A philosopher named Jason Ford offers a dose of sensible phenomenology in a well written article called “Attention and the New Sceptics” which appears in the latest issue of the Journal of Consciousness Studies (unfortunately not free online). The subject is the proper interpretation of the various interesting studies on inattentional blindness and change blindness.
In various ways these studies show that our ability to make judgments about phenomena on the periphery when attention is elsewhere is poor relative to our ex ante expectations. (Think of the research using the now famous video of people passing a ball among themselves and the inability of most people to detect the entrance of a gorilla when asked to focus on counting passes). Ford’s article discusses the work of several philosophers who take these results as evidence for a broader reaching skepticism about the reliability of consciousness. They think they can argue we don’t have the conscious experience we think we do. Ford argues that they are mistaken in arguing that such skepticism is warranted by the research. Careful analysis of focal and peripheral perception shows that they are fundamentally different in character when it comes to their availability for detailed judgment and comparisons. It is a mistake to hold the periphery to the same standard as the focus of attention: “Being vague and nebulous just is the way the periphery registers in consciousness”.
Once this is acknowledged, one cannot argue from these results that we don’t have the conscious experience we think we have. It remains a viable assertion that when we claim we know what it is like to experience what we’re focused on, we are not in error.
By the way, in the course of the article, Ford does a good job reminding us what such a claim of infallibility is and is not. The claim says nothing about the following ways we can be mistaken (p.62):
"We can be mistaken about the proximate causes of our experience… We can be mistaken about how our biology produces experience…We can make mistaken categorical judgments when we try to classify our conscious experiences…Our memories are fallible."
To this list, he says, we can add that we need to be very careful when making claims about the content of the periphery of attention. But skepticism about our knowing what our own experience is like is unfounded.
Endnote: it’s been awhile since I’ve written on phenomenology – here’s the list of posts with that label. These are mostly focused on the key insight of continental thinkers: analysis of everyday lived experience (now often called primary or core consciousness ) offers the best hope for insights in the philosophy of mind. The other side of this coin is that higher-order reflective self-consciousness (a derivative late-comer to evolution), while central in our lives, can give a misleading picture of how experience fits into the natural world.