Posts tagged ‘unconscious’

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?

Is it really all about the unconscious? An interesting discussion, much of it around the value of the Freudian view: powerful insight into unfathomable complexity or literary stuff of no therapeutic value?

Shahidha Bari makes an impassioned case for the depth of Freud’s essential insights; Barry C Smith says Freud actually presents the motives and workings of the unconscious as too much like those of the conscious mind. Richard Bentall says it’s the conscious mind that is the real mystery; unconsciousness is the norm for non-human beings. Along the way we hear about some interesting examples of how the conscious mind seems to be just a rationalising module for decisions made elsewhere. Quote back to people opinions they never actually voiced, and they will devise justifications for them.

I think the separation between conscious and unconscious often gets muddled with the difference between explicit and inexplicit thinking. It’s surely possible to think consciously without thinking in words, but the borderline between wordless conscious thought and unconscious processes is perhaps hard to pin down.

dog-beliefThe unconscious is not just un. It works quite differently. So says Tim Crane in a persuasive draft paper which is to mark his inauguration as President of the Aristotelian Society (in spite of the name, the proceedings of that worthy organisation are not specifically concerned with the works or thought of Aristotle). He is particularly interested in the intentionality of the unconscious mind; how does the unconscious believe things, in particular?

The standard view, as Crane says, might probably be that the unconscious and conscious believe things in much the same way, and that it is basically a propositional one. (There is, by the way, scope to argue about whether there really is an unconscious mind – myself I lean towards the view that it’s better to talk of us doing or thinking things unconsciously, avoiding the implied claim that the unconscious is a distinct separate entity – but we can put that aside for present purposes.) The content of our beliefs, on this ‘standard’ view can be identified with a set of propositions – in principle we could just write down a list of our beliefs. Some of our beliefs certainly seem to be like that; indeed some important beliefs are often put into fixed words that we can remember and recite. Thou shalt not bear false witness, we hold these truths to be self-evident; the square on the hypotenuse is equal to the sum of the squares on the other two sides.

But if that were the case and we could make that list then we could say how many beliefs we have, and that seems absurd. The question of how many things we believe is often dismissed as silly, says Crane – how could you count them? – but it seems a good one to him. One big problem is that it’s quite easy to show that we have all sorts of beliefs we never consider explicitly. Do I believe that some houses are bigger than others? Yes, of course, though perhaps I never considered the question in that form before.

One common response (one which has been embodied in AI projects in the past) is that we have a set of core beliefs, which do sit in our brains in an explicit form; but we also have a handy means of quickly inferring other beliefs from them. So perhaps we know the typical range of sizes for houses and we can instantly work out from that that some are indeed bigger than others. But no-one has shown how we can distinguish what the supposed core beliefs are, nor how these explicit beliefs would be held in the brain (the idea of a ‘language of thought’ being at least empirically unsatisfactory in Crane’s view). Moreover there are problems with small children and animals who seem to hold definite beliefs that they could never put into words. A dog’s behaviour seems to show clearly enough that it believes there is a cat in this tree, but it could never formulate the belief in any explicit way. The whole idea that our beliefs are propositional in nature seems suspect.

Perhaps it is better, then,  to see beliefs as essentially dispositions to do or say things. The dog’s belief in the cat is shown by his disposition to certain kinds of behaviour around the tree – barking, half-hearted attempts at climbing. My belief that you are across the room is shown by my disposition to smile and walk over there. Crane suggests that in fact rather than sets of discrete beliefs what we really have is a worldview; a kind of holistic network in which individual nodes do not have individual readings. Ascriptions of belief, like attributing to someone a belief in a particular proposition, are really models that bring out particular aspects of their overall worldview. This has the advantage of explaining several things. One is that we can attribute the same belief – “Parliament is on the bank of the Thames” – to different people even though the content of their beliefs actually varies (because, for example, they have slightly different understandings about what ‘Parliament’ is).

It also allows scope for the vagueness of our beliefs, the ease with which we hold contradictory ones, and the interesting point that sometimes we’re not actually sure what we believe and may have to mull things over before reaching only tentative conclusions about it. Perhaps we too are just modelling as best we can the blobby ambiguity of our worldview.

