Posts tagged ‘homunculus’

Does the unconscious exist? David B. Feldman asks, and says no.  He points out that the unconscious and its influence is a cornerstone of Freudian and other theories, where it is quoted as the explanation for our deeper motivation and our sometimes puzzling behaviour.  It may send messages through dreams and other hints, but we have no direct access to it and cannot read its thoughts, even though they may heavily influence our personality.

Freud’s status as an authority is perhaps not what it once was, but the unconscious is widely accepted as a given, pretty much part of our everyday folk-psychology understanding of our own minds. I think if you asked, a majority of people would say they had had direct experience of their own unconscious knowledge or beliefs affecting the way they behaved.  Many psychological experiments have demonstrated ‘priming’ effects, where the subject’s choices are affected by things they have been told or shown previously (although some of these may be affected by the reproducibility problems that have beset psychological research recently, I don’t think the phenomenon of priming in general can be dismissed). Nor is it a purely academic matter. Unconscious bias is generally held to be a serious problem, responsible for the perpetuation of various kinds of discrimination by people who at a conscious level are fair-minded and well-meaning.

Feldman, however, suggests that the unconscious is neither scientifically testable nor logically sound.  It may well be true that psychoanalytic explanations are scientifically slippery; mistaken predictions about a given subject can always be attributed to a further hidden motivation or complex, so that while one interpretation can be proved false, the psychoanalytic model overall cannot be.  However, more generally there is good scientific evidence for unconscious influences on our behaviour as I’ve mentioned, so perhaps it depends on what kind of unconscious we’re talking about.  On the logical front, Feldman suggests that the unconscious is an ‘homunculus’; an example of the kind of explanation that attributes some mental functions to ‘a little man in your head’, a mental module that is just assumed to be able to do whatever a whole brain can do. He quite rightly says that homuncular theories merely defer explanation in a way which is most often useless and unjustified.

But is he right? On one hand people like Dennett, as we’ve discussed in the past, have said that homuncular arguments may be alright with certain provisos; on the other hand, is it clear that the unconscious really is an homuncular entity?  The key question, I think, is whether the unconscious is an entity that is just assumed to do all the sorts of things a complete mind would do. If we stick to Freud, Feldman’s charges may have substance; the unconscious seems to have desires and motivations, emotions, and plans; it understands what is going on in our lives pretty well and can make intelligently targeted interventions and encode messages in complex ways. In a lot of ways it is like a complete person – or rather, like three people: id, ego, and superego. A Freudian might argue over that; however, in the final analysis it’s not the decisive issue because we’re not bound to stick to a Freudian or psychoanalytic reading of the unconscious anyway. Again, it depends what kind of unconscious we’re proposing. We could go for a much simpler version which does some basic things for us but at a level far below that a real homunculus. Perhaps we could even speak loosely of an unconscious if it were no more than the combined effect of many separate mental features?

In fact, Feldman accepts all this. He is quite comfortable with our doing things unconsciously, he merely denies the existence of the unconscious as a distinct coherent thinking entity. He uses the example of driving along a familiar route; we perform perfectly, but afterwards cannot remember doing the steering or changing gear at any stage. Myself I think this is actually a matter of memory, not inattention while actually driving – if we were stopped at any point in the journey I don’t think we would have to snap out of some trance-like state; it’s just that we don’t remember. But in general Feldman’s position seems entirely sensible.

There is actually something a little odd in the way we talk about unconsciousness. Virtually everything is unconscious, after all. We don’t remark on the fact that muscles or the gut do their job without being conscious; it’s the unique presence of consciousness in mental activity that is worthy of mention. So why do we even talk about unconscious functions, let alone an unconscious?

homunculusThe homunculus returns? I finally saw Inside Out (possible spoilers – I seem to be talking about films a lot recently). Interestingly, it foregrounds a couple of problematic ways of thinking about the mind.

One, obviously, is the notorious homuncular fallacy. This is the tendency to explain mental faculties, say consciousness, by attributing them to a small entity within the mind – a “little man” that just has all the capacities of the whole human being. It’s almost always condemned because it appears to do no more than defer the real explanation. If it’s really a little man in your head that does consciousness, where does his consciousness come from? An even smaller man, in his head?

Inside Out of course does the homuncular thing very explicitly. The mind of the young girl Riley, the main character, where most of the action is set, is controlled by five primal emotions who are all fully featured cartoon people – Joy, Sadness, Anger, Fear, and Disgust, little people who walk around inside Riley’s head doing the kind of thing people do (Is it actually inside her head? In the Beano’s Numskulls cartoon, touted as a forerunner of Inside Out, much of the humour came from the definite physicality of the way they worked; here the five emotions view the world through a screen rather than eyeholes and use a console rather than levers. They could in fact be anywhere or in some undefined conceptual space.) It’s an odd set (aren’t Joy and Sadness the extremes of a spectrum?) Unexpectedly negative too: this is technically a Disney film, and it rates anger, fear, and disgust as more important and powerful than love? If it were full-on Disney the leading emotions would surely be Happy-go-lucky Feelin’s, and Wishing on a Star.

There are some things to be said in favour of homunculi. Most people would agree that we contain a smaller entity that does all the thinking; the brain, or maybe even narrower than that (proponents of the Extended Mind would very much not agree, of course). Daniel Dennett has also spoken out for homunculi, suggesting that they’re fine so long as the homunculi in each layer get simpler; in the end we get to ones that need no explanation. That’s alright, except that I don’t think the beings in this Dennettian analysis are really homunculi – they’re more like black boxes. The true homunculus has all the capacities of a full human being rather than a simpler subset.

We see the problem that arises from that in Inside Out. The emotions are too rounded; they all seem to have a full set of feelings themselves; they show all show fear and Joy gets sad. How can that work?

The other thing that seems not quite right to me is unfortunately the climactic revelation that Sadness has a legitimate role. It is, apparently, to signal for help. In my view that can’t really be the whole answer and the film unintentionally shows us the absurdity of the idea; it asks us to believe that being joyless, angry and withdrawn, behaving badly and running away are not enough to evoke concern and sympathetic attention from parents; you don’t get your attention, and your hug till they see the tears.

No doubt sadness does often evoke support, but I can’t think that’s its main function. Funnily enough, Sadness herself briefly articulates a somewhat better idea early in the film. It’s muttered so quickly I didn’t quite get it, but it was something about providing an interval for adjustment and emotional recalibration. That sounds a bit more promising; I suspect it was what a real psychologist told Pixar at some stage; something they felt they should mention for completeness but that didn’t help the story.

Films and TV do shape our mental models; The Matrix laid down tramlines for many metaphysical discussions and Star Trek’s transporters are often invoked in serious discussions of personal identity. Worse, fears about AI have surely been helped along by Hollywood’s relentless and unimaginative use of the treacherous robot that turns on its creators. I hope Inside Out is not going to reintroduce homunculi to general thinking about the mind.