Have you read Julian Jaynes’s provocative 1977 book The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind? In it the author, a Princeton psychologist, argued that human self-consciousness — the real McCoy, the “I am, and I am aware that I am” reflective consciousness that is, for us, the essence of being human, and the foundation of all moral obligation — is a very recent innovation, the result of a radical annealing of our psyche that happened after the Homeric era.
For Jaynes, there was a profound difference between perception and action on the one hand, and self-aware consciousness on the other. He gave the example of a man driving a car while having an engaging conversation. Miles pass as the driver negotiates the twists and turns of the highway, moves from lane to lane, and changes speed to accommodate the other cars around him. Much later he returns his attention to the road, and realizes that he has no memory at all of his driving all that distance; though he may remember well what was said, the complex actions of driving the car proceeded altogether mechanically, and quite unconsciously. Now subtract out the conversation, and what is left is what Jaynes imagined preconscious Man to be: a perceiving, behaving machine.
Jaynes further supposed that before our transformation, the operation of our minds was “bicameral”: there was one part that acted in an executive role, and another that heard the commands of the first part as voices of the gods — in just the same way that schizophrenics hear imperative, disembodied voices today — and acted on them, with no more consciousness than our imaginary motorist’s consciousness of driving the car down the highway.
Jaynes argued — persuasively enough that his view is still the subject of lively debate thirty-three years later — that it was not until the commanding Self began to fuse with the perceiving, reacting Hearer that our modern composite, self-aware consciousness began to form. (For our February 2006 post about Jaynes’s book, and a good comment thread, see here.)
The point that I want to emphasize here is that in Jaynes’s opinion, we are capable of a very great variety of sophisticated perception, intention, and behavior without needing to be conscious at all. We can function very capably in a completely mechanical way.
These ideas — that we are capable of sophisticated unconscious behavior, that a great deal of our cognition, planning, and perception is in fact completely unconscious, and that without some degree of reflective self-awareness we cannot claim to be conscious in any meaningful way — are by no means Jaynes’s alone. Freud persuaded the world that there were such things as completely unconscious emotions, motives, and intention, and the idea that we are, in the absence of guided inner work, little more than talking machines is central to a number of esoteric systems, most notably perhaps that of Gurdjieff (see various posts here).
In this past Sunday’s New York Times Book Review I found a critique, by the eminent philosopher of mind Ned Block, of a new book called Self Comes to Mind: Constructing the Conscious Brain. The book is by Antonio Damasio, a leading neuroscientist and explorer of the physiological underpinnings of the human mind.
In his book, Damasio takes a firm Gurdjieffian/Jaynesian position: that “phenomenal awareness”, or, as Block describes it in his review, “what it is like to have a headache, taste chocolate or see red”, is not in any sense really “consciousness” in the absence of self-consciousness: that self-consciousness is necessarily prior to any real subjectivity.
I think this is correct, and it is gratifying to see this view defended by a researcher of Dr. Damasio’s stature. Ned Block is having none of it, though, and he raises various objections, none of which I see as terribly persuasive.
First, Dr. Block refers to an exchange between Julian Jaynes and the philosopher W.V.O. Quine:
The philosopher W. V. Quine once told me that he thought Jaynes might be on to something until he asked Jaynes what it was like to perceive before consciousness was invented. According to Quine, Jaynes said it was like nothing at all — exactly what it is like to be a table or a chair. Jaynes was denying that people had experiential phenomenal consciousness based on a claim about inflated self-consciousness.
This is presented withouth further elaboration, as though it is some sort of reductio ad absurdum; it is nevertheless precisely Jaynes’s and Damasio’s (and Gurdjieff’s) point that in the complete absence of self-aware consciousness, we are entirely justified in denying “experiential” phenomenal consciousness. The assertion may be a radical one, but it is coherent, and Block’s anecdote is certainly not a counter-argument; it is nothing more than an incredulous stare.
Next, Dr. Block offers an example of a patient in a persistent vegetative state:
You may have noticed an exciting report a few years ago of a patient in a persistent vegetative state (defined behaviorally) studied by the neuroscientists Adrian Owen and Steven Laureys. On some trials, the two instructed the patient to imagine standing still on a tennis court swinging at a ball, and on others to visualize walking from room to room in her home. The patient, they found, showed the same imagistic brain activations (motor areas for tennis, spatial areas for exploring the house) as normally conscious people who were used as controls.
