I routinely come across mini-epistemologies that start with something like:

  1. Cogito ergo sum. (presupposes "I", oops!)
  2. My senses are sufficiently reliable.

These days, it is often admitted that we are susceptible to many cognitive biases, but these do not necessarily hinder us from discovering/inventing ever better models of an objective reality. I have started reading Antonio Damasio's Descartes' Error, which contains the following (2005 edition):

A second idea in the book, then, is that the essence of a feeling may not be an elusive mental quality attached to an object, but rather the direct perception of a specific landscape: that of the body. (xviii)

It strikes me that #2 engages in special pleading, via calling one's five external senses 'senses', and thereby ignoring all other inputs to our consciousness. Everyday experience indicates that just like I can observe an external state of affairs (like a tree) and come to agreement that I and another person are viewing the same thing, the same can happen via discussion of internal states of affairs, via analogy. "You know how this happens, and how you feel like this?" And yet, again and again, personal experience seems to be described as less reliable. But why is this? Do not the many cognitive biases impact our interpretation of both internal and external senses?

Suppose that we are brains in vats or living in a computer simulation: why then would our external-facing senses be more reliable than our internal-facing senses? Now, perhaps this is because of general ignorance of the kinds of issues raised in Eric Schwitzgebel's 2008 The Unreliability of Naive Introspection. A salient example of mistaken confidence comes up in interpretation of religious experiences, which Keith Ward addresses in The Case for Religion:

The best hypothesis seems to be that many people have experience of spiritual powers, but the specific information provided—whether in the form of visions or of 'heard' messages—depends very much upon cultural expectations, general background beliefs and the imaginative ability of the human mind to construct vast edifices of ontology from the merest hints of mystery. The omens are not good for the very specific claims that many religions make about God, spirits and the afterlife. Each cultural tradition builds up an increasingly detailed set of such claims. (88-89)

I don't want to make this question about "could religious experiences be true experiences of something?", but that does seem to be a poignant example. A common response to claims of religious experience is that's subjective stuff and there are so many contradictions in religious experiences that certainly they're just some sort of delusion. But this seems to assume that Schwitzgebel is wrong, that introspection is largely accurate, and that the internal-facing senses are largely accurate—without any specific training.

Some specific questions:

     A. Is #2 justifiable?
     B. How 'powerful' is a #1 + #2 epistemology?

I'm guessing comments and answers will require clarifying of these questions, but they're the best I've got right now.

  • 1
    I don't think that there is such a simple & clear-cut division between our inner & outer world. What we see externally has to still be interpreted internally, and what we see internally has to presented to the world outside. Meaningful, complex & subtle interactions go on between these two worlds. Feb 16, 2014 at 5:05
  • @MoziburUllah: I completely agree. And yet, I encounter the simplistic scenario I've outlined quite a lot on the internet, and in popular atheistic/skeptical literature. Michael Polanyi's Personal Knowledge offers some severe criticism of this account—well, Logical Positivism to be specific.
    – labreuer
    Feb 16, 2014 at 5:36
  • Some sociologist/anthopologist should look at that phenonomen! The internet does tend to be haven for simplicity - or bowlderisation as it was once called. Polanyis book looks interesting. I'd fully back his point about making knowledge impersonal. Feb 16, 2014 at 6:02
  • #1 and #2 (i assume its first 2 statements in OP) are infinitely reliable. Your delusion is that you think Delusion is not Transcendental (religious) experience. And that's why you don't understand Descartes. He's number 1 statement is TRANSCENDENTAL -- it is ABSOLUTE fascination with the fact/paradox/question/thought - "How is it possible that I THINK!?!!"
    – Asphir Dom
    Feb 19, 2014 at 21:13
  • Maybe because our awareness of internal senses are not so extended.
    – Di Ana
    May 4, 2014 at 21:55

6 Answers 6


A lot of complicated terminology being thrown around here. That is more a comment on my lack of philosophical education than it is a comment on anyone else. I find it pretty straightforward why "external" senses are trusted more than "internal" ones.

