Neuroscience & Mind Icon Neuroscience & Mind

Atheist Philosopher Thinks “We Never Have Direct Access To Our Thoughts”


In a post titled “At last: a rational thinker at ‘The Stone,’” atheist biologist and free-will denier Jerry Coyne quotes fellow atheist Alex Rosenberg, a Duke University professor of philosophy.


We never have direct access to our thoughts. As Peter Carruthers first argued, self-consciousness is just mind reading turned inward… There is no first-person point of view.

Our access to our own thoughts is just as indirect and fallible as our access to the thoughts of other people. We have no privileged access to our own minds. If our thoughts give the real meaning of our actions, our words, our lives, then we can’t ever be sure what we say or do, or for that matter, what we think or why we think it.

It’s not even clear what “We never have direct access to our thoughts” means. Of course we have direct access to our thoughts — one could define first-person experience (i.e. thought) as “that to which we have direct access.”

A hallmark of the mind is that it is incorrigible. Our thoughts are our own, we are always right about the existence of our own thought, and an observer can never be right about the thought of another person if the observer and the person disagree. If I am thinking of a red apple, then I am thinking of a red apple. If my friend says “No you’re not. You’re thinking of a blue Corvette,” then I’m right and my friend is wrong. You can’t be wrong about the raw content of what you’re thinking.

Now that doesn’t mean that you can’t have a mistaken thought (a proposition that is untrue) or that you can’t have a misunderstanding (maybe the apple I’m thinking of is more maroon than red). But my thought is my thought. I have direct access to it — I experience it — and other people don’t.

So of course there is a first person point of view. Our only point of view is first person. That’s what “point of view” means. It is the view from the “point” of a human being, which is first person by definition.

Now of course understanding the motivations for our thoughts, and the correspondence between our beliefs and reality, are open to debate. We may not know exactly why we think something. But we know — incorrigibly — that we think something.

Like so many bizarre materialist claims about the mind, Rosenberg’s assertion is self-refuting. If we have no direct access to our thoughts, why would we assume that what Rosenberg has written has any relationship to what he actually thinks? If Rosenberg has no direct access to his own thoughts, there is no way to ascertain what he actually thinks. Even he doesn’t know what he actually thinks.

Materialist theories of the mind border on the insane. If a man walks into a doctor’s office and says “I never have direct access to my thoughts and I have no first person point of view,” the man will be referred to a psychiatrist and may be involuntarily hospitalized until it is established that he is not a danger to himself or others.

If the same guy walks into the philosophy department at Duke University, he gets tenure.

Image: Huike Thinking, by Shi Ke (石恪) (attributed) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

Michael Egnor

Senior Fellow, Center for Natural & Artificial Intelligence
Michael R. Egnor, MD, is a Professor of Neurosurgery and Pediatrics at State University of New York, Stony Brook, has served as the Director of Pediatric Neurosurgery, and award-winning brain surgeon. He was named one of New York’s best doctors by the New York Magazine in 2005. He received his medical education at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons and completed his residency at Jackson Memorial Hospital. His research on hydrocephalus has been published in journals including Journal of Neurosurgery, Pediatrics, and Cerebrospinal Fluid Research. He is on the Scientific Advisory Board of the Hydrocephalus Association in the United States and has lectured extensively throughout the United States and Europe.