the study of the mind, even more so than what we know today.

I do believe one day something may be out of the reach of science to explain, since we do only live in a 3-D world with a very limited understanding of the 4th Dimension.  This limitation though may only come into play when explaining existence because there may be several other factors to the Universe on levels of dimensions we cannot even begin to comprehend, but figuring out the mind and how it works in our relevant existence is very much possible; we only need to be patient and continue to work diligently in order to discover new findings that may help us to understand the mind.

Through this paper I have discussed various issues presently facing the acceptance of subjective reports.  I have also discussed what Gilbert believes we should do, how his thinking maybe flawed, and how we may be misguided to follow his research methods.  As long as science exists I believe the scientific community will continue to remain objective and dismiss absurd studies like that of Gilbert’s.  Finally, I have also come into the impression that though it may be difficult to not do so, accepting impossibility is admitting defeat.

Work Cited

Gilbert, Daniel.  Stumbling on Happiness.  Vintage Books, 2005.

Nisbett, E. Richard and Timothy DeCamp Wilson.  “Telling more than we can know: Verbal reports on Mental Processes” American Psychological Association, Inc.  Volume 84.  May 1977: 231-260.



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