External sense are independently verifiable. I have a blue, plastic cup on my desk. Bring 100 people into my office, and we can cross verify that this is a cup. We can then look at our individual observations and we can control for outliers. Joe cannot confirm whether it is blue or red. Jim can't identify the color at all. Jack identifies it a as a blue cylinder with one end open. We are left with 97 out of 100 people able to fully validate our external senses (in this simple example). The other three can partially validate, and their sensory limitations are fairly trivial to confirm through additional testing. Joe is color blind. Jim is blind. Jack has apparently never seen a cup in his life.

Now how does one independently verify an "internal" sense? The most straight forward answer would be by using it to detect something external, and verifying the "internal" sense's accuracy. Maybe some "What card am I looking at?"-style testing, or detecting what someone in another room is doing without any "external" senses. So far, no testing of this kind has successfully shown a repeatable and testable "internal" sense with real-world detection capability (there is a LOT of unclaimed money out there for anyone that can do so).

As an aside, a lot of the things mentioned as "internal" senses, I would classify as simple reactions to internal stimuli. Pain is a mental reaction to things the body detects as potentially dangerous. Happiness is a reaction to hormones the body releases when exposed to certain kinds of social/physical stimulation.

I think that, at best, most of these "internal" senses are just reactions to the current state of our bodies. So, in a way, they do sense something. I think assigning these "internal" senses anything beyond the role of "body state detection" would require a large amount of independent verification that has so far just hasn't happened.

(First time poster, so forgive me if I'm "doing it wrong.")

  • Thanks for the response. A few things: (1) Your "blue, plastic cup" example is very simple; does your argument hold up under significantly more complex visual scenarios? (2) The brain's vision system actually does quite a lot of interpretation before your consciousness has access to the data. So your use of "simple reactions to internal stimuli" may be a mistaken way to speak about these issues. (3) You seem to be thinking of "internal senses" as something like ESP; what do you think of the somatic marker hypothesis?
    – labreuer
    Apr 1, 2014 at 17:20
  • 1
    @labreuer 1.) Oh yes, the example was a simple one, but I think that illustrates the point that there doesn't seem to be any evidence of these "internal" senses having any relevance beyond detecting the state of our physical body. 2.) The brain's processing is largely irrelevant, at least in this case. Your brain may process blue in a way that I'd call purple, but blue is just an arbitrary label for a specific range of reflected light. In the end, as long as we both call that color "blue" then it's all good. Apr 1, 2014 at 19:19
  • 1
    @labreuer 3.) Interesting link. It seems like a complex way of saying that emotions (and prior experience associated with those emotions) affects decision-making. Can't argue with that. I think I may be misinterpreting your question, though. Are you not suggesting that "internal" senses can be useful detectors of things outside of the self? If internal senses could be relied upon as accurate for anything other the state of the body itself, wouldn't that be a variety of ESP? Apr 1, 2014 at 19:32
  • (3) All we can ever do is note states of our body, and use them as indicators of the state of the external world. See, for example, moral intuitions. Or see In Search of Beauty. There may be a need to differentiate 'primitive senses' and 'evaluations of them', but we can still end up trusting/distrusting them.
    – labreuer
    Apr 1, 2014 at 22:59
  • 1
    I... didn't say that. Feelings, moral intuition, and other "internal" senses generally do a good job detecting what's going on inside the body. This issue is that what evidence is there that something outside the body can be detected if there is no input from outside the body? Apr 3, 2014 at 17:12

In this kind of epistemology it is an empirical conclusion that "internally generated" senses are not reliable.

Let's take dreams as the negative example: It is logically possible that people's dreams are reliably connected to other features of objective reality. However, to date, no one has identified a systematic approach that allows one to reliably relate dream-states to other states in the world. Since we can't/haven't established the connection between dream-states and other facets of reality, we wouldn't say that dream-experiences are reliable.

This can be contrasted with, say, being able to smell rotting food (a subjective experience)-- this sense experience is a reliable indication that eating the food will cause problems.

In your quote, the fact that there are a wide range of subjective religious experiences, even among people with similar backgrounds/experiences, is a problem because it means that any putative model connecting these subjective experiences to other facets of reality, will have to be very complex, and thus hard to construct and empirically verify.

