Stumbling Block

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.)


  1. bob koepp says

    Perhaps Jaynes didn’t get the gist of Quine’s question, or maybe he was just confused about the distinction bewteen functional and phenomenological models of consciousness. Briding the gap between the former and latter is what is now called “the hard problem.” There is nothing in his 1977 book that provides so much as a nut or bolt, let alone a girder, with which to begin the construction of the needed bridge. And I don’t think Damasio has made any progress along these lines. (Which is not to say that he’s wrong about the functional side of things.)

    Interestingly, if subjectivity (phenomenological awareness) does, indeed, arise only in the context of self-awareness, then we’re back to Descartes (minus the substance dualism) in treating non-self aware organisms as incapable of experiencing pain (or anything else) even as they instantiate a range of “suffering behaviors.” I very much doubt that that’s the way of the world.

    Posted November 30, 2010 at 9:56 am | Permalink
  2. Malcolm says

    I very much doubt that that’s the way of the world.

    Yes, but why?

    Clearly Quine doubted it too; that was the point of his question, a question I don’t think Jaynes would have misunderstood.

    The claim that conscious self-awareness is necessary for subjectivity is apparently so radical that to Quine and Block (and, apparently, to you too, Bob), it seems obviously absurd.

    I agree that none of this work builds a bridge between physiology and subjective self-consciousness. But Quine and Block seem to be defending a purely functionalist view that says that perception and reaction are sufficient criteria for the ascription of conscious self-awareness. To push the argument the other way, though: why should we assume that a microphone- and video-equipped robot, then, isn’t consciously self-aware?

    I think that because our consciousness cannot “see its edges”, we assume that it is far more plenary than it is, and discount the enomous amount of cognitive and perceptual work that we do quite unconsciously. This leads us to posit self-awareness in places and systems where it might not really be present.

    I’m not saying that you and Quine and Block are demonstrably wrong, though my own experience with the sort of inner work I’ve mentioned makes me think you are; but I do think Block is wrong here to imagine that any of his objections are compelling.

    Posted November 30, 2010 at 10:44 am | Permalink
  3. bob koepp says

    Malcolm -
    Quine and Block are not “defending a purely functionalist view that says that perception and reaction are sufficient criteria for the ascription of conscious self-awareness.” They are questioning the notion that phenomenological consciousness is necessarily self-aware, a notion expressed by Damasio (and apparently Jaynes, at least in his converstaion with Quine).

    BTW, I don’t find the idea that conscious self-awareness is necessary for subjectivity absurd. But I don’t know what sort of positive reasons could incline one toward thinking it’s true.

    Posted November 30, 2010 at 12:39 pm | Permalink
  4. Malcolm says


    Perhaps “purely functionalist” goes too far, but some such assumption does seem to me to be clearly implicit in both Quine’s question and Block’s citation of it.

    Quine asked Jaynes what “it was like” to perceive prior to the invention of self-aware consciousness, and Jaynes’s answer — that it was “like” nothing at all — is nothing more than a consistent assertion that self-awareness is necessary for subjectivity. But to Quine and Block, it seems, this is obviously absurd, because they make no other effort to refute Jaynes’s (and Damasio’s, and my) prioritization of self-awareness.

    Even to ask “what was it like” begs the question, I think, because for it to be “like” anything at all implies subjective consciousness, which is exactly what’s being examined here.

    It’s hard for me to interpret Quine and Block as saying anything other than “here there are perception and reaction, so here there obviously must also be consciousness.”

    You wrote:

    BTW, I don’t find the idea that conscious self-awareness is necessary for subjectivity absurd. But I don’t know what sort of positive reasons could incline one toward thinking it’s true.

    For me, it was spending many years working at guided observation of my own consciousness under the tutelage of certain “adepts”, and reflecting on the facts that a) a very great deal happens in us quite unconsciously, and b) there are all sorts of perceiving and intentional systems in the world for which ascription of consciousness seems quite unnecessary.

    But I imagine Damasio has his own reasons for thinking so, and I expect he lays them out in his book. I’ll have to add it to the stack.

    Posted November 30, 2010 at 2:13 pm | Permalink
  5. Malcolm says

    What really puzzles me, in fact, is: if so much can be done without it, why does consciousness exist at all?