More such cases have since been discovered, and this year Owen and Laureys described a vegetative-state patient who was able to use the tennis/navigation alternation to give yes-or-no answers to five of six basic questions like “Is your father’s name Alexander?” These results are strong evidence — though not proof — of phenomenal consciousness in some of those who showed no behavioral signs of it. But Damasio scoffs, saying that these results “can be parsimoniously interpreted in the context of the abundant evidence that mind processes operate nonconsciously.” His skepticism appears to be grounded in the fact that these patients show no clear sign of self-consciousness and thus constitute a potential roadblock in front of his theory.
Again, we have here no evidence of subjectively aware consciousness, but rather of areas of the brain reacting in the same way they would be expected to react in a healthy person. To be sure, these are murky waters here: an unambiguous objective test for subjective consciousness is the Holy Grail of both neuroscience and the philosophy of mind. But again, Dr. Block is not refuting anything here: he dismisses Dr. Damasio’s suggestion that what we see here is mere neurological reaction, devoid of real subjective awareness, as mere “scoffing”, while he in turn scoffs at Dr. Damasio’s assertion on no more solid basis than that it must surely be obvious that “real” consciousness must surely attend such examples of perception and reaction.
Dr. Block presses Dr. Damasio somewhat more effectively with his next objection: dreaming.
Damasio also stumbles over dreaming. In dreams, phenomenal consciousness can be very vivid even when the rational processes of self-consciousness are much diminished. Damasio describes dreams as “mind processes unassisted by consciousness.” Recognizing that the reader will be puzzled by this claim, he describes dreaming as “paradoxical” since the mental processes in dreaming are “not guided by a regular, properly functioning self of the kind we deploy when we reflect and deliberate.” But dreaming is paradoxical only if one has a model of phenomenal consciousness based on self-consciousness — on knowledge, rationality, reflection and wakefulness.
Here we do have a more difficult question. Dreams are a form of subjective experiencing, and they are obviously different from waking consciousness; indeed, the practice of “conscious dreaming” is not uncommon in South Asian esoteric systems. But I would argue that even if the perceptions in dreams are not actual physical responses to stimuli from the outer world, we may regard them as neurological “mock-ups”, to which the dreaming self-awareness stands in a similar relation as it does with the perceptions it receives during ordinary wakefulness. In other words, it is still the case that even in dreams, self-consciousness, however encapsulated it may be from the real world, is necessary for subjective consciousness of the mocked-up perceptions it is fed by the sleeping brain.
Finally, Dr. Block cites experiments in attention:
In one experiment, the Israeli neuroscientist Rafi Malach presented subjects with pictures and asked them to judge their own emotional reactions as positive, negative or neutral — a self-oriented, introspective task. He then presented different subjects with the same pictures and asked them to very quickly categorize the pictures as, for example, animals or not. Of course these subjects were seeing the pictures consciously, but Malach found that the brain circuits involved in scrutinizing self-reactions (as indicated by the emotional reaction task) were inhibited in the fast categorization task. Subjects also rated their self-awareness as high in the emotional reaction task and low in the fast categorization task. As Malach puts it, these results comport with “the strong intuitive sense we have of ‘losing our selves’ in a highly engaging sensory-motor act.”
From a Gurdjieffian perspective, this is simple: for those who have not practiced this sort of inner work, maintaining a self-reflective fragment of attention pointed back toward oneself is slow and effortful, and under stress, we act more mechanically. Dr. Block assumes that “Of course these subjects were seeing the pictures consciously” but I suspect that they were seeing them less consciously than before, and that in general they performed the second drill far more mechanically. (One common assumption is that consciousness is either “on” or “off”, but anyone who has made the sort of careful self-observation that systems like the Gurdjieff work require knows that there are continuous gradations of consciousness.)
I don’t think Dr. Block has made his case, and I’ll be interested to read Dr. Damasio’s book. You can read the review here.
(I’ve also just noticed that all the excerpts I’ve included from Ned Block’s review are indented using an HTML <blockquote> tag. Given the context, I think that’s kind of funny.)