Crane, in fact, wants to make all belief unconscious. Thinking is not believing, he says, although what I think and what I believe are virtually synonyms in normal parlance. One of the claimed merits of his approach is that if beliefs are essentially dispositions, it explains how they can be held continuously and not disappear when we are asleep or unconscious. Belief, on this view, is a continuous state; thinking is a temporary act, one which may well model your beliefs and turn them into explicit form. Without signing up to psychoanalytical doctrines wholesale, Crane is content that his thinking chimes with both Freudian and older ideas of the unconscious, putting the conscious interpretation of unconscious belief at the centre.

This all seems pretty sensible, though it does seem Crane is getting an awful lot of very difficult work done by the idea of a ‘worldview’, sketched here in only vague terms. It used to be easy to get away with this kind of vagueness in philosophy of mind, but these days I think there is always a ghostly AI researcher standing at the philosopher’s shoulder and asking how we set about doing the engineering, often a bracing challenge. How do we build a worldview into a robot if it’s not propositional? Some of Crane’s phraseology suggests he might be hoping that the concept of the worldview, with its network nodes with no explicit meaning might translate into modern neural network-based practice. Maybe it could; but even if it does, that surely won’t do for philosophers. The AI tribe will be happy if the robot works; but the philosophers will still want to know exactly how this worldview gizmo does its thing. We don’t know, but we know the worldview is already somehow a representation of the world. You could argue that while Crane set out to account for the intentionality of our beliefs, that is in the event the exact thing that he ends up not explaining at all.

There are some problems about resting on dispositions, too. Barking at a tree because I believe there’s a cat up there is one thing; my beliefs about metaphysics, by contrast, seem very remote from any simple behavioural dispositions of that kind. I suppose they would have to be conditional dispositions to utter or write certain kinds of words in the context of certain discussions. It’s a little hard to think that when I’m doing philosophy what  I’m really doing is modelling some of my own particularly esoteric pre-existing authorial dispositions. And what dispositions would they be? I think they would have to be something like dispositions to write down propositions like ‘nominalism is false’ – but didn’t we start off down this path because we were uncomfortable with the idea that the content of beliefs is propositional?

Moreover, Crane wants to say that our beliefs are preserved while we are asleep because we still have the relevant dispositions. Aren’t our beliefs similarly preserved when we’re dead? It would seem odd to say that Abraham Lincoln did not believe slavery should be abolished while he was asleep, certainly, but it would seem equally odd to say he stopped believing it when he died. But does he still have dispositions to speak in certain ways? If we insist on this line it seems the only way to make it intelligible is to fall back on counterfactuals (if he were still alive Lincoln would still be disposed to say that it was right to abolish slavery…) but counterfactuals notoriously bring a whole library of problems with them.

I’d also sort of like to avoid paring down the role of the conscious. I don’t think I’m quite ready to pack all belief away into the attic of the unconscious. Still, though Crane’s account may have its less appealing spots I do rather like the idea of a holistic worldview as the central bearer of belief.

Leonard MlodinowThe subtitle of Leonard Mlodinow’s book Subliminal makes bold claims: The Revolution of the New Unconscious and what it Teaches us about Ourselves.

Mlodinow is a talented fellow: I first became aware of him as Stephen Hawking’s co-author on The Grand Design (I blamed him then for the terrible jokes in that book, but the evidence of Subliminal, which is amiable but wince-free throughout, I think Hawking was probably to blame for them after all). Being Hawking’s colleague is probably the nearest the modern world can offer to being God’s assistant, but in addition Mlodinow has done impressive original work in physics and written successful screenplays.

The book is a wide-ranging compilation of a lot of interesting stuff. In the early stages of the book, it seems Mlodinow is basing his claims on contemporary technology and fMRI in particular: he tells us it is transforming our knowledge. But in fact not much of the research he reports is dependent on scanning. It feels as if the book might have changed direction in the writing, as Mlodinow found that most of the stuff he wanted to include actually didn’t involve advanced technology after all, but retained in the text the laudatory stuff about fMRI which it no longer really justifies.

