Comment deleted
Expand full comment
Comment deleted
Expand full comment

This seems like one of those philosophical questions where it's probably possible to conjure up a clever counter-example if you think on it hard enough, but in general the proposition tends to hold. And in these kinds of cases, I guess my question is-- how does finding a counter example meaningfully change our understanding of the human experience?

Expand full comment

Raymond Smullyan's dialogue "An Epistemological Nightmare" is a very well-done exploration of this question. It features an "experimental epistemologist" who uses a brain-reading machine to contradict a patient who claims that a book seems red to him. According to the epsitemologist, the machine can tell, objectively, that the book doesn't seem red to the patient. It spirals hilariously outward from there.

Expand full comment

This feels related to the claim I once heard that “polar bears aren’t actually white, their fur is clear, and it just happens to appear white”.

Guess what? If something appears white, it’s white. If your clear fur happens to reflect photons across a balanced spectrum of wavelengths, then your fur is white.

Expand full comment

"Experience" can be complex and mean a lot of things. But if we're a bit more precise and say "qualia," then Scott's position is absolutely correct. You can't be wrong about your own qualia, because qualia just are the immediate experiences. You can lie about them, you can subsequently forget and misreport them in all kinds of complicated ways, but you can't be wrong about them in the moment.

Expand full comment

There are probably a bunch of predicate issues you need to get past about the nature and existence of qualia that are going ti determine one’s answers to these types of questions. For instance, if I’m a behaviorist who simply defines hunger as a probability of engaging in eating behavior when presented with food, I’ll get an easy answer to that one hypothetical.

Expand full comment

I have been reading your blog for about 8 years now. Of all the times you've pulled the double 'the' thing. I've never caught it on the first read. I feel like Charlie Brown going to kick the football.

Expand full comment

What about cases of Sartreien bad faith, or when people reappraise past experiences and claim that they didnt actually feel what they claimed they felt at the time. Aella made the claim that she's seen a lot of sex workers who "liked" doing the sex work when they were doing it, but then later claimed that this was some sort of false consciousness and they actually hated it, they just didnt know it. Are they "lying" or is this two separate selves making two independent appraisals?

Expand full comment

For the final happiness example, what would be the equivalent of asking the woman to tell the listeners when she next had a thought? I'm not sure there is one...

Expand full comment
Nov 10, 2022·edited Nov 10, 2022

Being "wrong about one's experiences" is an ambiguous phrase.

It's possible for someone to be wrong in the sense that they *misclassify* their perception, so they can say "I'm not hungry" even though they're experiencing hunger. That also seems to apply to the person who says that he perceives a 7 dimensional figure when under psychedelics; he's misclassifying his perception.

Note that one comment brought up qualia, but qualia can't be magically communicated. You need to decide what categories the qualia fit into, and communicate information about those categories; this decision process can be wrong.

Expand full comment

I feel like I am constantly wrong and or unsure about my own experiences, so I guess it depends on what you mean by 'wrong'. I also feel like other people in similar situations are very confident they understand their experiences, which could be true, but I am suspicious given my own experience.

When I think of being 'wrong' about an experience, I am not thinking that I am wrong in thinking I am upset when I am upset. I think I am often wrong in understanding why I am upset, and it is very easy to falsely attribute my feelings to some causal idea that I later doubt or strongly believe to have been wrong. This happens both with mood and with (maybe) simpler things like why my stomach hurts or why I have gas, etc etc. So my explanation for the woman example is that she felt good in a vague meditation related way, and she interpreted that as thoughtless enlightenment, because that was a readily available framework, then later learned that she interpreted her own internal state incorrectly, and something else was going on.

Expand full comment

When I read the original "I achieve jhana" bits, and then when I started to read this post, I thought about the Sam Harris example of "I am enlightened." I think it is the perfect example for all those jhana-ites out there. Thanks for citing it.

Expand full comment

I'm deeply curious what you're experience treating addiction is like, as a psychologist. Because my gut reaction was that of course people can honestly be wrong about their own internal experiences, of course their own mind can lie to them, addicts in withdrawal experience this all the time.

From personal experience, when you're trying to quit a pack a day cigarette habit, that your mind lies to you constantly. You can not believe how many excellent reasons there were, from bills to upcoming finals to job applications, for me to start smoking again. And it never felt irrational, it never felt like a the the moment, it always felt internally like the logical and rational thing to do until I'd quit and relapsed a few times and got that feeling that...like, my logical brain was lying to me. I always conceptualized it as my inner will and my logical mind and every time I would get strong cravings, my logical mind would generate a ton of good, rational, sensible arguments for smoking again and eventually irrationally rejecting was the only thing that proved effective. I'm not even sure how I would characterize my internal experience at that time.

But, rather than go off my personal experience, I think the right place to look for further insight is into addicts. You seem to be struggling with issues of how people deceive themselves and our own internal experiences and addicts are a wide class of people with deep internal conflicts and struggles of self-perception that do not pattern match to mental illusions or the the tricks. And you've got excellent access to them.

Expand full comment

I see a couple of cracks in the idea that people can't be wrong about their subjective experiences.

First, while I grant the "I didn't realize I was hungry" example of not being aware of their inner reality, it feels like there should be a distinction between being unaware of something and being unwilling to accept something. Example: suppose a child is clearly afraid of a dog, but is ashamed of being fearful. However if you ask them they say they aren't afraid and you cannot get them to admit it. Some children in that situation might be lying in the sense that they know that they are afraid, but they don't want you to know. However, I'm pretty sure that there would be other children who will not admit to themselves that they are afraid. Maybe they're repeating to themselves in their head "I'm not scared, I'm not scared, I'm not scared". It seems to me that this child is choosing to believe something factually false about their inner experience, in a way that is different than simply being unaware.

Second, vaguer objection. People have incorrect memories all the time, including of their own actions, attitudes, and experiences. Is there a reason there should be a time limit for that memory shift? Can someone remember their experiences of a few seconds ago incorrectly? I would assume so, given the evidence that we can misremember our recent actions or motivations. (Why did I come in to this room? Where did I set my keys?) If we can have those incorrect beliefs about such recent experiences, what is so different about the present?

Expand full comment

There's another aspect to this - when someone says any variant on "you are not feeling the way you claim", it has in my experience generally been about power. What they are saying is "I am so much more important than you that what I say about your internal state is true". Except not quite - sometimes it's "my immense superiority over you allows me to perceive you more clearly than you do yourself" with the speaker honestly believing in their immensely superior perception.

This is the kind of thing I expect to see from the kind of therapists who participate in forcible deprogramming - their job as they understand it is to make the defective patient behave a little bit more like acceptably normal people. It also sometimes comes up in situations presently labelled "rapey" - "you really ARE attracted to me, I know it" and variants.

It's also true that quite often outsiders can better predict someone's behaviour than that person can themselves. And the behaviours involved are generally considered to go along with internal state. Many parents predict correctly that their cranky child will be less cranky when fed, and summarize their insight with "the child is hungry" and even "the child is behaving this way because they are hungry". Ditto, sometimes, when the child in question is overdue for sleep.

Indeed, part of raising children may include teaching them to recognize situations where their body needs something, and correctly realize what is needed; saying "I'm hungry" or "I'm tired" is optional, but often comes along with acquiring this self knowledge.

But I still don't think it's OK to describe someone else's internal state in contradiction to their self description, if only because their state is quite likely to change to "angry at you", whatever it was previously.

Expand full comment

I think the 'trick' Scott describes here is a pretty good way of viewing most examples of 'experience being wrong', mostly because it demonstrates that feeling a specific way often doesn't lead to effective outcomes. If you take some drug and report "wow! Time was moving so slowly!" then you, or even more likely, a listener who believes you, may think that taking this drug makes you more productive. I think it's fair to call a statement false, if there are many interpretations and implications of the statement that are not true, and by that criteria I'd say 'time feels like it moves slowly' is mostly false.

Trying to judge the plausibility of jhanas using this framework does lead to many obvious questions. 'is someone experiencing jhana visibly more active?' for example. There is no way you could get a satisfactory answer from just one external criteria, but combining many together... Maybe.

Just looking at people testimonies, jhana does feel suspicious under this framework, for example "experiencing jhana is better than sex, but I'm not addicted to it, or feel a strong desire to constantly do it". This implies that jhana is substantially different from a form of happiness like sex, which means that there may be other non-obvious ways in which sex!happiness and jhana!happiness differ.

Expand full comment

One dimension to consider - claiming an absence of experience is different than claiming a positive experience. So if I say “I am experiencing an absence of thought” or “... absence of hunger”, it’s entirely possible that thought or hunger is going on in my mind but outside my field of awareness or cone of attention. However if I have a positive subjective experience of bliss, I don’t see how that qualia can be “mistaken”.

I think it’s also possible to lie to oneself after the fact. See: false memories. But this doesn’t really fit the specific scenario of sitting down and doing a repeatable thing that produces bliss; it’s more about long-term memory being mutable/unreliable.

Expand full comment

I see no puzzle here at all. We are bombarded with all kinds of sensory experiences and can only focus our attention on very few at a time. If you are not used to attending to your hunger sensor, you will not report a hunger experience.

In addition, our brain/mind is not well modeled by a single agent, and the one answering the question may not be the one experiencing the qualia in question. I see it all the time in people who tend to dissociate severely, and I assume you have seen plenty of those in your practice.

Expand full comment

There is a homunculus. And it itself has a homunculus inside of it. And that one too, and the regression is infinite, because it's actually two mirrors pointed at each other. This is a necessary feature of self-consciousness; what Kierkegaard would call spirit and Heidegger would call Dasein.

So, as long as you're a reflective spirit / Dasein, both sides of this argument are always, necessarily, true. You can always apply the tautological solution, since there's always a higher reflection, being tricked into immediately experiencing whatever it is by a lower reflection. Also, there's always some level at which a person is wrong about their experience, because there's always a lower reflection, doing the tricking.

I think this whole post is reaching for the concept of mediated versus immediate experience. Scott is insisting on the existence of immediate experience, at some level. The commenters are insisting that experience is always mediated by various reflective processes. I think both are right.

Expand full comment

In my mental model of people, there are multiple different conceptualizations of "self". Think of it like the Freudian ego and id concept - the ego may legitimately believe that the person is not hungry, although the id would describe its current state as hungry.

This neatly solves the paradox - people have multiple states of being simultaneously, so it's entirely possible that they could be accurately reporting that they are not hungry one minute while they're most attuned to their ego self but then end up identifying that they actually were hungry when they are instead attuned to their id self.

It's a little woo, but I hope you can grasp the underlying concept - this paradox arises due to the simplifying assumptions made that people are coherent and singular, and a deeper evaluation of that assumption resolves the paradox.

Expand full comment

Two things come to mind. Not saying they're counterexamples, just food for thought.

First, I've seen people (and had the experience of) being woken up, immediately insisting that they weren't asleep, then usually realizing that yes, they were asleep.

Second, often when I doubt someone's subjective report of their own state, it's not that I think they're wrong or lying, but more that I think they have some control over it when they act like it's something that happened to them. Like if someone is getting angry about something, I don't doubt that they're angry, but I do think that they could choose to calm themselves down and instead choose to stew in their anger. They aren't wrong about being angry, but they're wrong about whether (and to what degree) they're choosing to be angry.

Expand full comment

My ex would never be hungry but would experience the side effects or hunger - light headedness, headache, irritability, etc. And I’d say, “Are you sure you aren’t just hungry? Let me get you a snack.” “You don’t know me! You think you know everything!” Hand them a snack…two minutes later, “La la la…did I tell you well my presentation went today…”

You won’t be surprised by the ex part.

Expand full comment

I'm inclined to agree with the proposed tautological solution to the title question: if you define "internal experience" as exactly the subjective component of your internal state that you can't be wrong about, then I think that's perfectly reasonable. Of course this might differ from any objective physical state (even one that we don't fully understand), which you certainly can be wrong about.

This feels mostly like debating definitions though, IMO the more interesting part is, where does the subjective and objective diverge, and why? The post gives some interesting examples of such cases, but I'm left feeling a bit unresolved about the dynamics.

Expand full comment

This seems relevant, with other examples of ways people seem to be wrong about basic features of their own visual experiences: https://philpapers.org/rec/SCHHWD-2

And supposing that it's true that there are certain kinds of features of our own experiences we couldn't (or practically couldn't) be wrong about, we could still ask whether the claims under discussion in the jhana debate are of that kind. And at least some of them clearly aren't. Claims like "this experience is ten times as intense as orgasm" are the sort one could be wrong about even if we think our epistemic access to our experiences is pretty good, because it involves using memory and comparing experiences of different kinds and at different times, among other things. "This hunger is twice as intense as the thirst I had yesterday" can be mistaken even if "I feel hungry right now" can't.

Expand full comment

In my experience most of the problems go away if the sentences are rephrased without an "I" (i.e. pronoun plus form of to-be) but instead describe what goes on a noticing.

In the first example someone doesn't notice the feeling of hunger. Done. They may lie about it or not but the noticing makes the process clear and doesn't attribute it to some inherent quality.

The time example is more difficult because multiple different things get lumped into time perception: A) Density of action or experiences: Times without action can be boing and feel long and get described as time goes slow.

B Felt measures of biological clocks: There can be a distinct sense of urgency or time having passed without explicitly checking a clock and independent of the amount of things going on. The same type of clock that allows some people to wake up at a planned time.

