Adam I. Gerard

The Myth of Privileged Inner Epistemic Access

'Epistemic Access' is a term and concept deployed in at least a few places in philosophy:

  1. About how knowledge of abstracta could occur (if we are concrete, non-abstract, beings). E.g. - of mathematical objects, of universals.
  2. In the philosophy of education and in theories of learning - how do we know, how can we interact with the referents of knowledge?
  3. In theology - about knowledge of the divine, revelation, etc.

Below, I’ll discuss one of the other mainstays that’s a central, “naive”, pre-philosophical intuition: that we have privileged epistemic access to our own thoughts.

Interestingly, the debate surrounding first-person interior epistemic access has some surprising scientific support that helps to certify, corroborate, and rule on the veracity of the consensus view (that there’s no special privileged access - e.g. that others could read our thoughts).

Mind Reading Technology

Some new gadgets that seem to support the truth of the denial of privileged inner epistemic access:


Consider further the following conjunction:

  1. Extended Mind - the thesis that mental states are not solely located within the brain, the skull, or the body - that cognition involves computation that intertwines with objects external to the body.
  2. Functionalism - the thesis that mental states are defined by (individuated by) the causal role they play in a sequence of mental events (they are not free-standing, atomic).

Do these lend support to the idea that there's no special inner access to the contents of our thoughts? (That thoughts, ideas, feelings can be tracked, monitored, and read by external objects including electronic devices?)

On Different Kinds of Beliefs

Belief is often described in everyday parlance as a kind of all or nothing and singular thing.

Some taxonomies to consider:

  1. Considering a belief - analyzing a belief while not necessarily believing in its truth or untruth.
  2. Accepting a belief - tacit acceptance of a belief as being true whether one can verify its truth (second-order knowledge - knowing that one knows something - e.g. confirming that one’s knowledge is correct).
  3. Holding a belief - believing that a belief is true and using it as such in an effectively unquestionable way. Used as a basis for reasoning in actual plans, inferences.
  4. Non-occurrent beliefs - beliefs one has that one is not actively thinking.
  5. Beliefs in mind (active thoughts) - thoughts that are actively considered. Thoughts that are currently being entertained in one’s mind.

I'm curious to see how well mind-reading machines can distinguish between these different kinds of mental states (specifically, so-called proattitudes).

On False Beliefs

Are thoughts and beliefs accurate? Traditionally, they've been held in high confidence - as primary sources of truth and accuracy.

In consideration of the above: Do our ideas (now, really) reflect reality? Are they (true) testimonies or forgeries (fake/false)? What about mental tampering?

Interestingly, many are not. The science shows the ease by which people can be tricked into holding fake beliefs and the commonality of memory being inaccurate:


The upshot: are our ideas/memories/thoughts/feelings ours (and will they be in the future)? Are they real? Is there another category between 'real' and 'imagined' (something like 'tampered with' or 'fake')? What about national security and secrecy?

On Memetics and Idea Transmission

If ideas can in principle be read externally (external to one's body), can they also be externally created (inserted)? Much of the current research focuses on scanning technologies - observing what's going on in someone's mind and brain.

Consider traditional Philosophical (Pyrrhonian and Cartesian) Skepticism: that we are universally mistaken in all our knowledge or that an evil demon deceives us even down to our sensations. These debates are clearly pertinent - do they also take on a new twist? Is the likelihood that Philosophical Skepticism is true altered by the invention of these new technologies (even if were by default or prior to them likely false)?


Regardless of the correctness (specifically the correctness of foundational underpinnings and primary assumptions) or accuracy of memetics, there are numerous interesting findings about how ideas are formed, the likelihood that ideas take hold given the background ideas that one already has, and in certain brains (given other empirically measurable factors like personality, agreeableness, etc.).

The picture of ideas described by memetics is one in which memes are transmitted or broadcast widely in a population, glomming onto a brain, cultural unit, or mind due to certain properties of that system (in the way that genes, proteins, raw chemical elements combine, form, and group together). That picture flies in the face of traditional philosophical conceptions which make belief a choice that falls within the autonomous agency of a person.

Regarding Epiphenomenalism

Epiphenomenalism: the idea here is that mental events are not downwardly casual. In other words, the brain generates the experience of ideas, thoughts, and sensory outputs but none of those are involved in the brain's underlying process.

On such a view, the experience of choice is illusory and the feeling of making a choice would be irrelevant to the brain's ultimate outcome state.

This is a thoroughly startling idea since the crux of reasoning and decision-making appears to involve us, as rational agents, making controlled judgments about some mutually exclusive set of alternatives - that that mental event appears to be essential to the outcome of that decision.

Recent research seems to support epiphenomenalism:


What does this say about perennial concepts like free-will? Moral responsibility? The unconscious and its effects on conscious reasoning (bias, etc.)?

On The Phenomenology of Thoughts

On the phenomenology of thoughts - consider:

  1. Epiphanies - the intense, sudden, moment of realization.
  2. The distinct feeling of Eureka! Of brilliance of thought. That one has had a brilliant idea.
  3. The feeling that accompanies being wrong.
  4. Anger and feelings in general.
  5. Catharsis - emotional release, letting out one's emotions.

(I use 'feeling' loosely above. E.g - not necessarily intending 'emotion'.)

Are these phenomena (the "feelings" that accompany those mental events) innerly isolated? The traditional view has been that these are even more privileged - that these solely belong to the realm of the first-person, the inner mental life, the interior, the soul.

It's been shown that they can be induced - beliefs (and their phenomenology) can be made and altered by way of electromagnetism (through magnets):

  1. (624 citations)
  2. (30 citations)
  3. (13 citations)

So far, the above, general, technologies have been used primarily to aid in improving clinical outcomes (to treat depression, reduce epilepsy, etc.).

Greater discussion surrounding the ethics of those technologies (and their uses) should probably be considered.