How come the scanners don’t feature more strongly? One possible reason is sort of indicated when Mlodinow talks about how experimental subjects were shown to rate wine more highly when told it was expensive. Mlodinow wants to say that the tasters did not merely give the ‘expensive’ wine better ratings, but actually enjoyed it more: so he tells us that fMRI scans showed activity in the orbitofrontal cortex, ‘a region that has been associated with the experience of pleasure.’  Has been associated (not necessarily by me) associated with (not necessarily controlling or unambiguously diagnostic of). If the trumpet sounds as uncertainly as that, we must ask whether whether we’re really being told anything of value. Of course we know why Mlodinow is so hesitant. First, nobody has a really clear idea of what the orbitofrontal cortex does; it seems to be involved in addiction and motivation – but for Mlodinow’s purposes we need to be talking about the qualia-laden appreciation of fine bouquets and the like, which may well be an unrelated matter.  Second, fMRI is a fuzzy and ambivalent tool  and the wider implications of the data it produces are always debatable. Third, this business of real pleasure is a philosophical swamp: put aside all the Hard Problem issues: were the subjects experiencing real pleasure, or did they just think they were experiencing pleasure, or were they just thinking about pleasure? Was the pleasure straightforwardly gustatory, or did it come from thinking what smart guys they were and wishing their friends could see them now? These are not mere quibbles; the latter case for example, would be much less interesting than the radical and somewhat implausible claim that beliefs about price really change the experience.

That points to a general difficulty: books of this kind often give us stuff that is interesting, new, and well-founded; but the stuff that is well-founded isn’t new and the stuff that is interesting is debatable and looks over-interpreted. I wouldn’t say Mlodinow escapes this pitfall entirely. He tips his hat generously to Freud, which is nice, but that’s surely the Old Unconscious. The wine experiment – how many eyebrows would that have raised around the table at Plato’s symposium? Perhaps not many. Mlodinow tells us yet again the story of how Nixon lost out to Kennedy in 1960; people who could see him on TV were less inclined to think he had won the debate than those who merely heard him on the radio. Well, we’ve known that people are influenced by candidates’ appearance at least since Pericles took to appearing in a helmet which both reminded the electorate of his generalship and concealed the weird shape of his head. Do we even know that people were unconscious of being influenced by Nixon’s appearance? It seems quite possible that some of them drew the entirely conscious conclusion that he looked too rough and too shifty to be credible (a verdict which some would argue was borne out by later history, incidentally). On the other hand, Mlodinow reports research showing that people named ‘Brown’ are significantly more likely to marry other people called ‘Brown’ than statistical chance would warrant. Is that true?  Or is there some quirk here  – perhaps there are ‘Brownsvilles’ where by chance or history a concentration of Brown families mean you’re more likely to meet people of that name than random population matching would suggest? I don’t know, but I’m left in doubt, and as a human being myself I need something pretty strong to convince me to give up my strong intuitive understanding that surnames are not generally relevant to my species’ mating decisions.

The point that electors may have assessed Nixon’s appearance emotionally but consciously leads us to another difficulty: quite a bit of the research Mlodinow recounts doesn’t really bear on his thesis about the unconscious. He recounts the experiment, by now fairly well-known, in which an experimenter asked a stranger for directions: accomplices interrupted the conversation by carrying a door between the two, behind which the experimenter was switched for someone else: subjects often resumed the conversation without noticing the change in their conversational partner (the book here sort of undercuts the experiment by including pictures in which it is clear that the two experimenters were not that dissimilar in looks, and, if I may be rude,  also of a rather unstriking generic appearance, too).

The experiment is interesting, but how does it show that the unconscious is more important than we thought? Is there any suggestion that the difference was recognised unconsciously while being ignored consciously? Well, no: in fact we might think that this is the sort of thing the conscious wouldn’t deal with, leaving itself to be warned by unconscious processes, so if anything the hit is against the effectiveness and influence of the unconscious. Simply showing errors in conscious beliefs does not establish a revolution in favour of a new unconscious.