Additionally, for A, there are distinction between noticing actions in short-term memory or long-term or episodic memory.

This mix leads to the feeling one may have sometimes that time seems to go slow and fast at the same time depending on how you look at it. A bit like an optical illusion with two readings as in the bearded face/woman under tree example.

Depending on these cases the example would be rephrased as

- noticing there is a lot going on right now (maybe interpreted as time going fast)

- noticing a memory of an episode with many activities (maybe interpreted as time going slow)

- noticing a feeling of urgency, e.g., of getting a train (maybe interpreted as time going fast)

And so on.

Expand full comment

I suspect there's something along these lines which is akin to the placebo effect. Any time there is a trial of a new medication which is ultimately ineffective there are always a small number of people who feel "much better" from something which doesn't work. Indeed - they may become staunch proponents of the treatment. Either this needs to a be a very niche positive effect (only works on people with eg. rare mutations), or people have tricked themselves into believing that the medication is doing something positive.

Expand full comment

Well, might as well take this to the controversial places it wants to go.

If someone says, "I experience that I am a *different gender than my physical gender.* Can they possibly be experiencing the feelings of that other gender--have they somehow mastered complete telepathic empathy and understanding?

What they mean can only be, "I am experiencing that I am feeling what I believe that other gender feels."

(To be clear, I don't actually care if gender revolves around feeling a _correct_ feeling or not.) But aren't people clearly wrong about their own experiences when they are claiming to experience something that they cannot know what they correct experience is?

So while there are very few externally objectively correct experiences, this is an example of one of them. And once we've demonstrated that some experiences are objectively experienced wrongly, where should we draw the line?

Expand full comment

I'm reminding of a line from Dennett's "Quining Qualia" where he quotes Wittgenstein:

"Imagine someone saying: 'But I know how tall I am!' and laying his hand on top of his head to prove it." (Wittgenstein, 1958, p.96) By diminishing one's claim until there is nothing left to be right or wrong about, one can achieve a certain empty invincibility..."

Basically, the only sense in which we're guaranteed to be right about what we're experiencing is a sense in which claims about what we're experiencing are pretty much devoid of content. If feeling hunger is a matter of being in a state with typical causes/effects, you can be wrong about whether you're feeling hunger. But if feeling hunger is just being inclined to call whatever state you're in "hunger", then sure you can't be wrong when you say you're feeling hunger, but that's not because there's some substantive fact about yourself that you're reliably tracking.

Expand full comment

The question of whether a person experienced a jhana is unlike the hunger or happiness subjectivity question -- in my mind -- because jhanas are a thing described with reference to an external tradition of practice and expertise. Like the woman claiming enlightenment, the question is in reference to an outside body of wisdom accessed through teachers who presumably are further down the road than the person reporting the subjective jhana or recent enlightenment experience.

Picture a new-ish yoga student who has mainly learned yoga from YouTube videos and books. After some diligent practice, they feel they've nailed Half Moon pose. They're like "yep, it looks right, it feels right; I've got it." But then some weeks later they have the chance to take an in-person yoga class with an experienced teacher who says, "actually, your hips do this in half moon pose, your leg goes here instead, and the whole pose should feel more like X than Y." The yoga student wasn't lying about their experience before, but they lacked sufficient background and context to accurately assess their experience relative to the tradition in which they were practicing.

Many comments in the jhana discussion seemed to argue that people were intentionally lying about their jhana experience in order to seem special. Many of these people seemed to dismiss jhanas as a real experience because it seems to them supernatural like levitating or mind reading. Once you step inside the Buddhist tradition, it becomes clear jhanas are not a magical supernatural kind of thing. But also, one could see how people reading books and practicing at home without working with a teacher might also be guessing about things they don't know a whole lot about -- and might also be bragging to get attention. I don't imagine that's what most people are doing, but you could see how some people might. How do we describe that yoga student's experience relative to half moon pose -- mistaken, I guess we would say, right? Not mistaken about how it felt to be in what they thought was half moon pose, but mistaken that they had accomplished what the yoga field calls half moon pose.

There's a whole spectrum of ambiguity that also exists because different yoga (or meditation) teachers might disagree somewhat about whether the thing being described or performed (whether jhana or half moon pose) constitutes an accurate instance of that thing or not.

Another example might be whether a person had a manic episode or not -- a huge amount of psychiatric diagnosis falls into this realm of question. There's the person's self-described experience; there's an external body of expert information (the DSM, research, etc); and there's someone with more experience (one or more clinicians) assessing it. There exists room for error -- lying, mistakes, confusion, inaccuracy, expert disagreement -- at all of three levels.

Delusion is a word that gets used a lot in both Buddhism and psychology to describe the situation in which a person claims to not be having an experience (like anger, say) even though their behavior strongly suggests they are having that experience. The whole parade of psychological defenses exists in this same weird territory where people at one level are having an experience (or part of them is) and at another level they are disowning or unaware that they are having it. Because we aren't these unitary selves, I think it's often possible to be deluded about our own subjective experience. But the assessment of delusion is made (often controversially) by someone from the outside who brings some deeper or wider expertise about how to identify delusion.

Expand full comment

I don't really have anything to say on this subject myself, but I feel like it is worth dropping some relevant links :P

Eric Schwitzgebel has written a bunch on this subject, Philosophisticat has linked one of his papers, here's another: http://www.faculty.ucr.edu/~eschwitz/SchwitzPapers/Naive1.pdf

And here's Luke Muehlhauser posting about it on LW a decade ago, largely drawing on Schitzgebel: https://www.lesswrong.com/posts/J55XeCNeF7wNwgCj9/being-wrong-about-your-own-subjective-experience

Expand full comment

What if, after many vision tests (and a few hundred terrible car accidents), I know that when I subjectively see “red” I could be seeing red but I could be seeing what others call green. I see both as “red.” Knowing this, I say, “I believe I see red” This is subjectively true — but also highly equivocal. For example, if I say “I believe I see red” while driving toward a traffic light, I’m probably bracing for a *possible* collision. Does this equivocal state fit neatly into your two categories of subjective experience?

Expand full comment
Nov 10, 2022·edited Nov 10, 2022

The philosophical literature that takes apart the idea of qualia would challenge the basis of the question. The core problem for me is that talking about being "right" or "wrong" about internal states presumes a mechanism of verifying what a person's internal state is. The fact that, on reflection, such a mechanism doesn't seem to exist even for an individual's own subjective experience, casts severe doubts on the possibility.

To try to make more sense of the question, I think when we talk about our feelings, what's happening is we're using common knowledge of language to represent to other people what we believe to be our behavioural dispositions. Though our conscious experience cashes out "I'm (not) hungry" as if it labels some hormonal or neuronal state, I think all that's really there is a kind of functional content, i.e. implicit suggestions about what we would do if food were available/ready/easy to make/offered and so on. This seems even more obvious to me with "I'm (not) angry", where your example doesn't really resonate with me personally - I think someone who behaves in the way you describe is definitionally angry in virtue of their behaviour alone; what they would report as their stress or aggression levels or the like would present an incomplete picture of what anger is.

So, when you ask "can someone be wrong about their feelings?" I think this has to be deflated into something like "can someone be wrong about their behavioural dispositions?" and, since our behaviours can be unpredictable even to ourselves, the answer has to be yes.

I think the final example on whether "I'm happy" can be instructive. Earlier I said that there is no mechanism by which you can prove what your internal state is, i.e. you could not prove even to yourself that you are happy. Care has to be taken on this point. It doesn't mean that you can't prove that your feeling of happiness is "real" rather than illusory. What it means is that - if you make reference only to your own internal states - you have no way of grounding any definitional crtieria for what happiness *is* to be able to verify its presence (the main problem being the arbitrariness and circularity of criteria that are proposed without reference to external norms). So the issue is that you wouldn't even be able to prove that you feel subjectively happy, never mind whether the state is real or illusory. This is one outcome of Wittgenstein's private language argument and the consequence is further support for understanding putative internal states as dispositions, so that whether or not you're happy as a matter of fact really comes down to what you're likely to do and how your language community would be disposed to describe it.

Expand full comment

I've taken to using the distinction of signal privilege vs representational privilege to talk about this. (https://tis.so/the-limits-of-signal-privilege) In those terms, I would say that yes, you can represent your own signals incorrectly even if you can't be wrong about the signals themselves. If someone else describes different affordances that will interact with your future signal than you do, they can certainly be more correct than you ("I'll ice my knee and feel better!" "You literally don't have a knee."). So ultimately whether you want to call it "wrong" or not depends on whether you're talking in a signal sense or a representational sense.

This is basically another angle to look at Wittengenstein's idea about a "private language"; if you rephrase your question as "can people ever fail to be fluent in their private language"? you can see that you've already gone too far by assuming the private language must exist.

Expand full comment

Very interesting stuff. I'm curious though what it would mean to see a 7 dimensional object. Consider this situation:I tell you that I perceived a 7 dimensional object while in an altered state, but I only have a popular conception of dimensionality. When you explain rectilinear dimensionality, ie that the count of dimensions is a measure of how many lines you can draw which are at right angles to all other lines in the set, I consider and say, I did not understand what I was saying, I had an impression that seemed to me 7 dimensional, but it was not actually a 7 dimensional object, by this definition, a definition which I accept as more true and meaningful than my previous concept of dimensionality. Then I have gained a sort of enlightenment which shows my previous error. Or have I misunderstood?

Expand full comment

Yeah, there's a lot of stuff going on here, tough to sort it all into neat categories. As a general rule, honesty is important to keep distinct from truth, since there's a definite tendency to conflate the two. But when talking about personal experiences, honesty and truth are more entangled than usual, making it very difficult to keep the two apart.

I think it's worthwhile to bring up the idea that people interpret their own experiences. Eyeballs send the image, but you decide what you're looking at. This interpretation is something that you learn, sort of like walking. It is a skill that you build and expand upon, until the interpretation is so baked into your everyday existence that it feels like you aren't doing anything. Memories are formed, then they are interpreted, then the initial memory fades away, while the interpretation sticks around. In this sense, people can be simultaneously honest and wrong about their own experiences, correctly stating the interpretation, while completely failing to account for the initial, less filtered experience.

If you carry this model through to its natural conclusion, you'll notice that it allows for a sort of roundabout dishonesty. If I build a system of interpretation which biases my memories towards a dishonest interpretation of reality, then I use that system so frequently that it becomes second nature (like telling my body to walk), then I've effectively created a way to be honestly dishonest. My interpretations will always be genuine, even if I was acting dishonestly when I created the system which creates my interpretations.

I hope some of that is insightful. This is a pretty neat topic to think about!

Expand full comment

My other question is about the woman who said she was not thinking while the mystic revealed her to have been thinking. You say if she was lying she could just continue the deception but this seems to presume that she knew the truth herself but tried to deceive others. What about the case where she deceives herself? Where she experiences the qualia of thinking but 'talks herself out of it'? You seem to presume a simple and undivided conscious self, is that how you experience yourself?

Expand full comment

So it's probably pointless to discuss this because the real answer is "I'll never be in another brain so who knows?"

But I think it's much much more complicated than you're making it here. For instance, you discuss people talking about time slowing down on salvia and explain that there are three "levels" on which they can be wrong, and while they probably didn't really have "more time" in some objective sense, it's absurd to say they were wrong about their subjective perceptions.

But then you add in a parenthetical that literally says just that - the person you're speaking to, the person who is not currently on salvia but who is talking about their memory of a subjective perception, was wrong about that memory.

This happens *all the time.* Constantly I'll remember hating a movie that the internet tells me was bad, and then get corrected that during the movie I actually was really into it, or vice versa. For years, psychiatrists thought they could uncover repressed memories of deep trauma, and the patients legitimately thought they'd had the subjective experience of that trauma. Job interviewers are more likely to hire the first or last person they interviewed, because they have a stronger recall of their subjective perception of them.

People online who want to hear voices or have multiple personalities badly enough genuinely think those things are happening - more likely they're choosing to remember a stray thought as audible, and to give it more power in their memories than it had in real life than they're legitimately lying. And people who claim to have experienced an orgasmic state of bliss from meditation probably didn't but probably genuinely remember having done so.

Expand full comment

Something that seems to be missing here is the concept of effective communication and interpretation. It may be possible that the thesis here is correct, that a person cannot be wrong about their internal experience. However some context is required to interpret many of the statements given as examples as being about internal experience. For the person who claims to no longer be angry about their father, there is some true thing about their perception of their internal experience of their emotions about their father. There is also some false meaning that is indicated by their behavior when their father is brought up. Depending on the context, the statement that they choose to make May indicate one or the other of these meanings more or less. In many such cases the meaning much more likely to be interpreted may be false, which would make the person wrong in having chosen those words to convey something about which they are not wrong.

Expand full comment
Nov 10, 2022·edited Nov 10, 2022

I don't understand Emilsson.

3 dots on 3 planes = 6 degrees of freedom: I guess so? That's assuming the planes are unrelated to each other, e.g., you don't know if they're parallel or how far they are from each other.

