From Salon.com, January 11, 2008 

A few years ago a psychologist and a philosopher got into an argument over whether we can accurately describe our thoughts. “Yes,” said the psychologist; with training and the help of my special technique, we can accurately describe our thoughts. The philosopher doubted it. To resolve their argument, they recruited a young woman who agreed tell them her thoughts, so that they could argue over whether she was credible.

This is not an episode from a Preston Sturgis comedy, but the actual procedure through which Russell T. Hurlburt and Eric Schwitzgebel produced their remarkable book, “Describing Inner Experience? Proponent Meets Skeptic.” The premise is so ludicrous that it might seem impossible for anything to come of it, but this underestimates the skill of the authors, particularly Schwitzgebel, the philosopher, whose talent for straight-faced mischief has been displayed in his some of his other writing. For instance, his Web site contains a draft of a recent paper titled “Do Ethicists Steal More Books?” which examines data from leading academic libraries to show that professional ethicists are more likely than other people to behave badly. As Schwitzgebel sums up his research, he found that “contemporary (post-1959) ethics books were actually about 25% more likely to be missing than non-ethics books. When the list was reduced to the relatively obscure books most likely to be borrowed exclusively by professional ethicists and advanced students of ethics, ethics books were almost 50% more likely to be missing.”

Schwitzgebel, who is generous as well as rigorous, specifically warns against taking his study as evidence that studying ethics necessarily means you are a bad person. He only means to suggest that we look into it.

Of course, for a great mischief maker to really shine, he must have a foil, and in “Describing Inner Experience?” the role is taken by Russell T. Hurlburt. Hurlburt is not only a psychologist, he is also an inventor, and he has developed a tool to allow us to capture our thoughts in their most raw and immediate form; fresh off the brain, so to speak. The device is a beeper that goes off at random intervals. At every beep, the subject of the experiment makes a note of whatever was passing through the mind at the moment just before being startled into self-awareness. As soon as possible — preferably within 24 hours — Hurlburt conducts a gentle but thorough interview, drawing out the details of these reports.

Entire article here.

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