Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Consciousness and its disillusionments

Is consciousness all that it’s cracked up to be? For example, even if Dan Dennett’s explanation of consciousness in “Consciousness Explained” is correct, what of it?

If, to riff on the New Age urban legend that we only use 10 percent of our brains, it turns out that only 10 percent of our mental activity is conscious, then Dennett hasn’t explained very much.

But, the idea that much of our mental activity is unconscious is scary to many people. This includes not just John and Jane Does, but many educated people and even a certain amount of cognitive scientists. It’s of a partial piece, at least, with fears over the lack of free will. On that subject, note that even a Dennett, while denying the existence of a Cartesian Central Meaner, has spilled ink enough for two whole books illogically continuing to defend the existence of free will.

Some parts of fears of unconscious mental behavior touch on its free will aspects. A fair amount do. Probably the second biggest fear behind worries about unconscious mental activity is the risk that humans will look more, well, animalistic.

And that’s precisely what “The New Unconscious” addresses. Editors Ran Hassin, James Uleman and John Bargh have selected some of the best in research analysis and other writings on the definition, parameters and role of the unconscious mind as currently understood by cognitive science.

Without any of its authors putting percentages on conscious versus unconscious mental activity, the cognitive science essays collected here ask — and in large degree answer — just what all is happening in our minds out of the reach of our own selves.

Does subliminal programming work? Yes, to a moderate to modest extent, depending on the exact goals of specific subliminal ideas. At the same time, no, if it’s on New Ageish self-help audio tapes; to the degree subliminal programming works, it works far better with visual than with audio programming.

Related to that, do various forms of unconscious priming — such as priming one toward certain emotional or belief states, or reinforcing old ones — work? The answer is a pretty strong yes. Sometimes, as in how racial attitudes can be effective, this is somewhat scary, yet challenging to national issues of sociology, indicating that at least some change in racial attitudes in America is in fact, pardon the pun, only skin deep.

Can unconscious thoughts and processes be controlled? The answer appears to be yes. Does this mean we have unconscious free will? The authors of the main study in this area of the book say yes. They don’t answer, though, how that would square with the absence of a Central Meaner, and whether it might not imply an Unconscious Central Meaner. I say it does, until the authors further develop their idea. However, that’s just their theory of unconscious free will. Unless one believes that lack of a conscious central meaner is some weird form of an emergent property, I don’t see how unconscious free will, let alone an implied unconscious Cartesian Meaner, can actually exist. I charge that they don’t, and that Jack Glaser and John Kihlstrom need to do more work.

But that’s not all in here. Tying in to Malcolm Gladwell, the relative accuracy of thin-slice, quick-slice judgments of other people has been clinically upheld.

The power of assimilating to other people’s mannerisms and becoming unconscious mimics has also been demonstrated. Ditto on mimicry of emotional affect, similarity judgments and other things.

Our minds are less our own than we thought.

Of course, with no Cartesian Meaner, they’re really not “our” minds anyway.

Another way to look at this honestly is as Timothy D. Wilson says in “Strangers to Ourselves”:
When (Freud) said that consciousness is the tip of the iceberg, he was short of the mark by quite a bit — it may be more the size of a snowball on top of that iceberg.

Or, in my own words, you and I are not who we think we are; above all, since, like Ivory Soap, our minds are 99 and 44/100 percent unconscious, we can’t think who we are because it’s inaccessible.

Meanwhile, Jim Grigsby and David Stevens provide some parallel lines of thought in their “Neurodynamics of Personality.”

At one point, they refer to D.M. Buss, who says consciousness may just be a spandrel. In other words, it may just be an evolutionary byproduct of some evolutionary guided process for some other facet of mental development, i.e., consciousness itself was not evolutionarily selected.

Their own thoughts on the self is that there is no such thing as a unitary self; rather, a la some ideas of William James:
“The ‘self’ is actually composed of a large number of (often overlapping) internal representations of who one takes oneself to be.”

From there, I infer they are thinking along the lines of cognitive philosopher Dennett’s “multiple drafts” theory of consciousness. The internal representation that best survives the Darwinian mental battle (to riff on Dennett) and is most adapted for the psychological development space at that moment, is who we are at that time. William James, from a different perspective, was thinking somewhat along those lines when he talked of different social selves; however, he did not incorporate the idea of internal representations affecting selfhood.

And, speaking of Dennett …

One of Grigsby’s and Stevens’ most important statements goes contrary to the sometimes humdrum right, sometimes brilliantly right, sometimes humdrum wrong, and sometimes quite brilliantly wrong Dennett. They stress that, contra Dennett, the human mind is notalgorhithmic; in other words, in terms of cognitive science, different types of software may not be mappable onto different types of hardware.

Note: The specific aspects of study of the unconscious mind covered in this book relate closely to several posts on this blog with the common thread of “Who Am I,” all arguing that selfhood is less unitary than our conscious minds would have us believe, and also less under conscious control.

See here for parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 and 6.

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