3 dots on 3 planes = 3 degrees of freedom plus a new dimension: Um, what? And what's this about oscillators, & what does it have to do with the pictures of dots following curves? The dots on the different planes can't be coupled oscillators, because we would need more degrees of freedom to know the relationships between the planes (or between the dots). My guess is that he's drawing a single dot traversing 3-space and projected onto 3 different planar slices, but you have to add a lot more information than the "3 planes, 3 dots" scenario gave you.

Expand full comment

I liked this a lot probably because it confirms some of my own thinking on this, where you have some sort of world modeler in your head that generates and experiences qualia, the sensory apparatus hooked up to that that world model, and the external reality feeding the sensors.

I can give myself goosebumps at will by convincing myself that I am cold. I can even make it happen on just particular parts of my body. I experience the qualia of cold and my guess is the wiring that normally goes from my skin to my brain is at least slightly two way. Of course I never actually change my environment but the model in my head can exert control over things that it is wired to.

So, I think I’d agree with what you’re saying that people can’t lie about their internal experience to some extent. I may not be understanding correctly what you’re trying to reconcile/justify at the end with the homunculus fallacy. I know even if I convince myself I’m happy that my mental model can’t stay out of sync with my own internal state and external reality forever. Or at least not optimally. But I don’t think that requires there to be some separate experiencer that exists on its own outside of the rest of me, then again I think I might be missing a piece there.

I always think of all three pieces of this model as being parts of an agent rather than one specific component being the “real” agent. The same way intelligence isn’t a single magical something but a series of specific inputs and information transformations. That stuff functions interdependently. Does that resolve the need for a tiny person watching a tv in our heads?

Expand full comment

It seems clear that the brain is always doing a million different things at once.

To me, it would be strange if only a tiny handful of those things produced conscious experiences. The idea that the auditory system stops producing conscious experiences when we 'tune out' a noise, then starts producing them again when we 'tune in' to that noise, despite the system doing almost all the same things in either case, seems absurd.

It makes much more sense to me that the brain is producing all kinds of different conscious experiences at any moment with all of it's different processes. And that what we understand as 'our' conscious experience mostly has to do with which of those get encoded as memories, and which of those get control of areas relating to reporting those experiences.

Split-brain patients are a good example here. It seems very clear that both hemispheres of the brain continue to 'think', at a level where it would be surprising if they aren't both producing conscious experience. Yet the conscious experiences that split brain patients verbally report are those with access to the verbal centers of the brain. It takes very precise manipulations to get reports from the parts that don't have access to the speech centers, but when you do they seem to report entirely different thought processes (that I assume produce qualia based on their complexity).

Another good example is sleep and 'unconscious' states. Evidence from twilight drugs is suggestive to me that we are never 'unconscious' so long as the brain is working, we merely have times when conscious experiences aren't encoded as memories and therefore fail to become part of our self-reported history or self-concept. Similarly, while some people report dreaming often and some don't, it seems clear that everyone does dream (the brain is doing the same types of things in each case) and the main difference is again whether those experiences are encoded to memory.

Thus, I think the simple ways people can be 'wrong' about their conscious experiences are cases where significant conscious experiences do not have access to reporting mechanisms or encoding mechanisms. People may be wrong in their memories of what they experienced, even with a .1 second delay in some cases. And they may be having experiences that are not being 'noticed' by the part of the brain that is talking to you, as with the 'not having any thoughts' example above.

Expand full comment

As others have mentioned some puzzling experiences with perception, the famous experiments by Gibson showing that the organs participate in the data collection should be referenced. I find it interesting that we can reflect on our experience at other cognitive levels, like the experience of our interpreting an idea or meaning (about an optical illusion like the Frazier Spiral illusion), or the experience of our verifying (or in this case falsifying!) in judgment the fact or knowledge that the spiral actually is composed of circles. The experience of experience itself is unique compared to other levels in the scientific method (i.e., methods that result in knowledge or *scientia* the Latin root). In any case, the border areas where we might be wrong about our own experiences are dealt with in metaphysics and worth studying if you are concerned with reality, existence and being.

Expand full comment

I think the issue comes down to the fact that, in a structured phrase "I am experiencing [...]", everything after "I am experiencing" is an attempt to communicate some internal experience; observing that, "You're not experiencing X, you're experiencing Y" is an attempt to correct not your internal experience, but rather the language you use to attempt to communicate that experience.

Expand full comment

Scott please read my narrative of my phenomenology of a psychotic episode found in the blog post "Yoko Taro is a Dragon from the Future" and give me a brief inventory of which things you think have ontology to them, which are confabulation, and which are whatever else. I have been trying to get any such analysis done forever and mostly people just become agitated and hostile when I try

Expand full comment

How about one we have probably all experienced:

"I'm not angry!", said by someone very clearly angry.

I don't think this person is somehow not experiencing the qualia of anger. I just think they (like most people most of the time) are not introspecting on their current emotional state. They are genuinely mistaken about it.

Expand full comment

At least one aspect of this is that words are slippery and experiences are described within a cultural context. I'm from a British culture rather than an American culture, and view American emotions as basically "performing" what they have been told to do via movies and TV for over a hundred years.

So, to take one example, grief. The combination of my personality and my culture mean that I don't "perform" grief and, more than that, I think I mostly don't feel grief the way others act it out. An American psychiatrist (perhaps not our host!) might insist that I have some sort of PTSD, that I am so upset by the loss of a loved one that I simply refuse to process the experience. Well, you can insist that all you like, but I think it's BS and an example of US cultural projection.

So that's one example of how things can get lost in communication, and how something like jhana can be described differently by different people.

Another example is how I interpret what was experienced. Like Tolstoy, in my teens I suffered from complex partial seizures which are a form of epilepsy that, in my case, never took over my body, but did have my mind experiencing something like a very pleasant waking dream.

If I were a religious person, I'd probably claim this as some sort of religious experience, interpret in that light, and very soon I'd be remembering it that way, not just a pleasant waking dream but angels, god talking to me, etc etc.

If I were a junkie, I'd probably claim this as some sort of drug experience and use it to justify my on-going habit; I'd remember it in the context of whatever drug I used and would claim the two as parallel experiences that both make me a superior human being to the rest of you squares.

But I am a boring, science-minded square, so I remember these as pleasant waking dreams, as devoid of meaning as the other random experiences of dreaming. And because I don't see any reason to project meaning into them, I don't project meaning into them, and they don't grow to something beyond what they initially were.

Expand full comment
Nov 10, 2022·edited Nov 10, 2022

I recently watched this video by MachineLearningStreetTalk [1] which had clips that might be useful, so I'll summarize them below.

In the intro, John Searle gives a lecture on consciousness in AI where he describes the categories of subjective vs objective epistemology (knowledge), and subjective vs objective ontology (existence). He says that "lots of phenomena that are ontologically subjective admit of an account which is epistemically objective", and explains how this is crucial for developing a science of consciousness. He draws a distinction between phenomena that is observer-dependent and observer-relative, and gives an example of how money is observer-relative since its value depends on the user. Since all observer-relative phenomenon are created by human consciousness, they contain an element of ontological subjectivity. Yet we can still have an epistemically objective science of a domain that is observer-relative i.e. an objective science of economics. Perhaps that isn't the best example but I think the point still stands. (Full lecture [2])

In a later section [3], Karl Friston gives a computationalist perspective about how feelings or phenomology may emerge from an in silico replica as hypotheses generated from a separate model which takes as input data from all underlying models involved in planning, exteroception, interoception, etc. From this perspective it seems easy to reason about how a person's subjective interpretation of ontologically objective information can be incorrect or inconclusive. He also touches on chronic pain which can be psychologically driven. Another interesting example is Alexithymia, in which an individual is unable to identify and describe emotions they experience and is associated with impaired interoception.

[1] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_KVAzAzO5HU

[2] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rHKwIYsPXLg

[3] https://youtu.be/_KVAzAzO5HU?t=3111

Expand full comment

While the topic itself is incredibly complicated to answer, and the best answer I could provide would fall short, I feel the topic hasn’t been done justice until we address the sheer amount of cognitive bias towards normative information that has been expressed recently in discussions. In other words, people are more likely to believe a description of familiar experiences and disbelieve an unfamiliar experience EVEN IF the unfamiliar experience is calculably MORE LIKELY than the familiar ones--- I have been the subject of this dozens of times.

The best example was an appointment with a nurse I had many years ago. I was very unwell but had no idea what was happening to me and thus couldn’t describe my experiences well.

The nurse tried to ask “Did you pass out?”

I insisted, “Well, I described what symptoms I could. I’m not sure if I passed out.”

She got really angry at me, and said, word-for-word, “How could you not know if you passed out?!”

She was not the only medical professional to repeatedly assume I must have the ability to distinguish consciousness from unconsciousness despite this requiring a level of metacognition skills that have to be developed and maintained, and the inverse requiring no metacognition skills, making it more likely if no priors are applied.

The cause was eventually determined to be narcolepsy: experiencing a mix of consciousness levels simultaneously is a defining symptom of the condition. There is a little vindictive joy in being able to hold up the numbers and say “Ha, I was right!” but the deeper issue here was having my description of my subjective experience rejected in the first place, in spite of probability for no identifiable reason.

Expand full comment
Nov 10, 2022·edited Nov 10, 2022

Reading the enlightenment example enlightened me. I legit stopped thinking thoughts right when I read that. Got 10% of my brainpower back for reading with an internal voice and looking at stuff.

Gonna try to keep the streak alive all night.

Expand full comment

I mentioned in the comments of the article on Jhana that I believe for every 1 person actually experiencing Jhana, there were many many more who believed they had reached it but actually didn’t. People have a good time meditating and see the positive benefits, so they convince themselves they’ve achieved Jhana. Without a baseline experience for the bliss of enlightenment, there’s no way for them to know the difference. I’ve had friends who, in response to me talking about the enlightenment of a mushroom trip, say something like “I already have that without shrooms.” When these people finally try mushrooms, they realize how completely wrong they were. They obviously weren’t lying, their mental models of the experience just sucked.

Another example I see of this is with elite endurance athletes. They will often say things like “when you think you’ve reached a wall, that’s actually about 40% of what you’re really capable of”. There was a time where I was lifting, and a friend with far more experience our significantly more weight on the bench than I was used to doing. I told him it was way passed my limits, but he insisted I was capable based off what he’d seen. He turned out to be right. Moral of the story is that subjectively speaking I had been pushing myself to the absolute limit, but my experience turned out to be wrong. I simply had no concept of what actually pushing myself really felt like.

What does this entail about depression and anxiety being so prevalent in a world of more material comfort than ever before? Perhaps people could benefit from engaging with the less fortunate to build a sense of gratitude.

Expand full comment

I wonder if this is in any way related to the fundamental attribution error? We categorize the experience of others differently than we categorize our own? So a someone else's mind includes the subconscious and their bodily states. Our own mind experiences the subconscious as foreign and part of the environment that the mind navigates.

So... it all depends on where we draw the circle that delineates 'self' from 'non-self.' Scott is describing people as they would describe themselves, with 'self' being only their conscious, holistic thoughts. Other people are including things like 'bodily states' and 'subconscious thoughts' in the definition of the self. I would guess that Scott's model allows more granularity and is therefore a bit more useful, provided that someone had the time and energy to sit and ponder.

In any case, as you mention memories can be constructed after the fact. The past, then, is a foreign mind that we tend to describe as a non-foreign mind. If your memories of a past mind thinking in seven dimensions doesn't actually allow you to do useful computation in seven dimensions then your memories of the past mind are false.

I'm not sure if I've said anything here that Scott didn't say. If this post is redundant to Scott or the thread (I haven't read the whole thread,) then I offer my sincere apologies.

Expand full comment

The thing about qualia is that they're kind of irreducible things-in-themselves, that cannot actually be transmitted to other people.

You can see that something is red, and be absolutely certain of it. But if you say "red" to someone else, that's just a word you've learned, that doesn't inherently have any relation to the quale you experienced. We assume that different people have somehow similar qualia when they look at a red thing, but this is fundamentally an assumption, and not checkable.

This seems like a difficulty in resolving this question, because if someone is describing their qualia to someone else, they're passing it through a messy translation filter that might very well communicate something completely different from what they actually experienced; whereas if they just think about it to themselves, then the whole process is sufficiently self-referential as to be of questionable interest. If someone says that they saw a seven-dimensional object while on DMT -- what does that even mean? What is the "real", "true" quale of seeing a seven-dimensional object? Either you know that quale, or you don't; and in either case, you can't judge whether someone else is having it.

If someone is describing a quale, their description may very well be wrong. E.g. someone thinks they are having the quale "enlightenment", and says so, when they're really just a naturally content and happy person. But it's hard to say that this is being "wrong about their own experience", because it's fundamentally an interpretive claim _about_ their experience, not a direct transmission of it (which is impossible). I'm not sure what "being wrong about your own experience" would even mean.

Expand full comment

Are we to assume there is one single step in brain computation in which data hits our "consciousness"? Clearly there is processing on the data before it hits our consciousness, and there is processing after.

Example of processing before consciousness: Your optical nerve gets pixels input which is theb translated to colors and shapes which is then translated into the concept of a polar bear by checking against your world model and other objects you've seen before. You don't have a conscious experience of seeing lines and shapes though, your first conscious experience is already seeing a polar bear.

Example of processing after consciousness: Let's say you squint harder and realise your first conscious impression was wrong, maybe it's actually a new kind of white bear but not a polar bear.