  • It strikes me that pain can be a pretty reliable sense, and yet isn't one of the five senses. I wonder if starting at (a) dreams or (b) religious experiences, is kind of like trying to tackle General Relativity before F = ma? In other words, is this apparent difference in reliability due to the specific examples chosen in conversation? Consider another active question, Can our sense of touch deceive us?. Could I invert your argument by using sensory illusions and pain, or perhaps easier-to-process emotions?
    – labreuer
    Feb 19, 2014 at 0:48
  • The point is that most of the time, most of our external senses are reliable (read this colloquially). Sensory illusions exist, but they are exceptions. The idea is that "un-reliable" subjective experiences are like always experiencing illusions, without ever (or very rarely) ever having experiences that are related to other components of reality.
    – Dave
    Feb 19, 2014 at 0:54
  • Is it not the case that at least some people can reliably predict what will make them happy, what will make them sad, what will produce pain, etc.? Occasional errors are irrelevant, as you point out.
    – labreuer
    Feb 19, 2014 at 1:11

Keith Ward says:

The best hypothesis seems to be that many people have experience of spiritual powers, but the specific information provided—whether in the form of visions or of 'heard' messages—depends very much upon cultural expectations, general background beliefs and the imaginative ability of the human mind to construct vast edifices of ontology from the merest hints of mystery. The omens are not good for the very specific claims that many religions make about God, spirits and the afterlife. Each cultural tradition builds up an increasingly detailed set of such claims.

I could argue that looking at this chair here in my room that many different languages have a different word for this very specific and concrete object.

I could also argue in line with semiotics that the word 'chair' is an arbitrary convention not tied in any way or form physically with this chair in front of me.

I could further argue that the word chair is made more ambiguous by the way its written in so many different languages, through the many scripts, and through all the differing modes in which writing is written when hand-written; and though all the many ways it is spoken and pronounced.

Its also very true that the word 'chair' does not exist in this world, despite the fact one sees the word 'chair' being used everywhere. Perhaps there is a platonic essence of a chair in some other world that is reflected in us by the imagination or the intellect.

Yet all of this doesn't deny the very specific sense in which the word is useful, being so ready-at-hand, we use it without thinking. In our minds it is so that chair that it takes some mental effort to disassociate the word 'chair' from the object 'chair'.

So, in analogy, rather than deductive logic - or would analogical logic be a fairer term - rather than interpret the many different forms of the spiritual that has informed the spirit of man through centuries and millenia, as being somehow contradictory; perhaps one ought to see it as a constant with many manifestations.

  • Yes, you're right - I've corrected it. Possibly I've focused too much on the quotation too much - as you're not really asking about religous phenomena as such. Descarte is after a theory of knowledge which is axiomatically based - hence is prescription. But one needn't accept axiomatics, nor theory; Surely an inner sense of the 'I' is required? Feb 20, 2014 at 9:30
  • It's actually not clear to what extent this "inner sense of the 'I'" is required. Consider the many Eastern religions and mythicism which attempt to do away with the 'I'. And in Christianity, there is a mysterious connection between 'I' and 'we', expressed most poignantly in the Trinity. Descartes probably couldn't have said 'I' without being embedded in a 'we'. So I think his Cartesian doubt project is very much suspect.
    – labreuer
    Feb 20, 2014 at 16:01
  • Sure, it complicates Descartes position. One might say that the inner sense is itself is I to keep it simple. Are they doing away with the I or the ego? Feb 21, 2014 at 4:51

I am not sure if I understand your questions too correctly due to the language barrier, but my innerself tells me that your real question is that while we take the accuracy of our outer senses for granted,, why is it that we keep questioning our intuitions from the inner world, why is it that the accuracy of the inner world intuitions is so low? To answer a part of your questions I would like to compare the senses of humans to that of a dog. While we can smell food and determine its freshness with a certain level of accuracy we can certainly not sniff out drugs like dogs can. And if we were forced to do so, most of us would either try our luck and some of us who are in touch with the inner world would look within to understand where the drugs could be. Alternatively, while both our intuitive abilities as well as our sense of smell are not well developed, our intelligence certainly is and so we would employ the specific breed of dogs to do the job. My point is that when we seek to employ an outer sense for something it is not very capable to handle eg human sniffing out drugs,, cognitive biases will certainly interfere. But talking about cognitive biases impacting a dogs perception is next to impossible because they are so well developed. The same is the case with our internal world,, we are not used to listening to our innerself so often, plus there is a continuous stream of thoughts which we sometimes or most of the times confuse as our own inner voice plus there are distubances from outside.. in such a scenario cognitive biases are bound to occur.

