Brendan Jennings: Knowing our own mental states

Is it true that we are always the best authority about our own mental states? What conclusions do you draw from your answer to that question regarding the distinction between the ‘inner’ and the ‘outer’?

When answering the question ‘Am I the best authority about my own mental states?’, the intuitive answer must be ‘yes’. Surely my own mental states are private to me, no-one else can have direct knowledge of the contents of my mind. I can explain to others how I am feeling, what I can see, hear etc. But that only provides them with ‘third-person’ knowledge, mediated further by my use of language.

Let us , for now, accept that the term ‘mental states’ is equivalent to the term ‘mind’. The term ‘authority’ is used in this context to denote the first-person authority I achieve through the direct knowledge I have of the contents of my mind.

To take the example of an experience of being in pain, first-person authority has one or more of the following attributes:

1. Infallability — if I claim to be in pain, I cannot be wrong.

2. Incorrigibility — my judgement about being in pain may be wrong, but I cannot be corrected by others. If I say ‘I am in pain’ others have no way of directly proving me wrong.

3. Self-intimation — If I am in pain, I know it immediately, my knowledge of the pain is transparent.

These are attributes of my subjective experience of pain, what it feels like for me to be in pain. My subjective experience is not directly available to anyone else and it is logically impossible for me to be wrong about the experience. To put the argument in grammatical terms, ‘I’ am the subject which has as its object the experience of pain. It follows then that only ‘I’ can have authority about my ‘mental state’ that is ‘being in pain’.

In order for me to have first-person authority about my experience of being in pain, I must be conscious of the fact that I am in pain. The notion of first-person authority therefore provides one distinction between the ‘inner’ and the ‘outer’. The ‘inner’ consists of the subjective world of my conscious mental states, the ‘outer’ consists of the objective world of physical processes or behaviours.

This distinction fits neatly with a dualist view of the mind as the ‘inner’ theatre of consciousness in which subjective experiences are displayed with the subject as the audience. The ‘outer’ then consists of everything outside the theatre and in this view the subject would always be the best authority on its mental states.

However, it is possible to accept the difference between first-person and third-person knowledge of our mental states without being committed to dualism. In order to do this it is necessary to separate the terms ‘mental state’ and ‘mind’ and define what we mean by each. For example, Chalmers (1996) describes two types of mental states which define two distinct concepts of mind:

1. the phenomenal mind — mind is conscious experience and a mental state is a consciously experienced mental state;

2. the psychological mind — mind is the causal basis for behaviour and a state is mental if it has a causal role in the production of behaviour. For instance, attitudes and beliefs.

Chalmers further states that these two concepts are not mutually exclusive:

‘A specific mental concept can usually be analyzed as a phenomenal concept, a psychological concept or as a combination of the two’. (Chalmers (1996) .p12).

This view of the mind presents a different picture of the ‘inner’, in that it is not restricted to subjective experience. To use grammatical terms again, if there is no ‘experience’ as the object there is no subject and therefore no theatre of consciousness. The ‘inner’ can consist of mental states of which I am not conscious. I am therefore not the best authority on certain mental states, in other words, the psychological mental states which may be the cause of behaviour but which do not have conscious aspects.

This view also blurs the distinction between ‘inner’ and ‘outer’. Third person authority of my mental states is acquired by observation of my physical body and my behaviour. But if my mental state is my behaviour, then first-person authority is limited to ‘what it feels like’ to behave in that way.

Dennett (1991) produces a more granular description of the ‘inner’ by proposing three categories of subjective experience:

1. the ‘external’ world of sights, sounds, smells etc, in other words our perception of the world around us;

2. the ‘internal’ world of introspection; fantasy images, talking to yourself , bright ideas etc;

3. experiences of emotion; pains, hunger, anger, regret etc.

In looking at the evidence from cognitive science, Dennett attempts to remove the distinction between ‘inner’ and ‘outer’ by showing how our subjective view of the world is produced by physical processes in the brain. His ‘multiple drafts’ theory of information storage and processing by the brain not only rejects outright the theatre of consciousness model, but also removes the distinction between conscious and unconscious mental states by stating that all processing is part of consciousness even if we are not aware of all of the information elements which were used to produce a subjective experience.

Dennett’s view of consciousness does not detract from the incorrigibility of first-person authority; my subjective experience is still logically true, even if it is factually inaccurate due to the brain’s ability to fill in gaps or make assumptions based on previous information acquired. However, Dennett’s model does postulate that what we have previously described as the ‘outer’ i.e. the physical processes of the brain, are actually what is used to produce the ‘inner’, and therefore this distinction is meaningless.

The notion of first-person authority being the best authority on our mental states only fits neatly with a view of the conscious subject as the audience in a theatre of consciousness. In that model, there are only two entities to consider, the ‘mental state’ and the subject experiencing the mental state. Then, even if we postulated alternative scenarios for the creation of the ‘mental state’ e.g. a mind created moments ago with all its apparent memories, or a probe placed in the brain to produce perceptions, it still remains true that the subject experiencing the ‘mental state ‘ so produced would have first-person authority about that ‘mental state’. The ‘mental state’ produced is clearly an ‘inner’ entity, regardless of how the ‘outer’ is constructed.

The theories of consciousness that reject the theatre model do so by removing the distinction between ‘inner’ and ‘outer to a greater or lesser degree. This does not remove first-person authority but rather shifts the question from ‘Am I the best authority?’ to ‘ How valid is my authority?’


Pathways to Philosophy. Programme B: Philosophy of Mind Course Units 1 — 3.

Dennett D. Consciousness Explained. (1991) Back Bay Books.

Chalmers D. The Conscious Mind — In Search of a Fundamental Theory. (1996). Oxford University Press.

Guttenplan S. (Ed.) A Companion To The Philosophy Of Mind. (1994). Blackwell.

© Brendan Jennings 2014