There may be ways to define what are right/wrong/good/bad ways of this processing occurring. So on DMT, the processing might be converting a drawing of waves into the concept of 7 dimensional objects because it wrongly decides to check and match against your knowledge of high school geometry. Whereas if you're not on DMT you're more likely to check against simple drawings of waves and be like "oh yeah that's just a wave".

But the even bigger question for me is whether there exists a single step at which things hit consciousness? If I write down the brain algorithm as a program with subroutines, will I be seeing an infinite loop* with exactly one "hit consciousness" step? Or for instance, can I simultaneously be conscious of different parts of my brain outputting different things after different amounts of processing? Or can I sometimes skip the hit consciousness step all together, or sometimes hit it way too often inside a single loop iteration?

*technically it will terminate on death, and to some extent while sleeping but in a short time interval its practically an infinite loop.

Expand full comment

A friend introduced me to an Emerson quote this evening: "Foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of the little minds".

I love that you're questioning and analyzing your own assertions here. At least speaking personally, it makes me upweight your thoughts and opinions as I assume they're all constantly being subjected to the same rigor (although I do have to ignore the whole coming-to-the-AI-X-risk-conclusion thing).

Expand full comment

I think the fallacy is not the homunculus, but the excluded middle.

"This is also how I interpret people who say “I’m not still angry about my father”, but then every time you mention their father they storm off and won’t talk to you for the rest of the day. Clearly they still have some trauma about their father that they have to deal with. But it doesn’t manifest itself as a conscious feeling of anger."

In this situation, the way out is surely to say: this person both feels angry and doesn't feel angy. There are lots of ways this might happen. For example, they might have two different parts of their mind (e.g. conscious and subconscious), one of which is angry, and the other of which is not. Or they might have an emotion that they don't remember, e.g. they act angrily, but literally do not remember the emotion, so it doesn't feel to them in retrospect (sometimes very brief retrospect) as though they are angry. Or they might be feeling emotions that share some features with anger, and some features with not-anger: perhaps they feel happy, and don't realise that anger is compatible with happiness; and experience an undirected tension, which is like anger but doesn't have a target.

So it seems like there are lots of mechanisms by which one could feel both angry and not-angry; but the folk psychology theory of both the individual and the psychologist is ruling out that possibility for both, so they're stuck in a dichotomy of "either I'm not angry or I'm lying."

Expand full comment

Well, I wouldn't no-way. We certainly seem to agree on a great many things, but the borders are interesting areas to investigate! Minsky's point about thoughts being ambiguous is that it's a feature, not a bug.

Expand full comment

I used to experiment with lucid dreaming. I think of this as sort of being able to flip different qualia switches with my conscious mind. I’ve come to believe these switches do as little work as possible.

For example, I might flip a switch that says I’m listening to a symphony. My conscious mind really feels, “Wow, I am listening to a symphony with a perfect reproduction of all notes…isn’t it amazing that my mind can do this?” But, after long reflection, I don’t think my mind is actually reproducing the same qualia associated with listening to a symphony in an actual music hall. It’s just flipping the switch that makes me believe I am.

It’s a bit like asking people if they can picture a penny in their minds. Many honestly think that they can, yet when asked to draw, they can’t remember if Lincoln faces left or right or where the date goes.

Expand full comment
Nov 10, 2022·edited Nov 10, 2022

There is obvious vulnerable component in all this... the reporting part. That's the part doing "compiling what theoretical inner experiencer feels into an outside report", even if no real "experiencer" part actually exists behind it.

If you subvert reporting in any way - not just lying, but deny it experience to evaluate and transmit, or deny it memory of having a certain feeling because lower circuits didn't feel it as important enough to encode and filtered it out, or some part just didn't get attention to be included in report despite being possible to recall later, you could have every feeling and still be wrong in reporting it.

People wouldn't be wrong in their feelings (as they certainly had them before they were filtered out), but they will be unable to report them.

And then other people could see something obvious reflected on your face as it happened (or read instruments), and correctly guess underlying feeling, yet you would deny it happening as you would have no memory of it to report.

Expand full comment

"The map is not the territory" makes sense, directionally. But better yet, have a third level.

1. Natural language with all its ambiguity

2. Conceptual structure given an agreed upon set of axioms

3. What actually exists exceeds our capacity for modeling or communication

The word "map" often refers to a conflation of L1 and L2, and we have a tendency to overassociate our perspective on the world, what we sense and process, with L3.

When we swallow the bitter pill that we must write code (ie go to L2) to sidestep definitional debates, and give up hope of "being right" or "knowing the truth" except in the trivial academic/synthetic sense that given a rule for rewriting strings of symbols, one may apply the rule correctly or not, we open ourselves up to deeper levels of experience.

I prefer to use English words to those that require a whole cultural and textual tradition to understand, so for me, "Joy" feels more natural than "Jhana". That said, if life feels hard to enjoy, why not choose to find value in suffering? When we observe and study the data that comes thru the channels of pain, fear, anxiety, etc., we treat it as a resource, an asset on our mental balance sheet. And indeed, to suffer for deep purpose sounds better to me than to feel pleasure devoid of meaning.

Expand full comment

Most contexts in which I've heard someone say "you're wrong about your experience," they're pretty clearly saying "your experienced qualia is poorly matched with some more objective reality". As applied to the aforementioned example of hunger: the idea isn't "you are wrong about not experiencing the qualia of hunger" it's "your digestive system is objectively asking for food and your perceptual engine is making a prioritization error by not noticing this and providing the qualia of hunger".

As applied to the "false enlightenment" case, the person had manipulated their perception prioritization engine into ignoring categories of experience for attention purposes (in a way apparently different from the intended goal? Most meditative experiences sound to me, from the outside, like increasingly elaborate manipulations of our perceptual engines, but I have no idea).

All to say: we don't usually mean "this qualia is wrong" we mean "this qualia is a poor map to reality". This is an important thing that comes up all the time. I can't think of a case in which being wrong about the qualia itself matters/has any impact distinct from the qualia being a poor match to reality.

Expand full comment
Nov 10, 2022·edited Nov 10, 2022

"(though this study suggests a completely different thing is going on; people have normal speed, but retroactively remember things as lasting longer)"

I can very confidently assert that people having a bad trip on psychedelics keep on repeating from one minute to the next "How long is this going to take?" while obviously having a very unpleasant experience of subjective time dilation. There seems to be an element of amnesia to this: they forget that they asked the same question maybe twenty seconds ago, and incorrectly interpret that a very long time has passed. However, this is a very obvious immediate subjective experience while the trip is going on.

As contrasted with ketamine, where a lot of people report amnesia and a subjective experience of time going faster ("wow, where did the last hour or so go?"). So merely the amnesia part doesn't explain it for me.

Expand full comment

I've never seen 'never trust a fart' given such philosophical depth.

Re jhanas: I don't know anything about Bhudism. So I don't have any idea what difference a Buddhist would see between 1) meditator A, seeking and finding jhana and 2) meditator B, seeking and finding Paul Ekman/Darwin 'Expression of Emotions in Animals and Man'- style happiness.

Expand full comment

One factor that complicates this, and that I never really appreciated until I had a toddler, is that we learn to express these inner states from other people. My son says he's hungry, and he might be hungry, he might be lying, or he might actually not fully understand what hungry means. In that sense I think he actually could be *wrong* about his internal state, because he doesn't fully understand the meaning of the language.

Expand full comment

I think that last paragraph actually catches a very important distinction. If we take a sort of No-Self as a premise (as contrasted with a permanent Self), the claim "I'm experiencing X" becomes "There is an experience of X", and the counter-claim becomes "No, there is not an experience of X."

It seems to me that the latter one is a harder claim to make than "No, you just think you're experiencing X." To claim there is a complete lack of experience X feels intuitively stronger than claiming someone is wrong about something.

I think this is due to the idea that we think of a person as an observer to their mind states, and that observer might be correct or incorrect on their observations. Whereas if we think experiences simply bubbling up, we remove that part of the equation. No mistaken observations occur, as there is no one observing. I guess this is at odds with most people's intuitive view on the matter, but as a meditator it seems very right and natural to me.

I don't think this means that people cannot be wrong about matters related to their cognition, but I do think it does make the claim "No, there is no experience of X" a lot harder to defend.

Expand full comment

I think it's useful to distinguish between attention and conscious experience. It seems possible to have the latter without the former, and so by definition it will be possible to be mistaken about one's own experience (if one is not paying sufficient attention to it). For example, I could be in physical pain from sitting in my chair for too long while reading a book, and yet not notice this pain because I am so engrossed in the reading material. Suppose I stop to reflect now and realize that not only am I feeling a pain in my left foot at the moment, but that I have been feeling it for the past five minutes. If you had asked me during my inattentive phase whether I was in pain, I could have honestly reported in the negative. This seems to go beyond the "absent thoughts while meditating" example, since it's not that I made a past mistake in categorizing my thoughts (as being a 'pure conscious stream' or whatever), but that I really missed a conscious experience.

Of course, in normal situations our being prompted by a question would be a sufficient stimulus to activate our attentional mechanisms, but it is at least conceivable that we can fail at this task. It's possible to go so far as to say that our attentional mechanisms are perfect and incapable of missing something, but that seems a really strong (and demonstrably wrong) claim.

It might also be countered that attention = consciousness, and so I wasn’t really consciously aware of the pain until the moment I realized it. But this still commits us to introspective error, since that would mean that my realization that “Aha, I have been in pain for the past five minutes” is itself erroneous. This does leave open the possibility that the more moderate claim of "we can't be wrong about the experiences we are presently aware of" is infallible though (which is perhaps what you had in mind anyways?).

Expand full comment

In my very uninformed model of conscious sensation:

feeling of X = some deep neutral network spread around my brain has spit out a low-dimensional output that I've been calling "X"

I'm pretty sure I'm just conflating ANN 101 with the vastly more complex brain network, but funnily enough this model seems to reduce the problem of this post to triviality.

If the "hunger" output is produced by the network beyond a certain threshold, I feel hungry, otherwise I don't. And sometimes the many inputs to the network happen to be *almost* right for "hunger" but in an unfamiliar/untrained combination that doesn't trigger the output enough.

So saying "I'm not hungry" is a statement about the output reading, not the inputs.

This also works alright for the statements "I can see in 7 dimensions" and "I'm enlightened". In this case the error is in what label we give to a new network output.

I'm writing this because it seems to work too well to be right, and I'm hoping to get a good scolding and a solid update to my beliefs.

Expand full comment
Nov 10, 2022·edited Nov 10, 2022

Sure they can: "I've been experiencing blue sky at 12:34:56" can be easily described as right or wrong. And even if you are saying that you are happy it may be because cosmic rays activated speech-related neurons without your brain actually being in a happy state.

You can construct your theory of knowledge with "you always right about experiences" axiom, but nothing forces you to and you get more confusing and contradictory view that way.

Expand full comment

If you ask a two year old what color they see something as, and they answer wrong, I think that might constitute a pretty clear example of someone being mistaken about their experiences in some sense. (I think people who claim to not be hungry may sometimes be doing something similar to that.)

Generally speaking, people attempting to describe their own experiences could mean something very different than what I would mean by the words they say? I would imagine Andres is having some sort of experience which they are choosing to describe as "seeing 7D phenomenal objects", but I suspect I would choose different words if I had the same experience.

Expand full comment

I don’t know … Seems like you can have conflicting experiences.

E.g. If a psychotic patient tells you they hear voices telling them that you are actually secretly a lizard person, but they know that’s absurd, and they just want the voices to go away… Both experiences are “real” phenomena, but there are no voices to hear and one part of the brain knows it. The same brain experiences voices, and experiences no voices at the same time.

This also brings to mind the split-brain experiments, that also seem to show conflicting experiences: One part of the brain can be factually incorrect about the nature of reality, and the other part of the brain can be seemingly wrong about what the first part believes and why.

A question then, is what we mean when saying people can’t be wrong about their experiences… Are we taking each experience individually, are we describing a meta-experience of having conflicting experiences, or are we describing the mental process of squaring the experiences…?

Expand full comment

ITA: Scott Codex remembers the lesswronger technique of Dissolving The Question

Expand full comment
Nov 10, 2022·edited Nov 10, 2022

Maybe this is already covered by the examples in the main post (but no example matches it 1:1 IMO): a very common experience (almost a trope) while on psychedelics is something like: "Wow, what is this weird feeling I'm feeling? I can't identify it. Wait, maybe it's happiness? Oh, it feels so good to be happy! Wait, it isn't happiness. Ah, now I recognize it: I'm hungry! I better go grab a snack.".

To me, it makes perfect sense to say that this person was hungry all along, but misclassified the hunger due to the altered mental state making it hard to identify emotions. So it makes sense to say that this person was wrong about being happy.

This is not like the example of someone not feeling that they are hungry. The psychonaut know that they are feeling a feeling, they are just unable to classify it.

Expand full comment

My problem with this analysis is that it doesn't do much to define what's meant by "honesty". For myself, I find it helpful to think of honesty as dependent on self-knowledge, which is distinguish from what I call "sincerity" which is rendition of what one thinks or feels quite apart from any issue of self-knowledge. For example, if someone has not ever understood that anger can frequently be a manifestation of underlying anxiety, they may sincerely talk or act as if they were driven entirely by anger and subjectively report no anxiety, even if they were quite apparently motivated by anxiety from the perspective of someone who understood them better, but this would not be honest because they lacked self-knowledge.