But then Mlodinow never formulates what he means by either the old or the new unconscious. We don’t even know whether he thinks the unconscious really amounts to one thing, several different unconsciousnesses, or simply a lot of default non-conscious mechanisms. The word ‘consciousness’ notoriously covers a number of different entities or processes, but we never get told explicitly which of them Mlodinow believes in or which of them he wants to dethrone. If you want to carry out a revolution against one form of mental activity and in favour of another, you really need to offer a pretty clear of view about what those different forms actually are and what roles they play, don’t you? Mlodinow would never try to get away with such vagueness if he were trying to sell us a revolution in physics, so the fact that he seems to think it will do for consciousness suggests an unattractive casualness, to say nothing worse. Perhaps in a way it’s evidence in his favour that Mlodinow never seems to have noticed consciously that so much of his material doesn’t really bear on his thesis; perhaps his unconscious is subtly offering us a different verdict.

That may be just a little hard: there’s a lot of very readable stuff about genuinely interesting research here, but the Revolution of the New Unconscious seems to me to have gone missing.

Picture: unconscious will. Does the idea of unconscious free will even make sense? Paula Droege, in the recent JCS, seems to think it might. Generally experiments like Libet’s famous ones, which seemed to show that decisions are made well before the decider is consciously aware of them, are considered fatal to free will. If the conscious activity came along only after the matter had been settled, it must surely have been powerless to affect it (there are some significant qualifications to this: Libet himself, for example, considered there was a power of last-minute veto which he called ‘free won’t’ – but still the general point is clear). If our conscious thoughts were irrelevant, it seems we didn’t have any say in the matter.

However, this view implies a narrow conception of the self in which unconscious processes are not really part of me and I only really consist of that entity that does all the talking. Yet in other contexts, notably in psychoanalysis, don’t we take the un- or sub-conscious to be more essential to our personality than the fleeting surface of consciousness, to represent more accurately what we ‘really’ want and feel? Droege, while conceding that if we take the narrow view there’s a good deal in the sceptical position, would prefer a wider view in which unconscious acts are valid examples of agency too. She would go further and bring in social influences (though it’s not entirely clear to me how the effects of social pressure can properly be transmuted into examples of my own free will), and she offers the conscious mind the consolation prize of being able to influence habits and predispositions which may in turn have a real causal influence on our actions.

I suppose there are several ways in which we exercise our agency. We perhaps tend to think of cases of conscious premeditation because they are the clearest, but in everyday life we just do stuff most of the time without thinking about it much, or very explicitly. Many of the details of our behaviour are left to ‘autopilot’, but in the great majority of cases the conscious mind would nevertheless claim these acts as its own. Did you stop at the traffic light and then move off again when it turned green? You don’t really remember doing it, but are generally ready to agree that you did. In unusual cases, we know that people sometimes even elaborate or confabulate spurious rationales for actions they didn’t really determine.

But it’s much more muddled than that. We do also at times seek to disown moral responsibility for something done when we weren’t paying proper attention, or where our rational responses were overwhelmed by a sudden torrent of emotion. Should someone who responds to the sight of a hated enemy by swerving to collide with the provoker be held responsible because the murderous act stems from emotions which are just as valid as cold calculation? Perhaps, but sometimes the opposite is taken to be the case, and the overwhelming emotion of a crime passionnel can be taken as an excuse. Then again few would accept the plea of the driver who says he shouldn’t be held responsible for an accident because he was too drunk to drive properly.

I think there may be an analogy with the responsibility held by the head of a corporation: the general rule is that the buck stops with the chief, even if the chief did not give orders for the particular action which subordinates have taken; in the same way we’re presumed by default to be responsible for what we do: but there are cases where control is genuinely and unavoidably lost, no matter what prudent precautions the chief may have put in place. There may be cases where the chief properly has full and sole responsibility; in other cases where the corporation has blundered on in pursuit of its own built-in inclinations it may be appropriate for the organization as a whole to accept blame for its corporate personality: and where confusion reigned for reasons beyond reasonable control, no responsibility may be assigned at all.

If that’s right, then Droege is on to something; but if there are two distinct grades of responsibility in play, there ought really to be two varieties of free will; the one exercised explicitly by the fully conscious me, and the other by ‘whole person’ me, in which the role of the conscious me, while perhaps not non-existent is small and perhaps mostly indirect. This is an odd thought, but if, like Droege, we broadly accept that Libet has disproved the existence of the first variety of free will, it means we don’t have the kind we can’t help believing in, but do have another kind we never previously thought of – which seems even odder.