What is the right approach to our mental life?

Author: Unknown
Source: The Young Philosophers (An initiatiev of OZSW)
Date: September 2017

The interview is also availabe in Dutch. 


What is the right approach to our mental life?

We regularly hear neuroscientists claim that people are irrational beings: we are fooled by fine words about our inner life, whereas in reality we are controlled by the functioning of our brain. Naomi Kloosterboer argues that this claim does not follow from the scientific data. On top of this, we feel quite able to determine our own point of view or adjust our emotions. Naomi believes that we should not simply disregard insights from everyday life.

Many neuroscientists claim that the reasons we give for our behavior are retrospective fabrications, as if we were journalists looking at our own actions. I beg to differ. This scientific claim was an important impetus to my PhD research. For it implies several philosophical assumptions which do not simply follow from the scientific data.
One of these is that what is called the first-person perspective cannot provide information about your convictions, emotions, or other mental states. This excludes all knowledge that you acquire from self-reflection, intuition, and emotions. Why should scientific data – compiled by definition from the third-person perspective – simply override this everyday knowledge?

Bad president

I attended Harvard philosopher Richard Moran’s lectures for a few months, as part of my PhD. He managed to reopen the debate on the possibility of self-knowledge with his book Authority and Estrangement (2001). Moran demonstrates not only that we can know our mental life from the first-person perspective, but he also makes clear that we are responsible for it. Suppose I say: I think Trump is a bad president. An essential characteristic of a belief is that someone else can ask: why do you think so? It’s not something physical, like a stone, that you come across in your brain – of which you have no idea how it got there, or how to remove it.

“Our mental life is not something which just happens to us.”

Moran’s book greatly inspired me, but it raises many questions too – which is often the case with ground-breaking work. He bases the ability to know your own mental states on what is called the transparency claim. Suppose I ask you: do you believe it’s going to rain tomorrow? To answer this question, you don’t turn your attention inwards to examine whether you do or do not believe this. You check what you’ve seen in the news, or look out the window. So, you immediately start thinking about the subject itself. In other words, the mental aspect of this belief is transparent – you look through it, as it were, and point your attention directly at the object of your belief.

Transparent

In my dissertation, I investigated all kinds of – generally quite technical – problems with the transparency claim. Among other things, I demonstrated that this claim doesn’t apply to emotions. To understand emotions, it’s not only important to look at the object of an emotion. Suppose I’m angry with a friend for forgetting we had a date. On the one hand, my anger refers to a situation in the world – the fact that my friend didn’t pitch up. Anger is transparent in this sense. On the other hand, my anger also refers to other mental states, such as my annoyance at people being late, the importance I attach to meeting commitments, and the value I give to this in friendships. My anger is not transparent in this sense.

But that doesn’t make an emotion comparable to something like a headache, which you either do or don’t have. Unlike a headache, emotions say something about your view of the world – they show what you care about or what affects you. In addition, emotions only take a definite form by thinking about them. And it matters whether or not you agree with your emotion – whether you endorse it, as it were.

While I question parts of Moran’s theory, I think highly of his insight that the first-person perspective implies an active attitude towards our own mental life. This insight is essential to understanding self-knowledge, beliefs, emotions, and other mental issues. I hope that my dissertation will offer an alternative to many scientists’ passive depiction of our mental life.


Naomi Kloosterboer obtained an interdisciplinary bachelor in the exact and social sciences at the University of Amsterdam with a thesis on the neurophilosophy of free will. She did a research master in philosophy at the same university, writing her thesis on the rationality of emotions. Her PhD at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, within the Abraham Kuyper Center is part of the research project Science beyond Scientism.