I also recoil at making honesty and lying a dichotomy. I only call it "lying" if it's an intended misrepresentation (by commission or ommission) or possibly a really blatant departure from what most people are expected to know about themselves in our culture. The opposite of honesty is dishonesty, opposite of sincerity is insincerity. Thus, the way I look at things someone can be honest yet at the same time insincere (because what they say isn't what they believe or feel in the moment). The novel, The Sympathizer, is a great rendition of how this can be.

Of course not everyone draws these distinctions. But I do think honesty is much more difficult that just saying what you think which is why sincerity is a very important concept. And I think that assuming people are lying if they misapprehend their own thoughts or feelings isn't a very useful way of looking at what a challenge it is to live honestly and authentically in our world.

Expand full comment

As someone who studied and was briefly involved in criminal law, I cannot believe this post took more than 1 word: "yes".

One would not believe how many well-meaning and sincere witnesses will remember things that just did not exist or did not happen. This can ve as simple as "the man in red pants came from the right and hit him"/"the man in white pants came from the left and hit him" (where only one man came and hit the victim and there was no-one in white pants until a few minutes later, and the court can see this on the video).

And that is without even touching on false confessions.

Expand full comment

To show people how we fool ourselves I tend to ask people to close their eyes and concentrate on picturing the front of their house. After a few seconds I ask if they can see it with all the details. Sometimes people are a bit insulted: of course! Then I ask them to enumerate one of the details that is repeated. E.g. how many shingles are there horizontally? This tend to break down the illusion they really saw those details.

Expand full comment

You don't have to reject the "experiencer fallacy" outright, it's enough to accept that the experiencer isn't a very consistent entity, but somewhat variable depending on circumstances. I like the "boardroom" metaphor for consciousness, where various modules/processess can bring up their issues for attention and participate in reflection, but no "board member" is there all the time. So, for example, you might be completely sincere about not being bothered by your father issues *at that moment*, but as soon as something reminds you of him, the "board" is reshuffled and suddenly you care a whole lot.

Expand full comment

I thought this post was going to be about memory. We know people can be wrong about their memories (e.g. contradictory eyewitness testimonies, false memories implanted by others, or people being sure about where they were on 9/11 but then finding their contemporary diary entries that contradict it).

The post is mostly about people's subjective experiences in the immediate present: I am/am not hungry, I do/do not see a 7-dimensional object. But the question that prompted the post is about people reporting their experiences (of jhanas) in the past, so the unreliability of memory could come into play.

(not saying "and therefore jhanas aren't real", just saying "this is a factor to consider")

Expand full comment
Nov 10, 2022·edited Nov 10, 2022

Phenomenology started out at pretty much exactly the position you're putting forward here: if we think of qualia as the apriori of experience, i.e. the condition for the possibility of experience, then our experience of qualia is direct and unmediated - there is nothing that can get 'between' us and the essential building blocks of perception. If there is a fact of experience, then that experience is a fact.

In this view, we're each 'authorities on our own experiences', and in experiencing ourselves experiencing something we become immanently aware of the given underlying structures of experience that we have always been taking for granted.

Now, the problem with this idea, imo, is that the fabled 'qualia' which constitute directly experienced objective facts seem to be a myth, and perception is mediated by cognition just as cognition is mediated by perception. Rather than "everyone always knows and is right about what they're experiencing", isn't every 'experience' both mediated by categorization (the dull pain I feel in my right arm, which appears in this localized form only because I have mapped my own body and the notion of pain, the citrus yellow which I can perceive in a certain way precisely because it has appeared with a certain stability in a certain context, and where my 'immediate' experience isn't so much that of a color, but includes, is bound up with, the various contexts within which I would expect to encounter that color - in other words all those neurons are firing as well) and something which requires further reflection, interpretation, for us to make sense of it even to ourselves?

We are always already mediated in our experience by our conceptual frame of the world, just as our conceptual frame is always already mediated by experiences, so there's no 'ontological ground' we can refer to when we're talking about an experience. In talking about it, we are, in a sense, reconstructing a process that has 'reflective depth' to it, and what it is and how we should make sense of it isn't by any means a trivial question.

Expand full comment

I (also) wondered if the post was going to be about the political idea of "lived experience", which is often thought to be incontrovertible, e.g. people's lived experience of racism or sexism. Can someone be wrong about that, or about a particular instance of that? Maybe, if you think Bob was mean to you because of your race, but actually Bob is a jerk and is mean to everyone.

Expand full comment

I'm surprised more people can't see that the obvious answer is 'yes'. Particularly, about being happy. Two quick examples: politics on twitter, people think they like it, they think they're having fun, but actually they're getting angry and outraged and addicted to those feelings, and mistakenly think it makes them happy when they are not. Another example is cocaine. Ask any user, and you'll find that the first few bumps always feel great, but towards the end of the night ask the user, and they mistakenly say they're having fun, but you can see they really aren't, and the next day people can more clearly see that the fun wore off after a few lines and it just became about hitting the need.

Expand full comment

When I was a kid, I idolized my cousin Shoshana, who was two years

older than me and therefore impossibly sophisticated in my eyes.

During a family camping trip one summer, she introduced me to a

trendy band called New Kids On The Block. As we sat in her tent,

listening to their latest album on her cassette player, Shoshana said,

“Ooh, this next song is my favorite!”

After the song was over, she turned to me and asked me what I

thought. I replied enthusiastically, “Yeah, it’s so good! I think it’s my

favorite, too.”

“Well, guess what?” she replied. “That’s not my favorite song. It’s

my least favorite song. I just wanted to see if you would copy me.”

I was embarrassed at the time. But in retrospect, it was an

instructive experience. When I claimed that song was my favorite, I

meant it—the song truly seemed better than the other songs. I didn’t

feel like I was just saying so to impress Shoshana. Then, after

Shoshana revealed her trick, I could feel my attitude shift in real

time. The song suddenly seemed corny. Lame. Boring. It was as if

someone had just switched on a harsher light, and the song’s flaws

were thrown into sharp relief.

quote from Julia Galef's book

Expand full comment

Children are often tired and hungry and not realizing it, even when they're told/asked. This suggests there's a learning curve, and this kind of things are often unequally mastered even into adulthood.

It could be a matter of skill.

Expand full comment
Nov 10, 2022·edited Nov 10, 2022

To drag this down to grim reality, I am answering "Yes" to "Can people be honestly wrong about their own experiences?" because at the moment I (and others) are dealing with a family member making claims about our shared childhoods.

These claims are wrong (some of them involve me, and when I say "That never happened", they come back with some rationalisation as to how they are right and I am wrong). They are in therapy, and I have the feeling that they are telling the therapist all this, and being believed, and so nothing to challenge their presentation of "the facts of my experiences" is happening, and they remain convinced of their mistaken memories or interpretations.

So yeah - it's perfectly possible for someone to give a report of their experiences, which they honestly believe is true and what really happened, even when what they claim ranges from the 'misinterpreted' to the 'literally impossible to have happened as you describe it'.

Sorry for dragging down a fun discussion of mental spaces, but I have no idea what to do or where to turn right now, especially as any challenging I do is further incorporated into the victimhood narrative this person has going on: "argument over claims and denial of same" becomes "heated discussion and yelling" becomes "you physically assaulted me!" so when they are telling this to a third party, the story goes "and Deiseach hit me when I tried to tell the truth about what happened back when we were kids". The third party is going to believe them, why not, they weren't there and family member doesn't come across as obviously delusional just upset and fearful, as they would be if they had been physically assaulted.

Expand full comment

I wrote on it back in the Jhana thread, so I will put it back as I think it's relevant:

If you admit that consciousness is just a summarized, coherent (or trying to be) and sequential story about your actual mental processes (which are less coherent and parallel because made of multiple actors collaborating/competing), coming after the actual decisions or experiences, then yes, I believe you can be wrong about your experiences. In fact, you are always wrong, exactly in the same sense memories are not the experience itself (and false memories exists). I think it's mostly the conscious thread that is stored as long term memories, and also the one that is communicated to others (because it exists exactly for that, it's a compressed serialization which is exactly what you want for storage and low bandwidth communication. Your conscious experience, like short term memory (not clear if they are different), has been edited to remove incoherences, compress it, maybe to the point it is a misrepresentation of the actual mental state before it. it's indeed an illusion but not in a pure philosophical sense, as the mental processes running on the side, even before the conscious thread is built really exist, can be observed and maybe are even partly recorded (although this is not clear).

A good example is drugs preventing medium/long term memories. Can they be used as sedation, as anesthesia, would you accept to use it (together with strong bonds) for surgery? Basically, the whole discussion regarding the different steps of complete anesthesia are very enlightening (and very disturbing for people trying to put a profound metaphysical importance on consciousness)

Expand full comment

“Well, it’s possible that fundamentally all happiness is an illusion, but I’m definitely experiencing the normal type of illusory happiness right now, it’s pretty vivid and intense”, and they say “No, you’re wrong about that”, I still feel like they’re making some kind of weird type error. Can’t justify it, though.


How would they know? The difference I find between "hunger", "happiness" or "seeing polar bear fur as white" and jhana/thoughtless consciousness/seeing in 7D is that the first ones are possible and lots of people experience these regularly while the others are either impossible (I don't think we can see in more than 3D as a matter of, like, how our eyes are constructed? and thoughtless consciousness?! really?) or extraordinary claims where "you're fooling yourself" seems the far more likely explanation.

Sorry - this may be too basic for our philosophers here but I thought maybe a stupid layman like myself might bring things down a level or two...

Expand full comment

It's trivially false that all statements made by honest people about their experiences are true, if this includes both past and present experiences, because people sometimes contradict their previous statements, and it's impossible that both the original statement and the contradiction are true.

If it's limited to present experiences, this problem doesn't arise. The honest person who says, "I'm happy" is telling the truth, and if they later say, "I now realise I wasn't happy", they are then mistaken (perhaps by misremembering). However, this is now a very weak claim, which in particular doesn't help with reported experiences of jhana, unless the speaker actually is in jhana at the time.

Expand full comment
Nov 10, 2022·edited Nov 10, 2022

Here's a silly, trivial example that might clarify a larger point.

Suppose you are estimating the probability that something will happen and you estimate there is a three in four chance of it happening, so you say "I subjectively think there is a 80% chance this will happen" because you have a brain fart and momentarily think 80% = 3/4.

Would we say you are

"accurately reporting your subjective experience of experiencing yourself believing the thing will happen at probability 80%, while you actually believe it will happen at probability 75%"


Maybe? But is "believing thing will happen at probability 80%" really an experience?

A better way to describe what is happening is that you are being wrong about your experience. Or, more accurately, in translating your experience to words you find the wrong words to describe it. In this case, you say 80 instead of 75. I think that works for the meditation example too. The woman was indeed experiencing something, but she picked out the wrong words to describe it "I'm not thinking about anything" VS "I'm thinking about not thinking about anything".

Now, believing that a sentence S corresponds to an experience e, is itself a belief. So granted had the woman said

"I believe that the sentence 'I am thinking about nothing' corresponds to my subjective reality" she would have accurately reported her subjective reality. But that is not what she said.

Instead she just said 'I am thinking about nothing'. Without the surrounding words which makes her statement a false first-order report of her mental state and not a true, second order statement about her beliefs about her mental state.

Expand full comment

What happened to the idea that beliefs should be anticipation controllers?

When a person A says they have mental state X, but you object that actually they are wrong, what kind of predictions each of you is making about the future?

Expand full comment

Somatic complaints may be something like being wrong about your own internal experiences, since the basic hypothesis is that they are a function of low-insight (regarding the connection between your psychological processes and your body).

But I guess its more like a misfire regarding the underlying "cause" of the physical symptom and wrongly describing that property of it.

Expand full comment

CS Lewis pointed out that everything is a real something. It might be a real hallucination.

Expand full comment

This brings to mind a recent experience... I’ve starting to get really into meditation again, and tried to convince my mom to give it a try, and she’s like, “Well...I think I’m more mindful with a little bit of cannabis.” And I’m like...I don’t think you’re getting it.

I try to explain that it’s not just a relaxation technique. It’s not just about being more chill. You train a very specific skill that you are extremely unlikely to get by accident, and it is one that is extremely useful and makes your life better in all sorts of ways.

I think I have an inkling of what is meant by nondual experience and the way I’d put it is: You can learn to notice that even the distractions, the worries, thoughts of past and future, are simply experiences arising in the present. It seems like a combination mental sounds/images and physical sensations. When I am stuck in thought it seems as if the source is what feel like physical sensations mostly in my head. I don’t know if it’s actually facial muscles or what. But when I notice this, I feel less stuck.

And I can feel that everything is ok even when it’s not. Even painful sensations are just sensations. They are not bad in themselves... To a large extent, it’s often fear of some kind that makes it worse. (That hurts... What if it gets worse? What if it means I have medical condition?) Also, the badness, the evaluation of them as bad, are separate experiences, which are also yet more sensations/thoughts arising in the present, which themselves are neither good nor bad.

Being able to do this is extremely useful. You’re less likely to do something stupid after being cut off in traffic. You can tolerate pain better. In my youth when I was really dedicated to medication, I was at the dentist and the novocaine was wearing off, but I decided not to say anything. I decided to just investigate the sensations, and was like, huh, that’s interesting.

