Tuesday, January 24, 2017

The unconscious: A tool for studying consciousness

There is an old joke: to find out if a computer is conscious, you program it to tell the truth, and you ask it if it is. The point behind the joke is deep, I think. If we made a computer, we would know how we could make it correctly report sensor data like the current temperature whether outside or inside the computer. But how would we make it sense whether or not it is conscious?

If had a consciousness sensor, we could do some nice experiments on the nature of consciousness. We could, for instance, test naturalistic hypotheses that consciousness is the product of the appropriate kinds of complexity of data processing.

But it turns out that we do have a tool here. We are blessed with having unconscious thought in addition to conscious thought, and we can tell the two apart. Of course, we can only indirectly discern the presence of unconscious thought—but once we’ve learned that a thought process occurred, then we can use introspective memory to check (fallibly) whether it was conscious or not.

Does this tool provide any useful data? I think so. For instance, it empirically verifies the premise of this one-premise argument:

  1. Some of our unconscious thinking is just as sophisticated as some of our conscious thinking.

  2. So, consciousness is not the product of the sophistication of our thinking.

Of course, only a very incautious naturalist would hold that consciousness is the product of the sophistication as such of our thinking. But, still, it’s pretty nice to have an empirical argument here.

Similarly, we can rule out the hypothesis that consciousness is a function of sophisticated irreducibly first-person thought, since it is clear that our unconscious thought is deeply concerned with first-person issues, and in sophisticated ways. Likewise, I suspect, we can rule out the hypothesis that consciousness is a function of sophisticated second-order thought or even sophisticated second-order irreducibly first-person thought. A primary way in which we detect unconscious thinking is when we suddenly come to a conclusion “out of nowhere”. The difficulty of reaching that conclusion is evidence of the sophistication of the thought process that led to it. And I think that such eureka moments can happen in all subject matter, including that of second-order irreducibly first-person thoughts.

This makes the challenge for naturalist theorist of mind tough: they need to identify as the basis of consciousness a type of mental processing that cannot ever occur as part of the rich tapestry of our unconscious mental lives.

There is, though, an interesting sceptical response. Perhaps what we call our “unconscious thinking” is in fact conscious. There are two ways this could happen. First, perhaps, there is another thinker in me, one who thinks my unconscious thoughts. Second, maybe I have two centers of consciousness. It’s hard to rule out these hypotheses empirically. But they are rather crazy, and all empirical confirmation requires the rejection of crazy hypotheses.

13 comments:

Michael Gonzalez said...

Why convinces you that "unconscious thought" exists?

In any case, if I'm constantly involved in a stream of unconscious thought, then couldn't conscious thought be differentiated simply by "the ones I'm paying attention to right now". Attention often differentiates mere stimulation from perception (someone who is thoroughly engaged in something may fail to perceive a pin prick or loud noise, etc). Why couldn't something similar be true of conscious vs. unconscious thought. It wouldn't have anything to do with levels of sophistication or "processing" (though I put the latter in scare-quotes because I don't see why we should think "processing" has anything to do with consciousness).

Red said...

For all I know, a staunch materialist would somehow deny the Just as part of 1.

Alexander R Pruss said...

Michael:

Think of insights that people have after "sleeping on the problem". Best explanation: they were thinking about it while sleeping.

Red:

If they do that, I have a cross-species move. Surely the kind of unconscious thought that leads to brilliant insights is *more* sophisticated than the typical conscious thinking of a gecko (much as I am fond of geckos).

Richard Davis said...

I like geckos, too.

Dr. Pruss, would the "another thinker in me" view still strike you as crazy if the other thinker were a non-person whose phenomenology (for instance) *merely* consisted in a stream of thoughts about the best solution to a math problem?

Michael Gonzalez said...

Pruss: Are you certain that's the best explanation? We all know what it's like to agonize over something, and the more we chase it the farther away it seems to get. Perhaps just ceasing to chase is beneficial in having insights. Additionally, maybe sleep is restorative in some relevant way.

The idea of "thinking unconsciously" seems like a contradiction. When we say "I'm thinking about it", we are doing something deliberate. Moreover, if we get distracted with something else, and then someone asks us whether we've come to a conclusion, we might very correctly say "Oh, I'm sorry! I stopped thinking about that". Thinking seems like a deliberate, intentional activity one engages in. It's hard to imagine what it would mean to do something like that while unconscious...

Alexander R Pruss said...

I definitely don't think of thought as something that's always deliberate. Thoughts "flow". They "come upon us". But even if they were deliberate, I don't think it would follow that they are conscious. I know of no good argument that one must be conscious of what one deliberately chooses.

William said...

If we contrast unconscious thinking with the activity of nonliving things, it's clear that we call thoughts conscious or unconscious as a matter of contrast, even though there is a family resemblance of unconscious and conscious thinking that makes them have intentionality in common, something nonliving things fully lack.

Michael Gonzalez said...

I suppose I could ask it this way: Can you unconsciously perceive? I don't mean can you be stimulated such that you have automatic responses, etc. I mean can you feel, see, hear, or taste unconsciously? If so, then I suppose you could think unconsciously too.

Alexander R Pruss said...

Yeah, surely there is unconscious perception: that's how subliminal stuff works.

Michael Gonzalez said...

I actually have no idea how subliminal stuff works, but I have difficulty saying that I saw something if I never subjectively experienced anything....

Alexander R Pruss said...

One might prefer not to use the word "perception", but something like "sensing".

I wonder if one can have unconscious beliefs, or if beliefs require some sort of a conscious endorsement.

Michael Gonzalez said...

See, and I think belief makes a lot more sense as something that can be unconscious, because belief seems to me to be something like a disposition or set of dispositions (i.e. to respond certain ways to certain questions, etc).

I guess my point about perception was really a point about subjective experience. It's hard to see what unconscious subjective experience would be, and I think of thinking as species of subjective experience... maybe? I'm not sure.

Alexander R Pruss said...

I think of reasoning as a paradigmatic mode of thinking, and reasoning doesn't seem to me to have to be conscious.