    Posted November 30, 2010 at 2:22 pm | Permalink
  6. bob koepp says

    Malcolm -
    I think there’s some confusion here about the difference between functional and phenomenological accounts of consciousness. In a functionalist framework, all questions about phenomenology, including “what’s it like…,” are bracketed or set aside to focus exclusively on causal structures. And since functionalism traffics only in causal structures, which are objective if anything is, it’s not able to get any explanatory traction vis a vis phenomenology/subjectivity. Another way to arrive at the same point is to observe that for functionalism, the “self” part of self-consciousness is not particularly problematic — a feedback loop serves quite nicely. What the feedback loop doesn’t illuminate (at all) is how subjectivity arises in the system. So while it might well be true that only reflexive processes can underwrite consciousness, we need to ask what’s gained by making such an assumption — and assumption it surely is.

    Posted November 30, 2010 at 3:20 pm | Permalink
  7. Jesse Kaplan says

    Bob anticipated my comment while I was writing it: Yes, well, from “how” to “why,” eh? One wonders how much a predilection for parsimony and science animates the view that consciousness is illusory when it seems, to the uninitiated, to exist. It may not be that the simplest explanation is always the best. Where at least most sides of this debate agree is that the answer to the question, “Is consciousness necessary?” so far seems to be, No. At this point the question shifts to, Why then does it seem to exist? — perhaps because it is the closest question to “how” at that point. Phrased that way, though, it becomes an open invitation for a positivist parsimonious explanation, once again; or, as Bob puts it, a functionalist one. How & why are tangled up in the objective/subjective confusion here, apparently because subjectivity does not seem strictly necessary.

    Posted November 30, 2010 at 3:50 pm | Permalink
  8. Malcolm says

    Well, as I said above, my own reasons for suspecting that reflexive processes are necessary for consciousness are based on my own experience, and on the evident existence of non-conscious perception and intentionality in the world.

    I am curious about what has led Dr. Damasio, as a neuroscientist, to the same conclusion, and to find out I suppose I’ll have to read the book.

    I agree that the hard question remains: in virtue of what, exactly, are we conscious? Even if I am inclined to agree with Dr. Damasio, for the reasons mentioned above, that self-reflective processes are a necessary condition of consciousness, that still doesn’t come any closer to explaining how the trick is done.

    But I do think — and I hope you will agree with me here — that the objections Dr. Block makes in his review do nothing to refute Dr. Damasio’s model; at best, they make clear that he has failed to prove his case.

    Posted November 30, 2010 at 4:07 pm | Permalink
  9. JK says

    I’m neither agreeing nor disagreeing Malcolm, but above Bob types something along the lines of ‘organisms pull their fingers from a hot stove’ and you type “…reflexive processes are necessary for consciousness..”

    Admittedly, I’m a simpleton here. But originally, I was recommended to your site to learn stuff. A short time ago I thought I learned beer was the impetus out of the Neolithic (pre-Homeric) which I thought had to involve a degree of consciousness (to collectively grow grain crops).

    Of course beer production/consumption could, evolutionarily speaking, be viewed as regressive (considering what I [or Bob] “may” have done in youth) but then – there was that shift from the Stone Age to the Neolithic. Of course this only covers homosapians – who apparently had the necessary level of consciousness to bury the dead guy (or gal) prior to consuming the beer.

    I’m tired – so telling anecdotes about elephants allowing Actual-Africans (as opposed to African-Americans) growing fermented stuff – and most importantly – elephants never forgetting where the bars are…

    Posted December 1, 2010 at 2:58 am | Permalink
  10. Malcolm says

    JK, “reflexive” in this context refers to cognitive processes that look at themselves: think “reflect”, rather than “reflex”.

    Posted December 1, 2010 at 10:15 am | Permalink
  11. Roger says

    Interesting discussion! I’ve also found Jaynes’s ideas very engaging. For a good discussion/refutation of Block’s criticisms of Jaynes, I highly recommend the chapter by Jan Sleutels in “Reflections on the Dawn of Consciousness” edited by Marcel Kuijsten.

    Posted March 22, 2011 at 10:57 pm | Permalink

Post a Comment

Your email is never shared. Required fields are marked *


You can add images to your comment by clicking here.