Could someone be wrong about being able to do this? Quite possibly. I think it’s not nearly as esoteric or spooky as it’s often made to sound, but if you haven’t had enough experience of meditation, I think it’s really hard if not impossible to make sense of what these kinds of statements are trying to indicate. But I’m quite sure it’s a real thing with real consequences and no doubt neurological correlates.

Incidentally, I think I experienced jhana once in my youth. After long intense concentration, I felt...I guess a little bit like on MDMA. I’m not sure whether it really was jhana or not, but it sounds too similar to what I’ve heard about both what it’s like and how it’s attained to be a coincidence.

But for the people who are like “how could you not be desperate to do it all the time?” Well I never figured out how to do it reliably. It seemed hard, but I never felt like I wanted that bad. I did MDMA a few times too, and it really did make me feel pretty much the best I’ve ever felt, but was never desperate to get it again.

It really does seem like missing point. The point of meditation isn’t to manufacture great feelings. The point is to realize that feeling that what you’re experiencing in any moment is somehow not enough, ie the suffering or unsatisfactoriness of life is actually something you actually actively producing in each moment, and it’s possible to stop doing it.

This may all be tangentially related, but... I think the original question is too ill-formed to really answer.

Expand full comment

I’ve always wondered what was really going on with people who think they’ve been abducted by aliens.

A lot of them seem to be quite normal but earnestly believe the experience.

Expand full comment

All of this seems like "if a tree falls in a forest, does it make a sound?". There is an internal perception of hunger, there are some biological correlates, and there is nothing else. You can call the person (an honest person saying they're not hungry) correct or incorrect, it doesn't change anything.

Expand full comment

"But there isn’t some third option, where they honestly think they’re not experiencing hunger, but really they are."



"On your blindsight side, do you have the experience of seeing any obstacles?"


"Reach out for the target object."

-Subject avoids obstacles in the way of grabbing target."

Using sight without the qualia of sight. They can say "I'm not consciously aware of experiencing it" but not "I'm not experiencing it."

Expand full comment

The trouble is that all introspection is retrodiction.

Take the person who says "I'm not angry at my father", but clearly is. They might be having feelings of anger, accompanied by visual imagery of their father. But they are so invested in the narrative of "I'm not angry at my father" that every time someone asks "what's wrong?" they look back at the memory and come up with a post-hoc rationalization of what they were feeling--any narrative will work, so long as it isn't "I'm angry at my father."

This happens every time we report our inner state (to ourselves or to others). We have the experience, and then look backwards at it and say "what was I feeling just now?" If you watch this process during meditation you can twist yourself into all sorts of pretzels.

Expand full comment

"This seems no worse than somebody on drugs scrawling “JOY = JUSTICE * LOVE” or something on a blackboard and believing that it they’ve discovered the fundamental truth of the universe"

Well of course this is wrong, it's MERCY which is JUSTICE * LOVE 😁

Expand full comment

Belief, itself, is a tool, not merely a measurement.

We are social and story-based creatures. Consider how we can love money -- not merely the power that money would bring us, but money itself -- even though we don't really understand what money is.

Engineers and scientists, beaten by experience into respecting falsifiability, apply a rigorous test for things they believe. But even they only do this reliably in their practical scientific domain. I know religious engineers who turn from skeptical thinkers to ingenuous ones when the subject changes from their trading algorithms to Jesus. They know what truth feels like when it's rooted in undeniable empirical reality; sometimes I marvel that they don't apply that lens to their religious belief.

But of course, even though I don't believe in god, I do believe in plenty of my own myths, like personal integrity, interpersonal loyalty, familial love. I don't apply any kind of falsifiability test to these beliefs; I believe them out of a mix of deeply rooted values and intentional belief. I **want** to believe in them, and in fact I cultivate my belief in them, steering myself back towards them when I get too infatuated with competing fixations like personal success or petty rivalries.

I've often thought it curious, for instance, that so few people who claim to believe in Jesus make a study of the gospels in their original language. And of course, most of the people in the world who claim to believe in Jesus have never even bothered to learn what Jesus's name was! (No one in his lifetime called him "gee-zus".) If I believed in Jesus the way that I believe in, say, Bayes' rule, or even Mexico City's being a phenomenal city to visit, I would definitely be over on Duolingo studying Aramaic :)... But that's not the sort of belief my colleagues have; theirs is more like my belief in familial love, where I certainly might read the occasional book about parenting, but I also think I more or less have all of the basic knowledge I need already to live in rch communion with that belief.

That is the lens I think we should apply to claims about jhana. There are some Christians who claim to believe in Jesus who would agree they do not believe in Jesus in the way they believe in dental cavities; they might recognize that belief in Jesus is a tool they use so that life is more in line with how they want to live it. They might acknowledge that they could easily find the same truth in most other religions. But these same people are not lying when they say they believe in Jesus -- because our capacity for belief is precisely **for** this sort of contradictory mess! We are fucking great at believing things; belief is like a perfect plumber's tool, that doesn't just tension stiff but can twist and turn itself to find any holes in a pipe and patch over them so the certainty and confidence and connection can flow.

Is there a point before forming such a belief where we are aware of a deliberate choice? In a few weirdos, yes, but for most people, noticing those shimmers of intention is something they're just not used to doing, and the same part of their brain that is so good at forming and using belief is also great at simultaneously erasing its tracks. (For someone who has gotten good at noticing in ourselves how frequently we begin to lie up ourselves, it can be very destructive to relationships to start noticing how often others are doing this!)

Of course, on some level, I know my belief and familial love is a brilliant hack performed by my DNA and brain chemistry, and not something objectively real. But honestly, I sort of suppress thinking about that; embracing the illusion is necessary for it to work, and I am so committed to the illusion that it feels somehow disgusting right now for me to even admit that I know, on some level, that it is an illusion. We are weak creatures designed to team up extraordinarily well; we report beliefs that happen to be rooted in interpersonal story, status, and faith more than in empiricism (beliefs that remote parts of our brains know are sorta bullshit, just in case) -- because **that's what beliefs are**. We're all Trump trying out the belief that it wasn't him on the Access Hollywood tape, until his confidantes nix that idea; we're just usually much more suave in our belief forming then he is, much better at hiding from ourselves, and others, how the belief sausages are made.

Someone who tells us their experience of jhana is better than the best sex imaginable has some part of their brain that could clarify that this is an aspirational belief, mixed in with some observations of sanguine fact that they consider plausibly close. But why would they? Pursuing that sort of clarification certainly isn't what got them to meditate for 1000 hours. Only the occasional weirdo is, like me, even mildly interested in trying to build walls between their aspirational beliefs and their observed sanguine understandings.

Expand full comment

Put another way, if someone says they're currently feeling hunger, that's a subjective judgment and it's probably impossible to be honestly mistaken. It might be that you're registering a different feeling as hunger (i.e. food won't fix it), but you're the best judge of your own current experience.

But you can absolutely be wrong when you say "yesterday I felt hunger" because your memory can be mistaken.

You can also be wrong when you say "I'm way hungrier today than I've ever been." You're comparing your current subjective impressions to your memories of past impressions.

And you can absolutely be wrong when you say "I was more hungry last Tuesday than I was six weeks ago." The amount of potentially mistaken memory you need to process to make a comparison like that virtually guarantees you're just making a story up about your past self that is agnostic to the actual truth.

Expand full comment
Nov 10, 2022·edited Nov 10, 2022

I think I have a good counterexample. I like to read books in bed late at night, sometimes when I'm doing this I get tired and close my eyes for a moment, then drift off into a half dreaming state. In this state I still have the sensory experience of lying in bed, but I hallucinate something about reading a book. At this point if you asked me "Are you reading a book?" I'd say yes.

From this state I often fall completely asleep, but sometimes some mental process notices "Wait a minute, my eyes are closed. How can I be reading?" At this point I think about the book I'm reading and realize that I couldn't actually repeat back any of the sentences I've supposedly read. It's like someone stuck an electrode directly on the "feels like reading a book" neuron without feeding my brain any book content. In this moment I realize that I was not reading a book, and furthermore I was mistaking some kind of incomplete dream quale for a much richer experience I was definitely not having. If you had asked me "Can you tell me what the book you're reading is about?" I would have thought "Of course", then attempted to and failed utterly.

Expand full comment

I find myself thinking along the lines of "okay, but so what?"

Looking back at Jhanas, what those of us who are skeptic are really worried about is not if some person has an unusual feeling of extreme happiness (I think most of us would agree there are some people who just seem to always be happy, even if we can't achieve it), but whether this feeling is transferable. If I do the things they say they did, will I also have this same feeling?

If their feeling makes sense, like being hungry when you haven't eaten in a while, that seems more transferable. If the person has not eaten in 10 hours and reports "not hungry" then I doubt that I will have the same experience. If they have a suggestion of how to achieve the same thing, for instance an appetite suppressant, then I can evaluate whether that's a good option for me. Appetite suppressors are a real thing, but even if we were uncertain of that we could try one out and see if we had the feeling - it's a low time-investment and pretty low effort investment to make a determination. If we still felt hungry at similar levels to before under similar circumstances, we could also determine that the suppressant didn't work (at least for us).

With the Jhanas, one of the biggest issues is that the process is described as taking many hours per week over potentially years to achieve, with no guarantee of success. The fact that there are no guarantees and no standard timeframe means that any failure to achieve the same results would not count as a failure to replicate. Taken in aggregate, there is no way to falsify this belief - only positive cases are counted. This should lower our belief that we are able to achieve this state and lower our belief that the state being reported is actually achievable through the methods proscribed. This is true regardless of the subjective belief of those saying they experienced it.

Expand full comment

This feels a little bit like no true scotsman...

Expand full comment

Trivial examples of honest reporting being incorrect is the medical phenomena of referred pain. You have pain in some part of your body but you perceive it as being in another part. Example pain radiating down left arm from a coronary attack or ghost pain from an organ that has been removed such as after a cholecystectomy.

Meditation is good to bring up. The example of thoughts given above is an excellent one, and there are numerous other honest self deceptions in the practice.

Expand full comment

This comment may come across as low-effort sniping, but it's an honest question. Isn't this just an (obvious) argument about semantics? The question "Can people be honestly wrong about their own experiences?" seems to me less an argument about the state of the world, or even about philosophical truth, and more quibbling over the meaning of the words "wrong" and "experience". In particular, it is quibbling that can never be resolved satisfactorily because the English language is not that precise: if you want to resolve the confusion, you'll have to be more verbose, but there isn't a non-semantic issue at play.

Expand full comment

Couldn't this be tested by crafting problems in 7D geometry / topology which would be intuitively obvious if you could directly experience 7D objects, but would take a lot of very hard maths to work out normally?

I've heard that Robert Langlands claimed to be able to visualise surfaces in 4D space, and I don't know if he could, but he did at least make major field-defining discoveries about them!

Expand full comment
Nov 10, 2022·edited Nov 10, 2022

I’m inclined to agree with the great British and Liverpudlian philosopher Sir Richard Starkey MBE who, when asked whether he believed in “Love at first sight”, said:

“Yes, I'm certain that it happens all the time”.

Not that he had experienced it but he believed other people’s experience of it.

Unless it’s clearly a lie or impossible, I’m inclined to believe other peoples description of their qualia.

Expand full comment

This was a central point of debate throughout the entirety of modern Western philosophy. Descartes, in Meditations on First Philosophy (the foundational text of modern philosophy, for those who don't know), more or less builds off this problem. His eventual question becomes how error in judgement is possible if humans are made in God's likeness. He concludes that humans, being several steps removed from God, are imperfect, and that errors in judgement occur when the faculty of reason is misused: when we assert something a high degree of certainty without necessarily reflecting on how sure we actually are and how much we know.

Two things:

First, I challenge whether you're asking the right question here, Scott. As it stands I think we've overcomplicated it. Why can't we just assert that human perception is highly limited, and that moreover we tend to be somewhat rash in judgement--in other words, people tend to make judgements about things they don't understand, and thus you get all sorts of examples of people making claims about internal experience that aren't necessarily accurate or true.

Second, I think this is the reason that a large portion of the philosophical tradition has since moved away from this sort of subject-object metaphysics. I know we aren't a big fan of postmodernism here, but one thing I find really interesting in the through line from Freud to postmodernism is the questioning of the unification of the subject. There is no unified, single, coherent subject; people are not immediately self-present/present to themselves. This is why psychological defense mechanisms like repression are possible.

Expand full comment

Here is an edge case which is very difficult to reconcile with the thesis: the "Self-Torturer" paradox, described in Michael Huemer's excellent book "Paradox Lost":

A person which starts in a state of no pain is repeatedly given the option to increase his torture level by an undetectable increment, in exchange for $10,000. Each time, the difference in pain is undetectable, so it seems rational to accept. However, the end result is a life of agony that seems not worth the financial reward.

Huemer claims that the only way out of this is to recognize that there can be an introspectively undetectable differences in subjective experience.

Expand full comment
Nov 10, 2022·edited Nov 10, 2022

Can you be wrong about your own subjective experience? There are the obvious ways: lying or misremembering. Other than that...

For one thing, it depends on what you call subjective experience. Is it only the things you are consciously aware to be experiencing? Does it include all the stuff that you would experience if only you paid attention? This is about word definitions, not too interesting.