  • "why is it that the accuracy of the inner world intuitions is so low?" — yep, this gets at it. Would you be willing to develop your answer a bit more? It seems headed in a good direction.
    – labreuer
    Mar 1, 2014 at 21:30
  • I'm new to stacks. I think elaborating this in another answer might be helpful
    – Raj
    Mar 2, 2014 at 4:42
  • Did you read my last answer? Im surprised you got nothing to say
    – Raj
    Mar 3, 2014 at 4:26

Why is the accuracy of inner senses low? I would like to keep this answer restricted only to questions and more specifically the right questions. While I would like to give some basic information and some food for thought, answering these questions right away may not be practical and feasible. Before you question the accuracy of inner senses I would like to question the accuracy of outer senses. There are many a times you feel you heard something or saw someone but in reality it was something totally different which you realize only when a bunch of other people validate your perception as false. Why is it that some people have sharper senses than the others? Can they be perfected through practice? Is it that they are simply careless? Is sharpness of senses or the lack of it a result of a choice made by such people? The questions are not limited to senses alone. Given a particular situation or task why did A perform better than B, why does A always succeed, why does B always fail? Coming to the other parts of material world? Why is one stronger than the other? Why is someone born poor and someone rich? The questions eventually lead to why were we created different or were we created at all by another creator in the first place? This leads to risky areas of religion and the like. but I am going to keep religions out of this so that we are not prone to biases. The answer to all above to a very large degree lies in the science of karma. What is karma? Karma is matter, a very fine matter, thousands of times finer than the smallest particles or the finest rays we know. By itself it is inactive, but when it comes in contact of a soul, its manifestations are unlimited. To say in a few lines, all things material and spiritual are caused by karma which can manifest 'good' and 'bad' things in our life. Taking a leap from here, can you imagine a situation free of all karma? We call it moksha or salvation.

  • While identifying the right questions can be helpful, only intuition can identify them as 'helpful' when there are no corresponding answers to judge. So I don't really see this as contributing a whole lot to the question; it is very broad.
    – labreuer
    Mar 3, 2014 at 18:31
  • f Unless you raise questions you wouldn't get answers. I have raised these questions only because the answer to all these questions is the same, including why the accuracy of inner senses is low. If a grade 1 student asks hows plants give us food, would you start explaining photo synthesis? The question that you have asked requires me to question back to lead you in a certain direction. But I guess, you aren't looking to learn something you dont already know, at least it sounds like that. In that case, you can refer one of the million selfhelp books in the market like the power of now,
    – Raj
    Mar 4, 2014 at 14:16
  • Or robins sharma or those that talk about zen.. these should be enough for your spiritual needs. When you ask a question, you must show some respect for the answer even if you dont agree..
    – Raj
    Mar 4, 2014 at 14:21
  • Your answer is your religion, and you have made bare assertions, not explanations which can be investigated further and further, as both philosophers and scientists are wont to do. If you would like to develop your idea of 'karma' as a true answer to my question please do so, but you haven't come even close to that in your answer here. Who knows, maybe it would be a very long explanation.
    – labreuer
    Mar 4, 2014 at 16:20
  • Knowledge can be proven but cant be forced. End of discussion.
    – Raj
    Mar 5, 2014 at 8:09

Because your senses are your only shot at objectivity. Without them all is subjective. A cat chasing it's own tail comes to my mind. It will eventually starve.

A cat chasing a mouse or trusting it's senses to jump at a mouse at the right time however will probably survive a bit longer than a tail chasing cat.

  • How do you know that your external-facing senses are more reliable? You merely asserted that, you did not defend it.
    – labreuer
    Mar 3, 2014 at 0:21

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