But I think there is also room for being wrong about your own subjective experience that is not about word definitions. There's also how you frame and end up translating that experience into a description. This can be affected by drugs, sleep, elephants in the brain, priming, the models you have...

When the drugged person reports an experience and describes it in a way that makes no logical sense, he just can't be right. Sure, as a listener you can always patch it and when someone says "I am tasting love and it tastes like the moon", or "I am not alive", and take it to mean "I feel compelled to describe my experience by the nonsensical description [...]". Then sure, if she's not lying or misremembering, I guess she can't be wrong. But imo, that's just being wrong, and you are going beyond charitable and changing the meaning of what was meant to be said when you add the extra meta layer. If you report a deja vu and report it as "I've lived this moment before", without conscious awareness that it's an illusion, you are plain wrong.

Maybe you can't be wrong if you don't add this extra meta layer between the raw experience and the description. That sounds like what meditation people kinda want to achieve, right? Then you can't be wrong in this way but only because you also can't make any claims at all, there's nothing to be wrong about.

Expand full comment

“Consciousness is precisely the only thing that isn’t reduced if it were an illusion.”

That’s from an eerily discussion between Eliezer Yudkowsky and Jaron Lanier had back in 2008. https://youtu.be/Ff15lbI1V9M like 26:20

Expand full comment

It seems to me that all these examples assume immediate reporting of the experience. But often that is not what happens. Rather, people are reporting the experience at a later time, and what they are really reporting is their memory of the experience. When the memory is created, or recreated, there is ample opportunity to add a story to the experience. One might even argue it is nigh impossible not to add a story. The story is our, or often someone else's, interpretation of the experience. So I think the more important question is whether it is possible to alter an experience with an interpretation and then remember that as the actual experience, and then later to report it as such. And I think science has shown the answer is a resounding "yes."

Expand full comment
Nov 10, 2022·edited Nov 10, 2022

On further reflection, it seems to me that this post could be interpreted as a wholesale rejection of the rationalist paradigm. If we are supposed to believe that people cannot be wrong about their subjective experiences, and if we assume that for the most part people are honestly reporting their experiences, then what are we to think of religious experiences, for example? How can we call them delusions, if people honestly think they happened? Also, googling around, here is an interesting article:


And this: https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/religious-studies/article/abs/religious-experience-and-the-probability-of-theism-comments-on-swinburne/4FB6BFE12560DC9D93D28110A3DE5B58

I am sure this has been discussed before and someone will reply with a Scott article addressing these types of arguments.

Expand full comment

I think there was a study once where people were shown faked photos of their father taking them for a ride in a hot air balloon or something, and many of them could recall the experience including sometimes things like how they felt scared or happy at the time - despite the researchers checking before hand that these people had definitely never been in a balloon ride.

So it seems that people can definitely be wrong about their past feelings and experiences, as well as more mundane things like "the car in the accident was definitely red" - and that's before we get to "repressed" memories recovered through therapy.

My priors are very high on "yes, people can be wrong about their own experiences".

Expand full comment

I don't think it's necessarily impossible that our brains could visualize things in 7 dimensions. Consider a thought experiment where you have someone participate in a VR simulation, but the world you simulate is 7D, and you transmit sensory information from different directions in the 7D world into distinct input channels that connect directly to the brain. I think it's plausible that someone immersed in this simulation for years would be able to adapt to it quite well. It's also possible that they wouldn't, if the 3D nature of our world is hardcoded in some way into our genes controlling perception. But it's not obvious to me that this is the case.

The Fields medal winning mathematician Bill Thurston apparently claimed to be able to visualize objects in 4 dimensions and that this helped him come up with difficult theorems that turned out to be true. The full anecdote is here-- https://qr.ae/pvEXSf . This seems like the best evidence to me that this is possible in principle.

Expand full comment

Scott, a request. People are dropping all kinds of interesting links to philosophy papers in the comments. Would it be possible to get a post with all the links in one easily accessible place?

Expand full comment

The mind is a black box, and even from the inside it's totally dark. It's very easy to couple words and concepts with your internal experience in ways that do not hold, do not match up when probed by experts on the outside. I love this lesswrong article on thinking you're great at emotions when really you're totally disconnected ( https://www.lesswrong.com/s/g72vrjJSJSZnqBrKx/p/qmXqHKpgRfg83Nif9 ). I have friends like this, that think they have a good grasp on their emotions but are clearly actually suppressing them. I've watched one of them run around in an anxious frenzy when having many unexpected guests over and when I asked whether he was anxious, he told me no, even though we was behaving like it and physically trembling. I have another friend who claims to be very emotionally minded, more connected with her emotions than with her thoughts, but when I ask her to describe her emotions during some past event, she immediately starts conceptualizing instead of covering her emotions. Maybe she's just terrible at describing them, who knows, but from the outside it looks like she's way more connected to her thoughts than to her emotions.

Expand full comment
Nov 10, 2022·edited Nov 10, 2022


Well, first of all, we know that people can have false memories, so it's absolutely the case that people can be honestly wrong about their internal experiences that happened in the past. If somebody said they met aliens 10 years ago and had a joyride in an UFO, there are at least 4 possibilities:

1. They actually met aliens.

2. They lied about meeting aliens.

3. 10 years ago, they hallucinated the experience of meeting aliens, and they faithfully reported their experiences of meeting aliens.

4. This was a false memory and they did not have the experience of meeting aliens.

To say that people are always accurate about their subjective experiences unless they're lying, you have to say that all apparent accounts of #4 is either #2 or #3, which is just implausible to me given how frequently people have false and easily primed memories (see e.g. court witnesses).

Now I assume that your ninja trick in the above essay will look something like "people correctly reported their experiences of remembering meeting aliens, even if they were mistaken about their remembered experiences of meeting aliens." But to me I think this definition is not the most intuitive one, or the best way to carve reality. *And it actually matters.* If there's an anesthetic that removes memories of pain, that'd be valuable, but nowhere near as valuable as an anesthetic that removes the ongoing experiences of pain!



More central to the debate, I do think perhaps there's not a "truth of the matter" to our discussions here, but more of how we choose to interpret things.

Your interpretation of the time question goes:

>If you properly differentiate all of these, you can say things like “people are accurately reporting their subjective experience of internal clock speed, while being wrong that their internal clock is actually slowed down relative to wall clock speed”.

Whereas my interpretation of it is

> your subjective experience of your subjective experience of time is slowed down, but your actual subjective experience of time is the same as before (or even sped up).

There might not be a truth of the matter here, just a difference in framing.

> (though this study suggests a completely different thing is going on; people have normal speed, but retroactively remember things as lasting longer)

Incidentally, this is my best guess for how (not always, but often) subjective experience of the experience time can seem much faster than what *I* call "subjective experience of time" (ie, clock speeds).

Basically, here's the chain of reasoning:

1. You don't have "true" instantaneous experiences because humans are implemented on wetware with discrete time jumps.

2. So all instantaneous experiences are a bit of an illusion anyway, and relies at some level or another on memories of subjectively-present, objectively-past events.

3. More so than most, the experience of *time* necessarily relies on memory.

4. Drugs that make time seem to pass slowly (or high subjective clock speeds) often work by making you forget recently past events. So time seems to go by slowly because (compared to baseline), 30s ago in objective time feels subjectively "murkier" and further away. This explains why when stoned, music feeeeellllls like it's going reeeeeaaaallly slooooowly.

5. There might be a countervailing effect where very-near-past events (say 1s ago) feel more crisp and you remember more things (this intuitively seems like a plausible model of adrenaline). In that case, you'd have nearly the apparently opposite effect that still results in altering your subjective experience of your subjective experience of time, without actually changing clock speeds.

5a) I think it's much more plausible that there are drugs that massively slow down clock speeds, than that there are drugs that massively speed up actual clock speeds. So I'm much less suspicious in the other direction. Though *small* speedups from amphetamines or w/e don't seem insane to me.

To some degree, this model is empirically testable. If you have friends who take drugs that make time appear to go slower, you can do a single-blinded study like this:

1. Ask them to watch something where time is tracked very objectively with relatively short jumps (e.g. the second hand of an analog clock).

2. Ask them to take drugs, and then report what their experience of time is like.

3. While drugged, ask them to now look at the clock again, and in "real time" report whether the clock hand appears to be moving more slowly or quickly than before.

4. If my model is correct, they're more likely to report that the clock hand is moving either the same or more quickly than before, rather than slowly.



While at some level there's no "truth of the matter" to our debate, and this is mostly a semantics question or one of preferred framings, I do think (unless we're very careful) what we choose to emphasize can have substantial real world implications in the future.

Consider the question of subjective experience of time. If we live in a future with digital minds, what I call "subjective experience of time" or "clock speed" matters a lot. A life on 100 subjective years matters roughly as much as 100 calendar years, even if it's only instantiated in one calendar year. In contrast, I care much less about what you call "subjective experience of internal clock speed."

Getting this mixed up is pretty bad on any calculus that cares about internal experiences. Since (by my natural ontology) we want people to have actual subjectively rich and valuable lives, not just to falsely believe they do. On the other end, being tortured for subjective millennia is (in my opinion) much much worse than being tortured for one internal clock second but thinking it lasted millenia, or having a false memory inserted of long-lasting torture.

I don't expect this question to be *very* important before we get digital minds (because we probably don't have massive OOM differences of speeds in biological minds), but I think it matters a bit for animal welfare. There's some earlier work on internal clock speeds variance across species by Rethink Priorities (disclaimer: I work for Rethink Priorities. I did not work on that report).



I find differences in experiences of time most intellectually interesting, but of course, differences in other "honest" reports of subjective experience vs actual morally relevant subjective experiences matter too. We'd much rather people not suffer than just think they're not suffering, for example.

Expand full comment

I'm confused why you don't talk more about memory and fallibility thereof. Unless you're narrating your current experience (and maybe even then), you're reporting a memory of an event and I think it's broadly agreed that people can be honestly wrong about memories.

Expand full comment

I'm a little unclear on the boundaries of the term "qualia", and the discussions above seem to address questions that are at least slightly different, although they examine them in depth.

This term seems to bundle raw sensory data together with some amount of inductive post-processing, provided that the processing isn't conscious or deliberate. But that means that post-processing errors don't invalidate a "quale", provided they are unconconscious? So stating that a report of "qualia" is inherently correct as far as it goes presumably means it doesn't go very far? What happens if some kind of careful self-review isolates and identifies a previously-unconscious leap as an error, and brings it into consciousness? Did the quale retroactively change, or is it still valid as originally reported?

If you sincerely perceive a silent beckoning figure at night out of the corner of your eye, but everyone (including you) concludes it was a random movement of curtains in the moonlight which you unconsciously

converted into a familiar shape, is the correct statement at the qualia level that yes, you saw a ghost, even if that only entered your head for a moment? What if someone took DMT and formed the belief they were looking at a 7D object, but after examining the memory retrospect they conclude on their own

that it was actually an invalid analysis applied to an ordinary two-dimensional visual halucination? At the qualia level, did they in fact see a 7D object? This example sounds like the example above of "people retroactively remembering things as lasting longer", and I'm not sure which part of that is a quale, either. But if "qualia" explicitly include untested assumptions about raw sensory input (provided that those assumptions aren't made conscioiusly), how relevant would "qualia" be?

I apparently don't get hungry. I use the word "apparently" because this is the most likely explanation I can find for comparing personal experience with reports of the experience of others. Personal experience would presumably be categorized as qualia here, and reports would be reports of qualia, but there's an objective truth here I would like to identify, and the weakest part of the argument rests on this "qualia". I therefore wouldn't say that "I don't get hungry" is necessarily true, it's just a likely interpretation of the information I have available.

Expand full comment

I feel like the major issue with statements about meditative experiences is about the meanings of words. If you take Wittgenstein's idea that words aquire their meaning through use, it becomes clear that the more private and subjective an experience is, the harder it will be for us all to arrive at the same meaning. Think of that guy you wrote about who had no sense of smell but didn't realize it for years - was he wrong about saying that something 'stinks'? I'd say he was just wrong about what 'stinks' means. It's easy to be wrong about what words like 'concentration' or 'piti' means. You think 'oh piti isn't all that' for ages and then one day you hit a jhana properly feel like you're thrumming like an electrical pylon and you say 'oh, i was wrong, THATS what piti means'.

Expand full comment

I think at least some of this is solved by the observation that the experience and the report/thought/interpretation are not the same; you can be wrong about the latter but not the former

When you report that you "feel happy", you are aggregating a lot of complicated sense data (e.g. heart rate, temperature, dopamine, whatever) into a story that makes sense to you. But the story is not the sense data

Similarly, if somebody says they experienced a 7D object while on DMT, likely this is just the story that fits them best; it was probably not "actually" a 7D object, but the sensation they experienced was whatever it was, independent of the story.

Expand full comment

Can someone explain the John Edwards reference? I first assumed it to be one of those Berenstein Bears things where people tend to remember the wrong spelling better than the real spelling, but when I Googled "John Edwards" the John Edwards I was thinking of was spelled "John Edwards".

Expand full comment

Ludwig Wittgenstein addresses the phenomenology of being wrong in his Philosophical Investigations as part of a wider discussion of the building blocks of language.

He provides the example of a person teaching another a series of numbers that follow a production function. Providing several examples of wrongness (all wrong, a mistake part way through, understanding but failing to catch an edge case, getting it correct accidentally) W. considers whether the person can be said to have learned that expansion correctly in each case.

I will not claim to fully understand what his conclusion is since I am still in the book but it seems to be leading to his larger point that all language is antisystematic and idiosyncratic. As he so eloquently puts it, to imagine a language is to imagine a way of life.

Expand full comment

"This woman wasn’t lying - if she had been, she would have just continued the the charade."

She might not have continued the charade because she was embarrassed about being caught out in the charade. Or because she was embarrassed by the realization that she had been fooling herself about her alleged week of no thoughts.

There is no real dispute that people will exaggerate pain for monetary gain. And people will exaggerate both negative and positive experiences as attention seeking behavior.

There are many many times I've read a medical report that says: the patient is a poor historian.

The question is always about the line between being skeptical and being cynical.

Expand full comment
Expand full comment

I think there’s a motte and bailey here. If someone says they’re “not angry about their father” and then rants at you for an hour, then yes, they are angry about their dad.

Maybe they truly believe they’re not, I’m very willing to believe that. But they are angry. Being triggered into an aggressive rant when someone mentions X is, for basically everyone, the definition of being angry about X. Calling it “stress-related behavior“ is equivocating. This is true also for the person making the statement; the phrase “I’m not angry about X” virtually always means “I am not in a state where X will trigger stress-related behavior.”

You could say, as many people here have, that there are different levels to your subjective experience, and that the top level is never wrong. Provided you define that top level narrowly enough, then there’s no way to argue it. But that’s the bailey, it’s taking the framing to such an extreme that no one could possibly disagree with you.

The people who are saying that you can be wrong about your own experiences aren’t talking about the top level, they’re talking about the deeper states underneath. They’re saying that people don’t always have a very good understanding of their emotional states, and there are countless examples of this behavior.

Expand full comment

Probably been said before, but I don't think there's much here beyond "it depends whether the person making the claim is claiming something falsifiable, or purely reporting an inner experience". There really is no middle ground, logically speaking.

I feel that if someone would say "being on DMT feels like how I would imagine seeing in 7 dimensions would be like" nobody would contest that claim. There's really little to contest. What a person experiences, unless they are intentionally lying, is tautologically true, and this statement should really be trivial by now.

But if someone says they literally see in 7 dimensions when on DMT, you'd call them a liar, because there's an objective, falsifiable claim that they're making, and you can probably test that (given a definition of seeing in 7 dimensions) and prove that they're wrong.

To tie that to the tangent of the Jhana talk - the problem with a lot of debatable claim-groups, like spoonies, psuedo-DIDs, Jhana enthusiasts, and so on, is that they are sort of doing neither.

Take the DMT example from above (when someone says they "see in 7 dimensions when on DMT"). Imagine the conversation you'd have if a friend of yours made that claim. It would probably start out with you trying to figure out what they mean, and the more it will seem like they're saying that they ACTUALLY SEE THAT WAY the more it'll turn into an argument. In the end, probably, when you'll sit down to well-define "seeing in 7 dimensions", that person would give a weaker definition that ends up being strictly internal, and you'll both call it a misunderstanding and carry on with your life.

Problem is, this probably happens to them reliably with smarter/more argumentative people, and to the others they're kinda of being misleading.

With some people from what I called debatable claim-groups, it feels like when out and about, they use language that is very suggestive of objectivity, cause it makes their experience sound cool, or real, or many other desirable traits, but when confronted on what evidence they have they will retreat to "of course I'm not making any objective claim, and if you think what I'm describing is basically nothing then ok man, your entitled to that opinion." And I think that's kinda bad, on their part.

I want to make it abundantly clear here - I'm not saying people like that are using that strategy deliberately and running some long con that earns them social capital on net, or anything calculating like that. Maybe some do. But more likely, they do have a strong inner impression that something "real" is going on, and are reluctant to admit "its merely subjective" even to themselves, cause that might hurt their sense of identity, or any of the other innocent usual suspects for irrationality.

To illustrate this with a story - I sort of have synesthesia, smell to vision. Ever since I can remember, I get these split visions of colors, like spots on my eyes, when I smell things. For my entire life I wasn't sure how "real" it is, since the experience is very fleeting and its not like I'm seeing a 3 dimensional illusion taking space in the room I'm at, or something. Most of my life I didn't find it very exciting (only for a brief period when I started learning neuroscience), I never even shared that on a date, even though that's a stellar ice breaker with the sort of nerdy girls I tend to like (Its not that I'm so humble and above such tactics, I just didn't figure it would count as cool).

Anyway, during my degree I had to participate in some experiments (as a subject) to get credit on some psych/neuro classes, and had a bit of a hard time finding any for left handed people, cause, you know, we're sinister like that.

I eventually found one testing for synesthesia and then having the subject, if they do seem to have it, answer some questions on a computer test.

I talked to the guy who ran it for me about a year later, and he told me that I wouldn't believe the amount of people coming in sure that they had a measurable phenomena, but that testing them showed they're reports (mostly colors seen when hearing sounds, or stimulating other senses) weren't coherent at all, certainly not to the point of statistical significance, on any relevant axis.

We both also agreed that they probably weren't lying, first because they really have nothing to gain coming to an anonymous experiment with false claims, and second because normal people don't generally lie about big things like that very often (at least to my experience).

So what was going on here? Well, I would reason that a big chunk of those people started up with some random phenomenon that could maybe seem like synesthesia if you squint at it, then read up about it online, or where exposed to it in a context were it sounded cool, and decided they might have it. I believe, much like Scott's views on placebo, that when dealing with high-noise signals, with a lot of degrees of freedom, the brain has some leeway as to what conscious experience ends up manifesting, and this somewhat depends on priors. So I believe (not with high confidence, mind you) that if you keep leaning into the narrative of "I see colors depending on what note I hear being played", you can end up in a cognitive equilibrium where it really does feel like that, even strongly.

Same goes for having a "module of a different person inside of you, so distinct its more interesting than a normal person thinking "what would X do?"" (I'm alluding to Scott's description of what the DID people in question say when asked about it). I'm sure its very possible to feel that way, especially in an environment where other people feel it too and think its cool, but the question is, if you sit down to define how exactly this module is different from "what would X do?", do you end up with something falsifiable or not? If you do, then test it, and we're done. If you don't... well, again, its seems to me that making tiktok videos of different personalities of yourself conversing with one another, or, just the sense I got from reading these people's descriptions of their experiences (I didn't even know that was a thing before the post, btw)... its all pretty misleading. Like, its pretty clear that without A LOT of context, the median listener would be convinced those people mean something very distinct and falsifiable (even if the listener can't put that in those exact words). I get the sense that if [the average way one of these people talks about the phenomenon] was the pitch for a payed course that helps you develop such a personality, some people will end up suing the advertisers, and the judge/jury would agree that the customers were being mislead.

On more of a side note: I also think Scott's general approach is a bit uncharitable towards anti-spoonie claims (though I myself am not that far on that axis). The talks about this really reminded me of the deliberations on the term "lazy" in the old "the whole city is the center" SSC post. I think its not unreasonable to say that when feeling kinda of under the weather, or even having some pains, or a mildly upset stomach, or whatever, you can choose to lean into it, feel a lot of it, or try to shake it off (usually by going on with your day and doing other things). If the discomfort is not intense enough that you can't really function, I think most people would agree that there's a correlation between the decision to not shake it off, and how bad you end up feeling that day. If you're the kind of person that really lets themselves lean into it, and also have some natural tendency towards some particular discomfort, you can end up, using the same logic as I detailed above, in an equilibrium where this discomfort is pretty chronic and is a big deal. If we assume for simplicity's sake that there's a trait such as "self-suggestibility", and that trait is distributed normally across the population (again, I'm aware this is a gross simplification), it seems very reasonable that if you take the tail end of really self-suggestable people, and intersect it with people who for different reasons have slight medical discomforts, you get a lot of spoonies.

Do such people take up a significant chunk of those who call themselves spoonies? I have no idea, but I think its worth considering. And if they are, is that in anyway their fault? Should we as a society wag our fingers at it? Well, maybe a bit. First of all, it would be effective to maybe give them different treatments (like maybe try hallucinogens to relax their priors). Second of all, perhaps once you're stuck in a bad equilibrium its no longer a matter of choice, and blaming you is pretty pointless. But if you are the kind of person that systematically makes choices that lead to lesser functionality, and ends up hurting yourself or people around you thanks to it (e.g. cause your partner has to take care of you, or cause your colleague has to frequently cover for you at work), that's a pretty good steelman for the word "spoiled". Again, I myself am not that enthused by this claim, but I think its worth thinking about.

Sorry for being so wordy.

Expand full comment
Nov 13, 2022·edited Nov 13, 2022

We do know that *memory* can be wrong. So regardless of whether one can be wrong about what one is experiencing now, one can certainly be wrong about what one was experiencing five minutes ago, or even thirty seconds ago. (Once we get into durations shorter than the amount of time it takes the brain to do things like give the correct answer on a Stroop test - in which you're given words like "green" written in non-green letters and have to say which color the letters are - then the distinction between "now" and "memory" stops working.)

Expand full comment
Nov 14, 2022·edited Nov 14, 2022

I think someone can *remember* their mental state incorrectly.

Once, after a trip, I had a clear visual memory of taking my passport out of my bag and putting it in a drawer, but then when I looked it wasn't there. I panicked for a minute before I found it in the bag. I realized i must have just *thought* about taking it out, pictured it in my head, and for whatever reason this was encoded as a "real" memory.

I don't think I ever had the subjective experience "I am currently taking my passport out of my bag." I assume that at the time, my subjective experience was "I am imagining taking my passport out of my bag."

Expand full comment

My stepdaughter jessy would often say "Mum I'm hungry." then instantly fall asleep.

Expand full comment
Nov 20, 2022·edited Nov 20, 2022

> "My favorite example is time perception. You can meditate or take drugs in ways that make you think that your clock speed has gone up and your subjective experience of your subjective experience of time is slowed down."

FWIW: I get this **a lot** in my ketamine infusion therapy sessions.


> "(though this study suggests a completely different thing is going on; people have normal speed, but retroactively remember things as lasting longer)"

I dunno. When I am having said sessions, the experience is very interesting, internally. There's part of my brain that is hallucinating like a wombat out of Hel, and there's also still a little "me" in there (is that the "Ego"?) that is seeing what the hallucinations are and are able to comment on them and I am definitely having perfectly coherent (if odd) thoughts in English sentences. And that person is the one who goes, "Man, I swear it feels like time is *actually* somehow moving at a different, far slower pace, even though I know that is physically impossible".

I've even run experiments (my ket doc is awesomely open minded) where I had a timer running on my phone, and we keep the infusion device and IV drip set so that I can see them (ADD OCD ex-EMT, among other things) and even when I look at the time and note that yes, time is in fact passing at the normal rate, I can close my eyes again and go back into that molasses-flow.

Regarding "see[ing] seven-dimensional objects on DMT" I would absolutely believe that he felt that way. I've thought a lot of various interesting things about the way the universe should be able to be molded plastically by my mind when I'm on ket, so... even though that little "me" in there that's forming full coherent English sentences exists, he's not always thinking too clearly, either. ;)

I have definitely on many occasions wished that C'punk 2020 had turned out to be real so I could show my friends these amazing things I was seeing, though. I mean, among all the *other* reasons I have for wishing for that. Alas, no full skeleton replacement for me. :'(

ETA, again: And then I get down to the bottom and you're talking about a "homunculus fallacy" and now I don't know **what's** goin' on in my noggin.

Expand full comment

Don't children have to be taught to recognize when they are hungry or sleepy? It isn't always obvious what one is feeling. There are all sorts of sensations that one has to learn to recognize as part of growing up. It isn't just the basics either. It can be thing like jealousy, anger or trauma. There's a whole branch of psychiatry which tries to help people understand what they are actually feeling. You can't necessarily argue with people's sensations. They are feeling them. You can argue with how they are interpreting them.

Expand full comment

I've several times had the experience of being entirely mistaken about which external label matches my internal experience. I remember an aha moment of "so this is what anger feels like!" I'm still not totally sure if I experience sexual attraction or not. So I could easily imagine someone storming off when I mention their dad AND internally experiencing something I would call anger AND honestly saying “I’m not still angry about my father” because they map "anger" onto a different internal experience than I do. Definitively not saying this is the only explanation for the example -- just that translating internal experiences through words adds an extra layer of complication.

Expand full comment

I'm quite sure not many people will come all the way back here, but I would like to report that as a meditator in the progress of deepening their practice, I have also attained some of these deeply pleasant unfalsifiable states, which, according to some commenters, I have not experienced. Thereby I would also like to report that these deeply pleasant experiences, which I apparently have not had but of which I have a solid recollection, are likely attainable for almost anyone who is simply willing to practice and able to do so well (perhaps under proper instruction).

As for why meditators wouldn't, then, spend their entire lives in jhanas - something which meditation teachers sometimes do mention being a risk - I recommend both John Culadasa Yates' The Mind Illuminated and Daniel Ingram's Mastering the Core Teachings of the Buddha. Both of these go into detail on why jhanas are not, and often should not be, an end in and as of themselves.

Expand full comment